Book Review: The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand

In the introduction to the author’s collection of essays on art, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand observed that “[i]t is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man’s higher potential and what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men — over the brief span of less than a century — before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) and the last memory of man’s greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.”

Rand disclosed that:

As a child, I saw a glimpse of that pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history…”

The prospect of catching a glimpse of what Rand observed, thought and wrote about in the afterglow is reason enough to read this outstanding series of her writings. I first read this book as a young artist, when I was dancing and writing in Chicago. I was struck by its lucidity. As a child of modern, progressive, state-sponsored education, I instantly recognized in her assertions that I, too, had been deprived, demoralized and damaged as a student. Making a point about those who had given up on achieving the best in life, Rand referenced those she described as “drained, embittered hulks whimpering occasionally about the hopelessness of life.“

In a world dominated by movies and shows about goblins, dragons, gargoyles and other horror or fantasy figures, with the rare heroic figures reduced to sniveling misanthropes in disguise, it’s hard not to notice that most of what the author of Atlas Shrugged wrote about and forewarned against between 1962 and 1971 came true. But Rand primarily wrote about art she admired, loved and revered. For example, starting with Western philosophy in her introduction, she identified Thomas Aquinas as “the bridge between Aristotle and the Renaissance, spanning the infamous detour of the Dark and Middle Ages.”

Capping the commentary, which she wrote in New York City in the month of June of 1969, she noted that “[o]ur day has no art and no future. The future, in the context of progress, is a door open only to those who do not renounce their conceptual faculty; it is not open to mystics, hippies, drug addicts, tribal ritualists — or to anyone who reduces himself to a subanimal, subperceptual, sensory level of awareness.” [Emphasis Rand’s].

The rest of The Romantic Manifesto unfolds from there. Delving deeply into what she called the psycho-epistemology of art, the philosopher begins, of course, with the best premises for art, paving the way for an exploration of her school of art, which she calls romantic realism. Rand always defines and contextualizes her terms. For example, in “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” she explains that “the myth of a supernatural recorder from whom nothing can be hidden, who lists all of a man’s deeds…That myth is true, not existentially, but psychologically. The merciless recorder is the integrating mechanism of a man’s subconscious; the record is his sense of life.“ [Emphasis Rand’s].

What he does not know is that every day of his life is judgment day — the day of paying for the defaults, the lies, the contradictions, the blank outs recorded by his subconscious on the scrolls of his sense of life. And on that kind of psychological record, the blank entries are the blackest sins.“

Possibly anticipating future readership, she goes a bit further:

A sense of life, once acquired, is not a closed issue. It can be changed and corrected — easily, in youth, while it is still fluid, or by a longer, harder effort in later years. Since it is an emotional sum, it cannot be changed by a direct act of will. It changes automatically, but only after a long process of psychological retraining, when and if a man changes his conscious philosophical premises.”

I’ve gained immeasurable value from reading and re-reading The Romantic Manifesto, which I celebrated with scholars at an event for the 50th anniversary of its publication at Southern California’s Ayn Rand Institute last year. Whether discovering whether, why and how to judge works of art, which has been part of my own livelihood as an intellectual, or finding fascinating paintings, dancers, musical compositions, plays and other works of literature, this book challenges everything you think you know about the arts.

Examine art and cognition with Ayn Rand as she breaks down each of the arts. Consider her identification of how humans perceive art through the senses and can access its rewards with the mind. Rand accounts for every imaginable aspect, detail and nuance of the fine arts, whether music, architecture or motion pictures. For example, with regard to dance, she asserts: “Every strong emotion has a kinesthetic element, experienced as an impulse to leap or cringe or stamp one’s foot, etc…The dance stylizes it into a system of motion, expressing a metaphysical view of man.” [Emphasis Rand’s].

However, the woman who created Objectivism, a philosophy for living on earth, to help herself write fiction also addresses various arts-related fields of endeavor, questions and issues, from circus performances to photography. Each point she makes contains often masterful clarity and consistency.

Note Rand’s explanation of dance:

Dancers are performing artists; music is the primary work they perform — with the help of an important intermediary: the choreographer. His creative task is similar to that of a stage director, but carries a more demanding responsibility; a stage director translates a primary work, a play, into physical action — a choreographer has to translate a primary work, the composition of sounds, into another medium, into a composition of movements, and create a structured, integrated work: a dance.”

Of course, the most in-depth and compelling parts of The Romantic Manifesto involve her insights on reading, writing and literature. These thoughts are remarkably relevant, timely and enlightening. By the time you’re done reading a particular section, you’re likely to have a better understanding of what you like about what you like to read and why you like it. “… At the end of the novel the reader must know why the characters did the things they did,” Rand wrote. “…The author has to be consistent in his view of a character’s psychology and permit him no inexplicable actions, no actions unprepared by or contradictory to the rest of his characterization.”

“The theme of a novel can be conveyed only through the events of the plot, the events of the plot depend on the characterization of the men who enact them — and the characterization cannot be achieved except through the events of the plot, and the plot cannot be constructed without a theme.“ She concludes: “… A good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.“

Again and again, Rand provides examples, illustrating her points and affirming her convictions. About I, the Jury author Mickey Spillane, she wrote that he “… [p]resents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.”

Don’t read the book strictly for specific arts guidance, though. The principles of art are deep, rich and often ingenious. This is like reading a comprehensive true story of ideas about art in terms of interlocking essentials. After defining romanticism and identifying a key difference with a heinous distortion of romanticism, for instance, she claims: “Romanticism demands mastery of the primary element of fiction: the art of storytelling — which requires three cardinal qualities: ingenuity, imagination, a sense of drama.”

Yet the biting brilliance of Rand’s late 20th century non-fiction, evidenced in her periodicals, lectures and underappreciated collected works, such as The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, always comes through. Can you not think of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and every middling Netflix or streaming film everyone’s raving about when you read this pointed cultural criticism, which turns out to have been a keen forecast?

… Today’s romanticists are escaping not into the past, but into the supernatural — explicitly giving up reality and this earth. The exciting, the dramatic, the unusual — their policy is declaring, in effect — do not exist; please don’t take us seriously, what we’re offering is only a spooky daydream.“

Consider social media and the constant droning by today’s leading “influencers” about statistics, metrics and analytics and the smallness of today’s prevailing stories when reading this part of her essay “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age”: “Naturalism … substitut[es] statistics for a standard of value. That which could be claimed to be typical of a large number of men, in any given geographical area or period of time, was regarded as metaphysically significant and worthy of being recorded.“

“What one reads today is not naturalism any longer: it is symbolism; it is a presentation of a metaphysical view of man, as opposed to a journalistic or statistical view. But it is the symbolism of primitive terror,” she wrote, making me think of Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. “According to this modern view, depravity represents man’s real, essential, metaphysical nature, while virtue does not; virtue was only an accident, an exception or an illusion; therefore, a monster is an appropriate projection of man’s essence, but hero is not.“

“[T]he romanticists presented heroes as “larger than life“; now, monsters are presented as “larger than life“ — or, rather, man is presented as “smaller than life.” [Emphasis Rand’s].

Other comparisons, such as the scads of mindless, mediocre Marvel Comics-themed films, come to mind as Rand writes about the bastardization of writer Ian Fleming’s James Bond depictions in movies. And, in Rand’s magnificent “Art and Moral Treason”, there is the scathing prediction of the postmodern “Millenial” generation, college-bred youths filled with chronic terror in the eyes while blindly submitting to indiscriminately wearing a mask:

When I saw Mr. X for the first time, I thought that he had the most tragic face I have ever seen: it was not the mark left by some specific tragedy, not the look of a great sorrow, but a look of desolate hopelessness, weariness and resignation that seemed left by the chronic pain of many lifetimes. He was 26 years old.

“He had a brilliant mind, and outstanding scholastic record in the field of engineering, a promising start in his career – and no energy to move farther. He was paralyzed by so extreme a state of indecision that any sort of choice filled him with anxiety – even the question of moving out of an inconvenient apartment. He was stagnating in a job which he had outgrown and which had become a dull, uninspiring routine. He was so lonely that he had lost the capacity to know it, he had no concept of friendship, and his few attempts at a romantic relationship had ended disastrously – he could not tell why.

“At the time I met him he was undergoing psychotherapy, struggling desperately to discover the causes of his state. There seemed to be no existential cause for it. His childhood had not been happy, but no worse and, in some respects, better than the average childhood. There were no traumatic events in his past, no major shocks, disappointments or frustrations. Yet his frozen impersonality suggested a man who neither felt nor wanted anything any longer. He was like a gray spread of ashes that had never been on fire.“

Buy ‘The Romantic Manifesto’

Ayn Rand wrote that in 1965. But the great radiance with which she begins the story of her romantic manifesto pre-dates the 55-year mark.

“It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period,” she wrote in the introduction to The Romantic Manifesto. I think it’s probably true. But Ayn Rand, in presenting her philosophy of art, gives the reader something extraordinary: power tools and a battery recharge with which to find, regard, contemplate, revere and create works of art on your own.

Buy The Romantic Manifesto

Book Review: Profiles in Corruption by Peter Schweizer

“Ultimately the problem lies with us,” writes Peter Schweizer in Profiles in Corruption, his new book about America’s top Democrats. “We get the government we choose, the leaders we elect, and the corruption we tolerate.”

Then, he quotes George Orwell, whom Mr. Schweizer notes warned about an elective system of government: “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.”

In this spirit, let me post certain excerpts from Peter Schweizer‘s important, pre-2020 presidential election book, which I strongly recommend—especially on the eve of America’s currently, ominously most likely next president, Joe Biden, making an imminent announcement of a vice-presidential running mate. Biden is rumored to also be ready to name cabinet nominees.

I’m posting this days before the Democrats’ convention, the nation’s first presidential nominating convention to be held during a pandemic yielding the historic prohibition against rational living, including work, fitness and assembly.

I finished reading the exceptional Profiles in Corruption by Peter Schweizer earlier this year. The book is objective in examining major Democratic Party figures. My thoughts, margin notes and conclusions were generally reached before the United States was locked down in national hysteria over the spread of a new virus, prohibiting millions of Americans from working, dictating that people “stay at home”, indiscriminately wear masks and physically avoid other humans.

I read and was horrified by this timely book prior to the Black Lives Matter movement re-emerging as an anti-police — and, arguably, anarchistic — political movement which would radically reshape American business, society and culture within weeks. Profiles in Corruption was published before 2020’s mass American chaos, lockdown, rioting, looting and anarchy.

