Ayn Rand’s Blind Spot

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, created between 1513 and 1516. Louvre.
Michelangelo, Dying Slave, created between 1513 and 1516. Louvre.

One of my heroes and a favorite author is Ayn Rand, specifically, “Atlas Shrugged.” I read it when I was 19 years old after I had decided to give up a professional tennis career and become an artist. The book was a powerful confirmation that I was on the right path.

However, one major thing disturbed me about Rand was that she stopped writing fiction after “Atlas Shrugged” (1957). She died in 1982, 25 years is a long time for a genius novelist not to create fiction. And that, in itself, disqualified her being a role model for me. I had no intention of giving everything to art, only to abandon it in middle age.

There were a few quirky details in her references to Beethoven, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt that raised red flags for me. About ten years after she quit writing fiction, she wrote several essays that were published in her journal “The Objectivist,” which were later turned into her non-fiction book, “The Romantic Manifesto” (1969).

She makes two condescendingly dismissive mentions of Rembrandt. “At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called ‘painterly’ school, from Rembrandt down…” Putting Rembrandt at the beginning of the end of painting is an extraordinarily warped view when he took painting further in light and spatial depth than any artist before him. Another comment she made about Rembrandt, “…there is no aesthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef.” Given that this is only her second mention of one of the greatest artists of all time, referring to a small, two or three-hour oil sketch, and omitting works that would contradict her peeve, comes across as petty.

She makes only two brief mentions of Michelangelo, one about the beautiful polish of his “Pieta,” and the other, “He [artists] may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare).” It is odd to think of Michelangelo’s characters as “struggling.” “Moses,” “David,” and “The Creation of Adam” show humanism at its best. Perhaps with the Captives, but they were barely begun works in progress.

Around 1969, an article published by Rand’s “The Objectivist,” “Metaphysics in Marble,” by Mary Ann Sures, seemed to be on the same page about Michelangelo. Sures wrote, “By the time Michelangelo carved the “Dying Slave,” about ten years later, the near-triumph of the “David” had given way to tragic heroism…The statue conveys the futility of man’s struggle. It portrays man as a being for whom existence means struggle and who will respond to the challenge, but who will struggle in vain.”

I find this amusing as the “Dying Slave” seems to be in the midst of erotic ecstasy. Michelangelo snuck in several heavily themed homoerotic works with the slightest of justification. Mary Ann Sures was not a very good art historian not to at least mention it, especially when the works are post-orgasmic sighs!

In a question and answer session, Rand commented on Beethoven: “He is a great composer, but I can’t stand him. Music expresses a sense of life – an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear through music, but his message is a malevolent universe: man’s heroic fight against destiny and man’s defeat.”

Her psychological negativity is quite acidic. Despite my best efforts, I can’t see any defeat or malevolence in Beethoven. I perceive gravitas and a heroic drive to successful resolution instead. I can’t help but wonder if Rand was projecting her own feelings.

Perhaps Rand’s critical comments about Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo were a way for her to cope with her own disappointment, as it was she who later faced defeat in pursuing her artistic vision of “the glory of man.”

I will always admire Ayn Rand’s genius in creating “Atlas Shrugged,” but there’s no substitute for heroes living their final years with the same passion and great vision for humanity as they had in their beginning.

Michael, Idyllwild, February 10, 2023

3 Replies to “Ayn Rand’s Blind Spot”

  1. You talk about Rand’s blind spot, and you’re pointing to its symptoms and effects, but I notice that you’re not quite able to characterize it.
    Rand’s blind spot was in her ethics. She defined her ethics in exactly the way her epistemology would condemn. “Do not initiate force” is a doughnut hole. It is an ethical prescription given in terms of what NOT to do, of what does not exist. She got closer, in terms of defining her ethics in terms of what exists when she identified the concept of “rational egoism,” but she was still missing in the places where her ethics covered interaction of the individual with others or “society.” Trade comes close, but is not the essence of what her ethics would logically prescribe, the thing for which she was groping. Rand got close to identifying the problem when she recognized the nature of “sanction,” but she didn’t get all the way there. She was torn between making an “ought” out of giving sanction to virtue and valor, whenever and wherever one encountered them, and on the other hand, saying that her ideal Man was not in need of the sanction of others to justify his existence. What does the ethical Man need of others? Anything other than to be not interfered with or transgressed?
    The thing that Rand didn’t quite grasp was the basis of human association: it can only be accomplished in one of three ways: manipulation, coercion, and connection. The right way to look at the ethical position implied by Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology in terms of ethics is: “Connect with your fellow Man (rather than manipulate-defraud or coerce) wherever possible and profitable.” Trade is not the essential nature of ethical interaction between individuals; connection is. Trade is just one manifestation of connection. I think, like most people, Rand’s individual traumas interfered with her understanding of the nature of empathy and impacted her ability to use it. She did not grasp that empathy is just as much the art of non-contradictory identification as discernment is, and both tools, discernment and empathy, are instances of “logic,” that are complementary.
    You can see the effects of this in her writing. In Atlas, she has her philosophical exponent, Hugh Akston, joke that John Galt sprang into existence, fully formed, much as Minerva sprang fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. She tells the reader that John Galt was born of an obscure crappy family in Ohio but doesn’t say much more than that. His origin and the process by which he perfected his soul is not discussed in the novel or even anywhere else, by Rand, and it is an unconscious confession that however much Rand recognizes the hero, Galt, she doesn’t really understand how he gets from his beginnings to that state of heroic self-actualization. Note also the passage of Rand’s heroes through “Galt’s Guest Room” on their way to joining “Galt’s Gulch.” Rand leaves as mystery, what goes on in this room, when her heroes make their final transition — like Moses, she points to “The Promised Land” but does not enter. She doesn’t know what happens in Galt’s Guest Room, having never been there, herself.

    1. Thanks for your informative and thoroughly thoughtful comment. To be fair I was only commenting on her from my art perspective, and speculating on why she quit fiction. What is interesting from a literary point of view is how well you remember and talk about her scenes and concepts, she had that powerful ability to communicate her vision.

      1. Agreed. Rand was a powerful communicator and able to inspire people through the application of drama. She worked very hard at her craft, and despite her detractors’ opinions, was a master of using theme, plot, scene, and character. I found Atlas to be very inspiring and have read it several times.

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