This article appeared in Reason Papers (pdf version), no. 23 (Fall 1998): 132-59
A RENAISSANCE IN RAND SCHOLARSHIP(1)
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
The title of this article is not entirely accurate; a "renaissance" is a rebirth. Given the sustained sales of Rand's books, one might conclude that interest in her work has never died. Still, in this last decade of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand seems to be everywhere: in magazines, from the New Yorker to U. S. News and World Report; in film and theater, from an Oscar-nominated documentary feature ("Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life") to a Showtime cable movie and a British stage dramatization of Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand; and on television, from "The Simpsons" and "South Park" to "Saturday Night Live."
This is not a mere pop cultural revival. My Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995b) is one of fifteen book titles dealing with Rand that have been published since 1995, along with countless articles and other references to her work. Among these titles are Rand's Marginalia, Letters, and Journals, as well as several useful anniversary editions of her fiction. Scholars are witnessing too, an important growth in critical and interpretive studies of the Randian canon.
Advancing scholarship on Rand has proceeded apace with the publication of materials that continue to provide clues into the development of her thought. The Rand Estate has played a pivotal role in this endeavor. While some of Rand's papers are on reserve at the Library of Congress, the bulk remain housed in the Ayn Rand Institute's burgeoning archives. Until such time as bona fide scholars can gain archival access, they are being fed a diet of edited collections. Her personal diaries and interviews are due to be excerpted in an "authorized" biography. And the Estate plans to publish her 1969 lectures on non-fiction-writing (to be edited by Robert Mayhew), her 1958 lectures on fiction-writing (to be edited by Tore Boeckman), and her old film scripts. Sadly, eight to ten silent screen scenarios from the 1920's have been lost; these will be published if they are ever rediscovered.
Not all of the material that has been issued thus far is of deep scholarly interest. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, written by Michael Paxton (1998), is the companion book for the documentary feature. In addition to the film's screenplay and many of its dazzling vintage photographs, the book includes an intensely personal introduction by Paxton, who tells us of his own discovery of Rand's work, and its place in his life. And in a Foreword, Peikoff touches upon Rand's love of the cinema, and its impact on her. From the time of her youth, film was a crucial source of Rand's development as an artist; in my view, it is an aspect of her aesthetic context that requires greater scholarly investigation.
As I suggested in my review of the movie (1998a), however, the material would have benefitted from some alternative voices. The interviewed principals--all of them handpicked by the Estate--shed little light on such things as the Rand-Branden affair, which pulverized the nascent Objectivist movement in 1968.(2) The limitations of Paxton's book notwithstanding, it is a beautifully packaged historical artifact of sorts, and highly recommended for collectors.
Ayn Rand's Marginalia (1995b), edited by Robert Mayhew, offers a glimpse into Rand's thoughts on works written by various authors, from Windelband to Goldwater. In her comments on a John Herman Randall book, there are some interesting, though undeveloped, meditations on Aristotle's philosophy (9-36). And while Rand celebrated Ludwig von Mises's contributions to economics, she blasts his praxeological doctrine (105-41). In many cases, however, Rand's observations, disconnected from full-fledged analyses, seem a bit uncharitable. She calls C. S. Lewis a "cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity" and an "abysmal scum" (90-4). She dismisses F. A. Hayek as "real poison," a "fool," an "ass," and a "damn collectivist" for his compromises with interventionism (145-60). We are left wishing for more critical engagement with these thinkers. But fully developed essays are not to be expected in the margins of one's books; hence, the featured extracts have limited scholarly value.
In addition to the Letters of Ayn Rand (1995d),(3) the most important collection yet authorized by the Estate is Journals of Ayn Rand (1997). When Rand was creating her ideal man, John Galt, she suggested that he was "as 'Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, who was born ready and whole out of Jupiter's brain'" (637). The Journals should forever shatter the sycophant's similar image of Rand as a modern Minerva. Through this book, we become part of her captivating intellectual adventure, witnessing her struggle to understand many theoretical issues and their practical implications.
Editor David Harriman presents us with material dating from 1927 to 1966. The only unpublished notes are some "cryptic" pieces, says Harriman, and isolated commentary on events such as Truman's firing of MacArthur (xvi). Harriman claims to have made minimal editorial changes; he shows competence in pointing the reader to Rand's mature formulations when her earlier musings seem unclear or paradoxical. He also provides important supplementary material from Barbara Branden's 1961 interviews with Rand--though Branden's name is nowhere to be found. In fact, there is an overall problem throughout this book with regard to the identification of various individuals; Rand occasionally uses peoples' initials or simply their first names, and the editor gives us no indication of their identity. Perhaps some could not be identified, or the Estate has chosen not to identify them. But a name glossary would have augmented the project's historical interest and accuracy.
In some instances, however, it is not simply a name that is missing; it is an intellectual link between Rand and other thinkers. Consider these two versions of the same passage from 20 January 1947. The first version appears in The Objectivist Forum:
An important point to stress: blast the fool idea
that material production is some sort of low activity, the result of some base
"materialistic" impulse--as opposed to the "spiritual realm" (whatever
they think that is) which consists of some sort of vague, passive contemplation
of something or other (the Albert Jay Nock idea). (Rand 1984, 1) [italics
in text; underlined emphasis mine]
The second version appears in the Journals:
An important point to stress: blast the fool idea
that material production is some sort of low activity, the result of a base
"materialistic" impulse--as opposed to the "spiritual realm" (whatever
they think that is), which consists of some sort of vague, passive contemplation
of something or other. (Rand 1997, 549) [italics in text; underlined
Aside from the inexplicable change of one word (from "some" to "a"), the Journals version has dropped the reference to Albert Jay Nock, the Old Right individualist. Harriman claims that, at times, for stylistic and grammatical reasons, he does "eliminate words without affecting the meaning." He calls this a "restrained approach" to editing, in which omitted phrases are indicated "by ellipsis points in square brackets" (xvii). In this example, there are no bracketed ellipsis points in the Journals that might suggest a missing reference. Nock is simply no longer a part of the historical record. To have mentioned Nock's name, with critical implications, Rand must have wrestled with his ideas on the subject. One must wonder about editorial changes that are not made explicit. And the fact that there are other instances of such editing casts doubt on the full authenticity of the project, even if it does not impugn the book's overall value to critically-minded scholars.(4)
Rand's early journals foreshadow the things to come. The volume opens with her film scenario, The Skyscraper, based on a story by Dudley Murphy. She changed the architect-hero's name from Francis Gonda to Howard Kane. (Apparently, she remembered the surname "Gonda"; Kay Gonda became the protagonist of Rand's unpublished play, Ideal.) The Skyscraper's importance is that it focuses on the triumph "over obstacles" (9), an omnipresent theme in Rand's mature work. Several scenes and techniques anticipate The Fountainhead, including the use of the trial as a dramatic device--a staple in nearly all of the author's fiction. And in the scenario that follows, The Siege, Rand's protagonist is "tied to a torture machine"--shades of Atlas Shrugged.
