Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls

Over at The New Criterion, Anthony Daniels fingers Rand as the "Chernyshevsky of individualism." His thoughtful critique touches on a number of telling points:

Rand’s hero-worship is also Nietzschean in inspiration. It is deeply unpleasant. She entirely lacks the literary ability to convey anything admirable, or even minimally attractive, about her heroes, who are the kind of people one would not cross the road to meet, though one might well cross it to avoid them. They partake fully of her humorless monomania and have all the human warmth of a praying mantis. We are told that they are geniuses, but their genius seems mainly to consist of an unswerving adherence to their own ideas.

Howard Roark is the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, but there is abundant evidence in the book that he is not a very good architect: his ideas are totally derivative and, furthermore, derivative of ideas that are themselves not merely worthless, but monstrous. Like his creator, he claims an originality that he does not have. Here he describes how a house may have what he calls “integrity”:

Every piece of it is there because the house needs it—and for no other reason. The relation of masses was determined by the distribution of space within. The ornament was determined by the method of construction, an emphasis of the principle that makes it stand.

This is pure, unadulterated Le Corbusier. Indeed, it could have been written by him. (Roark also praises Le Corbusier’s favourite thing in all the world, reinforced concrete.) We all know what Le Corbusier led to; the very idea that a house “needs” things while the desires of human beings can be disregarded is one that would occur only to someone with a reptilian mind.

It is not altogether surprising that Roark lacks taste; Rand herself did, too. She called Bach and Mozart “pre-musical,” preferring Tchaikovsky and even Leh├ír. She thought that Victor Hugo was the greatest novelist who ever lived. She ridiculed Rembrandt’s “visual distortions.” These judgments show her to have been seriously deficient in sensibility and discrimination across a wide range of important human activities: in fact, I cannot think of any field in which she showed proper aesthetic or intellectual judgment.


Hat tip to Anon in comments.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article, I think we all agree that Rand was a truly terrible author and her characters were at best two-dimensional. John Galt is one-dimensional so we need not bother to waste time discussing him. But as for Roark, what a dull fellow he is, if he’s not working he just sits there, brooding in his arm chair chain smoking.

Kelly said...

"We all know what Le Corbusier led to; the very idea that a house “needs” things while the desires of human beings can be disregarded is one that would occur only to someone with a reptilian mind."

Le Corbusier was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, if not the most influential. Say what you will about Rand, but hands off Corbu.

DocBadwrench said...

I'm not terribly educated in matters philosophical, but have discovered your blog after having a run in with someone I haven't talked to in a decade.

At the time, we were both Objectivist. While the person I was has changed considerably in the intervening years, my old friend appears completely unchanged. He is quite disgusted that I've 'lost my way' so to speak.

I would only like to add that it was Rand's crude analysis of art that caused me to deeply suspect her lack of intellectual coherence.

I do not enjoy the inevitable haranguing that will be happening in the near future. In the mean time, I am visiting your blog in order to better familiarize myself with some of the core conceits that my aging mind has forgotten.

Thanks,
Matt Warren
The Long Game

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Matt,

One of the descriptions that has stuck with me about Objectivism is David Ramsay Steele's "bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics."

And it's quite astonishing how much of Objectivism turns out to be just that. For example, here's a recent exchange where Objectivist author James Valliant is presented with a simple request to put Rand's solution to the famous "is/ought" problem into a standard logical form.

Valliant then claims that he, Rand, and Objectivist author Tara Smith have already done so.

But when asked again and again to actually reveal this supposed solution to the famous philosophical problem, Valliant simply refuses and puts the problem back on his questioner!

This is no different from claiming you've solved some famous problem in science, yet refusing to reveal how.

As Gary Merrill noted (in an essay that unfortunately now appears to be offline), if this was science this sort of thing would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.

It's quite incredible really. Cult-level stuff. So you may have your work cut out for you with your friend I fear...;-)

Xtra Laj said...

