What Happened When Some Libertarians Went Off to Build Ayn Rand’s Vision of Paradise


Hint: nothing good.

The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Ms. Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”

Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.

In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as “Galt’s Gulch.” Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.

Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers. “Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps cheerily. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back … within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”

In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well.  That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned that it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.

As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”

It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight – and I do – and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud – at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged opens with a question – “Who is John Galt?” – and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty and tendentious 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand.  Ms. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.

How misguided, how downright strange, is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs, a conceit which conjures up images of Charles Koch as Austin Powers, performing a mating dance to the sounds of “Let’s Get It On” as a comely stranger reclines on a rotating sofa.

Do I make you Randian, baby? Do I?

But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:

He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.

…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.

She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wants it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”

Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning. To wit: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings rom Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”

Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be President. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”

Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality.  One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money – I’m not making this up – to the rich.

“I’m after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …”

Danneskjöld is described as follows:

… the face had no expression; it had not changed once while speaking; it looked as if the man had lost the capacity to feel long ago, and what remained of him were only features that seemed implacable and dead. With a shudder of astonishment, Rearden found himself thinking that it was not the face of a man, but of an avenging angel.

It sounds more like the face of a psychopath.

Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters, and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. (Fun exercise: Imagine how conservatives would react to Rand’s storylines if all the protagonists were black. Or Muslim.)

Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes – if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters’” parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:

Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …

“Wait for one good mountain slide” – with those workers’ families inside, of course. Comedy gold, amirite?

Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre “Master Estate” for a mere $500,000. As long as you’re also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they’ll totally pay back, they swear.”

Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That’s the sound of Atlas shrugging.”

But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided one may consider her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.

McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason.  Would they object to the recent regulatory actions which resulted in Graco, the baby products corporation, recalling more than six million infant car seats? Would it change their minds if they knew that Graco’s improperly designed strollers resulted to the strangulation deaths of four babies in 2010?

But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of  “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”

Rand and her followers don’t think that a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. The parents of those four strangled infants would probably disagree.

Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.

The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures – and yes, regulators- to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.

What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.

And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Kraft-Ebbing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth.  Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.

Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:

“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”

Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.

Our libertarian friends seem to think that government produces an over-regimented, insect-like society comprised only of rulers and drones. But the only governments which have turned out that way are either corporation-run or practice a Communist model of “state capitalism.” Democracy has never produced the kind of regimentation which the average corporation now demands of its employees and customers.

It’s greed, not government, which subjugates us today. Nobody wants to be an insect, but Rand and her followers want to turn society into a hive filled with sociopathic bees. When that happens, as the investors in Chile learned, somebody’s bound to get stung.

C.S. Lewis on True Friendship


“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.


In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.




The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long



“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca writes:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Millennia before the now-tired adage that “time is money,” Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn… Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” Seneca writes:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from ‘Herman and Rosie.’ Click image for more.

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:

All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.


I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for more.

He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

But even “more idiotic,” to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:

You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit — an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this “brief and transient spell” of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.


From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn’t win the lottery of existence and didn’t benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality — even to convert it to immortality.


Adventures in geek mythology: The mystic’s guide to computing

In a stunning new book, author Vikram Chandra explores the mystical complexities hiding in our laptops and iPhones


Adventures in geek mythology: The mystic's guide to computing

Vikram Chandra (Credit: Faber and Faber)

Is computer code art? What binds two different acts of creation — writing fiction and programming a computer — together and what sunders them apart? To successfully answer such questions, one needs to be both a superlative writer and a smart programmer, equally at home building worlds out of words and software code.

In “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty,” the novelist and programmer Vikram Chandra proves himself exactly that kind of multidimensional world traveler. Chandra weaves a comprehensive understanding of the history, practice and art of programming into a startling fabric that includes a fascinating dose of classical Indian philosophy and his own lifelong creative journey as a writer. Unexpected connections abound.

To pick just one typical example of his cross-discipline riffing:

At the end of a discussion (a meditation? exploration? evocation?) about something called dhvani – the theory of “aesthetic suggestion” formulated by 9th century Indian philosopher Anandavardhana – Chandra suddenly leaps across time and and space and quotes the American writer Flannery O’Connor:

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.

For a reviewer, Chandra’s diversion to O’Connor is a challenge and a subtle joke about the act of reading the book itself. What is ”Geek Sublime” about? Don’t ask me — just read it!

Like poetry, “Geek Sublime” seems designed not to be summarized, but to be felt. As the last words of the book resonate through your brain — “In the practice of fiction what is tasted — first and then again — is consciousness itself” — you’ll suddenly understand what the poet T. S. Eliot was trying to communicate when he described two years of Sanskrit study as having left him in “a state of enlightened mystification.”

(Did you know, by the way, that a very strong case can be made that Sanskrit was the first programming language? Because I did not. But thanks to Chandra, I am now convinced.)

Okay, yes, my job here is do more than evoke, and honestly, it isn’t that impossible a task. Because “Geek Sublime” turns out to be about a great many things. In the space of a mere 210 pages, Chandra covers broad territory. “Geek Sublime” is instantly essential to any further discussion of of whether computer code can be thought of as the same kind of exercise in creativity delivered by music or painting. (The short answer: no.) He brings keen new insight into the troubling gender divide in the American software industry. (His points about how the Indian software industry is far less male-dominated than in the U.S. crushes theories that programming is somehow intrinsically male.) Perhaps most unexpectedly, while exploring the psychology of coders and writers, he manages to integrate the vast legacy of Indian intellectual history into contemporary conversations about the meaning of art and experience. He manages to get as close to the machine as any previous literary inquisition of coding, to explain exactly how computing happens, how ones and zeroes are translated into action, while simultaneously soaring into the delicate ether of the most refined aesthetic spirituality. It is a dazzle, from beginning to end.

Who knew that Vikram Chandra — the author of three novels, and teacher of creative writing at UC Berkeley — was such a geek? When James Gleick (the author of “Chaos Theory” and “The Information”) reviewed “Geek Sublime” for the New York Times Book Review two weeks ago, I thought the name sounded familiar. And yes, it turned out that I had devoured Chandra’s sprawling, epic novel about India, “Sacred Games,” seven years ago. But of the fact that Chandra had supported his early writing life by working as a programmer, I had not a clue. That he’s as nimble manipulating code as he is at narrative flow was a revelation. Plenty of programmers consider themselves artists, and plenty of writers presume to declaim about programming. But very, very few can comfortably inhabit both worlds with such grace and precision.

“Fiction has been my vocation, and code my obsession,” writes Chandra. What, then, to make of a nonfiction work about code and fiction? If one of the key differences between code and fiction is that code actually has to work, in the real world, as a functioning tool, to achieve its desired goal — while fiction can be broken and shattered and not even make any obvious sense and still succeed in evoking a meaningful response — how do we appraise a nonfictional exploration of both the fictional and real?

Does it work? Yes, absolutely. But how? Not by tripping logic gates on a silicon chip, certainly, but through something more mysterious, the chemistry of synapses and cognition.

There is so much to be fascinated by here: Like, for instance, that the structure of Sanskrit appears to have influenced the structure and development of high-level programming languages in the U.S. — well before Indian programmers became a significant part of the American software industry.

His discussion of Indian philosophy opens up portals to a world of subtlety and sophistication that strips away Western cultural arrogance like acid dissolving a lacquered veneer. There’s so much we in the West still don’t have a clue about. There’s so much to learn and absorb. It turns out that vast historical tidal waves — the impact of British imperialism on India, for example — inform to this day how Indian and white programmers interact with each other in the cubicle farms of  Silicon Valley.

Across thousands of years of history, from the India of his youth to the United States of his professional career, down deep in the nitty gritty of compilers and assembly language and object-oriented programming, “Geek Sublime” tells one coherent story about the creative process and our aesthetic reactions to art. There may be times when the newcomer to Indian philosophy can get a little lost in the intricacies of viyabhicaribhavas (“fleeting emotional states”) and samskaras and vasanas (“latent impressions”) but sometimes poetry can be inscrutable and still pack a payoff.

And then there’s rasa, a word that, Chandra writes, “literally means ‘taste’ or ‘juice’” — but in the context of classical Indian discourse is defined as “the aestheticized satisfaction or ‘sentiment’ of tasting artificially induced emotions.”

Chandra is all about the rasa. Because that’s what artists do, right? And that’s why writers write, isn’t it? We want you to feel the rasa. We will artificially induce your emotions and you will love us for it.

The chief dialectician of rasa, Abhinavagupta, the 10th century mystic, aesthetician, musician, poet, dramatist, theologist and logician who is considered one of India’s greatest philosophers (and of whom I knew zilch about before reading “Geek Sublime”) comes off, through Chandra’s telling, as a pretty smart guy.

Chandra writes:

Abhinavagupta tells us that his teacher said, “Rasa is delight, delight is the drama; and the drama is the Veda,” the goal of wisdom.

“Geek Sublime” is a wise book.


Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.


Bob Dylan In New York City Before Anyone Knew Him

The Year of Wine, Women, Song and Protest

Before folk and rock merged, Dylan had the attitude.

Bob Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961.
Photo Credit: http://folkcityatfifty.blogspot.com/2013_04_01_archive.html

 (What follows is an excerpt from the newest book by Dennis McNally, On Highway 61: Music, Race and The Evolution of Cultural Freedom (Counterpoint, 2014) which traces the culture and history of American music from Old South through the 1960s.)

Naturally, Dylan went straight to Greenwich Village. The Village had been receptive to folk music at least since the Almanac Singers had lived on West Tenth Street, and it was a genuine community. It wasn’t about money, he’d write a couple of years later. “Instead a bein drawn for money you were drawn / for other people.”

Soon Bob hooked up with a blues player named Mark Spoelstra, and they worked at the Café Wha? as a duo in the afternoons. Before long he was playing other basket houses (so-called because the only pay came when someone passed a basket around the audience), often three or four in a day, working from noon to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. He began to develop a hip, funny stage act that went along with the songs. He also played anywhere else that would let him unpack his guitar, especially at parties and at Israel “Izzy” Young’s Folklore Center.

He had a voice—not a conventional voice, not the sweet voice of Minneapolis, but what one of his biographers called “a tonsilly scranch, a dry, throaty tenor, ‘with all the husk and bark left on the notes.’” He also had a persona as a baby Woody Guthrie, and he was always in character. His closest friends weren’t sure if he was playing Woody or being himself—ultimately, he was always inscrutable—until after a while, it was clear that he’d become what he imagined.

The bluesman Big Joe Williams would say of Dylan, “Bobby didn’t change, he just growed.” Quite so. Small, baby-faced, and charming yet ravenously ambitious, he was no innocent, but full of what Raymond Chandler called “the hard core of selfishness which is necessary to exploit talent to the full.” He grew famous for spinning fantasy tales about his past that weren’t entirely lies but what Andrew Loog Oldham meant when he wrote, “It wasn’t an act, even if it was.”

He was also at heart a moralist, very much part of the world of the songs he sang, “hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings,” as he wrote later. “They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness . . . They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” They were “weird,” Dylan said later, “full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts.”

A song like “Barbara Allen” poses fundamental questions: Why are people cruel, why is life so hard? The answer is that it’s a mystery—and, Dylan added elsewhere, “Mystery is a fact, a traditional fact.” The magic’s in the mystery; the mystery is magic. And the mystery is spiritual. Folk songs, black and white, were what he would later call his “lexicon and my prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs . . . I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’”

To top it off, Bob played the folk songs with what he called a “rock ’n’ roll attitude. That is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard.” Rock ’n’ roll, the white derivative of the black musical ethos, would always be an essential part of his oeuvre.

As soon as he could, he went off to find Woody, going first to his home in Brooklyn, where he charmed Woody’s thirteen-year-old son, Arlo. Arlo sent him to Bob and Sidsel Gleason’s fourth-floor walkup in East Orange, New Jersey. The Gleasons were loving fans whose home had become a Woody Guthrie salon. On Sundays, they would bring Woody from the hospital, and his wife and son Marjorie and Arlo, Alan Lomax, Woody’s former manager Harold Leventhal, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston when around, perhaps some of the younger Village players, would all gather to eat, talk, and sing.

Healing the body politic and wringing wisdom from a social commitment were the more subtle aspects of the salon, and Bob soaked it all up. He also had the privilege and joy of having his idol validate what he was doing. “The boy’s got it! He sure as hell’s got it!” By now, Woody was so terribly ill that some questioned how much he could actually relate, but most witnesses were clear that a strong bond grew between the boy and the man. Dylan began to visit Woody at Greystone, bringing him Raleigh cigarettes and playing “Tom Joad” as the other patients passed by—the shufflers, the man who licked his lips, the poor fellow chased by spiders.

Humility would never be Dylan’s strongest virtue, but Woody’s suffering taught him “that men are men / shatterin’ even himself / as an idol . . . for he just carried a book of Man / an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile / an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson.” In mid-February he came back to the Village from one of the sessions at the Gleasons’ and wrote his first really good song, “Song to Woody,” an honest and moving tribute from a protégé who accepts a link and does so without ego.

He spent a great deal of time now with Hugh Romney, the Beat poet much influenced by Lenny Bruce who was the MC and entertainment director at the Gaslight. “Dig yuhself,” Hugh kept saying, but he also introduced Bob to the work of Lord Buckley, whose “Black Cross” would become part of Bob’s repertoire.

The Gaslight was a dark, tiny, crowded basement room below the Kettle of Fish Bar where a musician had to learn to avoid hitting one’s head on the pipes above the stage. It had once been a coal cellar, and it was still the filthy home of rats and cockroaches. It had begun by featuring poetry—Allen Ginsberg had read there—but switched to folk music when the tides of commerce had so dictated. The coolest part of the Gaslight was the Room, a closet backstage, where the players gathered. Since they could do only three songs each, this meant there was plenty of traffic, and while waiting to go on they played penny poker. It was another classroom for Dylan.

Actually, all New York had things to teach him, and he was alert to the possibilities. On Sundays he’d go to the old Madison Square Garden on Fiftieth Street for gospel shows, seeing the Soul Stirrers and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Then the Clancy Brothers exposed him to another kind of folk music. Paddy and Tom Clancy were actually Broadway actors who started doing Midnight Special shows at the Cherry Lane Theatre to raise money for a production they wanted to put on. Their brother Liam and friend Tommy Makem joined them in New York in the mid-’50s, and they recorded an album of Irish rebel songs, The Rising of the Moon. They slowly became singers more than actors, and on March 12, 1961, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and were such a hit that John Hammond signed them to Columbia. Dylan thought Liam was the best ballad singer he’d ever heard. They shared a common joy in escaping repressive small towns and a taste for drink and good company at the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan’s education proceeded.

There was the Commons, a basement club on the west side of MacDougal Street near Minetta Lane, later known as the Fat Black Pussycat. Around the corner on Bleecker Street was the Bitter End, a more legitimate club with a bigger stage and a real backstage. There was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, packed with records and books in front, instruments on the walls, Izzy on the phone saying “schmuck” a lot, and musicians in the back teaching each other songs.

And there was Washington Square on Sunday, “a world of music,” Dylan wrote. “There could be fifteen jug bands, five bluegrass bands, and an old crummy string band, twenty Irish confederate groups, a Southern mountain band, folksingers of all kinds and colors singing John Henry work songs . . . drummers of all nations and nationalities. Poets who would rant and rave from the statues.”

There was also Gerde’s Folk City at 11 West Fourth Street. Izzy Young had tried to run it but it had reverted to the bar owner, Mike Porco. It had a tiny stage—bluegrass players had to choreograph getting to the microphone to sing—and didn’t look like much, but it was going to be a very important place to Dylan. In mid-March 1961 it featured Lonnie Johnson, and Bob saw him whenever possible, crediting him with influencing the way Bob would play “Corinna, Corinna.” Big Joe Turner was there too—Bob was conscious that he was an heir to these men, and he was paying attention while he could.

And not just to folk musicians. Dylan would spend a significant amount of time listening to jazz, from Cecil Taylor, with whom he once played, to Red Garland and Don Byas. Bird had been gone six years, but lots of people who’d known him were around, and it seemed, Dylan said, “like he had transmitted some secret essence of life to them.” As the poet Ted Joans had written on the wall for all to see, “Bird Lives.” Thelonious Monk was at the Blue Note, and Dylan would recall dropping in on him once and introducing himself as playing folk music up the street. “We all play folk music,” said Monk. Folk clubs and jazz joints sat side by side, and the Beat tradition brought jazz and poetry together onstage. “I was close up to that for a while,” Bob would recall.

On April 11, Dylan began his first regular paid gig in New York at Gerde’s, opening for John Lee Hooker, who was advertised as a “country blues singer,” having recently released The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker. Bob got $90 a week, which was satisfying, and he loved Hooker, going to his hotel with wine and a guitar and talking until late. “What he was doing was blues,” said Hooker, “but it was folk-blues. He loved my style and that’s why he got with me and we would hang out together all the time.” He performed well, and the Gleasons, Tom Paxton, New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, the Clancy Brothers, and Dave Van Ronk all showed up to hear him, bespeaking an impressive status after just three months in town.

Van Ronk was an important part of Dylan’s life at this point. His wife, Terry Thal, was Bob’s first manager of sorts, although her efforts to get him a record deal were not fruitful. Moe Asch at Folkways wasn’t interested. Manny Solomon at Vanguard said no.

More significantly, Van Ronk was by far the premiere blues singer among the Village folkies, and he taught Dylan songs like “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Poor Lazarus,” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Van Ronk was five years older than Dylan and sang, Bob thought, “like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he’d paid the price.” The Gaslight was his fiefdom, and he made Bob welcome, “brought me into the fold” there.

Van Ronk had come to folk through Duke Ellington and the stride pianists and then become a “moldy fig” New Orleans–style banjo player. He became a close friend of Clarence Williams, who’d once produced Bessie Smith and was now retired to the Harlem Thrift Shop, which was more of a hangout than a store, playing duets there with friends like Willie “The Lion” Smith. It was no wonder that Van Ronk introduced Dylan to the Vanguard, the Village Gate, and the Blue Note, the jazz clubs that shared the Village with the folkies.

Dylan went out of town to New Haven on May 6 to play the Indian Neck Folk Festival, a small gathering put on by some Yale students. There he encountered players from the Cambridge folk scene, including a young artist and singer from Ohio named Bob Neuwirth. They clicked over a common love for Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmie Rodgers and bonded fast. Neuwirth would take him up to Cambridge, and although it would never be a central part of his life, a couple of people there would have their effect on him.

The Cambridge scene centered on Club 47, a coffeehouse at 47 Mt. Auburn Street in Harvard Square. The owners had thought to make it a jazz place when they opened in 1958, but Joan Baez soon changed their minds. There was also the Café Yana and the Golden Vanity near Boston University, the Turk’s Head on Charles Street and the Salamander on Huntington. It was a much more relaxed place than New York, of course. “You could be loose in Cambridge and not have your head kicked in,” reflected Neuwirth.

The music was fairly eclectic. Inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers, the Charles River Valley Boys—Bob Siggins, Clay Jackson, Ethan Signer, Eric Sackheim—played bluegrass. Eric Von Schmidt was an aspiring illustrator who’d heard Lead Belly and fallen in love with music. Ten years older than most of the folkies, he played a wide range of blues and country music, and his apartment became a regular gathering place for the scene. Neuwirth would bring Dylan to visit Von Schmidt, and in between the red wine and games of croquet—Dylan was the worst player Eric had ever seen, he said—he introduced Dylan to a blues song called “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”

As the summer of 1961 passed, Bob got a week’s gig opening for Van Ronk at the Gaslight and met comedian Bill Cosby’s manager, Roy Silver, who signed him to a management contract. He also spent time watching foreign movies, particularly Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, about a talented piano player who lived for music and women. “Everything about the movie I identified with,” he said. More importantly, on July 29 he went to Riverside Church, where a new radio station, WRVR, was celebrating its debut with an all-day folk music program. The show featured Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, the Reverend Gary Davis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, newly returned from five years in Europe, and Victoria Spivey.

One of the audience members at WRVR was a seventeen-year-old folk fan named Suze Rotolo. The child of left-wingers, she’d been raised on the Woody/Pete/Lead Belly canon, listening to Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show with her sister Carla, she said, “while still in our cribs” (the show debuted in 1946 when she was just two and, amazingly, was still running actively in 2010). She’d attended the socialist Camp Kinderland as a child and at fifteen took part in a 1958 antisegregation March on Washington organized by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Her father’s death that year had left her vulnerable, as had a car accident in 1961 that damaged an eye. She was intellectual, cultured, passionate, pretty, politically sophisticated, a little naïve, and at loose ends emotionally. Bob took one look and was smitten.

Later he’d write, “Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights.” It would not be a tranquil relationship. Dylan was secretive and complex, and as Suze put it, “neither one of us had any skin growing over our nerve endings.” But when it worked, their romance was a thing of beauty. Suze opened up New York even more for him, and together they devoured the cultural buffet that was the city. Afternoons they went to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) to see Picasso’s “Guernica.” Her favorite artist—and soon Bob’s—was the young multimedia artist Red Grooms, whom Bob would later dub the “Uncle Dave Macon of the art world.” Evenings they went to see Off Broadway productions like the Living Theater’s The Connection. Suze’s sister Carla worked for Alan Lomax, and between her and the Gleasons, Bob would have access to all the folk music he could imagine. Having read the Beat poets in Minneapolis—Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac—he now joined with Suze in digging into the French poets Rimbaud, Verlaine, and above all Villon, a rowdy fifteenth-century brawler who delighted Bob.

Suze connected Dylan to something even more profound. Her day job was at CORE, and in 1961 it was action central for the burgeoning civil rights movement in America. CORE had been at the heart of the Montgomery bus boycott and had grown enormously in the wake of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in in early 1960 and the subsequent actions in Nashville. These early activists were spiritual warriors who acted on love and would not respond to the violence directed at them. “They were to be teachers,” wrote their biographer, David Halberstam, “as well as demonstrators.”

Something special took place in Nashville in 1960, and the events would affect the national civil rights movement for years to come. After months of sit-ins and hundreds of arrests at the department stores in Nashville, white resistance escalated. A bomb went off at the home of black attorney Z. Alexander Looby in April 1960. Thousands gathered and marched silently downtown to meet the mayor at the courthouse steps.

As they waited for him to arrive, Guy Carawan, a folk singer from the Highlander Folk School, led them in a song. The song had once been a Baptist hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday.” It had been modified by Pete Seeger and passed to Carawan. It was called “We Shall Overcome,” and it became the activists’ anthem. Singing had always been at the center of black culture, and now it became a pivotal part of the movement. The mayor arrived and was challenged by Diane Nash, one of the student leaders. At some length, she forced him to agree to oppose segregation. Victory!—and it came with a song.

The weekend before the bombing, black students from across the South had gathered at a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC (pronounced Snick). Early the next year, CORE ran an ad in the SNCC monthly seeking volunteers to test the recent (December 1960) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Boynton v. Virginia, which banned segregation in public transportation. On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders set off from Washington, D.C., aiming to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It was a very brave act, for they had no allies; President Kennedy was cool and uncommitted—he presided over a Democratic Party full of very senior, very racist Southern senators—and the FBI was commonly assumed to be sympathetic to the white South.

Although there were beatings at certain stops, there was little major violence until May 14, when the Klan attacked and firebombed one of the two Birmingham-bound buses in Anniston, Alabama. No one died, but only because the head of the Alabama State Police, Floyd Mann, was an honest cop. He’d planted an undercover officer named Eli Cowling on the bus, and Cowling’s gun dissuaded the Klan from finishing off the passengers who stumbled away from the burning bus. When the second bus arrived in Birmingham that day, all hell broke loose as a Klan-led mob beat media members and Freedom Riders alike (law enforcement in Birmingham was controlled by city police).

Birmingham’s leading civil rights activist, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, drove to Anniston and collected the Riders, and everyone gathered at his home. The head of CORE, James Farmer, was convinced that continuing the rides was going to kill people, and he threw in the towel. The Nashville/SNCC students, as represented by Freedom Rider John Lewis, saw it differently. The federal government could not ignore the unfolding events—it was only a month after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and the president was about to meet with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev; he needed to show that he was in control. President Kennedy had his attorney general, brother Bobby, send his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Birmingham. Seigenthaler told Diane Nash, running the situation from Nashville, “You’re going to get your people killed.” She replied, “Then others will follow them.”

On May 20, the bus arrived in Montgomery, where the Klan was waiting, having been promised a fifteen-minute open season by Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. By now the American media was out in force, and the station was thronged with TV and photographers. The Klan attacked the Riders, but also the photographers and press in general. Women swung heavy purses and little children clawed with their fingernails at the faces of Riders who’d been knocked to the ground. “It was madness,” wrote John Lewis. “It was unbelievable . . . Everywhere this crowd was screaming and reaching out and hitting and spitting. It was awful. They were like animals.”

John Seigenthaler’s skull was broken. Lewis would have been killed but for the presence of Floyd Mann, who fired a gun into the air, which started breaking things up. Violence makes great TV, and scenes of the attack went around the country—and the world. Eventually, the federal government would intercede for real, and after failing to convince the students to stop, the bus would move out of Montgomery escorted by a convoy of National Guard soldiers, helicopters, and Border Patrol aircraft. When the Riders reached Mississippi and all got arrested and sent to Parchman Farm, hundreds more followed in their wake and filled up the jail cells in Jackson.

The most dramatic events in black-white relations since the Civil War would send out reverberations for decades. For Dylan, falling in love with a young woman who was at CORE headquarters was going to affect him to the depths of his being.

(Copyright 2014, Dennis McNally. Excerpted with permission. All rights reserved.)

Dennis McNally is a cultural historian with an interest in Americans who challenged conventional mainstream thinking – Jack Kerouac (“Desolate Angel/Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America,” 1979), the Grateful Dead (“A Long Strange Trip,” 2002), and in October 2014 from Counterpoint Press, “On Highway 61/Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom.”





In a Labor Day weekend mood, I watched “Grapes of Wrath” again this evening.  Labor Day is, after all, a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.  “Grapes of Wrath” portrays familiar themes in the American worker experience:  be it displaced farmers from Oklahoma to baristas and Twitter people with degrees, there is a continual struggle between workers and those with wealth desiring cheap, easily manipulated, labor.

The wealthy pretty much got their way in the States until the Depression (rich people gambling to get richer) fueled the re- balancing of the worker/owner relationship — more in favor of the worker– under FDR, and his New Deal.  This balance, which was great for the overall health of the country, continued through LBJ and the Great Society.  Now things are going the other way, with the wealthy neoliberal controller classes producing a political and economic system that assures their success no matter which of the two political parties wins.  Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama dismantled the Great Society, fought to break the worker unions, and deregulated banking and other entities once deemed “public trusts.”  The resultant series of economic crises and bursting bubbles destroyed the working and middle classes and threatens to remove whats left of the social safety nets.

Tom Joad’s famous final speech (excerpts below) to his Ma in the movie “Grapes of Wrath” powerfully expressed the thoughts and yearnings of the Depression-period worker and resonates with the increasingly disenfranchised workers of today.  The American revolutionary, Tom Joad, espousing collective action that creates change, is a familiar subplot in the American drama.  What distresses me about this speech is Tom’s dream to spread wealth more justly “…if all our folks got together and yelled…”.  In this 21st century people yell for a few months (Occupy) and the illusion and control by the owners returns.  In the age of the “meh generation” and Ayn Rand the notion of a collective soul is anathema.


Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.


Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh – a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) – his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety – something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 – six years after the completion of The Origin of Species – a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children – a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian’s Darwin: A Graphic Biography

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades – during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.