This article appeared in Full Context 12, no. 3 (January/February 2000): 8-11. This version, however, incorporates some additional notes by the author (see all [Ed. Note.] comments).
ORTHODOX INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction, edited by Tore Boeckmann (Plume, 2000). 196 pp.
Allan Gotthelf, On Ayn Rand (Wadsworth, 2000). 100 pp.As the author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and coeditor with Mimi Reisel Gladstein of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, I have often heard the criticism from "orthodox" Objectivists that such books promote "interpretations" of Rand that necessarily distort her message. Whether we are talking about the "dialectical" Rand or the "feminist" Rand--or even the "Aristotelian" Rand of Den Uyl, Rasmussen, or Machan--the orthodoxy argues that such alternative lenses severely damage our understanding of Rand.
But the orthodoxy also suggests that it is the only group in possession of Truth. After all, the word "orthodox" is derived from classical Greek, orthos doxa, which means, literally, "correct belief."
Interpretation is, however, to some extent, inescapable. Every time we bring a system of thought into relation with our own context, we engage in an act of interpretation. Even Leonard Peikoff, in his book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1991), recognizes this. He states that the philosophy consists only of Rand's writings or the writings of those endorsed by her in her lifetime. Peikoff exempts his own work from the Objectivist canon, choosing to describe it as "the definitive statement of Ayn Rand's philosophy "as interpreted by her best student and chosen heir" (xv, emphasis added). So, apparently, not even the orthodoxy can escape the interpretive enterprise. The essential question then is: Whose interpretation is correct? Contra the deconstructionists, all interpretations are not equally valid, though each might tell us something of value about the object it engages. An argument must be presented by every interpreter that shows coherence between that specific interpretation and the texts under consideration, and, ultimately, a correspondence between that interpretation and reality. And disagreements among interpreters must be settled by reason, not by party affiliation.
The problem is that the orthodoxy does very little in the way of original exposition. The material it presents to the public is usually a regurgitation of everything that Rand has said before, except lacking her inimitable style.1 The worst by-product of such orthodox interpretations is that they tend to exist in a vacuum, giving little indication of their place in the broader scheme of Rand scholarship, in particular, or philosophy, in general.
Take The Art of Fiction (Plume, 2000), a new release, "written" by Ayn Rand. For those who have listened to Rand's magnificent series of 1958 lectures on fiction-writing, the possibility of a full course transcript could only be greeted with euphoria. The book, on its own terms, is a gem of literary and philosophical insights. It features many of the familiar themes in Rand's literary methods, and includes discussions of everything from Aristotle's concepts of efficient and final causation, to the relationship of the conscious and the subconscious in acts of creativity, to the importance of emotion and inspiration in writing, to critiques of "nonobjective" art and different writing styles, with special "dialectical" instruction on exposition and the use of language. It is truly a remarkable achievement.
But Rand scholars have become weary of such releases. Back in 1997, I wrote an article for Liberty magazine, which lamented the fact that the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand, David Harriman, had engaged in a kind of editing that amounted to an archival crime. The Estate had authorized publication of some excerpts from Rand's journals in The Objectivist Forum back in 1984. When these same passages were reproduced in Journals, they appeared in altered form. The language had been changed, and whole references to specific people had been deleted. For example, Rand's grappling with the works of Albert Jay Nock appears in the 1984 version, authorized by the Estate. They disappear in the 1997 version; Nock was simply expunged from the historical record for no apparent reason and with no explanation. Only those with access to both authorized versions would notice this, and until the actual journals are opened to scholars, there will be no way to ascertain which version is more accurate. The problem with this practice is that Harriman claims to signal his editing by brackets and ellipsis points. These were not to be found in the passages I reviewed for Liberty.
As if a direct reply to my challenge, Peikoff writes in the introduction to Art of Fiction:
Tore Boeckmann has done an outstanding job as editor. I suggested to him an extremely difficult assignment: to give us AR faithfully--the identical points and words--but freed of the awkwardness, the repetitions, the obscurities, and the grammatical lapses inherent in extemporaneous speech. Mr. Boeckmann has delivered superlatively. I have personally checked every sentence of the final manuscript. Now and then, I thought that some nuance within a sentence of AR's had been unnecessarily cut (these have been reinstated). Not once, however, did the editor omit, enlarge, or misrepresent AR's thought, not even in the subtlest of cases. Using the original lecture transcripts as his base, [he] has produced the virtually impossible: AR's exact ideas and language--in the form of written expression, as against oral. This, I believe, is the only form in which AR herself would have wanted these lectures to be published. If anyone wishes to check Mr. Boeckmann's accuracy, the original lectures are still available on cassette . . .
