Saturday, May 19, 2018

Survival, Rand, and Mahler

I was never really suited to military service. But in 1963 there were few options. I had turned 20 and the draft was inevitable, although I hadn’t received my draft notice yet. I had been kicked out of college for bad grades and been working at various jobs for a year. I was definitely at a dead end in my life. To avoid serving in the Army, which meant Vietnam, I joined the Navy.

After a checkered first year or so (you can read about that in earlier blogs, starting with, I ended up on a ship, the USS Galveston. I wasn’t suited for shipboard life either. I wasn’t sure I would survive in one piece. And then one day I was in a book store and I saw a title that I thought perfectly described me: For the New Intellectual by Ayn Rand (intellectual humility was never a strong suit of mine). I snatched it up and before I knew it, I was a devoted adherent of “objectivism,” as Rand called her philosophy. I read everything else I could find by her, including subscribing to her magazine, The Objectivist Newsletter.

I look back on my being suckered into that deeply flawed philosophy* with some embarrassment now. But if truth be told, the self confidence that Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” gave me helped me survive my shipboard years, even if that confidence was built on very shaky ground.

But I was also “saved” in those dark days by Mahler’s First Symphony, the “Titan.” I don’t remember when I first heard the Mahler First, but it has long been a favorite. During those troubling, for me, times on the ship, which was homeported in San Diego, I would go almost every weekend to the San Diego Public Library. In those days, before CDs and iTunes, one listened to records, as we quaintly called them. The library had listening rooms. I would take the LP (I preferred the Eugene Ormandy version) into the listening room. While still a music major before the Navy, I had studied conducting, so I would also grab the score from the library’s extensive collection and take that into the listening booth also. I would listen over and over to this dynamic piece of music, often “conducting” with my hand or a pencil. No doubt I presented an odd picture through the glass door of the listening booth.

That music, mixed up in an odd sort of way with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, helped me navigate the final few years of my Navy experience. I left the philosophy behind long years ago, but the Mahler First is still a magnificent piece of music which I often return to.

*There are many sources online that explain the flaws in Objectivism; here is just one: