Jerks, Chapter 2: Taxonomy–More on Randy Individualists (Free)

The extreme case of false individualism is the libertarian sect, rooted in the teachings of Ayn Rand,  known as Objectivism.  Only in America, I sometimes think, could a political movement be based on a writer of pop fiction.  The thinness of Rand's erudition is matched only by the banality of her imagination, which ran to most of the clichés of soft pornography.  I never got farther than a few chapters into Atlas Shrugged, but I did once manage to finish The Fountainhead, and even though I skimmed it rather quickly, my gag reflex was hard to suppress.  In her defense, I will say I found the imbecility almost hypnotic.  It is a little like being with small children or the mentally retarded.  Life suddenly becomes a simple matter of a full belly or a diaper needing a change.  Reading Rand, ones feels all critical intelligence seeping away as the brainwaves are synchronized with the low frequency Objectivist mind. “Yes,” you find yourself whispering, “the only reason I do not rule the world is the envy of weaklings who have kept me out of the power I deserve!"

King Vidor, who made some of Hollywood's tackiest tissues of clichés, turned the "novel" into a film, but he foolishly let Rand write the screenplay.  Even the all-American hero Gary Cooper cannot save a film from the hysterical speechifying Howard Roark's creator puts in his mouth, but worse, even, than Rand's own blather is the zany reformulation of her notions into an academic philosophy.  Here is a paragraph from her self-anointed philosophical successor, Leonard Peikoff:

Most philosophers have left their starting points to unnamed implication. The base of Objectivism is explicit: “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.”

Existence and consciousness are facts implicit in every perception. They are the base of all knowledge and the precondition of proof: knowledge presupposes something to know and someone to know it. They are absolutes which cannot be questioned or escaped: every human utterance, including the denial of these axioms, implies their use and acceptance.

The third axiom at the base of knowledge—an axiom true, in Aristotle’s words, of “being qua being”—is the Law of Identity. This law defines the essence of existence: to be is to be something, a thing is what it is; and leads to the fundamental principle of all action, the law of causality. The law of causality states that a thing’s actions are determined not by chance, but by its nature, i.e., by what it is.

And so the poor man drones on, self-evident axiom to self-evident axiom with all the sublime indifference to reality of any advocate of phlogiston or phrenology.

A sex-obsessed writer of sentimental screen plays and light fiction, Rand (or rather Alisa Rosenbaum) was in personal terms a train-wreck for anyone who got to know her.  She not only betrayed her husband, but her cheating wrecked the marriage of two of her closest disciples. When Murray Rothbard's wife refused Ayn's demand to repudiate Jesus Christ, she turned on Rothbard and angrily demanded, "Divorce her, Murray."  Rothbard, too good a husband and too much of a man to endure any more of her nonsense, walked out.

Rand's toyboy and one-time heir apparent, Nathaniel Branden—or rather Nathan Blumenthal—is a psychologist with a PhD from an unaccredited program.  (Why do they have to change their names and reinvent themselves?  Cf. "The Billy Liar syndrome" to come.)  Together, "Rand" and "Branden" cobbled together a "philosophy" out of the fag-ends of classical liberalism and the ravings of Nietzsche--though it is entirely unfair to put the brilliant mad philologist in the same sentence with the drab scriptwriter!   It must be some consolation for the weaklings and introverts who join the movement to imagine themselves blond beasts in SS uniforms, taking the world by storm, ravishing strong-willed women, and writing their names in the stars.  As a teenager, I read a lot of Nietzsche, and once, as a college freshman who had drunk too deep, I confessed my fascination to my history professor.  Glen Grayson was a master of sarcastic irony and, in his western North Carolina accent, he asked me if I thought of myself as a tall blond Teuton cupping water out of a primordial pool.  It would be decades before I looked at Nietzsche again.

Enterprise, initiative, and independence are all good qualities, especially in men, but, in the absence of the contrary qualities of mercy, friendship, and charity, they can become monstrous, especially when they are misapplied to situations where community solidarity, not ruthless competition is required. "All the principles of skeptics, stoics, atheists etc., are true.  But their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true."  Pascal's wise observation leads us to a simple observable truth,  that men and women are never really independent individuals; they are born in state of complete dependency upon their parents, and, as they are slowly freed from their initial bondage, they pass into other relationships—with teachers, friends, and neighbors that make them who they are.

While some degree of individualism is characteristic of European societies, a complete individualist who be a monster of selfishness.  Individualism is too thin, too liable to abuse to serve as a useful moral philosophy, and anyone professing a creed of individualism is likely to have used it as justification for rather less pleasant qualities such as avarice, rudeness, and indifference.  Whatever else they may be, Jerks are almost always individualists.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Robert Peters says:

    Grendel was the ultimate jerk and individualist: bereft of fellowship!

  2. Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–I fully agree with your assessment of Rand and individualism. I want to say a few exculpatory words about Texas’ moviemaking favorite son, King Vidor. You’re right that he made many very tacky and insubstantial movies. But he also made a couple of moody, even eerie literary adaptations–Wild Oranges (1924), from a popular novel by Joseph Hergesheimer that I found unreadable, and Street Scene (1931), from Elmer Rice’s only entry in the American theatrical repertory; a Marion Davies screwball comedy, The Patsy (1928), so good that I wish she’d worked Gregory La Cava, Mitchell Leisen, or Howard Hawks in the ’30s; The Champ (1932), which features what still may be the best acting by a child, Jackie Cooper, in all American cinema; and a western, The Texas Rangers (1936), about a trio of outlaws who start out rather like a criminal Three Stooges, minus the slapping, and whose characters gain gravity as the film darkens from wisecracking to deadly conflict. These are pretty impressive.

    Still, Vidor was no John Ford or Frank Capra, though he, like them, knew how to make a good-looking picture, and when the script was wanting, fell back on superficial beauty. There are some pretty shots in The Fountainhead, but its most famous one, the elevator ascension of a skyscraper that concludes it, is stolen from a less portentous/pretentious forebear in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent, The Ten Commandments (1923), which is, by the way, entirely more interesting and mostly different than the ’56 pseudo-biblical epic.

    Vidor had to use Rand’s script because she’d specified in her contract that no changes could be made. In this, I’ve been given to understand, she was backed by the star, Gary Cooper, suffering from an infatuation with the novel and its “ideas”. By the time of The Fountainhead, Vidor’s best work was all behind him; Cooper’s, mostly before him.