Sunday, September 4, 2016

Valiant Resistence to Father's Day

The first attempt to establish fathers’ day (in 1908)
Was overshadowed by a hot air balloon show and circus performers.
These took over the headlines, and the fathers
(Those left alive after a nearby coal mining disaster)
Showed more interest in the aerial acrobatics and the strong man act
Than in a church service organised in their honour.

The formidable Jane Addams tried to get in on the act a few years later,
But although she managed to found the profession of social work in the US,
And later won the Nobel Prize for Peace,
She couldn’t get Fathers’ Day going.
When she proposed a city-wide celebration of fathers in Chicago,
The people in charge (fathers, for the most part) said, in a word, no.

Jane Addams, not happy
In 1957, a female senator from Maine,
Observing that Mothers’ Day had been going strong for forty years,
Accused Congress of “the worst possible oversight…
Perpetrated against the gallant fathers… of our land…”
“As a daughter, as a woman, and as a United States Senator,”
She declared the lack of Fathers’ Day, “the most grievous insult imaginable.”

The men of Congress appear to have united in ignoring this.
They “gallantly” held out held out for another 15 years.
But in 1972, Fathers’ Day finally became a national US holiday,
And from this year onwards, fathers across the land
Were forced to stop work, and accept soap-on-a-rope
and other mildly insulting gifts, on an annual basis.

It is not clear precisely when and how this blow to American manhood spread…
To Australia. Here, at least, there has been
No suggestion of a public holiday.
An internet search reveals the counterfactual but valiant statement
That father’s day in Australia originated in pagan sun worship,
And recommended gifts include swimming with whale sharks.

In deference to the fact that when I was born
Father’s Day wasn’t really a thing, even in the US,
This year I have refrained from purchasing soap-on-a-rope
Or buying into any other American claptrap.
I’ll simply say, you’re a top bloke, Dad.
(And if you want to swim with whale sharks, just let me know.)


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Flutters and flights of mindfulness


A few days ago, I felt inspired to take down a book that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelf for many years, although I read it from cover to cover when I first received it as a gift (thanks, Tess and Will). I opened it at random, and fell upon a passage about the yogic concept of kriyas, defined by the author as “powerful spontaneous releases of physical energy” associated with rapture:

Through concentration or other techniques of practice one often experiences a buildup of great energy in the body. When this energy moves, it produces feelings of pleasure, and when it encounters areas of tightness or holding, it builds up and then releases as vibration and movement. (p123)

The book was Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, and the chapter was entitled, “The spiritual roller coaster: Kundalini and other side effects.”

Over the past year, I have become much more familiar with kriyas, thanks to the teachers at Kundalini House in North Fitzroy. They use the term kriya to refer to the series of exercises practiced in a kundalini yoga class, with each series promised to promote specific, often extraordinary benefits. When I turned up for my first class, I had completely forgotten ever encountering this exotic word. But perhaps Kornfield’s discussion of kriyas sowed a seed that, tended by a lovely and inspiring yoga teacher called Onkartej, has now shot up suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly into the practice of holding my breath and pumping my stomach (many times) while listening to a Punjabi chant that translates roughly as “Wow! dark-light!” usually at ungodly (or as many spiritual traditions would have it, particularly godly) hours of the morning. As part of a communal yoga “challenge,” I have committed to practicing this kriya each day for the rather Biblical period of forty days. We’ll see if any dramatic releases have taken place by the time I emerge from this meditative Punjabi desert…

Thar Desert, Punjab-Haryana-Kathiawab region, India

(While searching for images of the Punjabi desert, google kept asking if I would prefer to look at Punjabi desserts, but I resisted this temptation.)

Kornfield points to two basic attitudes toward the unusual states that can be provoked by such practices. Some schools see them as states of transcendence essential for true spiritual awakening or transformation. Consequently, they encourage students to do what it takes to induce altered states of consciousness: Kornfield mentions techniques involving repetition, intensity, pain, powerful breathing, narrowly focused concentration, koans, sleep deprivation, visioning. To this list, I would add the use of entheogens such as ayahuasca.

