Monday, April 10, 2023

Why Did Rand Dislike Joseph Conrad?

Ayn Rand, during one of her Q&A’s, made the following remark about Joseph Conrad, the Polish born English novelist:

Joseph Conrad also called himself a Romantic Realist. I don’t like him, but I think he is correct in so labeling himself. He treats his novels realistically, but not naturalistically. So even though my values are quite different from his, I agree with that designation. He expressed his values, and in that sense he was a romantic—only his settings and character are much more realistic than I’d ever select. But he was not a naturalist. [NFW 69]

As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Rand mentioning Conrad. She says nothing about him in the Romantic Manifesto and she made no reference to him, as far as anyone knows, in her long interview with Barbara Branden. Now given the fact that (1) Rand regarded herself as a “romantic realist,” and (2) that Conrad the is one of the few authors she also regarded as a “romantic realist,”—why then did Rand make no mention of Conrad when she introduced her theory of Romanticism in the Romantic Manifesto? She mentions other important romantic authors, such as Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Schiller, and Edmond Rostand. Didn’t Conrad at least deserve a mention as well? But no, she ignores him entirely. How do we account for this curious anomaly?

The most plausible explanation for Rand ignoring Conrad in the Romantic Manifesto is, as she herself admits, she just didn’t like him. While it is true that she makes no effort to elucidate why she didn’t like him, given how many authors she actively disliked (often on trivial or incorrect grounds), we should not find her dislike of Conrad at all surprising. With a few notable exceptions, Rand simply did not care for most of what passes for the great cultural legacy of Western Civilization. She had little interest in the best that has been said or written down through ages, because most of what had been thought before her she regarded as being in some ways tainted by “mysticism” and/or hatred for “man.” 

Regarding her view of Conrad, we can only speculate why she disliked the author of Lord Jim. She leaves us but the merest of hints for her displeasure. Conrad’s values, she makes a point of insisting, are “quite different” from hers?. Quite different, we may ask, in what way? Even more to the point, what did she imagine Conrad’s values might be? Let’s face it: she wasn’t always very good at determining the views of people she rather carelessly decided were different from her own. 

We might speculate that she disliked Conrad on account of his “pessimism”—although it’s not clear why one’s general outlook on life should be regarded as a value. Perhaps a most fruitful way of proceeding would be to imagine what Rand would have thought of one of Conrad’s novels if she had taken the trouble to read it. The fact that Rand could argue that Conrad deserved to be regarded as a romantic realist suggests she must have read something from his oeuvre. More likely than not, she would have read one of his more popular works, among which Lord Jim, along with Heart of Darkness, would rank at the very top. Let us assume as a kind of thought experiment that she had in fact read Lord Jim. What would she have made of its values, and why would she conclude that they were “quite different” from her own? Different in what way?

What exactly are the values of Lord Jim? The novel actually explores a theme that a more superficial observer of Rand might think would resonate with her. The story delves into the challenges of learning a heroic life. Rand admired heroes, so wouldn’t this be right up her alley? Well, given Rand’s rather odd notions of what constitutes the heroic, possibly not. The titular character of Conrad’s novels dreams of performing heroic deeds once he reaches manhood, but the first time he’s tested (as first-mate of the Patnua) he lets himself get talked into abandoning the ship with all its passengers on board. This act of betrayal so haunts him that some years later, when he is indirectly the cause of the death of the son of an important Malay worthy, he decides to take responsibility for the death and willingly gives himself up to face the vengeance of the dead man’s father. 

