Kate Sinha, June 2019.
This text was commissioned by De Balie for the event ‘Grote denkers: Ayn Rand’, to reflect on Ayn Rand’s ideas about art.
This is a Chat-GPT 4.0 translation from original Dutch version
Upon reading Ayn Rand’s texts, be it fiction or theory, I feel so insulted by the specific combination of false assumptions, logical fallacies, and overwhelming lack of self-awareness that the thought of having to wade through her considerable, incoherent muck to deliver a coherent critique of it is enough to send me into an indignant spasm, desiring to be sufficient proof of the sincerity, and therefore also the correctness of my judgement.
I suspect that won’t cut it, and if I want your agreement (which I do), I should at least motivate my judgement with a well-formed argument. Thus, I return to the task of untangling Rand’s misconceptions, with the tenacity of a prosecutor determined to ensure the defendant is found guilty quickly and justly.
Once I dive in, I rather enjoy it. I love putting people before their own jury; I love setting up an idea so it stares straight into the eyes of its own impossibility, the moment when a perfect, dazzling circle emerges; the annihilation of the idea in the mind of the great thinker. It doesn’t matter that Rand isn’t around to experience it, for even when she was, she was incapable of receiving an intellectual defeat. She refused to accept the refutation of her assumptions; she clung to her flawed objectivism, that endless paean to reason that never produced anything reasonable, all her life. She summed it up as follows:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” – The last sentence is important: reason as the only absolute.
Ayn Rand’s great flaw was that she did not recognize the relationship between irrationality and rationality: the reverence of reason has always been an irrational affair, and it works as follows: reason is oriented towards the ideals of equality, autonomy, freedom, progress, and happiness, and these ideals cannot be challenged without putting the primacy of reason itself at stake; without this orientation, it loses direction, meaning. As such, these ideals shape the irrational (because unprovable) moral imperative that underlies the concept of “reason”: the idea that one applies reason because it is right… and in Kant’s case: the idea that reason is right because one applies it. The finest moment in Western philosophy, then, is when the Enlightenment, faced with this integrity problem, allowed itself to be devoured by Friedrich Nietzsche.
He writes about this: “The instinct that is equally present in the noblest and lowest men, the instinct to preserve the species, erupts from time to time as reason, as a passion of the spirit, it then has a splendid host of reasons around it and, at all costs, wants to make us forget that strictly speaking, it is nothing else than instinct, drive, folly, meaninglessness. You must and will love life, because! Man must and will help himself and his neighbor, because!“
Nietzsche was not the only one, nor even the first to identify this problem – but – he is the only one who fully grasped the nature and potential of the problem. His rejection of “the religion of pity” was such a profound, deep insult to the moral institution that he immediately hooked that massive, fat, indignant fish; The Gay Science is one big celebration of hauling in and serving up. For both Nietzsche and the reader, the pleasure in the attack, and the abundance of the spoils is part of knowing the philosophical problem, and therein reflects again the limitation of reason, which does not know how to handle bloodthirst, or unreasonableness, and believes it can and even must conjure this in the name of truth… –
As may be becoming clear, Nietzsche has had a colossal influence on the creators of Kirac; his philosophy is fundamental to the way we create and judge art. He shows us how taste judgment, morality, and integrity relate to each other. When someone definitively states: “yes, but this is simply a false note,” or “how unreasonable!”, or “I like the message, but the tone…!”, then you know you are dealing with deeply rooted cultural prejudices, and it is worth ripping these from their safe context, as it results in a beautiful world of astonishment and indignation. That is not to say that every artist should work this way: the only universal criterion for a good work of art is the extent to which it succeeds in dictating its own evaluation criteria. The artwork then doesn’t say: I am good, because I was made by a woman. I am good because I am pious, original, cubist, critical… I am good because I am myself, daring, neurotic, a slow film, engaged, non-engaged…No. It says: I am good because you want to know what I am, and don’t worry, because I decide what is beautiful and what is ugly, and when you tolerate me, that has – albeit perhaps modest – consequences for the way you see things from now on.