As the most likely next U.S. president, a 77-year-old who supports Black Lives Matter including legislation to force white Americans to pay slavery reparations, prepares to name his slate of government officials, I’ve rounded up some of Mr. Schweizer’s most pressing and relevant disclosures. 

About California’s Kamala Harris, Mr. Schweizer observes that:

“She somehow served as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, and then as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, and never brought a single documented case forward against an abusive priest. It’s an astonishing display of inaction, given the number of cases brought in other parts of the country. To put this lack of action in perspective, at least fifty other cities charged priests in sexual abuse cases during her tenure as San Francisco district attorney. San Francisco is conspicuous by its absence.”

About Vice-President Biden? The reader learns that “[t]he Biden family partners are often foreign governments, where the deals occur in the dark corners of international finance like Kazakhstan, China, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Ukraine, and Russia. Some deals have even involved U.S. taxpayer money. The cast of characters includes sketchy companies, violent convicted felons, foreign oligarchs, and other people who typically expect favors in return.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker “was quick to reward friends and donors with Newark taxpayer money. In his first few months in office, Booker gave his campaign manager’s son a sole-source contract to update a website for the city. However, the son’s company was new and had no background doing such work. The contract was sizable—more than $2 million—and after two years the project was still incomplete, so the city had to hire another firm to clean up the work. Booker also hired friends to join him in the mayor’s office amid complaints of cronyism. Alarm bells went off in some Newark circles almost immediately when Booker appointed a campaign aide named Pablo Fonseca as his first chief of staff.”

As mayor, Booker’s sprawling network of activities included speaking fees (for as high as $30,000 a pop), nonprofits, the Zuckerberg gift, and a commercial venture called Waywire. In June 2012, Booker launched the new video-sharing social media company that he promised would give “marginalized voices,” including “high school kids,” a hearing. Booker put a public service gloss over the venture: “What was exciting to me was that it was expanding entrepreneurial, economic, and educational opportunities for so many.” Booker got the project easily funded by tapping his wealthy friends Oprah Winfrey, Google’s then–executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, among others to invest. Waywire amassed an advisory board that included CNN president Jeff Zucker’s then-fourteen-year-old son. The Waywire deal was highly unusual and controversial for several reasons. Booker was still mayor of a major American city, and yet he was launching a business with people who in numerous cases had been campaign donors. The terms of the deal were also unusual. Booker received the largest ownership stake in the company, even though he had likely invested comparatively little capital, and was not working on the project full-time[…]”

Remember the woman who lied about being an American Indian? Mr. Schweizer writes that “[t]he story of Elizabeth Warren’s academic success cannot be divorced from her claimed status as a Native American; they are deeply intertwined.

“Barely one year before her appointment to the University of Pennsylvania faculty, Warren began to list herself as a ‘minority’ Native American law professor in the directory of the Association of American Law Schools.”

Schweizer goes on: “A Harvard University spokesman described her as Harvard Law School’s ‘first woman of color.’ She was repeatedly identified as an example of minority hiring at Harvard Law. “Harvard Law School currently has only one tenured minority woman, Gottlieb Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren, who is Native American,” noted the Harvard Crimson…But something curious happened after Warren secured her new position at Harvard Law School. She stopped listing herself in the directory as a minority the same year Harvard hired her to a tenured position.”

“Financial disclosures by the time [Warren] ran for the Senate in 2012 showed that her net worth was as much as $14.5 million. Her house alone was worth $5 million. The couples’ investment stock portfolio was worth as much as $8 million, according to her own disclosures. Yet she steadfastly insisted that she was not “wealthy.” “I realize there are some wealthy individuals—I’m not one of them, but some wealthy individuals who have a lot of stock portfolios,” she told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.”

“In her new role, Warren was publicly blunt and aggressive when describing corporate America and the failures of corporate executives. “Wall Street CEOs, the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs, still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them,” she said during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August 2012. Does anyone here have a problem with that?” However, privately she offered a softer, more friendly tone in her communications with the large Wall Street firms. Indeed, she seemed eager to work with the same titans that she was lambasting in public. “You all gave us a great deal to think about, and we are all appreciative,” she wrote to Richard Davis, the president and CEO of U.S. Bancorp, in a March 2011 email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. “I value your help—and your friendship—more than you know.” Communication with the CEOs of major Wall Street firms was in “stark contrast to the battle that [was] waged in public.” Warren has met in private with Wall Street moguls that she publicly criticizes.”

Mr. Schweizer also provides a seriously, sufficiently and persuasively disturbing degree of detail about the Massachusetts senator’s family connections to the Islamic dictatorship of Iran.

Mr. Schweizer notes that one of Ohio’s U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown “was born in Mansfield, Ohio, a town midway between Columbus and Cleveland,” the author of Profiles in Corruption reports. The rest of his expose reads like something out of an Ayn Rand essay on Woodstock, the New Left and the hippies.

“The son of a doctor, his mother was a staunch Lutheran and progressive social activist; Sherrod inherited both from her. While in high school, young Sherrod organized a march in his hometown to celebrate the first Earth Day in 1970. “We did this really cool march and we had a really big crowd,” he recounted later. “But we get down to the square and none of us had thought about what you do when you get down there. We didn’t have any speakers, and it was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ So we just disbanded.”

What accounts for his rise to power in one of the Midwest’s most dynamic states?

“Sherrod Brown’s friend John Eichinger jokingly explained at a Democratic Party roast back in 1982 that Brown’s approach is to ‘get money from the rich and votes from the poor by promising to protect them from each other.’ Brown’s laughable status  didn’t stop him from doing real damage — to pets and people who own them.

“Dogs, for some reason, did not fare well in [Sen. Brown’s] early bills, perhaps because he claims to have been bitten eight times by dogs while campaigning during his first four years in the state legislature. Whatever the reason, Brown supported legislation to allow animal shelters to put down dogs with sodium pentobarbital. He also voted for a bill imposing fines and jail time for dog barking.”

Over and over, the author delivers evidence of corruption and moral abomination against the man most likely to blackmail a President Biden into enacting severe, total socialism: Bernie Sanders. One American worker shared what he remembers about an encounter with the socialist who would be ominously powerful in Biden’s administration.

“Sanders ordered the bar’s special, ‘Fat Man Bud.’ Bob Conlon recalls that night he was tending bar. Bernie dropped a dollar on the bar to pay for his ninety-five-cent drink. Conlon remembered that the mayor stood there “waiting four [people] deep to get his nickel change back.” The incident made an impression on Conlon, who made part of his money on tips. “I’d vote for O. J. Simpson before I’d vote for Bernie,” he later said.”

“As Professor Michael Kazin describes him, ‘Sanders resembles his hero, Eugene V. Debs—the Socialist who ran five quixotic races for president, the last time, in 1920, from a prison cell—far more than he does a standard-issue career politician. Other pols identify with ‘revolution’ and claim their campaign is a ‘movement.’ But Bernie really means it.’ Sanders deeply identifies with Debs and even has a plaque of him on his Senate office wall.”

“During the 2016 presidential campaign, intrepid journalists discovered that he spent his time at a settlement connected to an Israeli political party called Mapam. This was a particularly political settlement, Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim, connected to a ‘Soviet-affiliated political faction.’ Kibbutz members admired Joseph Stalin until his death, calling him “Sun of the Nations.” They would celebrate May Day with red flags.”

“Sanders and his wife moved to Vermont, but he spent very little of his time in the decade and a half following college with gainful employment. He worked briefly as a researcher with the Vermont Tax Department, before trying his hand as a carpenter. (One acquaintance admitted, ‘He was a shitty carpenter.’) Mostly he was a political activist and agitator, who occasionally wrote essays, one displaying his ‘affinity for Sigmund Freud.’

“Throughout the 1970s, Sanders continued to avoid consistent employment and was endlessly running for political office. (He derided basic working-class jobs as ‘moron work, monotonous work.’)”

The campaigns were bare-bones and during his 1974 campaign for the U.S. Senate, he actually collected unemployment while a candidate. His campaign rhetoric could be downright apocalyptic and conspiratorial. ‘I have the very frightened feeling that if fundamental and radical change does not come about in the very near future that our nation, and, in fact, our entire civilization could soon be entering an economic dark age,’ he thundered as he announced his 1974 Senate run. Later that same year, he sent a public letter to President Gerald Ford, declaring that America would face a “‘virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation’ if Nelson Rockefeller was named vice president.”

Rockefeller did become vice president. The dictatorship, of course, never emerged.”

Fellow progressives who had helped elect Sanders mayor were surprised at how he was consolidating power. He even put local charities on notice that he was in charge. Jon Svitavsky, who ran a local homeless shelter, said the new mayor rejected the charity’s well-established shelter rules. The homeless shelter, for example, had a policy of refusing entry to anyone who was drunk or high on drugs. Sanders did not like that rule, so he had the city set up its own competing shelter.”

Being mayor and creating a city post for his girlfriend, and then later his wife, meant a good income. They would supplement these salaries through tens of thousands of dollars in teaching and speaking fees. In 1989, the Sanderses actually sold two houses and claimed capital gains. Their primary Vermont residence included upscale amenities, which as one observer noted, “incongruously [made Sanders] perhaps one of the few socialists in the country with a built-in swimming pool.”

Once elected, Sanders moved to Washington and his wife, Jane, became a top aide, serving at various times as his chief of staff, press secretary, and political analyst. After a decade in Congress, Jane and family went about setting up a company that operated under three different names to provide income tied to Bernie’s political career. On September 27, 2000, the family formed Sanders & Driscoll LLC, a for-profit consulting company run by Jane, her daughter Carina, and son David. The business also operated under two trade names: Leadership Strategies and Progressive Media Strategies. The fact that this entity and its aliases were formed just weeks before the 2000 election is significant. The Sanderses ran these out of their home on Killarney Drive in Burlington. These entities served as financial conduits to run cash to the Sanders family.”

In Profiles in Corruption, Peter Schweizer drills into the socialist couple’s history with precision and, always with each profiled Democrat, in footnoted, indexed detail. 

Jane went about trying to develop international ties. In 2007, Jane traveled to Cuba and the college started a program to bring students to the communist country to attend classes at the University of Havana. Burlington College officials visiting Cuba enjoyed access to the highest levels of the Cuban government.”

The Sanderses had long-standing ties in [Communist] Cuba. In 1989, Bernie and Jane visited Havana and met with a leader of the city’s ‘social brigades’ and the mayor. (They attempted a meeting with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, but the bearded one did not make himself available.) Burlington College’s relationship with Cuba included workshops for teachers, including one attended by Armando Vilaseca, the Cuban-born Vermont secretary of education. With no sense of irony, Burlington College touted the study abroad program as a “singular opportunity to question, debate, and discuss” numerous issues. This, including “politics,” even though the university was located smack in the middle of a country that allows no free press. There was no mention of the suppression of free speech, the arresting of political dissidents, or the imprisonment of human rights activists. Instead, Jane touted the program as something that would be beneficial to humanity.”

Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar comes off like a bully. And there’s this about LA’s authoritarian lockdown-driven, pro-mask mayor, Eric Garcetti: “Eric received an elite education, attending first the Harvard School, the elite prep school in Studio City, California. He then went off to Columbia University. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Garcetti organized a protest against a nearby market that had forbidden the homeless from redeeming cans and bottles for the five- and ten-cent deposits. ‘We hope to resolve this without it getting messy,’ he declared, ‘but the managers seem to be assholes who have to be hit hard.’

This thuggishness is rampant in Profiles in Corruption. It’s a modern political book that won’t help you sleep any easier. But it will help you to know more about what’s in store if the Democrats stay on the current U.S. political track and take over the entire American government.

Book Review: Me by Elton John

Every adult who reads can probably gain from reading Me by Elton John. It’s not that what he writes about his music, work and life is especially philosophical, though there’s reflection and insight in what he writes. It’s not that his autobiography is salacious, “juicy” or filled with shocking details, though he writes about show business, being gay and struggling with severe drug and alcohol addiction, so there’s plenty of shock. What moves me about Me is his remarkable ability to express why he finds inner strength in flaws and insecurities — Elton John doesn’t neatly wrap, curl ribbons and package it like that — and come out an egoist.

Buy the Book

Of course, he never uses that word. But, like the movie that his husband David Furnish produced about his life — Rocketman, hands down this year’s best motion picture — expressing selfishness as a virtue is crucial to what makes the audience rapt with attention. Egoism powers every tale of why and how he studies lyrics, thinks about composition, hides from humanity, feels ashamed, dresses up, has another drink, cuts lines of cocaine, jumps on the piano, dazzles thousands at Dodger Stadium and sees in meeting Elvis his dark and lonely future.

I suppose the value of Me depends to a degree on what you know about Elton John and whether you like his music, which spans half a century from the intimacy of “Tiny Dancer” and pop masterpieces “Crocodile Rock” and “Elderberry Wine” to the majestic introspection of “The One” and “Home”. Here is an artist who met, performed or composed with and survived the greatest and most enduring musical artists of our time — Elvis, The Beatles, Whitney, Michael, Prince — and lives to tell.

This should not be taken lightly. If you know or want to know about the culture since the 1960s and how one man who is among the wealthiest, most accomplished and powerful artists of the modern era escaped the self-sacrifice destroying civilization, read Me.

I think you’ll be amazed. I am, even as I write. Having lost loved ones to alcohol, drugs and various means of trying to evade reality, the greatest of whom introduced me to Elton John as a boy, I was already in awe of his courage, heroism and life. Me gives new reasons to look up to Elton John.

I also think you’ll laugh out loud. With help from writer Alexis Petridis, a journalist he acknowledges and thanks, Elton John’s dry wit entertains. His humor never denigrates or detracts. He winks more than he digs, often with cliches and metaphors, which makes his side lines more enjoyable because you know they’re not the point. Each of these lines made me laugh, sometimes while reading to the point that I had to put the iPad down and wipe the tears.

Rarely are there tears of sadness, though the second half of Me is rightly more somber as Elton John delves into details of his fall and rise. This is old hat if you’ve been there — to AA meetings, to interventions, grasping for the phone at three in the morning, stumbling to the toilet the morning after (or an hour after you’ve emptied a bottle into your bloodstream) — and you’ll breeze through Me like a roughened roadie on tour. If not, you’ll know that you’re blessed to not know what you don’t know and you’ll more deeply appreciate who you are knowing who he is and has chosen to be.

Like all great stories, well, my favorites anyway, Me by Elton John is a story of the self-made man. As such, it is riveting. I was never exhausted while reading. I was gripped. Not only for personal reasons and never for curiosity in some lewd or peculiar detail. So, bitchy gossip types need not read this book—Me is not for them—and neither should their flipside doppelgängers, rationalistic bean counters that disdain anything but worshipping at the altar of trivia, statistics (pardon me, “metrics” and “analytics”) and neverending streams of pictures, games and nonsense.

Me, like Rocketman, is for the reader who thinks … for himself.

When Elton John does indulge in celebrity stories, and he covers all the known feuds, snubs and controversies, from Liberace to Madonna, it is never with a snivel or a sneer. He’s never the bitchy queen though he’s the first to admit that, at times, at his worst, he has been. Instead, he writes with ease and a sense of purpose as he looks back with clarity and humor — and he gets to the point. For example, reflecting on his eccentric wardrobe and his career’s catapult in Los Angeles, he writes:

The clothes from Mr Freedom weren’t outrageous because they were sexy or threatening, they were outrageous because they were larger than life, more fun than the world around them. I loved them. Before I went onstage at the Troubadour, I put them all on at once. So instead of an introspective hippy singer-songwriter, the audience were greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman’s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked.”

That’s certainly true and John’s candor and insight shows a glimpse of the root of his appeal as a showman, as a composer, as a performer. His combination with the brilliant — Elton John at his saltiest might say fuckin’ brilliant — Bernie Taupin often writing lyrics with John’s astute sense of his audience, culture and the world at large, including what it needs in romanticism, is awesome. This is impossible to overstate. 