So in what way might Rand have found this story contrary to her values? Perhaps she would have objected to Jim’s willingness to surrender his life on a mere point of honor. After all, for Rand, a man’s life has to be his “ultimate value.” This implies that you shouldn’t surrender your life to any other value. To be sure, Rand, later on in her ethics, backs away from that extreme position, but we’ll ignore that for the purposes of our thought experiment. We’ll instead assume that it is eminently plausible that Rand may have objected to Lord Jim’s “sacrifice” of his life to satisfy the blood guilt of a vengeful old man. And if we assume that Conrad approves of this “sacrifice,” then this would suggest that Conrad’s values are, if not “quite different,” from Rand’s, then different enough. In his hierarchy of values, Conrad regards honor as more important than mere survival, while Rand likely has a different view. Carrying out our thought experiment to the very end, we might speculate that at least one of the reasons why Rand considered her values as “quite different” from Conrad’s is precisely this difference over the question of a man’s honor. Assuming this to be true, it would constitute a revealing insight into a potential shortcoming in Rand’s ethical outlook—at least from the point of view of leading a genuinely heroic life. 

The social component of Rand’s Objectivist Ethics is based on the trader’s principle: 

The symbol of all relationships among men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect. [For the New Intellectual, 133]

Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with Rand’s trader principle, it cannot, in all honesty, be regarded as fully compatible with such aristocratic values of dignity, honor, and chivalry. Despite all the fine noise Rand made on behalf of her heroes and her “ideal man,” the ethics she promulgated is in reality hopelessly plebeian and unheroic. It is the morality of shopkeepers and family farmers—all very fine, or course, within the circumscribed limits of a commercial or agrarian life, but of limited use within the more strenuous domains of family life, litigation, politics, medicine, or war. Rand’s values, in short, are hardly values of the heroic type. Nor should this come as a shock. The commercial life is hardly of a heroic cast. “The stock exchange,” as Schumpeter trenchantly observed, “is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail.” Rand would like to convince us that the lives of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and inventors can in fact be heroic. But as everyone with any sense knows, the so-called heroes who populate Atlas Shrugged are little more than cardboard figures spouting Randian slogans. They convince nobody but the hopelessly naive and credulous. Rand is clearly guilty of having adopted, in both her philosophy and Atlas Shrugged, a false ideal of heroism. 

John Galt, Rand’s most wearisomely perfect “hero,” may be many things that even the skeptics among us can admire. Galt is (1) intellectually brilliant, (2) scrupulously and unimpeachably “rational,” (3) level-headed under pressure,(4) thoroughly fearless, and (5) almost god-like in his carriage and handsomeness. These are all perfectly decent qualities deserving their fair share of admiration. But there’s one thing Galt is most definitely not: he is no gentleman. I provide, as evidence for this statement, Galt’s speech, which no man of dignity and aristocratic pretensions would ever condescend to utter. Galt’s long philosophical harangue which defaces seventy close-type pages in Atlas Shrugged positively bristles with a kind of unhinged plebeian indignation—the sort of thing one might expect of a hell and brimstone fundamentalist religious fanatic or a hysterical radical feminist, but not from any man who seeks to present himself to the world as someone to be upheld and revered as a true gentleman.

Using Galt as her mouthpiece, Rand gives free reign to her delight in denouncing her enemies and expressing the depth of her hatred and contempt for them. Galt’s speech is anything but persuasive. Rather, it is an exercise in settling grudges. Galt goes out of his way at every opportunity to insult his audience. Here are some samples of the demeaning rhetoric which he indiscriminately flings, like a monkey throwing his own feces, at his unfortunate listeners: 

“You moral cannibals.” … “Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil.” …  “The most depraved sentence you can now utter is to ask: Whose reason?” … “You that prattle that morality is social.” … “You who are worshippers of zero.” … “Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a ‘tendency’ to evil.” … “Are you thinking, in some foggy stupor, that it’s only material values that your morality requires to sacrifice?” … “You who have no standard of self-esteem, accept the guilt and dare not ask the questions.” … “The answer you evade, the monstrous answer is…” … “You fear the man who has a dollar less than you.” … “The justification of sacrifice, that your morality proprounds, is more corrupt than the corruption it purports to justify.” … “You—who leap like a savage out of the jungle of your feelings…” … “You who are depraved enough to believe that you could adjust yourself to a mystic’s dictatorship.” … “You who’ve never grasped the nature of evil.” … “This idol of  your cult of zero-worship.” … “What blank-out permitted you to hope that you could get away with this muck of contradictions and plan it as an ideal society.” … “You, who scramble like vultures for plundered pennies.” … “You will not sneak by with the rest of your lifespan.” … “No matter what dishonorable compromise you’ve made with your impracticable creed.” … “Since childhood, you have been running from the terror of a choice you have never dared to fully identify.” … “Do you wonder why you live without dignity?” … “You reject your tool of perception—your mind.” … “You, who are half-rational, half-coward, have been playing a con game with reality.” … “At the end of your road of successive betrayals.” … “You blank it out and cling to your hypocrisy of ‘faith.’” … “The self you have betrayed…” etc. etc. 

No true gentleman, no man keen on his own self-dignity or honor, would soil his mouth with such phrases. A gentleman is, among other things, the soul of courtesy. He doesn’t “punch down.” As a man of the world, he understands the frailties of human nature and does not wish to rub the infirmities of lesser men in their faces. Such behavior is uncomely, unsportsmanlike, and unchivalrous. Even if we grant that Galt is speaking to an audience of thoroughly deplorable villains, his rhetoric is as unmanly as it is absurd. For what can possibly be the point of abusing villains to their face? Since when did expressing contempt for any person, let alone one whom we have reason to regard as morally depraved, ever change that individual’s mind? Galt is merely engaged in the vain exercise of virtue signaling—moral preening on behalf of Rand and the Objectivist faithful. Far from being heroic, such behavior is that of a moral prig—which is to say, of a rather low and even mean kind of person.

So perhaps Rand was on to something when she described her values as quite different to those of Joseph Conrad. Rand’s values are those of the shopkeeper, exaggerated to the point of distortion by the careless gobs of faux-heroism in which she attempted to embalm them. If stripped of all their gaudy pretentiousness, Rand’s trader principle values are largely unobjectionable—provided they remain within their narrow sphere. But outside their sphere they can easily prove inadequate. No mother would apply Rand’s trader principle to raising an infant. Nor would Rand’s ethical ideals be of much use in the treacherous world limned in Conrad’s novels, a world requiring harder men governed by more strenuous values.


max said...

Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with Rand’s trader principle,

Reconsidering Ayn Rand Michael B. Yang

""However, if we accept this view, then our primary focus in all relationships will be to ask: What does this person have to offer me? What if a person offers no values whatsoever to me? Am I not then justified in treating him indifferently? Why should I offer a person any semblance of respect until he demonstrates himself worthy of respect? What if he represents a negative value to me? What shall I do then?

Moreover, what if a person once met my need but no longer satisfies my selfish pleasure? Should I not discard or ignore that person in the same manner as a worn-out appliance? Would that not be consistent with the Objectivist definition of a trader, a man who “earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved”?""

Nathaniel Branden demonstrated what happens when his lover did not longer satisfies his selfish pleasure.

Don't stand so close to me said...

Note that Rand spoke rather politely of Conrad (for example, she did not call him a "moral cannibal" or a "depraved bastard" or the like). So her antipathy to his work was probably a "sense of life" issue more than a philosophical/moral one. Conrad is pretty grim. Read the end of "Heart of Darkness": sure, that's great literature, but it isn't what one would ordinarily call uplifting. Contrast the end of "Fountainhead." We know that she set great store by sense of life in literature. Examples: she praises Victor Hugo to the skies though disagreeing with practically all his moral/political principles; her criticism of Dreiser is not for his altruism or communism but for what she regards as the hackneyed quality of his plotting; and while in her Playboy interview she unbent to the point of calling Nabokov's novel "Lolita" "evil," she spent more time praising his writing style and admitted she discarded the novel after reading fully half of it.