How does such a work of art come about? Ayn Rand tries to answer this question. The Romantic Manifesto is a sincere attempt to understand and describe art as a phenomenon, which fails because every insightful or off-the-mark observation stems from, or leads to her personal addiction to a monstrous ideal of the artist, which she most unambiguously expressed in the form of Howard Roark, the architect with the straight back and humorless expression, who you just saw in the video speaking about the purposefulness with which he is heading towards his artwork, driven as he is to show what is important to him.
But creating art is a psychosis, whether you’re writing or painting, editing a film, it’s a psychosis because, perhaps by performing certain ritual actions, you numb your mind to such an extent that it begins to focus on a first impulse that has nothing to it yet, like for example “a dialogue with Ayn Rand, because De Balie asks for it,” and while you descend into that concentration, the mind doesn’t yet know what a dialogue with Ayn Rand is, or what it demands from it – because that’s what it hopefully is going to create, so for now it’s like two mirrors facing each other with just air in between – the only thing the mind can do to break the eternal nothingness is to make a grab at good luck, and maybe then everything will be alright: reacting to coincidence and experience, the mind bluffs its way forward, it discovers something, is disappointed, or proud – and with every find, it gets more desire, it tastes victory, until the concentration is broken and you suddenly look at your own psychosis with sober eyes.
That’s why a successful work of art is never the result of the thought “this is important for me to project and for others to see”, it starts just as well with lofty, as with banal reasons – you’re bored, De Balie calls – but once in that psychosis everything is up in the air; values are reassigned a new specific weight along the way, and nothing is important – there is only the relation between the various motives. It happens that against better judgment you think: “I’m going to express this, because it’s important, it’s a good insight”, but during the process it invariably turns out that what you held so dear, is exactly what makes the artwork now boring and shit, because everything is bolted to that petty insight and no unexpected movement or discovery is possible anymore. I value these unexpected moments, I now know they are the moments when I cause something I can look at, it grows, it becomes bigger than I could have thought, and I grow with the artwork, suddenly there’s a whole new world of possibilities and prospects.
It’s not that Ayn Rand didn’t know these feelings at all. Her debut gives a touching picture of a young Ayn Rand who looks at the harsh reality of the young Communist state with brave openness. We the Living ends with the death of this Ayn Rand-like main character, who is shot at the border during her attempt to flee Russia. As she bleeds to death in the snow she calls the name of her lover, the beautiful Leo who has been transformed by the hardships and brutalities of the Soviet regime into a false, nihilistic alcoholic, and who has left her to play gigolo for a rich woman.
“Leo!… She repeated. She called for him, the Leo he could have been, and certainly would have been if he had lived there where she was going, across the border.”
It begins to dawn that this Leo is a kind of blueprint for the heroes in her future books, stripped of everything that makes him complex, everything that makes him weak and unhappy, in short everything that makes him Russian: Howard Roarke is Ayn Rand’s attempt to make Leo a kind of American Golden Boy, resulting in a monstrosity, a giant with narrow shoulders, a greasy conglomeration of Nietzsche’s übermensch with Kant’s categorical imperative; a Frankenstein’s Creature who can barely turn, so stiff he stands from the inflated expectations: Howard Roarke is chosen to succeed.
Looking back, Leo’s failure turns out to be the last surprise Ayn Rand allowed herself. After We the Living, her Russian trauma fully manifests itself in her work, which seems designed to exclude any potential surprise. In The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you can taste it in the metallic euphoria with which she, as it were, marches on, climbing up the slope of pure reason without slowing her pace, her eyes fixed on the approaching horizon, on the delightful, promised redemption… This path leads to the abyss, and Rand can only keep going straight: the heroes of Atlas Shrugged ultimately set the world on fire so they can redesign it according to pure capitalist principles. As much as she despised the Communism of her homeland, the idea of the all-transcending utopia has never left her: all her novels end with the promise of transcendence and rebirth after the crushing fall.
It reminds us that socialism was first and foremost a romantic movement, and it is precisely this romantic disposition with which Ayn Rand embraced American capitalism: how else does one explain the lack of irony with which the character John Galt draws a dollar sign in the air at the end of Atlas Shrugged, just as a good communist raises his fist? With this mythology, Ayn Rand gave capitalism a depth and heroic justification that the simple capitalist himself would never have dared to dream of. In that guise, she sold Capitalism back to her American readers, who in return only needed to offer their altruism: a small price to pay for such a large gain, or in other words, a good deal.