Other schools promote an immanent rather than transcendent approach to awakening. In Kornfield’s words, they “do not set out to climb the mountain of transcendence, but set out instead to bring the spirit of the mountaintop alive here and now in each moment of life.” (p120) They teach that the divine is already present in each moment, only our distracted and grasping mind keeps us from recognising this. To open to this reality, it is necessary to resist the potentially addictive attraction of extraordinary experiences, instead recognizing that altered perceptions and visions are illusions, impermanent phenomena. In the words of Ajahn Chah, founder of the forest tradition in Thai Buddhism, they are “just something else to let go of.” This approach is associated with meditative practices of “bare awareness” or “just sitting,” which encourage a profound opening to what is happening in the present moment.

Ajahn Chah
Kornfield takes a conciliatory middle way between these positions, suggesting that transcendent and immanent paths are both expressions of the Great Way, each able to lead to liberation. Transcendent states can be profoundly healing and transformative, while an immanent approach can infuse our whole life with a sense of the sacred. Alternatively, either approach can become mired in complacency, hubris and self-deception if we become overly attached to the effects of these practices and blind ourselves to further possibilities of transformation.

These reflections reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a friend about the value of mindfulness as it is taught in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed by Zen roshi Jon Kabat-Zinn. Tim was somewhat skeptical about whether this immanent, integrative approach to meditation and awareness could lead to authentic mindfulness. He argued that in the Buddhist tradition, particularly as it is explained in a book he’d been reading by Alan Wallace, an American expert on Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness properly refers to states of mind cultivated by meditative practices designed to produce highly focused and sustained concentration – in Kornfield’s language, transcendent states. As a consequence, Tim felt it might be a mistake to identify the more readily accessible forms of attention and openness to experience cultivated in the MBSR course with the Buddhist concept and experience of mindfulness.

As the time, I responded by speaking about what Bhikkhu Sujato has called the “two wings of mindfulness,” that is samadhi, a state of absorption or one-pointed concentration, and vipassana, or insight, based on a broader sense of awareness, directed to observing the processes of the mind. My idea was that mindfulness as it is taught in contemporary psychological settings might be more closely aligned with investigative vipassana than with deeply concentrated samadhi. However, Tim accurately pointed out that both these meditative “wings” involve intensive practice and highly cultivated states of consciousness. In that sense, they are both transcendent approaches to spiritual practice, and belong to the same bird, as Bhikkhu Sujato’s metaphor implies.

Eurasian Eagle Owl (scientific name: bubo bubo)

Similarly, MBSR involves both practices designed to calm and focus the mind, and practices designed to enhance awareness (as well as acceptance and appreciation) of what is present to consciousness in a given moment: in this sense, it also displays the “two wings” of mindfulness. The difference is that rather than requiring seclusion and intensive meditative practice to invoke the marvelous, soaring flight of this bird, the emphasis is on encouraging it to swoop rapidly but repeatedly in and out of ordinary moments, like a swallow before the rain, transforming the experience of worldly life without withdrawing from it.


While the swallow of secular mindfulness may seem a small and distant relative of the great eagle owl of samadhi and vipassana, the beauty and skill of the swallow’s flight should not be underestimated. I suspect that to swoop so close to the surface of worldly life without crashing into it may involve a form of mindfulness just as demanding and powerful as that involved in soaring or hovering motionless, far above. After all, to maintain mindfulness amid the pressures and distractions of worldly life can be more difficult than attaining deeper states of concentration under retreat conditions specifically designed to support them. Even on retreat, or in monasteries, interactions with others, and ordinary tasks like preparing meals, can prove more clearly testing of mindfulness than long periods spent undisturbed in meditation.

But this contrast may be misleading: if the mindfulness attained in deep meditation is not illusory, it can be expected to increase mindfulness in worldly interactions; conversely, the cultivation of robust mindfulness in everyday life makes deeper states of concentration more accessible. Perhaps mindfulness is a shape-shifter, appearing now as a swallow, now as an eagle owl, now as a laughing kookaburra kriya, now as a dove carrying the promise of new life… but regardless of form, always the same in its capacity to arouse pleasure and wonder.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

On choosing a mattress

Tree bed by Shawn Lovell

In Buddhism, there are five precepts or ethical trainings for lay people. They cover pretty familiar moral territory: you are asked to do your best not to kill, steal, have illicit sex, tell lies, or get drunk. However, if you go on retreat with Buddhist monks or nuns, you are usually asked to respect not just five, but eight precepts for the duration of the retreat. The extra three require you to avoid eating at certain times (such as after noon); to refrain from dancing, singing, music, shows, wearing jewelry and cosmetics; and to refrain from using high and luxurious seats or beds. The precept on sexual misconduct also gets upgraded to refraining from any sexual activity.

