Ira Levin and This Perfect Day
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Ira Levin"]
Ira Levin was an American novelist, playwright, and songwriter who is best known today, three years after his death, for the immensely successful film versions of his least interesting novels. Levin was born in the Bronx on August 27, 1929. He grew up there and on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He attended the exclusive Horace Mann School, then spent a couple of years at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, before transferring back to New York University, where he graduated, with a degree in English and philosophy, in 1950. During his senior year in college, he took second place in a screenwriting competition sponsored by CBS TV. He won $200 in the process, and his $200 quickly became $600 when NBC offered to buy his screenplay and produce it as an episode of Lights Out, a weekly, 30-minute program now thought of as a precursor to such later shows as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Not that money presented any particular problem for Levin. His father, a wealthy toy importer, had sent him to Horace Mann, Drake, and NYU; now he offered to subsidize young Ira for a couple of years while he made a stab at becoming a professional writer. If, after two years, he had not succeeded in that attempt, he agreed to come to work for his father in the toy business. But his father's subsidy was scarcely necessary at all. Virtually from the moment he walked out of his NYU graduation ceremony, still wearing his cap and gown, Ira Levin was gainfully employed as a freelance writer for network television — not only for NBC, but also for ABC. He began contributing short stories to magazines. His first novel appeared in 1953, when he was 24 years old.
That same year he was drafted. Stationed in Queens with orders to write training films for his fellow GIs, he continued writing for television on the side. So when the need arose for someone to adapt the bestselling 1954 novel No Time for Sergeants for a one-hour TV presentation — an episode of the United States Steel Hour on ABC — Levin seemed like a natural. After all, he was an up-and-coming writer with a number of successful teleplays already to his credit, wasn't he? And he was in the Army, wasn't he?
Levin wrote the teleplay for broadcast in the late winter of 1955. It was seen by the people who owned the stage rights to the novel, and they invited him to write another adaptation, this time for Broadway. The play was a hit, and he was invited to write the screenplay for the 1958 film version, which was also a hit. A newcomer named Andy Griffith starred in all three adaptations as a country bumpkin drafted into the US Army Air Corps during World War II.
Levin wrote for TV and the theater for the next ten years, with mixed success. He made good money, but none of his teleplays attracted as much attention as No Time for Sergeants had attracted. None of his plays did as well on Broadway as No Time for Sergeants either, though a comedy of his in the early 1960s called Critic's Choice did enjoy a more modest success on the Great White Way and was adapted to become a film starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. In 1965, Barbra Streisand scored a middling hit with her recording of "He Touched Me" from Levin's otherwise ill-fated mid-'60s musical, Drat! The Cat!
Then, in 1967, Levin published his second novel. His first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, had sold respectably well and had won the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America as Best First Novel by an American Author in 1954. It's probably stretching a point to describe it as a "mystery," but it is a genuine tour de force and deserves to be regarded as a classic of American crime fiction comparable in stature to The Maltese Falcon, The Long Goodbye, Mildred Pierce, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? That's plenty of success for a first novel by an author still in his early 20s at the time of its publication. Still, nothing could have prepared Levin for the degree of success that greeted his second novel, Rosemary's Baby, in which Satan fathers a child by a modern-day young woman on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The tale was preposterous if taken literally, but it made a startling kind of sense if taken symbolically — much the same kind of sense that Levin made again five years later in The Stepford Wives, another wildly metaphorical story with broadly feminist implications.
But The Stepford Wives was Levin's fourth novel, not his third. His third novel was published in 1970, about midway between Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. This third novel was not nearly as popular as Levin's second novel had been; neither was it as popular as his fourth would be. Unlike his second novel and his fourth novel, it did not sell to Hollywood; no film has ever been based upon it. It is today perhaps the least well-known of Ira Levin's seven novels. But it is also the reason Ira Levin holds a place of honor in the libertarian tradition.
First a bit of background. Levin seems to have read Ayn Rand's classic individualist novel, The Fountainhead, sometime in the 1940s. Perhaps when he was in high school and it was first on the bestseller lists? Perhaps when he was in college, at the time the release of the film version, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey, spurred another big surge in its popularity? Either way, whenever he read it, he liked The Fountainhead quite a lot, and when Rand's next book, the classic libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged, came out in 1957, he bought it and read it and liked it, too. He seems to have liked it enough that he followed up by doing some further reading and by attending some lectures at the Nathaniel Branden Institute. Barbara Branden recalled him in her 1986 biography of Rand as one of the already "accomplished adults rather than youngsters beginning their careers" who "began to enter the circle of Ayn's friends" during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Nathaniel Branden told me emphatically in an email six or seven years ago that "Ira Levin was never a member of the Objectivist circle." He added, however, that Levin did come "to my place once or twice for the evening and Rand was there." The novelist Erika Holzer, who was a member of Rand's inner circle during the mid-1960s, suggested to me six or seven years ago, when I asked her what she remembered about Ira Levin, that he might also have encountered Rand one or more times "after a lecture, when she'd be there to answer questions" and might even have been "a one-time visitor to her apartment."
