Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
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The title of my talk is: "Why SOLO?" Why Sense of Life Objectivists? If you ask, Why "Why SOLO"? I will answer - it seems like a good idea at this time, the first coming together in the flesh of Sense of Life Objectivists since SOLO was formed a year ago. An alternative title could be, Well, now that we're here, what the hell are we here for?
I want to begin it with a quotation from Nathaniel Branden's article, "The Foundations of a Free Society":
"We cannot talk about politics or economics in a vacuum. We have to ask ourselves: On what do our political convictions rest? What is the implicit view of human nature that lies behind or underneath our political beliefs? What is our view of how human beings ought to relate to one another? What is our view of the relationship of the individual to the state? What do we think is 'good' & why do we think so? Any comprehensive portrait of an ideal society needs to begin with identifying such principles as those, & from that developing the libertarian case. We do have a soul hunger, we do have a spiritual hunger, we do want to believe & feel & experience that life has meaning. And that's why we need to understand that we're talking about much more than market transactions. We're talking about an individual's ownership of his or her own life. The battle for self-ownership is a sacred battle, & it involves much more than economics."
To that I would add, the battle for self-ownership involves much more than the other things Nathaniel might have singled out: more than metaphysics & epistemology -- the study of the nature of reality & the nature of knowledge; more than ethics & politics, -- how we should behave toward ourselves & each other & what political system leaves us free to do so; more than the study of esthetics -- having conceptualised all of the above, how do we perceptualise it in the form of an art work? All of these are crucial -- in their full context. I want to appropriate from the Politically Correct & the New Agers one of their favourite words -- "holistic" - & underscore what every good Objectivist knows but too easily forgets -- that Objectivism is a totality, an integrated whole, comprehensive & consistent. It is not something simply to be studied as an academic exercise then shovelled aside in the rest of our waking hours; it is something to be studied in order to be put into practice. It is nothing less than a way of life -- an approach to living that should be reflected in the behaviour of Objectivists & in the way they present themselves & their philosophy to the world.
In this respect, I came to the reluctant & sad conclusion over a long period of time that the philosophy was being significantly let down by its two most prominent organised advocates, the Ayn Rand Institute & The Objectivist Centre, formerly the Institute for Objectivist Studies [This point was then developed]. …
When I talk about the reason/passion dichotomy, I don't mean that there is one, metaphysically, in the nature of things; I mean that there has been one historically permeating all Western civilisation, with the exception of the Greek period, (Plato notwithstanding). The reason/passion dichotomy says quite simply that if you're rational you can't be passionate, & if you're passionate you can't be rational.
It's a subset of what we Objectivists call the mind/body dichotomy. Christianity in particular bears a huge responsibility for instilling the notion that the two are forever at war with one another. Think of St Paul: the flesh lusteth against the spirit; I know what I should do but I don't do it; I know what I should not do but I do it. Our conscious convictions, rooted in our minds or souls, & our urges, rooted in our flesh, are doomed ever to be at loggerheads. I don't think the existence of this dichotomy is controversial. But I want to suggest, as many Objectivists -- including Nathaniel Branden -- have done before me, that Objectivism, even while it officially repudiates this dichotomy, has done a very good job of giving the appearance of endorsing it & has often done so in practice, to devastating psychological effect on many of its followers. One of the sources of this bizarre paradox is Ayn Rand herself. Even though one could never accuse her of suppressing her emotions, her novels are full of characters who do -- at least until very exacting philosophical preconditions for allowing the display of emotions are met. They seem all too often to treat their emotions as threats or encumbrances, to be treated with extreme suspicion, to be indulged only rarely & even then under duress. The effect on readers who have sought to emulate this aspect of the characters has been to turn themselves into empty shells, robotic automatons reciting borrowed bromides, devoid of authentic individuality. For elaboration of this point, I refer you to Nathaniel's article, "The Benefits & Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand." Here's an excerpt:
"If, in page after page of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you show someone being heroic by ruthlessly setting feelings aside, and if you show someone being rotten and depraved by, in effect, diving headlong into his feelings and emotions, and if that is one of your dominant methods of characterization, repeated again and again, then it doesn't matter what you profess, in abstract philosophy, about the relationship of reason and emotion. You have taught people: repress, repress, repress."
Now I stress that this was not Rand's intent. But a clue to why it might have happened can perhaps be found in her Playboy interview with Alvin Toffler:
"There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason & his emotions -- provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -- or makes it a point to discover -- the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does & whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind & his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind."