The single most striking aspect of the early Journals is Rand's flirtation with Nietzsche. The extent of Nietzsche's impact on Rand is one of the most contentiously debated issues among scholars. A comparative analysis of the 1936 and 1959 editions of We the Living shows some editing of the more Nietzschean passages. Such changes are also on display in the 50th anniversary edition of Anthem (1995a), which is, by far, the most useful of the special volumes issued by the Estate. It provides an appendix that shows us Rand's line-changes, sometimes illegibly, on the original 1938 English edition. The first American edition, published in 1946, has some key differences with this earlier version. Though much bitterness toward the collective remains, Rand omits some of the angrier formulations. It is unfortunate that the 60th anniversary edition of We the Living (1995c) did not have a corresponding facsimile of the highly inaccessible 1936 version. We can only hope that the Estate will commit itself to publishing the unedited original at some future date for the benefit of scholars.
The Journals helps us to consider more formally whether or not Rand underwent a veritable "Nietzschean phase," as the late Ronald Merrill (1991) suggested. In a final book review before his untimely death, Merrill (1997) argues that the Journals bear out his contention of a "strong Nietzschean element in Rand's early work." David Kelley (1998) claims, however, that the book "does not shed further light" on this issue, since Rand never seems to accept any "aristocratic political philosophy, where some men have the right forcibly to command others" (8). For Kelley, the early Rand is at her most Nietzschean when she celebrates "energy, will" and the "rage to live" (9). Yet, there are several passages that suggest precisely an elitist command to obey. At one point, in The Skyscraper, those workers who refuse to labor on a sabotaged, unsafe building site are ordered to do so by the protagonist at the point of a gun (Rand 1997, 12).
In his Foreword, Peikoff focuses important attention on Rand's "organic development" as a writer (vii). He recognizes that the early notes reveal a Nietzschean-subjectivist hue, insofar as Rand denounces the masses and calls for their domination by "innately great" heroes. For Peikoff, all of these ideological "droplets . . . evaporate without residue . . ." But even in The Fountainhead, Nietzsche's voice can be heard, loudly at times, on every subject from morality to laughter (187).(5) Rand once toyed with the idea of opening every section of this novel with passages from Nietzsche's work (219). A close reading of the Journals shows that Rand internalized Nietzsche in such a way that one might detect his influence in aspects of all her published fiction.
In 1928, Rand began work on The Little Street, easily the most Nietzschean of her early writings. She rails against a world that consumes its heroes. Her malevolent, pessimistic view of society is angry and cynical. The protagonist, Danny Renahan, kills a villainous religious figure modeled on a real-life Ku Klux Klan pastor (33).(6) Renahan is also drawn from real-life; his character is based on 19-year old social outcast William Edward Hickman, who was the defendant in a highly publicized trial of the day. Hickman was subsequently executed for the kidnaping and murder of a little girl.
Looking through a Nietzschean lens, one might say that, from her earliest discussions, Rand was engaged in a vast deconstruction of conventional morality, probing its inner essence, making transparent the appearance of its "'high' words [as] a monstrous lie" (24). As Cox (1989) argues, the essence of textual deconstruction is the attempt "to reveal conflicting or incommensurable elements in the language that the text requires for its existence, to reveal the ways in which the terms and concepts that create its intellectual structure simultaneously undermine that structure" (56). In Rand's project, the revelation of hypocrisy at the foundation of traditional ethics was intended to usurp the very structure of these ethics, laying the groundwork for a moral revolution of her own making. This is a point emphasized by Douglas Den Uyl (1999) in his book, The Fountainhead: An American Novel. Nietzsche, a pioneering "deconstructionist," sought to undermine religious and altruist values by disclosing the context within which they were embedded. He inverted their meaning by penetrating into their core. So too, Den Uyl argues, Rand alters the "positive connotations associated with such terms as 'altruism,' 'selflessness,' and 'equality'." He recognizes that Rand appropriated terms, like "selfishness," and related these to an entirely different context so as to redefine them, and by so doing, create neologisms.(7) Rand (1997) absorbed Nietzsche's transvaluation of values; she highlighted "the irrational paradox of altruism . . . the process by which qualities (virtues) desirable in fact become undesirable in [conventional] morality" (283). Like Nietzsche, she viewed "altruism as a weapon of exploitation" (246). She retained even the form of his distinction between "master" and "slave" morality.(8) In Atlas Shrugged, she drew an analogous distinction between the Morality of Life and the Morality of Death. The former requires and perpetuates rationality, independence, honesty, purpose, happiness, and self-esteem. The latter requires and perpetuates irrationality, dependence, aimlessness, pain, humility, and the initiation of force. The Death principle places moral standards "outside of man and of reality," and engenders fatal oppositions between "mind and body, the moral and the practical, theory and practice, reason and emotions, security and freedom, yourself and others, selfishness and charity, private interests and public interests, . . . human rights and property rights" (651; 653). Just as the values of Nietzsche's slave morality become the vices of his master morality, so too, for Rand, in the Morality of Death, "all [man's] virtues are called vices, all his vices are called virtues . . ." (651).
