As evidence, see this awful piece from The New Criterion, which seemingly regresses to the critical state of the 1950s, before a well-developed knowledge of Rand's ideas had propagated through society. There was scarcely any excuse for this in the fifties; there is absolutely no excuse today, with the many Objectivist resources available, starting with The Ayn Rand Institute.
Between harping yet again on the Fountainhead "rape" scene, and about how she lost friends over the years, and Rand's imagined similarities to Joseph Stalin (!), the article engages in numerous intellectual gaffes. For example:
From the correct psychological insight that the allegedly compassionate sometimes use the existence of the weak and needy as a tool for their own social ascent and attainment of power—whole political parties, in almost every country, are founded upon this principle — it does not in the least follow that there are no people in need of assistance or that compassion for them is ipso facto bogus and a cover for the will to power.
Unfortunately, this statement is typical of the critical vein of the article, and misses the mark. Rand's point was not that others do not need assistance (something that is dependent upon physical fact as well as personal disposition), or that assisting others is bad (she regards it as morally optional and dependent on personal values). She does make the first point mentioned above: that pity is used as a political tool. However, her main points are A) to warn against an inversion of moral values in which need is raised to the level of a value and is made a primary moral claim on the productive, and B) to warn those who stand to lose values against being disarmed by the call to sacrifice. She is against the idea that need is morally superior to having, because she saw the link between a moral code and life and death: that values promote life, and need per se drains values (and therefore the life they support). This subtlety will escape anyone who projects a conventionally negative and incorrect view of egoism on what Rand is saying.
Daniels then moves to Rand's fiction:
Rand’s hero-worship is also Nietzschean in inspiration. It is deeply unpleasant. She entirely lacks the literary ability to convey anything admirable, or even minimally attractive, about her heroes, who are the kind of people one would not cross the road to meet, though one might well cross it to avoid them.
All I can say here is: "Speak for yourself!", since I would rather spend time with Roark than Daniels. Although most of her heroes are not what I'd call cuddly, this is because they are projections, not photographs. Daniels' criticism suggests the error of judging romanticism through the lens of naturalism. For example, Rand does not mention whether Roark does laundry, so are we to assume that he wears the same clothes day in, day out, and smells bad? The book is not filled with stories of his trips to the grocery store, so does he always dine out?
If The New Criterion is indeed a journal of cultural criticism, they should know to apply the appropriate esthetic standard to the work being criticized: that of romanticism. Roark's personality carries certain behavioral traits to their extreme, such as a reliance on his own mind. The fact he is not chummy is because the author selected only certain traits for the portrayal. Are we to castigate El Greco for painting in linear shapes, or Fra Angelico for his unreal bright patches of color, or Vermeer for painting in dots and lines? If Daniels wanted a more congenial character, perhaps he should have looked to Francisco D'Anconia; at least he would be fun at a party, provided one is not a looter.
About Roark's architecture, he says:
Howard Roark is the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, but there is abundant evidence in the book that he is not a very good architect: his ideas are totally derivative and, furthermore, derivative of ideas that are themselves not merely worthless, but monstrous. Like his creator, he claims an originality that he does not have... This is pure, unadulterated Le Corbusier. Indeed, it could have been written by him.
Apparently Rand needed to be an original architect with no historical sources, in addition to being a novelist and a philosopher. Rand was known to have admired the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and patterned Roark's fictional work after some of Wright's ideas. Does this negate originality? The proper standard of creativity is not simply doing something that has never been done by anyone, but of acting according to purpose and first-hand decision-making, not mere imitation. Therefore Roark designs by seeing and making first-hand cognitive calculations to relate a building's structure to its environment. The nature of productivity and creation itself is beyond the scope of this post, so I will leave it at that.
With regard to Rand's life and personality, Daniels makes every effort to drag Rand from her chosen home in America back into Russia, even likening her to Joseph Stalin whenever he deems it possible:
In some respects, Rand is almost Soviet. Her habit of remaking the past in accordance with her wishes or needs of the present is most striking.
This charge has been leveled before, notably in Anne C. Heller's Rand biography. I can see the reason for this statement, since she always emphasized the qualities that embodied her personal values, and self-reliance was high on the scale. However, I read Heller's book and frankly I don't understand the myopic focus on what are basically a couple of socially clumsy actions from her youth. For example, when she was young, she promised to supply various gifts when she was famous. She also apparently accepted a loan from family, from whom she was later somewhat estranged, and who it is alleged she did not repay. However, as a mature adult she maintained warm and grateful relations with many people who helped her, such as Archie Ogden and Cecil B. DeMille. To liken her attitude to Stalin, of all people, is utterly and underhandedly vicious.
Regarding Rand's view of her ideas' origin:
Like any Stalinist despot, Ayn Rand considered herself to be totally unprecedented and quite without parallel.
Actually, Rand's view is the accurate one. While various authors developed similar ideas, the essentials of her philosophy are unique in history. One would be challenged to find the historical sources for the following selected ideas that Rand originated:
- The sanction of the victim, i.e. the idea that only the moral permission of oppressed producers makes their exploitation possible
- The observation that Kant regarded the mind as ineffective precisely because it has an identifiable nature, which is in fact the source of the mind's efficacy for the living organism
- The derivation of the concept of moral value from the nature and requirements of life
- The idea that concept formation involves the retention of similarities and the dropping of specific measurements
- The idea of art as a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's "metaphysical value judgments"
- Her presentation of the axiomatic concepts underlying philosophy
- The insight that focusing the mind, not choosing, is the essence of free will
- The definition of "value" as that which one actually acts to gain and/or keep (not merely what one claims to value)
In her expository writings, Rand’s style resembles that of Stalin. It is more catechism than argument, and bores into you in the manner of a drill. She has a habit of quoting herself as independent verification of what she says; reading her is like being cornered at a party by a man, intelligent but dull, who is determined to prove to you that right is on his side in the property dispute upon which he is now engaged and will omit no detail.
This glib statement is offered without logical support, in the exact manner of the hypothetical man he is criticizing. The "drill" Ayn Rand uses is logic. To "omit no detail" means you are being thorough. Quoting yourself is necessary when nobody else has said the same thing before you. Next issue!
On her view of architecture and technology:
Her unequivocal admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction as a mark of progress is profoundly Stalinist.
The idea that skyscrapers are Soviet takes the cake; Soviet buildings were bully threats in stone, effectively built by slave labor. Skyscrapers are built by private money by voluntary agreement, and are (even today) renowned the world over as symbols of economic freedom and aspiration. That is why Al Qaeda chose to destroy one of those symbols, rather than a Soviet structure in Moscow.
It's been a while since I've seen such a contemptuous stream of statements about Ayn Rand uttered from such a purportedly high pulpit. Talk about not seeing the forest for the (wrong) trees. In each of these cases, Daniels takes a minor, non-essential attribute of Rand or her writing and stretches it into bizarre hyperbole. There is nothing essential or uniquely Ayn Rand about any of it.
In fact, the essence of Ayn Rand is the polar opposite of that presented by Mr. Daniels. To those who understand her work correctly, she presented an exalted vision of human capability, and achieved astounding and positive things in her own remarkable life. Her philosophical place in history is that of an heir to Classical Greek humanism, with its respect for reason, its focus on the world around us, and its resultant confidence in the possibility of success in human affairs.
If readers wish to discover something about Ayn Rand and her thought, I direct them to her writings, so they may judge for themselves. As for the journal's choice of essayists on Rand, I suggest they apply a more rigorous criterion.