Archive | January, 2014

Autobiography of a Randian Idea

Ayn Rand and Louis SullivanThat Ayn Rand was a fan of Louis Sullivan is no secret; the character of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead is obviously based on him, and she speaks favourably of his Autobiography of an Idea in her introduction to We the Living.

What’s less seldom recognised is just how closely Rand was indebted to Sullivan’s autobiography – as well as to Claude Bragdon’s introduction to that work. In what follows, then, I’ve paired Rand’s descriptions of Cameron’s ideas and career in The Fountainhead with the corresponding passages from Sullivan and Bragdon:


He held the conviction that no architectural dictum, or tradition, or superstition, or habit, should stand in the way of realizing an honest architecture, based on well-defined needs and useful purposes: the function determining the form, the form expressing the function. …


He said only that the form of a building must follow its function; that the structure of a building is the key to its beauty; that new methods of construction demand new forms ….

Louis Sullivan has the distinction of having been, perhaps, the first squarely to face the expressional problem of the steel-framed skyscraper and to deal with it honestly and logically. … To him the tallness of the skyscraper was not an embarrassment, but an inspiration – the force of altitude must be in it; it must be a proud and soaring thing, without a dissenting line from bottom to top. Accordingly, flushed with a fine creative frenzy, he flung upward his tiers and disposed his windows as necessity, not tradition, demanded, making the masonry appear what it had in fact become – a shell, a casing merely, the steel skeleton being sensed, so to speak, like bones beneath their layer of flesh. Then, over it all, he wove a web of beautiful ornament – flowers and frost, delicate as lace and strong as steel. …

The explosion came with the birth of the skyscraper. …. Henry Cameron was among the first to understand this new miracle and to give it form. He was among the first and the few who accepted the truth that a tall building must look tall. While architects cursed, wondering how to make a twenty-story building look like an old brick mansion, while they used every horizontal device available in order to cheat it of its height, shrink it down to tradition, hide the shame of its steel, make it small, safe and ancient – Henry Cameron designed skyscrapers in straight, vertical lines, flaunting their steel and height. …


It was deemed fitting by all the people that the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by one Christopher Columbus, should be celebrated by a great World Exposition …. Chicago was ripe and ready for such an undertaking. … It was to be called The White City by the Lake. … The landscape work, in its genial distribution of lagoons, wooded islands, lawns, shrubbery and plantings, did much to soften an otherwise mechanical display ….


The Columbian Exposition of Chicago opened in the year 1893.

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. It was a “Dream City” of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once. It spread before the eyes of a new country every structural crime ever committed in all the old ones. …

The work completed, the gates thrown open 1 May, 1893, the crowds flowed in from every quarter …. These crowds were astonished. … They went away, spreading again over the land, returning to their homes, each one of them carrying in the soul the shadow of the white cloud, each of them permeated by the most subtle and slow-acting of poisons …. Thus they departed joyously, carriers of contagion …. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward …. through a process of vaccination with the lymph of every known European style, period and accident …. We have Tudor for colleges and residences; Roman for banks, and railway stations and libraries, or Greek if you like – some customers prefer the Ionic to the Doric. … It was white as a plague, and it spread as such.

People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticos, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another. The weeds grew and choked everything else. …

Nor is Sullivan’s influence confined to The Fountainhead. His remark later in the autobiography that the natural man “reverses the dictum ‘I think: Therefore I am.’ It becomes in him, I am: Therefore I inquire and do! It is this affirmative ‘I AM’ that is man’s reality” anticipates both Prometheus’s discovery in Anthem – “I am. I think. I will. … What must I say besides?” and John Galt’s advice in Atlas Shrugged, “reversing a costly historical error, to declare: I am, therefore I’ll think.”

Blackstone on Witchcraft

[Warning: in the following post I sound more Straussian than is my usual wont. I promise not to make a habit of it.]

William Blackstone is often quoted as having said: “To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God.” Out of context, this line creates a strong impression that Blackstone believed in witchcraft, and was defending the legal penalties established for its practice.

Montesquieu, Addison, Blackstone

But when one looks at the context (Commentaries IV.4.6), it becomes clear that Blackstone is highly skeptical of witchcraft accusations and is looking for excuses not to enforce anti-witchcraft laws, albeit without explicitly denying the truth of scripture. Ultra-Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and Addison are not the sorts of authorities that the superstitious, credulous, and intolerant are likely to be citing. Here’s the entire passage:

A sixth species of offence against God and religion, of which our antient books are full, is a crime of which one knows not well what account to give. I mean the offence of witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorcery. To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God, in various passages both of the Old and New Testament: and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath in its turn borne testimony, either by examples seemingly well attested or by prohibitory laws; which at least suppose the possibility of commerce with evil spirits. The civil law punishes with death not only the sorcerers themselves, but also those who consult them, imitating in the former the express law of God, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And our own laws, both before and since the conquest, have been equally penal; ranking this crime in the same class with heresy, and condemning both to the flames. The president Montesquieu ranks them also both together, but with a very different view: laying it down as an important maxim that we ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy; because the most unexceptionable conduct, the purest morals, and the constant practice of every duty in life are not a sufficient security against the suspicion of crimes like these. And indeed the ridiculous stories that are generally told, and the many impostures and delusions that have been discovered in all ages, are enough to demolish all faith in such a dubious crime; if the contrary evidence were not also extremely strong. Wherefore it seems to be the most eligible way to conclude, with an ingenious writer of our own, that in general there has been such a thing as witchcraft; though one cannot give credit to any particular modern instance of it.

Our forefathers were stronger believers when they enacted, by statute 33 Hen. VIII. c. 8, all witchcraft and sorcery to be felony without benefit of clergy; and again, by statute 1 Jac. I. c. 12, that all persons invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding, any evil spirit; or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts, should be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, and suffer death. And if any person should attempt by sorcery to discover hidden treasure, or to restore stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to hurt any man or beast, though the same were not effected, he or she should suffer imprisonment and pillory for the first offence, and death for the second. These acts continued in force till lately, to the terror of all antient females in the kingdom: and many poor wretches were sacrificed thereby to the prejudice of their neighbours and their own illusions; not a few having, by some means or other, confessed the fact at the gallows. But all executions for this dubious crime are now at an end; our legislature having at length followed the wise example of Louis XIV. in France, who thought proper, by an edict, to restrain the tribunals of justice from receiving informations of witchcraft. And accordingly it is with us enacted, by statute 9 Geo. II. c. 5, that no prosecution shall for the future be carried on against any persons for conjuration, witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment. But the misdemeanour of persons pretending to use witchcraft, tell fortunes, or discover stolen goods, by skill in the occult sciences, is still deservedly punished with a year’s imprisonment, and standing four times in the pillory.

Notice in particular how Blackstone softens Addison’s dictum that “I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as witchcraft, but at the same time can give no credit to any particular instance of it” by adding “modern” in front of “instance.” The passage from Addison obviously means that Addison does not believe in the truth of any actual cases of witchcraft, past or present. Blackstone rewrites the line to make it seem as though he is doubting only present reports, not past ones; but the fact that Blackstone felt the need to add “modern” shows that he understood perfectly well what Addison was saying – and by citing Addison favourably, Blackstone suggests that he in fact accepts Addison’s broader skepticism.


“The eyes were where a dragon was most vulnerable. The eyes, and the brain behind them. Not the underbelly, as certain old tales would have it. The scales there were just as tough as those along a dragon’s back and flanks.” — George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

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