There's no need whatever to speculate about one thing, at least. It's evident from even the most cursory glance at Levin's third novel that he was exposed in one way or another to Rand's ideas about politics. It's evident also that he had a rare insight into the kinds of obstacles any libertarian movement based on such ideas would have to overcome if it were to enjoy any substantial success.
Levin's third novel, by the way, is called This Perfect Day. It is set late in the 22nd century, for, as Ralph Raico explained in a 1998 article on this remarkable work, "This Perfect Day belongs to the genre of 'dystopian' or anti-utopian novels, like Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four." Here's how Raico describes the situation we encounter in the opening pages of This Perfect Day:
The action begins in the year 141 of the Unification, the establishment of global government, which finally led to consolidating all the world's super-computers into one colossal apparatus lodged deep below the Swiss Alps. Uni-Comp classifies and tracks all the "Members" (of the human Family), decides on their work, residence, and consumption goods, whether they will marry and if so whether they will reproduce, and everything else.
There is no warfare in the world of the Family; there is also no poverty. Nor is there any originality or creativity. Nor is there any passion. As Raico notes,
Uni subjects every Member to monthly "treatments." The injections include vaccines, contraceptives, tranquilizers as prescribed, and a medication that reduces aggressiveness and limits the sex drive to a lackadaisical once-a-week encounter. All of this is mediated by super-caring Psychotherapists ("advisers"), who constantly monitor the Members' mental health.
As for their physical health, that is seen to through their mandatory monthly "treatments" and their food, which consists of nothing but tasteless rice cakes prepared in such a way as to make them maximally nutritious. Members die at 62, however; everyone accepts this as simply the way human life naturally is on this planet. The truth is that a poison is introduced into the monthly "treatments" Members receive, to make sure that they never reach their 63rd birthday. They are, to put it plainly, murdered for "the greater good" — because Uni has decided that, on average, Members begin to cost the Family more than they benefit it shortly after they reach their 62nd birthday.
Into this nightmare, sometime in the year 2135, a young boy is born. His full name — his "nameber" — is Li RM35M4419 (all boys born into the Family are named Jesus, Karl, Bob, or Li after Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei, the four philosophers whose thought underpins this society) but his eccentric grandfather, who is something of a throwback to the "Pre-Uni" days, calls him "Chip" from the very beginning, and ultimately, the nickname sticks. Chip grows up in the Family but not fully of it.
As a young adult, he becomes what Members of the Family are accustomed to calling "sick" — that is, deviant. He becomes very "sick" indeed. He gets together with other "sick" Members to engage in clandestine, forbidden activities like smoking tobacco. Like these other "sick" Members, he works out ways to deceive Uni, so that he receives less medication in his monthly "treatments" and is able to enjoy sex more often than once a week and much more intensely than ever before.
He tries to convince his new friends that they should do more — that they should plot to destroy Uni, foment revolution, or, short of those ideals, figure out a way to escape from the Family and find freedom in an unfree world. His new friends tell him that he's "asking for the impossible." "There's nothing we can do about anything," the leader of the group tells him. "This is Uni's world, will you get that through your head? … This is it right here, brother; all the freedom we can hope for — a pipe and a few jokes and some extra [sex]. Let's not lose what we've got, all right?"
Chip ignores this advice. He learns about an island in the Mediterranean (renamed the Sea of Eternal Peace) where he suspects other escaped "incurables" may be living. With one of the younger, more radical women in the group of "sick" Members he has been consorting with, he manages to reach the island. What he finds there is a mostly impoverished society of the sort we in 21st-century America would probably associate with the so-called Third World. Tobacco is legal and no one is forced to undergo monthly "treatments." People are free to choose their own occupations and to marry whomever they want and produce whatever children they choose to produce. They are free to live as long as they can. But those without political connections are kept in permanent and hopeless poverty by various government interventions in the local economy, so that, at least for Chip, the island the locals call "Liberty" offers very thin gruel indeed.