The above quote subtly shows his disregard for the avant-garde, the pretentious, the chattering dilettante set and their darlings, including their penchant for holding up radical New Left terrorists, hippies and wannabes. Whether he knows it, and Me only barely implies that he does, Elton John the star stands opposed to that ethos. Me reflects this over and over.

Whether he’s adopting rapper Eminem as an AA charge, performing with pride at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding — and being handsomely paid for the endeavor — or refusing to profit from friends John Lennon’s or Princess Diana’s deaths, Elton John in Me writes as a man acting on principle.

This makes his memoir more enjoyable. Aside from learning details about his most indelible songs, concerts and famous friends, partners and meltdowns, John brings a brisk but substantial flair — not flamboyance — to the story of his life until now. Every flaw, every fact, every major chapter — from performing at the Troubadour in LA to suicide attempts and the agonizingly total detachment from his unloving parents — gets its due.

Ultimately, his life also gets his unyielding judgment. As he writes about his notorious shopping and tendency to bestow those he loves with gifts:

Over the years, I’ve had therapists tell me that it’s obsessive, addictive behaviour, or that I’m trying to buy people’s affection by giving them gifts. With the greatest of respect to the members of the psychiatric profession who have said that sort of thing to me, I think that’s a load of old shit. I’m not interested in buying people’s affection. I just get a lot of pleasure out of making people feel included or letting them know I’m thinking about them. I love seeing people’s faces when you treat them to something.”

Accordingly, he concludes with an estimate of his own value to himself:

I earned that money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I’m afraid that’s their problem. I don’t feel guilty about it at all. If it’s an addiction, well, I’ve been addicted to far more damaging things over the years than buying tableware and photographs. It makes me happy. You know, I’ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best-smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.”

Elton John writes about the late Ryan White, who changed his life, and his efforts to eradicate the scourge of AIDS. He acknowledges and, strictly as deserved, pays tribute to his band, the elusive and mythical countryside Englishman-turned-American cowboy Bernie Taupin, his ex-wife, his ex lovers, his family, friends and business partners. He writes about everything you can imagine: “Honky Cat”, Lady Gaga, scoring The Lion King, composing Aida with Tim Rice, touring with an orchestra, playing piano, his sexual voyeurism, “Philadelphia Freedom”, observing Freddie Mercury on his death bed, trying to save George Michael from himself, going live with Aretha, making an album with Leon Russell, how he met the man who’d become his husband, his horrifying mother, his record album triumphs including The Diving Board.

In essence, it is as though Elton John, whether drunk, stoned or sober, grabbed the traditionalism (really, religionism) being shoved down his throat and crushed it with his bare hands, and that he did so at the risk of destroying himself in the process. As an artist, a craftsman, just as he took movies, albums, shows and Bernie Taupin’s poetry, he then proceeded to remake these bad traditions, ideas and practices and repurpose them into a radically new and improved approach to making a life of his own. 

He’s done it—he did it—and this in reading Me is why you begin to realize how he came to be including why he came to be among the only Seventies superstars to make it out alive.

That this alcoholic and drug addict, working man and titan of industry, lifelong soccer spectator and pro sports team owner, husband and father lives to tell this tale is itself a testament to what he calls in the dedication his amazing life. Me is simple, humorous and, fundamentally, because he refuses not to see that  “the sun’s been quite kind”, an absolute joy to read. The book lives up to the glory of its unrepentant and egoistic title, like a song graced by piano sung in his soulful voice, holding on exactly the right notes in perfect harmony.

 

Book Review: Don’t Stop Believin’ by Olivia Newton-John

This longtime admirer and journalist of Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Sordid Lives, Xanadu, Two of a Kind, Summer Nights) read her new memoir, published this week, with intense interest.

The co-written memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which is both personal and light in substance and tone, contains many surprises, details and insights. The 70-year-old singer, whose career is marked by several movie performances, cultural milestones and an inspiring musical catalog and personal life, writes in the easy, natural and restrained but relaxed manner with which she performs. The woman knows her ability.

Olivia writes about every part of her life and career. Though the reader may be disappointed that she stresses people’s names at the expense of examining the songs, albums and songwriting for which she’s become a pop star, there’s also no chapter of her life untold. In this sense, Don’t Stop Believin’ is, like memoirs by Fred Astaire and Doris Day, a classic Hollywood memoir.

Buy Olivia’s Memoir

In short, it offers quality, light reading from a rare, telling perspective. Don’t Stop Believin’ is loaded with clinical and treatment details about Olivia’s cancer (she’s recently been diagnosed again, as I wrote about here) which alone makes the book worth reading. Olivia spares no detail yet she never lets herself, her values or her privacy go.

Among ONJ’s disclosures: she was injured in a car crash on LA’s 101 freeway, experienced debilitating pain during her three-year residency in Las Vegas, has a tattoo, failed music and math and became self-educated, was propositioned by a movie star during her first visit to America at LA’s Universal City Hilton and faced Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman during a contract dispute which she ultimately won — in court — gaining ownership of her master recordings.

Olivia traverses everything from her first marriage and divorce to miscarriage, pregnancy and parenting and neither goes deep nor shallow on any one topic. I think the Don’t Stop Believin’ reader will find himself wanting more or less of any given topic. The result, however, satisfies.

