Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 2)

SPOILERS
I was discussing my blog entry on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 1) with a Chinese physicist friend, and she pushed me a little on how I would rewrite the ending, which seemed to twist me into such a knot. (This is per the novel, not the film, which I haven’t seen and which I’ve heard tweaks the ending somewhat.) For anyone interested, here is my response. (If this sounds quite critical, note from my first review that I loved the book but felt a little deflated at the end in a way that the conventional interpretation could not explain; hence, this follow-up.)

To clarify, I have no problem with the ending per se. My problem is with the conventional interpretation of the ending – that the little seamstress makes a good, wholesome decision. My reading (let’s call it the Romantic reading) may be no better than the conventional one (let’s call it the political reading), but here are my thoughts about why I feel this way.

First if I wanted the ending to look “good” for her decision, I’d give her a little more ambivalence about leaving her lover and friend. This is, on one level, a coming-of-age novel, and these kids learn much about love and friendship and loyalty along the way. She seems too ready to throw all that in the garbage at her first chance at the city. So I’d like to see a bit more emotion, sadness, mixed feelings about dumping them so quickly. They, after all, also have something at stake per what they are learning about love and friendship and loyalty.

Second, I’d drop the “blue Mao jacket” from her city slicker wardrobe. The cultural revolution has been negatively portrayed throughout the novel, and it’s hard not to see her putting on the Mao jacket as a symbolic gesture of putting on the (inauthentic) identity of the cultural revolution simply because it will help her leverage her interest in the city.

Third, I’d drop the last line, which equates female beauty with $$ value (to be gained in the city by dumping your friends and assuming the correct ideological self-presentation). I would have her learn something more complicated from Balzac, something more bittersweet about love, friendship, and doing what you need to do.

If we leave the ending the way it is, I can’t give up my Romantic interpretation (which sees her final act, as it is presented, as a sign of depleted values). I can SEE the other side that favors her decision as a cold political calculation that makes sense, but I can’t feel it in my heart.

So in order for me to feel the justice of the conventional interpretation, the ending would have to be modified to (a) be consistent with previous attitudes about the cultural revolution, (b) suggest that she really does care about Luo and her friend and at least has mixed feelings about discarding them without notice, and (c) the last line about Balzac would probably have to change into something a bit more emotionally complicated.

Maybe I’m wrong and all those conventional readers are right, but I have to be true to my heart 😊

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Thoughts on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

(h/t Zhiyu for picking out this book for me as we browsed the tiny book exchange)

No spoilers until the 2nd half (you’ll get a warning before spoilers)

This book hooked me with the descriptive writing on the first page – clean and simple but precise, expressive, humorous but ominous, with clouds of meaning hanging over the images and narrative movement. Here, on the first page, the setting is already pressing in – the environmental setting of the mountain village and the historical setting of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as two middle-class city boys have been cut off from their families and sent to the country for re-education.

But here too on the first page, the vivid sense of the local and the ethnic is already paired with a sense of something universal and human. As the village elder inspects the strange object belonging to the boys (a violin), the boys are already struggling with a sense of how to fit in, how to be understood in a world of adults who just don’t get it. It’s the perfect setting for a coming-of-age tale, where the local coordinates frame the archetypal struggle of adolescents trying to navigate an adult world. The book’s critical view of the Cultural Revolution, expressed with humor and with poignancy, is never far away, but it is also a universal story of kids growing up, joking around but feeling the full emotional weight of adolescence.

The personal and cultural layers of the book are in fact explicitly linked. Discovering the beautiful little seamstress their own age parallels the discovery of forbidden books (e.g., by Balzac) from the West, books that explore precisely the personal aspects of the human experience – friendship, loyalty, first love, and possible betrayal, innocence thwarted and dreams forbidden – which take on a peculiar urgency for these boys, torn from their families and in constant danger of being denounced. The first-hand view of the Cultural Revolution being played out in the mountain villages of China is one thing, vivid and valuable in its own right, but it is the other thing, the personal thing, the intensely heart-felt connection between two young friends and the little Chinese seamstress in the next village – that’s the thing that really sticks with you after the book is done.

SPOILER SECTION BELOW

At first glance, the last sentence of the book is my least favorite. The little seamstress packs it up and leaves Luo (her lover) and the narrator (a dear friend to both, the one who took care of her in her darkest hour, secretly in love with her himself but true to his friend, Luo) to try her luck in the city. When asked why, she notes that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”

A cursory glance at reviews suggests that many readers approve of her final choice as liberating, and perhaps they have a point. Maybe they are reading it with an eye on how to fit it to today’s political needs whereas I am reading it like a Romantic. In any event, like all great novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens multiple ways of reading. In my reading, for example, the final line is devastating. The idea that the little seamstress, artificially groomed and coiffed into something “modern-looking” and “stylish” with her “blue Mao jacket,” “bobbed hair,” and “white tennis shoes”– that she plans to leverage her “woman’s beauty” to stake her claim in the Mao-stifled city strikes me as rather a degradation of values than a liberation. The “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” somehow seemed more authentic.

But if we run with my reading, if we view the little seamstress’s flashy exit in the last sentence of the novel as demeaning, doesn’t this finale undermine the novel’s whole cultural trajectory? Where the body of the novel had suggested that the dehumanizing effects of the Cultural Revolution could be redeemed by the humanizing effects of Balzac and the other forbidden Western writers the teens discover, doesn’t the degradation in the last line suggest that those “humanizing” effects were not so humanizing? That the Western influences had merely introjected Western vanities into the heart of China, as represented by the little seamstress? And if the last line negates the cultural trajectory, the mirror-image trajectory of personal coming-of-age is also jeopardized. What if the ideals these teens had constructed about friendship and loyalty and love was no more than vanity – whimsical ideals to be tossed at the first chance of life in the city? Indeed, the coming-of-age archetype in literature often extends into a more cynical stage, the passage from innocence to experience, as the Romantic poets would have it. And the same deflated idealism hovers over that last line of Sijie’s novel.

But by the time I read the last line, I had become so emotionally invested in the characters, in their naïve teenage idealism, and in the beautiful China they were symbolically trying to shore up against the forces degrading it, that I was unwilling to let go that easily. What if the Chinese seamstress’s final comment does not negate the redemptive power of Balzac and all the spinoff values that Balzac represents in the novel? If my heart wants to argue this side, my head is not long in coming to its aid. After all, one cannot read this novel and conclude, no matter how one reads the last line, that the Western ideas of Balzac et al. were just a trick, a vanity, that Mao’s view of the Western ideal as a Trojan Horse was correct. No, too much of the book weighs against this reading.

The alternative reading is this. The last sentence, as much as it repulses my emotional registers, saves the book from a thematic malaise into which it might otherwise fall. The Western influence (or in this case the universal humanist influence, as channeled by the Western writers the kids discover) was essential to the coming-of-age transition, personal and cultural. But Balzac (symbol of that humanist influence pushing back against Mao) is not a magic bullet, not something you can simply overlay onto China. It is an instrument, not an end, in the boys’ coming of age; and it is an instrument, not an end, in China’s transition as re-envisioned in the symbolic structure of Sijie’s novel. Western culture is not a Trojan Horse to Chinese culture, but nor is the West to be fetishized. If you fetishize those hallmarks of Western culture as something more than they are, if you use them as a mere overlay, you get not the authentic universal human values they express, but you get Western vanity. You get the decision of the little seamstress. So Luo is right to burn the Western books – not because Mao is right about their worthlessness, but because they have completed their purpose in the coming-of-age transition; not because they would corrupt the spirit of China but because once they are read, it is time to move beyond those local Western expressions to the universal truths about the human spirit that lie behind them. The Western books were a ladder for the kids, but to bring something authentic to China, you need to climb the ladder and then throw it away and focus on more universal truths and beauties. If you get stuck on the ladder, if you get hung up on the West qua West, you get the vanity of the little seamstress.

So yes, Luo was right to burn the books. I understand that the conditions the seamstress and the boys found themselves in called for change. But at what cost in terms of one’s own identity? As I ponder that question, the final image of the little seamstress in her trendy new outfit heading for the city to see what she can get with her commodified beauty leaves me longing for the “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” of the earlier pages.

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Free Maggie Now!

Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner Prize) is FREE this week on Amazon (Kindle).

(If you don’t have a Kindle, download the app for free, and get all the books you need for COVID days.)

Click the cover below to link through. (Read some excerpts below.)

