Friday, April 29, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 7

"Volition" in art. With her selectivity principle well in hand, Rand proceeds to make yet another invidious distinction:

An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man and of existence. In forming a view of man’s nature, a fundamental question one must answer is whether man possesses the faculty of volition—because one’s conclusions and evaluations in regard to all the characteristics, requirements and actions of man depend on the answer.

Their opposite answers to this question constitute the respective basic premises of two broad categories of art: Romanticism, which recognizes the existence of man’s volition—and Naturalism, which denies it.

Rand's belief that one can infer the artists "fundamental view of man and of existence" reaches its most elaborate development in her Romanticism/Naturalism dichotomy. Like so many of her aesthetic concepts, it is, at best, based on a few half (or even quarter) truths, which are exaggerated way out of proportion. Some of Rand's favorite authors (i.e., those whom she regarded as Romanticists) explicitly believed in free will (e.g., Schiller, Hugo, Dostoevsky), while some of the authors Rand deplored (i.e., those whom she regarded as Naturalists) either believed in determinism or were skeptical about free will (e.g., Tolstoy, Zola, Dreiser). What impact any of this has on the actual literary productions of these authors is somewhat debatable. While there may be a few exceptions (Zola comes to mind), you really have to engage in a great deal of over-interpretation to read determinism or free will into the novels of most serious authors. Generally speaking, most great literature attempts to portray human beings realistically, which means: under the influence of various passions, desires, and sentiments. Some characters may appear to have more self-initiative and therefore could be considered as exemplars of "free will"; others characters may be more passive or impulsive, and therefore could be considered exemplars of "determinism." However, there is nothing mandatory or even insightful in such interpretations. The fact that an author portrays a passive character does not necessarily give us any insight into his "fundamental view" of man. In real life, one finds both active and passive individuals. If one wishes to present a wide variety of human character (and this is what many serious authors wish to achieve), one needs to portray both types.

For the most part, it is simply not true that an author's view on volition can be inferred from his work. This can be confirmed by a glance at Rand's own purported method of distinguishing Romanticists from Naturalists. Rand contended that the distinguishing feature separating works of Romanticism from works of Naturalism is the feature of a plot:

If man possesses volition, then the crucial aspect of his life is his choice of values—if he chooses values, then he must act to gain and/or keep them—if so, then he must set his goals and engage in purposeful action to achieve them. The literary form expressing the essence of such action is the plot.

A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.

The word “purposeful” in this definition has two applications: it applies to the author and to the characters of a novel. It demands that the author devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story—a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.

Such a sequence cannot be constructed unless the main characters of the novel are engaged in the pursuit of some purpose—unless they are motivated by some goals that direct their actions. In real life, only a process of final causation—i.e., the process of choosing a goal, then taking the steps to achieve it—can give logical continuity, coherence and meaning to a man’s actions. Only men striving to achieve a purpose can move through a meaningful series of events.

Contrary to the prevalent literary doctrines of today, it is realism that demands a plot structure in a novel. All human actions are goal-directed, consciously or subconsciously; purposelessness is contrary to man’s nature: it is a state of neurosis. Therefore, if one is to present man as he is—as he is metaphysically, by his nature, in reality—one has to present him in goal-directed action.

Is it really true, as Rand contends, that the use of plot determines whether an author believes in volition? No, it is not true. Rand's argument doesn't even make sense on its own terms, let alone anyone else's. She describes a plot as "a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story." The language Rand uses to describe a plot quite literally drips with determinism. After all, how can a logical sequence of events in which every event is "connected" and "determined" by previous events entail free will? Yes, I know, Rand insists that the events are driven by the goal-directed behavior of the story's characters. But even with this condition, Rand's concept of plot still smacks of determinism, suggesting the sort of characters who never waver from their goals, as if once a choice is made, one cannot change one's mind and adopt a different route. If free will involves, not merely the choosing a goal, but enjoying the ability to change one's goals in midstream, then her theory about plots be linked to volition breaks down. Indeed, when looked at more critically, there is no necessary connection between plots and volition: it's all a rationalization on Rand's part to justify her preference for narratives with suspenseful stories.

Just as a plotless narrative may be entirely consistent with free will (since the logical sequence of events can be broken by characters changing their minds), so a narrative with a strict plot may be entirely consistent with determinism. Coleridge regarded Oedipus Rex as one of "the three most perfect plots ever planned." And indeed, there is in Oedipus a perfect logical sequence of events in which every major event is connected, determined, and proceeds from the preceding events in the story. Yet Oedipus positively drips with determinism. Other examples plots being used to enhance sense of deterministic fatalism are Shakespeare's MacBeth and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles.