It makes sense that on a silent meditation retreat, you don’t want people dancing around singing, playing music, or dressing up in attempts to seduce each other. Observing limitations around eating also has practical benefits for cultivating a clear mind for meditation. But what’s the issue with high and luxurious beds? I guess they might add to the temptation to stay in bed instead of getting up to meditate well before sunrise, but even so, I could never understand why beds get a whole precept to themselves – I really couldn’t see why a comfy bed should be a significant obstacle to enlightenment.

That was until I decided to buy a new mattress.

On the advice of my brother, who had recently bought one himself, I started my search at Snooze. A sales assistant, who happened to be an attractive blonde woman rather similar to the young woman who had successfully helped my brother, guided me through the huge display room of mattresses to a special computerized test bed.


As you recline on the high and luxurious surface of Snooze's bedMATCH® bed, a video plays on a TV monitor positioned on an angle just over your head, informing you that although you may think you already know what kind of mattress you want, *scientific research* has shown that 95% of people DO NOT KNOW what kind of mattress is best for them. Having sown the seed of doubt about your own capacity to successfully choose a mattress, the voice from the monitor goes on to reassure you that it’s OK, because the bed itself will be able to identify the optimal choice for you, based on a *scientific analysis* of your body shape and weight. The bed then gives you a little massage, and like a modern day oracle, reveals whether you need a firm, medium, soft, or super-soft mattress. 

Armed with this revelation, the sales assistant then leads you to a few mattresses of the designated type that cost from $2,000 up. They are all, without exception, high and luxurious – so high that you will probably have to buy new sheets, because the thickness of the mattresses means a normal sized sheet would never fit over them. You are then encouraged to lie on a few of these mattresses in an attempt to detect the subtle differences between them. The sales assistant tries to stop you from lying on too many, though, because (research has no doubt shown that) if you do, you’ll get confused and leave without buying anything.

Actually, psychological research has shown that making too many choices can lead to “decision fatigue” a state in which your powers of self-control are depleted. In this condition, you may allow yourself to be nudged towards an irrational decision by someone else, or your own automatic impulses, or you may become overwhelmed and feel you just can’t make another choice. The sales assistant, with the help of the test bed, has the tricky task of making you feel sufficiently daunted by the huge range of mattress options to rely on her advice, but not allowing you tip over into full scale decision fatigue, a state in which you may become unpleasantly emotional as well as incapable of remembering the pin for your credit card.

The risk of decision fatigue while shopping for a new mattress is high. There are choices to be made, not only between a multitude of brands, and ranges within brands (do you want something from the exquisite, enhance or aspire collections?), but also between different kinds of “mattress technology.” Do you prefer pocket-springs or coil springs? Do you require silk, or can make do with wool, or perhaps organic latex in your pillow top? Then there is the choice between ordinary, non-sentient mattresses and those made from "memory foam," a material developed by NASA in 1966, and now used in some of the most expensive mattresses you can buy. You are encouraged to weigh all these options with care since, as mattress sales assistants will remind you, you spend about a third of your life sleeping and the quality of your sleep impacts everything else you do.

The more time I spent trying out mattresses, reading online reviews of mattresses and talking to friends about their struggles to choose a mattress, the more I became convinced that our society has an unhealthy obsession with high and luxurious beds: the Buddhist precept is more relevant than ever! Anyone who can afford it, and many who can’t, have become like the girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, who arrives at a royal castle drenched by a storm and claims to be a princess. The mother of the prince decides to test the young woman by surreptitiously placing a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather-beds, and inviting her to spend the night in this extraordinarily high and luxurious bed. The girl emerges in the morning, complaining that she was kept awake all night by something hard in the bed, which she is sure has bruised her. The prince is delighted: only a real princess could be so sensitive.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac
 
It would be easy to see contemporary princes and princesses, tossing and turning due to the lack of a silk pillow top, or a defect in their space age memory foam mattress, as products of contemporary consumer capitalism at its most psychologically manipulative. But it seems the problem is much older than contemporary marketing techniques. The folk tale recorded by Anderson suggests that the link between social status, hypersensitivity, insomnia and excessive bedding has been around for centuries; contemporary mattress sellers have simply tapped into an enduring human weakness. And as the ancient Buddhist precept suggests, it’s on a par with the desire to seek distraction through entertainment, or indulging in food.

