Feb 112010

NoodleFood reader Paul Marshall posted the following essay in the comments a few days ago. When I read it, I thought it far to good for a mere blog comment. So with his permission, I’m posting it here. Of course, it’s also far too good for a mere NoodleFood post, but that’s the best I can offer. Without further ado…

A Critical Account of Anthony Daniels
By Paul Marshall

I was taken aback by Anthony Daniels’s superficial analysis of Ayn Rand in his article “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls,” which appeared in the February edition of The New Criterion. And this is coming from someone who is enamored of Daniels’s excellent writing in Life at the Bottom, where he illustrates his critique of modern British society with superbly wrought first-hand observations.

I am not, however, shocked. In contrast to his encyclopedic dissection of the culture of the British slums, Daniels has long taken a nonintellectual approach to cultural criticism, eschewing the daunting task of identifying the ideas that move the culture–a daunting task Rand excelled at like no one else.

Take his article, “Trash, Violence and Versace: But Is It Art?“, which attacks the infamous “Sensation” show at the Royal Academy–a piece in which he never bothers to address the philosophic morass that led to that deplorable exhibition.

To write an article that illuminated the nihilism of the Young British Artists, one would need to do a lot more intellectual legwork. To get to the marrow, one would need to address the arc of art history, which has led us from the brilliance of the Renaissance and the technical mastery of the French Academy in the 19th century to the dismal state that we are in today. Moreover, one would need to analyze the people who conditioned “taste” makers like Charles Saatchi–the art critics of the contemporary scene, from Clement Greenberg to Arthur Danto. Most importantly, one would then need to identify the philosophic ideas that conditioned these conditioners–that is, look at the ideas that shape society. People do not just make and admire sculptures like Dinos and Jake Chapman’s deformed, sexualized children without philosophic conditioning.

Daniels, however, demurs from looking too deeply into the matter. But while he steers clear of the ideas in the cultural milieu that caused “Sensation,” he does so with grace and eloquence par excellence. He movingly describes the cruelty of artist Marcus Harvey subjecting the mother of one of Myra Hindley’s child victims to a portrait of the murderer made with the handprints of a small child. He quotes the vapid justifications of the Royal Academy’s chief of exhibitions. And he ends by delightfully turning a quip by Joshua Reynolds–about the desire of youth to find a shorter path to excellence than hard work–into an indictment of a culture that does this through the nihilism of “Sensation.” All of these points are excellent, but they do not explain the phenomenon of “Sensation.”

Daniels is quick to place the blame for society’s ills not on ideas that people choose to live by, but on something akin to an innate bestial drive in human nature. In his article, “Nick Berg’s Executioners All Too Clearly Enjoyed Beheading Him,” he writes: “My vision of man has darkened … since I began to investigate the lives of ordinary British people … I have come to the conclusion that the default setting of man is to evil and that, if not all, then many or perhaps most men will commit evil if they can get away with it … Both self-examination and my experience of others tells me that evil lurks within all of us, waiting for its opportunity to spring. Civilisation may be a veneer, but it is the veneer that separates us from barbarism. Never forget Original Sin and its consequences.” He tends to leave his explanations there.

What he omits to note here, however, is that Nick Berg’s murderers were motivated by their wicked ideology. While they may have “all too clearly enjoyed beheading him”–the thought of which makes me want to vomit in rage–they were also all too clearly willing to sacrifice everything for their faith in Allah, which our Air Force pilots valiantly delivered to them with their laser-guided bombs. Radical Islam is a theology that creates sadists, not one that simply acts as a cover for them.

When Daniels tries to make sense of “Sensation,” all he can do is chalk it up to “intellectual snobbery” in a democratic age, in which the intellectual tries to prove “the freedom of his spirit by the amorality of his conceptions. Not surprisingly, in this atmosphere artists feel obliged to dwell only upon the visually revolting: for how else in a world of violence, injustice and squalor, does one prove one’s bona fides than by dwelling on the violent, the unjust, and the squalid.” To Daniels, the modern artist tries to impress by imitating the brutish squalor of the slums (where, he believes, man’s default setting of evil is allowed to go unobstructed).

Daniels, however, does not attempt to identify or explain why the current fad of intellectual snobbery is an obsession with nihilism, and a belief that one’s class, culture, race or gender inevitably distorts one’s worldview. These philosophic ideas do not originate on the street but in the ivory towers of Oxford and Cambridge. Artists have seized these ideas and run with them, creating malevolent works of art, and turning their field into a proxy war where they break taboos to further the cause of their culture, race or gender. Or, as the throngs who flocked to “Sensation” experienced it, Ron Mueck sculpts his “Dead Dad” and Tracey Emin appliques the names for “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995)” on the inside of a tent.

To understand “Sensation” requires an analysis of how these philosophic ideas became injected into Western culture. Artists didn’t make such art five hundred years ago, because these are not the ideas that dominated the culture during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when man’s life on Earth was viewed with the benevolent wonder of the Ancient Greeks and reason was venerated as an efficacious instrument. Compare the art of our era and theirs, and note what philosophy can make or destroy.

