Monday, June 14, 2010

notes on Ayn Rand

The Ayn  Rand Sampler is a  promotional give away that  has been sitting my house for years. Never a fan of the writer,  I ignored it, confident that I knew  from reading of The Fountainhead and selections from her political  philosophy, just what a rank, turgid  crypto-fascist Ayn Rand was. I hadn't, though, read what seems her central effort, Atlas Shrugged, which her followers consider to be the highest synthesis of her work as both artist and a philosopher; what the hell, I thought, I needed something to read on the bus, so I decided to take the book along and read the sixty page excerpt from the novel. I was prepared to be surprised--one would think that a writer as famous as Rand, no matter how awful a writer or pretentious a thinker, had to have written as least one book that transcends everything she has going against her.

I thought I would power my way through the pages, but I couldn't even read ten of the sixty pages Rand's publisher selected for us to read. As has been said by critics more willing to speak at length about her inadequacies as a stylist, Rand's style of writing is wooden for great lengths, less rhythmic or musical as, say , the typical photo caption; making matters worse is when the late writer/pundit would try to lift her writing up a bit and applying similes that read more like after thoughts rather than spontaneous insights , and metaphors that performed the rather mechanical function of boosting her storyline--which is , of course, one dualistic straw-man argument--to a philosophical level. Mechanical is the operative word here, as the attempt on Rand's part to frame her ideas about unrestrained power for brilliant capitalists in fictional disguise leaves us with a choppy, big footed shaggy dog of a novel that is in the tradition of unreadable novels-as-polemic. I closed the book and finished my ride to work looking at the neighborhoods I have passed through a thousand times before. This was more exciting, yes, more illuminating than a thousand pages of Ayn Rand's crabby, delusional exhortations to live free.

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Now, more than ever, I believe The Fountainhead, to be a dangerous book. This may worry a point already mulled over here, but one cannot just pass-off this book's implicit assertion that mass destruction is justified in the name of "higher values" whose substance supposedly overrides the need to respect and protect human life. It is only irrational romanticism and literary convenience that Rand softens Roark's destruction with an empty structure. Roark is the hero of all those ruggedly individualist libertarians whose opinions sound as oddly uniform as CPUSA position paper, but shed of the that odious veil, he's pretty much the prototype of the perplexed goons and gangsters whose lives are committed to making the world notice them by the most miserable means available.

Rand a sense of humor, a meat hook kind of satire that wasn't especially funny to a readership unaware of her set of villains; a salon scene in Fountainhead, where progressives and other manner of elite collectivizers hold forth amid an exchange of vaporizing platitudes, comes as a surprise, considering the otherwise lock-box seriousness of the rest of the novel. It's ironic that I imagine this scene makes me think of Rand and her circle sitting around them at some interminable skull session, reaffirming a core set of inflated starchy tropes that reduce what they think is a comprehensive critique into short and simple phonemes.

Anyone wondering what practical use a Rand-obsessed architect might be outside a ridiculous plot line would pose the question. Rand's brutal prose makes her hero's activities to be the most direct means to Resounding Truth , but she is an extreme romantic who , no doubt, thinks that her fiction were reasonable outlines of how the world actually works. No doubt she sees the actions in her novels as being the diagnosis of what ails her adopted society, which places her in a tradition of the Naturalists, who in turn wrote longish, turgid works. Even so, one is within one's rights to query what real good Rand's heroes might be if you needed them to commit an actual task, apartment demolition excluded.

The idea of social construction has more to do with the structures humans create within a phenomenal world, and it additionally supplies an idea of how the human structures of culture, society, law, institutions are able to adapt to a world that functions quite independently of the absolutism Rand would insist she's able to distinguish. Rand insists that there is a world with a fixed, finite, and intimately knowable existence upon which her Ideal Geniuses can impose their own Systems of use. This is the kind of End-of-History daydreaming that often sullies insight, whether Marx, Toffler, or Rand, and with Rand's ideas, giving the phenomenal world over to the unencumbered exploitation by the kind of genius that is hers alone to define, we come to the end of discourse and arrive at a dreamy heaven.

Social construction, in the writings of Erving Goffman and Thomas Berger, Lyman and Scott, among others, describes the ingenious ways that humans create cultures and societies and form kinds of political resources that aid populations to exist within an unmindful nature, and they describe as well the notion of action within the socially-constructed systems; it is more a theory that describes how communities are formed and remain dynamic within a material world, whose final and ultimate nature is unknown, unknowable, and finally irrelevant. If we can't know anything about the ultimate nature of reality, how can we make claims about it, such as whether "it" has any "relevance" to the familiar world of medium-sized objects?