However (and this a very important point) even though Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Hardy wrote "fatalistic" narratives, this is hardly proof positive that they were determinists. Perhaps they were, perhaps not. Their choice of subject matter is not decisive in this respect. Sophocles and Shakespeare simply dramatized whatever stories happened to be commonly available. There is no reason to assume that the decision to dramatize a "fatalistic" narrative indicates either a conscious or subconscious commitment to determinism. Shakespeare also dramatized non-fatalistic plays (like most of the comedies). A few of his plays imply a stronger commitment to free will than one finds even in Rand's Atlas Shrugged. After all, in Atlas, all the villians stick to their villianous guns, as if they are all villians by necessity, rather than by choice. (I realize that Rand did not intend that her villians should be regarded as determined, but if we apply her own selectivity principle to them, what is to prevent us, logically speaking, from hoisting her on her own philosophical petard?) In Shakespeare, one finds villians changing their ways and becoming virtuous, all suggesting belief in free will. Henry IV, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale are examples of this process in action. So does that prove that Shakespeare believed in volition? No, not necessarily. What it proves is that one cannot establish an author's philosophy from his choice of subject matter. There may be any number of reasons an author chooses a particular subject matter, some of which may have nothing to do with the author's core beliefs. Many authors are primarily attempting to earn a living. At bottom, Shakespeare was a businessman seeking to please to play-going public. Unlike Rand, he was not using literature to propound his own personal philosophy. Indeed, to this day, we don't have any great familiarity with Shakespeare's personal beliefs. Which of his plays comes closest to portraying his "fundamental views of man and existence" are a complete mystery (and, in the final analysis, unimportant). Each of Shakespeare's plays is a world unto itself, and many of them seem to portary vastly different "fundamental views." The world of King Lear is in many respects very different from the world of Henry V, and both diverge sharply from Comedy of Errors and The Tempest. The same can be said of the works of most great writers. There is far more between heaven and hell that can be limned in any mere philosophical system: and great literature, by being multi-faceted and portraying the whole range of existence (rather than just selecting a tiny swathe of it) seeks to illustrate this great truth.


Michael Prescott said...

My reading of Shakespeare is that he saw mixed elements of free will and determination in human nature. He seems to have held the view that one's ancestry (or "blood") determines one's character to a large extent. The book "Blood Will Tell" by David Shelley Berkeley makes this case in detail, showing how Shakespeare's aristocrats consistently differ from commoners, and how the bastard aristocrats differ from those of pure blood.

OTOH, his characters are not entirely constrained by inherited qualities; they can struggle with moral choices, as Hamlet does. It's not surprising that Shakespeare should embrace a viewpoint that combines nature and nurture, since he coined the phrase. In The Tempest he describes Caliban as "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/ nurture can never stick."

Whether Shakespeare was a businessman writing to please the public is debatable. Personally I think he was a nobleman who wrote mainly for the edification and amusement of the royal court. I can't see how plays like "Love's Labours Lost" or "Troilus & Cressida" can be read any other way. Sophisticated satires on Elizabeth's court, filled with gossipy in-jokes at the expense of the high and mighty, written by a provincial glover's son? Not likely. Not do I think a commoner would have dared lampoon the all-powerful Lord Burghley as the blowhard Polonius; playwrights were imprisoned and put to torture for much less in those days.

But whoever Shakespeare was, he surely doesn't fit neatly into Rand's pigeonholes. As usual, she imagines that the limits of her understanding are the limits of reality.

Dragonfly said...

Michael: "He seems to have held the view that one's ancestry (or "blood") determines one's character to a large extent."

And what does Rand write about Francisco d'Anconia?

It was as if the centuries had sifted the family's qualities through a fine mesh, had discarded the irrelevant, the inconsequential, the weak, and had let nothing through as if chance, for once, had achieved an entity devoid of the accidental.

Ehm, miss Rand... you mean d'Anconia was not a blank slate at birth?

Rey said...

Well, Michael, wherever one stands on the authorship issue, it's pretty clear that Shakespeare's ouvre is too diverse fit into Rand's Naturalism/Romanticism schema.

What strikes me is her arbitrariness of her declaration that all literature fits into one or the other camp (and I find it suspicious that both camps bear the same name as that of the two literary movements that preceded her own literary career*; for me, her choice to do that belies her own limited reading and tastes), and as far as analytical tools go, the Naturalism/Romanticism dichotomy is limited, to say the least.

Even if you manage to shoehorn, say, "Waiting for Godot"* into one camp or the other, so what? What's the point? That this book is malevolent and that one benevolent? That you should like this one but despise that one? And what kind of lazy reader can't form an opinion just by reading a work?

