Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 20

Art as "fuel." For Rand, one of the primary objectives of art was to serve as a kind of spiritual sustenance or "fuel":

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

I suspect that this statement explains more about Rand's aesthetics than any of Rand's specific theories about art. Rand preferred art that gave her the pleasure of feeling like she was living in her own "ideal" world, populated by her own "ideal" men. While Rand appreciated some works of literature that did not serve as "fuel," she seems to have appreciated no music that fell short of her ideal and hardly any visual art.

Now while anyone may have as narrow (or as wide) aesthetic tastes as they please, in a philosopher of aesthetics, such prejudices are deeply problematic. How can a philosopher provide insights on aesthetics applicable to all (or at least most) individuals when their tastes are so confined within the narrow bounds of their own narcissistic agendas? By Rand's own account (related by Barbara Branden in Who is Ayn Rand? and The Passion of Ayn Rand), Rand was drawn to exciting tales of heroic men. The heroes of most literature simply didn't do anything for her. But the desire to find her ideal man portrayed in literature seems to have prevented Rand from developing appreciation for other virtues in literature. Worse, it inspired her with a scathing contempt for most literature and art which failed to serve as "fuel." Consider what she wrote about the three classics she despised most:

Don Quixote is a malevolent universe attack on all values as such. It belongs in the same class with two other books, which together make up the three books I hate most: Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary.They all have the same theme: Man should not aspire to values. Don Quixote is usually presented as a satire on phony romanticism, but it isn't. It's a satire on all romanticism. As for its literary category, it's a precursor of naturalism (though it isn't written naturalistically). But philosophically -- if you could call it philosophy -- it is plain evil.

And by implication, anyone who admires and enjoys these three novels is also evil. Rand was not content merely to state her own likes and dislikes, however narrow and prejudiced these might have been; but she also had to attack and disparage those whose tastes differed from her own.

In going through Rand's aesthetic judgments, one can't help noticing how often Rand conflates her personal tastes with objective truth. Her "Objectivist" philosophy is really the most subjective of philosophies. It's all about her: her tastes, her emotions, her wants, her needs, all writ large in platonic letters across the heavens. The standard of truth and morality in Objectivism is not "reason" or logic or fact; it is Ayn Rand herself. What Rand said is true is true, despite what all the great thinkers and scientists said before her. What Ayn Rand said is good or evil is good or evil, regardless of whatever natural needs may exist elsewhere in the universe. This explains, perhaps more than anything else, why Objectivsm so quickly degenerated into an Ayn Rand personality cult. Since Objectivism was defined as Rand's philosophy, since she was the ultimate and final arbiter of its dogma, points of disagreement, whenever they fell within the confines of Objectivist doctrine, could only be settled in relation to what Rand might say or think about it. Hence, Beethoven has a malevolent sense of life, not because most of his admirers find him malevolent, but because Rand did. Man is born tabula rasa, not because the facts, as compiled by science, demonstrate such a thing, but because Rand said so. Kant is the most evil man in history, not because he ever did or said anything particularly despicable, but because Rand said so. Rand claimed to found her philosophy on the axiom existence exists; but it is really founded on the (implicit) axiom that equates Rand's thoughts and judgments with objective truth.


Unknown said...

Succinct, scathing, and a hell of a read. It's Ayn Rand as the brooding teenager figuring the universe out via scribbling passionate post-its and arranging them on a corkboard.

She had it all figured out...

Rey said...

Re: Don Quixote

It's neither a satire of "phony romanticism" nor "all romanticism." It's a satire of the chivalric tomances, which were essentially the summer action movie blockbusters of their day, complete with impossibly handsome heroes fighting against impossible odds as they mowed down hordes of bad guys on their way to rescue their impossibly beautiful heroines.

Rand is confusing or conflating a 19th century literary movement with a high-medieval/early modern literary genre. While the two were related in that the Romantics looks back to the romances for inspiration, they are separate, distinct things.

Ignorance, thy name is Rand.

Anon69 said...

"he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved."

