Monday, October 31, 2011

Human, All Too Human

Few have driven the Tea Party drama of late so much as the nearly thirty years dead Ayn Rand. With the jump in sales in her work following Obama's election, the "Going Galt" posturing, and the anti-government rhetoric of the past three years that, due to Occupy Wall Street, only now is beginning to wane--this has been an explicitly Randian era. Her beliefs and their consequences are a natural target for liberal scorn, no exceptions here. But after reading Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, it's hard not to feel sorry for the extraordinarily damaged woman behind them. Ayn Rand's life, as told by Burns, shows a startling juxtaposition between sympathetic misfit and cold and alienating tyrant.

The trauma of Rand's early youth is the key to understanding her persona and philosophy of hyper-individualism and anti-statism. Growing up during the Russian Revolution, she became an early enemy of the Soviet union when government officials claimed her father's business in the name of the people. The resulting tumult left her family in increasingly dire conditions, living in miserable housing subsisting on "millet, acorns, and mush." Her response was a near-pathological aversion to "collectivism" which held that altruism of any kind was an infringement on the best and most productive members of society and crushed the individual and creative spirit.

Hers was such a one. She grew up bookish, awkward in social situations, and spent much of her youth writing stories of knights and princesses that she would tell her family. Solace from the drudgery of life in the Soviet system she found in the films of Hollywood, which she devoured--through film school--with impressive zeal. In 1925 alone she saw, graded, and cataloged the stars of 117 movies. In another time and place she would have been known as nerd; the bookish appeal of Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings is real enough. The later Rand's conversation-starter, "What are your premises?" is an extension of this: both amusingly, precociously pretentious and appealingly dorky.

Some of Rand's most sympathetic episodes occurred in the early years after she came to America. After a characteristically awkward stay with relatives in Chicago (her typing all night made them nuts) she decamped to Hollywood, where she worked for no less than Cecil B. De Mille, who was struck by her powerful gaze and impressed with her life story. The man who would become her husband, Frank O'Conner, was drawn to her for similar reasons.

Perhaps most endearing about her in this time, captured vividly by Burns, is the struggle of the aspiring writer, which Rand felt acutely after De Mille's studio closed with the advent of the "talkies" in film:

Unskilled and anonymous, she had to settle for a series of odd jobs and temporary positions. She fell behind on her rent and started skipping meals. This was not the fate she had expected when she disembarked in New York years earlier. Though she accepted small loans from her family, she was unwilling to ask Frank for help, or even to reveal the extent of her problems to him. On their dates she kept up appearances, never letting him see the depair that was beginning to suffuse her life.

What writer hasn't felt this way?

Also most humanizing is the affection she had for her husband, the way they called each other "Cubbyhole" and "Fluff," how "[s]erious and focused in her professional life, Rand could be silly and girlish with Frank." 'Girlish' is the last word one would use to describe Rand, but the inclusion of such a detail throws the less savory aspects of her character into starker relief.

It is in these same early days that the flaws of Rand's personality and character that would become all-consuming first began to bloom. She became fascinated with the case of William Hickman, who remorselessly murdered and dismembered a twelve-year-old and whose trial became a national sensation, planning (but never starting) a novel with a protagonist based on his Nietzschean superman qualities. Her description of the the character inspired by Hickman, Danny Renahan, skirts sociopathy (emphasis original):

He is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness--resulting from the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people.

It's like Crime and Punishment, without the moral redemption. Indeed, without wanting it in in the first place.

Rand's formulation of Objectivism, which true to its name posited that there were universal, objective, truths about the world that the individual could learn by commanding complete rationality in his thinking and behavior, was a long elaboration on and exercise of the Renehan idealization. Rand took this idea to its outermost extremes: she attracted a handful of close acolytes, including Alan Greenspan, who called themselves The Collective and came to adopt her and her characters' views and even fashion sense. Those who questioned or deviated were castigated in front of the others in a manner not unlike the Soviet show trials she lampooned in her fiction. A unified theory of everything left no room for interpretation or variation.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of her "Virtue of Selfishness" was her husband Frank. Once an up-and-coming actor, his career stalled out, making Rand early on the household's breadwinner. He stumbled on a second career as a gardener during their second extended stay in Hollywood, but it fell apart when Rand insisted they move back to New York. He later displayed a latent talent for painting which gave him some personal satisfaction.

Rand, who did love her husband after her own fashion and needed him to offer balance in her life, nonetheless craved the kind of towering, heroic individuals she created in her fiction and found it in Nathaniel Blumenthal (whom she rechristened Nathaniel Branden), her greatest devotee and twenty-four years her junior. She embarked on an affair with him that lasted a decade and a half and was conducted--rationally, you see--with the knowledge and 'permission' of both Nathaniel's wife Barbara, and Frank. Barbara became increasingly prone to panic attacks, which Rand dismissed as weak mere Emotionalism. Frank, whose abiding stoicism neatly complemented Rand's dominating egotism, was twice a week turned out of his own apartment so Nathaniel and Rand could consummate their tryst. He spent much time at a local bar and may well have become an alcoholic.

