Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ayn Rand In The New Criterion

Some sectors of American culture have not gotten the message yet: Ayn Rand was more than a grumpy ignoramus with no friends who couldn't write.

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)
On Ayn Rand's method of writing, Daniels says the following:
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.

15 comments:

  1. It's not necessary to be a naturalist writer in order to depict plausible characters. Indeed, Rand's early drafts of the Fountainhead show a more realistic Roark than the one in the novel. She deliberately cut the parts that would seem to lessen his perfection in any way. It would be consistent with romanticism as a writing style for Roark to have had an affair with Vesta Dunning. But it was not consistent with Rand's need for Roark to be perfect -- a perfect Roark could not have sex with the deeply imperfect and never-to-be-perfect Dunning.

    Similarly, Roark's every building is declared perfect -- beautiful, cost-efficient, structurally sound -- even though Wright's own most famous work, Fallingwater, proved to have defects. Again, showing an imperfect hero is not inconsistent with romanticism.

    If you think the World Trade Center was "built by private money by voluntary agreement," you might want to learn a bit more about it. The Port Authority is a government agency that used its power of eminent domain to acquire land, and the WTC project was criticized by private real estate developers for using state power and funding to create office space when the private sector at the time already had plenty of vacancies. Lewis Mumford (one of Rand's models for Ellsworth Toohey, of course) described the WTC much as the New Criterion describes Soviet architecture: "purposeless giantism."

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  2. PG,

    >She deliberately cut the parts that would seem to lessen his perfection in any way.

    Of course she did! Roark was supposed to be an ideal man; that's the whole point of the novel. Not every romantic writer artist has/had that intent, however Ayn Rand did.

    There is also the wider underlying point that Rand, and Objectivists, hold a contextual view of perfection, i.e. perfection as an attainable goal within a certain clearly defined context, as opposed to the always-out-of-reach Platonic version. Therefore, we don't see perfection as abnormal or unrealistic. The fact that sometimes people or groups intentionally define perfection to be unattainable is the fault of poorly-constructed standards, not the concept.

    >If you think the World Trade Center was "built by private money by voluntary agreement," you might want to learn a bit more about it.

    Nothing nowadays is free from government influence, so does that mean the government gets to take credit for everything? No. The fundamental difference between skyscrapers in America under free enterprise, vs. Soviet monuments to slavery built under dictatorship, stands.

    Besides, I'm much more concerned about the enormous elephant in the room, i.e. how ineffective the article is as a criticism of Ayn Rand, and at providing any useful information about her.

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  3. How can you on the one hand say that Rand and Objectivists see "perfection as an attainable goal within a certain clearly defined context," while also defending Roark as perfection across all apparent possible contexts: never picked an unworthy girlfriend; never constructed a building that had insufficient reinforcing steel; never initially dismissed a person based on insufficiently heroic appearance (say, someone who was obese or disabled or had a weak chin) who turned out to be a person of great moral and intellectual worth?

    I think it's possible to make a perfect building, but it's not possible that someone could make every building perfect every time -- particularly if he is highly innovative across dozens of sites, because as Wright's experience shows, highly innovative designs are more likely to run into new problems.

    "Nothing nowadays is free from government influence, so does that mean the government gets to take credit for everything? No."

    I didn't say the government gets to take credit for everything. I'm saying that Al Qaeda on 9/11 was attacking state-constructed buildings: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The government involvement in the WTC went way beyond just getting regulatory approvals; the Port Authority owns the site and owned the building that once stood there, and was from beginning to end the force behind the creation and existence of the WTC. The businesses inside were merely tenants. Thus your use of the WTC skyscrapers as an example of the wonders of private enterprise is bizarre.

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  4. Wait, Anthony Daniels as in Theodore Dalrymple? I keep telling my Objectivst acquaintances that this man is not a goddamn friendly fellow-traveler. It's pretty out in the open now.

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  6. PG,

    My concern was with the symbolism of skyscrapers, rather than holds the deed to a particular building.

    As for perfection, I find Roark's brand convincing and inspiring. And one of my own areas of perfection is in knowing when an exchange is not going anywhere. We will have to agree to disagree.

