Re-Reprise: Affirming Life

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Sat, 2010-08-14 02:20

[Linz's note—the following is an adaptation of an editorial broadcast on 'The Politically Incorrect Show,' March 8, 2002, in response to the brouhaha provoked by a guide to committing suicide published by the Auckland University student newspaper, Craccum. I'm reprising it now at the suggestion of PC in light of the current debate in NZ over youth suicide and whether it should be reported or not. It's also pertinent in light of the ongoing debates here with Goblians.]


Yesterday's furore about the Craccum "How to commit suicide" article and your comments on this programme about it set me to thinking about the time I appeared on 'The Ralston Group' when we panellists were asked our explanations for the high rate of youth suicide.

I stated my own suspicion that the problem came down to a failure of philosophy. Youngsters were taking their own lives at precisely the time one asks life's big questions and searches for ideals to guide one's conduct. Religion, to which one traditionally repaired for answers, was discredited and had not been replaced with a viable secular alternative—leaving a values vacuum, leading to despair. What youngster would be inspired by the jaded cynicism so manifest in so many once-thoughtful adults?

But is a viable, secular alternative to religion possible? Can life have meaning without an after-life? If there is no god to inspire ideals and prescribe values, can there be any other source? Can man discover it? Theologians and philosophers alike have answered these questions with a resounding, No! Many professional philosophers revel in proclaiming their discipline irrelevant to the conduct of everyday life. The moral status of benevolence, they say, is no different from that of malevolence, creativity from destructiveness, honesty from deception, etc., and a belief in any of these values over their opposites is merely an arbitrary preference, with no objective validity. Ethically, it's deuces wild. The current subjectivist/relativist/nihilist morass may seem unappetising, they concede, but that too is an arbitrary judgement. There are no grounds for seeking anything better—there is no "better."

The Russian/American novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand begged to differ. It is reality itself, she argued, that confronts man with the need for morality—a code of values designed to facilitate the process of living—because it confronts him with alternatives amongst which he must choose (he has no choice about choice). At the most fundamental level the choice is: life or death. If one chooses death, there is nothing more to be said; if one chooses life, the book of morality opens, and one must fill in the pages oneself, making one's choices in the presence of alternatives to the ultimate value of: life.

To the nihilist's gleeful coup de grace, 'Ah! But why should one value life in the first place?' Rand replied: The question is improper. The value of life need not and cannot be justified by a value beyond life itself; without the fact of life, the concept of value would not be possible in the first place. Value presupposes life; life necessitates value.

To the existentialists' lament that without something beyond life, life itself has no meaning, she responded similarly—the very concept of meaning can have meaning only in the context of life. Ultimately, the meaning of life, if one wants to use that terminology, is—one's own life, since one cannot live anyone else's—and what other or better meaning could one conceive?

A creature endowed with immortality, denied the alternative of life or death (and their barometers, pleasure and pain) would have no need of values and could discover no meaning in anything since nothing would be of any consequence to it. It is man's nature as a living, mortal entity, unprogrammed to survive, constantly facing alternatives, endowed with a conceptual/volitional consciousness, that simultaneously makes the need for morality inescapable and the fulfilment of that need possible.

For a human being, is is fraught with "ought"; "ought" is an irresistible aspect of "is"—the traditional dichotomy between them is false. The task of ethical philosophy is to prevent their being artificially sundered. A successful outcome—a morality derived from and consistent with the facts of reality—is, by virtue of those very characteristics, arbitrary (disconnected from reality) but objective (consonant with reality).

Rand went on to argue that a reality-based, life-affirming morality would concern itself not merely with survival, but survival proper to the life of the sentient, conceptual being that man is. While life might be the standard> of morality, happiness, she argued, was its purpose. "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."

In Rand's novel 'The Fountainhead,' a young man fresh out of college, looking for spiritual fuel for the journey ahead of him, is wheeling his bicycle through a forest, when he encounters the architect Howard Roark, contemplating some breath-taking new structures—his own—in a nearby clearing. "Who built this?" he asks. "I did," Roark replies. The boy thanks Roark and walks away. "Roark looked after him. He had never seen him before and he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."

To all this country's young people, happy and unhappy alike, I would repeat what I said on 'Ralston': Read this book—and the philosophy that produced it. You have nothing to lose but your doubts; you have your dreams to win. I repeat that advice today.

Superheroes, please, not positive role models

Marcus's picture

Toohey strikes again!