Well, so it is. But observe how the sentence, "His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life" is there almost as an afterthought, a token concession, immediately qualified by a "but." Time & time again in public discourse, Rand's discussion of emotions focussed on them not as a means of enjoying life but as a bad alternative to reason as one's guide to action.
"The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer & die, but to enjoy yourself & live," she said elsewhere. But again, in most of her public discussion of morality she spoke of it as a "struggle," something painful, a tightrope walk - & if you fall, you'll land in the lowest reaches of hell. If you ever knowingly do just one little act of evil, she told television interviewer James Day in 1974, then you're evil through & through.
Bear in mind here that she would regard knowingly acting on an emotion for which you cannot account as evil, so if you ever did that, you're evil through & through.
Now this is someone who believed in love at first sight! She laid eyes on Frank O'Connor, & bingo -- the next thing she's securing his attention by tripping him up. No introspection, no deliberation -- she's initiating force against him!
This is someone who acknowledged that we can't yet account for why certain types of music evoke certain emotions in us or how it is that these emotions can differ violently from person to person. Are we to deny these emotions or refuse to act on them because we can't account for them, for fear of being condemned as evil through & through? Clearly if the emotion evoked is one of murderous rage, one should not act on it, & it's the job of the mind (& the police) to tell us that; but what if the emotion is, in Rand's words, "unclouded exaltation" -- ecstasy? Does one refrain from acting on it because one can't account for it?
My life, as you know -- as you can't help but know - has been made incalculably more enjoyable by the singing voice of Mario Lanza. The moment I heard it, it was love at first sound. I couldn't account for that; should I then have refrained from buying his records? When I did buy them, was I proving that I was evil through & through?
Now not for a second would Rand have said yes to these questions -- even though "yes" is the logical extension of the particular premises we've been discussing. I think she would have argued that instantaneous emotional responses like love at first sight or love at first sound can be accounted for as a sense of life response to something that our subconscious recognises in a flash as embodying all the values & convictions we have previously consciously arrived at. Though this raises the question, how does a 7-year-old boy who hasn't thought about values & convictions have such a response to a particular singing voice, it is certainly a more benign & rational view than the one that Rand initially appears to be taking. The point is -- if that were her view, it got overshadowed by her incessant harping on about emotions versus reason as tools of cognition & guides to action. "It's quite all right to feel," she told James Day, "but you keep your feelings to yourself." Now if your feelings are based on reason -- or, as I would add, do not contradict reason -- & your emotions are your means of enjoying life, surely, if your morality serves to teach you how to enjoy yourself & live it's not merely "all right" to feel, it's bloody mandatory? And why should you have to keep your feelings to yourself? Obviously there are times when that's appropriate - & it's the job of the mind to identify those -- but why on earth should a gregarious creature like man have to do so as a matter of principle?
Now, I suspect that Rand herself came to have second thoughts like this very late in her life. Some years after the James Day interview she appeared for the second time with Phil Donahue. In that interview, she made the observation that most American men were repressors & she openly faulted them for not showing their emotions. Whether she realised that she may well have contributed to that situation herself, I don't know.
In any event, I hope my own answers to the question, Why SOLO, are beginning to take clearer shape. To be an Objectivist is to be in love with life. To be in love with life is to identify the values & virtues that are life-enhancing & to embrace them & practise them … passionately. (Don't think of emotion & passion as synonymous, by the way - think of passion as emotion on speed.) The mind should identify such values & virtues & identify the dividing line between passion & hysteria; after that it should be a case of -- go for it! If the mind cannot up front identify why you value a particular value, as long as no force, fraud or self-destructiveness is involved, I say, go for that too.
Sunlight, Fun & Laughter
Think SOLO, think sunlight. "Sol" is Spanish & Italian for "sun," by happy coincidence. I want SOLO to project that same sunlit benevolent field as which Objectivism treats the universe. That field, I submit, should be filled with the sound of laughter, something that has been conspicuously lacking from the Objectivist movement. Here I have to say I'm not entirely enamoured of the character of Howard Roark. I don't imagine I would enjoy his company at dinner. For all his achievements, the only time he laughs is at the beginning of the novel. In the movie they even took that bit out! Can you recall Gary Cooper laughing once in the movie? Or anyone else? Well, I say, the old adage that laughter is the best medicine is not an old adage for nothing. Humour is enormously life-enhancing -- yet Objectivists are traditionally scared of it. I'm mindful of those Objectivist chat groups where humour is forbidden unless it's about the "metaphysically insignificant." Which means one avoids humour altogether lest one should inadvertently make a joke about the metaphysically significant & be flamed & denounced.