Daniels’s cultural critiques have not improved over the decade. In “The Architect as Totalitarian,” he takes on the loathsome architect Le Corbusier. Noting the architect’s elitist and cryptic writing style, Daniels finally zeros in on what he believes is his major fault: Le Corbusier’s “totalitarian mindset.” To defend this claim, Daniels produces a number of quotes from the architect, where Le Corbusier intones the imperative “we must …” in a ridiculous but alarming manner. But the closest Daniels gets to making his case is quoting the “program of the International Congress for Modern Architecture, of which Le Corbusier was the moving spirit, [which] states: ‘Reforms are extended simultaneously to all cities, to all rural areas, across the seas.’ No exceptions. ‘Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Port Said, Rio or Buenos Aires.’”

Daniels never examines what ideas the “totalitarian mindset” consists of, or what philosophy underlies it. In fact, apart from vague notions of “inhumanity” and “authoritarianism,” I don’t believe that Daniels knows what a “totalitarian mindset” is, which is why he can be so flippant with the label.

The program dictated by the International Congress for Modern Architecture, as quoted by Daniels, would imply a totalitarian mindset, a desire to override the property rights of citizens and forcing Le Corbusier’s whims on them. But, in his article on Rand, Daniels actually seems sympathetic to this mindset when he writes: “I own my house and the land on which it stands outright, but this (in my opinion) does not give me the right, even if the law granted it, to knock my house down and build a brutalist construction of reinforced concrete in its place, however much it might be in my individual financial interest to do so. A single such construction would ruin the whole once and for all; where architecture is concerned, the public or collective interest really does exist.”

Of course, Daniels is sure that he is right and Le Corbusier was wrong, so it is just fine that his impeccable aesthetic judgment should dictate how others live. This is first step down the road to totalitarianism.

Daniels needs to ask himself: Could a “totalitarian mindset” have anything to do with the aim of shaping minds in the tradition of Marxist dialectical materialism? What philosophic assumptions gave rise to Marx? Was it Hegel’s ideas? Was it Kant’s Copernican Revolution? What lies at the base of the politics of totalitarianism? The abrogation of individual rights? Collectivism? Is modernist architecture also a nihilistic attack on the bourgeoisie and their beaux-arts standards? What gives rise to nihilism?

Mr. Daniels does not ask such questions nor offer answers. He does not write about ideas.

Such articles are the equivalent of junk food: high in calories, low in nutrition.

But they are works of intellectual rigor compared with Daniels’s “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls,” a critical account of a subject he seems to know next to nothing about.

Daniels does appear to have read The Fountainhead (alas, apart from skimming The Virtue of Selfishness that seems to be the extent of his reading from Rand), but he is unable to name its theme: individualism as intellectual independence–specifically, the first-handed thinker against the second-handed thinker. In the book, Rand portrays people who are the embodiment of these ideas. Take the main character, Howard Roark, who defies the conventions of Beaux-Arts historical forms (a style of architecture I often find delightful), because he is an originator of ideas. Here, Rand does not mean an original in the cliched sense of one who merely flaunts convention. Rather, Roark fashions his creations from whole cloth relying on his first-hand observations of the building’s setting and its requirements. In other words, he is not a classicist; he does not take the architectural forms of others and recycle them (forms which are often at odds with the function of a modern building). This separates Roark from second-handers like Peter Keating who copy styles from Beaux-Arts to modernism–the latter of which she trenchantly critiques as well. Rand repeats the theme–self-guided, rational thought over intellectual parasitism and conformity–in various permutations and with a variety of characters throughout the novel.

What is clear in his analysis of The Fountainhead is that Mr. Daniels can’t get past his hang-up on the details of architecture to evaluate the ideas at its core. I too prefer the Queen Anne style to Le Corbusier, but this did not blind me to the intellectual theme of the book.

(And an aside, Howard Roark was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright not Le Corbusier–and both used reinforced concrete, but to entirely different effects.)

More fundamentally, Rand’s advocacy of rational certainty seems to irk Daniels. He appears to mistake a certainty born of the Enlightenment (Newton’s scientific certainty, not Robespierre’s authoritarianism) for dogmatism, writing that she “hardened her ideas into ideology.” “In Loose Ends in Liverpool,” he writes of his own “preoccupation–anti-ideology” and his “great surprise and pleasure” when the curators at the Walker Art Galley “appeared to make no point at all” in what could have been an ideologically polarizing exhibit. Elsewhere, he attacks Le Corbusier because he “believed there was a ‘correct’ way to build and that only he knew what it was.” And in “Trash, Violence and Versace: But Is It Art?“, he writes of a crudity that results from an “ideologically inspired (and therefore insincere) admiration for all that is demotic.”

Rand’s certainty was based on evidence and logic. If Daniel’s had read her works or listened to her lectures, he would have observed that she made her case by laying out the evidence that led her to draw the abstract conclusions that became her philosophy. But why bother thoroughly investigating someone you are going to critique when you believe that ideology as such is just window dressing for dark, bestial impulses?