Olivia’s lifelong general advocacy for animals and the environment gets particular attention. Introspection comes in glimpses and fragments, with only an occasional indulgence from the disciplined performer. Whether recalling someone’s early career observation, which Olivia took as criticism, that she’s “ambitious” or her late sister or mother, the singer sails through the remembrances.

I adored my father and think more about him now than ever before, especially when I hear classical music, which was always playing loudly in our house. I close my eyes and see my father busily conducting each note as he smiled and drank his evening sherry.”

Some tales may surprise those who don’t know that Olivia Newton-John’s part of an extremely brave, intelligent family that, among other achievements, includes those who were awarded a Nobel prize for physics, helped to decode Nazi messages and invented the first portable iron lung.

Other tidbits include that Olivia sought emancipation from her mother after her parents’ divorce, recorded her first album while the Beatles were recording an album in the same studio and admires Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Dean Martin — with whom she made her first American appearance on television — all of whom she performed with during her youth. You’ll learn about Olivia spending the day with Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer) during an audition for Tootsie and partying while vacationing with Sammy Davis Jr., Totie Fields, Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Helen Reddy.​​

In a memorable encounter, Olivia remembers seeing Gloria Swanson at a waterfront hotel during a film festival, recalling that:

I spooned sugar into my [tea]cup at the exact moment, in the South of France, the iconic film star … swooped up those stairs. There she stood in full makeup with a bright silk scarf around her hair and wearing a long, flowing robe with bangles on her wrist. She was absolutely gorgeous, and looking right at me . . . and the tray filled with treats. “Darling,” Ms. Swanson said as she approached. “Don’t eat sugar. It’s poison.” It’s amazing that she was aware of the health risks of sugar back then, and I should have listened to her. Now, it’s forty years later and I’m finally on a no-sugar diet. I’m a slower learner!

Imagine watching Elvis Presley cover your song live in concert at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 while sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice — and then meeting Doris Day backstage. Or suggesting that a new fellow Australian actor named Mel Gibson co-star in your movie Xanadu with Gene Kelly, who’d give you advice for living before rehearsing a dance with you and doing all of his own skating for the movie because he said he loved skating when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. In Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia puts the reader there.

As noted, Olivia’s admirers (and I am one of them) are likely to be disappointed with a lack of depth and detail. She calls almost everyone she mentions her friend, drawing few distinctions. There’s an abundance of material on her spiritual beliefs but nothing substantial about certain seminal albums such as Have You Never Been Mellow, Physical, Soul Kiss and The Rumour. The memoir lacks an index and discography. When she does write about her music, such as the Nashville-tinged Back with a Heart, the perfect “Right Here With You” or Grace and Gratitude, it’s with a chapter title or brief reference. There are exceptions, such as her thoughts on Grease and “I Honestly Love You”. Olivia proves to be a good observer and storyteller though there is more material about her travels and various plants, animals and exotic voyages — with snakes, rhinos and Magic the Chinese kitten — than about herself and those she values.

Few are as strong — a word Olivia says she likes — as Olivia Newton-John, which I think astute readers, admirers and cultural observers will come to realize, know and appreciate. Olivia captures the wider scope of her life.

“Time is a wonderful healer,” she notes on the topic of losing her sister Rona to brain cancer, “but grief is like an ocean. I found it comes in waves and there are times when you are lost at sea. …” The woman who recorded Liv On, a trio album on grief recovery, also recalls what a friend who lost a child once told her: “grief is just proof that you loved.”

So, read Don’t Stop Believin’ to discover why Olivia declines to use the word remission — why she admires the late motivational author Louise Hay — and why she enjoys vodka in good measure. Reading this memoir helps one to know that Olivia wants everyone interested in her blend of innocence, sweetness, lightness, strength and harmony to know that she honestly loves (especially her husband) and is loved and that you should strive to find the comfort from inside, too.

And ONJ’s sense of play — including having a whipped cream fight with composer Paul Williams in a private jet — comes through. As she describes her first encounter with the late Joan Rivers when the comedienne came to help during a grueling charity walk along the Great Wall of China:

You’ve got your heels on, Joan!” I said in an amazed voice. I’ll never forget her words to me. Joan said, “Olivia, when you invited me, I thought you said the Great Mall of China!” She followed this by walking up a few stairs, turning around and asking, “Where’s the ladies’ room?” Later she told Martha Stewart on her show, “There was so much wind on the wall, I could have skipped my last two face lifts.” She also remarked, “The wall was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It’s had more work done on it than I’ve had on my face.” God love her.”

For sharing some of what is personal and for 50 years of good humor, grace and performing arts, may God bless the thriving and triumphant Olivia Newton-John.


Buy Don’t Stop Believin’ here


Books: A New Textbook of Americanism

Several intellectuals in the Objectivist movement have been called upon to a contribute to a new compendium of essays attempting to apply Ayn Rand’s philosophy to politics. The result is what its editor, hedge fund manager, author and TV analyst Jonathan Hoenig (The Pit), titles A New Textbook of Americanism. The paperback edition, which includes newly published writing by Ayn Rand, is a useful resource for sorting through today’s complicated and deeply confused political debates.

By picking up on what Rand (1905-1982) started in association with a motion picture organization in Hollywood before writing Atlas Shrugged, Hoenig’s idea to continue her effort to answer certain questions she formulated and intended to eventually answer with new essays is an interesting and inviting proposition. Each reader, whether he’s an Objectivist or not, can read these essays and make a judgment.

