Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Scandal of the Founder's Reading List

What makes the Founder's reading list so curious, is not so much the inclusion of books Rand liked, but the inclusion of books Rand didn't like. Hence, we find Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which Rand regarded as the most evil novel ever written; and we also find the inclusion of Theodore Dreiser, an author whose writing Rand regarded as no more competent than that of a typical high school student. Why the inclusion of books Rand didn't like? Some might think it's an attempt to give the devil his due; or maybe merely a way of trying to prove that Founder's is not a slavishly Randian institution after all. However, there is a much easier explanation. The reading list includes books Rand didn't like because these are books that Rand mentioned, and the individual who is most likely responsible for that list, Gary Hull, is a notorious intellectual light-weight who probably has never read at least half the books on his list. After all, it was Hull who, at a party some twenty years ago, expressed credulity at the size of von Mises' books, saying, in effect: "How can anyone read books that are so long!" Hull choose books mentioned by Rand because he had no other way of figuring out which books are important and which aren't, since his reading is so limited.

The trouble is, of course, that some of the books Rand mentioned but disliked are not terribly important. Sinclair Lewis is a fine writer, but he's not a major figure worthy of study in a college literature course. Thomas Wolfe was an immensely talented writer, but his work is excessively narcissistic and, if the truth be told, a disaster for American letters. John O'Hara is a minor figure almost entirely forgotten today. As an additional problem, there are all those books that Rand never mentioned yet which certainly are important—or at least more important than the works mentioned above. Rand seems to have confined reading to classics that she like (or happened to read while attending school in Russia) or early 20th century books. She seems to have known very little (or at least she never mentioned) the lion's share of eighteenth and nineteenth century English and American literature. She never mentioned in print Fielding, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thackery, Trollope, Dickens, Melville, James, Crane, Eliot, Meredith, Hardy. Major Twentieth century figures she wrote nothing about include Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Waugh, Faulkner, and Bellow. She also some gaping holes in French literature: Stendhal, Maupassant, Proust, Gide, Giono, etc. etc.

The real issue we have people who are not well-read trying to set up a Great Books curriculum, and that just doesn't, nor can it ever, work. Worse, such a curriculum is, in a deeper sense, at odds with Objectivism itself, because any student who read and absorbed and understood the best that has been thought and said during the course of Western Civilization could not possibly remain an Objectivist. What makes great books great is their ability to describe and illuminate the great insights into human nature and the human condition. Yet it is precisely these great insights that Objectivism tries so very hard to ignore or deny!


Anonymous said...

I suspect that you are correct about why Hull chose the books he did, and if you're right, it's a sure sign that Founders is a foolish endeavor.

However, two points:

1) Why assume that simply because Ayn Rand never mentioned an author in print that she didn't read him or her? Do you write about every author you read?

2) Even though I have read many (though surely not all) of the authors on your list of those neglected by AR or Hull, I am still an Objectivist. Can you give some examples of the insights into human nature, and the books in which they're found, that would persuade someone away from Objectivism?

Anonymous said...

The inclusion of books that Rand didn't like might be explained by the fact that they'll also teach why some books are bad (that is, according to Rand). So they'll for example probably compare the style of Wolfe with that of Spillane, just as Rand did, and arrive at the same conclusions (surprise, surprise). In other words, it'll just be an expansion of some chapters of the Romantic Manifesto.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anon,

I don't think anyone is saying or knows for sure that Rand didn't read Dickens, Melville, etc. However, as Michael Prescott says:

"It's as if the Peikoff-approved Randists are afraid to deal with any works of literature not specifically endorsed, or at least discussed, by Rand herself (or by Peikoff as her proxy). After all, if they were to discuss a book she hadn't analyzed, how could they be sure they would hold the 'correct' opinion about it?"

Anonymous said...

"It's as if the Peikoff-approved Randists are afraid to deal with any works of literature not specifically endorsed, or at least discussed, by Rand herself (or by Peikoff as her proxy)"

Well that's silly. For the last few years at Objectivist Conferences, Lisa Van Damme has given new courses analyzing works of fiction that neither AR nor LP has discussed. And LP has given courses discussing new works that AR never discussed. Yeah, there are probably slavish people out there like the Founders lot, but you are overgeneralizing.

I'd still like to hear some recommendations about books with interesting insights into human nature. Mainly because I'd like to read them. Give a non-slavish Objectivist some help!

Michael Prescott said...

>I'd still like to hear some recommendations about books with interesting insights into human nature.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle would give you some insights into the way unregulated capitalism works in the real world, as opposed to Galt's Gulch. Admittedly, Sinclair was a propagandist ... but then so was Ayn Rand. And Sinclair did investigate the Chicago stockyards first-hand before writing about them. What he learned about the brutal exploitation of naive, penniless immigrants sheds considerable (and unfavorable) light on "human nature."

Anonymous said...

OK, but I read *The Jungle* twice before cracking an AR novel. What is the big philosophical insight into human nature? The idea that capitalists exploit the proletariat is pretty trite if it's even true.

Arguably there were people like Jurgis Rudkus who found themselves in conditions that are miserable compared to what we're used to today, but part of what made Sinclair's novels particularly "propagandistic" was their failure to consider where the Rudkuses of the world were coming from, and how live in an industrial city was on average a material improvement over an agrarian European existence.

There have got to be better examples of deep literature than that.

Michael Prescott said...

>What is the big philosophical insight into human nature?

I think you're looking for the wrong thing. It's not a question of a "big philosophical insight" - some rationalistic formula that explains human behavior. It's hundreds of small, telling details that add up to a more complete picture of what human beings tend to be like.

Someone who reads Madame Bovary will gain more insight into the probable results of an extramarital affair than someone who reads about Dagny and Rearden's liaisons. Othello will provide a truer picture of the reaction of a passionate, larger-than-life figure to losing the love of his life than will Rearden's and Francisco's Zen-like acceptance of Dagny's newfound love for Galt. The Great Gatsby shows the dangers of remaining stuck in narcissistic "romantic" obsessions - the sort of psychology that Rand celebrated (and embodied).

Examples can be multiplied endlessly. It's not that literature provides some point-by-point refutation of Objectivism. Like the detailed study of history, it offers us a multitude of facts and perspectives that make it difficult to take Rand's simplistic ideas seriously.

Greg Nyquist's book is all about this subject, and well worth reading.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Can you give some examples of the insights into human nature, and the books in which they're found, that would persuade someone away from Objectivism?

Hi Anon,

I'm not sure pure literature as such would necessarily persuade people away from Objectivism - at least not quickly. Firstly, there would be the tendency to identify so-called "fallacies" in the work, as if great novels can only be logical demonstrations from Objectivist premises in disguise. This emphasis on philosophic expectation, rather than imaginative extension, has the effect of greatly narrowing the range of 'permissible' literary experiences from the outset, and is one of the reasons Objectivism has been, in the half-century since "Atlas Shrugged", creatively sterile. Actually, Rand herself at least has the virtue of originality in her literary approach, a virtue which is entirely missing from the mediocrities who slavishly follow her. Her elevation of pulpy Spillane over the 'literary' Wolfe has the same Wildean chutzpah as her reviewing Rawls' "Theory of Justice" without reading it. Her superior intelligence and rhetorical skill allowed her to break the rules and get away with it, which of course we will never see from mere apparatchiks like Hull. Unfortunately, her occassional bursts of refreshing epater le bien pensant chutzpah give way for the most part to simple philistinism - for example, her attitude to a genius like Tolstoy. Unlike Greg, I'm not too surprised to see the books Rand didn't like on the list, because of course these will be almost certainly be taught from Rand's constricted and even mischievous perspective. The situation will be rather like, say, Peikoff's, er, stylized Western Philosophy courses, in which all the great philosophers of history receive fair and equal misrepresentation.

I for one would not necessarily want to persuade you away from Rand or Objectivism. In fact, I consider it commendable that you're prepared to take an interest as such matters in the first place when so many aren't. However, I would say that the difference between yourself and Hull, for example, is that you seem to be adopting a critical approach to your beliefs - testing them, seeing if they survive strong challenges. (This is exactly what you're not going to get at the ARI, for example).

The thing about Rand's theories is, as Greg has remarked, that they are kind of half-truths, and where her conclusions are right it is usually for the wrong reasons. If I had to recommend a book that might challenge some of Rand's basic thinking, I wouldn't choose literature, but a book like Karl Popper's "The Open Society And Its Enemies." In it you will find good arguments for, and examinations of the limits of, freedom, capitalism, democracy, historical explanations of how Plato and Aristotle have deeply muddled the altruism/individualism debate, how reason is necessary but not sufficient for human thought (imagination, anyone?), a survey of Aristotle's fundamental epistemolgical errors (that Rand adopted to the detriment of her system), and much more besides, all beautifully and generously written and argued, all entirely without recourse to "A=A"...;-) That's where I'd start, at any rate. Then at least you're aware of a competing system to Objectivism that is not Marxist, religious, postmodern etc in its ends and is rational in its means, which in itself may be something of an eye-opener.

In terms of literature, art, and culture, Camille Paglia eats Rand's lunch any day. Take your reading list from her, though of course not necessarily her opinions, and you'll do just fine.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Why assume that simply because Ayn Rand never mentioned an author in print that she didn't read him or her? Do you write about every author you read?"

It's hardly a blanket assumption as it represented in the question. I don't assume that Rand mentioned every single book she ever read. I only suspect that Rand wasn't well read in English and American pre-20th Century literature because: (1) Rand was raised and went to school in Russia, where she probably wouldn't have read much beyond Scott and Dickens and Shakespeare; (2) Rand didn't read English until she was in her mid-twenties; (3) Rand is on record as liking very few of the books regarded as classics of literature (her remarks, particularly her "private" remarks to Barbara Branden, are excessively negative and even hostile); (4) In her published writings, Rand never mentioned any serious figure 19th or 18th century anglo-American literature beyond Hawthorne. (5) When the subject of greatest female writer came up, Rand immediately mentions George Sand as the alleged front runner (and, by implication, Rand's only possible rival for that honor), entirely ignoring Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Edith Wharton; (6) Rand is on record as bragging about not reading writers she didn't care for, even stopping half-way through novels she didn't care for. In short, there is a pattern in Rand's statements and utterances that strongly suggests that she wasn't very familiar with pre-20th Century English and American literature.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Even though I have read many (though surely not all) of the authors on your list of those neglected by AR or Hull, I am still an Objectivist. Can you give some examples of the insights into human nature, and the books in which they're found, that would persuade someone away from Objectivism?"

In the first place, I would point out that the authors on the list hardly a unified syllabus for Great Books course. They are examples of books missing on the Founders book. There's many more books that would make up a Great Books syllabus: works of history, philosophy, etc. In short, it is all those books that Matthew Arnold referred to when he talked about the best that has been said and thought in Western Civilization. Now these books, if they are read and absorbed and understood and integrated the observations of everyday of a maturing intellectual, they will help develop an interpretive framework within the mind that is at odds with some of the fundamental premises of Objectivism. One of the most fundamental premises of Objectivism is the contention that emotions are the product of our ideas. This is not the view of emotion to be found in great literature, in which human passions are portrayed as being, to at least some degree, as innate. (Recent developments in science are bearing this out.) Now this innate component in human emotions is what most people mean when they talk about human nature. Rand, on the other hand, defines human nature in terms of volition, which has the practical effect on draining human nature of all content, since there is no saying what to expect from a person who is purely volitional, with a rational mind out of which volition decisions arise. This leads Rand to make assumptions about human behavior that are odds with traditional view of human nature (i.e., the view expressed in the great works of literature). As an example, consider Rand's support for egoism. If human beings are the rational volitional beings that Rand thought they were, then a good case can be made for egoism. But if they driven, or at least strongly influenced, by non-rational passions, as great literature assumes, then egoism may not be so plausible. If it is found — and it has been found — that individual are not very objective about what is due to themselves in terms of right and justice, then egoism may simply be nothing more than a way to encourage exploitive and coercive behavior towards others. George Meredith, in his novel The Egoist, gives a devastating of what egoism means in the real world of human nature (rather than in the artificial world of abstract theory). There are people (Rand appears to be one of them) who are so convinced of the objectivity and moral righteousness of their own persons that they can harass and bully others without ever realizing what they are actually doing. This is what gives egoism a bad name and makes most people shrink from it. It sounds nice in theory, but when mixed with human passion, particularly the passions of self-entitlement and self-love, it loses its rational direction and becomes something not very pleasant.