Daniels has the bad habit of trying to throw around his erudition in the free and easy manner of one who is itching to use it, but just can’t quite find the right place to make it work. It is absurd for him to dub Rand as the “Chernyshevsky of individualism” without pointing out even the most cursory ideological similarity between her and the Russian tradition of “angry literary and social critics, pamphleteers and ideologues.” Daniels does so based solely on what he takes to be her “vehemence, moral fanaticism and mediocrity as a thinker,” and on his evaluation that she “was neither fully a philosopher, nor fully a novelist, but something in between the two” and her “speechifying.” And yes, I have quoted the whole of Daniels’s case. I suppose then that Newton is the “Stalin of science” for his heavy-handed political maneuvering at the Royal Society. You see the absurdity of not thinking in essentials? (One has the sense that Daniels’s editors at The New Criterion are his fan-boys and they are not doing him any favors with their uncritical pens.)

What Daniels takes to be the tone of Rand’s writing, that it “bores you like a drill,” the fact that she held that her ideas were unprecedented (they were), her striking a dedication from Atlas Shrugged, and her “admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction” is enough evidence for him to repeatedly link her to Stalin–even though philosophically, were he diligent enough to investigate the matter, he would find them to be diametrically opposed: reason vs. dialectical materialism, individualism vs. collectivism, individual rights vs. class warfare. Again, this is the whole of his case. And again Daniels does not write about ideas, but superficial non-similarities–Stalin also spoke Russian and had a respiratory system, don’t you know. Such a baseless comparison is chillingly unjust and it is reprehensible given that Daniels must know that Rand’s parents died in the prison that was Stalin’s Russia.

Such “downright cruelty,” to use the doctor’s own words, along with his bizarre psychologizing of Rand (based on a single distorted biographical detail and a misreading of a once mentioned character in The Fountainhead) is emblematic of a nasty streak in Daniels’s writing, one illustrated in his reflections on the Walker Art Gallery, “Loose Ends in Liverpool,” where he gratuitously pokes the corpse of the earnest but mediocre artist Benjamin Haydon, who took his own life in a fit of despair.

Daniels passes over some of the finest art in the world (the Walker collection includes J.W. Waterhouse’s “Echo and Narcissus,” Paul Delaroche’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” and Hamo Thornycroft’s “The Mower”) to mock Haydon whom he coldly dubs a “tragicomic character.” Here Daniels displays a shocking lack of regard for the extremely sad, but all too common phenomenon of earnest over-reachers. A soul who earnestly struggles to be good, but lacks the ability to do so is tragic. To exhume Haydon as an object of ridicule when it has nothing to do with the theme of one’s piece–other than to pretentiously display your grasp of a minor player in the history of art–is shameful, even if the person is long dead. (And this from the same man who writes so tenderly and beautifully about those sensitive souls who have to live amongst the brutes in the British slums.)

If I were to tear a page from Daniels’s playbook, I would wonder whether such callousness showed a psychopath lurking beneath his eloquent prose (and I get the inkling that he may even agree). But that would be just as unfounded and supercilious as when he implies the same about Rand.

Such superficial and baseless evaluations are the closest Daniels gets to Rand’s ideas. He spends the rest of the article attacking a straw man. He declares that Rand divides “mankind into two categories,” that she rejects compassion, that her philosophy “would seem to justify the reign of philosopher-kings,” that she “suggest that people are to be judged mainly by reference to their brain power,” that she holds that the marketplace is the proper judge of value, that “she never expresses any sympathy or understanding for the weak or ill” and treats it as a “sign of their moral and human worthlessness,” that “Romantic Realism is virtuously indistinguishable from Socialist Realism.” All of this is not just mind-bogglingly false, but absurd. Daniels should be ashamed of reviewing someone whom he doesn’t have the foggiest grasp of, and someone whom he has not read more than a smattering from. This is a schoolboy’s paper of confusions spun around the flimsiest of out of context quotes. That’s when he supplies any quotes by Rand at all, which is a grand total of six times (and two of which he is admiring). You cannot quote what you do not read.

Daniels is not even familiar enough with Rand’s oeuvre to make a pretense of addressing what she wrote. I think he would be astonished to realize the true depth of her thought from her metaphysics and epistemology to her ethics, politics and aesthetics–something one doesn’t get from reading Anne C. Heller’s embarrassingly trite book. (She is a “fair-minded biographer?” Listen to the bitter, mocking tone and pot shots she takes at Rand when she is interviewed by The New York Times or NPR. Contrary to her meek protestations, she is not “something of an admirer of her subject.” She hates her subject.)

But Daniels will never spend the time to actually read Rand and that’s just fine with The New Criterion.

Anthony Daniels’s writing can sparkle. He can entertain with erudite and obscure trivia. But he seems unwilling to think deeply about ideas. Consequently, his intellect is as wide as an ocean, but as shallow as a puddle.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha