Monday, February 2, 2015

The champion of reason

‘I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.’ This is Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer and philosopher, born 110 years ago today. Her few novels were extremely popular in their day, and she developed a philosophical system, Objectivism, which also drew many admirers. She kept notebooks for much of her life, jotting thoughts about her novels and philosophy, and these were edited and published in the 1990s as Journals of Ayn Rand.

Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum was born on 2 February 1905 in St Petersburg into a wealthy Jewish family. The October Revolution and Bolshevik rule led to the family’s property being confiscated, and to them fleeing as far as the Crimean Peninsula. After graduating from high school there, Alisa returned, with her family, to Petrograd, where she was one of the first women to enrol in the state university, majoring in history. Subsequently, she studied for a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad. Around this time, she adopted the surname Rand, and took her first name as Ayn.

In 1926, Rand went to visit relatives in the US, staying a few months in Chicago, before heading for Hollywood. There she did odd jobs, worked as a junior scriptwriter, and met a young actor Fank O’Connor who she married just before her visa ran out. She became an American citizen in 1931; several attempts to bring her family members to the US, though, failed.

In the early 1930s, Rand sold a screenplay to Universal Studios, and had a play produced on Broadway (later turned into a film by Paramount). Her first, partly autobiographical, novel - We the Living - was published in 1936. Although not a success at the time, later, when her other novels sold so well, Rand issued a revised edition which went on to sell over three million copies.

By the 1940s, Rand had become politically active; and she volunteered for the presidential campaign of Republican Wendell Wilkie. She took on speaking appointments, and came into contact with other free market-leaning intellectuals. Her first major success as a writer came with The Fountainhead, published in 1943, a novel of romance and philosophy. Warner Bros hired her to write a screenplay for a film version (which came out in 1949). Subsequently, she was hired by Hal Wallis (who had produced Casablanca for Warner) as a screenwriter and script-doctor for his own, new production company. One of her projects was to write a screenplay about the development of the atomic bomb - although the film never got made. Meanwhile, her political activities led her to become associated with other anti-Communist writers.

In 1951, Rand moved to New York where she established a group of admirers, including Nathan Blumenthal (later Nathaniel Branden) and his wife Barbara, and Barbara’s cousin Leonard Peikoff. By 1954, she and Nathaniel were having an affair with the full knowledge of their spouses. Atlas Shrugged, considered Rand’s most important work, was published in 1957, and became an international bestseller. More than any other of her novels, Atlas Shrugged was rich in her developing ideas on philosophy, a system she called Objectivism.

Thereafter, Rand eschewed fiction in favour of promoting her philosophical ideas, by writing books, giving lectures, and often taking controversial stances on political issues 
(wholeheartedly rejecting religion, for example, and supporting the right to abortion). In 1958, Branden established the Nathaniel Branden Lectures (later Institute) to promote Rand’s philosophy. This expanded considerably, until it was offering courses in 80 cities; but, in 1968, Rand denounced Branden and publicly broke off with him and the Institute.

After an operation for lung cancer in 1974, Rand’s work activities declined. Her husband died in 1979, and she passed away in 1982, leaving her estate to Peikoff. Further biographical information can be found at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Noble Soul or Wikipedia. Wikipedia also has an extensive article on Rand’s Objectivism

Soon after Rand’s death, Peikoff released extracts from her notebooks for publication in two magazines The Objectivist Forum and The Intellectual Activist. Then, in 1997, Dutton released Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman with Peikoff’s approval. The book has its own Wikipedia entry, which states: ‘Some reviewers considered it an interesting source of information for readers with an interest in Rand, but several scholars criticized Harriman’s editing as being too heavy-handed and insufficiently acknowledged in the published text.’

In a foreword, Peikoff explains: ‘Ayn Rand’s Journals - my name for her notes to herself through the decade - is the bulk of her still unpublished work, arranged chronologically. [. . .] The Journals contain most of AR’s notes for her three main novels - along with some early material, some notes made between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and some notes from her final decades.’