How about actually achieving one's values, as a way to live in a universe where one's values have been successfully achieved? Rand's statement is wrong on so many levels, even in terms of Objectivism itself. 1. If man's life qua man is the standard of value, then isn't thinking rationally (as Objectivism puts it) a sufficient reward? 2. Even if the value to be achieved were something requiring a span of time and several steps, cannot it nonetheless be achieved in something less than one's lifespan? What value was Rand referring to in her own life that would take her entire lifespan (if not more) to achieve? A world in which Objectivist ideas prevails? (hence, Atlas Shrugged as "fuel" for the vision?). Or is all this another way of saying that we're all hamsters on a treadmill (or maybe donkeys with a carrot hanging in front is a better analogy) where the pursuit of a happiness is never-to-be-achieved (contra Objectivism which says that happiness on this Earth, not in an afterlife, is possible)? This is bizarre -- inventive, but bizarre.

I certainly agree that art -- including the act of producing it -- can give pleasure. But what has that to do with Rand's dark vision of a universe where life is an unrelenting and miserable slog, except for a few short moments when it isn't?

Tod said...

Anon69, I think you're supposed to get joy from the slog. But if you do, why do you need art?

Jonathan said...

I've noted before in Objectivist fora that passages in Paul Guyer's book, Kant (pages 310 and 311), reveal similarities between Kant and Rand on the issue of aesthetics:

...Kant now emphasizes that we are sensuous as well as rational creatures, and therefore need sensuous as well as rational presentation and confirmation of the conditions of the possibility of morality. He explicitly acknowledges this three years after the Critique of the Power of Judgment, when in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason he asserts "the natural need of all human beings to demand for even the highest concepts and grounds of reason something that the senses can hold on to, some confirmation from experience or the like" (RBMR, 6:109). In Kant's mind, the deepest connection between aesthetic and teleological experience and judgment is that both give us sensuous images of morality and a feeling of its achievability that can supplement and strengthen our purely — but also merely — rational insight into its demands and the possibility of our fulfilling them.

...Kant's interest in aesthetic phenomena is precisely his view that the freedom of the imagination that we experience in our encounter with beautiful objects can give us a feeling of the reality of the freedom of the will that we can only postulate within purely moral reasoning, and the natural existence of beauty can give us a feeling that nature is hospitable to the achievement of our moral goals as well, again something we can only postulate in the moral theory of the highest good — aesthetic feelings with an emotional impact that can support the effect of pure reason upon our sensible side.


And the similarities don't end there! :-)


Michael Prescott said...

"They all have the same theme: Man should not aspire to values."

This just shows she didn't know how to read -- or more precisely, she didn't know how to see past her own prejudices in order to understand a point of view different from her own.

"Anna Karenina" is not about the futility of aspiring to values. The entire subplot featuring Levin (Tolstoy's stand-in) is about a man's search for values, which proves successful. It is contrasted with the main plot, in which Anna makes poor choices and ultimately wrecks her life because she is not seeking real values, but only hedonistic gratification and romantic illusion.

Because Rand did not sympathize with Tolstoy's (Levin's) values, she asserted that the novel was against seeking values as such. This is just silly.

stuart said...

"Objectivism is the most subjective of philosophies." Nail on head, Greg--one of your best ruminations yet. You illuminate the paradoxical heart of the movement, and why we continue to be fascinated by it.

Mark Plus said...

@Michael Prescott:

Rand wrote two novels which include, among other messages, pro-adultery propaganda. No wonder she didn't like Anna Karenina.

Daniel Barnes said...

Or Madame Bovary.

Both novels, particularly MB, investigate the miserable reality that all too often follows from powerful romantic fantasies. Unlike simultaneous sexual liaisons in Galtworld, these have unexpected and unfortunate consequences.

And of course Quixote, while different in style, is about the plight of someone entirely in the grip of a romantic fantasy - who only sees the world as it "ought" to be.

It's clear these novels strike at an Achilles heel in Rand's worldview, and quite possibly her personal psyche. To aim for "romantic realism", clearly something's gotta give.