Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric

Reasoning why

Read the first half of this post here

In some lighter posts, I’ll come onto the severe weaknesses in Rand’s writing which I believe she cannot control, and which generated some of the fun that kept me sane during the harder going parts. But I think it’s clear that partially Roark’s bizarre construction is an intentional effect. Rand wants to create an embodiment of her virtues: if we were to describe Roark even in negative terms as unreflective, callous, monomaniacal or bone-headed, I can see the committed Randian openly embracing these qualities (though I suspect they would rather cast them as unswerving, selfish, focussed).

So why does it backfire so badly? I would challenge even the most starry-eyed devotee to find the Roark we’re given compelling. The narrative voice – and by extension Rand herself – chooses to spend more of the novel away from him than otherwise.  Even if we allow ourself to discount the rape scene – where the distancing is total, and he may as well be an incidental criminal – he comes out as a pretty second-rate kind of superman.

Some light can be shed on this by considering the soup of ethical philosophy that Rand adheres to. When trying to demonstrate what this philosophy might be like when put into practice, the limitations soon become embarrassingly clear. Rand wants ethics to be derived from the natural; she apes Nietzsche’s virtue ethics by claiming that the weak have conspired to constrain the strong and virtuous; but is interested only particular kinds of strength, by smuggling in a sentimental idea of the good without justification. We’ll see how this toxic mix has lead to a Howard Roark.

The natural heir

Unbeknownst to Rand, she has in common with the majority of philosophers the desire to ground ethics in the natural. This is a very long tradition of seeking virtues in natural excellences. Ultimately, we may seek to bridge the gap between the situation the world presents – the is – and what we believe to be normatively good – the ought – through some appeal to the natural world. As discussed in the ethics section, Rand is very equivocal on this point. On the one hand, she wants basic survival – surely the crudest way the natural world can influence – to be the only arbiter of the right. On the other hand, she has a very specific idea of how one should live correctly. Rationality is supposed to be the defining characteristic of man – and if you choose to survive by a different method, then you have become corrupt. Rand claims that in fact surviving irrationally is impossible in the long run – but you get the impression that even she knows this is terribly weak, and so any sensible formulation has to conclude that the payoff is supposed to be passive-aggressive: if you live as a moocher, then you have tarnished yourself by becoming irrational.

Why is Rand so concerned with making rationality the centre of – everything? For Rand, rationality does not mean, say, deductive logic, with its mathematical rigour. It does not even mean the broader type of induction that might be done by, say, scientists when observing the natural world. Rather, for Rand rationality means the acting in a narrowly defined correct way – corresponding to her world view. This is a tempting impulse – if all those people who disagreed with me would just be rational for once, then the world we be fine. Denying human pluralism can be a comforting thing – it means we can avoid all sorts of ethical dilemmas, and so many practical problems become the result of malevolence (rather than say, the good intentions of someone with a different order of values – shall we fund roads or the arts?). Fundamentally we have a nostalgic or sentimental philosophy, as we can see, smuggled in under the guise of a naturalistic ethics.

Because survival is such a poor guide, Rand needs to chose something else on which to base her idea of the natural right. Here, and otherwise, she broadly uses the instinct that those who produce or create something are the valuable, and those actions which produce something are the good. Rand is very narrow about this – art is supposed to be in the same category as, say, welding (and not just that they are equally valuable – but that they are the same essential activity).

Rand has to go through some serious contortions to keep the output of her ethics constant, while maintaining some sort of tether on the rational. So though even she has to admit that human minds work in different ways, she has to deny that there is anything else human-specific in the structure of how the mind works to make moral judgements (like a Kantian might, for instance). This brings her to a strange conclusion: even though there is one right moral answer, people must apparently work to reach it using their fixed rational apparatus.

The virtue ethics and elitism already brings her close to Nietzsche – but she also brings in a flimsy version of his moral genealogy. If the right is also the rational; and if we think that it will triumph in the long run anyway; then why is there so much filthy diversity in the world? For Nietzsche, the human condition was to be held in tension somewhere on the line to his artistic conception of the Superman:

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring

But for Rand it is much more clear-cut. The world is full of inferiorities, half-men, crowding out the chosen ones and actively keeping them down. The novel makes it clear that virtually everyone falls into this category – there is barely an incidental character that doesn’t have some kind of obvious slur against them. This can be used to explain why her formulation of virtue has been suppressed for so long.

Never meet your heroes

Let’s see how this cashes out in terms of the character she’s built (in a workshop, it feels) to represent all this. Rand needs

  • A hero with an natural sense of goodness

This is well and good, and you could say the same about many of Nabokov’s characters

  • A paragon from which we can infer virtues –

Care has to be taken here – a perfect character immediately risks becoming unbelievable and tipping over into parody (or becoming a pain in the arse) – but a skilled writer might have no problem

  • This goodness must be rooted in an intrinsic rational faculty
  • As rational, it and its products must be self-evidently correct
  • As intrinsic, it cannot be acquired or communicated – it must be innate and immediate
  • But, the faculty must not be the product of reflection, analysis, or self-critique
  • Simultaneously, the virtuous hero must perform some kind of “rational” work, but this work must be utterly unreflective – unthinking even
  • Nevertheless, the outcome is never in question – if truly virtuous, he will produce the exact same result. Only force will change the outcome.
  • Because the same faculty is supposed to work for everything, the hero’s virtue will be thoroughgoing – he will have no weaknesses or complexity
  • The majority of everybody will try to drag the hero down and stymie him.
  • But they will simultaneously know that really he is right

It’s the combination of these factors that make Roark so unbearable. He must be totally shallow, with no complexity of character, because his virtue must apply to everything equally. There can be no attempt to engage with anyone else with any serious implication that he will evolve – not only does he already know true virtue, but every attempt to suggest that decisions might be reached by some kind of debate or consensus must be met with: no, you already have all the reason you need if you are healthy. Likewise, he has to show not a bit of interest in the history or the architecture around him, because that too might risk importing a (gasp) influence. This makes him a real dick to be around most of the time – but Rand needs to wring something out of him, so every so often we get a direct blast of what is supposed to be pure virtue. To add to his shallowness, he must be totally unreflective about his work – so any inner life disappears, let alone complex contemplation. His narrative is already on rails because we know what the outcome must be: Roark will build his perfect building, Roark will never have to compromise or decide which aspects he values most, Roark will even pay for his building to be just so – so what if it bankrupts him? The novel will just save him in a couple of chapter’s time. These effects combine to give Roark’s most prominent surprising feature: his passivity.

This explains the shoddy treatment of architecture as well. Rand/Roark already knows all they’re ever going to need to about the subject – there’s nothing else beyond their own heads. If he just stays true to themselves and doesn’t let anybody poison his intrinsic knowledge of what’s good, his buildings will surpass anything else. A vibrant and multi-faceted subject can be reduced to a few principles – or platitudes, if the reader is sensitive.

He must be surrounded by the badies that try to keep him down. By having the luxury of surrounding her hero with straw men parroting risible values, it gives him something trivial to push against to assert his superiority – even if they are so obviously bad, Roark doesn’t gain very much in comparison (and sometimes manages to come off rather worse than them). Again, this is one area of the novel where Rand almost seems aware of how unappealing her hero is. We can imagine a world where Roark and his ilk are the supermen in charge – where there’s one right answer, anybody who disagrees is sick – and who knows how they’re dealt with. Such a world would seem pretty fascistic, and during the 40s this might have been unappealing even to Rand. So she keeps Roark firmly in the position of suppressed underdog.

The final point is extremely prevalent – Rand takes the time to note that basically everyone who bumps into Roark knows he’s right really, but for venal reasons don’t go along with him. The effect is one of the worst in the book, becoming rather nauseating as various characters kowtow to Roark. The very worst scene, of course, is the rape – but we have to look elsewhere to account for that.

I’ll include one last scene which combines a remarkable number of these aspects in one place. This is when Roark is being given the commission of a new building, but one minor thing has been changed which is not to his liking:

It was Roark’s building on the sketch … but it had a simplified Doric portico in front
“You see the point?” said the chairman soothingly. “Our conservatives simply refused to accept a queer stark building like yours. And they claim that the public won’t accept it either. So we hit upon a middle course.” …
Then Roark answered … the voice moved forward evenly, without stress, without color, each syllable spaced as by a machine … He spoke for a long time. He explained why this structure could not have a Classic motive on its façade. He explained why an honest building, like an honest man, had to be of one piece … if one smallest part committed treason to that idea—the thing or the creature was dead [long description]
“Mr. Roark, I agree with you. There’s no answer to what you’re saying. But unfortunately, in practical life, one can’t always be so flawlessly consistent.”

Roark knows the right answer; he will never compromise; unvirtuous men keep him down for no good reason; any deviation is like death; even at this apparently dramatic moment he talks “as by a machine”; we don’t even get his speech, rather the narrator describes him speaking; the outcome is inevitable; everybody agrees that he is right.


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