Buy the Book
Buy the Book

That Hoenig adopts Rand’s take on the term Americanism is itself a departure from today’s loud, vacant discourse. So, the book, best read in bits according to one’s unique political confusions, interests and passions, challenges the left-right status quo.

By this, I mean that, in total, it’s easily distinguishable from either a conservative or a leftist manifesto. Each contributor, most of whom are academic intellectuals, and many of whom I know or am acquainted with, speaks for himself, not for Ayn Rand. To varying degrees their pieces are thought-provoking cases, essays and arguments about pressing political issues that relate to daily life.

For example, Hoenig writes:

If you give someone a wristwatch, does he become its rightful owner? Of course he does. He did not earn the money to buy the watch himself, but, upon you giving him the watch, it becomes his property. When a person who rightfully owns something gives it to someone else, that thing becomes the property of the recipient by virtue of the right of the giver to assign his property as he sees fit. An individual’s right to property, whether it is a wristwatch or an estate, includes the right to dispose of it.

The American founders identified life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness as man’s inalienable rights because they are a requirement of life. As Ayn Rand clarified, “just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s ideas into reality — to think, to work and to keep the results — which means: the right to property.”

This example is an illustrative counterpoint to the prevailing opposition to property rights from leftists — including the swarm of leftist legislators such as Ocasio-Cortez or Warren — and from the new block of authoritarians on the right such as the first explicitly pro-eminent domain president Donald Trump. Many examples in the book challenge today’s false, toxic right-left alternative while clarifying or at the very least making a case for the Objectivist political ideal.

One scholar depicts America’s frontier history to provide proof that “Americanism heralded the natural aristocracy of ability, inventiveness, daring, and hard work.” Another points out that “a fortune made is always a fortune caused.” A philosopher writes that, contrary to the dog-eat-dog descriptions of capitalism as a ‘survival of the fittest’, literature’s Robinson Crusoe offers the more honest capitalist ideal because the stranded islander “…has to build shelter, learn to hunt, and make his own clothing. If he does not succeed in creating wealth, he will die. It is produce or perish.”

The author’s conclusion that the Industrial Revolution brought Americans unparalleled progress with “… the steamboat, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, refined oil, antiseptics, vaccines, the phonograph, the camera, the automobile, the radio” is undeniable.

Over and over, contributors credit the men who made these advancements possible with references to Jonas Salk, Fred Rogers, Ray Kroc, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ayn Rand, Sam Walton, Jeff Bezos, George Washington Carver, Steve Jobs, Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.

Not that Hoenig’s A New Textbook of Americanism is a history lesson. Instead, the collection of essays generally weaves historical and other data points into specific political thought. Author Don Watkins takes on charity as a right, concluding that “to establish capitalism will depend on [Americans’] willingness to confidently and unapologetically reject the notion that a person’s need entitles him to the property of others.” Economist Richard Salsman correctly observes that when the government “imposes tariffs on imported steel, and thereby restricts supply and raises the price of steel domestically, it does so to give domestic steel companies a profit they did not produce and do not deserve.“

The net effect of reading the book is a challenge to the reader to think for himself. Some of the essays are better than others, of course, in terms of the quality of writing and persuasiveness. Depending on one’s preference for and exposure to various media in today’s sensory-driven culture, some, perhaps many, of these arguments have been made better and/or often before. Other intellectuals, including those who are not in academia, might make more compelling cases.

But Hoenig’s reach for general American audiences and those who strive for understanding Americanism is laudable; as the thinker’s self-defense, A New Textbook of Americanism is on the right track.

And in what other new book will today’s discouraged, confused or disoriented American individualist, looking for guidance toward achieving the nation of the enlightenment, find Ayn Rand differentiating patriotism from nationalism in her 1974 talk to U.S. military cadets at West Point and this excellent excerpt from the third and most recent book by Leonard Peikoff: “All the key features of a capitalist state — its validation, its powers and limits, the prerogatives and interrelationships of its citizens — are unified, because all are derived from a single principle: the worldly self preservation of the individual.”

As Objectivism’s foremost author writes in his Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, “Objectivism is preeminently an American viewpoint…”

Recently, an article in the Atlantic divulged the depth of reflexive anti-Americanism in Germany, another nation which Dr. Peikoff has brilliantly studied and examined. It turns out that a reporter for Germany’s leading publication, Der Spiegel, a magazine featured as having an admirable goal in The Lives of Others (2006), “fabricated information in more than a dozen articles—most of which were meant to reveal America’s brutality.”

As one of those “ominous parallels” which Hoenig’s book points out, our own American president snidely condemns this nation with the question: “you think our country’s so innocent?”

Jonathan Hoenig’s compendium dispels both leftist contempt for America while answering the ignorant, anti-American president with an informed, intelligent reply: Yes…because it is—and this is why.

Whether you’re an activist, an influencer or an Objectivist, or any, all or none of these, you may gain knowledge in these pages. For example, that the estate tax was not fixed as a permanent part of American law until 1916 and that, “before that, any attempt to impose a tax on estates was treated as an aberration to help the government [weather] a temporary emergency.”

You may also be inspired, as I am, by Americans in their Americanism. As one intellectual observes in this volume, “Steve Jobs [once] said: “[W]e think the Mac will sell zillions, but we did not build a Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do the market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.”