Video: The Depth of Ayn Rand’s Fictional Characters

Mar 082012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed the depth of Ayn Rand’s fictional characters. The question was:

Are the characters in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged flat due to philosophic consistency? I’m reading the novel currently, and rather enjoying it. However, I’ve heard many people claim her characters are flat, one-dimensional, etc. I usually respond to this by saying that Ayn Rand’s characters are the incarnation of her ideas, the physical embodiment of her ideas: an individual is consumed with this philosophy, so much so that they are entirely logically consistent (or at least as much as humanly possible, they are human, and do make mistakes, e.g. Rearden’s marriage), thus, because of their abnormally extensive logical consistency within their philosophy, these characters merely appear to be ‘one-dimensional’. Is this an accurate understanding of Rand’s characters?

My answer, in brief:

The criticism that Ayn Rand’s characters are flat is dead wrong, as is the response that they embody ideas.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Hsieh TOS Post: "The Grey: A Great Reminder of Crucial Truths"

 Art, Film
Feb 012012

The 1/30/2012 blog for The Objective Standard has published my short post, “The Grey: A Great Reminder of Crucial Truths“.

Here is the opening:

Could you survive deep in the Alaskan wilderness and make your way out with only the resources from a crashed airplane?

That’s the stark challenge faced by the seven protagonists of the movie The Grey, starring Liam Neeson. An airplane carrying Alaskan oil field workers crashes during a storm, and they must battle harsh winter conditions and a pack of aggressive wolves while attempting to find their way back to civilization. In addition to spectacular cinematography and spellbinding action scenes, the movie demonstrates surprising philosophical depth in delivering its theme: “What does it really mean to fight for one’s life?”

The movie also dramatizes three related principles that are easy to forget during everyday life but that are made vividly clear in the context of the movie…

(Read the full text of “The Grey: A Great Reminder of Crucial Truths“.)

Many thanks to Craig Biddle and Ari Armstrong for their help editing the piece. And don’t forget to check out the other fine commentary at the TOS blog!

BATLCon: Art and Poetry in Southern California

Oct 072011

I’m delighted to pass on this announcement for Luc Travers and Lisa VanDamme about their upcoming “Bringing the Arts to Life” Conference! Don’t miss the free live webcast preview next Tuesday!

“Bringing the Arts to Life” Conference in Southern California, Nov. 18th-20th.

FREE live webcast previewing BATLCon on Tuesday, Oct. 11th, at 7pm PST. More info at

Lisa VanDamme and Luc Travers will be describing what makes a VanDamme Academy arts education uniquely valuable and demonstrate how powerful it can be for you!

About BATLCon:

For many years, passionate art educators Lisa VanDamme and Luc Travers have been teaching children and adults alike how to thoroughly understand, deeply appreciate and personally connect with great works of visual and literary art. They are now pleased to announce that they will be hosting their first ever weekend arts conference, with the goal of “Bringing the Arts to Life”—to your life.

In their classes, Miss VanDamme and Mr. Travers will introduce you to gems of poetry and painting, and will teach you a method of appreciation that will reveal how deeply moving, startlingly illuminating, and profoundly personal experiencing a classic work of art can be.

They will host a visit to the Getty Center, where you will have the opportunity to apply your new skill to some of the world’s most beautiful works of art in one of the world’s most beautiful settings for art, followed by a cocktail party full of animated discussion of your discoveries.

And as a bonus, you will have the opportunity to observe a VanDamme Academy art and literature class, witnessing art education as it might and ought to be.

We hope you will join us for this soul-satisfying weekend of learning, discussing, exploring, socializing—and of enjoying great art.

Dates: Nov. 18th-20th
Location: VanDamme Academy and the Getty Center, Southern California

Register today at

Space is limited!

I’m sure that the conference will be excellent, so if you can attend, don’t miss the opportunity!

Also, I can’t resist noting that BATLCon is probably the most awesomest name for an Objectivist conference ever! I just wish that sword fighting was somehow involved!

Luc Travers Webcast on Bringing an Artwork to Life

Feb 032011

I’m pleased to announce that February’s OList Webcast will be a delightful change of pace: Luc Travers will be speaking to us on “Bringing an Artwork to Life.”

I’ve heard rave reviews from friends about Mr. Travers’ museum tours, but I’d never had the opportunity to enjoy one myself. So I’m quite excited for this opportunity to learn his approach to art appreciation… from the comfort of my own home!

The free preview will be on Wednesday, February 9th at 6 pm PT / 7 pm MT / 8 pm CT / 9 pm ET. I’ll post details about how to join that early next week. That’s free and open to anyone.