"The debate about violence in the media has reared its head again, with an American psychologist, Dr Sharon Lamb, claiming that modern-day superheroes such as Iron Man are far worse role models than their 20th-century predecessors.

"Today's superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence. He's aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity," she says. "When not in superhero costume, these men, like Iron Man, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns." She pines for the "comic book superhero of yesterday", whom boys could look up to because "they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities"...

But Dr Lamb seems to be wrong even on her own terms. For a start, Iron Man is hardly "today's superhero". Certainly, the film only came out in 2008, but Stan Lee developed the character in 1963. Besides, the "bling" lifestyle of Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, a billionaire arms manufacturer, is not so different from that of Batman's Bruce Wayne, created in 1939. You can see why they do it: if your superhero has no actual superpowers, but relies instead on expensive equipment and training, it makes sense to write it so he's rich enough actually to afford them. It's a plot device.

In fact, most of the superheroes Dr Lamb decries are simply movie versions of old comic books. There's plenty to disapprove of – it's derivative, boring and shamelessly trawling for box office receipts – but her fundamental point is flawed. Recent superhero movies have included X-Men (based on characters first created in 1963); Watchmen (1986); Batman Begins (1939); The Incredible Hulk (1962); Fantastic Four (1961); Spider-Man (1962) and Superman Returns (1938). If Dr Lamb really wanted to criticise modern superheroes, she could point out that they don't exist: nobody seems to have thought up a really interesting new one in 25 years. And things don't look like changing – 2011 will see the return of the Green Lantern and the Green Hornet, two more staples of the 1940s. Dr Lamb will at least be pleased to see the former, whom she holds up as a positive role model for having a dull day job.

Besides, it's not as if the old, comic-book superheroes were all wonderful, anyway. They may have "spoken to the virtue of doing good for humanity" (whatever that may mean), but they beat up an awful lot of wrongdoers while they did so. Watchmen and the 1986 Frank Miller version of Batman spilt blood left, right and centre; Judge Dredd (1977) blasted his way through post-apocalyptic criminals with abandon. Further back, the Hulk was hardly a model of decorum; X-Men's Wolverine was no moral paragon either. All that this tells us is that ambiguous characters are more interesting than saintly heroes and devilish villains. Similarly, Dr Lamb moans that superheroes' bodies now "look like they're on steroids", clearly drawing a contrast with the nine-stone weaklings of yesteryear, like Superman and the Phantom."

but I *do* claim "omniscience

Leonid's picture

but I *do* claim "omniscience of goblin"!

I know. This is your problem

Oh ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... but I *do* claim "omniscience of goblin"!


Leonid's picture

"I said you were—an evil bastard."

I wouldn't argue against "evil"-this is your value judgment based on your perverted perception. But, without to claim omniscience of goblin, how you possible could know that I'm a bastard?

I am slightly mercenary. I write for money.

Marcus's picture

Like his novels, Frederick Forsyth's life has been full of intrigue. He talks to Olga Craig about being chased by arms dealers, an assignation with a Czech spy – and how he was embezzled...

Forsyth didn't set out to be a writer. Indeed he wrote The Day of the Jackal in just 35 days. "I didn't have a penny. I was bust," he says matter of factly. "When I was a kid, I longed to be a Spitfire pilot. My father took me to a squadron in Woking, and I remember sitting in the cockpit. The smell, the sound; I was enthralled."

Forsyth fulfilled his ambition, becoming the RAF's youngest pilot at 19. But two years later, learning that he was destined for a desk job, he resigned. He has never regretted it, simply that he was born too late. "The pilots of the Battle of Britain, they were the heroes," he says wistfully. "When people ask what era I would like to have lived through, for me there is only one. The Second World War. To have flown with 'the few'."...

It was during a stint with the BBC, covering the war in Biafra, that the restraints of journalism led Forsyth into the altogether more lucrative world of fiction. Though he didn't think so at the time.

The deeply conservative BBC took issue with his political line, and Forsyth left. "I didn't go into journalism to be a PR for Whitehall," he says drily. "And it isn't much different today. The hard-hitting investigative programmes no longer exist. The BBC is an arm of the Government." ...

Forsyth writes at a rattling pace. "Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words, seven days a week. But it's the research that takes the time. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know."

Neither is he romantic about the need to write. "I am slightly mercenary. I write for money," he admits. "I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, 'You are not going to write another word of fiction', it wouldn't matter a damn." ...

An outspoken critic of the Labour government – Forsyth once called Gordon Brown a "numpty" – he insists his jury is still out on the Coalition. He knows, and likes, David Cameron but is still sore that the Tories missed a golden opportunity to win an outright majority. Still, he isn't tempted to become a tax exile. "I can live with 50 per cent tax," he says. "I have no desire to live abroad. I'm 72 now and I like being able to pop into London for dinner with friends. You can't do that on the Florida Keys."

Leonid ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Please show me where I said Ayn Rand was flourishing in Russia.

Again, I'll put it down to your incomplete grasp of English. "Where they flourished" refers, in Ayn Rand's case, to the "American" part of "Russian/American." "Their parentage" refers to the Russian part. Duh. Mario Lanza was "Italian/American." Your problem with that is what, exactly?

Thing is, Leonid, I think you know this, and are arguing in bad faith, for the sake of arguing. Being an attention-seeker. A pedant and a rationalist. And a bore.

It wouldn't matter, except that in your pin-pricking apologetics for Mohammed, you are indeed what I said you were—an evil bastard.


Leonid's picture

"It simply refers to where they flourished while observing a hat-tip to their parentage."

Ayn Rand was flourishing in Russia? I wonder... For your information: Ayn Rand hated Russia, it mystical spirit and it ways of life. To refer to Ayn Rand as "Russian" is an insult which she never would forgive. That what you failed to comprehend while adopting this stupid mass media label.

BTW, you are wrong to call me an apologist of Islam, but this is really "big effing deal". You are wrong on many other more important issues.

Annoying indeed!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Leonid, you harass with pedantry. We are here talking about life itself, and you fixate on "Russian/American."

Salman Rushdie, for whose persecutors you are an apologist, is often called "British/Indian."

Mario Lanza, whose sense of life you wouldn't begin to comprehend, is often called "Italian/American." Etc. It simply refers to where they flourished while observing a hat-tip to their parentage.

Big effing deal.

Actually, who cares?


Kasper's picture

As much as I enjoy most of your posts you are being very petty.

"Russian/American" - No offence but who gives a fiddlers fuck?


Leonid's picture

"Tiresome" means "annoying,", that is-to be troublesome, to harass. That exactly to what I referred when I said " If you tired of me". If that how you feel, you don't have to respond.

Russian/American novelist means Russian and American novelist. This characterization could fit Nabokov, who published in both languages, but not Rand. Her country of origin or her Jewish ancestry doesn't have anything to do with her novels. Otherwise, why not to call her Jewish/American novelist? In regard to context and content of your editorial-we already discussed this topic to the length and in great details. I don't have anything new to add.

Leonid ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

"Tired" is different from "tiresome." Consider it something new you've learned about the English language.

My point is, you, notwithstanding the context and content of this editorial, can do no better than nit-pick about "Russian/American." I find that incomprehensible.

"Russian" refers to her nation of birth, not the language she wrote in. For Gobby's sake!


Leonid's picture

"You'd moan if your bum were on fire. You are tiresome."

You'd too. If you tired from me, you don't have to respond. But if you respond, answer the question.

Leonid ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

You'd moan if your bum were on fire. You are tiresome.

"The Russian/American

Leonid's picture

"The Russian/American novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand begged to differ."

I wonder why you adopted this misleading label of Ayn Rand. She was an American novelist. Period. She never published a word in Russian.


Peter Cresswell's picture

Great to see this piece again. When originally broadcast, Lindsay's advice given here and on the Ralston Group did encourage youngsters to read The Fountainhead, and it did change lives for the better.

PS: If you agree with the prescription Lindsay outline here and you’d like to offer to a new generation the inspiration to face a lifetime that reading The Fountainhead has given some of us—then I invite you to help out with our Fountainhead Essay Contest, and put the ideas in this life-changing book in the hands of more young New Zealanders.

You can sign up at Facebook. Let's get started! Smiling

These days ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... I wouldn't bother trying to dissuade contemporary youngsters from suicide. They've been comprachicoed beyond reach, beyond recognition as human. Moreover, these vacuous, gum-chewing, vowel-mangling, quacking, headbanging, instant-gratification-seeking, entitlement-touting, cliche-spouting grotesqueries will, if they linger, have the vote. Best they remove themselves from the life they don't want anyway. Of course, most adults are no better.

Actually, on reflection, it's probably those who do commit suicide who shouldn't and those who should who don't.

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