Monday, April 11, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 5

The Tragic Vision (or sense) of Life. By declaring that people tend either toward a benevolent or malevolent sense of life, Rand implied that these two options exhaust the category. However, there is a third option that trascends Rand's rather simplistic and invidious dichotomy: the tragic vision (or sense) of life. Thomas Sowell defines this sense of life as "a vision in which the inherent flaws of human beings are the fundamental problem and social contrivances are simply imperfect means of trying to cope with that problem." Sowell continues:


In the tragic vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings and civilization is simply "a thin crust over a volcano." This vision has few solutions to offer and many painful trade-offs to ponder... This constrained vision is thus a tragic vision-- not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, for much happiness and fulfillment are possible within a constrained world, but tragic in limitations that cannot be overcome merely by compassion, commitment, or other virtues [such as Rand's "reason"] which those with [utopian visions] attribute to themselves.
I suspect that Rand herself, if she had been confronted with Sowell's tragic vision, would have merely conflated it with her malevolent universe premise, which would have given her a convenient rationalization for dismissing it out of hand. In any case, Rand's view of human nature and human cognition are incompatible with the tragic vision. And when Rand complains about certain works of art expressing a "malevolent sense of life," what she is often complaining about is merely that they express Sowell's tragic vision. She did not like art that expresses this vision for the simple reason that she did not share it. According to Rand's "benevolent universe premise","pain, suffering, failure do not have metaphysical significance—they do not reveal the nature of reality." [Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism, Lecture 8] As one of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged puts it:
We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.
The tragic vision holds a more nuanced view. While it does not embrace the opposite conclusion (i.e., that only suffering has metaphysical significance), it recognizes the existence and importance of suffering, tragedy, and death. Moreover, by recognizing the significance of tragedy in life it encourages taking the precautions necessary to mitigate the sufferings and travails implicated in existence. Rand, with her benevolent universe premise, seems to err on the side of over-optimism, rather than prudence and caution.

Yet this Rand's tendency toward over-optimism is not the worst of it. At bottom, Rand's benevolent-malevolent dichotomy ignores one of the most important functions of serious art: namely, its ability to sublimate and generate wisdom concerning the difficult aspects of existence. Serious art does not focus or dwell on tragedy because it regards human beings as essentially doomed; no, it tackles these subjects to help individuals come to grips with them. By sublimating tragedy, it makes it more bearable. The fact is, the Objectivist view of suffering as "metaphysically insignificant" is egregiously superficial. Tragedy touches everyone. It is omnipresent in the form of human mortality, which implicates all of us. Tragedy, as a source of pain and suffering, forms as an essential part of the human experience as does happiness and success. To declare suffering and tragedy as being metaphysically insignificant is to mischaracterize the human experience.

Aristotle claimed that the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles served as a "purge." That's part of the effect. In experiencing tragic art, one enters into the same emotional world of those afflicted with tragedy without experiencing the full horror of it. Rand might question, Why would anyone want to do such a thing? To which I would respond: It's part of the maturation process involved in becoming a thoroughly civilized human being. By transforming tragedy into an aesthetic experience, the artist makes the inevitable suffering of life easier to bear. It's all about reconciliation to the inevitable rather than glorification of "malevolence." Rand experienced tragedy and suffering in her own life when she broke with Nathaniel Branden. How did she respond to that? Did she behave as a dignified, civilized human being? Or as a vindictive, emotionally distraught, unhinged, malevolent harridan? Rand's inability to face suffering in art is mirrored by the immaturity with which she faced it in her own life.

The composer Josef Suk provides a particularly eloquent and moving example of tragic art in his Asrael Symphony. Suk originally planned the work as a memorial to his teacher and father-in-law, the famous composer Antonin Dvorak. But while composing the symphony, Suk's wife died. While struggling with intense depression, Suk completed the work. The conclusion of the symphony coincides with Suk's acceptance of his wife's death, and his subsequent emergence from depression. He portrays this, musically, by transforming the tragic theme of the last movement into the major scale, thus embuing the closing pages of the work into a paen of acceptance and even affirmation; proving, once again, that tragic art is not the indulgence in malevolent fatalism that Rand would make of it. Tragic art is not pessimistic or fatalistic, but simply realistic. It attempts, as Milton attempted in Paradise Lost, "to justify the ways of God [or reality] to men;" and by doing so, to make those ways more bearable. In accepting the difficult aspects of existence, it demonstrates its essential affirmative stance. Affirmation of human existence is not achieved by evading the unpleasant bits. True affirmation accepts human existence in its entirety, including the inevitable tragedy and suffering. It does not dwell or exalt in these things, but by sublimating them, reconciles the individual to them.