He begins to suspect that Uni allows "sick" Members to escape to places like this and even assists them in various ways in their attempts to do so. He begins to suspect that he is, in effect, in a prison, punished for being deviant during his years among the Family. "We can't just give up and accept things, adjust ourselves to this prison!" he tells a gathering of natives and fellow refugees from the Family. "We've got to fight, not adjust." His remarks do not meet with approval or agreement. "Accepting and adjusting is all that's possible," he is told by a person who, by the standards that obtain on the island, would have to be described as a radical libertarian. "Be grateful for what you have: a lovely wife, a child on the way, and a small amount of freedom that we hope in time will grow larger." It is patiently explained to Chip that, in the past, there have been others who have left the island determined to damage or cripple Uni and liberate the Members of the Family. None of them has ever returned.
Again, Chip ignores the advice he is offered. He works painstakingly to raise the money to train a small expeditionary crew and equip them for a trip to the European mainland, where they will destroy Uni — blow it to smithereens. Two members of the crew — Chip and one other — actually reach Uni. There they learn the reason none of their predecessors had ever returned to the island of Liberty: because they had been recruited to work, at the highest level, for the Family. They now live in luxury in a secret apartment complex several stories below ground level in a Family stronghold on Lake Geneva, which has been renamed the Lake of Universal Brotherhood.
They wear silks and fine woolens instead of the cheap synthetic fibers that clothe their lower-ranking brethren. They eat gourmet foods. They live as long as they can. It turns out that Uni does let malcontents escape — even helps them to do so if they successfully overcome certain obstacles on their own — and those who come back to harm it they recruit as "programmers," the people who make the rules all the rest of the Family lives by. After all, people who could escape the family and make it all the way to Uni headquarters in an effort at sabotage or destruction must be very determined, very resourceful, very talented, right? They must be natural leaders. The Family needs their talent to help Uni make the best decisions for everyone. Allowing these programmers to live well is a small price to pay for the value they give the Family in return, right?
So, does Chip sell out to the state? Read This Perfect Day for yourself and find out. But be warned: this novel, clever and insightful and moving as it is, is not ideologically perfect. On occasion, in fact, its imperfections are showcased side by side with its greatest strengths. At one point, for example, when Chip is still living among the Family and is meeting clandestinely with his fellow "sick" Members, he comes into possession of some no-longer-circulated history books that had been left in one of the storage rooms of a local museum. He finds these books confusing until one of his "sick" friends suggests to him that "we've been taught things that aren't true … [a]bout the way life was before the Unification." Having grasped for the first time the need for revisionist history, Chip returns to his reading.
A few weeks later, he reports back to his friend that "what amazes me … is how many non-productive members there were. These share-traders and lawmakers; the soldiers and policemen, bankers, tax-gatherers." Well, of course, lawmakers, soldiers, policemen, and tax gatherers were nonproductive in the time before the Unification — which is to say, the time we are living through right now, today, in the early years of the 21st century. In any society in which government is monopolized by the state, such people are nonproductive. Levin is to be congratulated for seeing that, to a passionate proponent of individual liberty like Chip, this is precisely how things would look.
Share-traders and bankers, on the other hand, are productive. For details see the works of Ludwig von Mises, among others — works Ira Levin apparently didn't get around to during his years of sitting at Ayn Rand's feet, though Rand did recommend Human Action to all her students and based her own understanding of economics on its teachings.
This is not, alas, the only example of Levin's naïveté about economics that might be cited from This Perfect Day. How does he imagine that the command economy of the Family could produce even the modest prosperity it does, much less endure for more than a hundred years, with no freer economies anywhere in the outside world large enough to prop it up by providing it with prices to imitate? He seems to grasp that the economy of a place like the island of Liberty would be depressed. But everything we know about economics tells us that the economy of even such a place as that would be more prosperous than the economy of the Family.
Ira Levin wrote four more novels after This Perfect Day — The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, Sliver, and Son of Rosemary, along with another Broadway hit called Deathtrap. The best of Levin's last three novels, Sliver, marked a return to the straightforward crime fiction of his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, 40 years earlier. But none of these later works reflected any particular interest in libertarian ideas or any other specifically political ideas, though a case could be made that, like all of Levin's works, they reflect a more generalized commitment to individualism of various sorts.
Ira Levin died just over three years ago, on November 12, 2007, at the age of 78, the largely unsung author of one of the top half-dozen libertarian novels ever published in our language. This Perfect Day has been out of print in recent years, so largely unsung is it. But a new paperback edition was just published last month, on November 15, 2010, to be exact. Perhaps, with any luck, we'll soon be hearing some long-overdue singing.