Thursday, October 16, 2008

Building Tomorrow's Randroids

The ARI's annual school essay contest about three of Ayn Rand's novels is, allegedly, "designed to promote critical thinking and writing skills". Here are the winners from the last few years. If anyone can detect anything other than standard ARI bromides regurgitated without the smallest glimmer of critical thinking or individual imagination, please let us know. In fact so great is the intellectual and stylistic conformity on display that, with the prospect of a grand or more on the line one can only assume the students involved are shrewd enough to know exactly who they are writing for.

For a core sample of today's Randroid, Objectiblog's Neil Parille directs us to a review by libertarian economist Larry Sechrest of Objectivist Richard M. Salsman's essay on The Great Depression. Sadly this essay is not itself on line, for as well as venting some ancient animosty against potential allies, the Austrian economic school, Salsman's essay also offers us a jaw-dropping Randroidian fantasia, metastasized to levels not seen since James Valliant. Sechrest describes one such passage:
Woven throughout the fabric of Salsman’s essay is a rather striking vision of American businessmen. In this “subtext,” one can locate both praiseworthy virtues and condemnable flaws. At a deep emotional level it is, one surmises, that message that Salsman most dearly wished to convey. By his account, businessmen are the heroeswho call upon their initiative and intelligence in order to restructure the resources of Earth, thereby creating the wealth from which we all benefit. They struggle on, often burdened by outrageous laws and regulations, not because they are Christ-figures who choose to suffer for their fellow men, but because they profoundly, egoistically enjoy the act of creation. So far, so good. But Salsman goes further. He insists that these producers cannot be deceived. They “know when it’s worth producing and when it’s only worth shrugging” (2004a, 23). They also buy and sell stock shares, but such shares are never overpriced. They invest millions in capital projects but never at artificially low market interest rates, because they are never fooled by the interest rate shenanigans of the Federal Reserve. In addition, Salsman’s businessmen are innocent of any wrongdoing. They never seek government favors, never lobby for corporate welfare, never try to gain at the expense of their competitors. They never miscalculate. They are without error, either factual or moral. What can one say? These are not real businessmen that he portrays. They are cardboard cutouts.

The creation of "cardboard cutouts" seems to be Job Number One at the ARI.


Anonymous said...

The ARI contest essays merely ask students to interpret the meaning of the novels. They don't ask them to evaluate the meaning. As far as I know, that is a standard literary technique: being able to explain an author's message. It's one that a lot of students don't know how to do. What is "uncritical" about encouraging students to read and understand a text? Is your allegation that a more critical reading of AR's texts should actually deliver a different interpretation? That perhaps AR was not really an egoist, but ARI is biased in its selection of essays that suggest otherwise??

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon writes:
>Is your allegation that a more critical reading of AR's texts should actually deliver a different interpretation?

No. Simply that a competition that allegedly aims to "promote critical thinking" regarding Rand's novels, from what I can see there is not a single criticism of them, no matter how slight, in any of the winning entries. In fact the entries mostly are dutiful recitations of the Objectivist apparatchik catechism.

Take George Singer's "Fountainhead" essay from 2006, which he introduces as follows:

"Sacrifice, surrender, and submission. When it comes to relationships, these are the values that society teaches us to follow as our moral guideline. Ironically, a relationship built upon this kind of foundation is as deadly to a man’s spiritual health as a dose of cyanide is to his physical."

Note how this is presented as a statement of fact, rather than just a viewpoint presented in a novel. All the essays exhibit this Comrade Sonia Jnr mentality. Then ask this question: is there any section, or even phrase, in any of these efforts that the ARI would not endorse? In that case, what sort of "critical" or even original thinking is really being promoted here?

Anonymous said...

What I'm missing is a critical book about Rand's novels. There are critical books about her philosophy in which the novels are of course mentioned, but in which the purely literary aspects are hardly discussed. Then there is of course Younkin's book about Atlas Shrugged, but I'm not going to buy it, as it's obviously written by Objectivist Atlas fans and I think I know what I can expect from them. You might expect that after half a century there would be more literature about Rand the writer. In my opinion there is enough material for an interesting analysis that is more than merely another song of praise.

Anonymous said...

Well, you'd be hard pushed to find any literary aspects to her novels. I mean they are very badly written, even those Dungeon & Dragon novels probably achieve a higher literary standard. As, although D & d novels are written by hacks, at least they have to please thier audience.
Rand's characther have no depth whatsoever, they are just boring one-dimensional caricatures. I mean, could yu even imagine John Galt kicking back and having a beer or going to them movies?

JayCross said...

No, but I could see Hank Rearden enjoying a cold one. ;)

I don't like John Galt at all. AS would've been a much better book if Francisco ran the strike and got Dagny in the end. They were so perfect for each other and had all the history, everything was in place for a completely happy storybook ending where they finally wound up together. The fact that she chose John Galt for his moral philosophy apart from anything else (personality, hobbies, interests, conversational style, personal connection) just makes the whole thing look superficial.

(I generally like Ayn Rand and used to be an Objectivist. I'm not saying this to attack reason or anything, I just know from experience that that's not how actual love works.)

Daniel Barnes said...

>What I'm missing is a critical book about Rand's novels.

Great idea for a project, as they are so weird, interesting and distinctive. Suprising no-one's had a crack, they're far more worthy of analysis than her epistemology.

Here's Jenny Turner with a more literary take on Rand, albeit en passant in a review of Jeff Britting's biography.

She's got a great line from Martin Amis: "It took Rand 14 years to write Atlas Shrugged, and she did not find the process easy, but then she seems to have been overtaken with what Martin Amis (apropos of Brideshead Revisited) has called the ‘great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and . . . deep conviction’ one needs in order to construct ‘the really good bad book’. "

JayCross said...

Speaking of things that took 14+ years to create, it seems like GNR's Chinese Democracy finally has a release date! 23NOV08, exclusive release at BestBuy.

Rock fans will flood the streets, alcohol will flow freely, the sun will burn out of existence. It will truly be the end of times.

Daniel Barnes said...

No shit, CD will actually arrive? I now understand the fundamental cause of the collapse of Western Civilisation we're currently experiencing...;-)

Neil Parille said...

The flaws (or at least oversimplifications) in Rand's philosophy are fairly obvious to someone without advanced training in philosophy. But I am curious what expert literary critics would say about her work. While plenty of professional philosophers have weighed in on her philosophy, I don't know of much in the way of literary criticism.

The TAS did publish a book called The Literary Art of Ayn Rand.

This piece by Stephen Cox looks interesting:

roGER said...

Like most of Rand's work (philospohy and literature), trained intellectuals don't really bother with it - it simply isn't up to standard. The philosophy has more holes than a cheese grater.

In the case of the novels, there is no literature for a literary critic to consider. The characters are one dimensional archetypes, the dialogue is stiff and artifical, the plots are mechanistic and unsurprising. The books are self indulgent and far too long.

Please don't think Rand is singled out by this treatment - many best selling novels are really bad as literature - think of the "Left Behind" series for example.

Anonymous said...

Daniel (quoting Martin Amis: “‘great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and . . . deep conviction’ one needs in order to construct ‘the really good bad book’."

That’s Rand in a nutshell. On a technical level – plot, theme, dialogue, some descriptive passages – Rand is accomplished enough, if not first rank. But a cliff notes rendering of Rand’s fiction does not prepare one for what one might call ‘the shock of the weird’, the gut reaction that Rand inhabits a deeply strange other-world.

The style is an arch, high-camp noir, charmless, insistent, self-important, highly strung, fascinating and repellant, deeply bad but utterly unique, and begging for parody. In my view, these aspects are what makes Rand stand out from other genre writers such as Heinlein and Philip K Dick, who have vivid imaginations but whose actual writing is plodding and flat.

But ultimately, a good writer is judged for their writing ability, their actual way with words, and that’s where Rand falls down. She’s just not good enough with the words. An equally grievous failing is her lack of trust in and respect for the reader. She is unable to let the reader form their own understanding, and time and again tells the reader what to think and feel.

In that sense, she breaches an implicit contract with the reader to respect their intelligence and judgement, and in turn loses the respect of the reader.