Friday, March 07, 2008

The Compassion of Ayn Rand

While we're on the subject of Randian ethics, it's worth noting that there has been considerable campaign of late to relegate Rand's Nietzschean influences to her early years; as merely "a phase" she grew out of by the time of her major works. A regularly cited example of this "phase" is her swooning in her early twenties over the multiple murderer William Hickman in her notes, and her proposed use of him as the basis of the hero in her planned novel, "The Little Street" (see regular ARCHNblog commenter Michael Prescott's fascinating essay on Rand and Hickman, "Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer" for more). However, this is simply not the case. A Nietzchean contempt for the weak, and for "subhumans" in general is, while less overt, still clearly visible in her later work. For example, her breakthrough novel "The Fountainhead" contains a fascinating episode where the hero, architect Howard Roark, is forced to have his Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit remodeled by his arch-enemy, Ellsworth Toohey. What is the most awful fate Rand can concoct for this building, the greatest antithesis of her hero's values, ethics, and aesthetics? Perhaps a politician's office? A trade union hall? A branch of the Inland Revenue Service? No, the most vile, disgusting insult Rand can find for Toohey to besmirch the Objectivist Human Spirit with is to make it a home for intellectually handicapped children.


The original shape of the building remained discernable. It was not like a corpse whose fragments had been mercifully scattered; it was like a corpse hacked to peices and reassembled.

In September the tenants of the Home moved in. A small, expert staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had to be taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the hopeless cases. There was a fifteen year old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called "Jackie" of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed...

...Catherine Halsey was put in charge of the children's occupational therapy, and she moved into the Home as a permanent resident. She took up her work with a fierce zeal. She spoke about it insistently to anyone who would listen. Her voice was dry and arbitrary. When she spoke, the movements of her mount hid the two lines that had appeared recently, cut from her nostrils to her chin; people preferred her not to remove her glasses; her eyes were not good to see. She spoke belligerently about her work not being charity, but "human reclamation."

The most important time of her day was the hour assigned to the children's art activities, known as the "Creative Period." There was a special room for the purpose - a room with a view of the distant city skyline - where the children were given materials and encouraged to create freely, under the guidance of Catherine who stood watch over them like an angel presiding at a birth.

She was elated on the day when Jackie, the least promising one of the lot, achieved a completed work of imagination. Jackie picked up fistfuls of colored felt scraps and a pot of glue, and carried them to a corner of the room. There was, in the corner, a slanting ledge projecting from the wall - plastered over and painted green - left from Roark's modeling of the Temple interior that had once controlled the recession of the light at sunset. Catherine walked over to Jackie and saw, spread out on the ledge, the recognizable shape of a dog, brown, with blue spots and five legs. Jackie wore an expression of pride. "Now you see, you see?" Catherine said to her colleages. "Isn't it wonderful and moving! There's no telling how far the child will go with the proper encouragement. Think of what happens to their little souls if they are frustrated in their creative instincts! It's so important not to deny them a change for self-expression. Did you see Jackie's face?" - Ayn Rand, excepted from The Fountainhead, p397-398

48 comments:

Neil Parille said...

I think Jeff Walker pointed out the occasional jibes against retarded people in Rand's works.

Michael Stuart Kelly said...

To be fair, Rand's outrage was against mentally defective people being held up as a standard of what one should to strive to be and celebrated as such. I don't believe she was against helping them. On the contrary, I cannot imagine her being against that.

Michael

Daniel Barnes said...

M Kelly:
>To be fair, Rand's outrage was against mentally defective people being held up as a standard of what one should to strive to be and celebrated as such.

This seems an odd thing to be "outraged" about? Who said mentally defective people are "held up as a standard of what one should strive to be"?

>I don't believe she was against helping them.

Really? Do you think her attitude in this key scene is sympathetic to their plight, or the difficulties of those who have to care for them? I don't think so. All the people involved, including the children, are portrayed as highly unpleasant.

Neil Parille said...

Michael,

Perhaps, but I find the entire section tasteless in the extreme. And notice the implication that these retarded people aren't even human (the "stare of death"). Reminds me of Rand's speculations in her notes for Atlas Shrugged that we are living in the presence of various "sub-humans."

Michael Stuart Kelly said...

I still don't see what you guys see. I am serious.

Rand was against those who venerated retarded people as opposed to heroic intelligent producers. She wasn't against retarded people per se. Of course, for the sake of impact, there is an emphasis on unpleasant aspects.

I do admit that, from what I have read, Rand feared losing control of her mind, so the spectacle of a person with a dysfunctional mind must have bothered her on a deep level.

I wonder... Could your criticism be assigned to another kind of person?

For instance, if Rand had turned the Stoddard Temple into a singles bar and she expressed the same kind of indignation, would this mean that she was against singles meeting in bars to go on dates, or alcohol being served in bars, or consensual sex with strangers, or something like that? Or would she be outraged that this was put in the place that was built specifically to contemplate the human soul at its most noble?

I have no qualms against criticizing Rand when merited (as evidenced by my own writing in addition to my forum), but in my view, what I have read so far here on this issue is a stretch and a poor fit.

Daniel, you asked, "Who said mentally defective people are 'held up as a standard of what one should strive to be'?"

To ask that, I think you missed the point of the book. The answer is obvious. The second-handers in the book did. It was a bit disguised by holding up the person caring for retarded people as a person devoted to the highest moral good. But the real game was for the second-handers to have an excuse to do whatever they pleased and not strive for greatness on principle.

Michael

Daniel Barnes said...

M Kelly:
>I still don't see what you guys see. I am serious.

See my latest post at your forum

>Rand was against those who venerated retarded people as opposed to heroic intelligent producers.

You keep talking about this, and I keep asking who it is you're referring to. Who, specifically, venerates retarded people above intelligent producers? Who is it?

>I wonder... Could your criticism be assigned to another kind of person? For instance, if Rand had turned the Stoddard Temple into a singles bar and she expressed the same kind of indignation...

