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Rand Criticism, Again

Lots of people have emailed me, wondering about my opinion of the recent article on Ayn Rand, entitled "As Astonishing As Elvis," written by Jenny Turner, which appears in The London Review of Books.

I don't have much to say about the article; a full response would require an article of equal length, just to rebut all the arguable misinterpretations and misstatements therein.

For example, at one point, Turner makes the following statement:

Sometimes, she wore a mink coat to deliver her speeches, paid for with compensation received from the Italian wartime government (the Fascisti had liked We the Living so much they had filmed it, without Rand’s say-so).

Well, yes, Rand did receive royalties from the Italian government because of the unauthorized filming of We the Living, but Turner neglects to mention the fact that the film, which was initially green-lighted by the Fascisti for its anti-communism, was eventually pulled because people were responding positively to its individualism and anti-statism... two political "no-no's." Why not mention this? I suppose it is just a lot easier to leave the reader with the distorted implication that the Fascists and Rand had an ideological affinity.

I could go on and on, but there's not much that I'll say here that I haven't already said here and elsewhere.

I had a few brief email exchanges with Turner while she prepared her article. She had contacted me strictly with regard to an essay written by Slavoj Zizek, which appeared in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. As it turns out, it is because of that Zizek essay that JARS got a brief mention in Turner's article. (Even that mention contains an implicit error. Turner states: "A peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, was founded in 1999, and continues to run out of New York University..." In actuality, I am a Visiting Scholar at NYU, but the journal is not run out of New York University, and has no affiliation whatsoever with the University.)

Interestingly, while Turner mentions briefly Zizek's postmodernist critique of Rand's politics, she fails to mention Zizek's admiration for Rand's portrait of human authenticity in The Fountainhead or his admiration for the way in which Rand herself handled her Affair with Nathaniel Branden (an episode on which Turner focuses as well). I pointed out here Zizek's own words on this subject: "Rand did not cheat. ... To show such firmness in the most intimate domain bears witness to an ethical stance of extraordinary strength: while Rand was here arguably 'immoral' [in the conventional sense, a reference to the extramarital affair], she was ethical in the most profound meaning of the word. It is this ethical stance of inner freedom that accounts for the authenticity clearly discernible in Rand's description of ... Howard Roark."

As I have already stated:

[I]t's fairly typical that discussions of Rand end up becoming discussions of Rand's life. In these instances, however, biography doesn't supplement a discussion of ideas; it often supplants that discussion entirely. Even the New York Times, which has reviewed many Rand works, has never actually reviewed any books about Rand, unless those books are of a biographical character. Reading the Times, one would not even know that there is a growing secondary literature, a veritable industry, of scholarship focused on Rand's ideas.

Well, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Turner does focus on Rand's ideas, but Rand's philosophy is presented as a stick-figure caricature of itself. And while Turner mentions that books on Rand are being published, the springboard for her essay is Jeff Britting's mini-biography on Rand, a handsome little book, but not one focused on Rand's ideas primarily. Indeed, no books in the vast and growing body of scholarly literature on Rand's ideas are examined in Turner's article, just as they are never mentioned in the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books or anywhere else in the mainstream press.

But that scholarship continues to be published by university and trade presses alike, by organizations, institutions, periodicals, and individuals with vastly different perspectives on Rand. I am confident that at some point this literature will be given the attention it deserves.

Comments welcome. Noted too at L&P.

Comments

Chris,

I enjoyed reading your, critique of Turner's article. At one point in your comments you said, "Well, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Turner does focus on Rand's ideas, but Rand's philosophy is presented as a stick-figure caricature of itself." This took me back to something I once read in reference to Nietzsche’s work, I believe it was R.J. Hollingdale that made the comments, but I am not sure. I remember that the author believed that Nietzsche had been given a bum-rap as a proto-fascist because of his “style” of writing.

Hollingdale's comments inferred that the Fascists had co-opted Nietzsche's philosophy because the metaphors he sometimes used, along with the highly dramatic aphoristic style he often employed, easily lent itself to misinterpretation and outright distortion of his intended meaning. Personally, I believe that Nietzsche was in fact a proto-fascist, albeit to a far lesser degree than the mid-20th century Fascists made him out to be. Nevertheless, having read and studied some Nietzsche in my youth; I do agree with Hollingdale to some extent.

Now let me get back to Ayn Rand and my real questions.

After so many years of reading her work, and the works of people writing about her ideas (Merrill, Gotthelf, Machan and yourself), it is nearly impossible for me to interpret anything Rand has ever written as remotely “fascistic”. From the first day I ever read anything she wrote (The Fountainhead), I can honestly say that I have never got the slightest impression of her suggesting an autocratic or oppressive social order; on the contrary, every page seemed to shout out against anything that smacked of these even in the slightest.

