January 11, 2010

Whittaker Chambers on Rand

An old National Review article that susses out why we have no business ever taking Atlas Shrugged seriously. To put it simply, Randian philosophy is incapable of being any more than pseudo-intellectualism grounded in unfounded egotism:

Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.


Thanks to the unnamed friend who found this book review, I am also able to reprint William F. Buckley’s obit on Rand (not currently available online, to my knowledge) which references an interesting tidbit of gossip regarding the above piece:

Ayn Rand, RIP
New York, March 10, 1982

Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn. The great public crisis in Ayn Rand’s career came, in my judgment, when Whittaker Chambers took her on—in December of 1957, when her book Atlas Shrugged best-seller list, lecturers were beginning to teach something called Randism, and students started using such terms as “mysticism of the mind” (religion), and “mysticism of the muscle” (statism). Whittaker Chambers, whose authority with American conservatives was as high as that of any man then living, wrote in NATIONAL REVIEW, after a lengthy analysis of the essential aridity of Miss Rand’s philosophy, “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

I had met Miss Rand three years before that review was published. Her very first words to me (I do not exaggerate) were: “You ahrr too intelligent to believe in Gott.” The critic Wilfrid Sheed once remarked, when I told him the story, “Well, that certainly is an icebreaker.” It was; and we conversed, and did so for two or three years. I used to send her postcards in liturgical Latin: but levity with Miss Rand was not an effective weapon. And when I published Whittaker Chambers’ review, her resentment was so comprehensive that she regularly inquired of all hosts or toastmasters whether she was being invited to a function at which I was also scheduled to appear, because if that was the case, either she would not come; or, if so, only after I had left; or before I arrived. I fear that I put the lady through a great deal of choreographical pain.

Miss Rand’s most memorable personal claim (if you don’t count the one about her being the next greatest philosopher after Aristotle) was that since formulating her philosophy of “objectivism,” she had never experienced any emotion for which she could not fully account. And then one day, a dozen years ago, she was at a small dinner, the host of which was Henry Hazlitt, the libertarian economist, the other guest being Ludwig von Mises, the grand master of the Austrian school of anti-statist economics. Miss Rand was going on about something or other, at which point Mises told her to be quiet, that she was being very foolish. The lady who could account for all her emotions at that point burst out into tears, and complained: “You are treating me like a poor ignorant little Jewish girl!” Mr. Hazlitt, attempting to bring serenity to his table, leaned over and said, “There there, Ayn, that isn’t at all what Ludwig was suggesting.” But this attempt at conciliation was ruined when Mises jumped up and said: “That iss eggsactly what you ahrr!” Since both participants were Jewish, this was not a racist slur. This story was mortal to her reputation as the lady of total self-control.

THERE WERE other unpleasantnesses of professional interest, such as her alienation from her principal apostle, Nathaniel Branden—who was so ungallant as to suggest, in retaliation against her charge that he was trying to swindle her, that the breakup was the result of his rejection of an, er, amatory advance by Miss Rand. Oh goodness, it got ugly.

There were a few who, like Chambers, caught on early. Atlas Shrugged was published back before the law of the Obligatory Sex Scene was passed by both Houses of Congress and all fifty state legislatures, so that the volume was considered rather risque, in its day. Russell Kirk, challenged to account for Miss Rand’s success if indeed she was merely an exiguous philosophic figure, replied, “Oh, they read her books for the fornicating bits.” Unkind. And only partly true.

The Fountainhead, read in a certain way, is a profound assertion of the integrity of art. What did Miss Rand in was her anxiety to theologize her beliefs. She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that—but no, she had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble. She risked, in fact, giving to capitalism that bad name that its enemies have done so well in giving it; and that is a pity. Miss Rand was a talented woman, devoted to her ideals. She came as a refugee from Communism to this country as a young woman, and carved out a substantial career. May she rest in peace, and may she experience the demystification of her mind possessed.

comments

  1. Josh on January 11th, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I feel that you can sense an innate bitterness in Rand and her work. The anecdote in Buckley’s obit sort of incriminates her, but you don’t need it to make the inference. I suppose this makes it all the more ironic when I hear politicians or rally speakers touting copies of Atlas Shrugged as a guiding philosophy. It’s like someone soberly explaining the benefits to dying alone.

  2. Brianna on January 11th, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    For a philosophy that supposedly died stillborn, Atlas Shrugged sold an awful lot of copies this year.

  3. Andrew Simone on January 11th, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    That’s what kills me about this. I am not a fellow who thinks he has it all sorted out or demands that people think like I do. I just demand that folks don’t think like her.