Yes, if she'd made Toohey turn the Stoddard Temple into a singles bar she would have been saying that casual sex is a desecration of the human spirit. Obviously! But she didn't think that, so she chose something she thought was a suitable desecration.

Michael Stuart Kelly said...

Daniel,

You said: "... and I keep asking who it is you're referring to. Who, specifically, venerates retarded people above intelligent producers? Who is it?"

Toohey's followers, of course. That's pretty obvious. He preaches that for manipulative reasons, but his followers swallow it (to varying degrees). Rand was talking the covers off of certain moral commandments by showing where acting on them consistently ends up.

You said: "Yes, if she'd made Toohey turn the Stoddard Temple into a singles bar she would have been saying that casual sex is a desecration of the human spirit."

Wrong. Dead wrong.

I don't care much about channeling Rand, but I am 100% sure on this score. Rand's point would not have been against casual sex as "a desecration of the human spirit." It would have been against choosing to hold casual sex up as superior to the best one can achieve in life. That choice, choosing the casual as superior to the best, especially in a place devoted to the best, would have been the desecration.

It's about the comparison, not the act per se.

Michael

JayCross said...

Rand's point would not have been against casual sex as "a desecration of the human spirit." It would have been against choosing to hold casual sex up as superior to the best one can achieve in life.

Agreed 100%.

Ellen Stuttle said...

I have to agree with MSK on this one. The point she's making -- as I remember the scene in its context; I haven't re-read The Fountainhead in a very long while -- isn't to make a slam against retarded people but to illustrate the defilement of Roark's temple. It's the inversion of the purpose of the building, plus what they did architecturally desecrating the building as an art work -- like defacing great paintings, that sort of thing. I think that Rand did have a shudder of distaste against retarded persons, and that this emotion gets in there. But I think you're really stretching if you're getting the "message" that she thought it was morally wrong for anyone to caretake retarded people.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>The point she's making...isn't to make a slam against retarded people but to illustrate the defilement of Roark's temple.

My whole point is that calling intellectually handicapped people and their caregivers a defilement of the Human Spirit is a slam!

Anonymous said...

Daniel Barnes is right, that is an insult, calling some defilement of the human spirit.

Damien

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel, what's being defiled is the temple. I don't have the energy to argue with you about this, so I'll just leave it with a couple quick comments. I think you're missing not only details of the scene -- such as Catherine Halsey and the wretchedly embittered and twisted creature she's become with accepting Toohey's tutelage, and the horrible cynicism of the sort of set-up which has been instituted in what was supposed to have been a temple -- but also the desecration of art. I keep seeing, as an analogous scene, images of the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette (a place I went to look at often for its architectural sublimity) with holes blasted in its sides, the lines of it messed up and spray-painted with graffiti. The thought gives me nightmares. I'm not btw any great fan of The Fountainhead; it's always been my least favorite of Rand's novels. Still, I don't read that scene and its point the way you do.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>I think you're missing not only details of the scene -- such as Catherine Halsey and the wretchedly embittered and twisted creature she's become with accepting Toohey's tutelage, and the horrible cynicism of the sort of set-up which has been instituted in what was supposed to have been a temple -- but also the desecration of art.

Oh sure, there's a lot of things tied up in there, particularly aesthetic desecration. It would be good to do a more detailed analysis sometime. But the basic logic of her self-proclaimed "radical" ethical system is right in there too. She flirts with this sort of contempt for the weak - and for those who feel a sense of responsibility to care for them - throughout her work. This makes her ethics a slippery slope. I won't say it's a dog whistle, although plenty of people hear this note struck in her work and come running. As I wrote over at OL, this unpleasant idea somehow gets into plenty of Objectivists' heads, and I doubt it's by chance. At any rate, it seems to me that her Vulgar Nietzschean influences are not quite so easily compartmentalised into her early work.

Dragonfly said...

This whistle is emitting sound at 120 db.

David said...

First of all, if the ultimate desecration of a temple to the human spirit is to turn it into a school for "subnormal" children, then it implies that subnormals are subhuman.

If the point of the passage was to show how the aesthetics of the temple had been maliciously destroyed by a jealous and hateful Toohey, then she should have focused in detail on the actual (former) aesthetics of the temple and the ugliness of its redesign.

However, she relegates such details to the background while she focuses on the various defects of the children (a passage stylistically similar to her listing of the Second-Handers-Who-Deserve-to-Die in tunnel scene in Atlas Shrugged). Having established the monstrosities that are the children (noseless, sexless, incest babies and grinning idiots), she then focuses on how unpleasant Catherine Halsey was becoming, as symbolized by the Randian trope of physical ugliness and by the fact that she expects her life's work to be regarded as more than mere charity. (BTW - what does an "arbitrary" voice sound like? "Dry" I can imagine, but using an abstract concept as a concrete adjective doesn't help the reader visualize the character.)

While this portrayal of Catherine as becoming increasingly embittered under Toohey's twisted tutelage, may be one points Rand is trying to make in the scene, it by no means negates Barnes' interpretation. After all, a work of literature can have multiple layers of meaning, some of which may not even be intended by an author.

So when I read the scene, I see Ellen's point re: Catherine's portrayal as Rand's intended point, but one can't deny that she's making that point at the expense of some severely disabled children and their caregiver.

And what exactly is Rand's point in the blue-spotted dog passage? Are we supposed to roll our eyes in scorn for Catherine's enthusiasm over the child's pathetic attempt at representational art? Are we supposed to believe that Catherine is faking her enthusiasm because she's really an embittered, pseudo-altruist. (She is an uggo after all.) Or are we supposed to laugh or sneer because Jackie's breakthrough didn't result in a new Mona Lisa?

And outside the fictional universes of Ayn Rand, it is a breakthrough! For someone as mentally and physically disabled as Jackie, "the least promising of the lot," (that means s/he's less promising than the boy who "never learned to speak" or the "grinning child" who couldn't learn to read or write), making a representation of a dog, five legs, blue spots, and all is actually a real accomplishment, and something s/he'd would never have done had s/he been left to rot in an institution at taxpayers' expense, which is what the alternative was at the time.

We dwellers in the 21st century take for granted that the mentally disabled can be taught and trained. At the time she was writing The Fountainhead, such a notion was a radical concept, and this passage shows which side of the debate Rand was on, as she thinks a vanity project like a temple to the human spirit was more worthwhile than helping actual humans achieve to utmost of their abilities - a project one would think Rand would support.

Jonathan said...

I thought that this might add to the discussion:

Ayn Rand
The Age of Mediocrity, Q & A
Ford Hall Forum
April, 1981

Question from audience:
[muffled audio which sounds like:] "...why is this culture..."

[loud noise which sounds as if it represents a point where the tape has been edited]

Rand: [mid-sentence] "...for healthy children to use handicapped materials. I quite agree with the speaker's indignation. I think it's a monstrous thing — the whole progression of everything they're doing — to feature, or answer, or favor the incompetent, the retarded, the handicapped, including, you know, the kneeling buses and all kinds of impossible expenses. I do not think that the retarded should be ~allowed~ to come ~near~ children. Children cannot deal, and should not have to deal, with the very tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being. When they grow up, they may give it some attention, if they're interested, but it should never be presented to them in childhood, and certainly not as an example of something ~they~ have to live down to."

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Jonathan, that's now Quote of the Week!

Daniel Barnes said...

I think we can resolve Ellen's observation about Rand's aesthetic imperatives with mine, David's and others comments about the unpleasant consequences of those imperatives. This is because the utopian vision is very often aesthetically driven. The aesthetic program that leads to a social program has been with us since Plato. It is a vision of a more beautiful, pure world that can drive all kinds of ultimately cruel programs, whether it is the eugenicist with their vision of an unpolluted race, or the ultra-radical Green who dreams of a earth restored to its original purity by the elimination of man. Hence we should be beware of such overly aesthetic visions of society as Rand's.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel:

At any rate, it seems to me that her Vulgar Nietzschean influences are not quite so easily compartmentalised into her early work.

I agree with that much (I'll continue with disagreeing/questioning in separate posts). I think that better examples of continuing "Vulgar Nietzschean influences" can be found in details of her later work Atlas Shrugged than in the The Fountainhead -- again, repeating the caveat, as I remember The Fountainhead; I haven't re-read that book in many years.

Something much more interesting to me pertaining to The Fountainhead is a continuity I discern between what Rand saw in Hickman, as she interpreted him -- she was not applauding his crime, remember -- and Howard Roark. There was an item by Nathaniel back in The Objectivist Newsletter -- I don't recall what the item was -- in which he commented on critics of Howard Roark. He said that what such critics objected to wasn't the characterization, it was the character. I thought while I was reading NB's jibe, which wasn't long after I'd first read The Fountainhead, "Right, what I object to is the character; so what are you going to make of that?"

Many years down the road, when I read the part about "The Little Street" in The Early Ayn Rand, I formed the belief that Roark was the distilled continuation of what she'd found appealing about Hickman's attitude. This is novelistic instinct; I can't document it. But it makes a great deal of sense to me in terms of how artistic processing in novel writing operates. Also, as I've commented to you before, I think she was directly influenced in details of Roark's manner and of the setting in the Cortlandt (sp?) trial scene by what had impressed her about Hickman's behavior in facing "the mob." (Echoes of this also appear in Galt's behavior at the 20th-Century Motor Company meeting.)

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel:

But the basic logic of her self-proclaimed "radical" ethical system is right in there too. She flirts with this sort of contempt for the weak - and for those who feel a sense of responsibility to care for them - throughout her work. This makes her ethics a slippery slope. I won't say it's a dog whistle, although plenty of people hear this note struck in her work and come running. As I wrote over at OL, this unpleasant idea somehow gets into plenty of Objectivists' heads, and I doubt it's by chance.

There I think you're talking so vaguely I can't specify what it is you mean. Instead you sound to me as if you're latching hold of anything, fair or foul, with which to criticize Rand. What "basic logic" is it that you're seeing: "To the gas chambers, go!," like Whittaker Chambers said? This would seem to be what you're suggesting; I thought the suggestion was even stronger in some remarks you made on OL indicating a drift toward eugenics in Rand's thought.

The "dog whistle" image I can relate to, but I can't tell if we're thinking of similar specifics. The "whistle" I discern is a kind of permission extended to some O'ists to be snootily unpleasant persons. A prime example of this type from my own experience is Harry Binswanger. Peter Schwartz also I think fits "the type." I don't remember ever meeting Peter, but I get an attitude from his writing which I've long described thus (I thought of the description for Harry): O'ism has provided [them] with a moral club to use for bludgeoning and a throne from which to wield the club.

However, even with people of that sort there's an adherence to individual rights. Objectivism does have the safety feature of its emphasis on individual rights. Furthermore, I know of very few persons whom I might think of as genuinely sociopathic who have been attracted to Objectivism. A prominent for instance of someone who did use Objectivism for nefarious purposes of his own was Lonnie Leonard. But I have no doubt that AR would have been quite appalled by what Lonnie was doing, if she learned of it. I also knew a couple others, both guys, who set up little sub-groups of their own in which they reigned using moral denunciation as a strong weapon to keep their acolytes in line. But even with these people there was nothing of the sort which I've heard goes on in Scientology, or the extreme of shunning/denouncing that might greet an ex-Jehovah's Witness. Even Diana Hsieh doesn't become that nasty in her denouncings.

In sum, I need some specifics here to have a proper sense of what you mean.

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

David:

First of all, if the ultimate desecration of a temple to the human spirit is to turn it into a school for "subnormal" children, then it implies that subnormals are subhuman.