The webcast itself will be on Wednesday, February 23rd at 6 pm PT / 7 pm MT / 8 pm CT / 9 pm ET. If you want to attend, you must pledge!

Every pledger will be able to submit and vote on questions in advance via Google Moderate. Every pledger is welcome to attend the live webcast and participate in the text chat too. After the webcast, pledgers will be able to view the streaming video of the webcast or download an audio recording. (You cannot share that with anyone outside your own household, but you’ll be able to play the audio from now until doomsday, if you like.)

As before, you’re welcome to pledge any amount. However, please remember that whether the webcast happens or not depends on the total amount of money pledged. The webcast will be green-lit or cancelled, depending on the pledges received by noon on February 18th. Also, if the webcast takes place, I’ll post it for sale after the fact for $50.

Here’s Mr. Travers’ proposal for the webcast on “Bringing an Artwork to Life”:

Most people find that literature and movies provide a more accessible and more emotionally satisfying esthetic experience than the visual arts. However, the visual arts do have the capacity to provide the same kind of experience as other genres.

Most people believe that the extent to which one can experience an artwork is a quick look and a mild emotional response. If there is an artwork which someone finds interesting, the common approach to further appreciating the piece is to turn to an art history source for information about the artist, the culture, the style. However, these “DVD extras” are not a substitute for experiencing the “story” and “characters” in a painting and deriving personal meaning.

In this webcast, Mr. Travers will describe a fundamentally different approach to engaging the visual arts–one that treats an artwork as art and not as an historical artifact. In taking you through several powerful pieces, he will demonstrate principles and techniques that will help you immerse yourself into the “story” and grasp the deeper, personal meaning that so often remains untapped in great art.

Luc Travers is the author of Touching The Art: A Guide to Enjoying Art at a Museum. He leads tours at museums across the country and teaches art appreciation and literature at the VanDamme Academy in Aliso Viejo, CA.

If you’d like a preview now, you might view Luc Travers’ video on his approach to art:

So… if you want this webcast to take place, if you want to support Mr. Travers work, and if you want to support the OList webcasts, please pledge!

Please remember that your pledge is a contract to pay for the webcast, if delivered, and you should consider yourself honor-bound to pay that pledge.

If you have any problems with that embedded form, try this form.

OList Webcast Pledge FAQ

How much should I pledge?

That’s entirely up to you. You should pledge whatever the webcast is worth to you, knowing that if enough people don’t pledge enough money, the webcast will be cancelled. In that case, all pledges will be void. Also, you should pledge more if you have questions that you’d really like answered.

Will anyone know what I’ve pledged?

No one except the webcast organizers and webcaster will know how much you’ve pledged. Nothing about your pledge will be made public.

What if I don’t pay what I’ve pledged?

If you’re not satisfied with the quality of the webcast, I will grant a refund, provided that you explain your reasons. However, if you simply welch on your pledge, you’re a schmuck. In that case, you will not be welcome to pledge on any future projects until you pay me the money you owe me, including a hefty penalty for being a schmuck.

What if I want to alter my pledge?

If you wish to increase your pledge, you can always pledge more by e-mailing me your new pledge amount. If you make a mistake in your pledge, you can e-mail me before the pledge deadline to adjust it.

How will I submit questions for the webcast?

You’ll submit questions for the webcast via Google Moderator. I’ll send you the link to that forum shortly after I receive your pledge.

How will I get access to the live webcast?

A few days before the webcast, I’ll e-mail you the url, login, and password for the live webcast. After the webcast, you’ll be able to use the same url, login, and password to view the streaming recorded video or download the audio file.

Can I share the webcast with anyone else?

You may only share it with other members of your household. If you’d like to give the webcast to someone else as a gift, you can do that by submitting an additional pledge. If you distribute the private link or audio file, you will not be welcome to pledge on any future projects until you compensate me for the theft of that property, even if accidental.

How do I pay you?

After the webcast, you’ll receive payment instructions in the invoice I’ll send you. My preferred method of payment is PayPal, but you’re welcome to sent me a check or money order, if that’s what you prefer.

What if I’m not satisfied with the webcast?

If you’re not satisfied with the quality of the webcast, I will grant a refund (or void your pledge), provided that you e-mail me to explain your reasons.

If I don’t pledge, will I be able to purchase the webcast later?

The webcast will be available for sale for $50.

What do I do if I have some other question?

Please e-mail me at [email protected].

Ready for the Day

Nov 292010

Last week, I received my much-coveted print of Bryan Larsen’s painting Ready for the Day. It was my first purchase from Quent Cordair Fine Art, and I’ve been nothing but pleased with the experience.

Here’s the painting itself, posted with permission:

This painting was love at first sight for me. When I look at it, I don’t feel like I’m looking at a stranger: I feel like I’m seeing myself in some ideal way. I experience that calm ease of preparing myself, mentally and physically, for some important work that I’ve chosen for myself. I love that feeling, and this painting seems to capture that so perfectly for me, in a very immediate and intimate way.

For those of you who have bought from Quent Cordair Fine Art before — or you’d like to do so — what speaks to you in just that personal way — and why? Please post your links and explanations in the comments!

NoodleCast #40: Interview with Earl Parson

Oct 292010

Last Sunday, architect Earl Parson was kind enough to endure all kinds of technical troubles for the sake of a 35-minute informal webcast interview with him about his work.

I wanted to interview Earl now because he’s speaking in Denver on November 6th on “The Role of Ideas in Architecture.” I thought that a video interview would be a great introduction for the people in the FRO community who don’t yet know him. Sadly, technical troubles prevented me from recording the video feed of him from Skype. (That’s particularly sad, because Earl is darn handsome!) Hence, as you’ll see, the video below shows far too much of me at the beginning and the end. However, don’t despair! You’ll see lots of great pictures of Earl’s in-progress Tennessee House in the middle. Also, the sound and video quality from the interview isn’t great, due to the fact that I had to use to the version recorded as a live webstream.

Now… without further ado or apology, here’s the video:

If you prefer to just listen to the audio, you can do that here:

Listen Now

40:37 minutes

Download This Episode

Here are the pictures of the Tennessee house discussed in the interview:

Last but not least, here is the announcement for Earl’s upcoming FROST lecture:

Earl Parson on “The Role of Ideas in Architecture”

Please join us on Saturday, November 6th for a FROST Supper Talk by Architect Earl Parson:

  • What: FROST Supper Talk by Earl Parson on “The Role of Ideas in Architecture”
  • When: Saturday, November 6, 2009, 3:00 pm Doors Open; 3:15 pm Lecture Begins; 4:45 pm Q&A Begins; 5:30 pm Dinner at Dixon’s Downtown Grill. (Note: Dinner is optional and everyone is expected to pay for what they order, plus tax and 20% gratuity which will be automatically added to our bill.)
  • Where: Room 640 (Zenith) in the Tivoli Student Union Building, UC Denver Campus. (That’s Building 7 on the campus map. See also the parking map.)
  • Cost: $30 for regular attendees; $15 for students
  • RSVP by November 1st to [email protected]. Please indicate whether you plan to attend the dinner or not.
  • Payment: You may pay at the door via cash or check. To pay in advance, please send a check to: “FROGS Inc.” c/o Betty Evans; 1140 US Hwy 287 STE 400-283; Broomfield, CO 80020. You can also use PayPal to send your payment to [email protected].

About the lecture:

“The events of any given period of history are the result of the thinking of the preceding period.” — Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual”

Join architect Earl Parson as he explores the application of this brilliant observation by Ayn Rand, regarding the relationship of ideas to history, to the field of architecture. By examining primary source documents, including writings, drawings, and photographs of existing buildings, we will examine the ideas that emerged in 19th Century architectural thinking which led to, and made possible, the fabulous career of one of the 20th Century’s greatest architectural minds: Frank Lloyd Wright.

As a designer, Wright was a superlative genius. As a young man, his creativity was channeled and focused by his close relationship to perhaps the greatest architectural thinker of all time: Louis Sullivan. Sullivan’s early theories of modern architecture were themselves heavily influenced by the writings of French architect and theoretician, Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

This presentation will examine these men, their theories, and their buildings, to discover the link between their ideas and concrete actions in 19th and early 20th Century architecture.

Earl Parson is an architect, and an Objectivist, practicing in Los Angeles. You can follow the construction progress of his latest designs at his blog, Creatures of Prometheus.

I hope that you can join us!

Leonard Peikoff Interview With Magician Steve Cohen

May 202010

Leonard Peikoff recently gave a fascinating interview with professional magician Steve Cohen.

Among the many topics they discussed were magic, knowledge, belief, deception, art, and entertainment.

Here’s an excerpt:

SC: We often hear the axiom “seeing is believing.” However on p. 319 of Atlas Shrugged, there is a quote from Dr. Ferris’ book “Why Do You Think You Think” that states: “Only the crassest ignoramus can still hold to the old-fashioned notion that seeing is believing. That which you can see is the first thing to disbelieve.”

My question is: what can we trust if not our eyes? What is the nature of belief, and how can someone like me (who is forever trying to convince people of something that is not necessarily true) create conviction in others?

LP: I say that, absolutely, seeing is believing. You can trust your eyes, and all your senses. In fact, they are necessarily valid because the only way to establish any truth is by reference to the sensory data. That’s the basis on which we form concepts and conclusions. If your senses aren’t valid, you can’t even have such a word as valid.