Towards the end of his life Frank descended into senility, and Rand--having furiously excommunicated Nathaniel when he eventually confessed that he had been having an affair with a younger woman--dutifully cared for him, albeit it through the filter of her unwavering belief in willpower; she initially hoped he could overcome his condition by rational explanation and training. Her approach to her own mortality following his death is surprisingly poignant: "She did not believe in life after death, she told [Phil] Donahue, otherwise she would have committed suicide by now in order to join Frank." Rand died of lung cancer in her apartment, alone but for a hired nurse.

It's not hard to understand the appeal of Rand's basic notion of individualism to today's conservatives, nor the reflexive repulsion of liberals. But it is a simplified image of Rand that both camps respond to; frankly, given the specifics of godless Calvinism, it would make better sense for both camps to disavow it, as indeed was the case during her lifetime. A closer study of Rand, as provided by Jennifer Burns, would allow her to be appreciated for her place in history, and in history alone remain.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Light Reading

So I'm going over an idea for a writing project, a play, that deals with the current economic climate, class warfare, and Wall Street, and have started doing some reading along those lines. Simon Johnson and James Kwak's 13 Bankers made the financial crisis about as digestible as a lay person as possible, yet the Byzantine quantity and workings of such "innovations" as derivatives, Credit Default Swaps, Mortgage-Backed Securities is... daunting, regardless.

My latest read is Jennifer Burns' excellent Ayn Rand biography, Goddess of the Market. I find the ideology of Rand and her followers morally repugnant, but there is no denying her influence, and any inquiry into the lead-in and aftermath of the crash would be incomplete without an understanding of the mindset that stripped "Greed is good" of all irony.

Rand is fascinating figure in her own right, and I'll have more to say along those lines. This is merely a heads-up on the direction the blog will be taking, after laying fallow for so long.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Othello is Almost as Funny as Falstaff

Tonight I attended a lecture by the new director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Michael Witmore, on using data-mining technology on the works of Shakespeare. The use of quantifying technology, typically associated with the sciences and other "real world" pursuits, with something as subjective as literature is novel, and offers many insights, not the least of which has to do with its own subjectivity.

The talk began with an obligatory crack about the Roland Emmerich Shakespeare authorship abortion slithering into theaters this Friday ("The media was asking me for the Folger's position on Anonymous. I told them we're a library; we don't have positions, we have collections.") and then gave some background information on his topic. As an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University was introduced to a program called Docuscope that breaks down text fed into it and assigns tags to different words based on the functions they serve. Originally intended for improving the writing skills of incoming freshmen, Witmore and his University of Glasgow colleague Jonathan Hope fed it Shakespeare's 36 plays and have been using it to analyze the results on grounds of genre.

Witmore's blog demystifies some of the technical aspects of how this works:

Docuscope, that is, codes words and “strings” of words based on the ways in which they render a world experientially for a reader or listener. The theory behind how texts do this, and thus the rational for Docuscope’s coding strategy, is derived from Michael Halliday’s systemic-function grammar. But what is particularly interesting about Docuscope is the human element involved in its creation. The main architect of the system, a rhetorician named David Kaufer, spent 8 years hand-tagging several million pieces of English according to their rhetorical function, and then expanded out this initial tagging spread with wild-card operators so that Docuscope now classes over 200 million strings of English (1 to 10 words in length) into over 100 distinct categories of use or function.

The resulting data clusters, they found, would belong in certain categories, while being (categorically?) excluded from others--given text chunks would be characteristic of ABC, but not XYZ. Add these together and you'd get a Gaussian scatter plot, divided among Tragedy, Comedy, History, and the Late Romances of Shakespeare. The purest Comedy section came from The Merry Wives of Windsor, while the purest History was a scene from Richard II, which after consideration most would probably agree is the least funniest of the History plays.

How these results were reached all have to do with the generic criteria at work. As Witmore described it, comedy often involves two people plotting away, which involves a lot of 'I' and 'you' exchanges, setting in motion a snowballing series of misunderstandings. A hallmark of History, by contrast, is heavily descriptive dialogue, which makes sense considering the sheer amount of, well, history that needs to be conveyed.

These distinctions lead to the seemingly unusual grouping of Othello with The Merry Wives of Windsor in comedy. Its plot, recall, revolves on an elaborate scheme of mounting falsehoods to trick Othello into suspecting his wife of cuckoldry. Familiar comic territory, but punctuated with the horrible success of Iago's stratagem.

An obvious objection to this computerized approach to textual analysis is that its reasoning is circular. A computer program can only find what its programmers tell it to find, so how can it actually tell us anything new? Witmore was asked such a question in the follow-up Q&A (I think. It was by an analyst who works with similar data, and so the wording was far more technical and above my pay grade.), and his response was, essentially, that one had to find a balance, that overly detailed programming would indeed provide narrow and redundant results.

I myself had a hard time getting past the issue of the premises Docuscope is given, but it seems its real strength is in allowing us to re-examine our notions of genre and classification of plays. Witmore mentioned to me that one of the other surprising results was the grouping in History of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this had all to do with the extensive descriptive language in the play, plus the whole Pyramus and Thisby episode. One can actually track the points in a play where it veers into different territory, he said. More accurate than identifying plays by genre is their tendency towards a given genre.

Thus the usefulness of the Docuscope approach is in fact its strict logic. Though we may know what we're telling it when we input its text tagging parameters, its thoroughness and consistency in applying them will show us things we may not have before considered.