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  7. Matt, I've heard of Theodore Dalrymple, but did not know the connection.

    Based on this essay, a Dalrymple by any other name is still not a friend of reason or individualsm.

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  8. Is the Anthony Daniels really Theodore Dalrymple? If it is, I find it somewhat predictable. At first,having not read Anthony Daniels essay and knowing nothing about him, I thought this was just another anti-Rand rant from a Leftist. But if this is really Theodore Dalrymple then this is anti-Rand, anti-individualist rant from a leading Conservative.

    More evidence that Conservatism and Objectivism are totally incompatible.

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  9. PG,

    Yes it is consistent with romanticism to have an imperfect hero(ine) and in the Fountainhead that role is projected by Dominique. It is also consistent with romanticism to have a perfect hero, especially in the context of Rand's idea of the purpose of esthetics:

    "Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? ... Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is good? Esthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is important?" [The Romantic Manifesto, 36]

    If Rand had written dozens of novels, she could have devoted each one to some variant of perfectible imperfection. Instead, she chose to compact all the variants into the many characters in her four books while attempting to project an all-perfect exemplar in the last two. It was important to her that man hold perfection to be possible.

    And your notion that it is not is untenable. No matter how remote or unlikely perfection may be, the position that it is unattainable is invalid on the face of it. Nothing that is unattainable may be regarded as perfect. And as you have already been reminded, perfection is, like meanings and knowledge, contextual.

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  10. Michael M,

    >"Esthetic abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is important?"

    Interesting point; I had forgotten that statement. In other words, imperfection is not important, but seeking perfection is. Agreed.

    I liken the above criticism of Roark's perfection to talking about the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but noticing only that the plaster has cracks in it, or that God's arm couldn't really be that long. It's not really the point, is it?

    I've got some ideas floating around concerning perfection, principles, and concept formation, but it's not ready for prime time yet. For now, suffice it to say that it's important not to define your goals and standards in terms that are impossible to achieve. Why someone would do that to themselves is beyond me.

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  11. madmax:
    >Is the Anthony Daniels really Theodore Dalrymple?

    If we are to believe the almighty Wikipedia, they would appear to be one in the same

    A.D. is definitely not a fellow traveler. But I've long since given up the idea that conservatism stands for freedom. I gave that up during the Reagan presidency.

    I agree on the misplaced sympathy for conservatism by some Objectivists. We need to relinquish the notion that conservatives are closet Objectivists who just aren't using the right strategy. It doesn't work like that. If you advocate banning abortion, or so-called "moderate" or "sensible" regulatory intervention into commerce, or if you condemn selfishness, you are not advocating freedom and the moral code it requires. You are not a friend of freedom in the first place.

    Daniels may have some good ideas, but on Rand and her philosophy, and I would be willing to bet, on the moral fundamentals, he is dead wrong.

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  12. Ari writes:
    >One would be challenged to find the historical sources for the following selected ideas that Rand originated:

    Hi Ari

    The problem is that Rand's ideas are both good and original in the sense of the old joke: those that are good are not original and those that are original are not good. With that in mind, let's take up your challenge, point by point:

    >1)The sanction of the victim, i.e. the idea that only the moral permission of oppressed producers makes their exploitation possible

    One of the recurring problems with philosophy in general, and Objectivism in particular, is verbalism: a fondness for high-sounding gobbledygook that appears impressive, but is actually either empty, or merely masks a commonplace. So let's unpack what you're trying to say here, which seems to be simply that people who produce things, and are oppressed, shouldn't put up with it. Now, there are any number of people who have said this sort of thing, from Spartacus to Karl Marx. How you can think this is some sort of historically unique insight on Rand's part is quite remarkable. So this is hardly original. Rand does add a twist, however, in that in her novels the "oppressed" are businessmen, architects, and inventors. Is this twist any good? Are they seriously"oppressed"? Well, speaking as a businessman myself, While I sometimes feel oppressed by many things, including the government. But even in that case, in a democratic society I can lobby politicians, vote, and change things. Further, most businessmen I know enjoy a as much if not more freedom than government officials or the workers they employ. Thus considering myself very much more "oppressed" than others seems to be either a rhetorical fantasy or a species of self pity, neither of which seems much of an argument. So, Not Original, and Not particularly Good.

