Sunlight filtering through green leaves

This is more of a literary post than a philosophical one, but I think it may interest some readers and it gives me an occasion to explain why we chose the cover image we did for this blog.

The image of sunlight filtering through green leaves figures in a number of significant passages from Rand’s novels. I’m going to survey them, and make a few comments at the end on what I take to be the significance of this image to Rand.

The clearest instances are in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but let me consider first some examples from Rand’s earlier fiction.

The first occurs early in her first novel, We The Living, when Kira Argonova, the novel’s heroine meets the love of her life, Leo Kovalensky. Leo is defeated and looking to destroy himself, but Kira, for a time, rekindles his “appetite for life.” On the night when they first meet, Kira takes of her hat, and “her tangled hair and the light tangled in the leaves, glittered like warm silk” (WTL36 60 / WTL 48). In this case the light comes from a street lamp, but we find the more typical sunlight-through-leaves imagery in the description of one of the young couple’s days in the country:

They sat on a huge tree root over a river. The spreading stars of ferns on the slope below looked like a jungle of dwarf palms. The white trunk of a birch tree sparkled in the sun, its leaves like a waterfall that streamed down, green drops remaining suspended in the air, trembling, turning silver and white and green again, dropping once in a while to be swept away by the current. (WTL 144)

It is in this setting that we see a glimpse of the life that is possible to them, but that they are prevented from achieving by the evil of the USSR.

Leo is ultimately defeated by this evil, but Kira, though she is unable to escape her oppressive society, is able to triumph over it spiritually by holding on to her conviction that such a life could and should be.

I turn now to another character who, after escaping a similarly oppressive society, comes to realize that it is possible for him to find happiness outside of it. I’m referring to the hero of Anthem, who, in desperation, flees his collectivist city one night into the Uncharted Forest. He has been taught that life outside of the collective is both evil and impossible, and the Forest represents this, so he goes to sleep that night thinking that he is damned and will soon die. Consider how the forest is described when he wakes there the next morning:

We awoke when a ray of sunlight fell across our face. We wanted to leap to our feet, as we have had to leap every morning of our life, but we remembered suddenly that no bell had rung and that there was no bell to ring anywhere. We lay on our back, we threw our arms out, and we looked up at the sky. The leaves had edges of silver that trembled and rippled like a river of green and fire flowing high above us.

It is over the course of this “day of wonders” that he learns that it is possible to make a life for himself apart from the society he has left, and that evening he laughs at the thought that he is “damned.”

Let’s turn now to two scenes from Part IV of The Fountainhead. The first opens the Part:

The leaves streamed down, trembling in the sun. They were not green; only a few, scattered through the torrent, stood out in single drops of a green so bright and pure that it hurt the eyes; the rest were not a color, but a light, the substance of fire on metal, living sparks without edges. And it looked as if the forest were a spread of light boiling slowly to produce this color, this green rising in small bubbles, the condensed essence of spring. The trees met, bending over the road, and the spots of sun on the ground moved with the shifting of the branches, like a conscious caress. The young man hoped he would not have to die. (Fountainhead 527)

The “boy on the bicycle,” as this young man is usually described, is riding through the forest reflecting on what—if anything—he wants to do with his life. He knows that he wants “to find joy and reason and meaning,” and the forest represents to him the promise that this is possible. But he has found few signs of it in what he has seen of the way people actually live. He is especially disillusioned by what he has been taught in college. By the end of the scene, he encounters Roark and the Monadnock Valley resort he designed, which gives the boy “the courage to face a lifetime.”

There is another character in The Fountainhead who contemplates sunlight filtering through leaves at a key moment in her life:

Dominique lay stretched out on the shore of the lake. She looked at the house on the hill, at the tree branches above her. Flat on her back, hands crossed under her head, she studied the motion of leaves against the sky. It was an earnest occupation, giving her full contentment. She thought, it’s a lovely kind of green, there’s a difference between the color of plants and the color of objects, this has light in it, this is not just green, but also the living force of the tree made visible, I don’t have to look down, I can see the branches, the trunk, the roots just by looking at that color. That fire around the edges is the sun, I don’t have to see it, I can tell what the whole countryside looks like today. The spots of light weaving in circles—that’s the lake, the special kind of light that comes refracted from water, the lake is beautiful today, and it’s better not to see it, just to guess by these spots. I have never been able to enjoy it before, the sight of the earth, it’s such great background, but it has no meaning except as a background, and I thought of those who owned it and then it hurt me too much. I can love it now. They don’t own it. They own nothing. They’ve never won. I have seen the life of Gail Wynand, and now I know. One cannot hate the earth in their name. The earth is beautiful. And it is a background, but not theirs. (696–697)

Up until this point, Dominique has not thought that the world was open to human success and happiness, because she thought it was “owned” by contemptible people who made a life of genuine value pursuit and achievement impossible. It is this premise that, combined with her love of integrity and of Howard Roark in particular, motivated her actions up to this point in the novel. But now she has learned that contemptible people are ultimately impotent. What power they seem to have is loaned to them by better people, such as Gail Wynand, who have made a mistake similar to her own. The specific obstacles and acts of destruction wrought by contemptible people are real, but they are not signs of a reality inimical to happiness, but merely local evils to be fought in order to forge and protect values in a world where a happy and flourishing life is possible and to be expected, by those who earn it.

The sunlight-in-leaves imagery also appears at significant points in the life of Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged. The first is on an early morning when she, then 16 years old, is walking home through the woods with Francisco d’Anconia, after having completed a shift at her first job (as the a night operator of Rockdale station):

A haze of twilight remained over the ground, but in the breaks between the tree trunks there were leaves that hung in patches of shining green and seemed to light the forest. (107)

The two come to a clearing where they consummate their relationship.

Dagny’s romance with Francisco and her first job represent what she expects and wants out of life. But as she ages she too seldom finds it. The image of glowing green leaves recurs in the hour of her greatest professional achievement, when she seems to have arrived in world that she has been working towards. As the John Galt Line is about to make its first run she notices “a green [signal] light . . . against leaves of a summer green that looked as if they, too, were lights” (239).

It is not long, however, before the Line is used to destroy all of the values for the sake of which she had created it, and the world she wants seems more and more out of reach. Her central conviction in life has been “the world is mine to shape in the image of my highest values,” but especially in her work life, she finds that her accomplishments are undone and her vision of what life could and should be recedes ever further from the reality of her days.

Across Part II of the novel, Dagny struggles to make sense of this, and to find a way to proceed in a world in which—incomprehensibly to her—rational values are unattainable. During this portion of the book Dagny occasionally notices sunlight filtering through autumn foliage. This is one of several symbols in this portion of the book for a dying civilization. (There are a few subtler mentions of light through green foliage signaling brighter moments.)

Dagny’s struggle climaxes in a desperate airplane chase in which she follows what she thinks is the last hope for a dying society though treacherous mountain terrain. She crashes and loses consciousness:

When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man’s face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen—and now she had reached it—and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: But of course.

She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. [ . . . ] He was looking down at her with the faint trace of a smile, it was not a look of discovery, but of familiar contemplation—as if he, too, were seeing the long-expected and the never-doubted.

This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence—and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone’s senseless joke. She smiled at him, as at a fellow conspirator, in relief, in deliverance, in radiant mockery of all the things she would never have to consider important again. He smiled in answer, it was the same smile as her own, as if he felt what she felt and knew what she meant.

“We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” she whispered.

“No, we never had to.”

The man, of course, is John Galt. And from this moment on Dagny is in her world—the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen, when her affair with Francisco seemed to be a promise of what life could be as an adult. She never again doubts that rational values—that her values—can be achieved. There are a number of difficult questions left for her to answer and mistakes to correct before the ultimate conflict driving the novel can be resolved, but the contradiction between her core conviction that values are possible and her experience of a world in which they in inexplicably are not is over. She knows that, as Galt later puts it, “The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

If we look over the passages in which the the lights-though-green-leaves imagery occurs I think we can see that it is, for Rand, a symbol of this view of the world and of what’s possible in it—a symbol of the conviction that she called “the benevolent universe premise.” Here is how Allan Gotthelf and I described that conviction in Ch. 18 of A Companion to Ayn Rand :

It is the view that the universe is open to man’s achievement and success—that the achievement of values and the enjoyment of happiness are, as Ragnar says, the natural state, the norm, the to‐be‐expected. It is the view that suffering and tragedy are the accidental, “to be fought and thrown aside,” as Galt says, “not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.”

Rand held this view all her life and struggled to hold on to it in her worst moments.

It is a struggle to form and maintain this conviction particularly in environments dominated by the irrationality and evil of others, and this figures prominently in Rand’s four novels. The holder of the benevolent universe premise recognizes that the nature of reality is such that rationality and virtue lead to happiness, that evil is ultimately impotent and so can and must be fought and overcome, and that the particular times and places where evil dominates and the good cannot prevail are due to local factors that can be changed or escaped (whether or not any given individual succeeds in changing or escaping them).

Kira is able to maintain this perspective even in Soviet Russia. Leo is not, though Kira is sometimes able to revive it in him. The hero of Anthem discovers that it is a benevolent universe, when he escapes his society—first for his stolen hours in his tunnel, but then fully during his time in the Uncharted Forest. The boy on the bicycle, overwhelmed and discouraged by the petty senselessness of what everyone he knows have made of their lives, and is not certain that it is possible to define and achieve a life he wants for himself. He learns better when he sees Monadnock. Dominique thinks that the world she wants is not possible, because the world is dominated by such senselessness and hypocrisy, which are epitomized by the Wynand papers. She learns better by learning the source of the paper’s apparent power, and coming to see that this power is merely apparent. Meeting Galt and (then) seeing the community he created in the valley, reaffirms Dagny’s knowledge that the world she wants is possible, and recasts what had become a growing metaphysical crisis about why she had been unable to achieve it in the wider world into a concrete problem to be solved.

Why is it sunlight through green leaves that symbolizes this perspective for Rand? In part, I’m sure it was a personal association. There are other images that could have served the same function for another author with different experiences and preferences. But it is a very suitable image, because, as Dominique puts it “this is not just green, but also the living force of the tree made visible.” The thinness and greenness of leaves that gives light the character it has when passing through them, is due to the leaves’ essential function in the plant’s life—a function that they’re fulfilling precisely when they are illuminated. And, because of their thinness, when they are so illuminated one can see clearly the vessels within each leaf. It is when light streams through the leaves of a tree that we can most fully appreciate that the tree is alive. We live in an environment made up largely of flourishing organisms. In such a world, it is possible for us to flourish as well.

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