Get your copy while it’s free. Or if you have a copy, gift a copy or two to friends. Just tell them to be polite and write a brief and honest Amazon review in return for the freebie 🙂

Phil’s life becomes a fiasco of misdirection when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Magnus then disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.

Excerpts:

First page

Closer to the end

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Hotel Hastings

Hotel Hastings (a poem in 49 cantos)
by Eduardo Padilla (in Spanish)

Free pdf of the complete 75-page poem here, with permission of the author.
Publisher: Cinosargo ediciones  

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

As a second-language speaker of Spanish, I may have got it all wrong, but if you want to know what I thought and what I like, I will tell you and you can listen.

Hotel Hastings reads more like a novella, less “poetic” in rhythm and form than Padilla’s other poetry that I’ve read. It has the easy flow of narrative, but with little Pound-like hooks in imagery and free associations across the page that remind you – it is related by, and you, the reader, are locking consciousness with, a poet.

The first part is masterful in its integrated vision of street-level grit and Kafkaesque surrealism.

“En el norte me dicen Ed y acabo de enterarme de que los cartógrafos le dicen Ed a las islas de Existencia Dudosa,” reads the epigraph (in my amateur translation, “In the north they call me Ed, and I just found out that cartographers call islands of doubtful existence ‘Ed’”).

Is he the island of doubtful existence, or is it his shadowy gray setting, Vancouver, whose existence is dubious? Either way, the epigraph sets me up for a surrealistic journey. This is supported in the first line of the first canto, when Ed leaves school (presumably from Mexico) to go live in East Hastings “con los demás fantasmas” (“with the rest of the ghosts”) in a mausoleum-like hotel above a butcher shop where flies dance on the floating heads of bodiless pigs. The characters who populate his floor have a symbolic, dreamlike aura, despite their grit – the pimp’s apprentice, the drug dealer, and at the end of the hall, the drug dealer’s only client, “vive y muere” (“living or dying,” depending on how you choose to look at it). Also, the pickpocket, “with hands more beautiful than those of a mannerist saint,” and the Invisible Man, a “human hieroglyph,” who walks only in straight lines, turns only in 90-degree angles, and looks, if you can catch a glance when he takes off his glasses, like a Dustin Hoffman lookalike. Here, among this range of low-life archetypes, the narrator, though a foreigner, finds for the first time in his life his own element 😊

Thus begins our hero’s tale, scrounging for jobs, or better yet unemployment checks, trying to sell the CDs he’s been carrying around for five years, one eye forever on the next cheap beer. The surreality persists (e.g. in Canto 12, where “tourists pass through my room and around my bed, taking pictures of me,” although this may have been presented as a dream – don’t ask me, my Spanish isn’t good enough to get all the context). But gradually it becomes clear that this is not a bizarre alternative world being recorded in the simplest terms possible, as in Kafka, but a gritty real world of Vancouver streets being recorded by a batshit crazy poet, a poet who ponders how he fits into his 2-story hotel and concludes, “I am the 13th floor,” a poet who “was born [with an unfulfilled desire] to see Eraserhead,” a poet who at one point admits his memory is shattered and asks the reader to step in and help him sort out the pieces.

I like the first half of the book better, where the language has me flying in Kafka space rather than walking the grungier streets of the actual city of Vancouver, but the second half, which smacks more of William Burroughs’s Junky than of Kafka, brings me closer to the poet, to the human element underneath it all. Maybe you need both halves, the yin and the yang, the id and the ego, the world of make-believe and the world that hits you in the face. Maybe the batshit crazy poet knew what he was doing.

x x x

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Goodbye, Maggie

Here’s a draft opening for another novella (Goodbye, Maggie). If you have any thoughts, let me know.

* * *

D E S I R E
says the neon above the Royal Sonesta door on Bourbon

H U G E  A S S  B E E R S
screams the street vendor’s sign

H O M O  S E X  I S  S I N
exclaims a navy-blue banner sailing through the crowd with bold white print

To their credit, the men with the banner, who alternately huddle around it like a lodestone and spread through the crowd like feelers, are not reducibly homophobes. Draped from their shoulders, in the spirit of Corinthians 6, are full-length body posters decrying fornicators, liars, blasphemers, adulterers, thieves, hypocrites, drunkards, abortionists, witches, atheists, and money lovers. They are in the right place on this Mardi Gras day in New Orleans.

One could enjoy this scene from any of the wrought-iron balconies overlooking Bourbon St. On one such balcony, a petite woman with woven dark hair and stunning violet eyes (no one could forget the eyes), costumed as a fairy queen, surveys the festive crowd below. The unholy throng carouses the street in waves. The fairy queen disappears from the balcony. The crowd revels to a crescendo and subsides.

The fairy queen returns to balcony but with her back to us, a red chrysanthemum in one hand. After a moment, she falls, face up, arms spread like an angel in flight as her body nears the street.

* * *

A rickety old paneled Datsun mini-wagon clunks into a supermarket parking lot. Phil, nerdy, early thirties, image of mediocrity, gets out. He tries a couple of times to shut the door but the latch works poorly. He finally kicks it shut and heads toward the store.

“Piece of shit,” our hero mutters.

Phil browses the cake counter for a second. A hefty, middle-aged woman stands behind the counter.

“I’ll take that pink and yellow one. And could you put ‘Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth’ on it?”

“Too long,” says the countress, heavy, languid, but with a spirit like a coiled spring. Phil wonders. Her hostility. Is it racial animus? Does the black woman behind the counter resent his whiteness? Is she simply beaten down by the drudgery of her job?

Phil wipes his glasses. “What do you mean, too long?”

“It’s too long, baby. All them letters on that lil’ cake. How about just ‘Happy Birthday’?”

No, she is not hostile. Phil remembers what Hermia said. He needs to allow for different personalities. But now he is aggravated.

“I can’t take a cake with just ‘Happy Birthday’! It won’t look … it won’t be special.”

“How about a bigger cake?”

Yes, she is hostile.

Phil browses impatiently.

“OK, give me that one.”

“Which one, baby?”

No, she is not hostile. But Phil cannot tone it down all the way.

“That one there. The one the size of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch.’”

The server pulls the cake from the display case. She is mumbling, shaking her head. “Heard a no cake look like a watch.”

Phil fidgets as the server decorates the cake. She brings it over. It says, “Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth,” and has a watch at the center. He looks at it, cocks his head.

“What’s that?”

“You said you wanted a watch.”

“I didn’t say I wanted a watch.”

The server sighs, moves her chin slightly, and shouts toward a woman by the oven.

“Hey, Bertha, you heard that man say he wanted a watch?”

“Yeah, sugar. He said a watch.”

The server looks back at Phil.

“Bertha heard you say a watch.”

Yes, she is hostile. Phil does not need this.

“OK, OK, look, can you just turn it into the star of Bethlehem or a gift from the wise men.”

“I thought you said it was a birthday cake.”

“Yeah, well, it’s Twelfth Night, too.”

“Twelfth Night? What the hell is that?”

“Feast of the Epiphany.”

She looks at him puzzled, as if awaiting an explanation. There is empathy, connection in her puzzlement.

“Epiphany,” Phil repeats. “Today’s the feast of the Epiphany.”

* * *

An art show is being held in a large, old, city home. People, some in costumes, are viewing paintings and art objects. A black cat masker observes a dark, richly colored landscape. She hears a voice.

“Too dark.”

She turns, startled by a close-up red and black Satan mask.

“Darkness,” says the Satan masker, “always comes with a tinge of light, doesn’t it?”

She moves on, uncomfortable.

* * *

Phil is in the parking lot with a couple of bags and the cake. He tries clumsily to put the cake on the roof of car, but it slowly slides off and crashes face-down in the parking lot. We in the audience well up with tears.

* * *

A burst of laughter at the art show. The Satan masker is away, observing another landscape including an apparent pagan ritual. He hears a voice.

x x x

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New Age of the Scarlet Letter

In this New Age of the Scarlet Letter, where we look not for the good in people (or literature or art history) but for anything we can use to label them as racist, sexist, and generally unwoke, we need to find cultural role models we can join together and all look up to. That’s where The Dude comes in.

xxx

xxx

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The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet

To the lay literati, fiction writer and theorist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, is no longer a household word, though he may have come close to that in the 1950s and 60s. The essays in For a New Novel are a kind of manifesto for the “objective” or “imagist” type novel. At the center of this collection is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, Robbe-Grillet seems a heady recruit for my army of Fashion Anarchists, attacking all normative criticism by saying that every novel must create its own genre and cannot be measured against a pre-existing standard (e.g., the Balzac novel). On the other hand, he makes his own work into a norm, suggesting that only an inferior writer today could write in that “Balzac” genre based on psychological depth and storyline nuance.

Thus when Robbe-Grillet speaks of a “new realism,” I can see the connection to Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and all of the stream-of-consciousness writers whom he praises, but I don’t see the loss of depth as an absolute. To be sure, older centers of meaning like religion no longer provide a deep and fixed anchor as we move into modernist culture. One response to this is to allow oneself to be absorbed in the surface play. Robbe-Grillet, says structuralist icon Roland Barthes, describes objects as mere optical surfaces, which have “neither function nor substance” and are “susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever.” One might recall in this light the imagist poems of William Carlos Williams and the sliced surfaces of Picasso – perhaps even the fascinating, glassy world of Richard Brautigan’s adult fairy tale, In Watermelon Sugar. (My more intrepid readers might wish to plot my stories [e.g., The Clown and the Tiger] or small poems [e.g., Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco] against these aesthetic coordinates.)

But it seems that other responses to a vanishing ground of meaning might be just as valid. The colliding surfaces and subjectivities of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse stir up all kinds of interesting undercurrents at the psychological depths. I myself have much enjoyed what I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet’s prose art, and I can read Brautigan all day long with sheer delight, but I don’t see why an appreciation of these essentially non-psychological, non-plotted, descriptive prose artworks can’t exist alongside an appreciation of novels that locate meaning at a depth or at an external distance from the objective markings of the prose.

On Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”

One of the things that struck me about The Kite Runner was how it forced apart two layers of identity: ethnic identity and human identity. On the ethnic level, the differences between Afghan and Western social practices became more concrete than ever. We always knew of cultural differences, but the Western reader, after bonding so intimately with the narrator (Amir), is struck by how even in California he accepts that he will marry Soraya without ever having kissed her or seen her alone. Moreover, women are eerily absent from the first third of the novel, which takes place in Afghanistan, and male bonding remains disproportionately (from the Western vantage point) the paste of Afghan society, even in diaspora.

And yet, underneath the ethnic layer of identity, Amir shows the universal humanity that binds us all.  He plays with his childhood friends much like we do, gets into mischief, questions what he hears in school, what he hears at home, his religion, worries about how to find a job, a spouse, a place in life. Most of all, he struggles with the enormous anxiety that comes with the gap between acquiring moral knowledge and having the strength to live up to that knowledge. This breach between moral knowledge and moral strength knows no ethnicity. It is part of the deep structure of coming-of-age. It may the struggle that brings us to adulthood, as in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Or it may be, as in The Kite Runner, that coming-of-age is the moment in which that moral breach opens, and our subsequent lives are all about trying to close it. Or it may be the breach that marks an entire society in transition, as in Ngugi’s Kenya in A Grain of Wheat. In any event, the tearing open of that breach between moral knowledge and moral strength is the fall of Adam and Eve, the kiss of Judas, the dilemma of Hamlet, all sprung from the same conflict deep within the collective unconscious.

So those are my two first impressions of the book: (1) how it highlights the difference between the level of ethnic identity, whose hard differences might variously be cause for celebration or alarm, and human identity, which we all share in equally regardless of ethnicity (or race or gender, etc.); and (2) how it makes concrete once again and in its own way the archetypal inner struggle between moral knowledge and moral strength.

Blurb on Ayn Rand

Quote

I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged but read the The Fountainhead not too long ago (along with The Virtue of Selfishness and some additional bits and pieces). I had always heard of Ayn Rand’s commitment to rational self-interest and capitalism, and of her blueprints for conservative politics. What captured my interest over the years is how she seems to gain converts from among people who would not ordinarily lean that way. So I read The Fountainhead, and I do think it helped me to better understand both the appeal and the danger of buying into her ideas.

In some ways my initial reaction is probably quite the opposite of most people’s. I get the impression that most people take the political/ethical philosophy quite seriously but skip over the aesthetic/artistic value. I, on the other hand, was surprised at the literary quality of The Fountainhead – from cubist descriptions to provocative analogies and metaphors and symbolic values, complex characters in interesting situations, etc., I found the book to have great literary merit and great cinematic potential. But in terms of politics and ethical philosophy, I find her at best naïve, at worst a danger to herself and others.

