Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jeyamohan on Ayn Rand - 1: A Struggle to Understand

Jeyamohan is very capable of stirring new controversies, but, for reasons unknown, he recently re-published those Ayn Rand blogs and as far as I can say, with no changes or fresh insights. Nearly 5 years back I came across Jeyamohan's blog when he wrote a series on Ayn Rand, my most favorite writer. Not knowing anything of Jeyamohan at that time I wrote an ill constructed and intemperate email pointing out some errors. Using the intemperate parts he deftly, with little effort, brushed aside the valid objections with ridicule. Using the occasion of a new round I'll make amends to what I failed to do in 2009.

Disagreeing with Rand is Jeyamohan's liberty. What is at issue is whether he understands correctly and then disagrees. Jeyamohan's blogs on Rand are littered liberally with misunderstandings, misinterpretations and some slander too. Since I am often charged with negativity I shall, for once, try to first outline what are valid interpretations of Ayn Rand though I disagree with his critique.

Jeyamohan proudly declared that he has read nothing by Ayn Rand except 'Fountainhead'. Ayn Rand was a writer who matured slowly over two decades reaching her intellectual apogee in 'Atlas Shrugged' from the grotesquely Nietzchean and autobiographical 'We the living'. Jeyamohan snidely refers to Ayn Rand as one who 'ran away' from Russia. What Jeyamohan intends as an insult, albeit a fact, Ayn Rand would wear on her sleeve with pride saying 'I chose to be an American'.

Ayn Rand has always been ridiculed by literary establishment of America. No list of great books to read in a lifetime will ever include her books. She did not win any literary prize. American academia always chuckled at students who mentioned her books just as Jeyamohan does. Yet, more than 50 years since she published her books they continue to sell by the tens of thousands every year.

Even those who loved her ideas and books were quick to identify that her characters were like cardboard. Howard Roark, John Galt. Ellsworth Toohey, Peter Keating were all vehicles for her ideas and little else. Jeyamohan is absolutely correct in saying that none of her characters were lifelike. In fact my father used to say that her heroes and heroines will be invested with heroic qualities, even look beautiful, athletic and fiendishly focused on their ambitious goals whereas her villains were ugly looking and with no redeeming quality whatsoever.

Rand, ironically, modeled her characters after famous living personalities. Howard Roark was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (Jeyamohan never got that correct, he claimed Roark was modeled 'probably' after Wittgenstein), Toohey resembled left wing academic Harold Laski, Gail Wynand resembled newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, Robert Stadtler in Atlas Shrugged was drawn from physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Interestingly Rand denied Roark was Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright himself indignantly said 'I deny the paternity and refuse to marry the mother'. Rand took those living beings, bored into what she considered their towering core, as in the case of Wright, or their fatal flaws, as in the case of Laski, and proceeded to invest her characters with nothing else. Though Rand claimed that the fact her books were published were 'proof enough that men like that existed' this unidimensional characterization made it easy for detractors and admirers alike to say "well, such men are unreal and therefore living like them is impossible".

The intellectual climate in which Ayn Rand wrote those books is unfathomable today. Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty denied the horrors of Stalinism. In FDR's America the New Deal was passed with help of racist Democrats and as a price segregation was institutionalized. Woodrow Wilson would watch racist pictures in the White House. Isaac Deutscher was keen in unmasking Stalin while whitewashing Trostsky. Rand sought to strip away the nuances and masks to show the unvarnished core of people.

Jeyamohan adroitly zeroes in on Rand's central theme of absolute rejection of religious or communist idea of negation of the self in favor of absolute realization of the self as the only path to happiness. Rand considered the striving for such a happiness as the only reason for existence.

'Fountainhead' was published in 1943 when Che Guevara was a 15 year old and he would not become  known for another 13 years until the 1956 Cuban revolution. Jeyamohan, in his role as arbiter of literature, suggests that Rand should've considered Che, whom he considers as the paragon of selfless sacrifice, as the ideological antipode if she really aspired to write a book of literary quality. Unbeknownst to him Jeyamohan offers an example in Che who proved that Rand was brilliantly prophetic. Rand's theory that a man willing to sacrifice his 'self' will more than willingly sacrifice others for his ideas was proved by Che's ruthlessness and blood lust in killing those he considered enemies. Che was known to organize summary executions after kangaroo trials in the forests. Che Guevara and Castro liberated Cuba from a murderous regime only to institute their own totalitarian and equally murderous regime enslaving a people for 6 decades.