Now people get confused on this, because they don’t distinguish what the senses tell us from the interpretation that we place on that data. If I see a man in a red suit and a white beard and a big stomach, and I say, “I see Santa Claus,” my senses do not deceive me, but my interpretation does.

That’s true of all alleged cases where you perceive something, and then blame the senses.

So for any issue, you must distinguish: what do you see? And what do you make of it? Now a lot of people will see something that they can’t explain, and then come up with mystical interpretations. Whether that’s the occurrence of the seasons, or the tides, the attraction of magnets, or whatever it happens to be. They will resort to inner spirits, God, and so on. Their senses — what they see — is valid. However, their interpretation, their mysticism, is not relevant.

A proper attitude would be, if you can’t explain something that you do perceive, you just say the truth: “I do perceive it, and I can’t explain it.” Half of the things that were not explicable in the past, later became so. And many of the things that are not explicable yet, will be in due course. That would be a rational attitude…

…No rational person would ever think that what a magician performs is more than a trick. You have to go by facts and the conclusions of logic and science. Over the centuries, a tremendous number of incredulous, unthinking people who go by matters of desire rather than fact… Hundreds of thousands who quote seeing “miracles,” and it’s all nonsense. It’s all motivated by emotion. And I wouldn’t even say that these people have a conviction. They just have the mood of the moment.

You have to ask, is that the kind of audience you want?

Being a magician, you are a rare commodity as a mystery-monger. But if you’re claiming supernatural powers, you have to put yourself up against Buddha and Moses and all the rest of them. To me, that would be a desecration for you, with your talent.

SC: Then why would people search out a magic show?

LP: To me, it’s the same category as watching a great hockey player or baseball player, or a pianist, for that matter. When you see a skill that someone has mastered, and are able to experience complete enjoyment of that skill, it’s a pleasure to anyone who values human life and human achievement. I mean, how many people in any field acquire that kind of skill?

I don’t have any metaphysical need to come see a magic show. If I thought that you were going to take me into a supernatural world, I would not enjoy it at all. First of all, I would feel fear. If this guy can suspend the laws of nature, then they are not reliable. They’re not absolute. Who knows what’s coming next? I could fall through the floor, or disappear, maybe disintegrate. Plus, I would lose any admiration of you, the magician. Because if you are a vehicle of the supernatural, why should we give you any credit? Why would we admire you?

There is an absolute, legitimate state called the “suspension of disbelief.” This is not at all the same as wanting to be deceived. If you watch a movie, and you see one person stalk another, you won’t call the police. You know it’s not really happening. On the other hand, it has a reality to you. It’s not just shadows on the screen. You’re pulled into it. You feel fear, apprehension. It’s a state in which you know what you believe, but you are suspending that within limits. That’s exactly what you do when you watch a magician. You know that he is not turning a rabbit into a hippopotamus. But you suspend your disbelief by saying, I watched it happen, isn’t that fantastic. While not considering that somewhere there’s an explanation. As soon as you reach the end of the performance, the audience’s disbelief is no longer suspended. It’s a way of enjoying one aspect of a total. But there is no element of escaping from reality.

(Read the full interview.)

For a nice example of close-up magic with a jaw-dropping finale, take a look at this performance. (Although the dialogue is in Chinese, you don’t need to understand the language to follow the action.):

Ayn Rand Predicts Reality Television

Apr 052010

In 3FROG, we’re currently reading Ayn Rand’s anthology on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto. In our last discussion, I was particularly struck by this passage from “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age,” published in 1962:

If you wonder what is the ultimate destination toward which modern philosophy and modern art are leading you, you may observe its advance symptoms all around us. Observe that literature is returning to the art form of the pre-industrial ages, to the chronicle–that fictionalized biographies of “real” people, of politicians, baseball-players or Chicago gangsters, are given preference over works of imaginative fiction, in the theater, in the movies, in television–and that a favored literary form is the documentary. Observe that in painting, sculpture and music the current vogue, fashion and inspirational model is the primitive art of the jungle.

Would Ayn Rand have been surprised by the rise of “reality television,” starting with The Real World in 1992 and Survivor in 2000? No way! As the quote shows, she predicted that 30 years before.

A Critical Account of Anthony Daniels on Ayn Rand

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.

How Leftists View America

Dec 182009

The leftist health care advocacy group Public Option Please recently held a contest for the best pro-public option art.

Here’s the winning entry:

(Click on the image to see it full size.)

As Jonathan Adler noted:

I suspect many health care reform supporters find this poster inspiring for the same reasons many health care reform opponents find it disconcerting.

What would you say is so disturbing about it?

Update: Rand Simberg found this photoshopped version:

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