Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Ascent of Howard Roark and the Decline of Antoine Roquentin

“Who is Howard Roark?”

“Who is Antoine Roquentin?”

The first question will be easier for most people. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead continues to enjoy a massive worldwide following. The novel’s protagonist, Howard Roark, is discovered by thousands of new readers every day; old readers continue to be inspired by Roark and many keep returning to the book for new insights.

But there was a time when Antoine Roquentin was more popular than Howard Roark. In 1938, Roquentin made his debut as the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and he was quickly noticed by the intellectual elite. Almost every literary critic seemed to have an opinion, mostly positive, of Roquentin.

Nausea established Sartre’s reputation as the world’s foremost public intellectual and philosopher, and Antoine Roquentin was considered the fictional exponent of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre and Roquentin were at the peak of their popularity. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Famously, he refused the honor of being a Nobel Laureate. But from the 1970s onward, his reputation began to wane, and this contributed to Roquentin’s rapid obsolescence.  Today Sartre has lost almost all his glory, his philosophy of existentialism is no longer considered relevant, and Roquentin, who was once the cynosure of the bibliophiles, has been consigned to obscurity.

Howard Roark, who came into being with the publishing of The Fountainhead in 1942, was almost a contemporary of Roquentin. But Roark received a lukewarm reception from the intellectuals and literary critics. The initial reviews of The Fountainhead were mixed. Ayn Rand was not hailed in the media as a great writer and thinker. Yet the novel progressed through word-of-mouth publicity and became a publishing phenomenon — it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. It is frequently featured in lists of books that have changed people’s lives. In the public mind, Roark continues to evolve, making an ever greater impression as an icon of integrity and individualism.

The philosophical and political views of Rand and Sartre were poles apart. On the few occasions when Rand chose to speak about Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism, she expressed contempt. In her first work of non-fiction, For The New Intellectual (1961), Rand wrote: “The majority of those who posture as intellectuals today are frightened zombies, posturing in a vacuum of their own making, who admit their abdication from the realm of the intellect by embracing such doctrines as Existentialism …” There is no evidence of Sartre commenting on Rand or her ideas; it is not known whether he read her books, even though they were contemporaries — each born in 1905, and dying just two years apart (Sartre in 1980, Rand in 1982).

Both had the experience of living under a totalitarian regime: Ayn Rand in the Soviet Union and Sartre under the Nazis. Rand’s views against communism were certainly shaped by her experience of life in the Soviet Union. In the foreword to her first novel, We The Living, she wrote: “When, at the age of twelve, at the time of the Russian Revolution, I first heard the Communist principle that Man must exist for the sake of the State, I perceived that this was the essential issue, that this principle was evil, and that it could lead to nothing but evil, regardless of any methods, details, decrees, policies, promises and pious platitudes. This was the reason for my opposition to Communism then — and it is my reason now.”

It is unclear to what extent Sartre was intellectually influenced by the Nazi takeover of his country, France, during the Second World War. It is claimed that he was briefly a part of the French resistance against the Nazis; he certainly developed his intellectual love for Marxism during the occupation. While he didn't join the French Communist Party after the Second World War, he went on to become France’s most famous communist ideologue. For many decades he was a vocal intellectual supporter of the Soviet regime and was regarded as the conscience of communism.

Howard Roark is an outcome of Rand’s concept of man as a heroic being, while Antoine Roquentin is the outcome of Sartre’s concept of man as a confused and vacillating being. In view of the wide difference in the philosophies of Rand and Sartre, the few similarities that we find between Roark and Roquentin come as a matter of surprise. Both Roark and Roquentin are red-haired, slim and tall. Their names sound somewhat similar because the first two letters in their names are the same.

On an intellectual plane, the most prominent point of convergence between Roark and Roquentin is that each is an atheist. They don’t believe that there exists any divine entity on whom men can pin their hope of having guidance on how to live. Both believe in free will, or the idea that men, to a large extent, are responsible for their own actions. They believe that men must develop their own sense of values and bring meaning to life through the work that they do.

However, Roark and Roquentin have a completely different sense of life. Roark is an individualist, while Roquentin lacks a sense of identity and is filled with doubts about the nature of his own consciousness.

Roark recognizes that his individual mind is his only guide. He uses the faculty of reason to form his values and he adheres to his values with strict integrity. In contrast, Roquentin faces mental and psychological collapse. Roquentin’s sense of free will and atheism lead him to a nauseating, disorienting and disturbing conception of reality.

Roark believes that existence exists and consciousness is the faculty for perceiving that which exists. Roquentin regards consciousness as a kind of nothingness. He is mired in the skepticism of phenomenology, and becomes obsessed with how things seem from the first-person perspective.