Anyway, the applying of arbitrary, simplistic schemata to complex works to help you "analyze" them reminds of the worst habits of postmodern/poststructuralist crimicism, such as Marxist literary analysis, feminist literary analysis, postcolonial, etc. Often described as "lenses," these literary theories are more like meat grinders. Put the raw material in, the literary work, and, depending on the machine you use, out pops a sausage, a bratwurst, a hotdog, a kielbasa, etc. Whatever product you want, you put in a complex enough work and it will sift and grind until you get the text to say what you want.

All of these "lenses," Rand's included, may help see something in a work that you never noticed before or would have otherwise overlooked due to your own preferences, biases, or blindspots, but none of them is the alpha-omega of how to read a text or view a play.

I'm also perplexed by her including plot as an essential feature of her analytical tool. By doing so, she renders it usless for those literary forms that don't don't have plots, like sonnets and ode (and many other poetic forms) or essays. Say what you want about any other school of criticism, at least they can be applied to all forms of literature!

*I chose "...Godot" as an example quite on purpose because it's a fine example of how you can have a rich, complex work with minimal plot. It's just two guys, waiting for Godot, for two acts. What makes it interesting and complex are how the characters react and behave in Godot's lingering absence. And of course, there's the unresolved question of who is Godot, what does he symbolize (if anything), and why do they persist in waiting for him when it becomes clearer and clearer that he's not going to show? (That lack of resolution would probably have enraged Rand) If Godot represents God, then the play becomes a meditation on the absurdity of waiting for some divine signifier to give meaning to your life, a message Rand might well have endorsed. On the other hand, if Godot is a French Resistence leader (as some critics have advanced) and Vladimir and Estragon members of his cell, you have a very different play on your hands (and some of their bizarre behavior suddenly makes more sense).

Rey said...

Good catch, Dragonfly!

Jonathan said...

"After all, in Atlas, all the villians stick to their villianous guns, as if they are all villians by necessity, rather than by choice."


As Dragonfly suggests in a post above, Rand's heroic characters could also be seen as deterministic. Dagny and Francisco could have chosen any passion that they wished to pursue. Instead, both followed the paths that had been laid out by their ancestors. They were born to fulfill their families' destinies.

Rand's view of naturalism/determinism overlooks the fact that fate or destiny doesn't necessarily imply defeat and despair. Determinists can believe that people are destined by God or other external forces to achieve greatness.


Xtra Laj said...


This, I think, is one of your empirically bolder efforts and I really enjoyed it. It's rare to meet anyone who can take Rand seriously enough to criticize her and who can provide experience-informed criticism on the works she discussed as well. I read this and reflected on the movie, "The Dark Knight", and how its complex characterization of heroes and villains gets viewed by some as naturalist in Objectivist circles.

I think you clearly pointed out Rand's preference for some form of suspense, but didn't bring out as clearly her childish rejection of moral ambiguity, which also plays a role here. I think the moral ambiguity issue is what she really uses to determine whether a plot is purportedly naturalist or not. She thought that good and evil should largely be polar opposites, and almost never saw them as systemically inherent in individuals or political systems where risk was rewarded.

Neil Parille said...

In the lecture I referenced by Bernstein he talks about the great contributions to literature by Americans. He mentions, I kid you not, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Whitman.

He also praises William James for his contributions to experimental psychology. In addition to his role in popularizing pragmatism, he spent a good deal of time investigating psychics and apparently accepted the legitimacy of a few, such as Lorena Piper.

Ken said...

I am reminded of the way writers describe their creative process. Some have everything planned and under tight control before they set pen to paper*, while others say "I really didn't expect this, but it's where the characters and plot went." Does this have any bearing on Rand's view - i.e. would she say the first writer was denying free will, since for that writer the characters have none?

I think it would be difficult to make such an argument, since the creative process seems independent of the style of the work, or of the content. In fact it looks like there are many areas where volition, or the lack thereof, are simultaneously being exercised or exhibited, and they can all be independent of one another.

To take an example:

(1) A writer who strongly believes in free will...

(2) Carefully lays out all the details of a novel before starting to write...

(3) And writes it without allowing the characters any leeway to develop in ways that are not according to the plan...

(4) The novel itself has a plot of the sort that Rand approved, so exhibits volition by that standard...

(5) But some of the characters argue that they have no free will, while others take the contrary point of view...

(6) And the whole novel ends with the horrible destruction of almost all of society, exhibiting what Rand might call a malevolent or fatalistic view of life.

Hmm, I think I might have accidentally described "Atlas Shrugged" there (though I don't know Rand's creative process so can't really judge #2 and #3). However, set that aside; you could just as easily flip the sense of every one and get an equally-believable creative process.

