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Chicago in the Summertime

Sitting in the room where I wrote my first stories as a boy, I am looking out at the lush green trees and lawns of Chicago’s north shore suburbs while taking a break from writing an article for a local newspaper, preparing for a course on one of my favorite writers, O. Henry, at Chicago’s first Objectivist Conference (OCON) and looking forward to my first visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesinin Spring Green, Wisconsin.

On the eve of this year’s OCON, I’ve posted an exclusive report about Ayn Rand in Chicago, where the philosopher lived in 1926 when she first came to America from Soviet Russia, returning in 1947 and again in 1963, when Rand faced the threat of an initiation of physical force at McCormick Place, where her scheduled lecture, “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” sold out. I spoke with the event’s organizer, who remembered Leonard Peikoff as “brilliant” in an exclusive interview, and architect Harry Newman, who attended the lecture with his wife Ruby as part of Rand’s entourage, and Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram (who is also a friend) gave me an enormous amount of useful information. I think the article, intended for print publication and posted on Capitalism Magazine, may be the single most comprehensive article about Ayn Rand in Chicago.

Both Ayn Rand and Chicago represent the spirit of 1776, independence – a virtue in the Objectivist ethics and a crucial characteristic to creating a great industrial city on a great lake – so posting this piece today, on the Fourth of July, when we celebrate America’s independence, makes me happy. Though I fear that the spirit of individualism is diminished across the disintegrating West, by refueling my own spirit and writing these stories during a hometown visit, my goal is to reignite that all-American spirit of ’76.

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

[1999] “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am.” These are the words of Helen Keller, whose legendary triumph is the subject of William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker.

The story of how Keller first gained awareness of her own existence, and, later, much more, is the story of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable pair of women. Blinded during infancy with neither bone nor air conduction in either ear, Keller’s mother often wished the child dead. Annie Sullivan was hired as her tutor.

Sullivan, whose own childhood had been miserable, began teaching at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887. Undaunted by her impetuous pupil, she immediately applied a fiercely rational education. Sullivan granted the unruly girl no reprieve from instruction. As Helen Keller began to make progress, Sullivan conducted lessons outdoors – in a field or beside the Tennessee River – permitting Keller to fully feel that the world was hers to master.

“It now remains my pleasant task,” Sullivan wrote early in the process, “to direct and mold the beautiful intelligence that is beginning to stir in the child-soul.” Their relationship was forged: the convergence of raw, free will and the ruthless discipline of reason. The result was a transformation from wild child to an exceptionally intelligent girl.

Frederick Tilney, a neurology professor from Columbia University sent to observe Keller, later wrote: “From the very beginning of her instruction this ingenious teacher has arranged every experience so that it might have real pedagogic value, whether in play, in work or in rest, as well as in all other social activities. Helen Keller has been taught to capitalize every opportunity for learning from each impression entering her sensorium.”

Keller could distinguish between roses and wildflowers, she knew when storms were coming – detecting a concentration in her nostrils – and she learned to speak. She mastered French without a textbook or a Braille dictionary, graduated from Radcliffe, became a writer and lecturer and she was able to grasp abstractions. When friends told her that happiness awaited her after life, she instantly asked: “How do you know, if you have not been dead?” The efficacy of Keller’s mind was matched only by her charm. An admirer observed: “Ask her the color of your coat, she will feel it and say ‘black.’ If it happens to be blue, and you tell her so triumphantly, she is likely to answer, ‘Thank you. I am glad you know. Why did you ask me?’”

As Keller gained fame, Sullivan rejected distortions of her student’s deeds: “Helen Keller is neither a ‘phenomenal child,’ ‘an intellectual prodigy,’ nor an ‘extraordinary genius’ but simply a very bright and lovely child, unmarred by self consciousness or any taint of evil. Every thought mirrored on her beautiful face, beaming with intelligence and affection, is a fresh joy, and this workaday world seems fairer and brighter because she is in it.”

Their relationship lasted a lifetime, bearing the indelible mark of instructor and pupil.

“My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her,” Keller wrote in her classic autobiography, The Story of My Life. “I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers.” Keller called Sullivan “Teacher” for the rest of her days.

Sullivan taught Keller how to think. That Helen Keller chose to think was the proper reward for both.

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999.

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Book Review: A Painted House by John Grisham

[March 25, 2001] John Grisham’s latest novel, a nostalgic coming of age tale, is an inviting story about rural life in Arkansas. Like his legal thrillers, A Painted House is filled with interesting characters in a particularly Southern setting ensnared by misdeeds that cry out for justice, though Grisham’s peculiar sense of justice is often unsatisfying.

As seven-year-old Lucas Chandler introduces life on his family’s cotton farm in 1952, it’s clear that the simple life of biscuits, chores and the cotton gin will give way to worldly disruption. The drama unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace with the boy, known as Luke, as the story’s narrator.

Luke, who lives with his mother, father and grandparents in an unpainted house, explains that this year’s promising cotton crop – in perpetual danger from the rains – must rely on the hard work of hired hands. In Black Oak, Arkansas, that means an unlikely alliance of Chandlers, Mexicans and those folks who descend from the Ozark Mountains called the Hill People.

The Mexicans, who are dirty, poor and hardworking, present no immediate threat to Luke, who yearns to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Spruills from the Ozarks get off to an ominous start when they set up camp on the Chandlers’ front lawn, which serves as Luke’s private playground.

That first night, after his mother and grandmother shell peas and butter beans, as the family frets over the prospect of a good crop, Luke “sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.”

Luke soon falls for shapely 17-year-old Tally Spruill, who makes eyes at one of the Mexicans, who clashes with her brother, Hank, a brute who knows he’s brutal. There are many long, hot days of cotton-picking, a carnival, a rising river and, as the story reaches its climax, blood is spilled, fortunes are lost, a baby is born, and Luke’s keeping more secrets than the town busybody. The plot moves slowly but steadily.

A Painted House is not a legal thriller, as Grisham reminds his fans in an introductory note. The popular author applies his sense of small town law and order to create a wistful tale of youth and treachery amidst life on a farm in the Fifties.

For some readers, those days gone by are best forgotten. Luke’s grandfather Pappy is prone to such homespun wisdom as the proclamation that “women do stupid things” and the Chandlers’ notion of loyalty to family at all costs strikes the reader as more cruel than charming. It is also implausible that Luke would – or should – bear such heavy burdens. But it’s unlikely that fans will be disappointed; John Grisham is a skillful writer and he has written an evocative, if undemanding, story of the South.

Originally published as the lead fiction review in the March 25, 2001, edition of the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers upon publication.

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Interview: Alejandro Amenabar on Agora (2009)

Filmed in Malta between March and June 2008, Agora, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), takes place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt.

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The story concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism through the lives of three individuals: astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the last director of the surviving library in Alexandria, and two young men in love with her: a bright, willful student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her equally intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella). The motion picture will be playing in both New York and Los Angeles by June 4, 2010.

Director Amenabar, whom I first met and interviewed at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss his haunting, Oscar-winning The Sea Inside in 2004, talked briefly with me about Agora from Spain during an interview by telephone. The South American-born composer, writer and director, who speaks in a thick Spanish accent, talked about Agora’s ideas.


Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia an agnostic or an atheist?

Alejandro Amenabar: She is obviously looking for something [meaningful] but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these [moral] codes that get people to kill each other.

Scott Holleran: Yet you told the New York Times that Agora is “a very Christian film.” Why?

Alejandro Amenabar: It all depends on what we consider by being Christian. We see Hypatia being merciful and we see [the Christians] torturing her and [wanting to] skin her alive so in that sense I found that the character Hypatia is more Christian than those killing people. The movie’s not against Christians and Jews; it’s against fanatics. I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set. The problem is when people of faith start killing people who don’t have faith. Personally, I lost my faith when I did The Others [in 2001] and at the time I considered myself an agnostic. Now, I consider myself an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t identify with taking care of the people nobody wanted. So [in Agora] I tried to show that side of Christians—as good people.

Scott Holleran: What was the turning point?

Alejandro Amenabar: When I was doing The Sea Inside, I became aware [lead character] Ramon Sampedro [played by Javier Bardem] was an atheist. It’s not that I don’t want to believe and it’s not that I don’t want to believe in something superior or that I didn’t read the Old Testament or something. I prefer to call it nature. When Einstein was studying the theory of relativity, he was looking for something higher—but he was using reason. I try to do things from a humanistic approach. I do have a moral code but I know that you don’t have to live by the Ten Commandments to be a good person.

Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia a martyr?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. Again, I found links to her story and to the story of Jesus Christ. They were dragged through the streets, tortured and killed. We don’t know if she knew what was coming. The fact is that she was a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal to a man. She was very prominent in the city.

Scott Holleran: Agora’s marketing has been underwhelming; the film isn’t indexed on major online movie resources. Why isn’t Agora being promoted in the United States?

Alejandro Amenabar: It’s not an easy film. It looks like an epic film but it’s not a traditional epic. It’s about astronomy and it’s also this weird mixture of history and science—and you expect her to have an affair.

Scott Holleran: Have there been any threats from religious fundamentalists?

Alejandro Amenabar: No.

Scott Holleran: Is Agora making money?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes, though it hasn’t made all the money that it should. In Spain, it’s done very well and in Italy it’s doing very well but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit in the United States. We made the movie just before the financial crisis and in these times people just want comedy or horror or action. Agora is not that movie.

Scott Holleran: Some critics have said your film is strident. How do you respond?

I understand the criticism. It’s a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.