Well, that states in a single sentence exactly the point with which I do not agree. That Rand herself might have subscribed to this implication, I think is quite possible, even probable. But the claim that the implication is inherent, I think is incorrect.

You're probably right about the relative emphasis of the details she discusses. I'd have to re-read the whole thing in its setting to assess that, and I'd much prefer not to do said re-reading at this time. ;-)

Addressing a couple of your other points, though, for which the part quoted gives an interpretive basis:

And what exactly is Rand's point in the blue-spotted dog passage? Are we supposed to roll our eyes in scorn for Catherine's enthusiasm over the child's pathetic attempt at representational art? Are we supposed to believe that Catherine is faking her enthusiasm because she's really an embittered, pseudo-altruist. (She is an uggo after all.) Or are we supposed to laugh or sneer because Jackie's breakthrough didn't result in a new Mona Lisa?

Here's how I react: with a shudder of distaste at the "dog" made of felt scraps glued on the ledge which has been "plastered over and painted green," a ledge which I imagine as having been lovely in the original -- and is now drekky (I imagine it as deformed by the plaster and painted in muddy institutional green).

And, yes, I certainly do get that Catherine's enthusiasm is faked and is cynical. I see what's happening in the scene as Jackie's being used in a disgusting way. I've seen examples of just the sort of way I mean; I had seen such examples during my highschool years through some work I did for the Crippled Children's Center in Peoria. I ended up being basically in charge of the volunteer program because my mother, nominally in charge, was too ill for the job. I several times filled in when volunteers couldn't be found. Some of those who volunteered were just the cynical, twisted "sob sister" do-gooder type which Catherine is depicted as having become. (I made a point of not asking such people back for a second volunteer session.)

And outside the fictional universes of Ayn Rand, it is a breakthrough!

Given the way the scene is described, I disbelieve that there was any breakthrough. I even disbelieve that the "dog" really did look like a "dog." Who is doing the recognizing of "the recognizable shape of a dog, brown, with blue spots and five legs"?

[...] as she thinks a vanity project like a temple to the human spirit was more worthwhile than helping actual humans achieve to utmost of their abilities - a project one would think Rand would support.

You sure did load that language! A "vanity project." Jeez. Would you suggest that creative artists shouldn't be painting in their lofts but instead should be going out to help the poor? Maybe AR shouldn't have written novels? Aren't they "vanity projects," too? I doubt that you really think this; just playing turn-about.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>What "basic logic" is it that you're seeing: "To the gas chambers, go!," like Whittaker Chambers said?

Well, I think the standard meme in Objectivism that Chamber's review was grossly unfair is itself in need of revision. You've probably read Greg's comprehensive re-evaluation of it here As with Greg, I think Chambers actually hits the mark in a lot of places. That elsewhere Rand introduces the obvious caveat about individual rights as a safety rail against tumbling down the Nietzschean scree certainly helps in her defense. But it also pays to remember a)she wrote in a confusing and contradictory fashion anyway, of which this is another example, and b)that, to use a Randian type of observation, such human rights can only apply to humans. This logic, (along with her definition of human being Howard Roark), allows us to see how the passage in the Fountainhead, and the Ford Hall comment are consistent with, say, her discussion of the property rights of American Indian.

It's Rand's entwining of the aesthetic and moral that's the fundamental problem. I think you're seeing the aesthetic issues Rand viscerally reacted to, and which are certainly there, but missing the moral consequences she derives from them.

David said...

My "vanity project" comment is aimed more at Stoddard than at Roark, who, like Michaelangelo, merely accepted the gig.

David said...

Also, Ellen, your experience working with disabled kids and their caregivers seems to have been nearly the opposite of mine.

Dragonfly said...

Ellen: "And, yes, I certainly do get that Catherine's enthusiasm is faked and is cynical."

Anymore than the enthusiasm expressed by a parent or a teacher about any drawing or collage of a "normal" child? Should they condemn or ridicule it while it isn't quite the equal of a Vermeer painting, or should they encourage the child knowing its limitations and realizing that it would be silly to apply the standards of judgment they'd use for an adult?

I can imagine that it really would be a remarkable achievement for such a "monster" like Jacky to create a recognizable image of a dog. BTW, the fifth leg was probably not a leg at all, that was just a misinterpretation.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>Some of those who volunteered were just the cynical, twisted "sob sister" do-gooder type which Catherine is depicted as having become.

Of course this is true. Twisted do-gooders (and wretched inmates) have been a staple of fiction since Dickens and earlier, right up to Kesey's Nurse Ratched. But these portraits are quite different in a) there are usually contrasting sympathetic examples of both included and b) they don't take place within the context of an overall philosophy that says altruism is evil.

Daniel Barnes said...

I should also add that "twisted do-gooders" exist in reality too. One of my sisters had a school dental nurse that picked mercilessly on her as a child. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. She was eventually dismissed. We think now she had a kind of Munchausens.

Ellen Stuttle said...

David:

Also, Ellen, your experience working with disabled kids and their caregivers seems to have been nearly the opposite of mine.

Did you perchance misread what I reported? I didn't say that all of the volunteers were of the twisted "do-gooder" type, just that some of them were. Are you saying that you've never encountered such types?

One of the caregivers at the Crippled Childrens' Center of which I spoke was me. I was not a twisted do-gooder; nor were the majority of the other volunteers. The advising doctor of the establishment was my father, whom the kids adored: he knew how to help them, and the kids could tell he knew. If not for the excellent ministrations of my father, I myself might have been one of those kids -- I had childhood polio, like several of them. I am not knocking help for the handicapped, if anyone is misinterpreting me as doing that.

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

Dragonfly:

I described Catherine's enthusiam as "faked" and "cynical."

You ask:

Anymore than the enthusiasm expressed by a parent or a teacher about any drawing or collage of a "normal" child?