He continues: ‘If the primary value of the Journals to us is the evidence it furnishes of AR’s growth, a second value is the evidence that her growth was a product of thinking - in the art of which the Journals may serve as a textbook. The subtitle of this book really ought to be: How to Answer Your Own Questions.’

In his preface, Harriman says: ‘In a note to herself at the age of twenty-three, AR wrote: “From now on - no thought whatever about yourself, only about your work. You are only a writing engine. Don’t stop, until you really and honestly know that you cannot go on.” Throughout her long career, she remained true to this pledge - she was a “writing engine”. With the publication of her journals, we can now see the “writing behind the writing” and appreciate fully the prodigious effort that went into her published work. AR’s notes, typically handwritten, were spread among numerous boxes of papers she left behind at her death in 1982. My editing of this material has consisted of selection, organization, line editing, and insertion of explanatory comments. Selection. This book presents AR’s working journals - i.e. the notes in which she developed her literary and philosophical ideas. Notes of a personal nature will be included in a forthcoming authorized biography.’

Many if not most of the entries in Journals of Ayn Rand (which can be previewed online at Googlebooks) are not dated, and those that are tend to be more associated with her philosophical musings (as opposed to those about her novels). Here are a few samples (the last concerns her work for Hal Wallis on the atomic bomb screenplay):

9 April 1934
‘The human race has only two unlimited capacities: for suffering and for lying. I want to fight religion as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering.

I believe - and I want to gather all the facts to illustrate this - that the worst curse on mankind is the ability to consider ideals as something quite abstract and detached from one’s everyday life. The ability to live and think quite differently, thus eliminating thinking from your actual life. This applied not to deliberate and conscious hypocrites, but to those more dangerous and hopeless ones who, alone with themselves and to themselves, tolerate a complete break between their convictions and their lives, and still believe that they have convictions. To them, either their ideals or their lives are worthless - and usually both.

I hold religion mainly responsible for this. I want to prove that religion breaks a character before it’s formed, in childhood, by teaching a child lies before he knows what a lie is, by breaking him of the habit of thinking before he has begun to think, by making him a hypocrite before he knows any other possible attitude to life. [. . .]

Why are men so afraid of pure, logical reasoning? Why do they have a profound, ferocious hatred of it? Are instincts and emotions necessarily beyond the control of plain thinking? Or were they trained to be? Why is a complete harmony between mind and emotions impossible? Isn’t it merely a matter of strict mental honesty? And who stands at the very bottom denying such honesty? Isn’t it the church?

I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.’

6 November 1944
‘The art of writing is the art of doing what you think you’re doing. This is not as simple as it sounds. It implies a very difficult undertaking: the necessity to think. And it implies the requirement to think out three separate, very hard problems: What is it you want to say? How are you going to say it? Have you really said it?

It’s a coldly intellectual process. If your emotions do not proceed from your intellect, you will not be able to apply it, even if you know all the rules. The mental ability of a writer determines the literary level of his output. If you grasp only home problems well, you’ll only be a writer of good homey stories. (But what about Tolstoy?)’

25 January 1946
‘Interview with Mrs Oppenheimer: Test was referred to as “Trinity”. Test was on a Monday - the next Saturday Mrs. Oppenheimer gave a party - evening dress. Mood was one of relief. After Hiroshima they did not feel like celebrating. The Oppenheimers were the first family to move to Los Alamos. [The town] had about 30 people then - a big dormitory for scientists in one of the schoolrooms. The Oppenheimers lived in one of the masters’ houses of the old school. Community life was much friendlier and more harmonious than in other cities - higher mental level. Dr Oppenheimer took job only on condition that his essential workers would know the secret. A great part of their work was spent in meetings and conferences. At first, scientists were afraid of possible German atomic research, but later learned there was none. Scientists worked in order to save lives and end the war. Was it in order to beat the Germans to the discovery? “Good God, no!” ’

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