My point is that these different aspects of the creation and the final work are all pretty independent, and any of them can be read as showing or denying free will. How is a work to be judged when these interpretations are in conflict?

* What is the modern idiom for "putting pen to paper"?

Xtra Laj said...

To her rejection of moral ambiguity, I would add how well good triumphed over evil (from the Randian perspective).

stuart said...

Endlessly interesting stuff. With great artists on philosophy, it's diamond on diamond.The mind sparks off the ideas, and creates art, facet on facet. No two surfaces intersect the same way. Rand had to maintain there was only one surface, and only one possible meeting, and only one way of sparkling. Hers.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Caroljane.

Rand taught us the meaning of individualism -- that real individuals have objective taste (like hers), arrive at the same objective conclusions (hers) and arrive at the same perspective on life (hers). That's individuality achieved!

- Chris

Michael Prescott said...

"That's individuality achieved!" - Chris

Exactly. And let's not forget the striking individuality of her fictional heroes, who all look and sound pretty much the same. Rand's idea of paradise (Galt's Gulch) is a place where people stand around echoing each other's thoughts and congratulating themselves on how smart and moral they all are. One wonders how Galt and company would have reacted to a genuine individualist who dared to disagree with them on any issue.

Xtra Laj said...

May not be the right place to say this but I found the outpouring on the streets of the US in response the announcement of the killing of Osama Bin Laden pretty interesting, especially when you consider the outpouring on the streets in a few countries after 9-11. Not comparing the acts (which are incomparable), but the behaviors in response to them. I found the similar responses quite interesting from a human nature perspective.

Michael Prescott said...

People like to celebrate when they're happy. What matters is what they're happy about -- the deaths of 3000 civilians, or the death of a mass murderer.

Xtra Laj said...


I know. The open celebration of the assassination still gives me pause. Again, the two acts were incomparable but any display of celebration is open to being spun in a way that might not capture the actual feelings of those who are celebrating.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Michael Prescott:

"Rand's idea of paradise (Galt's Gulch) is a place where people stand around echoing each other's thoughts and congratulating themselves on how smart and moral they all are."

Sounds remarkably like an ARI summer conference.

"One wonders how Galt and company would have reacted to a genuine individualist who dared to disagree with them on any issue."

Fortunately, Galt et al. are fictional, so we'll never know for sure. :-)

But we can extrapolate from real-life examples Consider Rand's reaction to John Hospers when he politely expressed disagreement in public, or how Peikoff and ARI have handled various "heretics" over the years -- including David Kelley, who dared to suggest that Objectivists should tolerate disagreement.

gregnyquist said...

I think you clearly pointed out Rand's preference for some form of suspense, but didn't bring out as clearly her childish rejection of moral ambiguity, which also plays a role here. I think the moral ambiguity issue is what she really uses to determine whether a plot is purportedly naturalist or not.

While Rand certainly had a problem with moral ambiguity, I'm not sure how much it has to do with her romanticism/naturalism distinction. In the first place, she regarded Dostoevsky as one of the two largely consistent Romanticists among writers of prose fiction; and surely there's plenty of moral ambiguity in Dostoevsky. Furthermore, she never made a distinction between naturalist and romanticist plots. Naturalist works, according to Rand, don't have plots, just loose, aimless stories.

I tend to think that Rand's prejudice against moral ambiguity stems from her desire to place everything in neat, unamibiguous categories. Because of her emphasis on conscious "reason" and "focus," ambiguity, complexity, and nuance were problems to be evaded, rather than difficulties to be confronted.

gregnyquist said...

Rand's idea of paradise (Galt's Gulch) is a place where people stand around echoing each other's thoughts and congratulating themselves on how smart and moral they all are. One wonders how Galt and company would have reacted to a genuine individualist who dared to disagree with them on any issue.

Yes, this is one of the central paradoxes of Objectivism, a philosophy which mixes uncompromising individualism with uncompromising conformity. The conformity stems, intellectually, from Rand's views of reason and human nature. Since "reason" can only lead to one conclusion, and since it is such conclusions that, ultimately, make the individual what he is, if everyone followed "reason" (as Rand's ethics strongly insists they must do) they would all come out with largely the same character. Thus does a philosophy of individualism strangle itself under the chains of the most abject conformity.

To be sure, I suspect Rand would have shrunk from stating it so baldly. But at bottom, her desire that everyone in her circle share her aesthetic tastes can be justified, intellectually, on no other basis. (Of course, it would be naive to assume that intellectual causes are the prime mover here. For whatever reason, Rand felt a strong need to have those around her conform to her way of thinking and feeling.)

1Z said...

The chances of Rand forming a cogent aesthetics on the basis of her theories of volition were always pretty slim, since her theories of volition make no sense ITFP.