Do you seriously read that scene -- given the characterization of Catherine Halsey and how she's been developed up to that point in the book and how she's described in the scene in question itself -- with eyes that people would rather not see -- as depicting the kind of enthusiasm a parent or teacher would display about any normal kid's youthful attempts?

I can imagine that it really would be a remarkable achievement for such a "monster" like Jack[ie] to create a recognizable image of a dog. BTW, the fifth leg was probably not a leg at all, that was just a misinterpretation.

I can imagine also that it would be a remarkable achievement, but from the text I'm doubtful that anyone except Catherine Halsey "recognized" the figure as being that of a dog. The sound to me is that not only was the "fifth leg" but the whole figure "a misinterpretation."

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel:

[...] b) they don't take place within the context of an overall philosophy that says altruism is evil.

The Fountainhead isn't about altruism, or about Objectivism either. It was published shortly after AR turned 38; she was not Ayn Rand the originator of Objectivism when she wrote The Fountainhead. That there are attitudes in The Fountainhead which are continuations of what you call her "Vulgar Nietzscheanism" I agree with; that there are harbingers of her mature philosophy I agree with. However, I think you're engaging in overkill, given what The Fountainhead is about: what she calls first-handedness versus second-handedness, with the strong and sometimes dominating co-theme of artistic integrity.

(Aside to Jonathan, in case you remember a comment I made, though I never got around to pursuing it, on an OL thread about my finding the "name that theme" approach to literature mostly an interference with understanding literature: In the case of AR's novels, naming the theme is useful, since her novels -- including Anthem as a "novel" -- all have deliberate themes.)

--

Picking up on a post of yours I missed the other day. You wrote:

I think we can resolve Ellen's observation about Rand's aesthetic imperatives with mine, David's and others comments about the unpleasant consequences of those imperatives. This is because the utopian vision is very often aesthetically driven.

I can't sign on to that resolution, since I wouldn't classify Rand as a "utopian" theorist. I'm aware that Greg argues that she was; I still haven't gotten around to reading ARCHN and I have only a vague idea of the basis on which he's classifying her as "utopian." I thus can't debate the point at this time.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>However, I think you're engaging in overkill, given what The Fountainhead is about..

Hi Ellen,

The original point of the post was there have been attempts to conveniently consign the the Vulgar Nietzsche factor to Rand's juvenilia. I use the example to demonstrate that it is, "while less overt, still clearly visible in her later work." While we agree on this visible influence remaining in this book - so we aren't too far apart - clearly we differ in that I tend to think the Temple's fate is one of those moments when it shows through, whereas you do not. Regardless I think the important point is that we agree that it is not quite so easy to relegate the VN factor purely to her more impressionable days. She is 38, as you say.


>I have only a vague idea of the basis on which (Greg N is) classifying her as "utopian."

In the ARCHN intro Greg talks about view of human nature as being a scale with "naturalistic" at one end and "utopian" on the other. The naturalistic view is that man's nature will be, in at all forseeable future, pretty much as it has been in the past. The utopian view, however, is that human nature can be radically modified through changing social or ideological conditions. On this basis he puts Rand down the utopian end of the scale.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>...she was not Ayn Rand the originator of Objectivism when she wrote The Fountainhead.

While this is true, it is worth noting - putting aside all hyperbole as to her coming to all her philosophical principles at age 12 - that despite the chronology, The Fountainhead is, along with Atlas, considered one of the two basic texts of Objectivism. I would even hazard a guess that Howard Roark is a far more common role model among enthusiastic Objectivii than John Galt. While we had to wait for Galt's speech to hear it explicity, The Fountainhead does not seem to deviate from the principles articulated later in any major way. At any rate, I am not aware of any intellectual caveats laid on it by Objectivist officialdom, but perhaps I am wrong.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel,

This is becoming such a multi-leveled tangle, I'm having trouble tracking even what I'm saying, let alone what you're attempting to demonstrate. If your only claim is that what you call her "Vulgar Nietzscheanism" didn't vanish with her "juvenalia" (including the first edition of We the Living) -- AND if all you mean by the description "Vulgar Nietzscheanism" is an attitude of contempuousness and distaste for weakness, including mental subnormality -- then I agree not only that this attitude appears in later work but also -- contra your description of my views a couple posts above -- that it appears in the scene about the Temple's fate. What I disagree with about the latter is that this attitude is the point of the scene, as it seemed to me you were claiming. I also disagree with what appears to me to be wider charges you're making, though I'm not getting any clear picture of what those charges are -- intimations that she might, for instance, have supported euthanasia for retarded children and/or that she disapproved of anyone's willingness to provide care for such children and/or...exactly what?

Meanwhile, the issue has become entwined with what you refer to -- borrowing, I gather, from Greg Nyquist's usage -- as Rand's "utopianism." As I said, I haven't yet read ARCHN; thus I'm vague as to Greg's meaning of "utopianism" and his reasons for classifying Rand as "utopian."

You write:

In the ARCHN intro Greg talks about view of human nature as being a scale with "naturalistic" at one end and "utopian" on the other. The naturalistic view is that man's nature will be, in at all forseeable future, pretty much as it has been in the past. The utopian view, however, is that human nature can be radically modified through changing social or ideological conditions. On this basis he puts Rand down the utopian end of the scale."

From that description, I can't at all see why Rand would be placed at "the utopian end of the scale." Nor do I understand the comparison/contrast between Greg's usage and what I'd think of as traditional usage. Rand's most basic view of "man's nature" I'd say is stated in a sentence in Galt's Speech -- a sentence I puzzled over for literally years: "Man is a being of volitional consciousness." I won't digress into my reasons for finding the exact wording peculiar. I'll just state that I think that Rand really, really, really meant her belief in volition. On the other hand, as I understand utopian programs from Plato onward, all of them entail belief in some form of determinist premises. So for now I'll have to leave a large question mark as to what Greg is arguing, and as to the plausibility, given his usage of "utopian," of his classification of Rand.

A further, though far less potentially significant, point of possible contention arises in your most recent post, wherein you describe The Fountainhead as being:

[...] along with Atlas, considered one of the two basic texts of Objectivism.

If all you mean, as you continue to describe, is that The Fountainhead doesn't deviate "in any major way" from her later views and that Roark is taken as a "common role model" by "enthusiastic Objectivii," maybe even more so than John Galt, I agree. At least in the old days, there were three main routes by which people came to Rand, routes described as "Fountainhead O'ists," "Atlas O'ists," and "non-fiction O'ists." The third category had many fewer respresentatives than the first two, and probably the first was the most populous; I think Howard Roark remains very much a prime image for the majority of O'ists -- I have no "hard data"; this is just an impression. However, I wouldn't describe The Fountainhead as being thought of by O'ists as a philosophic "text," if that's what you meant, though she does include a few excerpts from The Fountainhead in For the New Intellectual and the idea of the first-hander versus the second-hander (subsequently called by Nathaniel's term "social metaphysician") became part of the official philosophy.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>This is becoming such a multi-leveled tangle, I'm having trouble tracking even what I'm saying, let alone what you're attempting to demonstrate.

That's art for you...;-)

But seriously, we're both trying to do a bit of mind-reading here, guessing at an artist's motives. A job that is made doubly difficult in that often the implications of what is written are not fully grasped by the writer.

At any rate, I will outline how I see it.
1) The symbolism of defiling the Temple of the Human Spirit by with intellectually handicapped kids and their artwork seems pretty obviously to say that such children, their creativity, and the motivations of their caregivers, are a defilement of the human spirit.
2) This attitude is Rand's Vulgar Nietzscheanism - a basic contempt/disgust for the weak and helpless as a "new morality" to challenge the Judeo Christian tradition - which revisionism has attempted to consign to juvenalia, shining through in her later work.
3) This attitude shows up in other things she's said about handicapped people late in life
4) Further, this can be understood if we take as a starting point, as Greg does, Rand's statement the the fundamental purpose of her philosophy is the projection of the ideal man.
5) We consider that in the attempt to "fully integrate" her philosophy she tried to make the beautiful the moral, and thus confused the two.

I think the confusion you're feeling is related to 5). I'm not going to say that there is always a deterministic program behind utopianism, although it is a common element. Utopianism is often a mixture of things, and sentimental aesthetics, such as the back-to-Medievalism of the late 19th century in the face of the uncharming aspects of England's industrial revolution, is one of them.

I see what you're saying, I think, that Toohey is merely manipulating these kids in his game, but if this was the case one would expect Rand to offer a note of sympathy for these innocent pawns, and their crippled creativity, to fully illustrate her point. And she does, in fact draw a sympathetic portrait of some children in this scene, but it is not the handicapped ones. It is the little anti-social ruffians of slums, eyes "bright with a roaring, imperious, demanding intelligence" who the altruistic do-gooders shoo away and call "little gangsters". I think given the background we might hazard a leap here, and call them "little Hickmans."

At any rate - I have to wrap this up quickly as I'm about to go away overnight - while Rand is very good at demonstrating the consequences of altruism in extremis she is perhaps not so good at seeing where its VN opposite leads.

gregnyquist said...

Ellen: "From that description, I can't at all see why Rand would be placed at 'the utopian end of the scale.'"

It all boils down to the issue of the plasticity of human nature: whether people can be fundamentally changed or not. Utopian theories are those that accept the plastic, blank slate view of human nature. Contrast this with the traditional notion of human nature, accepted by most of what passes for conservative opinion, which believes that there exist constant elements in human sentiments and behavior which allows one to judge ahead of time the feasibility of various social and politico-economic schemes. This view of human nature was defended by Pinker in his book "Blank Slate"; you also find it defended, in various forms, in the works of Machiavelli, Adam Smith, Burke, Mosca, Pareto, Hayek, and countless other thinkers on the right. It's expressed within traditional Christianity in the myth of original sin.

Now Rand, of course, disagrees, and disagrees vehemently, with this view of human nature. She does, in effect, believe that human nature is plastic. The volition she equates with human nature is not just the ability to choose between going to the movies and going to the mall: it's the ability to choose one's character, one's personality—in effect, the ability to choose one's nature, although Rand would never have expressed it in such terms. In any case, it's definitely a plastic view of human nature. Human beings, Rand insisted, have no tendencies of character (as the traditional/naturalistic view of human nature asserts) because, as she argued, a free will saddled with a tendency would not really be free. Volition, for Rand, means not having any tendencies. In other words, complete blank slate view. Human beings are, then, self-determined. Yet as we examine her theory in more detail we find that what she really preaches is the contention that human beings are a product of their ideas (i.e., their conclusions, their basic premises, etc.). So, in effect, she is arguing, ultimately, that human beings are a product of ideology, either their own ideology or, as in the majority of cases, of the predominant ideology of the intellectuals. When Rand's theory of history is brought into this mix, it's surprising how deterministic her views start to appear, despite her theoretical commitments to an extreme volitionalism.

Also keep in mind that both Rand and Peikoff believe (or believed) that, one day, Objectivism would win out and become the dominant ideology in the culture. In the early sixties, Rand seems to have believed that it would happen within a few decades. Of course, she did hedge her bets a bit by drawing on the free will card and insisting it wasn't inevitable, but she still thought it would happen, because "reason" was on her side. Peikoff also believes it's likely to happen, although he projects its occurence well into the future (at least 300 years, he once said on his radio show). Now that view, irrespective of Rand and Peikoff's commitments to volition or realism or anything else, is patently utopian. Anyone who has the least insight into human nature knows that the majority of human beings will never buy into Objectivism, because Rand's ideas can never appeal to the innate needs and sentiments of the broad majority.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel:

4) Further, this can be understood if we take as a starting point, as Greg does, Rand's statement the the fundamental purpose of her philosophy is the projection of the ideal man.

