The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Take Two

 Posted by on 13 June 2005 at 10:07 am  Uncategorized
Jun 132005

Unsurprisingly, my reading of Ron Merrill’s The Ideas of Ayn Rand is still not going well.

In the third chapter, Merrill advances his “Nietzschean Thesis” that “during the first part of her career [into the late 1930s] Rand’s writings are clearly and explicitly Nietzschean” (21). That’s a bold claim. It’s an important claim, since it’s his grounds for accusing Ayn Rand of lying. Yet his evidence for it is weak.

First, he briefly discusses various parallels — often superficial, inessential, and/or dubious — between Ayn Rand and Nietzsche’s ideas, such as mind-body unity, harmony between reason and emotion, the need for discipline over the emotions, the repudiation of religion and the supernatural, and the pain inherent to moral and intellectual growth (22-6). With each supposed point of commonality, Merrill asserts that Ayn Rand was actually influenced by Nietzsche — without any evidence of causal connection whatsoever.

Consider, for example, his claim that Ayn Rand’s exhortation to “check your premises” was of Nietzschean origin. He writes:

We should note that one of Nietzsche’s most often-stated themes is the necessity for continual challenge of one’s intellectual substructure. [Quoting three separate passages from Nietzsche:]
Convictions are greater enemies of the truth than lies.

The presupposition of every man of faith of any shade was that he could not be refuted. If the arguments against it prove to be too strong he could still take resources in belittling reason itself…

Are are under obligation to be true to our errors even when we realize that by doing so we do harm to our higher selves? …No, there is no law, no obligation of this kind, we must be traitors, must be disloyal, again and again, must abandon our ideals.

Here we may discern the root of Rand’s “check your premises,” as well as the realization that those who cannot justify their beliefs may reject reason rather than accept the truth.

Yes, that’s really all that he says about the matter. So what should we make of it? Even if we grant Merrill the dubious theoretical possibility that someone might have been able to develop the two ideas mentioned from Nietzsche’s call for intellectual treason, does Merrill offer any justification for his claim that Ayn Rand actually did so? No.

The only other evidence that Merrill offers for his Nietzschean Thesis consists of the changes that Ayn Rand made to the second edition of We the Living. He claims that “two passages in the first edition have been made in a way which clearly shows an intent to expurgate Nietzschean ideas” (38). This evidence is certainly more compelling, but still inadequate to his bold thesis.

I will not offer a detailed analysis here, since Robert Mayhew has already done than better than I could in his essay “We the Living: ’36 and ’59,” published in the excellent anthology Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. In the discussion of “The ‘Nietzschean’ Passages” (pages 205-13), he offers a detailed analysis of six potentially Nietzschean passages edited to varying degrees by Ayn Rand for the second edition. He persuasively argues that each one is best understood as either an attempt to clarify some potentially misleading implications (e.g. determinism) or indicative of a confusion on some philosophic point (e.g. the initiation of force). He rightly concludes that the edited passages are “at most a residue of Ayn Rand’s early exposure to Nietzsche,” but that “they do not add up to some full-blown Nietzschean phase” (213). He also observes that “the ‘Nietzschean’ passages–especially when interpreted unsympathetically [i.e. in a Nietzschean way]–contradict the spirit of the novel” (213). Indeed, try to imagine just for a moment how utterly transformed We the Living would be if written by Nietzschean ideals. (I have a vision of a novel entitled Me the Powerful about Victor clawing his way over piles of bodies to the top of the Party.)

Somewhat to my surprise, the parade of absurdly facile claims that constitute The Ideas of Ayn Rand so far are not the most disturbing feature of the book. That honor goes to Ron Merrill’s endless back and forth leaps between glowing admiration and utter contempt for Ayn Rand as a person, novelist, and philosopher. It’s not like the “balanced” portrait at which Barbara Branden aims, but rather great swings between extremes. Honestly, I feel like I’m in the grip of Dr. Heckle and Mr. Hyde. Even just as a regular reader, it’s quite disconcerting.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha