Monday, February 08, 2010

A non-review of Ayn Rand's fiction

My theory about the attraction many of my generation had with Ayn Rand (I noticed this particularly in college) was that the people who became enamored of her just simply had read little else. Their estimation of her as a novelist--Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, etc.--was hampered by their lack of having read other novels--or at least their lack having read any very good ones which they could have used for comparison.

Upon reading Roger Kimball's own personal testimony about Rand--that he read never actually read her books, partly because he started one or two and simply couldn't get through them and partly because he was dissuaded by the testimonies of critics who found her literary skills to be severely lacking, I find myself in much the same position: I tried The Fountainhead, and after several chapters just put the sorry thing down, wondering what it was that had so transfixed so many of my friends.

I would have tried harder, but I had already read Whitaker Chambers famous literary take-down of her books written more than 50 years ago now in his review of Atlas Shrugged:

Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to that most primitive story known as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.

The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. Insofar as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in boardrooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian dAntonio. This electrifying youth is the world's biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danesjold. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad).

So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain's, "all the knights marry the princess" — though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily. The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)

Those and his other comments made me think the effort unlikely to yield any greater appreciation. Why read this kind of thing when there are so many other more worthy contenders for my time?

The silly names alone reminded me of having the misfortune of seeing one of the "Left Behind" movies one night while scanning the channels when I was staying at a hotel: Rayford Steele, Nikolai Carpathia, Ivy Gold. If you ever find yourself in a room with more than one or two names like this, you may be in a bad novel.

Now a Randian could argue that I have not read the books, and that therefore I cannot judge them, to which I can only say that I am not judging them. I am only explaining why I have not read them: because I have never yet encountered anyone whose literary tastes I respected say they were worth reading--and plenty whose tastes I did respect who assured me I needn't bother.

37 comments:

john said...

I won't carp that you have not read Rand, therefore do not judge. That would be to strike outside your method of judging. Your method of judging is to pick someone other than yourself who you HAVE judged, and do whatever they say. Granted you have somehow judged that those others are worthy. How did you do that?

It's okay, we encounter many people who can't get through a chapter or two. I for one would not encourage you to try. I mean this sincerely: it is not for you. It would be like someone suggesting over and over again thousands of times that I read the bible. I tried once, could not get past the first chapter.

If you had gone deeper into Ayn Rand's writing, however, you would have found that she put a very specific name for the very specific method of judgment you outlined.

John Donohue
Objectivist

Martin Cothran said...

John,

Thanks for posting. How did I judge the others to be worthy? How about on the basis of reading them on many other matters in which their judgment proved out?

I gave two reasons that, in conjunction, led to my decision not to read further: 1) that none of the people whose judgment I trusted judged the books worthy of reading; 2) That a reading of several chapters of The Fountainhead indicated the likelihood that the judgment was sound.

Do you have no people whose judgment you trust? Do they all say the Bible is not worth reading? After all, it has some of the greatest minds in history affirming that it does.

And I would love to hear the name of Rand's judgment. I'm sure it serious sounding name. She seemed to be a very serious person.

john said...

what if the others you trust are wrong? they are not perfect.

The bible and religion have some of the greatest minds in history deny it's worth. However, that's not how I made up my mind.

I don't know what you mean by "the name of Rand's judgement." Her standard of value is life on this earth.

Martin Cothran said...

How can your standard of value be "life on earth"? A standard of value is what you use to judge life on earth. It seems sort of circular to say that your standard of value for life on earth is life on earth.

Is this what I can look forward to if I read Rand?

john said...

Rand's basis is life in objective reality, humans as free sovereigns and reason as an absolute. Does that help? It is something so fundamental that it should be no problem for any honest person to stand by. After all, if life is not the ultimate standard of value, one does not exist; there is no alternative to life.

What you can look forward to is that nothing she advocates violates this standard. No sacrifice, no slaving or enslavement, no co-dependance, no domination. The price is: no faking of reality.

Lee said...

Who made reason an absolute? If Rand was correct, then there was no God, and thus no design. The universe can be summed up thusly: matter and energy collide with each other, and stuff happens. "Reason" is not absolute at all: it is a mere conceit -- a name we give to certain configurations of brain chemistry that we cannot identify and can't control. What seems "reasonable" to me may not be "reasonable" to someone else.

Unless, that is, there is something that transcends man and is able to be the standard for his thinking. But if there is nothing greater than man, we are back to brain bubbles.

I did read Rand. Atlas Shrugged first, and then The Fountainhead. Rand understood two things: economics and liberals. It's a lot, but ultimately, not nearly enough.

john said...