Despite these similarities, Rand had deep differences with Nietzsche. My own research suggests that, in the cultural milieu of Silver Age Russia, the young Rand was exposed to a highly subjectivist-emotionalist version of Nietzschean philosophy. Among her favorite poets, she cites Aleksandr Blok, a Nietzschean Russian Symbolist. For Rand, Blok had a "ghastly" sense of life, even though his poetry was "magnificent" (Sciabarra 1995b, 390 n.19). Her discomfort with both Nietzsche's and Blok's work was an extension of her philosophic realism. That stance led her to imbue Nietzschean paeans to the Superman with an emphasis on the superiority of reason. In 1945, for example, she wondered if "we are really in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen--and the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman" (1997, 285).(9)
Rand's departure from Nietzsche is also rooted in the integrated systemic and dynamic--what I have called "dialectical"--structure of her thought. Though Nietzsche was a superlative dialectical commentator, his anti-dualism was, in many ways, a reaction against systems per se. It inspired his deconstructionist successors toward nihilism. In Rand, however, the revolt against dualism is a formal expression of profoundly dialectical insights into the integrated nature of being and knowing.
Prompted by Russian Radical, scholars continue to debate Rand's status as an organic, dialectical thinker.(10) The Journals provides us with compelling evidence for the dialectical motif in Rand's work. This motif appears in Rand's earliest notes, some of them written in her native Russian. She outlines the nature of the "epic," among whose characteristics are the necessity for "a large theme, a grand theme--and an enormous conflict (external or internal)." The epic "exhausts and integrates everything related to the theme; it represents the essence, in the best possible form" (15). This deeply Aristotelian view of the literary work as an organic whole would influence all of Rand's Romantic fiction. Cox (1993) reminds us that her "romantic individualism . . . is like DNA" in the body of her novels--"it's present in every cell, and it controls every cell" (19). Indeed, her affinity for organic modes may have led her to appreciate, on a profound level, Frank Lloyd Wright's "'organic' architecture," wherein each aspect "express[es] the meaning of the whole" (1997, 119; 122).
As early as 1928, Rand sought to "paint a real picture of the whole." "Show them the whole," she demands of herself (23). She denounces people who function as animals, those who
cannot connect together the things [they] observe . . . Man
realizes and connects much more than an animal, but who can declare that his ability to
connect things is perfect? The future, higher type of man will have to perfect just this
ability [to achieve] the clear vision. A clear mind sees things and the
connections between them. (24)
Two themes come together here: Rand's dialectical impulse toward a science of interconnections, and the influence of Nietzsche. Rand's goal was "to put it all together, to show the whole, to bring things a little closer to each other, allowing people to see the close relation between" conventional morals of sympathy and humility "and the horror of their lives" (1997, 36). Sensing the affinity, she adds: "I know what Nietzsche and I think on this subject" (41). Like the Silver Age writers of her youth, Rand embraces a quasi-Nietzschean outlook, expressed even by Trotsky ( 1960), who yearned for a "higher social biologic type" (255), a person of integrated reason and emotion. Silver Age thinkers wedded this ideal Superbeing to the Russian utopian vision of sobornost', in which individuals unite socially on the basis of their common values and harmonious interests. One might say, as Murray Franck (1997) suggests, that Rand aims for an analogous conflict-free utopia, despite all the problems it entails.(11)
Still, the organic or dialectical model remains as important to Rand's social theory as it is to her literary method. In Russian Radical, I organized Rand's critique of statist power relations on three interrelated levels of generality. Rand seeks to understand these relations in terms of their Personal, Cultural, and Structural dynamics. Level 1, the Personal, encompasses ethical and psycho-epistemological aspects. Level 2, the Cultural, encompasses aesthetic, linguistic, pedagogical, and ideological aspects. Level 3, the Structural, encompasses economics and politics. In the Journals, in her notes for We the Living, we encounter the first manifestations of this model. Rand traces the interconnections within a wider totality, quite self-consciously, on three analytical levels: the realm of "morality," the "political and cultural," and the "economical." This enables her to grasp the dynamics of collectivism in terms of its moral, mental, and economic conditions (Rand 1997, 56-57). Such explicit triadic organization is a profound corroboration of the proposed model; it is striking to see its appearance so early in Rand's thought.
The multi-leveled approach shows up again in her notes on The Fountainhead, where even architectural styles are examined "sociologically" as well as "artistically" (187-88), and again, in her notes on Atlas Shrugged, where moral codes are grasped in terms of their "Personal" and "Social" implications (653). The only difference between the earlier and later notes is this: Rand uses the word "organic" explicitly in her earlier journals. I suggest that by the time she has matured intellectually, the organic conception is so automatized that it is a virtual given in all of her inquiries.(12) Throughout, Rand rejects one-dimensional perspectives, and their "crude, blanket conclusions and unanalyzed, unwarranted generalizations" as the basis for "all the errors in sociological thinking . . ." (324).
Rand's dialectical savvy had implications for her writing techniques as well. A dialectical analysis has several components.(13) On the basis of one's ontological and epistemic premises, one proceeds to the moment of inquiry, in which one explores the intricate complexity of the real world from different vantage points. The next stage is the moment of intellectual reconstruction, in which one engages in self-clarification, reconstructing the nature of the totality at one's disposal and the interconnections among its parts. It is only then that one can create a coherent exposition, in which one's investigations are presented to others, taking into account their distinctive contexts. As Rand suggests: "It may be said that the first purpose of a philosophical book is the clarification or statement of your new knowledge to and for yourself; and then, as a secondary step, the offering of your knowledge to others" (480).