William F. Buckley Jr, the intellectual godfather of the then nascent religion based conservatism in America, is joined at the hip with Jeyamohan in his fear of a doctrine of individualism that preached happiness as realizing one's self and nothing beyond. Buckley and Jeyamohan are aghast that a man should be happy in himself to the negation of others. To both individualism not circumscribed by, what they considered, as a superior purpose in life, a higher calling from beyond, is recipe for sowing the seeds of a tyrannical mindset.

Very tellingly Jeyamohan says that man who rises above boundaries of nationalism and other defining 'isms' should do so only as part of an aspiration of mystical renunciation from worldly bindings. Buckley ripped into John Lennon's utopian song 'Imagine', which waxes eloquent about an utopian society in which 'there's no country, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too', for what he saw as naive nihilism.

I, for one, side with Ayn Rand but it is not my purpose to convince others of such an idea in this blog. Suffice it to say in Rand's view and her portrayal a man who values his 'self' will never seek to undermine the 'self' of another.

One of the main debates,indeed the most important, of the 2008 Presidential election in US was about how much credit does an individual deserve in his achievements and how much credit can a society take in providing the environment that made success possible. Jeyamohan bristles at credit being given, wholesale, to Roark for his revolutionary ideas on architecture. Roark, Jeyamohan contends, arrives at his new ideas, like Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants and if that is the case can Roark claim anything special for himself on account of his ideas?

It is classic Marxist objection to deny any 'special' role for an individual. Nobody is inevitable. Sure, Newton and Einstein 'stood on the shoulders of giants' and owed their predecessors much for their earth changing theories. In fact in science it is rare to see the individual researcher instead we see corporatized research in teams. Rand would point out in Fountainhead that even in a committee each must bring to the table their own mind and without it there would be nothing to arrive at a consensus for or against. The primacy of an individual thinking on his own is inviolate. 'Cogito ergo sum'.

It is possible that another Newton or Einstein might have indeed come up with those theories and humanity may still have progressed. But, to deny their achievements, to deny an individual his/her place in history is a slippery slope that inexorably slides towards a society of animals.

If George  Washington had been Napoleon would America have happened? If Nehru had been Stalin would India be what it is today (India in 1947 had every reason to become like 1930s USSR)? How does a tongue tied unsuccessful lawyer find his voice as a destiny maker in a South African train platform?

To be sure many other countries would've their own Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Rockefeller but it is in America that they became titans and changed the course of human history. A French analyst once said that a Steve Jobs will never happen in France for only in America is such a story possible. By the same token, thousands others went to the same schools and colleges as Jobs and Gates and yet they were all unexceptional. These are tough questions to resolve.

For a woman who wrote about the sanctity of the individual Ayn Rand encouraged and luxuriated in a notorious group of admirers who called themselves, alas, 'the collective'. Jeyamohan is right in pointing out towards the end of her life Ayn Rand had withdrawn into a cocoon of uncritical and adulatory readers who lost their sense of individualism. Rand was so tyrannical that whoever she considered irrational, for instance Brahms, should be shunned by everyone in the collective. Anyone who dared to enjoy Brahms would invite scorn and even a stern lecture. Rand was Stalin to her collective. Interestingly I've seen Jeyamohan's own fan club shows similar blind worship. I even received a racist tweet from one of his popular defenders. Later, ashamed of it, the reader deleted it.

As Jeyamohan says Ayn Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden was disastrous and in fact undercuts her preaching of 'rationality'. Unlike what he says, though, the affair was not done in secret. Ayn Rand called her husband and Branden's wife to a meeting and corralled everyone into agreeing to it. In fact its the openness and the rationalization that makes it even more grotesque than if it had been a secret. I am always loathe to dismiss ideas solely because their proponents themselves might live a life that contradicts it or falls short. An idea must be defeated on its own demerits.

Ayn Rand did not die in a disillusioned manner or any such thing. In fact Rand bounced back from the disastrous affair and continued to address universities and sold out shows. Tens of millions watched her debate on TV. On the contrary it is Gandhi who died disillusioned. Asked what can Jews do against an enemy like Hitler Gandhi suggested 'mass suicide'. Gandhi counseled the British to give up their island to Hitler. Thankfully Churchill did not listen to Gandhi. What is worse, independent India unified the country with military help when the British sought to Balkanize the country.