That said, there have been enough criticisms of Rand, like Turner’s, that it causes me to ask, are all these criticisms merely dishonest or the by-product of taking too cursory a glance at Rand’s work? Or is there something more, something I cannot see, but others do?

So along the lines of my Nietzsche analogy, to what degree do you feel that Ayn Rand’s writing style lends itself to "HONEST" misinterpretation?

George

Chris,

Once I read the following line in Turner's review, I sort of dismissed the rest of the content.

"So The Fountainhead is trash, but trash of the most bewitchingly odd lines and angles."

(sigh) One more to ignore. That review was a completely weird overview of Rand and her ideas anyway. It seemed to land all over the place. Rand admirers mostly see the criticism, but I see a complete lack of consistency in it.

It will be interesting to see what her own novel will read like, that is, if I ever read it.

Michael

Great job, Chris!

I thought you might have something to say about that article.

-Chip

Chris,

I only skimmed this article.

I see that a couple Objectivist blogs have picked this up. I sense that "Official Objectivists" seem almost delighted to find bad criticism of Rand (which I assume this is) so they can launch into a diatribe about the Brandens, etc.

Unfortunately Rand's ideas seem to get lost in all this.

Some very good comments here. Thanks George, Michael, Chip, and Neil.

George, I think that you're right that Nietzsche's style has contributed to his "bum-rap" as a "proto-fascist." And, to a certain extent, let us not forget that there is a connection of sorts between Rand and Nietzsche, and it is entirely possible that some superficial readers of Rand will find a similar Nietzschean "proto-fascism" at work. Some people will always see parallels between the Aryan Master, the New Communist Man, and the New Intellectual. And, in truth, I, myself, have argued that there was a bit of the "God-builder" in Rand's conception of the "New Intellectual," a vestige of a Russian past that is Nietzschean in origins, and that affected many writers of the Silver Age, including Trotsky. That doesn't make Rand a fascist or proto-fascist, but it does tie her remotely to a certain literary and intellectual tradition that some find unsettling. And I do think that those who read certain aspects of Rand's fiction, in particular, might walk away with a misinterpretation that is an "honest" mistake. Turning away from stylistic considerations, it becomes less and less honest in terms of substance, especially if readers acquaint themselves with Rand's own antifascism; indeed, her whole critique of US political economy is an attack on a form of neofascism. And, I might add, it is a critique that shares some important similarities with the critiques of New Left writers, as I argue in Chapter 12 of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.

However, I don't think we can discount the fact that many left-wing critics see no distinction whatsoever between contemporary capitalism and fascism. And, to a certain extent, I think this can be blamed on the fact that no matter what libertarians and fellow freedom travelers say, left-wingers hear the word "capitalism" and do not care one iota about "unknown ideals." All they see is the "known reality," something I discussed here. And whatever the reality of "fascism" (a concept I examined more comprehensively here), the left-wing critic tends to believe that defenders of "capitalism" are, wittingly or unwittingly, "apologists" for the "known reality." It allows the left-wing critic to paint not just Rand as a "fascist" but to dismiss people like Mises and Hayek as "fascists" as well, despite the fact that Mises fled the Nazis and that Hayek saw fascism and socialism as two peas in a pod.

Now, I'm not saying that there are no dishonest critics on the left; I'm simply saying that in some situations, the left-wing critic is operating with such fundamentally different premises that the view of Rand-as-fascist or even fascist "apologist" becomes a clear implication of the premises.

That's why the battle is, ultimately, a battle over fundamental premises.

One more point I'd like to make about this whole subject. A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that critics of Rand focus on Rand's private life as a way of impugning her public philosophy. I don't like this practice, even though I do think that, to a certain extent, Rand invited the criticism by stating "And I mean it" at the end of Atlas Shrugged, and that orthodox defenders of Rand further invite the criticism by insisting that there is some kind of identity between Rand and Objectivism.

I should add, however, that Rand is not the only public intellectual to be impugned because of her private life (whatever the merits or demerits of that private life). Just today, Scott McLemee has published a piece on the Marxist Louis Althusser, whose private life overshadowed his life as a public intellectual. Take a look at McLemee's article, "Thinking at the Limits."

I believe that ideas can and should be evaluated independently of those who form them; as the author of Russian Radical, I'd be the last person on earth to tell you that it is unimportant to grasp the historical and personal context in which such ideas are formed. But ideas can never be reduced to that context, personal or historical; they have integrity and they must be evaluated on their own terms.

That is the dialogue that has yet to take place in the mainstream press on Rand. Fortunately, scholars are moving forward in this task.