5) We consider that in the attempt to "fully integrate" her philosophy she tried to make the beautiful the moral, and thus confused the two.

I have no more wish to prolong this than I think you have, but I can't let that go by in a discussion in which I'm involved without registering a protest.

Re point (4), where does she make this statement? She says that the fundamental purpose of her novels is the projection of the ideal man; she says that she had to explicitly work out her philosophy in order to express her idea of the ideal. But I think that the way you describe the process makes it sound as if she was using philosophy as a sort of handmaiden to aesthetics -- doubly so when you add in point (5) that she "tried to make the beautiful the moral." (She'd likely ask: "'Beautiful'? -- to whom?") I submit that she did quite a bit of the reverse of what you say in her theory of aesthetics, that she imported moral considerations into aesthetic judgment -- I've described this as her making aesthetics the handmaiden of ethics. So in that sense I'd agree that she produced a confusion between "the beautiful" and "the moral, but I think you have the directionality arrow opposite to hers.

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

Greg,

If what you mean by "utopian theories" is "those that accept the plastic, blank slate view of human nature," then of course you win by definition. But I think you also produce a non-useful distinction -- and one in danger of being confused with connotations of "utopian" as belief in the possibility of achieving a perfect society (by whatever standard of "perfect" the theorist holds) through social engineering.

A question: Do you classify Locke as a "utopian" theorist?

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

PS to the above post: A further quick point re confusing your meaning of "utopian," Greg, with typical connotations: Daniel already made this confusion further up the thread by citing Plato and his Philosopher Kings as an example of a utopian theory -- and I think Plato characteristically is taken as a prototype of such theories. But by your definition, he wouldn't qualify, since he's the big daddy original (in Western philosophy) NON-blank-slate theorist.

Ellen

gregnyquist said...

Ellen,

My linkage of utopianism with "blank slate" (in Pinker's sense of the term) view of human nature is not a definition, it's a generalized description. I'm not saying that all utopians believe in the blank slate; only that most do; and nearly all modern utopians accept that view in some measure or form.

Utopianism, definitionally, would be any idea of a social order that cannot possibly exist. The main reason why these utopias aren't possible is that they have false expectations about human beings. This is something that was not fully appreciated by Plato, because he didn't have a large body of psychological and sociological work to draw from. Hence it was easy for him to be naive about human nature. Not so with later thinkers, particularly Rousseau, who was a very brilliant and sophisticated thinker whose work, either directly or indirectly, inspired most of the utopian theories on the left (and most modern utopian theories are leftward). Rosseau's notions were interpreted and developed toward the nurturing/plasticity paradigm which informs most of the modern left. Hence we find that most modern utopian theorists believe that human nature is largely, or at least significantly, plastic. The alternative is to think that human nature is fixed, which would be tantamount to admitting history defines what people are, and that any social system that has never existed is probably not feasible.

Incidentally, Locke is not a utopian because his version of the blank slate is confined merely to the cognitive sphere; it's not meant to include all of human nature. Pinker and I use it to cover the whole gamut of human nature.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
>Re point (4), where does she make this statement?

Hi E,

Here's the Playboy interview quote. I've emphasised what I think is the money part:

Alvin Toffler:“Do you regard philosophy as the primary purpose of your writing?”

Rand: ”No. My primary purpose is the projection of an ideal man, of man ‘as he might be and ought to be.’ Philosophy is a necessary means to that end.”

As a result, this is the way I see the arrow pointing.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Greg,

I'm processing. ;-) Your definition of "utopianism" as "any idea of a social order that cannot possibly exist" at least makes sense to me, and is in keeping with my understanding of typical notions of "utopianism." I agree that "Rousseau [...] inspired most of the utopian theories on the left (and most modern utopian theories are leftward)." I agree that a "nurturing/plasticity paradigm [...] informs most of the modern left" -- "the 'we' in the machine," in one of Pinker's (numerous) felicitous phrases. I'd agree also that there was a considerable extent to which Rand shared the "plasticity" paradigm, though I think not the "nurturing" part. I've commented on the similarity/contrast elsewhere (on OL) in connection with her views on evolution -- haven't time to find a link just now; later.

I still find the idea of Rand as a "utopian" peculiar, however.

For one thing, she didn't see human nature as being AS plastic as the leftists; for another, there's her belief in volition, which would present a barrier to any attempt at social engineering's being successful.

Another reservation I have pertains to the phrase "cannot possibly exist." That's a big claim of knowledge. You soften it further in the post to "any social system that has never existed is probably not feasible." I wouldn't quarrel with this being a pretty safe bet. Presumably you're therefore arguing that pure laissez-faire capitalism is "probably not feasible." As to that, are you so sure it never has existed in local and limited contexts? Would primitive barter, for instance, have qualified? Conditions in the early American West? The Viking settlements in Greenland? And maybe other historic circumstances? I'm by no means expert in economics and wouldn't be the person to argue the case. But from reading persons on other lists who are expert I think it could be argued.

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel:

> Alvin Toffler:“Do you regard philosophy as the primary purpose of your writing?”

> Rand: ”No. My primary purpose is the projection of an ideal man, of man ‘as he might be and ought to be.’ Philosophy is a necessary means to that end.”

> As a result, this is the way I see the arrow pointing.

Daniel, I see that quote as a shorter form of my description: "She says that the fundamental purpose of her novels is the projection of the ideal man; she says that she had to explicitly work out her philosophy in order to express her idea of the ideal." She's talking about her fiction (yes?) in the Interview context, not about her non-fiction work. And I don't read the reply as saying that she started with her ideal and then constructed a philosophy to give her that, i.e., that her philosophy is in essence a rationalizing support for the kind of person she'd like to see, which is what I understood you to have been claiming she'd said.

Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen:
> And I don't read the reply as saying that she started with her ideal and then constructed a philosophy to give her that, i.e., that her philosophy is in essence a rationalizing support for the kind of person she'd like to see...

That's the way I read it. That's the basic line of Greg's argument in ARCHN. And I think that reading fits pretty well, actually, with the pattern of her thought. After all, she never really bothered to study humans in any remotely serious way. The most frequently cited source in her non-fiction work is her own fiction. Recall that she hints that even her epistemology is only truly accessible to superior men.

Anyway, I'm not tired of the subject, but I am away for most of the week so will only get time to read further comments, and only that if I'm lucky...;-)

gregnyquist said...

Ellen,

As far as I can make out, one of the main reasons why you have trouble seeing Rand as utopian is that she does not believe in social engineering. But why should the method advocated for reaching a utopian society determine whether that society is utopian? While most utopians nowadays wish to reach their ideal society through political means, there are a few who prefer other means. Rand believed that she could reach her ideal society through philosophical argumentation—more specifically, by refuting Kant's epistemology.

Is laissez-faire utopian? Yes, it is. Maybe it is not as utopian as socialism, but it is not a social order that is feasible. Conditions in the American West, for instance, don't really quality because of limited protection against fraud and force that prevailed on the frontier. For laissez-faire to work you need a political authority that can prevent violence and intimidation and enforce contracts. This, in short, is the main problem with LF. On the one hand, you need a centralized political authority to protect individual rights; on the other, once you have that centralized authority, what is to prevent it from infringing on the strict bounds of laissez-faire? Would a constitution work? Hard to believe that it would. Constitutions may limit political encroachments on "rights," but they don't stop them—particularly when large and powerful interests support such encroachments, as is inevitable in any society. Laissez-faire, then, is utopian mainly for political reasons.

In addition, let's not forget the social element in Objectivism. It is easy to assume that there are no social ideals in Objectivism because of Rand's stress on individualism, but there are tacit social ideals that would be attained in an Objectivist society simply from the greater rationality of the individuals that make up that society. Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra has summarized the ideal Objectivist society as follows:

"People [in such a society] would not act on the basis of an uncritical acceptance of traditions and/or of tacit rules of behavior. They would understand the nature of their actions and the implications of their beliefs…Accepting their own uniqueness and potential, such people would have a benevolent attitude toward one another. Human communications, sexual relations, spiritual commitments, and material exchanges would not be masked by strategic lying and deceit, but by mutual trust and respect.”

Now even though this is a vision of society entirely based on voluntary action and "volition" (no social engineering), it is nonetheless clearly utopian (or at least it is utopian for those of us who hold to the constrained vision of society advocated by conservative thinkers like Burke and Hayek).

Ellen Stuttle said...

Greg:

As far as I can make out, one of the main reasons why you have trouble seeing Rand as utopian is that she does not believe in social engineering.

It's partly that. But it's partly my deep sense of her, as a person, emotionally. Whatever she sometimes says in print, she tended toward an abiding sense of pessimism about humans and an attitude that only exceptional heroes would make the grade of her sort of people. There are statements in print conveying this attitude as well.

I won't attempt to argue whether pure laissez-faire is indeed feasible; economics not being my line of thought, (a) I wouldn't be up to the argument; and (b) I tend to suspect you're right.

Ellen

Ellen Stuttle said...

A couple more points regarding Rand as "utopian."

Daniel cited the Playboy interview as evidence that -- in my description, to which Daniel then acceded --
"she started with her ideal and then constructed a philosophy to give her that, i.e., that her philosophy is in essence a rationalizing support for the kind of person she'd like to see,"

Here's the part Daniel quoted from the Playboy interview:

Alvin Toffler:“Do you regard philosophy as the primary purpose of your writing?”

Rand: ”No. My primary purpose is the projection of an ideal man, of man ‘as he might be and ought to be.’ Philosophy is a necessary means to that end.”


I looked up the context of the question. As I suspected from memory, Toffler was specifically inquiring about her fiction writing. The full question reads (my emphasis):

"As a novelist, do you regard philosophy as the primary purpose of your writing?”

Also, at the start of that interview, Toffler asks her specifically:

What do you seek to accomplish with this new philosophy?

I.e., there, he's asking about her philosophy qua philosophy not qua its role in her fiction.

She answers:

I seek to provide men -- or those who care to think -- with an integrated, consistent and rational view of life.

-

In my post immediately above I said that part of why I have trouble with the idea of Rand as "utopian" is because the description doesn't mesh with my own deep sense of her emotionality. If I had to put a single word to that emotionality, I'd choose the awkward "Gotterdammerung-ian," which I'd hardly consider "utopian."

I commented about her abiding pessimism about humans. At the end of the Playboy interview, she's asked if she's optimistic. She answers in the affirmative there, but something to keep in mind is the time frame in which the interview occurred. It was published in the March 1964 issue of Playboy, so it probably happened a month or more before then. 1963-64 is described by Nathaniel in Judment Day as having been a period when Ayn was on an upswing:

"I'm coming back to life," Ayn began saying with increasing frequency and urgency in the spring of 1963.

The upswing didn't hold as they then in the next year went into the prolonged pre-break period of Ayn's "counseling" Nathaniel. (His affair with Patrecia started in February 1964.)

Ellen

Cavewight said...

"There was a fifteen year old boy who had never learned to speak..."

Is this the savage Galt referred to in his speech? "When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved.."

I like the part about the non-speaking savage who could somehow declare things. Because there are certain savages in the Objectivist community who should just learn to stop speaking.

Professor_Fate said...

The good think about Nazis was that, when they despised "subhumans" - like retards, gays, Jews, Roma, Slavs or anybody disagreeing with them - they at least took the responsability and effort to exterminate them.

The good thing about Genghis Khan was, he didn't make 60-pages speeches to justify what he liked the best - butchery, pillage and rape - as highly moral achievements.

AR is even worse. Lucky she did never had a powerful army of her own.