Other than the few observations above Jeyamohan completely misstates and misunderstands Ayn Rand. He devoted an entire blog to show that Rand's choice of architecture as the profession of the hero was to signify her hero's inflexible dogmatic attitude. He then drew tenuous connection to Hitler's love of architecture in an attempt to discredit Rand's hero as a subliminal Hitler. Rand's heroic characters in 'Atlas Shrugged' dealt with molten metals and locomotives. In Rand's 'Fountainhead' unlike CN tower or Raja Raja Chola's belittling gargantuan temple the skyscrapers have a purpose. Roark's buildings are for people to live and function. I've been on top of CN tower and have wondered at the absolute worthlessness of such a building. I'd never say that of Empire State Building or World Trade Center. In fact Rand would've frowned on the new World Trade Center architects arguing for the title of the tallest building based on height that includes the lighting conductor atop the building. Rand would've argued that a building which climbs to 1776 feet just for arrogance is a sham. It is here that Jeyamohan failed to understand the central theme of 'Fountainhead' architect. And thats only one of many other failures as we shall see in coming blogs.

1.விதிசமைப்பவர்கள் http://www.jeyamohan.in/?p=14305 (has links to other Ayn Rand blogs by Jemo)
2. My email to Jeyamohan in 2009 http://www.jeyamohan.in/?p=3464
3. Che Guevara http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara
4. John Lennon's 'Imagine' http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnlennon/imagine.html


Raja M said...

Thanks to your article, I read in entirety what Jeyamohan had to say about Ayn Rand in depth. After reading JMs 4 part article about Rand, I came back to read your rebuttal, and it is puzzling to say the least. OK. Where should I start?

You agree with JM that Rand’s initial writings were Nietzchean (para 3), are not respected by the literary establishment in the US (para 4), and her characters lack depth and sophistication (as in‘cardboard like’, paras 5 and 6). Your feeble excuse for such characterization is this: "... given the hostile intellectual climate Ayn Rand, … sought to to strip away the nuances and masks to show the unvarnished core of people ( para 7)”. That’s it? By your vast reading of Rand, could you point out any other writing of Ayn rand with soaring, inspiring language or high literary quality? Without that sort of convincing evidence, her writing style is prosaic, and utilitarian – exactly the point that JM makes. Of course, tastes differ. What is soaring literature for one, might be dull, sermons on the mound for another.

With respect to Che (para 9), I am stunned at your interpretation of what JM has said. You write that JM says, “… Rand should have considered Che’ … as the idealogical antipode…”, and you snidely write that Che was only 15 years old at the time. No. That is not what JM said (read Part 3, of JM article). JM invokes Che` in the context of why characters such as Roark attract young, immature minds, based on their own exaggerated sense of self-exceptionalism. He gives Che` as an example of a “idealistic image” among left-leaning youth, just as Roark is for right-leaning youth.

In paras 10-11, you accuse him of a proponent of mystical renunciation: “Very tellingly Jeyamohan says that man … should do so only as part of an aspiration of mystical renunciation from worldly bindings”. In the beginning of para 13, you accuse him of a Marxist: “It is classic Marxist objection to deny any 'special' role for an individual.” Well, let us leave that he is a mystical proponent who raises Marxist objections.

Leaving fun aside, the central critique of JM about Ayn Rand’s principal character is this. He states that, Roark’s quest for transcendental individuality is circumscribed by the futility and limitations of human life in terms of time and space. Roark, as an architect, stands on the shoulders of the giants who preceded him. He may very well be the most recent link of that long chain, but nonetheless a link. Whatever that he ‘creates’ as new, in due course of time, will become just another school of thought, and fade into oblivion. It is not to say that it is not important, but simply that Ayn Rand’s characters do not rise above her simplistic ‘card board’ portrayal.

Your own words point out that style of Rand’s writing is flat and unidimensional (paras 1-7). By JM standards of literature, the content of her writing (individual/objectivism) as portrayed by her characters never answers the larger questions that individualism raises.

It is indeed a struggle to understand :-)

Prakash said...

I know that there is a big group of people around the world who think the world of Ayn Rand without looking at her in detail.

1. She said that homosexuality is disgusting.
2. She said that Native Americans, having failed for millennia to create a heroically productive capitalist society, deserved to be stripped of their land.
3. She claimed that women are ideally “hero worshippers” who should submit themselves, body and soul, to great men.
4. She said that Arabs were savages.
5. She said her address to West Point in 1974, "Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent."

People in US and India are naive in looking at the positives in people without looking at the negatives. This is true with the left and the right wingers.