    >2) 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

    This is a bad piece of gobbledygook, Ari. I will attempt to translate: Kant didn't believe man's brain worked, hence he was an irrationalist. Now this is potentially a wide debate, as Kant is a controversial figure, so I'll just note that this view, even if it is Good, which is doubtful, it is certainly Not Original to Rand.

    >3) The derivation of the concept of moral value from the nature and requirements of life

    Actually, Rand produced no such "derivation" - if you mean logically, that is, and of course this is the only "derivation" that matters. If you think she did, please produce it, with formally labelled premises and conclusion. Or, produce your own version of what you think she was "deriving". I don't think you will succeed. So the issue here is not the quality or originality of Rand's insight, but simply its non-existence.

    >4)The idea that concept formation involves the retention of similarities and the dropping of specific measurements

    Well, let's break this down. "Concept formation" is aimed at solving the so-called problem of universals, which in itself can be summarised in a non-gobbledygook way as the problem of why different things are similar. As such we immediately see why "the retention of similarities" is of no help whatsoever in this - it is about as good as saying things are similar because they have similarities. As for measurement omission, this is for once is Original. Here Merlin Jetton explains why it is Not Good.

    (cont. next comment)

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  13. (cont. from above)

    >5) The idea of art as a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's "metaphysical value judgments"

    Again, let's strip away the pretentious verbiage and see what this theory actually amounts to. "Selective recreation of reality" seems to simply mean an artist chooses a subject. Not exactly an amazing insight. But why does he choose it? Because of his "metaphysical value judgements", apparently. Once again, this seems to be padded with verbiage like "metaphysical" in an effort to make it sound more intellectual. We might just as well say "value judgements" or even "values". So we then see Rand's theory as: an artist chooses a subject according to his values. So a gloomy artist will choose gloomy subjects, and recreate them in a gloomy way, a happy artist will choose happy subjects and recreate them in a happy way, etc etc. Childish as it sounds, that's all this amazing theory predicts. Not exactly Original, certainly Not Good.

    >6) Her presentation of the axiomatic concepts underlying philosophy

    It is true that Rand's axiomatic concepts are original. What is lacking is arguments as to why they are good. They are in fact so vague that they can fit just about anything you like. For example, Bertrand Russell presented "Existence exists" to one of the British Idealists - I think F H Bradley - and he had no difficulty accepting it. So: Not Good, at least as a refutation of what Objectivism opposes.

    >7) The insight that focusing the mind, not choosing, is the essence of free will

    Funnily enough, one has to choose to focus the mind, creating something of a problem for this "insight." Not Good.

    >8) The definition of "value" as that which one actually acts to gain and/or keep (not merely what one claims to value)

    Let's see. I pull out Von Mises' "Human Action" and what do I find?: "It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value...and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value..."(p94) So not only can we find it in Mises for starters, please note the phrase "It is customary...". In other words, it's merely a commonplace observation. So, Not Original in the least.

    So in summary, it is quite easy to answer your challenge. I know that wild claims regarding Rand's brilliance and originality are widely promulgated by her followers, such as the Institute that bears her name. But what is remarkable to a non-Objectivist such as myself is how uncritically you've accepted them. Hopefully my passing comments will give you some pause for thought.

    regards
    Daniel

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  14. Daniel Barnes,

    There's nobody named Ari here, and I regret that I'm too full of "gobbledygook" to muster an intelligible response. Get some manners, man.

    BTW, since you post at the awful Ayn Rand Contra Nature site, please refrain from posting here again.

    Thanks.

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  15. mtnrunner2 wrote:
    >There's nobody named Ari here,

    Whoops, mea culpa. Post in haste, repent at my leisure...;-)

    >and I regret that I'm too full of "gobbledygook" to muster an intelligible response.

    Clearly.

    >Get some manners, man.

    I'm sorry if you find "gobbledygook" an offensive description. I thought it rather mild.

    >BTW, since you post at the awful Ayn Rand Contra Nature site, please refrain from posting here again

    As you wish.

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