Imagine Oscar Wilde on a list like that! "The best way to deal with temptation is to yield to it." "Begone, whim-worshipper!"
Note -- I am not arguing that humour is unconditional, just that there's plenty of room for lots more of it within the traditionally rather dour confines of Objectivism. There may be things we shouldn't laugh at; there are lots of things we should laugh at, &, more importantly, there are zillions of things we can laugh about.
The best Objectivist humorist in the business, incidentally, is a fellow called Jason Roth. He has a web site called SavetheHumans.com It's outrageously politically incorrect, uproariously funny - & often, by conventional standards, offensive. Unfortunately, you won't see Jason in the ranks of SOLO in the near future -- notwithstanding that his site has been denounced by a senior ARI luminary, Jason supports the ARI & regards me, The Free Radical & presumably SOLO as enemies of Objectivism. Go figure. I'd love to have him on board. You can find a typical sample of his wicked humour in "The 25 Most Inappropriate Things An Objectivist Can Say During Sex," which include:
"Before we continue, there's something I have to ask you. Will you still accept the axiom that existence exists tomorrow?" and "I believe in the complete separation of the left leg from the right" … to quote a couple of the more respectable ones.
Of course, we can take heart from Rand's own response to the question: What were the sex scenes in The Fountainhead based on? "Wishful thinking."
There's a delightful story told in Facets of Ayn Rand, anecdotes about Her Ladyship newly published by ARI. These are reminiscences by Charles & Mary Ann Sures. Now it seems that Ayn loved fudge. So did Leonard Peikoff. Mary Ann made some fudge for the two of them, put it in a separate box for each, one labelled Leonard, one labelled Ayn -- but made the mistake of sending both boxes to Leonard, who claimed not to see the labels … & ate both boxes. When Mary Ann told Ayn, Ayn was initially indignant. "Do you mean to tell me he ate both boxes?" The air crackled with the portents of denunciation & excommunication. Poor Leonard -- was his fate hanging in the balance yet again? Mary Ann said, "Oh come on, Ayn, he only ate the chocolate; it's not as though he declared the Law of Identity to be invalid." Pause. Then Ayn: "No, but it's close."
Humour - & its twin, perspective -- to the rescue.
And let's not forget Frank, Mr Ayn Rand, whose drolleries were legendary.
Returning home from a movie about van Gogh, Frank is asked by Ayn , "How was it?" Frank says, "Well, lend me your ear."
Let's see that laughter on the face of Objectivism. Let's see the visage of Objectivism less like Roark & more like Francisco in Atlas Shrugged. To quote our keynote speaker, Barbara, in Who is Ayn Rand?:
"Francisco's leitmotif is a light-hearted gaiety: he is a man with a superlative capacity for the enjoyment of life, who is an iron-disciplined worker of unsurpassed productive energy & ability. It is Dagny who names the cause-&-effect relationship between these two aspects of his character: 'She heard him laughing. It was the gayest sound in the world. … The capacity for unclouded enjoyment, she thought, does not belong to irresponsible fools; an inviolate peace of spirit is not the achievement of a drifter; to be able to laugh like that is the end result of the most profound, the most solemn thinking.' 'Francisco,' Ayn Rand has remarked, 'is the philosophical expression -- the concretisation in a human character -- of what I heard in the operetta music I fell in love with in my childhood.'"
Which brings me neatly & conveniently to that part of SOLO's mission statement that says, "We see ourselves most emphatically - unlike TOC - as being at war with the current culture: the culture of anti-heroes, nihilism & destruction. Hence a significant, but not exclusive, emphasis on esthetics." Art. The sphere of the passions, the spirit -- the expression of & window to our souls. The source of spiritual fuel. If our battle is, as I quoted Nathaniel saying at the outset, primarily a spiritual one, then we will surely want to enlist the aid of art for nourishment, just as surely as we'll want to smite the artistic poseurs who bottle their urine or frame their faeces & call that art. By "smite" I don't mean "ban"; I mean create a culture in which it wouldn't occur to anyone that he could perpetrate such fraud & be taken seriously, let alone richly rewarded.