Well, I compared the book to the lectures, and while I do not envy Boeckmann's task, I must say that I was disappointed. I'd be hard pressed to find many paragraphs in the book that exactly reproduce Rand's words. The notable exceptions are those passages where Rand analyzes some of her own writing in Atlas Shrugged. That extraordinary analysis, in which Rand justifies every grammatical and stylistic formulation, first appeared in Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Literary Method of Ayn Rand" (published in Who is Ayn Rand?), and it remains unedited in Art of Fiction (128-32). But not everything is so faithfully rendered. Let's take a harmless example. I italicize all of the like words in both passages; those words not italicized are the ones that differ. In Art of Fiction, this passage appears:
What is colloquially called "inspiration"--namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write as you do, yet it comes out well--is actually the subconscious summing-up of the premises and intentions you have set yourself. All writers have to rely on inspiration. But you have to know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you. (2)
In the actual lectures, Rand states:
All writers, to some extent, have to rely on what is colloquially called "inspiration"--namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write it this way, and it comes out well. In reading it afterwards, you find you have said exactly what you wanted. But you know where it comes from, why it happens, and how to make it happen to you.
Now, Rand has other things to say about the subconscious at other points in the same lecture, and it is possible that Boeckmann has simply transferred some of these other insights into the published passage as a clarification [Ed. Note #1]. In some circumstances, there is always the possibility that such editing might distort meaning. But even if Boeckmann is completely faithful to meaning, in all circumstances, I have a real problem with this "editing." It is a mixture of Rand's actual words with editorial paraphrasing, and offered for publication as a bona fide Rand work. This is not unheard of in the history of philosophy. For example, the works of many ancient writers are lost, and we have settled for what other ancient philosophers have said about their predecessors' works. Even in the 19th century, some of Hegel's lectures on the history of philosophy were supplemented by student notes, such as those of Michelet. In all cases, however, the editors of such volumes are very careful not to misrepresent the published work, distinguishing between the philosopher's actual words, and the words of others. For scholars, this is extremely important, since it enables us to weigh the compatibility of the philosopher's text and the qualifications that might have been inserted into that text.
Once one looks at the scope of Rand's original lectures, one is shocked by how much has been left out. The editor dispenses with those aspects of her lectures that were covered later in The Romantic Manifesto, which is sad, considering that a close analysis of the two texts might lead scholars to discover subtle differences in formulation [Ed. Note #2]. Granted, it would have been extremely difficult to publish a verbatim transcript of the entire course. It would not have served as the very fine brief "guide for writers and readers" that it constitutes.
The clearest casualty of editing is the give-and-take between Rand and her pupils. The exchanges are often charming, instructive, important to our overall assessment of this woman's legacy not only as a writer, but as a teacher. Like most good teachers, Rand begins her first lecture with, what is classically termed, "The Motivation." She tells us a story, taken from an old radio show, about two teenagers named Cecil and Sally. Cecil boasts that he can invent a riddle. Sally responds that only people who are really smart can invent riddles. So Cecil accepts the dare. He tells us that a tall, well-dressed man follows a woman and steals her scarf. He then goes to a restaurant, scarf in hand, and orders a sandwich and a cup of coffee, but he departs before the sandwich is brought to him. He stops at a traffic light, and throws the stolen scarf into a "dilapidated" car driven by two "disreputable characters." He runs away. When the clock strikes 2, he walks into the best jewelry store in the neighborhood and asks for another sandwich and a cup of coffee. He asks Sally: "Why did the man do all this?" Sally, trying hard to answer the riddle, gives up. Cecil answers: "Because the man was crazy."
Rand then asks her students: "Is there anyone here who didn't feel let down, cheated, and disappointed" with Cecil's answer? She elicits pupil participation, and observes that, though we listen to this story with some degree of attention, we're left unfulfilled by the answer. Riddles are based on a rational universe, on the premise that seemingly crazy events can have logical interconnections. One's interest in the riddle is held only so long as one thinks there is some purpose to the events that are being related. When an author neglects conscious understanding of his own purposes or the logical interconnections in his own story, he operates on the "Cecil premise," Rand explains.
The only "Cecil" who shows up in Art of Fiction is Cecil B. DeMille (p. 57). Gone is this very instructive and motivating aspect of Rand's very first lecture in the series.
There are too many other examples from which to choose. I strongly urge Rand scholars to go back to the original source and to hear these lectures in all of their glory. But be warned: The orthodoxy has been known to engage in the rewriting of reality. They have airbrushed out of the audio tapes all references to Barbara Branden or Nathaniel Branden. In fact, when either of these people speaks, a narrator interrupts the tape to tell us that "at this point in the lecture, a [nameless] student asked Miss Rand the following question . . ." The air-brushers, however, were not completely successful; those of us who know Barbara's or Nathaniel's cough or laugh can detect them in the background.