Her characters start out as complex, passionate, literary creations with real cinematic value. The problem arises when the characters come to express abstract syllogisms — e.g., according to Rand, if we consider compassion a virtue, then we must wish others to suffer so we can express that virtue — Toohey in The Fountainhead slides from being a wonderfully complex character into a silly caricature when she reduces him to this abstract principle. What’s worse, the principle is patently untrue. Of course I can feel compassion for my daughter when she is sick without “wishing” her to be sick. In Rand’s books, my compassion would be “rigged” to be a bad thing, but in real life my compassion for my daughter is obviously not bad. We are interconnected whether we like it or not, and those rare occasions, times of loss, etc., where I’ve felt the flow of compassion between myself and another, are some of the most life-affirming and authentically human moments in my life. Ironically, those who try to deny our interconnections (as Rand would have us do with her stark individualism) end up leading shallower, less authentic lives, or are forced to become hypocrites (ironically, since that’s what Rand was trying to avoid). To embrace Rand’s abstract principles, just because they worked out fine in her novels, puts one on a very dangerous moral track.

If Atlas Shrugged is similar to The Fountainhead, it will start out rich with literary value, and then in the second half Rand will self-destruct as an artist — i.e., she will reduce villains and heroes alike to abstract, one-dimensional principles in ethics/politics — worse, she will reduce them to principles (such as the above) that are demonstrably false in real life. So the potentially first-rate artist deteriorates into the second-rate philosopher.

I have this hunch that when Ayn Rand was a kid, some adult admonished her (probably rightly) to quit being so selfish, and she became so enraged that she devoted her entire life to an elaborate justification of her own selfishness. The trick is that she weaves the self-serving justification into an engaging story with enough philosophical threads of real value (e.g. embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions) to make it quite appealing to a casual reader … hence the real danger she poses to the mass of uncritical readers.

To summarize, if one reads her characters as figures of compelling literary/cinematic value, and possibly as starting points for philosophical discussion, the rewards are great, but if one reads her heroes as role models to emulate in real life, one is making a big mistake.

The irony is that one of her strongest thematic points was that acting with integrity means never being a follower. And what is her biggest legacy? A worldwide organization (The Ayn Rand Institute) of people who, for the most part, uncritically hang upon everything she said.

 … And in response to some of my friends who have come to Rand’s defense …

I perfectly agree with some components of her ethics, including tenets to embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; to envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; to trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions, the value of self-reliance, etc. These excellent principles come right out of 18th-century Enlightenment and Romantic traditions and have been embraced by many philosophies besides Rand’s. Thus, the part of her philosophy that I appreciate most is not essentially “Randian” but just things that she shares with the many.

It is by weaving these essentially good tenets into her philosophy that she lures people into a kind of complacent agreement, but the devil is in the other details. The more controversial and the signature Randian stuff, like the ideas that selfishness is always good and compassion always bad, would be silly on the face of it were they not intermixed with the self-evidently true tenets. Those good tenets are the teaspoon of sugar that gets people to swallow the toxin. And in the U.S. some very high profile people swallow the toxin. E.g., the recent Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan is right out of Ayn Rand — more tax cuts for the rich and eliminate programs that help the poor and middle class.

Yes, I had thought about Ayn’s Bolshevik connection in the same vein as my fantasy about some adult telling her to be less selfish. I.e., in witnessing the excesses of Bolshevism, she swung to an opposite but equally unprofitable extreme, the negative emotional investment in Bolshevism from her childhood blinding her to some of her adult weaknesses.

Think of Aristotle’s ethics, wherein vice is a virtue carried to an extreme (you might recall his example that courage is a mean between extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness). One might argue that Rand carried good positive ideals to such an extreme (think Pasha/Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago) that she becomes as bad as the tyranny she’s fighting against. The virtue of self-reliance, e.g., is radicalized into “Never ask for help or give help under any circumstances because to do so will weaken the moral integrity of both parties.” She is the kind of automobile driver that would not slow down to let you over when you’re trying to change lanes because to do so would mean (1) sacrificing her own interest for no reason  and (2) reinforcing weakness in the other driver by selflessly easing his path instead of letting him rise to the occasion and take his rightful position on the force of his own strength. All of this sounds great, but I’d rather somebody just let me over, and I’d do the same for them.