  4. Mark on January 12th, 2010 at 5:45 am

    I just demand that folks don’t think like her.

    I think convincing them would be a better option. And you’ll need something better than the National Review garbage. There’s no argument there.

  5. Daryl Scroggins on January 12th, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I love Buckley’s phrase “choreographical pain.” And Brianna: Yes; and a sad thought it is. It should serve as a reminder that buying a book and buying a philosophy are (or should be) two different things.

  6. Roderick T. Long on January 12th, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I don’t know why both Rand’s supporters and Rand’s critics so often seem to think that her ideas have to be either accepted as a whole or rejected as a whole. Why not see her as someone with many valuable ideas and many flawed ones, the way we see other thinkers? Nobody takes this all-or-nothing attitude toward other philosophers, living or dead.

    Someone who managed to anticipate many of the chief philosophical developments of the last half-century (such as causal theories of reference, causal theories of properties, and the rapprochement between Aristotelean eudaimonism and classical liberalism) can hardly be worthless as a thinker; on the other hand, someone who was so frequently undisciplined in her reasoning can hardly be the greatest philosopher of all time.

  7. Andrew Simone on January 12th, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I suspect it is because her arrogance and hubris didn’t match her intellect. That discongruity is the opposite of the philosophic and a person who is not wise is not a worthwhile thinker.

    Such is my reasoning anyway.

  8. Daryl Scroggins on January 12th, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Good point, Andrew. The notion that one may engage in a “pure” assessment of ideas, or fall into an either/or totalizing perspective, demonstrates the lack of a middle view that Rand also lacked. The perception of ideas is always conditioned (in my view) because of the way ideas are valued as opposed to simply being acknowledged.

    On the other hand, I’m always peeved by pigeonholers. I see many young people who, in the first burst of intellectual freedom that results from a new acquaintance with the power of argument, set out to quickly dispatch all the “old guys.” Most of this intellectual activity is an act of making an in-or-out list, in which a memorized derisive phrase suddenly spares one the work of actually considering the thoughts of those dismissed. Ayn Rand, though, doesn’t do herself any favors when it comes to preventing this quick view: she succeeds instantly with those who would be horrifed to hear that she was an athiest and a self-avowed intellectual, and she instantlty alienates those she most longed to impress.

  9. Kai Bugge on January 12th, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    It should be noted that National Review’s hostility towards Ayn Rand did not abate over the years: at the recent 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged they reprinted Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged. So much for the compatibility of conservatives and Objectivists. Republicans hated her (and still hate) for her atheism and the liberals for her political individualism.

    It is fitting that National review used and continue to use a former Stalin soviet spy – that withheld evidence against Hiss from prosecutors for a decade and was caught perjuring himself under oath countless times – as a witness against Ayn Rand’s alleged hatred of humanity. For God’s sake, do you not see the irony of pushing that Atlas Shrugged screamed ““To a gas chamber — go!” all the time this liar had worked as a spy for the mass murdering machinery of Soviet Russia until at least 1938 (when he turned his coat because he had good reason to suspect he was next in line for one of Stalin’s purges).

  10. Andrew Simone on January 13th, 2010 at 1:37 pm
  11. Andrew Simone on January 13th, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Incidentally, I believe Chambers recanted his Communist ideology later on in life and to demand intellectually consistency throughout one’s lifetime is ridiculous. You could call it irony to reference the gas chamber, but it might also be spoken from a man who later in life understood all to well and personally what those words meant.

    You are welcome, Kai, to dismiss a man who seemed so deeply struggle with antithetical ideas because intellectual inconsistency and irony (I do understand the logic behind it), but it is for that very reason–the very irony ITSELF–that I respect Chambers.

  12. Richard Charles on January 14th, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    “She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that—but no, she had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble.”

    What, she was supposed to hold reason as an absolute and NOT hold it as an absolute?

    “self-interest is good and noble.”

    To be exact, she said man was not a sacrificial animal. The jig was up on religion being a legitimate source of morality. F Buckly knew it, but still had to whine about it! What a loser doing it in her obit.

    Also, he had no room to make fun of how Ayn spoke. He was an absolute horrible speaker and was always making weirdo eyes while he spoke!!
    What crack pot WFB was. That he is an idol of the intellectual mystics on the right shows how lame their ideas are.

    WFB had Bad Karma!!

  13. Varado on February 13th, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    One of the funniest reviews ever, and loved the comments from the anthropoids!