19 comments:

Matt Warren said...

For a woman who believed in such a an allegedly life-affirming aesthetic system, she sure expressed a shit-ton of negativity and hate.

Anonymous said...

Great job, Greg, this really needed to be said.

The role of art in human society is indeed a far more complex and fascinating thing than Rand ever allowed for. All she believed it should do is "present the world as it ought to be."

My goodness, what great -- and needed -- art this would leave out.

- Chris

Xtra Laj said...

I especially like Greg's example of dealing with the death of loved ones, though I wish he had made it mor directly. Dealing with failure is another.

stuart said...

Greg, beautifully expressed. To know that life is larger than oneself is a lesson that Rand, who declared she had essentially figured out the world by the age of three, never learned.

Michael Prescott said...

Excellent post, Greg.

Incidentally, it was when I read Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions" that I realized I was not an Objectivist. I identified with his "constrained" or "tragic" vision, and I saw that Rand embraced the unconstrained or utopian vision.

The two points of view can be summarized as "nothing less than perfection will do" (the utopian vision) versus "the perfect is the enemy of the good" (the tragic vision).

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Greg Nyquist writes: "I suspect that Rand herself, if she had been confronted with Sowell's tragic vision, would have merely conflated it with her malevolent universe premise, which would have given her a convenient rationalization for dismissing it out of hand."

Greg's suspicion is correct. Here's Rand herself, in “Conservatism: An Obituary,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (196):

This leads us to the third—and the worst—argument, used by some “conservatives”: the attempt to defend capitalism on the ground of man’s depravity.

This argument runs as follows: since men are weak, fallible, non-omniscient and innately depraved, no man may be entrusted with the responsibility of being a dictator and of ruling everybody else; therefore, a free society is the proper way of life for imperfect creatures. Please grasp fully the implications of this argument: since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state.


I think that qualifies as conflating the tragic vision with the malevolent universe premise and dismissing it out of hand.

Rey said...

I made a longish comment re: The Ayn Rand Lexicon's entry for "Benevolent Universe Premise" (MUP) and after losing it in teh ether three or four times, I got my internet sorted and posted my comment! I even saw it in the comments! What happend? Deleted? Was it that bad? Glargle bhargle!!!

The upshot of it was that if you ognore the misnomer "benevolent" (Piekoff admits he means "neutral" and/or "indifferent") and use Piekoff's definition of "universe" ("the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything" ), MUP is untrue. There are aspects of the universe that are far from indifferent, namely human individuals and institutions.

If you exclude the human factor (which Piekoff doesn't) from your definition of universe, then it would be true that that the universe (i.e., the natural, nonhuman world) is neutral and indifferent, but what this would have to do with ethics and aesthetics is nil.

Objectivism: When it isn't just wrong, it's irrelevant.

There was some other stuff I wrote about using fancy words as salt for bland soup; passing parentheticals that create the appearance of reasonableness by ackowledging a weakness without exploring its implications; and crypo-tautologies that allow evidence against to be transmuted into evidence for; etc.

Oh, well.

Rey said...

Forgive the typos in my previous post.

Daniel Barnes said...

Rey:
> I even saw it in the comments! What happend? Deleted? Was it that bad? Glargle bhargle!!!

It was somehow bloggered. We almost never delete posts, unless they are obviously spam. Sorry, don't know what happened there!

Ken said...

Chris wrote: All she believed [art] should do is "present the world as it ought to be."

So let us all join in a rousing chorus of "We Are Carrying Manure for Chairman Mao"...

Seriously, is there any difference between Rand's view of art and the worst forms of state propaganda? Other than the expected disagreements about what "ought to be", of course.

Rey said...

@Ken: I've long thought that Socialist Realism and Romantic Realism are more or less the same thing, save that the former idolizes the proletarians while the latter idolizes the heroic (as defined by Rand) individual. Both approaches treat art as cracker tray for serving up your preferred ideology.

I can imagine Rand sitting in here classes in her courses at the State Technicum for Screen Arts being told that art should be propaganda for the revolution and the worker's state and her thinking, That's wrong! It should be propaganda for individualism!
never once questioning the assumption that art has to be propaganda for something.

Skyknight said...

I can't really see much reason to believe that tragedy is inevitable, although that may be because I don't regard inevitability as a real thing (i.e. fate and destiny do not exist, nor should they, inherent tyrants that they are). Still, the tragedy-incorporating music you spoke of doesn't strike me as pure tragic. It sounds more like there's at least a promise of recapture, even if not in the same milieu, of the beauty, happiness, vibrance, etc. that tragedy and woe stole away--in this case, just because his wife perished, does not mean the composer has no hope of his sum lot in life ever ascending again, of recapturing vital vibrance. More bittersweet (in that order?) than fully tragic; call it zealous or heroic vision? In that heroism usually appears in an attempt to balm, reverse, or interdict a woe.

Francois Tremblay said...

As a Buddhist and an antinatalist, I definitely believe that suffering IS primary... and see this as Rand's most profound error!

Neil Parille said...

Rand said in Conservatism: An Obituary:
______

This leads us to the third—and the worst—argument, used by some “conservatives”: the attempt to defend capitalism on the ground of man’s depravity.

This argument runs as follows: since men are weak, fallible, non-omniscient and innately depraved, no man may be entrusted with the responsibility of being a dictator and of ruling everybody else; therefore, a free society is the proper way of life for imperfect creatures. Please grasp fully the implications of this argument: since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state.
_____

I didn't understand this reasoning when I was sympathetic to Objectivism and don't understand it now.

If anything Rand wrote deserves unpacking, this is it.

-Neil Parille

Francois Tremblay said...

What? It makes perfect sense.

Govi said...

Again there seems to be a disparity between what she says and what she did in real life and what appears in her fiction. Her heroes seem to exult in undergoing suffering, torment, and persecution, while actually enjoying themselves as little as humanly possible, in a characteristically Russian fiction sort of way. I know Ayn Rand liked Dostoevsky, and I think in some ways there's quite a bit more of Russia than America in her novels.

Jeffrey said...

Rand's criticisim of conservatism here is a bit crious concerning her extremely negative protrayal of Dr. Robert Stadler; it's not hard to argue he's been corrupted by power. Remember that Galt himself turns down the chance to become econmic dictator (although he does it on the grounds that one can't order people to be free). I suppose an Objectivist could argue that a truly rational person is never corrupted by power, but then they lose one of their most potent tools in trying to explain away the Alan Greenspan fiasco, one of the most damning indictaments against Laissez-Faire in U.S. history (but, knowing Objectivists, they probably would still try).

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Jeffrey: I suppose an Objectivist could argue that a truly rational person is never corrupted by power, but then they lose one of their most potent tools in trying to explain away the Alan Greenspan fiasco ...

Yes, but they don't think they lose. In Objectivist logic, if a truly rational person is never corrupted by power and Greenspan was corrupted by power, then Greenspan was not a truly rational person. QED.

What they argue over is whether he was ever "truly rational." Some say he wasn't and managed to fool Rand. (Her admirers will concede that she was too trusting.) Others say he was rational once but lost it somewhere along the way, probably from excessive exposure to the intellectual morass of the White House or the Federal Reserve. The timeline is open to debate. But all would agree that he must have already been irrational before he was corrupted! After all, had he been rational, he wouldn't have ben corrupted.

See also: No True Scotsman fallacy

Ken said...

@ECE: See also: No True Scotsman fallacy

And the Adam and Eve paradox. Adam and Eve were immortal, but their actions made them mortal. Greenspan was entirely rational, until he did something irrational.