For those who have trouble sleeping, Buddhist teachings offer an alternative to expensive mattresses in the quest to obtain an optimal night’s sleep. It is said that peaceful, restful sleep (as well as a beautiful complexion) is a side-effect of practicing loving-kindness meditation, which involves consciously wishing for the well-being of oneself, others, and all living beings. So, may you be well and happy, peaceful and at ease; may you (and any little ones in your household) come quickly to complete enlightenment, or at least to sweet, sound sleep!


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A shift at the Crisis Centre


I’ve been working at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda for about six months now. Lately, it’s been a particularly intense experience – the level of need out there is higher than usual during the Christmas holiday period, partly because a lot of other services close, while we remain open 24/7, and partly because it’s an emotional time of year for a lot of people. I’ve noticed we’ve been getting a lot of calls and drop-ins from people in various levels of not just housing, but also psychological crisis.

Our main role is to provide immediate crisis accommodation, mostly in cheap motels, basic material aid, and referrals to appropriate services for people who have fallen (hopefully temporarily) into homelessness. We don’t have resources to deal with any serious level of mental illness – you can’t place someone in a hotel if, like one of my callers last night, he says he needs emergency accommodation because he fears for the safety of his flat-mates, his head feels like it is “ticking like a time-bomb,” and he “goes off” at night and starts kicking the walls.

An even more distressing case last night was a caller from a town in regional Victoria, who rang saying he had slept in a park the night before and had nowhere else to go. He was in a very fragile state, crying through much of the call, and reporting that he had tried to self-harm during the day. He’d recently been on a bender, using methamphetamine (ice) eight days straight, plus some cocaine. He repeatedly said that he felt "lost." Again, booking him into a hotel was not a safe or viable option. I persuaded him to allow the police to take him to the local hospital to spend the night there, and get some medical assistance. I’m told that cases like his are clogging the emergency departments of hospitals throughout Victoria – increasing abuse of methamphetamine has placed considerable strain on mental health and emergency services.

I will relate just one other, more unusual, case from my shift last night: early in the evening, I took a call from a volunteer from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. He was calling regarding a Burmese man, with little English, who had been discharged from hospital in a country town near Melbourne, only to find that his landlord had evicted him in his absence. Apparently he was two weeks in arrears with his rent. I pointed out that the eviction was illegal, and the volunteer agreed, but said it may well have been a pretty dodgy tenancy arrangement from the start. In any case, the client had left the property and was now at the train station. I immediately rang the local housing service, and minutes before they closed managed to get them to agree to fund the client for the night. As usual, this was conditional on him presenting to their service the following day.

Bagan, central Burma (Myanmar)
Feeling pretty pleased with having achieved this, I then spoke to the client through a telephone interpreter. This was an interesting, somewhat frustrating experience – the contrast between the softly spoken, somewhat tentative female interpreter and the strong, rapid speech of the client was marked. As often happens, there seemed to be a lot more said in Burmese than was related to me in English. 

During the assessment, it emerged that the client was now on a train, on his way to a station in outer east Melbourne. I couldn't get a straight answer about why he was heading there, but he seemed to know people in the area. He told me he had a history of drug use (ice and marijuana) but hadn't used for over a year, and had no mental health issues. It was unclear why he had been in hospital, but he said something about chest pain, and receiving an injection. He said he was OK now. He also reported that he was on a Bridging Visa which had expired, but was getting Centrelink payments.

We always ask people contacting us by phone to present at a police station for an ID check before we place them in accommodation. This client agreed to go to straight to the police station on arrival at his destination, and call us again from there. I was concerned that his limited English might make this process difficult, so I rang the station to let the police know he would be arriving in the next couple of hours, supplied the client's name and date of birth, and asked the police officer to call us when he turned up. One of the other workers in the Crisis Centre had told me that Burmese people only have one name, which explained why his first and last names were the same, an interesting piece of cultural information that I also took it upon myself to share with the officer.

So far, so good. I considered scoping out hotel vacancies in the area, but decided to wait until I heard from the client again – we were busy, and it seemed possible he had friends in that area who might end up helping him out. In a certain sense, that did turn out to be the case.