In composing an unpublished manuscript, "The Moral Basis of Individualism," Rand recognizes the importance of intellectual reconstruction. She writes in three stages: First, she presents a tentative outline. Second, she poses questions and critiques her original draft. Finally, she rewrites the segments based on her deeper understanding (243). She explains:
The art of writing is the art of doing what you think you're
doing. This is not as simple as it sounds. It implies a very difficult undertaking: the
necessity to think. And it implies the requirement to think out three separate, very hard
problems: What is it you want to say? How are you going to say it? Have you really said
it? It's a coldly intellectual process. (269)
Rand recognizes that a person must "rationally grasp every step in the process if he is to grasp the whole." If one does not perform the process methodically, one will not grasp the whole--"there is no whole" (306), she asserts, for without thought, there is no structured totality. Her "Philosophical Notes on the Creative Process," composed in May 1946, are significant for their depiction of such "completed cycle[s]," of the reciprocal relations between learning and creativity, theoretical and applied science. Rand's status as both philosopher and novelist enabled her to concretize formulations of principle in the events and characters of her fictional works, moving through abstraction from the concretes of the real world to the thought-concretes of her created world. "The completed cycle," Rand argues, always "leads back to man" (480). And like an "electric circuit," this dialectical movement
does not function in the separate parts; it must be unbroken or there is no current; the parts, in this case, are of no use whatever, of no relevance to the matter of having an electric current. This is the basic pattern and essence of the process of thinking. (481)
These expressions of Rand's underlying metatheoretical premises are not the only interesting aspects of her Journals. In fact, about 60% of the Journals is devoted to Rand's notes on The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Among the book's other sections, there are ideas for several possible short stories, a novel, "To Lorne Dieterling," and a treatise on Objectivism. Raw material from Rand's various lectures and articles, including out-takes from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, are also here, as are her musings on a 1961 New School lecture series she attended on "Methods in Philosophy and the Social Sciences," featuring such speakers as Noam Chomsky and Ernest Nagel.
Rand's notes for a screenplay on the atomic bomb, "Top Secret," to be produced by Hal Wallis, constitute an entire chapter. She understood why the bomb was the central "focus of everybody's sociological thinking" (317), and grasped the dangerous implications of nuclear proliferation. Though she did not deny the role of the government in bankrolling research and development, she argued that only in a capitalist country could the invention of such a weapon have been possible, since it leaves its scientists free from the political interference of the state. The totalitarian Nazis, their "racial prejudice . . . armed with State power," destroyed any possibility for scientific achievement, engendering an exodus of scientists to the free world.(14) Rand's interviews with many of the principals of the Manhattan Project, including J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Groves, fueled her movie scenario, a dramatic depiction of the connections between abstract science and applied technology.
In a chapter devoted to "Communism and HUAC," Rand's anti-Soviet stance is given full expression. Included here is Rand's open letter, "To All Innocent Fifth Columnists," which derides those conservative intellectuals who, by the inconsistency of their defense of freedom, were acting unwittingly as traitors to the individualist cause. Also featured are Rand's 1947 HUAC testimony and reflections, and her Screen Guide for Americans. Rand cautioned film makers not to smear the American political system (365), if they sought to preserve liberty. Ironically, however, she was among that system's most trenchant critics. In Atlas Shrugged, she focused on how politicians had corrupted the very institutions she admired. "For the politicians," Rand says,
do not name their exact political positions. Keep it vague and general--as it deserves. They are nonentities and their titles or jobs do not matter--all that matters, the essence of it, is that they are useless, faceless mediocrities, parasites and exploiters--as exemplifying the kind of government they represent. Therefore, avoid the honorable connotations attached to such a title as "President of the United States" by another era and a different principle of government. (453-54)
One of the more frustrating aspects of Rand's Journals is the editor's occasional flashes of interpretation. While points of information are a welcome addition to the text, Harriman's interpretive spins are sometimes questionable. Early in the Journals, for instance, Rand's critique of "Women's clubs" (35) and of "Family-life" as "the glorification of mediocrity" (25), leads Harriman to conclude that Rand had rejected both liberal "feminism" and conservative "family values" from the outset (36). But such a verdict is misleading at best; an entire volume has now been devoted to an exploration of the complex relationship between Rand and feminism.
Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999), co-edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and this author, part of the Penn State Press series, "Re-Reading the Canon," features essays from an international group of writers in psychology, cultural anthropology, politics, aesthetics, literature, and linguistics. Each of the more than twenty volumes in the series is devoted to feminist interpretations of the works of a key Western thinker. That Rand appears on the same shelf as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, etc., is further proof of the entrance of her thought into the pantheon of serious scholarly study. Given my status as the project's co-editor, however, I leave assessment of this work to others.
The feminist motif is not exclusive to the Gladstein-Sciabarra volume. Douglas Den Uyl's book, The Fountainhead: An American Novel, part of Twayne's Masterwork Series, also explores significant feminist themes in Rand's work. A similar Masterwork volume is being developed by Gladstein on Atlas Shrugged.(15) Like Cox (1993) before him, en Uyl sees "The Fountainhead [as] the quintessential presentation of American individualism, American optimism, and the promise that is America."(16)
Among the more interesting and provocative aspects of Den Uyl's book is its defense of Dominique as the central character of the novel. Merrill (1991, 46) anticipated this perspective, but Den Uyl develops it in unusual ways. He observes that Dominique is the only character for whom a special section of the book is lacking; she pervades all the sections, developing toward the realization that the good is both possible and necessary to human life. Unlike Roark, who is almost fully formed from the beginning, Dominique is an intuitive character who "pieces the parts together and becomes at one with herself; her tensions and divisions disappear." For Den Uyl, the reader is led to a comparable sense of wholeness and completion in the experience of Dominique's transformation. If Den Uyl is correct, then Rand's literary legacy can be appreciated as a contribution to Women's fiction. With Gladstein (1984) arguing that Dagny Taggart is the main character of Atlas Shrugged, and with Kira's centrality in We the Living, Rand's quest for the ideal man is equally a quest for the ideal woman.
Unfortunately, while Den Uyl discusses the relationships of the different characters in the novel, the ties between Roark and Wynand are not examined extensively. Rand (1995d) tells us that their love is "greater . . . than any other emotion in the book" (137); Wynand, she says, is "in love with Roark" (171), in the "romantic," and therefore, "highest sense" (137)--a qualification that she ordinarily reserves for lovers. She denies any "sexual perversion" between the characters, though she believes Wynand's love verges on the masochistic. He enjoys "the torture of loving a man whom in many other ways he hates . . ." (171). Still, Rand (1997) posits that Roark, Wynand, and Dominique are participants to a romantic "triangle--in which the husband and wife are both in love with the same man" (233).
That this relationship borders on ambiguity, a kind of non-erotic homosociality, was first suggested by Baker (1987), but it is examined in greater detail by several authors in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. Use of the Journals would have benefitted Den Uyl's exposition in this regard, though I suspect that the volume had not been published in time for his consideration. Issues of gender and sexuality pervade Rand's notes on The Fountainhead, shedding some light on her predilections for the "rape" of strong women by even stronger men. And given the "whip" as a prolific symbol in Rand's quasi-sadomasochistic, fictional representations of dominance and submission, the journals are brimming with interpretive potential.
Den Uyl's book does pinpoint a genuinely Socratic element in Rand's work, insofar as she views philosophy as "a moral enterprise, . . . an intellectual activity in the service of human life . . ." His eudaimonistic conception, so well defined in his works with Douglas Rasmussen, focuses on the organic unity in Rand's ethics, such that integrity, independence, and the pursuit of excellence are integrally related. Here, as in his other works, Den Uyl highlights the "integral triadic connection," so important to Rand's project, "between activity, life, and independence," in opposition to the triad of "passivity, death, and subservience."
Den Uyl emphasizes too, the "melding of . . . art and philosophy" in Rand's thought, for "the aesthetic cannot be separated or understood apart from the philosophical." The aesthetic ideal is simultaneously, a moral ideal, "an object of personal transformation." This is crucially important. Den Uyl grasps the revolutionary intent of Rand's model of endogenous causal agency, where "the ideal cannot remain 'outside' of the reader as something to gaze upon. It only becomes 'ideal' when the individual incorporates it as part of one's own inner truth and motivation." In rereading Rand's work, it becomes more apparent that her "novels are but a literary expression of philosophy and art conjoined in human action." As Den Uyl puts it: "The individual is 'artistic' because what one becomes requires creative shaping. The individual is 'philosophical' because the success of creativity requires that one understand what to become."
Particularly impressive is Den Uyl's concentration on The Romantic Manifesto (1975), a nearly forgotten book in the Randian canon.(17) Those who would place aesthetics as an afterthought to Rand's corpus commit an inexcusable error. Indeed, as I have argued in Russian Radical, the aesthetic theory belongs at the very heart of Rand's philosophic system, a virtual bridge between her metaphysical-epistemological assumptions and her ethical-political theories. Given this centrality, a book that critically engages Rand's aesthetics is long overdue. On these grounds alone, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (1999), by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, the first published book-length study of the aesthetics, should make an invaluable contribution to Rand scholarship. Not even in the milestone Den Uyl and Rasmussen (1984) anthology is there a single essay examining this sadly neglected aspect of Rand's thought.
The Torres-Kamhi book is based on their co-authored series of articles that first appeared in their journal, Aristos. The finished manuscript, however, will far outdistance the earlier series in both theoretical comprehensiveness and historical scope. It explores Rand's understanding of the cognitive function of art and relates this theory to others in the history of aesthetics. It offers scientific corroboration of Rand's insights drawn from archeology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, cognitive and clinical psychology, and neurology. The book has breathtaking range, uniting aesthetic theory, art history, arts education, law, politics, and economics.
What Art Is inverts a famous question posed by Leo Tolstoy ( 1913), who asked: What is Art? That Rand offers an objective answer to a seemingly simple question is an achievement. But the Torres-Kamhi book is no mere summary of the Randian perspective. The authors engage Rand; they are not afraid to explain their differences from her, and they often provide trenchant criticisms of some of her more ambiguous formulations. Moreover, they extend and apply the Randian theory in a broad-based critique of modernist and post-modernist "art" forms.
Some of their proposals are bound to be controversial. They critique the notion that photography and architecture are forms of art. While Rand (1975) would agree that photography is not art (74), she was less clear about architecture, sensing that it served a "utilitarian purpose," and that it did "not re-create reality"--an essential aspect of her definition of art, which "is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" (19).(18) But even a casual perusal of her Journals shows that Rand (1997) characterized architecture as "a creative art" (147)--indeed, "the most important of the arts" (189). That Torres and Kamhi disagree with Rand makes their volume a contribution to both interpretive and critical Rand studies.
Critical studies of Rand's work are fundamentally important to the advancement of scholarship. Two such studies are John W. Robbins's Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (1997) and Peter Erickson's The Stance of Atlas: An Examination of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1997). While neither study touches on Rand's aesthetics, each offers something of value.
The Robbins book is notorious for its macabre cover--a photo of the gravestone of Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor, perhaps symbolic of Robbins's own wishes to put the final nail in the coffin of Objectivism. But this--his second book on the subject since 1974--is just one more indication of Rand's staying power. The book's title was anticipated by Bohm-Bawerk's similarly titled, Karl Marx and the Close of His System. The parallel here is striking in two ways: Robbins attacks the "common [materialist] premises" that he believes Rand and Marx share. He also views Objectivism and Communism as systems that have reached a philosophic "close" or dead-end. Steeped in Calvinist theology, a follower of Gordon H. Clark (some of whose essays appear in the book's appendices), Robbins (1997) seeks to demonstrate Rand's errors, and to provide an alternative to her system "in the name of Jesus Christ" (24).
Interestingly, as the economist Bruce Caldwell (1997) makes clear, the original German translation of Bom-Bawerk's work was: Karl Marx: The Completion of the Marxian System (3). Bohm-Bawerk's subtitle was merely a recognition that, with the publication of the final volume of Capital, Marx's theory had reached its culmination. In a sense, however, Marx's system would first undergo a vast theoretical development extending well into the twentieth-century, as scholars explored its relevance--or irrelevance--in the comprehension of contemporary events.
In a similar fashion, Rand's works constitute a living system of thought. As each succeeding generation relates her pronouncements to its own context, Objectivism grows like an open-ended, hermeneutic spiral, producing further implications that Rand, her followers, critics, and interpreters could not have possibly foreseen. Robbins seems aware of this possibility. While he focuses primarily on what Rand wrote, he also examines, in various appendices, key works from Peikoff and Kelley. He regrets that Rand's work may eventually provide her with "academic respectability, if not . . . dominance," given its inevitable evolution, but he is convinced that her system is full of logical holes (5).(19)
Robbins's arguments have some of their own logical problems, which have been examined variously by Gordon (1997) and Register (1997). Though I did not find his critique of Rand persuasive, I was intrigued by his various interpretations. He approaches Objectivism as if it were a faith, and finds support for this view in Rand's Letters. He also sees in the Objectivist movement all the trappings of religiosity; it is a "cult" with a charismatic leader, who created mythic characters and epic fiction as a textual substitute of Biblical proportions.
Robbins is correct that in her Letters--and now, even in her Journals--Rand frequently appeals to egoism as a new "faith." Yet, her concept is non-mystical. Faith, in this context, says Rand (1997), has "a philosophical, not a religious meaning." It serves "as a set of certain principles, as a goal, aim or inspiration, as a life-system" (80). Robbins does have a point, however, in his recognition of quasi-religious symbolism in Rand's fiction. Unlike Merrill (1991), who claimed that Rand inadvertently used Jewish symbolism in her work, Robbins traces some interesting analogies between Rand's symbols and those of Christianity. In Atlas Shrugged, for example, John Galt is presented as a Christ-like savior, tracing the Sign of the Dollar over the desolate earth on its day of deliverance. Indeed, one can find such provocative parallels even in the journal notes for Atlas Shrugged where Rand (1997) compares the tunnels of the Taggart Transcontinental to "the catacombs of the early Christians in Rome. . . . And the sign of the dollar is like the sign of the cross--the secret symbol of the heroes and martyrs" (560). However, such religious metaphors are used for entirely secular and humanistic purposes. Rand sees the "rational mind" as the "god-like aspect of man"; it is through this faculty that man "create[s] himself"[emphasis added] (564). Rand ( 1993) sought to sever the concepts of "exaltation," "reverence," and the "sacred" from what she saw as religion's requirements of "self-abasement." As she puts it:
Religion's monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has preempted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man's reach. (ix)
Though she became less militantly atheistic in her later years, Rand (1997) viewed religion as "the great poison of mankind," a destroyer of human souls, "organically hateful," and "contrary to [human] nature" (25). From the time of her earliest reflections, she regarded
Religion [as] . . . the first enemy of the ability to think. . . . Faith is the worst curse of mankind; it is the exact antithesis and enemy of thought. . . . I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion. (68)
This opposition to religion incites Robbins (1997) to a fascinating analysis of the provocative convergence between Rand and those on the left, such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Feuerbach, and other atheist-materialist thinkers. Like Rand, these thinkers, says Robbins, are fully committed to the validity of the senses, the empirical basis of knowledge, and Promethean naturalism. Rand may have "physically escaped from the Communists in 1924," he asserts. "She never escaped from the Communists intellectually" (37).
In his chapter on "Objectivist Theology," the parallels are more pronounced. However, contrary to Robbins's claims (140), Rand was not a materialist; she did not view the mind as an epiphenomenon of matter. Moreover, she did not endorse an ethics based on physical-survivalism. She extended the eudaimonistic Aristotelian tradition--as Den Uyl and Rasmussen (1984) have demonstrated persuasively. And though Robbins is correct to treat Rand as a critic of "non-dialectical vulgar materialism," he is incorrect to view her in "dialectical materialist" terms.
In The Stance of Atlas, Erickson (1997) comes close to committing the same error. But his exposition is much clearer, and more entertaining. Erickson has fun with his audience; he approaches Rand's philosophy by constructing an illuminating dialogue among four characters: Dr. Standford, Miss Doxa, Penelope, and, the voice of the author, Philosophus, who is described as "polite," and "a distinguished looking gentleman of indeterminate age" (24-25). The dialogue form, popular since the time of Plato, is an instructive technique for dramatizing "the conflict of ideas" (xii).
In examining Objectivism, however, Erickson concentrates almost exclusively on Rand's ideas alone. There is a subtle reference to the Peikoff-Kelley split, though Erickson does not mention Kelley by name (207). Given Erickson's close attention to all things epistemological, it might have been valuable for him to examine formally Kelley's work, especially his Evidence of the Senses. And though Erickson includes several citations from Peikoff's book on Objectivism, there are no references to Nathaniel Branden. Given Branden's enormous contributions to Objectivism, especially while he was associated with Rand, this omission is regrettable.
The author draws many intriguing parallels between Rand's work and the work of others. He points to the early 20th century thinker, John Cook Wilson, as having anticipated Rand's idea that essence is an epistemological, rather than metaphysical concept (102). He draws analogies between Rand and Eugen Duhring, against whom Engels directed a famous critique (150), and between Rand and H. W. B. Joseph on the nature of identity and causality (152). He suggests that the work of the 19th century French intellectual, Charles Renouvier was a precursor to Rand's theory of free will. In addition, he proposes an interesting correlation between Rand's view of concepts and her grasp of the gold standard and its characteristics (291-93). His discussions of time and space are also thought-provoking. And like Robbins, Erickson seeks to defend an alternative philosophy--in this case, "Factivity" (318). It is outside the scope of this essay to subject his or Robbins's system to any comprehensive examination.
Also like Robbins, Erickson is at his most interesting when he focuses on the parallels between Objectivism and dialectical materialism (or "diamat"). Erickson grapples with the various Russian Radical theses, and accepts Rand's revolt against dualism as an important characteristic of her overall project. He traces important similarities between Rand and Hegel in their repudiation of Kantian dichotomies (41-42), and points to a common "emphasis on the objectivity of external reality" in Objectivism and Marxist-Leninism (21). Echoing Russian Radical, Erickson remarks that while Rand "rejected much" from what she was taught by the Soviets, "she held on to some of it" (98). Indeed, her system shows "traces of what she rejected" (220).
However, through the character Penelope, he wonders if Objectivism succumbs to materialist monism, in the tradition of diamat (20). In a revealing chapter on "Ayn Rand and V. I. Lenin," Erickson recognizes that both thinkers shared a "partisan character," opposing "vulgar materialism," while retaining contextualism, an essentially "Hegelian" perspective.(20) Rand also retains a "Hegelian" concept of reality as an interconnected whole (216). But the attempt to place Objectivism closer to diamat is a bit too close for intellectual comfort. The basic problem with Erickson's discussion is that it does not carefully distinguish between dialectics and dialectical materialism. "Dialectical materialism" is monistic.(21) Its stress is not on the primacy of existence, but on the primacy of material existence. While the diamat philosophers rejected vulgar materialism, they believed that in the last instance, all of reality, including consciousness, could be explained in material terms. Translated into a theory of history, this undialectical approach stressed macroscopic laws of development in which material conditions played the crucial role in determining social evolution.
Rand (1997) rejected "dialectic materialism" unconditionally. Entirely reductive, historicist, and self-contradictory, diamat saw human actors as pure "by-product[s] of physical environment, nutrition and 'conditioning,' operating without volition, automatically and unalterably" (301, 256). Rand's opposition to such determinism is so dramatic that it is hard to fathom how anyone could possibly identify her with diamat. Originally, Rand had entitled one of the chapters in Atlas Shrugged, "The Materialists," in a frontal assault on their reductive metaphysic (533). She once thought of dedicating Atlas Shrugged "'to all those who think that material wealth is produced by material means'" (489), because she upheld "material production [as] the result of the highest spiritual quality and activity" (550). Her anti-materialism is deeply embedded even in her literary credo, inspired by Dostoyevsky and other great Russian novelists, highlighting the interplay of principles embodied in characters whose physical features mirror their spiritual essence. In this context, there are times when Rand appears to treat matter as an epiphenomenon of mind. She argues that
the material proceeds from the spiritual, not vice versa. The material is the expression of the spiritual, the form of the idea, the flesh of the soul. The spiritual intention determines its material expression. Not the other way around. . . . [M]an may be the highest form, the crown and final goal of the universe, the form of spirit and matter in which the spirit predominates and triumphs. (447; 466)
Ultimately, however, Rand views mind and body as "indivisible unity, integrity, continuity." Her genuinely dialectical approach rejects dualistic false alternatives and monistic reductionism. Human beings possess both spiritual and material "elements--but not to be split into them, since they can be considered separately only for purposes of discussion, not in actual fact. In actual fact, man is an indivisible, integrated entity--and his place is here, on earth" (466; 551).
Despite Rand's disavowal of all forms of materialism, Robbins and Erickson are correct to see many interesting affinities between Rand and her Marxist adversaries. David Brooks (1997), in his otherwise rude review of Rand's Journals, suspects that Rand's "virulent anti-Marxis[m]" inevitably led her to construct "her own epic class struggle" between producers and parasites, "turn[ing] Marx on his head." In her Letters and Journals, the convergence is often quite pronounced.
In 1944, in a letter to Gerald Loeb, Rand (1995d) may have eschewed the use of the word "labor," given its Marxist connotations, substituting the phrase "productive work." She argues "that one finds worthwhile men and women among people who work. . . . I do not mean LABOR. I do not mean people who have to earn their living. I do not mean proletarians" (154). And yet, like Marx ( 1964) who saw the "free conscious activity" of labor as fully expressive of human species-identity (113), Rand (1997), in her Journals, celebrates all human "labor [as] a creative activity to some degree" (223). Just as Marx ([1857-58] 1973) saw in machines "the power of knowledge; objectified" (694, 706), so too, Rand (1997) endorses a thoroughly non-mechanistic view. Machines are not "mechanical, automatic substitute[s] for thought"; they are the repository of "intelligence and ingenuity" that cannot be "cut off from their creators." They are "extensions of man's intelligence," says Rand, related to a human purpose (485-86).
Another striking similarity between Marx and Rand centers on their use of a base-superstructure model of human action. Though Harriman, the editor, provides interpretive qualifications in other instances of the Journals (1997), this parallel with Marx eludes his attention. His basic point seems to be that "psycho-epistemology" is "a concept [Rand] originated" in her pioneering notes on "Psychological 'Epistemology'" and "Memory-Storing Epistemology" (667).(22) Like Marx, she views the "super-structure" as the realm of a person's conscious philosophy. The "sub-basement" is "the realm of psychology," that is, "the method by which a mind acquires and handles its content." Sub-basement premises remain implicit in adult consciousness, explains Rand, "in the method of thinking ('front seat' or 'back seat,' directed or contemplative)" (671). Ultimately, the "super-structure" determines the "sub-basement"; faulty methods of awareness can only be altered by changing a person's philosophic ideas (672).
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels talked of material conditions as the "base" upon which a whole "superstructure" of social consciousness would arise. In her model of human action, Rand sees this "superstructure" in similar ideational terms, referring to the tacit or implicit dimensions of the subconscious as "sub-basement" premises. She inverts the Marxian model while using its terms to analyze the relationship between an individual's philosophy and psychology. While Rand and Marx are not alone in positing these kinds of structural relationships, there is some historical significance in her use of language originating in the Marxian canon. Rand was surely exposed to its essential texts in her student days; that she uses its idioms only reinforces our appreciation of how she both absorbed and transcended aspects of her Russian past.
The differences between Objectivism and Marxism are among the issues discussed by Tibor Machan, in his book on Ayn Rand (1999). Machan's monograph is in the tradition of the Oxford University Press Past Masters series. It draws partially from his previously published essays, and from his chapters in the Den Uyl and Rasmussen (1984) anthology. The book's subtext is deeply personal. Machan reminds us that he first read Rand's novels while serving in the U.S. Air Force:
Several of us stayed up into many weekend nights at Andrews Air Force Base, in the summer of 1962, examining the various philosophical themes covered in Galt's famous speech. Although I kept reading Rand's work afterwards, even attended a few lectures given by her one time student and disciple, Nathaniel Branden, I kept away from what came to be called "the inner circle." Eventually, after an exchange of correspondence, I was declared persona non grata by Branden and thereafter had no fruitful contact with her and those surrounding her. I proceeded, however, to study her works and to begin to develop some of her ideas as I understood them, throughout my career in academic philosophy.
