Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Word and Its Meaning

I recently purchased the booklet called Glossary of Objectivist Definitions, which includes definitions by Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Harry Binswanger. Having a solid grasp of the meaning of the words one uses is obviously important. I thought it would be a good exercise to occasionally take one of the definitions, and then give an example of it in action, either in the real world or the world of art.

Here is the Glossary's definiton of integrity:

"Integrity" is loyalty in action to one's convictions and
values. (Glossary of Objectivist Definitions, p. 25.)

As given, this definition is open to misinterpretation. It leaves open the question of whether one's convictions and values are rational. Being loyal in action to irrational values is not an example of integrity. And as I suspected, when I turned to the original passage from which this definition was taken, the chapter on Virtues in Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, he does indeed qualify integrity to mean loyalty to rational values:

Like independence, integrity is a derivative of rationality and precludes any form of emotionalism. It does not mean loyalty to arbitrary notions, however strongly one feels they are true. Adolf Hitler acting faithfully to carry out his hatred of the Jews is not an example of virtue. Integrity means loyalty not to a whim or delusion, but to one's knowledge, to the conclusions one can prove logically. Like every other virtue, therefore, integrity presupposes a mind that seeks knowledge, a mind that accepts and follows reason. (Leonard Peikoff, OPAR, p. 261, paperback edition.)
There are countless good examples of integrity in the Korean drama, Dae Jang Geum. Integrity is one of Jang Geum's distinguishing characteristics, which separates her from most other people of that time, or any other.

A good example that comes immediately to mind is an episode in which a high ranking Chinese envoy comes to visit the Korean King, and Lady Han and Jang Geum are chosen to cook for him. At first, they begin preparing the tastiest dishes a healthy man could wish for. The Head Eunuch had told them that: "We can't allow even a hint of fault in formalities or food. The senior envoy is a well known epicure in China. If it's not the best of delicacies, he won't even touch it. So show your best talent."

But then they learn that the Chinese envoy has diabetes, and is in poor health after his long journey. So Lady Han instead prepares the healthy foods, mostly vegetables, that are best for a diabetic, without telling the Head Eunuch.

When this food is served to the envoy, the Korean dignitaries are horrified, and so is the Chinese envoy. Lady Han tries to explain. Both she and Jang Geum believe that a cook's purpose is to prepare food that is both palatable, and proper for the person who will be consuming it. A diabetic must be served healthy food, even if he is too shortsighted to choose to eat it himself. "I dare to say the greasy food of Ming is very detrimental to his health."

The result of this conflict is that Lady Han is arrested and put in confinement until a decision is made on her ultimate punishment. In the meantime, Jang Geum steps in for Lady Han. Here she could, as most people would do, simply substitute some tastier, less healthy food for the Chinese envoy, which is exactly what he and the Korean dignitaries specifically order her to do. But she refuses. "We cannot possibly bring food that is harmful for the person."

In the face of threats of her own arrest, and very possibly being executed, Jang Geum insists on serving the same healthy food that Lady Han had planned to serve. The Chinese envoy is struck by her courage, but still does not want the healthy food. Jang Geum reasons with him, explaining that within as few as five days he will begin to feel better if he only eats the healthy food she plans to serve. Finally, the envoy agrees to eat it. But he does so with this proviso: "Will you receive any punishment I order - even if it means your life [if I am not satisfied with the food]?"

Jang Geum accepts the terms. She has confidence in her knowledge of food and its effect on a person's health, and more importantly, she refuses to go against her conviction that a cook must serve food proper to the person consuming it, in this case a diabetic.

Meanwhile, the Head Eunuch, who is generally a good person, but not as courageous as he might be, goes to Lady Han and asks her "How could you prepare such a meal?" He knows the envoy has diabetes, but is only concerned with giving him what he wants. Lady Han responds perfectly, by saying: "Then are you telling me to do the same thing to the King as well?" In other words, is he telling her that she should serve the King unhealthy food also, even if it kills him? The Head Eunuch is unable to respond to this point, because he knows Lady Han is right.

In stark contrast to the integrity of Jang Geum and Lady Han, their arch enemies, Lady Choi and Keum Young, begin preparing a feast of royal proportions for the Chinese envoy, confident that he will not be satisfied with the plain, healthy food Jang Geum will be serving. The meals Lady Choi prepares are the very greasy Ming dishes that are worst for a person with diabetes, but they are exactly the kind of foods that the Chinese envoy enjoys eating.

After the five days of eating Jang Geum's healthy food are up, Lady Choi immediately serves the envoy her lavish meal of tasty - but unhealthy - dishes. The envoy samples several of the dishes and is obviously delighted with their taste. Lady Choi smiles, anticipating a decisive victory over Lady Han and Jang Geum. But then the envoy stops eating her food, and says that although it is very tasty, he now realizes the healthy food is the better choice. He does indeed feel better after five days of Jang Geum's healthy food, which she managed to make tasty enough to satisfy the finicky envoy.

So Lady Han is realeased from confinement, Jang Geum is praised for doing the right thing (by all the same people who would have condemned her, if she had not satisfied the envoy), and Lady Choi is mortified by her loss of face. The actions of Lady Han and Jang Geum are a perfect example of loyalty in action to one's convictions and values, a perfect example of integrity.

And that example could be multiplied by anyone who watches Dae Jang Geum, for Jang Geum, along with Lady Han, Lady Jung, and Min Jeong Ho, are all heroic characters distinguished for their integrity throughout their entire lives.

[Edited 09-01-2008]

Watching, Listening

The movie reviews will contain spoilers.

Last night I watched Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. It was Audrey Hepburn's first starring role in a movie, and she was already - perfect. What a lovely, perfectly feminine woman. Watching and listening to her is such a pleasure that she can make even a movie with a boring plot worth watching, just to see her. The story is about a princess who breaks away from her handlers for a day to live like a normal human being. Gregory Peck is the reporter who is fortunate to be the one she falls in with for the day. The movie ends with the princess going back to her royal duties, wiser and more self-confident, but also sad for having to give up her budding relationship with the American reporter. She sacrificed her happiness to her duty.

I suppose if she considered being the princess of her country a higher value, this would not be a sacrifice. But through most of the movie it was made clear that she considered her duties as princess to be boring and unimportant. So I see her decision as sacrificial. The movie was based on a story by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer. Perhaps he considered sacrifice a good thing. I don't. The princess should have pursued her own happiness, and abdicated her title in favor of living for herself.

Recently I watched The Deceivers (Merchant Ivory, 1988), a movie set in India during the period of British rule. It is about the attempts of the British to eradicate the criminal Thuggee sect that committed ritualistic murders by strangulation of travellers, and then robbed them of all valuables. Supposedly this was done in the name of the Goddess Kali, the four armed goddess of death and destruction. The movie stars Pierce Brosnan as a British officer who disguises himself as a native to infiltrate the group to gather evidence against them. While he succeeds in getting the evidence, the movie ends with Brosnan throwing away a cross, the symbol of his own faith, and repeating a Thuggee mantra about worshipping Kali. In other words, he seems to have succumbed to the "ecstasy" of strangling people for Kali. Which makes this a very stupid movie.

A few weeks ago I watched a better movie on the same subject, called The Stranglers of Bombay, from Hammer Studios, 1960. Hammer is known mostly for horror movies, but they also produced some straight adventure films, of which this is one. It is basically the same story as The Decievers, except that the British officer does not succumb to mysticism, and upholds rational justice. Which makes it a vastly superior story.

I've been listening to a lot of WWII era music, especially Helen Forrest singing for Harry James and His Orchestra. Easily my favorite is I've Heard That Song Before. She has a very personal way of singing that makes the song seem like it is about her own life (even though she didn't write the song), and she means what she's saying. I Had the Craziest Dream and It's Been a Long, Long Time are also beautiful songs she sings perfectly.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


My favorite duet from my favorite opera. Sull'aria, from The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart. The ladies are Kiri Te Kanawa and Ileana Cotrubas.

Sull'aria . . .
On the breeze . . .
Che soave zeffiretto . . .
What a gentle zephyr . . .
Zeffiretto . . .
Zephyr . . .
Questa sera spirera!
Will sigh this evening!
Questa sera spirera . . .
Will sigh this evening . . .
Sotto i pini del boschetto.
Beneath the pine grove.
Sotto i pini?
Beneath the pines?
Sotto i pini del boschetto . . .
Beneath the pine grove . . .
Ei gia il resto capira.
He will understand the rest.
Certo, certo il capira.
Certainly, he'll understand.
Ei gia il resto capira.
He will understand the rest.
Canzonetta sull'aria . . . etc.
Little tune on the breeze . . . etc.

The Democratic National Convention

I confess I am unable to watch the Democratic National Convention. I am not a glutton for punishment. I know exactly the kind of anti-American poison they will be preaching. I see it every day of my life in Congress, and in the left wing media. I refuse to watch this disgusting gathering of collectivists congratulating each other and smiling in gleeful anticipation of more statism to come.

I cannot see these people for an instant without being reminded of Shakespeare's line: "A man can smile and smile - and be a villain." The only thing that separates American Democrats from Hugo Chavez is that they don't have the power, yet, to do what Chavez is doing to Venezuela. They are simply constrained to go about it with more devious methods, by regulating the free enterprise system to death. They are more than half way there, already.

I literally would not vote for a Democrat if you held a gun to my head. To do so would be a betrayal of everything the Foundning Fathers fought for - and everything I believe in. I would rather be dead than assist in the victory of the worms of the Democratic party over the giants who founded our nation.

None of which is meant to imply any endorsement of Republicans. They are awful, too, especially with regard to the mixing of religion and government. Which means I probably will have to abstain from voting altogether. When you are offered a choice between the party of Torquemada and the party of Stalin, you sign your own death warrant, and that of your nation, by voting for either one.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Escapism aka Fantasy

Some remnants of Romanticism may still be found in the popular media---but in such a mangled, disfigured form that they achieve the opposite of Romanticism's original purpose . . .

Under the pressure of conformity . . . today's Romanticists are escaping, not into the past but into the supernatural---explicitly giving up reality and this earth. The exciting, the dramatic, the unusual---their policy is declaring, in effect---do not exist; please don't take us seriously, what we're offering is only a spooky daydream. (Ayn Rand, What Is Romanticism?)

I use the above quote not to suggest that Ayn Rand would agree with my assessment of modern fantasy, but to show that she saw the perils inherent in the genre, to which some had already succumbed. My view is that virtually all modern fantasy has descended into escapism.

And I am sick to death of it. In literature, in tv shows, and in movies, fantasy is flooding the marketplace. In modern history fantasy was little more than a blip on the radar screen, until Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was published. After that, the deluge.

First it wormed its way into the science fiction section of book stores and grew like a weed until there was little if any science fiction left that was worthy of the name. Just a lot of fantasy masquerading as science fiction.

I'm not sure what started the craze for fantasy shows on television. There were a few mild ones in the 60s, such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Now they are everywhere. And instead of it being something to laugh at, as it was with the two aforementioned shows, we are expected to take it seriously in shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The X-Files, Lost, etc.

What makes a blockbuster movie these days? Fantasy and comic book heroes. The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Golden Compass. Spiderman. Batman. Harry Potter. The Mummy. Hellboy. Ironman. Etc., ad nauseum.

Now the big seller among fiction books, after the fantasy Harry Potter phenomena has died down a bit, is what? A series about vampires, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer. It's selling like hotcakes.

Why do authors want to set their stories in unreal worlds? Anti-rational worlds? Why do they want their characters to have magical powers? What is it about real life that so bores them, that they have to imagine a different world where A is not A. In order to be heroic, why must a man have unreal superpowers? Why do readers want to read this stuff, instead of stories about heroes in the real world, who have only their human mind and human body to use in dealing with the problems that beset them? Why do people want to escape the real world, and run away into fantasy?

The impression all this escape into fantasy worlds leaves is that heroism isn't possible in the real world. Heroes are only possible in some other, fantasy world. In this sad vale of tears we actually inhabit, we must simply accept that there are no heroes.

Is the real world perfect? Far from it. But heroes don't run away and hide in little fantasy worlds. They fight to make their world better with what they have: their rational mind, their physical courage, their integrity. Wherein is there any need for fantasy here? There is nothing magical about it. It's not superhuman, it is simply man, the paragon of animals, man the hero, living up to his potential.

If you want to see what real literature can and should be like, watch Dae Jang Geum. Thank goodness someone is still creating great, realist art.

[Edited 8-13-08]