"Reason is an absolute for human beings." Hope that clarifies.

It means no contradictions and objective reality.

What does "transcend" mean?

Lee said...

> "Reason is an absolute for human beings." Hope that clarifies.

It clarifies nothing.

> It means no contradictions and objective reality.

What is "objective reality"? Is it what we perceive through our senses? Then how come Rand infers God doesn't exist? How did she perceived that through her senses?

Or is objective reality what really exists whether we can directly sense it or not?

> What does "transcend" mean?

To be higher than. Greater than. If you hold Reason up to be the arbiter of man's thinking, then you are saying in effect that Reason transcends man.

I don't disagree, as far as it goes. I'm only asking how Objectivism can give an account of that, given that they reject God. Logic follows perfectly well from the premise that God created man in His image -- since God is all wise and all knowing, logic is therefore a reflection of the way He thinks, and its authority prevails in our discussions.

But if man is nothing but pond scum with delusions of grandeur, here by accident, no higher power existing, where does this Reason come from? And what obligates any of us to sit at its feet and gaze in loving worship?

Reason, after all, is nothing more than a tool, when all is said and done. A reasonable man who wants to build things can employ reason to do so. And a reasonable man who wants to steal things can employ reason to do that too. Doesn't desire come before reason?

Thomas said...

John,

I'm not sure I understand either. Reason is an absolute for Christians too, in a sense, because the second person of the Trinity is identified as "Logos"--deliberately using a Middle Platonic term that signified (among other things) reason. I suspect, however, that this understanding of reason would not fly well with Objectivism.

john said...

I'll give the Objectivist usage: reason is non-contradictory identification of objective reality (everything that exists) using logic and previously established facts.

That will not likely meet agreement for anyone who accepts that God exists a priori.

Ayn Rand does not need to infer that God does not exist; she instead proposes a complete philosophy that does not mention God. There is no burden for her to prove the truth of a negative.

It is not likely that there is any common ground in this conversation and I actually meant it quite simply that Atlas Shrugged is therefore not for you. No problem.

Lee said...

As best as I can tell, Randism is not free of contradictions, and thus fails its own test. The contradiction is that it appeals to a higher morality even while denying the very thing that would make a higher morality possible.

> Ayn Rand does not need to infer that God does not exist; she instead proposes a complete philosophy that does not mention God. There is no burden for her to prove the truth of a negative.

In my humble opinion, proposing that Rand offers a "complete philosophy" is not a humble opinion. It's a rather brash proposition -- that is, unless she or her devotees can explain how her philosophy accounts for the existence and the authority of Reason (and morality, which Rand rather quaintly believed to follow from Reason).

Lee said...

I should add that the "common ground" we share in this discussion is a belief in reason, and presumably morality as well. We probably share a belief that reason and morality should hold sway in the courts and parlors of mankind. We probably share a belief that logic should be corrected when it is in error, that some behaviors are sins and should be punished, and that we can infer a consistent universe.

What we don't share is the idea that reason and morality just "is". I can't think of a single molecule, chemical reaction, or burst of energy that explains not only why it exists, but why it holds authority over us and our conversations and day-to-day actions.

I would very much appreciate any explanation you could provide that explains these things. If Randism is a "complete philosophy", that shouldn't be a problem.

john said...

It is not called "Randism". It is called Objectivism.

"Why" something exists is not morality.

"Reason" as I explicated it does not "hold sway" as in "dominate". Humans can decline to deploy reason (facts and logic) at any time; it is not automatic. And it is a function of human activity, not a "thing" detached from consciousness.

Lee said...

> "Why" something exists is not morality.

Not just "why" morality, or Reason, exists. Why ought we to listen to it? What gives it its authority? When someone makes a logic error, you point it out. When someone wrongs you, you point it out. Why should that someone care? More importantly, why should *you* care?

If the bank makes an error in your account in your favor, even if you knew they would never catch it themselves, why should you bring it to their attention? Should you only bring it to their attention if doing so makes you feel better? What if it doesn't? What if you would really prefer to have the money?

And what does Reason have to do with your decision? Is it reasonable to adhere to a set of moral principles, the existence of which you can't even explain? Why? Seems like the reasonable thing to do is take the money, knowing from experience that money helps you. And even if they find the error, they can't blame you for it, all they can do is ask sheepishly for their money back.

In short, depending on your belief system, reason and morality can make your life measurably worse. When this happens, why should we heed them regardless?

> And it is a function of human activity, not a "thing" detached from consciousness.