Several hours later, I got a call back from the police officer to inform me that my client was a missing person from the psych unit of the local hospital. By this stage he was back in the ward. The officer said I should call the hospital to get further information or to make contact. I said that wouldn't be necessary, as our role was to provide emergency accommodation, and this client now clearly had some accommodation available to him. "Yeah, I think they'll be keeping him in there for quite a while..."

Although my input had very little to do with it, that was one of the success stories of the night – a client who had somewhere to go, and judging by the fact that he had voluntarily returned, seemed to have some faith that his mental health needs would be effectively addressed there. 

This was a contrast to the first caller I mentioned, the one who was kicking the walls. He’d already had pretty extensive experience of the mental health system in Melbourne, and was reluctant to return to a hospital where the drugs he’d been given had reduced him to a state where he said he had had trouble walking. In any case, given the lucid and polite way in which he spoke to me, escalating into anger only when he spoke about a brother who had died overseas, it was unlikely any overcrowded city hospital psych ward would have admitted him. He told me of one mental health service that he’d had good experiences with. The best I could do for him was to urge him to contact them the following day, and to impress upon him the fact that his mental health problems needed to be addressed before his housing issue could be resolved.

I’m beginning to think the same might be said for the entire state of Victoria. May 2015 bring some progress on this front...



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abbott and the ABC: a story of second-order hypocrisy


Abbott has recently broken one of his pre-election promises, that is, that funding to the ABC and SBS would not be cut under his government. It was announced on Wednesday that $254 million will be cut from the budget of the ABC and more than $25 million from SBS. Tony Wright, writing in the Age, has pointed out that this makes Abbott a liar. More than this, it makes him a hypocrite, given the ferocity with which he attacked Julia Gillard for breaking her pre-election promise not to introduce a carbon tax.


None of this comes as a great surprise. For me, it’s hard to get worked up about the fact that Abbott has been shown to be a liar. He is a politician after all, and politics has always involved a delicate relationship with the truth. It's no shock to learn that a politician has broken a pre-election promise.

Martin Jay, an American scholar, goes beyond this form of cynical realism about politics to argue that mendacity is actually a virtue in this domain. He suggests that we’re safer with a politician who expediently changes his story from time to time than one who fanatically insists that his perspective is the truth and nothing but the truth, and uses this to justify violence against those who oppose his views. To be human is a virtue in a politician, and to lie is human.

The charge of hypocrisy is more serious, but as George Orwell pointed out, hypocrisy is only possible in a state in which privacy exists – in which we can do one thing in our private lives, and put on a different face in public. Far worse is a state in which hypocrisy has been eliminated because there is no distinction between private and public any more, or no one can ever alter their position. None of us is entirely consistent and nor should we expect this in our politicians.

However, Abbott is not just an ordinary hypocrite; what is disturbing about him is that he is what David Runciman calls a second-order hypocrite, that is a politician who cynically exploits the public’s familiarity with double standards in politics and takes advantage of its naïve yearning for someone who can rise above it. Second-order hypocrisy involves cynical manipulations of people's desire for a simple version of the Truth, designed to whip up moralistic condemnation of political opponents. Abbott’s campaign against Gillard was a good example of this. Abbott set himself up as the guardian of a pure, truthful standard of political practice against which Gillard fell short: "My aim is to lead a no surprises, no excuses government that says what it means and does what it says." 

Paradoxically, it may have been because Gillard had a reputation as a genuinely and unusually conscientious politician that this smear campaign was so successful. It made it a bit easier to sustain the fiction that our heartfelt trust was really betrayed by her shift on the carbon tax issue. Maybe it’s because few see Abbott in this light that his failure to abide by his own espoused moral principles doesn’t seem such a big issue. 

The damage that is done by second-order hypocrites in politics, if they are successful, as Abbott undeniably has been, is that they create a climate in which everyone is on the alert for hypocrisy and lying, while other forms of wickedness are left to flourish. The project of denouncing liars and hypocrites engenders anxiety, since the spectacle of what happens to those who are branded by these accusations makes it seem extremely important to establish one’s credentials as one of the pure, the true believers. This is the kind of atmosphere that created the Terror under Robespierre.

This is not to suggest that commitment to truthfulness leads in the direction of Terror. Rather, it is second-order hypocrisy that can put a society on this track. It is hypocrisy of a particularly powerful kind, masquerading as a commitment to Truth. In some cases, those who use such tactics may convince themselves of the purity of their motives and ideological position, but this is dangerous self-deception.

It is dramatic to compare Abbott to Robespierre; the leaders of the Egyptian government that has imprisoned Australia journalist Peter Greste and others might seem more suitable targets for such a comparison. Fortunately, we are still far from confronting this level of ideological control of the press in Australia. 

Nevertheless, Abbott has done damage to the tenor of public debate here, and succeeded in introducing a level of personal attacks, moralizing judgments, and polarized positions that often seems more American than Australian. The decision to cut funding to the ABC is entirely in keeping with this strategy, since the kind of intelligent, substance-based political discussion and satire that is facilitated by public broadcasting (and community radio) is a major obstacle for the success of second-order hypocrisy. 

Let's not succumb to Abbott’s tactics by wasting our time moralizing about his personal duplicity; rather let's focus on safeguarding the institutions, like the ABC, that guarantee a more expansive, truly democratic style of public discussion in this country.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Fountainhead


It’s been an interesting week. I’ve just started a new casual job, as a social worker at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda, Melbourne. The work involves taking telephone calls and face-to-face inquiries from people who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, providing empathetic support and immediate assistance, and referring them to services that can provide ongoing support to get them back into secure housing, and address related issues.

Although I’m only one week in and still training, I can see that this job will involve plenty of challenges – from the heartbreak of seeing people in desperate or simply depressing situations, to dealing with outbursts of anger from frustrated or unstable clients, to dealing with con-jobs, like the charming, elderly, somewhat teary gentleman who had his bag stolen during a night spent at the Casino because he had no money to stay elsewhere, was put up in the best hotel we can afford, and given an array of vouchers to provide him with food, transport and a change of clothes, and then turned up again the next day, driving a red sports car.

This week I also finished reading Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Several friends expressed titillated disapproval on learning that I was reading Rand, due to the fact that she gets quoted at Tea Party protests, and was Alan Greenspan’s guru. Her ideas have inspired libertarian and right wing politics in the US to the point where her biographer, Jennifer Burns, describes her as "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." Flannery O’Connor, a wonderful American writer and a contemporary of Rand, once told a friend who had found a Rand novel left behind in the subway, "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail."

When I came across The Fountainhead in a box of books on the street in Balmain, I was unaware of O’Connor’s advice. In any case, I was curious to find out what kind of story inspires libertarian politics. Maybe there was also a certain perversity that led me to start reading this book just before I was about to take up my new job.

For Rand, the social worker is the epitome of badly dressed evil. Her novel is designed to persuade the reader that altruism is the enemy of integrity, independent thought and creativity. She explicitly elevates selfishness to a moral and political ideal, making no distinction between self-centred indifference toward others, and the courage to remain true to one’s principles in a climate of mediocrity and corruption. (It is worth noting that the novel was first published in 1943 and can be read as an attempt to understand the forces and failures that had led to the state of the world at this time.)

The central character of the book is Howard Roark, a talented architect who remains heroically true to his ideal of functional beauty in the face of repeated pressures to compromise – and who begins his love affair with Dominique Francon, the main female character in the novel, by raping her. This beautiful, intelligent, unfulfilled woman responds by falling aggressively in love with him, and after various plot twists including a striking episode of self-harming which involves cutting her body with broken glass, an act which nearly kills her, they eventually live happily ever after. Dominique gives up her job as a journalist along the way, and becomes content to spend her days making herself look lovely and contemplating the beauty of nature as a background to her husband’s soaring phallic achievements.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

For me, the story of this woman and her relationship with the architect was the most intriguing aspect of the novel (admittedly I have glossed over many others in this summary). It appeared to be an effort to come to terms with what we might now categorise as a personality disorder, though it's likely that Rand would have condemned such a diagnosis as an example of the evils perpetrated in the name of altruism. Naturally, the reader is not encouraged to feel empathy or pity for this character; rather, she is portrayed as aloof, brilliant, intensely desirable to men, and consistently well dressed, providing a stark contrast to all the other remarkably unattractive women that appear in the novel.

Dominique’s suffering is treated as unimportant next to the ideals and work of her lover, but at the same time it is clearly, even dramatically, described. It does not appear that Rand’s fans have paid much attention to this aspect of the novel. If they did, they might find a clue regarding the kind of personal distress that can motivate a political commitment to extreme individualism.

But perhaps it takes the perspective of a social worker to see that.