Friday, February 3, 2012

Ayn Rand: The Beautiful and the Damned

If it hasn’t been made clear yet, Rand was an idealist of sorts, albeit an extreme one. She almost certainly had a personality disorder—clinical narcissism, and likely a strain of Asperger’s—that wired her brain such that she insisted her logic, and everyone else’s, be consistent and constant, to a pathological degree that leaves room for neither emotion nor accident. Thus what she considered an ideal is different from most; rather than a guideline or example to be striven for, if never fully achievable, she saw ideals as standards that must be adhered to without deviation.

Consider Christ, the most common model of moral guidance. Even if humanity could collectively agree on exactly what he stood for, we could never live in a world where every single person followed his example of ascetic, chaste, material poverty, (nor is it even certain we would want to). In any case, there is an implicit understanding when speaking of human behavior that one will always short of perfection, whatever that is (and Christ is above all a symbol of forgiveness).

 Rand likely would have called bullshit and said that any such caveat essentially betrays an ideal in advance and makes a mockery of ethics, which one could concede is true in an academic and totalitarian sense. This absolutist view of ethics and life is the keystone of her extremely idiosyncratic Objectivism, which is spelled out in explicit detail in the The Fountainhead’s infamous courtroom speech.

 Some context: the pathetic and now hopelessly declining Peter Keating comes to Howard Roark with the problem of designing affordable low-income housing. Roark comes up with a workable design and agrees to let Keating submit it as his own, with the stipulation that nothing is changed. When other architects eventually meddle with it and build it with numerous useless additions, Roark dynamites the structure and lets himself be caught at the scene. With echoes of Rand’s play Night of January 16th, Roark is put on trial not for the property destruction laws he’s broken, but for his society-defying individualism, which he spends seven-and-a-half pages justifying.

The thrust of Roark's speech, which has been touched on previously, is essentially a redefinition of egoism. Essentially, it says, the creative individual has always been responsible for advances in mankind, and has every step of the way been resisted:
Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures—because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer—because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that one paid for his courage.
Creative man is entirely self-sufficient and, whatever benefits to mankind his discoveries and inventions bestow, it is always for his own satisfaction that he works. Anyone who deviates from this standard and looks for satisfaction in others, whether by helping or exploiting them, is a “second-hander.” Invariably, unable to create anything for themselves, they drag the creative class down to their mediocrity, by way of, naturally, making stupid additions to architectural designs and the like. Thus the traditional understanding of egotism is, to coin a phrase, false consciousness:
The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander. This is the basic issue. It rests upon the alternative of life or death. The code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive. The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. 
The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner...
There’s a chimp’s feast of nits one could pick from a screed of such length. To take but one example, its mangling of Greek mythology: Prometheus was chained up and tormented by the gods for stealing their fire in order to help mankind. He was, in fact, the prototypical second-hander. There’s also the absurdity of any philosophy that considers “the beggar, the social worker, and the bandit” as well as dictators to be moral equals. But in fact the whole logical edifice can be demolished like a bad housing project by referring back to Rand’s fundamental absolutist misunderstanding of traditional, altruistic morality:
Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above himself…. 
Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then one must wish to see others suffer--in order that he may be virtuous.
Rand critically mistakes altruism, the consideration of others’ welfare over one’s own, as an imperative, an ironclad and all-consuming law, rather than a gentle corrective to man’s tendency toward self-enrichment which often comes at the expense of others. It’s the confusion, once again, of ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ Part of the altruistic ideal is the understanding that in the world as it is, there will always be suffering, vice, and folly, and so it is necessary to ameliorate it as best as possible. To accuse altruists of thinking there ought to be suffering, because it gives them a purpose, is like accusing doctors of enjoying the sickness of their patients. Roark's logic that “but for me the destitute could not have had this particular home,” suggests that a doctor would be justified in withdrawing a treatment at his own discretion, prior oaths and agreements be damned. 

Rand’s misunderstanding comes into the sharpest relief when one examines an earlier and similarly long-winded speech by villain Ellsworth Toohey, delivered after Peter Keating has surrendered to him the written agreement he had made with Roark about the housing development, as well as what little remained of his dignity. In what amounts to a philosophical version of the scene in Men in Black when Vincent d’Onofrio rips off his skin to reveal a giant cockroach underneath, Toohey is shown to be not merely a gross liberal intellectual caricature, but a veritable secular Satan:
“...I said I intended to rule. Like all my spiritual predecessors. But I’m luckier than they were. I inherited the fruit of their efforts and I shall be the one who’ll see the great dream made real. I see it all around me today. I recognize it. I don’t like it. I didn’t expect to like it. Enjoyment is not my destiny. I shall find such satisfaction as my capacity permits. I shall rule. ”  
“You. The world. It’s only a matter of discovering the lever. If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind....” 
It’s hard to describe the effect of five pages of this. The scene, such as it is, plays a similar narrative function as O’Brien’s breaking of Winston Smith in 1984. But Toohey is constructed as less a human being than a symbol, the exact, demonic opposite of Roark in every way, so his anti-creed recalls the inverted morality of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape, without the wit:
Here’s another [way to break a man’s soul]. Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You’ve destroyed architecture. Build up Lois Cook and you’ve destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you’ve destroyed the theater. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you’ve destroyed the press. Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed.
Toohey is constructed such that, with a little adjustment of pronouns, most of what he says could just as easily be uttered by one of Rand’s heroic individualists. The only difference is he thinks these things are good rather than evil:
Yet the test should be so simple: just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice—run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. The man intends to be the master....
....I want nothing for myself. I use people only for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose. I want power. I want my world of the future. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to salvery. A great circle—and a total equality. The world of the future.”
In her introduction to The Fountainhead Rand wrote that her “man-worship” should not be confused for the secular religions, like Communism and Fascism, that substituted God with “the people” or “the master race” or some other nebulous collective. Yet she has in fact done just that. The heroes and villains of her cosmology are just two ends of an hourglass that share the selfsame sand.

In actual philosophical differences in the world, the opposing sides can’t even agree on the terms of debate. This is the case with the hostility between Rand-inspired conservatives and liberals. The one side sees the other as celebrating misery, while the liberal perspective has the exact opposite issue. It’s not that Rand wants the suffering that results, if unintendedly, from her idealized selfishness, it’s that such accidents are categorically excluded from her worldview. One side considers circumstances in how people are shaped, and attempts to mitigate its effect. The other considers one’s fortunes to be entirely self-determined and accordingly views any attempts to make things easier as, if anything, part of the problem.

They’re fundamentally irreconcilable views, which is why the past three years in Congress have been such an arduous slog. As we’ll see next they're also, because this difference was so fundamental to Rand’s character, the reason The Fountainhead and Rand’s ouvre as a whole is so utterly alien to most other fiction.

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