Machan argues that, like Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Popper, and Sartre, Rand begat a movement of "admirers and epigone." His book avoids the cultic mentality, and offers a fine general introduction to her thought. He helps us to situate Rand in comparison to other Western thinkers, from Aristotle to Nussbaum. He grapples with Rand's moral philosophy, answering the criticisms of Humean skeptics, and devotes an entire chapter to the contrast between Rand and Kant. He examines many complex issues generated by Rand's epistemology, especially its implications for axiomatic concepts and propositions. He also provides an informed perspective from which to engage O'Neill's and Dancy's criticisms of the principle of non-contradiction.
Machan concludes his book--as I should conclude this bibliographic essay--with a challenge to others, to probe into the many "unfinished" issues provoked by our consideration of Rand's system. Among the "problems left for Objectivism," Machan cites tough questions on the nature of free will, human evil, evolution, aesthetics, moral obligation, and the family. Fortunately, the current renaissance in Rand scholarship augurs well for a future of critical engagement.
1. I would like to thank Stephen Cox, Murray Franck, and Barry Rosenthal for their critical comments on an earlier draft of this article. The usual caveats apply. Back.
2. Walker (1999) will focus on this movement; unfortunately, it was unavailable for review at press time. Back.
3. See Sciabarra 1995c for my book review. Back.
4. For an examination of other examples, see Sciabarra 1998b. Also see Cox 1998 for a discussion of the problems inherent in the journals' editing. Back.
5. Nietzsche is not the only writer with whom Rand engages. She cites Mencken, Goethe, Kropotkin, and Ortega y Gasset as well. In fact, Rand (1997) seems quite favorably impressed by Ortega y Gasset--appreciating his insights, and appropriating his phraseology on the "mass-man" in her notes for The Fountainhead (141). Ortega y Gasset became one of the models upon which Rand would base the character, Hugh Akston, in Atlas Shrugged (405). Back.
6. Rand often drew from real-life; the story of another criminal defendant, the Swedish "Match King," Ivar Kreuger, inspired her play Night of January 16th. Back.
7. Den Uyl (1999) argues that Rand's deconstructions are not always successful; e.g., he believes that she fails in her deconstruction of "humor." Rand sometimes accepts common usage, even as she tried to transcend it. The Journals' early notes bear out her attested confusion over the words "egoism" and "egotism." Rand ( 1993) admits that her use of the word "egotist" in The Fountainhead was an "error," prompted by her reliance on her dictionary's "misleading definitions" (viii). Erickson (1997), discussed below, questions Rand's definitions of such concepts as "selfishness," arguing that she "tries to stack the deck by redefining familiar words" (258). Back.
8. The master-slave form is not distinctive to Nietzsche; it can be found too, in the thought of Hegel, who resurrects it from the works of Aristotle. See Sciabarra 1995b, 300-11. Back.
9. In published works, Rand hardly ever used the word "Superman." She remarks in a New York Times letter (July 24, 1949): "I much prefer the word 'man' which, in my philosophy, is quite honorable enough . . ." (Rand 1996, 11). Back.
10. For an overview of these debates, see my website. Back.
11. Franck argues that the conflict-free ideal would require a synoptic perspective in which perfectly rational people always pursue "the philosophically-objective values." A dialectical sensibility is at odds with such synopticism. Characterizing Rand as a dialectical thinker means that she is predominantly contextual in her methodological orientation. It does not mean that she is always dialectical in every aspect of her thought. On the distinctions between dialectics and other orientations, see my forthcoming book, Total Freedom. Back.
12. I am persuaded by Stephen Cox, who suggests, in a personal correspondence, that Rand may have stopped using the word "organic" because she did not like its naturalistic connotations. Given Rand's use of this word in her earlier journals, it is quite possible that the concept was a holdover from her student years. Interestingly, the word "organic" can be found in quite a few of the philosophic works to which Rand may have been exposed while she was a student at Leningrad University; N. O. Lossky, a renowned philosophy professor whom Rand recollects, wrote a well-known volume called, The World as an Organic Whole. See Sciabarra 1995b, Chapter Two. Back.
13. See Ollman 1979, Chapter 4, for a fuller discussion of these components. Back.
14. In the Journals, Rand does not address sufficiently the development of rocket and satellite technology in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Given the "Project X" episode in Atlas Shrugged, she sensed that statism could promote innovations in the industry of destruction. Back.
15. Gladstein is also developing an expanded edition of her fine resource guide, The Ayn Rand Companion. Back.
16. In contrast to The Fountainhead, where Roark resides in-the-world, Atlas Shrugged depicts America in a utopian light, says Den Uyl (1999). The utopia emerges external to the reality of America. Its creator, John Galt, speaks "from the outside" looking in. Den Uyl, here, puts his finger on a key ingredient of utopian fiction; indeed, he identifies an essential aspect in all utopianism--the reconstruction of the world from an Archimedean vantage point. See Sciabarra 1995a. Back.
17. Cox 1986 is a notable exception in its treatment of The Romantic Manifesto. Back.
18. Kamhi and Torres critically assess Rand's definition. In my own research, I have discovered only one other instance of this definitional form--in the work of the Rand-influenced Roy Childs (1994), who viewed history as "a selective recreation of the events of the past, according to a historian's premises regarding what is important and his judgment concerning the nature of causality in human action" (18). Back.
19. Given the possibilities for this academic evolution, Peikoff (in Rand 1997) criticizes subtly "[t]oo many of AR's professed admirers in print [who] are academics of the scholastic persuasion" (xii). Yet, one of the ways in which Rand's work might achieve dominance is through the scholarly process of give-and-take, a process that is just beginning. Back.
20. Actually, such contextualism is rooted in the work of Aristotle. See Chapter One of my forthcoming, Total Freedom. Back.
21. In actuality, Marx did not originate the phrase "dialectical materialism." It was coined first by the Soviet Communist, G. V. Plekhanov. Back.
22. Interestingly, in a book of more than 700 pages, this section is the only place where the name Nathaniel Branden shows up--once (673). Of course, Rand's explorations in psychology took place while she was closely associated with the Brandens; indeed, it was Barbara Branden who first coined the concept, "psycho-epistemology," persuading Rand of its importance (N. Branden  1979, 98 n.29). Rand seems to recognize the nature of their joint intellectual work in this area; it is one of the few sections of the Journals where she uses the word "we," rather than "I," in reference to the development of a philosophic abstraction. Back.
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