Roark accepts the metaphysics of primacy of existence. He knows that rationality is a matter of choice and while man’s free will allows him to be irrational, man can achieve his life’s goals only if he chooses the rational path. His sense of morality guides him in acting in ways which can lead to the achievement of his ambitions.

Roquentin’s condition is one of confusion because his metaphysics is dominated by the phenomenological idea, “Essence precedes existence.” He is constantly mired in skepticism about the identity of existence. He thinks that he is free to create his own best path and that freedom means not having to constrain himself with the facts of reality.  He does not have any sense of values and to him morality is an immense vacuum.

The novel’s title, Nausea, comes from the name that Roquentin ascribes to the series of confused ruminations that constantly harry him. As he does not have a permanent job — he works as an unemployed writer — he has ample time to ruminate. His days are mostly spent in idly perusing libraries and navel-gazing at terrace cafes, mulling over the bartender's purple suspenders, the passage of time, and the root of a chestnut tree.

Roquentin is a whim-worshipper. Nothing is "real" to him. The universe has no identity, there is no cause and effect, and he has no goal, no purpose. He ruminates on whatever his mind happens to fasten upon at any given time. He can’t think coherently and a state of somnambulistic confusion is the permanent state of his mind. He makes no effort to direct his consciousness because he thinks that his ideas should precede reality and his consciousness itself should be the driver.

A whim-worshipper will try to seek out others who, like him, yearn for a world where they do not have to deal with reality. The people with whom Roquentin has some kind of association are as confused and disoriented as he is. There is one rather disturbing character called Autodidact, who seems consumed by the idea of reading and comprehending the contents of an entire library. Anny, Roquentin’s former flame, lives in the past. Much of her time is consumed in rereading the same history books and reminiscing about the perfect moments of her life.

Toward the end of the book, Roquentin arrives at the conclusion that man’s aspirations have no connection with the physical world. Denying reality has become a permanent way of life for him. He thinks that if people deny reality, they will have more freedom to give some kind of meaning to their life. Finding himself incapable of understanding what he can and cannot change, he continues to make futile attempts to rewrite reality. He has abandoned reason. To Roquentin, only “nothingness,” which he cannot see, makes up the purposeless reality that can inspire action.

The Fountainhead expounds Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which begins by accepting the fact that existence exists as an objective absolute that is independent of our consciousness. Howard Roark, the true individualist, is an embodiment of Rand’s rational philosophy. In a world full of collectivists, populists and second handers, he is the prime mover. He never compromises on his principles. Life throws many challenges at him but he is never sidetracked. He continues to hold fast to his vision of designing buildings which make use of modern technology and design concepts. The novel ends triumphantly with Howard Roark winning the right to act according to his own principles.

Sartre’s existentialism holds that the universe is an irrational, meaningless place, existence is absurd, and life makes no sense and has no purpose or explanation. The confusion and disorientation that Roquentin suffers in Nausea is, according to existentialism, a necessary condition of life. Sartre himself used to feel “nauseated” by the vastness of the universe and the meaninglessness of life. He, like Roquentin, used to spend hours in vacuous rumination. So what we find in Nausea is an accurate description of the real impact that existentialism has on the mind of its acolytes. The confused and ruminative Roquentin is a typical practitioner of existentialism.

People generally don’t want to read the story of characters such as Roquentin, who are helpless and confused not because of any grave misfortune that has befallen them due to circumstances beyond their control, but because of the nihilistic ideology of existentialism that they have themselves accepted out of their own intellectual cowardice. A novel like Nausea can’t have any lasting value. People like to read about heroism. They want to read about men like Howard Roark, who succeed despite all odds. They want to read stories that portray a positive sense of life.

Aristotle formulated the rule for good fiction more than two millennia ago when he said that fiction represents things as they might be and ought to be. Nausea does not represent life as it ought to be. Its protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is not a hero. He is not even fit to be an anti-hero or a villain. His mind is full of nothing and he himself is nothing. The leitmotif of Nausea is “nothingness,” which is also the essence of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism.

Nausea was never liked by normal readers. It does not have any literary merit to attract real readers. The book reigned for few decades because it was artificially propped up by the leftist intellectuals, most of whom are probably as disoriented and out of touch with reality as Antoine Roquentin is in the novel.

Friday, 22 April 2016

The West’s Most Unwanted Export Hits India—Greenpeace

The Narendra Modi government has frozen the bank accounts of Greenpeace India and banned the organization from raising foreign funds. It is hard not to sympathize with the government’s action when you are aware of the anti-development activities in which this environmentalist group has been involved. The only unfortunate thing in this case is that the Modi government has chosen to act on the basis of a routine bureaucratic report, which alleges that Greenpeace India has violated the rules of foreign funding and has withheld information on transactions.