We can make our best general statements about what comprises what we know of reality drawn from the best measurements we can take of it, but a claim to a final,, conclusive and "ultimate" definition of that reality, is arrogance, and over rates science's ability to replace the comforting theology of religion and other exotica to contain our references within comprehensible and metaphorical boundaries. Such boundaries prescribe limits to what nature is, and operate on the notion that it is containable and finally exploitable to our own end, as the thinking has been for centuries that reality exists only to furnish us with raw materials to pursue or own needs and abstracted desires, free of consequence.

This is hardly been the case, as the results of industrialization and war have come back to choke us in the air we breathe. We can, though, make statements about what we measure, and piece together some sense of reality that becomes a comprehensible world where laws, culture, religion, art and economics are devised to aid in the creation of human communities. Within that grossly over stated riff, there is infinite variation in how resourceful the human race is in constructing relevant communities of politics, culture and commerce. Only that which man makes can man know. Vico wrote that.

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Feminism has made the demand that there be more strong women in this life and the next so that young females coming up will have living and legendary examples of those who've come before who've not allowed their gender to relegate to the back seat, the bench, the receptionist's desk while men profited from their labor and garnered the cash and the credit for all good things. Fine, well and good, and bully, one would say, and one is grateful for politics, the arts, the sciences being all that much keener, graceful, and interesting for the inclusion of brilliant women in prominent roles. Praise them all.


All? Strong women don't by default make for a feminist role model, certainly not in the case of ersatz novelist and circuitous thinker Ayn Rand; feminists are strangely silent about her. Who can blame them, Rand, guru of the nascent libertarian movement in the Forties, has made a virtue of being a disquieting in a democracy, and for what she wrote about and promoted in fiction, plays and essays about the glories of genius worship, the evils of charity, the nefarious intent of The State in all matters, makes her an uncomfortable idea among those who think that government ought to be used to do the people's business. Less her godless conservatism makes her an unlikely choice for feminist admiration than it is her unabashed adoration of the male figure, within who resides genius, power, drive, charisma. Rand in her real life affairs made the men in her circles wilt like dry lettuce, but in her fantasy life, it was the male who made things happen, who got things done, who blasted, belittled, bested, battered or raped anything that got in the way of his Will and his genius. Not a friend of the common gal, but certainly Larry Flynt's idea of dream date.

It seemed that Rand had an unseemly adoration for the idea of Ultimate masculinity, and that she was fairly well peeved by the fact that she was born a woman and had to distinguish herself from her gender fellows and their culture of girly things. She refused to believe that a woman, in life or in faction, can be strong, brilliant and assertive of her own accord: for that, she needed the dim wit Laurentian brutishness of her male heroes to turn her out, so that some sense of vital elan would invigorate her perceptions of the universe she could see only as a deluded, submissive play thing. She was a quintessential anti-feminist whose life and manner defined a feminist tact in a masculine world.

Rand wasn’t an intentional fascist, given her experience with the brutal stupidity of Soviet socialism, but it obvious that she was so taken with the idea of the charismatic individual, the lone genius, as being the key to civilization’s advancement and preservation that winds up maintaining what it was she opposed.


Her heroes, we remember, are to be admired and followed and, by implication, obeyed without pause or debate. For an atheist, there is something religious in all this, in which the hero-genius will show us the means to achieve heaven-on-earth.  I suspect that a fascist agenda was at the secret heart of her dreadfully clogged thinking: she spoke of liberty and freedom, but her remarks returned time and again to the idea of "genius" and how about how society would be better off if the rabble just got out of the way of the work of the genius and allow them untrammeled, unregulated and unaccountable expression of their projects. The next step of the thinking was to allow the ill-defined geniuses to run things, to make policy, to smooth out the nettlesome complexities and demands of mass culture. Her agenda, I think, was to place everyone else in some place where they would stay out of the way of her and her genius buddies while they carved up the landscape erecting monuments to them. Rand was not a fan of democracy.

Why on earth does anyone think that the following argument is somehow legitimate: "I used to like Rand, but I've grown out of her"? Probably because the similarities between what passes as a literary art and a moral philosophy in Rand's dicey world- view resembles a particular phase of growing up, the ages between 13-17, when a person is inordinately preoccupied with their own being, the issue of whether their desires or impulses are gratified at once or denied. Despite the grim world that made for this view, the substance of her argument romanticizes the worst attributes of children as being a sustainable, preferable state of existence: The Noble Brat.

Part of the intense self-awareness of the mindset is that no one, if any one, is up to the level of idea and perception as oneself, and the world would be a better fit for all on it if one only had ones' way, without interference or obligation to consider a greater consequence. Rand values self-reliance and self-determination, virtues held important in our political philosophy, but Rand, I think, had no use for democratic processes.