Now Ayn Rand didn't mention esthetics on the famous occasion where she was challenged to describe the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. I suspect that's because she needed to bring the other foot back down in a hurry. Certainly none spoke more powerfully about the power & sweep of art, & none attacked the contemporary cultural sewer more vehemently than she. Here she is in The Romantic Manifesto:
"As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history … If one has glimpsed that kind of art - & wider: the possibility of that kind of culture -- one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasise that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities &, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends & political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, & of man to life. … It is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential & what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men -- over the brief span of less than a century -- before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) & the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages."
Let's recapture for a moment the "sense of life" of the period Ayn Rand was talking about via the medium of music & contrast it with today's via the medium of what some call music but what I call headbanging caterwauling, right out of the sewer. The first is from 19th century Viennese operetta; it's the music I used to open my Politically Incorrect radio show with -- a selection of melodies from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. Strauss was a pop idol of his time who set the world dancing; so too is the person who's going to follow him, a pop idol of our time who sets the world "dancing." The sense-of-life contrast couldn't be starker. Remember as you listen Rand's admonition: What an artwork expresses is, "This is life as I see it."
(Die Fledermaus; Eminem, Drug Song)
Now perhaps you can better understand why Ayn Rand said, "I am not willing to surrender the world to the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets who perform in stinking basements the immemorial rituals of staving off terror, which are a dime a dozen in any jungle - & to the quavering witch doctors who call it 'art.'"
Good for her. And I want SOLO to do its part in seeing that the world is not surrendered to such animals & their excrement. In this regard, I couldn't be more pleased to have as a guest speaker at this inaugural SOLO conference, painter Michael Newberry, fresh from smiting some post-modern dragons. I'll leave it for him to tell you all about that.
But there's a problem here. Talk in these terms & folk get very defensive & upset. First, they think you're attacking them personally & go into typical modern era crybaby "I'm so offended" mode; second, they think you're arguing that the excrement be banned.
Well, I suppose you are attacking them personally, if you're attacking excrement & they like excrement. You're telling them they like excrement. By extension they might infer that you're saying they are excrement. Well, if the crap fits …
Luckily for them they have a fallback position, which, though they still go through the motions of being so offended, they seize upon gleefully. Ayn Rand herself. Did she not say, "At present our understanding of music is confined to the gathering of material, i.e., to the level of descriptive observations. Until it is brought to the stage of conceptualisation, we have to treat musical tastes or preferences as a subjective matter -- not in the metaphysical but in the epistemological sense; i.e., not in the sense that these preferences are in fact, causeless & arbitrary, but in the sense that we do not know their cause. No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself - & only for himself"?
Did she not say that? Well, yes she did. She also said that she was talking physiologically. She went on to say that there was, nonetheless, a great deal one could observe on the psychological & existential levels. For instance: "The deadly monotony of primitive music -- the endless repetition of a few notes & of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull -- paralyses cognitive processes, obliterates awareness & disintegrates the mind." And she observed, "The products of America's anti-rational, anti-cognitive 'Progressive' education, the hippies, are reverting to the music & the drumbeat of the jungle." Today, I would say the same of the MTV generation. And I have no hesitation in saying that anyone who says he gets an exalted sense-of-life reaction to that stuff is in that instance at least sub-human. I am the first one to ask, Where is the animality in man when it comes to countering Objectivist flights of rationalistic fantasy, but to call this musical maggotry "animalistic" is an insult to animals.
Let me resurrect my radio editorial of July 11, 2000:
One of the most terrible paradoxes of our time is that human reason, our distinctive tool of survival, is committing suicide. Human reason devises exquisite technologies which it then deploys to kill itself. Modern pop culture is a case in point, where sophisticated electronic instruments & amplification equipment are used to create dissonant, ugly cacophonies which batter the brain into a state of catatonia. Yes, catatonia, defined in my dictionary as "a form of schizophrenia characterised by stupor, with outbreaks of excitement."
During my recent stint in the United States, on a web site called newcriterion.com, I read about a New York Times review of a concert by a hard-rock band called Slipknot, described by the reviewer, Neil Strauss, as "one of the most exciting & enigmatic of rock's current crop of new bands." Mr Strauss recounts how the group drove its fans into a frenzy with some preliminary "ferocious screaming." "Two teenagers had already been treated for injuries before Slipknot had even finished thrashing, banging & raging through its first song about exploding angst," he writes. "Teenage angst demands its anti-heroes, & in the absence of any other popular music uprising since grunge these acts have made it exciting again to grow up a rock fan."