Charging Greenpeace for financial impropriety is to my mind like charging Al Capone with tax evasion — the gangster was too slippery and could only be nailed on a technicality. The activities in which Greenpeace India was involved are far more sinister. By making a minor financial issue the basis for taking action, the government has given Greenpeace India the opportunity to play the role of a martyr.

No one in the Modi government has cared to refute the environment centered world-view of Greenpeace. No one has pointed out that nature is not superior to human beings and we can only survive by transforming the harsh natural environment. No one has said that increased usage of fossil fuels is India’s critical need — fossil fuels can liberate and empower Indians. Even the mainstream media has done nothing to expose the false propaganda of the environmentalists; quite the contrary, environmentalists are often projected as angels trying to save the environment.

More than 300 million people in India live without electricity, even though India has abundant coal, which can be used to generate cheap electricity. But new projects for coal-fired plants are getting mired in endless delays, mainly because of the high-decibel campaigns spearheaded by organizations like Greenpeace. The environmentalists believe that coal must always remain below the earth, it must never be dug up and burnt. If the coal remains underground, hundreds of millions of Indians will remain in darkness.

Greenpeace wants India to immediately switch to more expensive renewable energy. But India can’t afford to waste resources on renewable energy projects. In fact, no country in the world can afford to meet its energy requirements through renewable resources. Renewable energy is not only costlier, it is also unreliable compared to the electricity that we get from fossil fuels such as coal. The contribution of renewable energy to the total energy generated in the world is less than 2%. More than 80% of the world’s power supply comes from coal because coal is the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable means of generating power.

If the cheaper and reliable option of coal-based electricity is not pursued, millions of Indians will continue to suffer a life without electricity. India is desperate for power; average electricity usage in India is among the lowest in the world. An average Indian uses just 6 percent of the electricity used by an average American.

Since Greenpeace set up its India office in 2002, it has campaigned against not only the new coal power plants, but also against nuclear projects, mining projects, and every large-scale infrastructure project. A populous country like India faces a lot of challenges in executing development projects. There are challenges related to displacement, land acquisition, conflicts with locals and tribes, compensation, permits, and bureaucracy. Organizations like Greenpeace pretend to act on behalf of blighted natives and they have the talent to exploit and exacerbate all challenges.

Environmentalists claim that burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas, in that order — releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which, in turn, causes extreme climate events. But this fear-mongering in the name of climate change is not a recent phenomenon. During the 1970s, we were warned that if we didn’t end all developmental activity, there would be global cooling to such an extent that we would face another ice age. During the 1990s, they were telling us that climate change was accelerating and global warming would lead to the melting of polar ice, which in turn would lead to a massive rise in sea levels. But the climate has mostly remained flat.

Environmentalist groups have a long record of issuing dire warnings of catastrophic events that would come to pass if we continued with unchecked consumption and development. None of their doomsday scenarios have come true. During the last 50 years, the world saw more than a 100% increase in coal usage and we witnessed an agricultural revolution. Food production soared — and, consequent to that improved nutrition, life spans increased, the world population doubled, child mortality rates fell more than 50%. There was a tremendous improvement in infrastructure in urban areas and technological innovation in all spheres of life.

Organizations like Greenpeace propagate distorted data to coerce us into giving up fossil fuels and the modern way of life. Unfortunately, most Indians continue to believe that fossil fuels are bad and climate change is a real threat. No effort is being made by the Modi government to expose and refute the baseless and anti-human environmentalist ideology. The academic community and mainstream media are unfortunately hand in glove with environmentalists.

All the core ideas of environmentalism are tacitly accepted by the Modi government. Speaking at the Paris Climate Summit, Prime Minister Modi said: “The consequences of the industrial age powered by fossil fuel are evident, especially on the lives of the poor.”

What consequences is the Prime Minister talking about? It is the consequence of the industrial age that there are now more than 7 billion humans on this planet. It is the consequence of the industrial age that a significant number of human beings now have easy access to electricity, clean water, genetically improved crops, sturdy homes, health care, medicines, communication systems, air conditioning, entertainment and much else. If the consequences of the industrial age were evident to politicians, they would not join the environmentalists in demonizing fossil fuels and lamenting that we must reduce carbon emissions.

Modi either believes, or, for political purposes, pretends to believe, the environmentalist idea that we must harness solar energy to fight climate change. His government has announced plans to spend billions to set up new solar power plants. When cheaper coal-based alternatives exist, why is taxpayers’ money being poured into an environmentalist fantasy like solar energy? India simply can’t afford to squander resources on such fantasies when more than 300 million citizens are living without electricity.

If Modi truly wants to bring electricity to every Indian, he must begin by exposing the destructive anti-human ideology of organizations like Greenpeace. He must reject the idea that industrial civilization is not sustainable. He must accept that millions of Indians can rise from poverty to prosperity only if we improve our ability to extract energy from fossil fuels.

First published in Savvy Street

Monday, 18 April 2016

Odd-even mandate won’t clean Delhi’s air, it is a recipe for poverty & havoc

The ultimate test of a new mandate from a socialist government is whether a large number of people are obeying it—the actual outcomes of the mandate don't seem to matter. Such an inference may sound unbelievable, but Delhi’s political class is hailing the odd-even mandate as a major success, solely because majority of Delhiites are obeying it. A day after the mandate was imposed, on the day for odd-number-plate cars, the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said: "I am truly overwhelmed. There are very few even numbered cars on the roads.”

When the fine of breaking the odd-even mandate is Rs. 2000, people have no alternative but to obey. But what was the aim of the mandate? Was stopping people from using cars the real aim? If improving the quality of Delhi’s air was the objective, then why is the Chief Minister citing fewer cars on the roads as a measure of the mandate’s success? He should have cited some concrete figures to show that there has been an actual reduction in air pollution.

If one is objective, one can see, with absolute lucidity, the right solution for any real problem. But when the aim is to expand the power of the ruling class, then we find the politicians and the intellectuals deploying their verbosity to project some new problem, one that is shrewdly packaged to appeal to the conscience of the people—the idea is to bamboozle the people into accepting a new set of unnecessary restrictions on certain aspects of their lives, in name of solving the problem, which does not even exist. The pollution from cars in Delhi is not a real problem, it is a pseudo problem that the ruling class has invented for political reasons.

A study conducted by IIT (Kanpur) shows that cars contribute less than 1% of the total pollutants. This is an excerpt from a report in The Financial Express:

“The IIT study has pointed out that 56% of the PM10 (particulate matter up to 10 micrometers) and 38% of PM2.5 pollution comes from road dust and only 9% and 20%, respectively, come from all categories of vehicles combined. Of all the vehicles, 46% of PM10 and PM2.5 comes from trucks and 33% comes from two-wheelers, while four wheelers — only diesel — contribute only 10%, which makes it even less than 1% of the total pollutants.”

Since cars are not the major cause of Delhi’s pollution, permitting cars on roads on alternate days, depending on the last digit of the number plate, can do nothing to clean the city’s air. When the odd-even formula was first implemented, from January 1 to January 15, 2016, it did not lead to any improvement in the air quality. In fact, the air-pollution levels in Delhi rose during the 15 day period when the odd-even rule was in place. Even if all the cars are banned for all the days, there will not be any significant improvement in air quality.

The IIT study proves that much of the pollution that we have in Delhi consists of dust. The problem of dust can’t be solved by demonizing or restricting cars. But facts don’t matter to the intellectuals and politicians, who are behind the odd-even mandate. To them this mandate is a way of increasing their power and proclaiming that they are superior to everyone else because they pretend to be concerned about quality of air that the blighted natives of Delhi breathe. They want to project the view that they are on the side of angels who are trying to ensure pristine air for all.

Though the first phase of the odd-even rule did nothing to improve air quality, the mandate is back from April 15. According to reports, the odd-even system will be in force for 15 days every month.

The aim of the odd-even mandate continues to be shrouded in mystery. The most verbose supporters of the mandate are now claiming that they want to nudge Delhi’s citizens into making more use the city’s public transport system so that there is less traffic on the roads. It is absurd and draconian to ban cars for curbing traffic. To solve the traffic problems, you have to widen the roads, have more flyovers, and better the signalling system. The leftists are incapable of solving the real problems, so they try to divert the public’s mind with imbecilic ideas for solving invented problems.

The very phrase “clean air” is tendentious. Is the air quality in Delhi worse than that in most Indian villages where there are hardly any cars? And if the air quality in Delhi is so bad then why are people from all parts of the country coming to the city to live and work? Also, why is the life expectancy in Delhi higher than that in most parts of the country? The truth is that people are thriving in all the world's major cities, which have large numbers of cars on roads. Clearly there is no evidence to show that cars are bad for human health.

Even if cars were the primary cause of the pollution in Delhi, which they are not, the government does not have the moral right to restrict people from driving their vehicles. A government powerful enough to restrict car travel, can restrict anything. What stops the government from passing a new mandate to stop us from using two-wheelers or air-conditioners on certain days? What stops the government from trying to regulate the business of vehicle manufacturers, air-conditioner manufacturers and fuel makers?

In name of cleaning the air, an emotive argument can be made to ban every modern convenience, regulate every business, and every technology. This will ultimately have an adverse impact on the economic environment; it will force businesses to flee to places where such restrictions do not exist. The more the politicians try to fix things, the worse things get. Mandates like the odd-even formula are a recipe for poverty and havoc.