Airbrushing is also on display in the work of another orthodox Objectivist: Allan Gotthelf. Author of On Ayn Rand (Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000), Gotthelf has long criticized those of us in academe who are engaging Rand in current scholarly debates. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (30 April 1999), for instance, he dismisses my work, with all its "trappings of scholarship," as "bizarre," "preposterous," "nonsense," and "an embarrassment." But he is an equal opportunity critic: he also dismisses writers like Tibor Machan for his "damaging" notion of Rand as a political philosopher, and claims that "the only definitive book on Rand" is Peikoff's OPAR. Gotthelf promised, in April of 1999, finally, his own book on Rand that would "bridge" Objectivism and analytic philosophy. I don't know if On Ayn Rand qualifies as that book, except that Gotthelf shares with some analytic thinkers the penchant for pulling real flesh and blood human beings out of their historical and cultural context and reifying them as abstractions.
Gotthelf's book serves a useful purpose, however. It is part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series, which provides "students and general readers with insight into the background, development, and thinking of great intellects throughout the history of civilization." Given that the Rand volume appears in a series that includes monographs on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and many others, it is a welcome sign of the continuing penetration of Rand into the academy. In fact, Tibor Machan's recent book, Ayn Rand, superior in many respects to Gotthelf's (because it addresses the secondary literature, and attempts to situate Rand in the current philosophical debates), is part of an equivalent Peter Lang series, "Masterworks in the Western Tradition," which includes many different volumes, each devoted to the major philosophical ideas of another key thinker. And my own coedited volume with Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, is part of the Penn State Press series, "Re-reading the Canon," which places Rand on the same shelf with more than twenty other Western thinkers. Clearly, this "renaissance" in Rand scholarship, as I've called it, is significant, and I applaud Gotthelf's efforts in producing this book for the greater purpose.
But the book suffers from the "orthodox interpretation" that cripples most other works in that vein. Gotthelf begins with two chapters on Rand's "Life and Intellectual Development." There is no attempt whatsoever to deal with the genesis of Rand's ideas in the Silver Age-Nietzschean context of her youth. Moreover, Gotthelf asserts: "Although many of her courses were taught from a Marxist (and, more broadly, dialectical) orientation, there is no evidence that this shaped any aspect of her mature (or, for that matter, earlier) philosophical thought (18 n.4). . . . There is no evidence that her interpretation of Nietzsche was shaped by her university professors" (18 n.6). These statements, of course, allude to arguments presented in Russian Radical, but the name of that book or its author remain a mystery. Perhaps this is because of Gotthelf's conviction that "[t]here is, unfortunately, not much of serious interpretative value among the secondary material that has been published on Ayn Rand in books or academic journals to date" (27 n.12) [Ed. Note #3]. He promises a survey of that material at a later time, but endeavors not to mention any writers, save Peikoff, who have sought to understand Rand's legacy.
His discussion of Rand's "development" consists of a few comments about her "real" flirtation with Nietzsche, and a few paragraphs on underdeveloped themes that appear in her journals. There is no mention of her correspondence or interactions with key individualists, such as Isabel Paterson, H. L. Mencken, or Ludwig von Mises, and no examination of any possible influence that any of these writers may have had on any aspect of her developing thought. The only mention of the Brandens is that they had a "long period of study and friendship" with Rand, which terminated--for no apparent reason--in 1968. In a note, Gotthelf points to Rand's "explanation" of this break-up, published in The Objectivist. He admits that he "consulted" Barbara Branden's "biography/memoir," filled with the "author's continued embitterment," "factual errors" (no explanation of these are offered), and "gratuitous psychologizing" (27 n.8), but provides no actual title or bibliographical information for The Passion of Ayn Rand. In fact, Gotthelf's book has no bibliography except for Rand's primary works and Peikoff's Objectivism, and no index. (Readers seeking a truly comprehensive bibliography should consult Mimi Reisel Gladstein's superb New Ayn Rand Companion, Revised and Expanded Edition, Greenwood, 1999.)
His presentation of Objectivism offers nothing remotely out of step with the catechism. It is a straight-forward exposition, a kind of "Cliffs Notes" or "Monarch Notes" for students. Other such primers have been written (Lepanto's Return to Reason comes to mind), and the addition of yet one more primer is never a cause for despair. Unfortunately, however, Gotthelf's refusal to mention any non-orthodox works--that is, any literature from those who are persona non grata--seriously affects the depth of his presentation. For partisan reasons, no doubt, there are no references to such substantial works in the Objectivist tradition as Kelley's Evidence of the Senses, or even the Rand-"approved" essays on psychology of Nathaniel Branden. This kind of willful blindness is shameful, for as a primer, such a book, in such a series, could have provided the student with an indication of the breadth of Rand-influenced scholarship.
There are other significant shortcomings. Gotthelf discusses Rand's politics in one page, out of 100. Even if one agrees with Gotthelf, that Rand was not a political philosopher primarily, it is hard to conceive that he deems politics so unimportant, given this woman's influence on the resurgence of free market ideology in the late 20th century. Esthetics fares slightly better than politics; Gotthelf discusses Rand's contributions in a page and a half. I suppose we will have to wait for the Torres and Kamhi book on Rand's esthetics to finally accord this branch of philosophy the respect that it deserves, given its centrality to the Randian corpus.
It is a stylistic peculiarity of orthodoxy that one can never refer to "Rand" in print. It is either "Miss Rand" or "AR" (as Peikoff puts it). In his book, Gotthelf refers, on occasion, to Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, with no first names needed, but never to "Rand." It is always "Ayn Rand." It is a curious quirk that speaks, perhaps, to Gotthelf's personal relationship with Rand. It is as if the use of "Rand" alone would be a sign of disrespect. After a while, one expects to see "Amen" appear after the hundredth or so invocation of her full name.
In my view, Rand fans and scholars should greet every release on Objectivism as a cause for celebration because each fuels, what Kelley has called, the "Ayn Rand feeding frenzy." But it is only thru the give-and-take of scholarly discourse that we can begin to weed out those works on Rand that might advance the discussion, and those that might impede it. Primers and elementary works, even "orthodox" ones, have their place, as do publications of Rand's previously unavailable lectures and notes. But the orthodoxy remains so hermetically sealed from any other influences, so fearful of "impurities," so careful to erase mistakes and personal foibles, that it risks marginalizing whatever legitimate contributions it might offer.
1. Sometimes it is simple recycling under the guise of "reference work." See, for example, the new Glossary of Objectivist Definitions (Gaylordsville, Connecticut: Second Renaissance Books, 1999), "by Ayn Rand, with additional entries by Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger," edited by Allison T. Kunze and Jean F. Moroney. This book does have some useful quick references, but it is difficult to see the need for such a publication in light of The Ayn Rand Lexicon. It is also disappointing to see the presence of alleged "definitions" that lack any genus-differentia criteria (the editors admit that many concepts are "near-definitions" or "descriptions"), and the absence of any definitions of terms not previously defined by any Objectivist, like, say, "masculinity" (which appears neither in the Glossary nor the Lexicon). Back.
Additional Ed. Notes:
Ed. Note #1. In actuality, this is exactly what Boeckmann does. Later in the lecture, Rand states: "[What you call your inspiration, what you call the 'feeling' in writing] is actually the subconscious summing-up of the [kind of] premises and intentions you [have] set yourself." She also states (and Boeckmann captures): "All writers have to rely on their subconscious. But one has to know how to work with one's own subconscious." [brackets indicate words not captured by Boeckmann in the text of the book; in the case of the last sentence he replaces "one" and "one's" with "you" and "yours"]. While there are no actual problems with the cited paragraph, Boeckmann adds one sentence--"All writers have to rely on inspiration"--that, cited here, in this context, seems to treat "inspiration" and the "subconscious" as synonyms. This raises questions of interpretation. Back.
Ed. Note. #2. The clearest difference in formulations is Rand's actual definition of art. In her lectures, she states: "Art is recreation of reality according to one's values." This is a definition that she also presented at the 1961 Creative Arts Festival of the University of Michigan (as cited by Nathaniel Branden in his essay, "The Literary Method of Ayn Rand" in Who is Ayn Rand?). This definition differs from the one ultimately offered in The Romantic Manifesto: "Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" (italics in text, p. 19). The dramatic distinction here is explored in the forthcoming Torres and Kamhi work on Rand's esthetic theory. Thanks also to Roger Bissell for provocative exchanges on these questions. Back.
Ed. Note #3. Referring to this same statement, William Thomas criticizes Gotthelf similarly. Writing for Navigator ("Ayn Rand Through Two Lenses," April 2000, vol. 3, no. 4: 15-19), Thomas argues: "This blanket judgment is out of place if he is not actually going to cite and criticize such works. Even worse, Gotthelf offers a harsh, denunciatory comment plainly aimed at Chris Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (18, n. 6), again without citing the work by name. He has obviously let a spirit of intra-Objectivist partisanship affect his scholarly treatment. . . ." (18). Back.