Anon was Laj in a rush :D.

Neil Parille said...

Speaking of Valliant, has anyone seen his latest screed against Christianity (and Judaism)?

http://www.solopassion.com/node/7338

We all are a bit selective in our history, but Valliant must know that many of things he criticizes historical Christianity for (in some cases appropriately enough) were found equally in Greek and Roman thought.

Didn't those enlightened Greeks and Romans believe in slavery, limited rights for women, "dualism," religion, altruism, etc.?

The ideal for an Athenian woman was to stay in the home. The Athentians had massive silver mines in which slaves worked. It was a sentence of death. I would rather be a midieval serf.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

"...The Athentians had massive silver mines in which slaves worked. It was a sentence of death. I would rather be a midieval serf."

Neil, as long as you did not try to stage a revolt of the slaves working there though...as that would be too upsetting for certain sections of this site.

But thanks for the link, Valliant is a strange one. But then aren't all objectivists. Was debating with one about films, they really think that the movies we see directly influence our outlook in life in such a simplisitic and direct relationship that even if the Catholic Legion of deceny would balk at.
Hell, even they did not think that if say, a man watched a Russ Meyer film, he would turn into a s e x maniac. Yet objectivists believe that when films pursue a looting/envirnmentalist/collectivist/tribalist theme. In one post they even questioned the motives of Yoda in Star Wars. Sometimes it really is only a movie.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Daniel,

Did you see how rude the people were towards him for merely asking him to show the proof? What is wrong with these people? Are you not allowed to question these ‘top objectivist scholars’? They really are puffed up little frogs masquerading as princes, good for him for popping a pin in them.


Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Damien,

Whoops, this bit got cut off...

What is preety nasty is the way they all round on him to, like children in the playground, when one starts to pick on another they all join in like sheep. Just following the herd in attacking him, yet he asked such a simple question and was not rude or disrespectful, at least initialy, yet no answer was forthcoming from Valliant and co, only abuse.

Neil Parille said...

Here is a review of the review:

http://funwithgravity.blogspot.com/2010/02/ayn-rand-in-new-criterion.html

-Neil Parille

Xtra Laj said...

Kelly,

What do you think of this on Le Corbusier?

http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_otbie-le-corbusier.html

By the same author of the Rand criticism.

Kelly said...

Xtra Laj,

His city planning work and political views were always a little questionable. But the actual architecture is very good. I suppose it all depends on subjective aesthetic opinions, but again if you ask most architects and designers they by and large have a very favorable opinion of him. The author of the piece you liked to apparently doesn't have a very high opinion of him, I'd guess he doesn't have a very high opinion of modern architecture for the most part anyway. I found this pasasge very interesting:

"At the exhibition, I fell to talking with two elegantly coiffed ladies of the kind who spend their afternoons in exhibitions. “Marvelous, don’t you think?” one said to me, to which I replied: “Monstrous.” Both opened their eyes wide, as if I had denied Allah’s existence in Mecca. If most architects revered Le Corbusier, who were we laymen, the mere human backdrop to his buildings, who know nothing of the problems of building construction, to criticize him? Warming to my theme, I spoke of the horrors of Le Corbusier’s favorite material, reinforced concrete, which does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays. A single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape, I insisted. A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything except itself." and "Le Corbusier was the enemy of mankind"

Honestly, it sounds like an objectivist wrote it. Certainly not the subject manner but the tone. Comparing Corbu to the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot. Really? Slightly over the top. I understand if he doesn't like the architecture and there are real issues with modernist central city planning, but it's hard to even finish reading the article or to address the few legitimate points he makes.

Anonymous said...

http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerkimball/2010/02/05/one-or-two-thoughts-about-ayn-rand/

Here is Kimball reviewing the comments made in response to Daniels.

Professor_Fate said...

"Le Corbusier was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century."

That explain a lot of things about the awful urban environment we're forced to live and work in.