Monday, April 11, 2005

Isabel Paterson, Part 2: The Highest Form of Intelligence

Well, I've finished my second read-through of Stephen Cox's biography of Isabel Paterson. I have a tendency to re-read stories (whether fictional or not) that leave me unsatisfied in some way, despite the quality of the writing. I think I'm looking for satisfaction with every subsequent reading. Of course, since words on paper do not magically change when books are shut, I am always left again unsatisfied. Nobody could have written a more beautiful, enchanting telling of Isabel Paterson's life than The Woman and the Dynamo, but you are left with the impression that even the author himself was unsatisfied at the conclusion of this biography.

Isabel Paterson, graced by God with natural genius, humor, flair and originality, died and remains in such obscurity that the conscientious reader cannot help but gnash her teeth at the whole of mankind that rejects to this day the very prophets God sends to enlighten us. I think somehow in this second reading I was hoping to find the ending changed to something like this:

And then the entire world sat up and listened to what Isabel Paterson had been saying all along, everyone stopped poking their noses into everyone else's business, the governments stopped interfering in the energy circuit of the free exchange of ideas and goods and instead started protecting life, liberty and property, and that is why the world is a place of peace and fulfillment for all individuals today. The End.

And then I would look up from the book and miraculously see a country that is not at war, not trillions in debt, not aborting babies, not throwing away billions into government schools, and is basically minding its own business with the rest of the world following our lead, as it tends to do. Peace and prosperity would be the norm, Isabel Paterson would be on Mount Rushmore, and I could go about my life without worrying so much about the fate of my beloved country.

Though, believe me, there is a lot to be comforted by in the reading of this extraordinary life. The very fact that she was able to find a voice in the Twentieth Century and express that voice to the world in a regular column of a mainstream publication (not to mention in many novels and her great work, The God of the Machine) is simply amazing when you consider that that was the century that brought us Wilson and WWI, Lenin, Stalin and the whole blight of Communism, FDR and the New Deal, Hitler, Mussolini and WWII, and colorless, wishy-washy, gutless, spineless collectivism in just about every other arena of life, in America and abroad. The most surprising thing about Pat is not that she became somewhat bitter toward the end, but that she found the courage and conviction even to begin the fight for individual liberty and the morality of capitalism.

So, let me sit with a cup of tea - Pat's preferred tonic of imbibition - and try to express my love for my dear Isabel.

Well, as I wrote before, Isabel Paterson was funny. Very funny. So funny, that reading excerpts from her column will lead the reader through reactions ranging from the quiet titter to the boisterous guffaw. The amazing part of this is that she wrote a timely column, filled with persons and literary works from a bygone era. That her humor could be so relevant to the modern reader is a mark of her particular skill, and that these bits of humor were framed so well as to make them relevant is a tribute to the skill of her biographer. Sometimes, Dr. Cox lets these aphorisms stand alone:

The main object of a university press seems to be to publish books which one wouldn't be found dead reading. (66)

Psychology is a science which tells you what psychologists are like. (66)

Nothing that well-meaning people might do would surprise us. (68)

People mostly do as they like, and that would be fine if they'd let other people do the same. (68)

Sometimes he gives contextual information to pack a greater punch:

Unmerited fame was easily punished. Hearing that the work of a popular sociologist had been translated into German, she asked, "Why wouldn't it be a popular move to translate it into English?" (69)

After watching Bruce Barton's life of Christ, The Man Nobody Knows, linger for months on the bestsellers list, she greeted the appearance of his next effort, The Book Nobody Knows, with a brief gloss: "Meaning the Bible, which Mr. Barton has just discovered." (69-70)

She was perhaps the only person in the Western world who was immune to Churchill's "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" speech. She noted that he had borrowed the salient idea from Garibaldi, and besides, "All heads of states are considered great writers while they are in office. It goes with the job. And we mean it goes with the job." (70)

He notes that she wrote amidst the peerage of such luminous literary wits as Mencken, Parker, Fitzgerald and Lardner, in fact stating that "wit and humor were the soundest currency of the age...and Paterson had no difficulty exploiting her own sense of humor." The fact that she was not afraid to express this humor in the "vulgar tongue of this country," that she was at home in America's newly rooted sense of itself as a separate entity from European culture, that she helped to distinguish our distinctly colloquial and casual version of the English language, that she was enchanted by this vernacular's "elusive note of poetry," made her a powerful voice in both literary and political commentary. Reading excerpts from her column in The Herald Tribune calls to mind some of Ring Lardner's ability to capture "American" as a language.

"Wit and humor," she said, "are the highest forms of intelligence." One would tend to agree, especially if that one has ever tried to "write funny" or do five minutes of good stand-up comedy. One should then reflect on the fact that so little of what so-called intellectual lights write or say is funny in the least. A lightness in self-expression will draw readers back continually in a way that no pedantic pondering ever will. Ever wonder why so many of "Oprah's Book Club" authors have no success with their successive literary offerrings? Oprah's recommendation is enough to coax a purchase from the legions who hail her as Messiah, but, once having read and become fully in-touch with the artistic proclivities of the Great OW, these readers will not seek out further works by these authors...because most of them are sooooooo depressing and annoying and boring. Oy!

So, Isabel was very funny.

I have recently been checking out her novels from the library, and I am pleased to report that her style with fiction is also very accessible. The two I have so far read I will share about in Part 3 (you knew it was coming, didn't you?). Until then, have fun reading The God of the Machine (which I know you have, because you purchased it at my bidding two weeks ago from I'll be back with more Isabel-adoration soon.

Peace to all!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Isabel Paterson, Part 1:The Fountainhead's Fountainhead

Has there ever been any mortal more cool than Isabel Paterson?
No, there hasn't.

I am nearing the end of my second reading of Stephen Cox's sublime biography of Ms. Paterson, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. It is interesting that Ms. Paterson had a brief, presumably inconsequential, marriage early in her life, because her marriage of consequence turns out to be the perfect match of biographer to biographee. I cannot imagine a more harmonious pairing of sympathetic natures than that of Dr. Cox's with Ms. Paterson's. The offspring of this union is a highly readable, inexhaustively entertaining tribute to the almost-forgotten importance of one of the best minds of the twentieth century.

Oh - how Isabel winced at the application of the phrase "Best Minds" which so permeated the meddlers' and do-gooders' vocabularies before, during, and after the disasterous FDR administrations. Apologies to Pat (her preferred nickname), but I must bestow the title upon her, despite her misgivings. Her mind was an American original (though she was born in and bred mostly in Canada), and it worked with both a precision and abstraction that can leave her reader dazzled by its brilliance and giddied by its implications and possibilities. She so totally rocks!

And she was funny! Dr. Cox makes full use of all her witty aphorisms that brought delight to her readers and consternation to the objects of said observations. His own sly observations throughout the book also contribute to a light-heartedness too rarely found in non-fiction. While he approaches his subject with a seriousness and thoughtfulness worthy of such a giant, he also frames his story of her life and work with humor and good fun. A delightful instance of this that comes to mind is in Chapter 3, "The Unsheltered Life." Dr. Cox quotes from a letter that Isabel wrote later in her life of her "bachelor girl" days in Calgary as a young, unmarried career woman. He frames what she wrote as such: "She 'was thought rather fast' for bucking the fashion by wearing low shoes - 'anything different was fast!' She was free and she enjoyed her freedom, however mindless the freedom might seem."(26) In the next paragraph, Dr. Cox writes of Isabel's lifelong friendship with Grace Luckhart, whom she met at this time: "Around Grace and Isabel clustered a group of friends whose faint impressions linger in correspondence: nice young working women who rented a room in someone's house or shared a cottage with someone; and nice young men, ditto. Undoubtedly, they all enjoyed the feeling that they were very fast."(27) His phrasing is so wonderfully placed - neither crowding or brow-beating Isabel's original statement by coming too close, nor leaving the reader confused by being too obtuse - just a perfect little summation that evokes so easily the innocence and gaiety of a lost time. I can't help but think that Isabel would have chuckled to read it.

My dad (who, being the man of impeccable taste that he is, also loves this biography) wondered aloud in a recent conversation what drew Dr. Cox to exploring and revealing this undeservedly obscure heroine of liberty. I do not know for certain what sparked his curiosity, but I would bet that it had something to do with Ayn Rand. Anyone who has read Rand, her fiction and her non-fiction, and has found a lot to value in her ideas, has probably also read some of the biographical works written about her, in particular Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand. And in this and other chronicles, you will come across the figure of Isabel Paterson. Ayn Rand was, for lack of a more Randian term, quite the acolyte of Isabel's in the 1940's. Contemporary observers recall her sitting "at the feet" of Isabel, soaking up everything she could from Pat's vast intellectual storehouse of history, politics, philosophy, etc. Pat had what Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice called, "something more substantial [than the commonly accepted accomplishments suitable for young ladies]...the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." Apparently, Ayn was not much of a reader herself, so the impact of Paterson's influence on Rand's contextual understanding of these subjects should not be underestimated.

So, I imagine that Stephen Cox (who is an admirer of Ayn's and a scholar of her work - he writes for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies), was intrigued enough by this glimpse into Ayn's background to want to investigate further this person so influential in her life. What a thrill it must have been for him to discover - or, rather, uncover - what one reviewer of his biography called "the lost goddess of libertarianism!" After reading about Pat, I have come to the conclusion that Ayn Rand may be the gold flake floating down the river and into the pan of the miner downstream, but Pat is the vein of gold-ore that lies under the stones and earth. It takes a bit more digging to get to Pat, but the riches reaped far outweigh the cost. She is marvelous - the acuity of her thinking has not been dulled by years of neglect - and she is more relevant than ever. In fact, I would say that she is more relevant than the perennial Ayn, because she had a greater, broader understanding of human nature and a greater generosity of spirit toward the human condition.

Okay, it's going to take a lot more writing than I have time for right now to pay proper homage to this amazing lady and exceptional biography, so I'll entitle this "Part 1" and come back later to write "Part 2" and beyond. If you have never read The God of the Machine, and you care deeply about individual liberty, go right now to Laissez-Faire Books and buy it and read it and make it a part of you! Do it! Then, go to same and buy The Woman and the Dynamo. Two books you'll never regret. And that's my public service announcement for the day.

Peace to all, and more Isabel-adulation to come!

Friday, April 01, 2005

Would Terri Have Wanted to Break Her Parents' Hearts?

In planning our eventual move back to South Dakota, Jason has been faced with the reality, reinforced with rib-poking sauciness and endless teasing by me, that in Sioux Falls he will be under quiet, unspoken, consistent, unrelenting pressure to join the Shriners. His father is a Shriner, his grandfather is a Shriner, and who knows how far back the fez-wearing, tiny-car-driving tradition goes? Jason probably does, but I've never asked him, so I can't record that fact. In any event, Jason (who is emphatically not a joiner) will have to decide whether to stand his ground or give in to the Shrine-ness of his ancestors. I mentioned this little item of Jason's consternation to my father (I mention just about everything to my father - he's that kind of dad), and my father said, "Well, of course he'll join to make his old man happy."

I replied, "Oh, I don't think so. He's not merely apathetic, he's antipathetic to the whole idea."

My dad then thoughtfully answered, " he's not to that point yet. Maybe someday he'll see it as a relatively small way to please his father." And he left it at that.

And so, of course, like so many things my dad says in passing, his words continue to resonate, bringing deeper understanding and further dimension to other issues in my life and thoughts.

Like so much of the nation, I was transfixed by the sad situation of Terri Schindler Schiavo in Florida. Unlike so many pro-lifers, I do not get all bent out of shape by right-to-die cases. I know that I wouldn't want to be kept alive artificially on a respirator or some similar device, and I think it's a sin to hold on to earthly life so stubbornly when God is calling you home. That said, I was on the Schindlers' side in this controversy.

First of all, Terri was not terminally ill. She was a severely brain-damaged woman who was kept alive via a liquid diet transmitted through a feeding tube. She was able to swallow her saliva, and, with aggressive therapy, I have learned of no reason to believe that she could not have learned how to eat again, if only through a bottle. Even if she could not have learned this, I don't see how starving a woman who was otherwise healthy is ever an act of mercy. She wasn't even in a hospital. She probably could have been cared for quite well in the Schindlers' home with the aid of a part-time nurse. She was like a big, newborn infant who was probably not ever going to progress beyond that stage, but is that any reason to kill her?

Second of all, I can not, nor will I ever be able to, understand why Michael Schiavo did not just walk away. Many folks say this was because he was deeply committed to fulfilling his wife's deeply held desire to die. I hardly think that an off-hand comment while watching a television show is a "deeply held desire." Who hasn't shuddered at a story like this one and remarked, "I wouldn't want to live that way"? I make off-hand comments all the time - God forbid I be held accountable for them when my life is at stake. I think that Michael Schiavo sincerely wanted to help his wife in the beginning of her incapacitation, but I think that after five years or so, he looked at the next forty or fifty years of this unfulfilling existence stretching before him, and it scared him to the core. How terrible it must be to be barely over thirty and seeing a marital future that holds so little? I think of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, fighting off the attack of his mad wife and turning with anger toward the men who have come to accuse him, "This is my wife. Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know -- such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours... Off with you now! I must shut up my prize." Poor Terri - she was not to blame for Michael's feelings of desperation, but it's also not hard to see how he might have felt trapped.

In this way, spouses think differently from parents. With your spouse, love them though you may, forsaking all others as you have promised, there needs to be a common bond that unites you - I doubt that Michael would have exterminated Terri if they had had children together. A spouse is a partner you need for mutual emotional fulfillment and a physical legacy. If the Schiavos had been married for thirty or forty years before Terri's brain damage occurred, I would bet that the bond would have been much more difficult for him to sever. Add to this the fact that Michael did move on to a certain extent - becoming involved extramaritally with a sympathetic woman (who obviously did not possess the qualms that little Jane Eyre did when confronted with a similar option) with whom he produced two children.

Parents do not "move on." They cannot. That's your kid there, nothing will change that fact. Now that I'm a parent, I know that I would never be able to stand by meekly and watch my child die, especially a slow, unnatural death from dehydration and starvation. God forbid that I ever have to. I cannot in the least blame Terri's parents for their decade-long battle to save their daughter's life. No parent worth their salt could do otherwise.

Third of all, the brain is the most mysterious element of the human body. I seriously doubt that we've even scratched the surface of understanding this marvelous organ. Many physicians said that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state - that she was completely unaware of her surroundings and any supposed reaction to stimuli was a mere coincidence. A few physicians said that she was in a minimally conscious state - a hazy, slight awareness of her surroundings with minimal reaction to stimuli. I say that we cannot know what she was able to perceive or the internal workings of her poor, damaged brain. We cannot know if she was able to feel her lips cracking and her eyeballs drying or the sharp pains of her dehydrated organs contracting. We'll never know until Judgment Day, when all the secrets of our inner hearts and the stories of our inner lives are revealed. Would you want to answer for this travesty on that day?

I like what I read on one message board. A woman stated that in terms of technology and medical advancement, the next ten years could have been like ten light years for Terri. You cannot tell from such a distance what breakthrough discoveries will lead to regenerating brain cells or reversing the damage. Why not err on the side of life? We'll never know what treatments might work on patients like Terri if we keep killing them off.

Probably the lamest thing that I heard from the "Kill Terri" side of the debate was from a caller to the Michael Medved radio show. This caller said that, as a Christian, he did not believe that it was right to keep Terri alive because she was in some kind of "limbo state" (not his words, but my own phraseology) in relation to God. He said that since she could not use her mind or willpower to initiate interaction with the Almighty, she was essentially being kept from Him, and it was better to let her die (read: kill her deliberately) than keep her from God. Huh? What Bible has this guy read? Michael Medved then asked him the appropriate follow-up question, which was, "Should we then just kill off every incapacitated child and adult because they lack the ability to initiate this kind of relationship? Where do you stop in determining who is able to interact with God?" I do not remember the caller's reply, but it couldn't have been anything excusable or enlightening, because his premise was so flawed. Our entire relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth is based upon His initiation, not ours - His saving grace, not our ability to tell Him what we need - and our proclamations of faith are merely outward evidence of His grace, not vice versa. This guy probably would have looked at my mother, lying in a near-coma, cancer eating through her body, and thought that she had no ability to interact with God. I know for a fact that he would have been incorrect. If you think that Terri was not held continually in Jesus's arms everyday, especially while she lay withering and starving, then you have put God into a box that does His greatness - His absolute inability to be defined and constrained - no justice and will not do you any good at all. God communicates with His children in an entirely different way than humans communicate with each other (maybe this guy gets telephone calls and e-mails from Jesus, but I doubt it). To try to evaluate someone's relationship with Him based upon a person's medical condition is just as futile as trying to read a locked diary. Don't assume there's not good stuff in there, just because you can't see it and no one is telling you anything about it. I bet this "Christian" fellow also thinks that ripping little babies from their pre-born homes is no big deal, because, hey, it's not like they were in any state to initiate a communication with God. What a sad sack!

Anyway, it was such a heart-wrenching case - another example of our nation's entrenchment in the "culture of death." I know Terri's at peace, and I hope her parents will find peace soon. I hope Michael is able to find forgiveness from God for not doing the right thing and walking away and letting Terri's parents have their daughter back. I think that it probably just became a control issue for him. He became so desperate to get out of his marriage to Terri that he grasped onto this (presumably) off-handed comment she once made (which I have little doubt that she did make), found a despicable attorney who latched onto this as a "right-to-die" case to promote his own little warped view of "quality of life," and then he couldn't let it go. How many times have I personally seen people hanging on to bad arguments and ideas after they've been thoroughly shown valueless or even reprehensible, just because letting go means the other side wins? It's a fatal flaw of human nature that we hate to back down from a side we've taken, even when we're wrong, wrong, wrong. This kind of stiff-neckedness can ruin marriages, friendships, international relations, and, as we've seen, lives.

So, here's my final view on this matter, and it's one I haven't really seen addressed anywhere else. It goes back to my initial little story about Jason and the Shriners. Jason is twenty-seven. He's a young guy with young parents, and he's busy with his own life and pursuits. Right now, he has no interest in doing things for his folks for the sole reason that it'd maybe tickle them pink if he did. That doesn't mean he does not love his parents - I know he loves them greatly. He's just not at that stage yet, as my dad said. Who knows? In a few more years, as his dad gets older and frailer and Jason realizes that he will not be around indefinitely, he may reconsider his stance and join up just to give his dad the warm-fuzzy (warm-fezzy?) of having his son continue the tradition. Having lost my own mother at a relatively young age, I've come to that point earlier than most kids. There's nothing I wouldn't do to give my dad a little bit of pleasure - even if it went against my own nature and desires. You do these things because you are so grateful to your parents - for what they've given you in terms of their own sacrifices and love.

So, say Terri at the age of twenty-six really did look into what her future as an invalid might be - dependent on a feeding tube, needing "diaper" changes, unable to read or watch movies or walk or speak - and she did shudder with revulsion and believe in her heart that she would "never want to live like that." Say that everything Michael Schiavo said about his wife was true. Say that by "artificial means" she really did mean nutrition and hydration and not merely the respirator that most of us think of. I can believe that.

But all of the above does not mean that, at the age of forty-one, Terri would have wanted to break her parents' hearts by ending her life. Terri Schiavo, not in pain, perhaps knowing, seeing, feeling more than anyone suspects, would have been so touched by her parents' vigilance - their unceasing devotion to her - their commitment to loving her for the rest of their lives in a way that her husband could not have been reasonably expected to. Could not the twenty-six-year-old have grown to be a woman who wanted to honor her parents by giving them the last thing she could - her life? Would she not have looked into their grief-stricken, desperate eyes, clinging as they did to any avenue of hope for her custody, and said, "Okay, Mom and Dad, I'm yours"? My best guess is, yes.

Peace to the Schindlers. Peace to the Schiavos. Peace to all, and may God forgive our often misguided country.