Her ideas are based on an abstracted impulse that the gratification of an ill-defined "genius" desire to unleash their will on the world handily assumes priority over the question of any kind of accountability. Howard Roark, I would think, would not have been bothered with building codes, given her perfect world. This is a dreamy thinking that cannot be trusted to even simple tasks. It's a gross immaturity that Rand has made into a compelling argument whose intensity is meant to burn through strong counter views, though you can also say that her intensity, the absolute unwillingness to consider another view sans vilification comes to little more than sustained, albeit convoluted tantrum. I enjoyed Rand's books, especially The Fountainhead, when I was in high school when it fitted my most intense years of self-involvement and juvenile foolishness, but luckily I had a personality that actually wanted to be around people because I valued a sense of community and ideas not my own: a stronger sense of a greater good in a generalized democratic framework seemed a more natural development , emotionally and intellectually, than the coarse outline Rand and her cement-cast prose offered on her best and sunniest day. I grew out of Rand's egocentric rantings. I became an adult. I also read better novelists.

What do you think Rand would have made of Tim McVeigh?

Rand would call him a "patriot": from everything I've been able to discern from his statements, McVeigh, like Roark, thought the justness of cause so great that lives and property were of no consequence as long as the blow against the State and its' collectivizing institutions was forcefully delivered. Randians might argue that Roark took appear ant measures to ensure that no one was at the site before he destroyed his defiled housing project, but the psychology is the same, still.  Though professing freedom for all, Rand was effectively a social-Darwinist where a form of natural selection would winnow out less hardy member of the race --at least to the extent that they are socially neutralized from positions of power and influence--and leave the world to be administered and molded by her particular cadre of industrial geniuses and toadying technocrats. An exclusive club.

Marx was nominally against elitism and privilege, but he thought that the traits would vanish, made historically useless -- incapable of reproducing themselves as culturally cultivated habits -- only after a proper sequence in the dialectical mode of history had completed its violent transition. Seeing that man was capable of perceiving the precise set of economic and historical conditions that have made capitalism a seemingly entrenched and intractable force that virtually controlled the way the world is perceived, he thought it necessary to have an enlightened, committed few to dedicate their lives and their wills to the mobilizing of the masses: this was the work of a specific kind of person, and the thinking, perversely similar to those of Rand's  final vision of her preferred social realm, was that it will take the few to lead the many to an ultimate End of History.

Marx’s' ideas of historical process, resulting ideally in a workers' paradise where humans are returned to their natural state, free of any constraints or concentrated power that exploits them, mirrors more than one set of religious mythology, unavoidable, perhaps, yet ironic given his insistence that his interpretation of history was the result of discovering "scientific laws." Only his "heaven" was earth-bound, and like End Days, the arrival of the revolution is always deferred, conditioned by some hazy "law" or condition that had yet to express itself in a manner conducive to a furthering of final justice. In the meantime, which is forever in Communist States, the select cadres who slowly marshal transition to a final withering away of the state remain in place. Intractable, elite. Until they're thrown out by oppressed populations who realize that they've no real use for the Stalins, or the Rands of history.


This is thinking that mistakes passionately expressed notions of how one wants the world to be with how the world actually is: pits the tragic flow in this line of thought that assumes that big, loud, deadly gestures are only a symbolism that can wake everyone else up to their erring ways and compel the population to a state of alert and vigilant correctness. Charlie Manson thought much the same way when he and his tribe committed the Tate/LiBianca murders in the 60s, delusional thinking that this would start a revolution and race way after which Charlie and crew would emerge as the leaders of the new order.

Roark, with his thinking carried just a few paces further, would have been a McVeigh, leading more violent acts against anti-individualist institutions. Rand seems to think that Roark wouldn't have a problem getting away with the outrages: in her fantasy, Roark admits crime, gives a glib summary of his world view, and is acquitted.

There is not a single line in any of her books that I know of that glorifies mass murder in any way, shape, or form.  The fact that Howard Roark blows up a public housing project he designed in Fountainhead because his proprietary rights were trifled with by collectivist charity-mongers is a sure sign that she advocated violence of what she would rationalize as a "principled" sort it such acts can reveal the evil of government and all charitable schemes to an awakening world. The poor, whom this housing development would have benefited, are of no concern here.

Rand's interest in the novel are Roark's petty egomania and how it's a perfectly rational act for to utilize high-powered explosives so he can feel good about itself. Following suit, I think she would have answered as I indicated had she been asked her opinion of McVeigh , his act, and his reasoning, albeit it's plausible that she might have chided him for being messier than he needed to. But I think she would have regarded him a great man, her kind of guy.