So then, it is a function of brain chemistry, correct? Can you identify the chemicals or the electrical impulses in someone's brain that constitute reason? Or identify the component chemicals/impulses that comprise unreasonable thinking?

Why should we trust our senses in this? Lots of people are clinically insane. Others have emotional or psychological conditions that keep them from thinking clearly. Why should they prefer to think clearly, if thinking clearly keeps them from leading happy lives?

And from what you say, reason does not exist apart from man -- so we can quit capitalizing it. That's reason, small "r". An activity in the brain. No need to exalt it. It didn't exist before man did, and it won't exist when man (or some other reasonable creature who supercedes man) is gone. It doesn't care, one way or the other.

Why should we?

john said...

First of all, I did not capitalize it. Second, yes and it is only a function of human beings. If man goes extinct so does reason necessarily. That is trivial. What is not trivial is the acceptance of reason as an absolute. Man has no other means of cognition other than reason. Emotions, drives, irrational beliefs, all these things exist, and many people convince themselves they are primary for them, but they are not methods of knowing, of true testing. This is where we part ways. Theists reject this idea. Objectivists reject faith.

All of the other quibbles on this page come after this gulf. It is not appropriate for me to argue them.

Martin Cothran said...

John,

First you say that reason is somehow inconsistent with a priori judgments like the a priori belief that God exists, and then you say, "Ayn Rand does not need to infer that God does not exist; she instead proposes a complete philosophy that does not mention God," which is essentially asserting the a priori NON-existence of God.

If you can't rationally assume God exists a priori, then how is it any more rational to assume that he does NOT exist a priori?

Either is an a priori assertion. Why is one rational and the other not?

Thomas said...

I'm curious who is even saying that God can be known to exist a priori? That's not typical of Christians generally, and not particularly typical of theologians.

Martin Cothran said...

John,

If man goes extinct so does reason necessarily. That is trivial. What is not trivial is the acceptance of reason as an absolute.

If reason goes extinct when its practitioners do, then how can it be absolute? What do you mean by absolute, if not that it somehow transcends particular humans?

If reason isn't higher than individual humans then why would it have any binding authority on anyone at all?

john said...

Martin,

An a priori assumption that something does NOT exist is an unneeded step. The burden is on someone claiming that something exists to prove it through reason. To demonstrated its existence. I realize you've heard that many times, but that is the actual answer.

Rand does not even take the step of saying "As part of my philosophical system, I reject the idea of having to assert that God does not exsit." She simply does not mention or allude to God whatsoever in her formal philosophy. They only time it comes up is when other people introduce the idea and, frankly, fully expect God to be admitted into existence a priori. Then she sometimes speaks out.

So, I deny that by not mentioning God she is "essentially asserting the a priori NON-existence of God."

Lee said...

> First of all, I did not capitalize it.

Well, if it transcends man, then it ought to be capitalized. But physically speaking, it's just brain chemistry, so it has to be demoted.

> Second, yes and it is only a function of human beings. If man goes extinct so does reason necessarily. That is trivial. What is not trivial is the acceptance of reason as an absolute.

Which is an arbitrary claim. I asked you to respond to a hypothetical case where it could be argued that reason should not be considered absolute.

> Man has no other means of cognition other than reason.

So who died and made cognition the thing which must be served?

> Emotions, drives, irrational beliefs, all these things exist, and many people convince themselves they are primary for them, but they are not methods of knowing, of true testing.

Physically, chemically, measurably, there is no difference we can discern between a rational thought or an emotion or irrational notion. One bubble in the brain vs. another bubble in the brain -- or in someone else's brain. How do we tell the good ones from the bad ones?

It *does* all boil down to physics, right?

> This is where we part ways. Theists reject this idea. Objectivists reject faith.

We both come to the table with a set of presuppositions in which we have invested faith. You believe reason to be absolute even though you just admitted it is not absolute but is tied to man's continued existence. It serves us; we don't serve it. Why then is it absolute, and not us?

You also have to explain why, having just exalted reason as absolute, you have to justify it by employing faith, which presumably is not absolute. Your problem just got harder, not easier.

> All of the other quibbles on this page come after this gulf. It is not appropriate for me to argue them.

"Quibbles"? Does labeling an argument a quibble mean that it doesn't have to be answered? And why is searching for the reason behind the enshrinement of reason as an absolute best termed a quibble? Should we accept it as absolute because Ayn Rand said so? Did she prove it? Pray tell, how can you prove the absoluteness of reason without using reason, and thus begging the question? Isn't she (and you) taking the primacy of reason on faith? Then why isn't faith absolute?

Regarding why you should/should not continue arguing: Your choice. But I think a "complete philosophy" that cannot explain these things is not complete at all.

john said...

Context. Context for "reason" is: man's method of cognition. Man is a rational animal. So that is simply factual.

Here's what "absolute" means in this context (the method of man's cognition): non-contradictory identification of that which exists. That's what it means to "know." Reason is absolute in this context because there is no other method. Man has autonomic functions, yes, but they are not the mans of knowing. They are instinctual reaction mechanisms. I am claiming that reason is the absolute only method of cognition for man.

Martin Cothran said...

John,

Is the Randian system agnostic or atheistic?

Lee said...

> An a priori assumption that something does NOT exist is an unneeded step. The burden is on someone claiming that something exists to prove it through reason.

On whom does the burden of proof exist that reason is something that exists and ought to be heeded?

> Rand does not even take the step of saying "As part of my philosophical system, I reject the idea of having to assert that God does not exsit."

This is from Wikipedia:

> Rand rejected all forms of faith or mysticism, terms that she used synonymously. She defined faith as "the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one's senses and reason. ... Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'"

All allegations, that is, except her own: that reason is absolute. How did she know that? By instinct? Intuition? You can't prove reason is absolute by assuming it is absolute. Can you?

> She simply does not mention or allude to God whatsoever in her formal philosophy.

No. She mentions "mysticism" and then dismisses it.

> They only time it comes up is when other people introduce the idea and, frankly, fully expect God to be admitted into existence a priori. Then she sometimes speaks out.

Should we speak out, then, when an Objectivist introduces the idea of reason as an absolute, and, frankly, fully expects it to be admitted into existence a priori?

john said...

atheistic -- meaning "not concerned with God"

john said...

Lee,

I am not going to quibble about things on the other side of the gulf. Suffice it to say the notions some of you are bandying about in Objectivism, if returned in like kind, would consist of crudly criticising the makeup of the Trinity, the true meaning of Christ's sacrifice, etc. This would be off base and not appropriate.

Lee said...

> I am not going to quibble about things on the other side of the gulf. Suffice it to say the notions some of you are bandying about in Objectivism, if returned in like kind, would consist of crudly criticising the makeup of the Trinity, the true meaning of Christ's sacrifice, etc. This would be off base and not appropriate.

John, what did I say that was disrespectful?

Martin Cothran said...

John,

The established and common usage of the word 'atheist' is positive disbelief in God. Your definition seems more appropriate to agnosticism. So let me put the question this way: Did Rand positively disbelieve in God or was she simply not concerned with His existence at all?

john said...

Yes, an atheistic person does not bleive in God. That is correct. Ayn Rand did not believe in God. I do not believe in God. That is atheism.

It says NOTHING about proving God does not exist. That is not our job. If you believe in God, that is your job.

And....Objectivism is a philosophy that does not mention God, deal with God, recognize God, disprove God.

john said...

I don't recognize "positive disbelief" as a legitimate formulation. It is an attempt to stuff in the idea that an atheist is required to "disprove" the existence of God.

john said...

Lee you did not say anything I took as disrespectful. I judged that if I replied in kind it would violate my own standard of respect.

Martin Cothran said...

John,

The assertion "God does not exist" is an assertion like any other, and requires proof. If you assert it, you've got the burden of proof in establishing it. What logical rule that says that negative propositions occupy some privileged place in argument that relieves them of having to be established?

john said...

Martin,

The assertion "God does not exist" is an assertion like any other, and requires proof. If you assert it, you've got the burden of proof in establishing it. What logical rule that says that negative propositions occupy some privileged place in argument that relieves them of having to be established?

If one makes the assertion or accepts a challenge in the formulation "God does not exist," then yes, he would have to prove that God does not exist. He cannot claim -- if he makes this assertion -- that he is proven correct just because his opponent cannot prove that God does exist. Nope. He would have to prove it. I have no problem with this.

The obverse is of course in play. No one claiming "God exists" can say he is proven correct if others cannot prove God does not exist.

I feel quite fortunate to be well out of that twister. "I do not believe in God." This contains no burden for you to prove God exists, nor me to prove that God does not exist. It is removed.

"I do not believe in God" is vastly different than "God does not exist."

An Objectivist is an atheist; he does not believe in God. If no one outside of Objectivist did not bring the subject up, it would not come up.

Thomas said...

In defense of John, what he's talking about is known as weak atheism. The distinction between that and strong atheism is simply that the strong atheist believes in the non-existence of God because of a positive argument (such as one that says God categorically cannot exist), while soft atheism believes in the non-existence of God due to the lack of any positive reason to believe in God.

john said...

