Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

Objectivist Comstockery? Ms. Rand or Mrs. Grundy
by Anthony Teets

I observed with great interest the recent excitement over the appearance of porn star Jon Galt's picture on Chris Matthew Sciabarra's wonderful conclusion to his "Homosexuality and Objectivism" series. It may be said without any moderation that Objectivism has indeed come a long way to get out of the closet. Now Dr. Sciabarra has taken us to a new level. To read that Ayn Rand may be considered a "spiritual mother" may still make some feel a little uneasy, especially for those who are accustomed to the usual images of the morally upright and uptight Rand afraid of the glaring contradictions in "homosexual" lifestyles. While these are not conclusions we should draw about Rand, they have nevertheless remained part of the dubious heritage her preferred spokespeople consistently endorse. More than anything, this challenge from Sciabarra affords us a great opportunity to apply the philosophy of Ayn Rand to issues that concern everyone. One great place to start is by questioning one's own attitudes to sexuality and expression. 

It may be ventured that some people are shocked by expressions of sexual freedom, while others are too bored to even be concerned. Still others, I will call these dedicated members of the passionate group, are bold and daring, consistently fighting against anything that robs them of their individual right to express their true self. Objectivists would do well to listen to these passionate upstarts and take them seriously. For over fifty years, the dominant voice in gay issues has been of the Progressivists, or "gay liberationists". The Progressivists, according to Richard Goldstein, their self-appointed high priest and anointed man of the hour, are the true representatives of freedom and individuality. They are firm believers in diversity, equality, and community. They are allegedly more in touch with their identity as gay people.  

Why have the Progressivists gained dominance among gays in society and taken the lead in organizing gays to combat oppression? It is simple. Because we let them do it. In the fifties, they were Communists draped in the American flag. Ayn Rand probably recognized this little nasty fact early on. It is also probable that she concluded that gay rights were synonymous with Communist empowerment. If Goldstein was correct to assume as he did in Attack Queers (Verso, 2000) that all of the early freedom fighters were left-leaning, then it would not be too hard to put that little fact together with Rand's conclusions. With respect to Rand's conclusions, it may be observed that many liberals opposed gay rights for reasons that she would not even consider. One area in particular that I don't think she would have cared much for is prudery. 

What is prudery? A prude can be defined as a person who is overly modest or proper in behavior, dress, or speech, especially in a way that annoys others. It may be quite shocking to some prudes to know that they are, by definition, annoying to other people. One would think most prudes would find a state of absolute moderation to be their desired goal. How little prudes seem to know about their so-called virtues! Many delightful books were written in the early twentieth century debunking the Mrs. Grundys of the Victorian years, when rigid Dissenters moved the great and modest Queen Victoria to close down ale houses and put an end to gambling on the Lord's Day. Long gone were the bawdy days of the Renaissance, when healths and drafts were consumed at any hour on the hour and sex was as common as the London fog. Richard Lovelace, the great Renaissance poet, captured the spirit of that age as he lay in prison:  

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone that soar above

Enjoy such liberty. 

What happened to Merry Olde England that by the time of Victoria she had taken shelter under a hermitage of uncomfortable and unsanitary layered clothing? Mrs. Grundy sat upon the throne and ruled with the iron fist of modesty, temperance, abstinence, and censorship. Women's bodies were made unnatural through rigorous corsets and whalebone contraptions making their waste lines vanish and their shapely legs disappear under hoop skirts that looked like group umbrellas. In the United States, an old man of a very young age, Anthony Comstock, came to the rescue of innocence and virtue by leading the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (1873). Comstock was chiefly responsible for the passage by Congress of a law prohibiting the sending of "obscene" matter through the mails. At the end of his dull career, he could boast that he had brought about the destruction of eighty tons of indecent pictures. He was a crusader for Victorian virtues that would have made Mrs. Grundy swoon in her petticoat. A favorite caricature I have on my wall is a picture of Comstock dragging a woman into court by the nape of her neck. The caption reads: "Your honor, this woman gave birth to a naked child!" According to history, censorship has an interesting relationship to prudery.  

Mrs. Grundy unfortunately has enjoyed many incarnations, and she can be seen anywhere there is Christian piety and self-abnegation. While she is mostly to be found among the leadership of the conservatives, every once in a while she makes an appearance among Objectivists in the form of cultural conservatism. Now, are these virtues an Objectivist would consider valid? Is sexual indecency a crime in the Objectivist list of deadliest sins? There is no sin in Objectivism. Sin is for the morally inept who need others to dictate a code of morality to them, so they can know how to live and how to die.  

Objectivism has no pretenses on these matters neither has it any code of laws dictating how much flesh is too much flesh. The Objectivism of Ayn Rand in fact would probably not even dismiss Oscar Wilde's observation that according to the Greeks, "nothing should reveal the body but the body itself." One who has read Ayn Rand's novel We The Living would do well to recall and appreciate this little description of Kira that sounds much like a Greek maiden dropping her peplos: "Kira's body was slender, too slender, and when she moved with a sharp, swift, geometrical precision, people were conscious of the movement alone, not of the body. Yet through any garment she wore, the unseen presence of her body made her look undressed (emphasis mine). People wondered what made them aware of it. It seemed that the words she said were ruled by the will of her body and that her sharp movements were the unconscious reflection of a dancing, laughing soul. So that her spirit seemed physical and her body spiritual." 

These words reveal that Rand was not at all the prude that Comstock would have admired. In fact, had she lived under his tyranny he might have dragged her into court for writing about how a young girl was so united with her spirit that no clothing could contain her body. In the positive words of a lover of freedom like Robert Heinlein, "Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite."

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