The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Not Ayn Rand, not again...

Whenever I spot a used bookstore, I just can't pass it by. I have to check it out, if only for a few minutes. Usually it takes all of about 30 seconds to determine whether it's my kind of bookstore. And if it is, I might end up spending hours in the place.

Dr. Norman
About 20 years ago I stopped by a used bookstore in downtown Boston and, while searching for a particular book of essays, came across a thin paperback that had apparently been placed on the wrong shelf. Published in the mid-50s, it was written by a certain Dr. Ernest L. Norman and had the intriguing title, The Truth About Mars. As one who is always interested in learning the truth, even about the planet Mars, I opened the book and began to flip through its pages, stopping occasionally to read a paragraph or two. It took only a moment to conclude that Dr. Norman was completely mad, a wacko of the first order. (Norman was apparently an ordained minister of an occult science church; hence the "Dr." title that precedes his name.) In the book he claimed to have "visited" Mars personally if not physically via a kind of clairvoyant or extra-sensory perceptive contact with Martians. Here, for example, is one of the more telling passages in which he describes his initial contact:
"It has been my consistent habit to spend an hour or so of the late evening time in meditation. During these hours I have made innumerable contacts with those who have passed from this plane of existence. however no serious attempt at interplanetary contact was tried until the second month of the year of 1955. At that time I began to be increasingly aware that something like this was being attempted by the peoples of other planets. One evening, about the first part of May, of this year, while in a deep meditative state, I suddenly perceived a rather strange looking man standing before me. At first I thought him to be Chinese, as his dress and general appearance was somewhat similar to that of a man of ancient China. After introducing himself as Nur El, however, he quickly explained that he was from the planet Mars, and that if I so desired, I could go there with him, to his city (in astral flight) and that he would be my personal guide. He explained that his people were very desirous in view of all the controversy going on, to clear up some of the so-called mysteries of Mars. He further assured me that it was quite obvious that a complete understanding was not possible in one visitation; therefore as the first contact was made, it would be comparatively easy to establish other contacts, as was convenient and necessary. Since this first contact and trip was made, I have returned on several occasions; in fact, Nur El often stood beside me as I wrote, to further clear up, or refresh my memory regarding any details which were not entirely clear."
Don't you just love it? It makes one wonder if Dr. Norman's "deep meditative state" was perhaps given a pharmaceutical assist. What's really remarkable is that some people today remain convinced that this man's fantasies are the absolute truth, that he was a visionary of true genius. (The book can be read online at a number of sites, including the blog, bombshock. You can even listen to the doctor himself on YouTube.)

Despite my feelings regarding the good doctor's sanity, I simply had to have the book, which I purchased for the remarkably low price of one dollar. A year or so ago I gave it to a friend, a physicist and computer scientist who, like me, appreciates the entertainment value of the patently absurd. Today, out of sheer curiosity, I searched for the book on Amazon and discovered that used copies are selling at substantially higher prices (from $15 to $295), which I'm sure would please Dr. Norman were he still with us.

Photo I took of the Apollo 13 Splashdown
Over the years I've met quite a few folks like Dr. Norman. Back in my Navy days I had the good fortune to fly as copilot of the primary recovery helicopter that picked up the Apollo 13 astronauts in the South Pacific when they returned from their ill-fated lunar mission. Since then I've given a presentation on the Apollo 13 recovery to nearly a hundred different audiences. On several occasions I have been challenged by those who actually believe the Apollo missions never happened but were instead cleverly faked studio productions by NASA, designed, I suppose, to provide the masses with a 20th-century version of bread and circuses. Like Ernest Norman, they too are wackos. And let us not forget, there really is a Flat Earth Society.

Ayn Rand
All of this came to mind when I read a report that Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged, is being made into a three-part movie. You see, I include Ayn Rand in the same category as Dr. Norman, the Apollo-deniers, and the flat-earthers. I consider them all absolutely crazy. Unfortunately, unlike her companions in insanity, Ms. Rand has a rather large following who think she was  the greatest philosophical mind of the last century. You can make up your own mind rather quickly if you simply examine what she liked and what she didn't like.

Ayn Rand liked greed, immorality (an oversimplification since she was really just amoral), selfishness, hedonistic and predatory people, really bad novels of the kind she wrote...and she hated Christianity and morality (as it is presented in the Gospels), altruism of any kind, good literature (she despised Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, etc.), and the common man and woman whom she believed were societal parasites. She viewed kindness as a weakness, and would have despised Mother Teresa and probably thought Machiavelli was overly charitable.

It distresses me when I hear someone label Rand a conservative, or when people who claim to be conservative wax eloquently on Rand and her so-called philosophy of objectivism. To my knowledge, Rand was no believer in "the permanent things." Indeed, the only thing she would have considered permanent is the raw self-interest that epitomized her survival-of-the-fittest approach to human life. Her "conservative" admirers are really just apostles of greed who see in Rand's thinking a means of rationalizing their own selfish motives. How to spot a Randian? Just listen for those telltale words: "I'm strictly a fiscal conservative." Left unsaid is the disdain for all those social issues that make moral demands on one's conscience.

Many of my generation first read Rand's novels during our high school or undergraduate years.  At that age most of us were not only literary and philosophical neophytes, but also overly self-involved, and so Rand's simplistic and self-serving worldview held a certain attraction. And then we grew up and realized how wrong she was. Well, most of us grew up. Others remained in a state of suspended adolescence and stayed true to their insane mentor.

One can only hope that Atlas Shrugged, the film, is highly unsuccessful. I know I won't pay the money to see it.

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