Scott Holleran: Has Agora been screened at the Vatican?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. From what I have heard, no one said anything. I think there were some priests and journalists there and there was no reaction at all.

Scott Holleran: Why was Agora submitted to the Vatican in the first place?

Alejandro Amenabar: It was the distribution company—I think they wanted to check the reaction of the Vatican and also for the translation into Italian [from English]. There’s one scene in which Cyril reads from St. Paul and [the Vatican] tried to look for the softest version. In the English version, it’s taken from the King James version of the Bible. But I don’t think there is a softer way of saying that women should shut up.

Scott Holleran: Do you think fundamentalists are corrupting Judeo-Christianity?

Alejandro Amenabar: I consider myself a moderate. I think Hypatia was a moderate. I don’t like big revolutions with a lot of blood and violence. I don’t like extremism.

Scott Holleran: If a philosophy is good, shouldn’t it strive to be consistent?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. But [a good] philosophy has one principle and that’s that you can refute what your master taught you. Einstein’s biggest idol was Isaac Newton and he dared to refute Newton—he was able to come up with improved theories. Sometimes, you have to play against what your masters taught. Ptolemy was saying one thing [about astronomy] and Copernicus was brave enough to challenge him.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Agora?

Alejandro Amenabar: To me, it’s a difficult question. I always say it’s a story of a woman, a civilization, and a planet. I tried to see the earth in perspective. I tried to look at the earth as small—as small as possible.

Scott Holleran: Yes, you frequently pull the camera back to emphasize man’s smallness. Do you see man as small and insignificant?

Yes and, at the same time, as great—you see these highly developed people as small as ants knowing so much about the universe. So the movie shows man at his best and at his worst.

Scott Holleran: What is your personal favorite scene, as seen within the context of the final picture?

Alejandro Amenabar: There’s one shot that I love, when we see the earth as very, very little and you hear the screaming of the women and children—and we’re lost.

Scott Holleran: Which scene was hardest to shoot?

Alejandro Amenabar: The destruction of the library.

Scott Holleran: Why is it called Agora as against Hypatia?

Alejandro Amenabar: We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation [it’s pronounced hy-pay-shuh]. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas—this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.

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Book Review: Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials

Can one be good without God? Those who have no doubt – whether yes or no – shouldn’t bother reading Wendy Kaminer’s Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (Pantheon Books, $24). Those who do will find it thought-provoking.

Kaminer, author of five books, is like a preacher looking for sinners in Las Vegas; she relishes finding the snake oil and she knows it’s everywhere. “Ours is an evangelical culture,” she writes. From Nancy Reagan’s astrologer to Hillary Clinton’s ghosts, Kaminer chronicles what she dubs “the celebration of subjectivity.” Citing, among other groundless claims, the repressed memory hysteria that resulted in hundreds of ruined, innocent lives, she argues that today’s world is dominated by the notion that, as she puts it: “A fact is simply what is true for you.”

Kaminer warns that subjectivism is poison – her chapter on junk science shows how – but she fails to offer the antidote and the lack of depth makes Sleeping an extended essay on what she thinks is wrong with the world.

Kaminer’s philosophy, however, is weak. Her definition of faith – ”the capacity to entertain ideals in spite of harsh realities” – is seriously flawed; grit is not faith. At least Kaminer is honest about her shortcomings. “Not quite brave enough for atheism,” she writes, “or absolutely sure of my judgment, I fall back on agnosticism–either a cowardly or judicious alternative to religious belief.

Still, she cuts through much of today’s nonsense. After quoting some gibberish about the womb of the universe from Deepak Chopra, she asks: “What is he talking about?” and rips him to shreds. Those who regard The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations with God as harmless will be shocked by Kaminer’s cogent warnings, which reveal that Conversations insists that Hitler went to heaven and Celestine is an assault on reason. During an especially horrifying critique, Kaminer shows that most of these bestsellers propose that victims of murder actually chose to die.

Kaminer offers lots of attitude–even intelligent evaluations–but not a lot of answers. By the end, she admits that she regards faith as a talent and her some-have-it, some-don’t, philosophy explains why Kaminer fails to grasp the spontaneous mourning of Princess Diana and the appeal of the CBS drama Touched by an Angel. Focusing on the religious aspects, it never occurs to Kaminer that their popularity may be, for some, rooted in that which is completely rational. Diana was also intelligent, beautiful, and, at times, independent and the unhip Touched by an Angel offers a comprehensible plot about human values in a sea of plotless shows about random human action, (i.e., ER).

Mystics will have no use for Kaminer’s doubts. Neither will the doubters, whose rejection of religion is often a sneer at the universe. For those who reject irrationalism while seeking to embrace a meaningful life, they may appreciate Kaminer’s observations, but they will have to find rational salvation elsewhere.

A version of this review was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Dallas Morning News upon the book’s publication.

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