Now what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with individual liberty? Am I implying that musical atrocities like Slipknot should be banned? Quite the contrary - I believe everybody should be free to pursue his own tastes, even if they are too abysmal to be called "tastes." But it's important to realise that not only governments can threaten freedom - freedom is also threatened by a culture of grunge, angst & anti-heroes. Freedom is inseparably linked to reason - & proponents of reason, in their reverence for life, concern themselves with beauty, life-affirmation & heroism. Only so much coexistence is possible between these conflicting sets of values - or rather, these values & anti-values - before one of them breaks down.
Mr Strauss quotes Slipknot's drummer as saying, "A guy at Sony told us, 'If this is the future of music, I don't want to be alive.' I just thought, if that's what he thinks, then we are doing something right." Seldom is the snide nihilism of our times expressed so candidly. And just as this snide nihilism revels in death & destruction, so too it has no qualms about dictatorship.
Ladies & gentlemen, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance - & the anti-liberty state of our culture has never merited more vigilance than right now.
To quote from a different editorial, "Mollifying Marcus" in FreeRad 46: "Here's how it works: respect for reason gives rise to respect for the right to exercise it -- freedom. See Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the 19th century. Freedom gives rise to prosperity & enormous diversity, including ideas & art works that are inimical to it. Against such ideas & art, while defending to the death their right to exist, we should be eternally vigilant."
I exhorted Objectivists then & I do it again now - to "get out there in the marketplace & promote good art as zealously as you promote good philosophy, both being necessary for the preservation of freedom." The tide is against us at the moment -- wherever we turn our ears are assaulted by jungle cacophony of the kind we've just heard. In the visual realm … well, we've just been reading on the SOLO Forum about the Canadian artist I alluded to earlier who won a prestigious award for ejaculating into vials; there was the Turner Award in Britain, recently bestowed on someone whose "artwork" was a room with an electric light in it. These abominations are a dime a dozen right now; it is, as I often say, the Age of Crap. I want SOLO to wage an intellectual war on it every bit as relentless as the physical War on Terrorism.
I have accepted without argument that the battle in which Objectivists are engaged, the battle for reason & freedom, is a spiritual one; that if our souls are not engaged, if our sense of the sacred is not aroused, we shall fail; that existing Objectivist institutions have not engaged us at that level, but rather, have projected hysteria & bigotry on the one hand & bloodless lethargy on the other -- they have presented a repressive &/or uninspiring front to a world that is ready for something better, Objectivism as it might be & ought to be; that we must reassert the importance of esthetics in satisfying this hunger & stoking us up for the battle. Why SOLO? Because there's a vacuum there crying out to be filled. SOLO may lack the material resources as yet to fill it, but it has the spirit -- the sense of life, the joie de vivre - & that'll certainly do to be going on with!
Let us remember that we are "challenging the cultural tradition of 2,500 years" & that we are not going to convert people steeped in that tradition after one discussion. Let us repudiate utterly, unequivocally, & loudly Leonard Peikoff's nostrum that you may only cut slack for teenagers & the retarded; let us remember the patience of Ayn Rand in giving herself 6 months to convert that committed young Marxist of her acquaintance, Albert Mannheimer -- let us remind ourselves that she succeeded. Let us repudiate Peikoff's claim that Objectivism is a closed system, in his own proud words, "rigid, narrow, intolerant & closed-minded." Let's leave him & his minions to be permanently angry at everything, recognising that we shouldn't fall into the TOC trap of never being angry at anything. Let's see if we can't forge a new Objectivist culture -- a culture of genuinely self-made souls who revel in their own achievements & in each other's company; a culture of conviviality & camaraderie, good will & good cheer & good fellowship; a culture of hard work & hard play; a culture writ large in good food & good wine & great singing & great symphonies & great dramas & novels & statues; a culture of authentic self-esteem, not neurotic self-obsession, whose participants are in love with life, with themselves -- because they've earned it - & with all others who have earned it; a culture like Richard Halley's concerto, that flows up, that speaks of rising & is the rising, that embodies every human act & every human thought that has ascent as its motive, that has the freedom of release & the tension of purpose, that sweeps space clean & leaves nothing but the joy of unobstructed effort, that speaks in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain & never had to be, that is a song of immense deliverance. If we capture that spirit in pursuit of that culture, we shall gather the material resources in our wake soon enough, & we shall become invincible.
So, SOLOists, let's get going -- we have work to do. "Philosophers have interpreted the world," said Karl Marx; "the point, however, is to change it." Out of the armchairs, to the barricades! And if the battle ahead seems long, that's because it is. But remember one of Ayn Rand's wisest observations: "He who fights for the future lives in it now."
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