I regret there are many or any walking around who attempt to assert and prove as fact "God does not exist." They have no need to do that and it feeds the illusion. I would not call those people "strong" in any way.

Strength is found in facing reality and man's condition on its terms, not what we wish it were.

Lee said...

> It says NOTHING about proving God does not exist. That is not our job. If you believe in God, that is your job.

I don't believe I have asked that. All I have done is ask how you can account for absolute reason and morality if God does not exist. So far, you have dismissed any such questions as "quibbling" and "inappropriate".

That leaves me here, you understand, trying to grasp why my presuppositions -- namely, God created the heavens, the earth, reason, logic, morality, you name it -- are appropriate for skepticism, while your presuppositions -- e.g., reason is absolute -- are not.

The worst thing I could do is to sit here, while allowing you to think that objectivism brings no presuppositions of its own to the table.

Unless you point me to a better source, I'll rely on Wikipedia as a starting point...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_%28Ayn_Rand%29

Here is their third paragraph:

> "The name 'Objectivism' derives from the principle that human knowledge and values are objective: they are not created by the thoughts one has, but are determined by the nature of reality, to be discovered by man's mind."

There are a lot of presuppositions packed into that statement, right there. It's hard to know where to begin unpacking it. "Human knowledge" is objective? Really? Do we even know, at any given time, how to distinguish fact from falsehood? Global warming, for example, is starting to look more and more like a hoax, but for a decade or more it has been touted as gospel. Because humans have differences in perception, cognitive ability, and are subject to extra-cognitive stimuli (e.g., rewards for having the "correct" views, punishment for having the "incorrect" views), telling me that human knowledge is "objective" tells me nothing. Fine, reality is objective. Human knowledge is imperfect, incomplete, and probably destined to stay that way.

And human "values" are objective, too? Please. Objectivists think that stealing someone's productive capacity is wrong, no matter how many poor people could be helped by stealing it. Others think that if someone has more than he can ever consume, and you have a poor person here who needs help, that we are entitled to take from the rich person and give to the poor. So which viewpoint is "objectively" correct? The objectivists'? Why? It may be true, but it isn't obvious.

As for "nature of reality" -- in the materialistic view, everything is randomness. There is no god moving the pieces around on his, or our, behalf. So where would the predictability come from? Should we base our "knowledge" on unproven concepts such as logic and the power of inference?

All I'm really saying is, an objectivist must have faith in things unseen. Same as a Christian. Christians just take it a step further and hold that reason and morality must have been created by Someone who is higher than us, His creatures. Otherwise, it makes no sense to assume that reason and morality objectively exist.

To sum up Doug Wilson's thoughts, without God, there was a big bang, matter and energy are random in their movements... and stuff happens. Rand has based a whole philosophical system on shifting and sinking sand.

Believing that meaning can spring from meaninglessness? It takes *real* faith to believe that. I have much less faith than that: I merely believe in the Lord, my Creator, who made sense out of the senseless, and pulled meaning out of chaos.

Lee said...

John, I ask the same questions of you that I ask every atheist I run across. I don't get many answers. One fellow, posting on this blog in fact, was quite knowledgeable about the shortcomings of a materialist universe and took the ancient Greek view that morality and God (supposing He exists) must stand apart -- and therefore we have no need of Him. I found his position intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing because he could not explain the nature of morality or where it came from, or why we should consider it authoritative -- he balked at that concept, in fact.

Another fellow I spoke with, a Buddhist (different board), also seems to believe in right and wrong, but thinks they are merely part of nature. But if they are just part of nature, why not work around them too, like we work around other parts of nature? Gravity says man can't fly, so we built planes. Outer space says man can't breathe, so we invented space vehicles. Why not find a way around morality too, whenever it becomes inconvenient? If it's just nature, why respect it anymore than we already respect nature? E.g., not much.

The materialist has the hardest time of it. If physics is all there is and all there is is physics, morality and reason are nothing more than bubbles in the brain, and there is no set of criteria to judge one set of brain impulses more authoritative than another, apart from personal tastes. A materialist is someone who looks at a book and sees paper, patterns of ink, and glue, and proclaims, "Why, we have no need of this 'author' hypothesis!" He sees the patterns, and can even discern some of the meaning. However, he rejects the idea that the meaning was put there intentionally. So he argues for one or more of the components of that meaning and brushes aside any questions about why he does it -- and refuses to look at where the implications of such meaning takes him.

Anonymous said...

After I finished Atlas Shrugged, I shrugged. As Rand said once to Alan Greenspan... Alan, my dear, peel me another grape.