Hard Rock Laughed

The first time I ever heard of Etheridge Knight’s poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” was in a pearl-clutching 1983 screed by Leonard Peikoff titled “Assault from the Ivory Tower: The Professors’ War Against America.” (I believe I actually heard it first as a local Boston radio broadcast of a Ford Hall Forum talk. I was quite a bit more Randian in these days, but I knew enough to recognise many of his claims as bullshit; see addendum below.) Peikoff, high priest of the High Randian Church, writes:

If you want still more, turn to art – for instance, poetry – as it is taught today in our colleges. For an eloquent example, read the widely used Norton’s Introduction to Poetry, and see what modern poems are offered to students alongside the recognized classics of the past as equally deserving of study, analysis, respect. One typical entry, which immediately precedes a poem by Blake, is entitled “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” The poem begins: “Hard Rock was ‘known not to take no shit / From nobody’ …’ and continues in similar vein throughout. This item can be topped only by the volume’s editor, who discusses the poem reverently, explaining that it has a profound social message: “the despair of the hopeless.” Just as history is what historians say, so art today is supposed to be whatever the art world endorses, and this is the kind of stuff it is endorsing. After all, the modernists shrug, who is to say what’s really good in art? Aren’t Hard Rock’s feelings just as good as Tennyson’s or Milton’s?

Observe (as Randians like to say) that Peikoff feels no need to offer any argument or evidence that “Hard Rock Returns …” is a bad poem; he just leads with a sneer, expecting his herd of independent-minded followers to sneer obediently along with him.

Leonard Peikoff

Or are the quoted lines, along with the title, supposed to constitute the evidence all by themselves? Well then, what’s so self-evidently bad about the snippets Peikoff gives us? Is it that the quoted lines are ungrammatical? Then so much the worse for Mark Twain. Is it that Knight uses the word “shit”? Then so much the worse for Jonathan Swift. Is it that the lives of convicts and the mentally ill are inappropriate subjects for high art? Then so much the worse for Rand’s beloved Hugo and Dostoyevsky. Indeed so much the worse for Rand herself, who said that “for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal – a social outcast – can be an eloquent symbol.”

In addition to getting the name of the anthology wrong (it’s the Norton Introduction, not Norton’s Introduction), Peikoff also misses the point of the poem; it’s not about “Hard Rock’s feelings” but rather the feelings of his fellow inmates. Perhaps Peikoff would have benefited from taking some of those classes he shudders at.

As for myself, I think it’s a damn good poem; and I guess I should thank Peikoff for introducing me to it. I also think it’s a poem concerning which anyone who claims to care about such things as heroic individualism and oppressive government ought to have been able to find something more intelligent to say than Peikoff managed. And it strikes me that the closing lines about “the doer of things / We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do” would not even be out of place in the pages of The Fountainhead or Ideal.

But judge for yourself.

Addendum: In the same essay, Peikoff also offers the following summary of Lawence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning:

A social psychologist from Harvard, who also regards that code [= altruism and self-sacrifice] as self-evident, has devised a test to measure a person’s level of moral reasoning. … Here is a typical example. “Your spouse is dying from a rare cancer, and doctors believe a drug recently discovered by the town pharmacist may provide a cure. The pharmacist, however, charges $2,000 for the drug (which costs only $200 to make). You can’t afford the drug and can’t raise the money. …

Now comes the answer – six choices, and you must pick one; the answers are given in ascending order, the morally lowest first. The lowest is: not to steal the drug (not out of respect for property rights, that doesn’t enter even on the lowest rung of the test, but out of fear of jail). The other five answers all advocate stealing the drug; they differ merely in their reasons.

Thankfully, despite my youthful Randianism I knew enough in 1983 about theories of moral development to recognise that Peikoff is simply wrong; Kohlberg’s stages of development do not differ as to whether to steal the drug. Answers in favour of stealing and in favour of not stealing are found at every level; the levels differ only as to the kinds of reasons offered for stealing or for not stealing. (See, e.g., here.) That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to criticise about Kohlberg’s test; but Peikoff’s criticism is bogus, a sloppy failure to distinguish examples of answers from criteria for kinds of answer. He also takes Kohlberg’s test to be an evaluation of higher and lower levels as better and worse, whereas Kohlberg presents it value-neutrally, merely as a way of identifying earlier and later stages of psychological development.

Peikoff also expresses horror at a college course on “the different ways in which the handicapped individual and the idea of handicap have been regarded in Western Civilization,” with reference to such figues as “the fool, the madman, the blind beggar, and the witch.” What on earth, then, would Peikoff make of an author whose favourite play was about a man whose life is blighted by a fantastically large nose, and whose favourite novelist wrote books starring a hunchback and a man with a permanent grin carved onto his face?

Peikoff closes his essay by warning his readers/listeners that if they are of an individualist mindset and choose to pursue a university education, they will be in for a “miserable experience,” a “nightmare,” in which they will meet with “every kind of injustice, and even hatred,” will be “unbelievably bored most of the time,” and will generally be “alone and lonely.” The contrast between this gloomy prophecy and the joyous intellectual excitement that actually characterised my college years probably played a role in fueling my increasing skepticism of Randian dogma.


16 Responses to Hard Rock Laughed

  1. dL January 2, 2018 at 6:23 pm #

    “Your spouse is dying from a rare cancer, and doctors believe a drug recently discovered by the town pharmacist may provide a cure. The pharmacist, however, charges $2,000 for the drug (which costs only $200 to make). You can’t afford the drug and can’t raise the money.

    I find that to be an archaic casting of the moral problem. It is not the pharmicist who charges $2,000 for the drug; instead it is the pharmacological firm. The price is not $2,000. Instead it is, say, $2,000,000.00. Few, if any, would trespass onto the premises of said firm to physically steal the drug from inventory. Instead, someone would likely turn to the generic black market to procure the magic cancer pill regimen(noting there is no such thing as a single dose magic cancer pill, but there might be such a thing as magic cancer pill regimen that requires regular doage for an extened period of time). In effect, the moral agent in question has physically stolen nothing from the firm. Hence, to retain the problem of a moral quandry, the moral agency turns to the pharmacological firm. Then the 6 choices, as hypothetical responses to competitive consumer preference, might apply to the firm.

    RE: Rand. For me, the disconnect came with reading her nonfictional work. I noticed a certain proclivity to quote herself(i.e, her fictional characters) as a type of independent confirmation. Her Plato + Augustine + Kant axis of evil diatribes were ludicrious. No, Kant was an evil collectivist intent on restoring mysticism to its proper place above reason. To the contrary, it was Kant who sought to restore reason from the ravages of the empiricists, most notably, David Hume. She straw-manned Kant. And, inexplicably, defied mystics like Thomas Aquinas.

    An observation that would come later is the extent her cult of personality borrowed from the right-wing persecution complex. And the extent her devoted acolytes are just as whiny as the characters like Wesley Mouch she pilloried in her novels.

  2. dL January 2, 2018 at 6:44 pm #



  3. Irfan Khawaja January 4, 2018 at 12:00 am #

    This post was a real blast from the past for me. I encountered Objectivism somewhat later in life and later in time than you did, and I still remember vividly reading Peikoff’s essay and my reaction to it. The essay was anthologized in “The Voice of Reason,” which came out in 1990, when I was a junior in college and new to Objectivism. I bought it in the college bookstore just around the time it came out, and remember being happy that Objectivism wasn’t just a thing of the past: books were still being published!

    I was at the time an intern for the National Association of Scholars, the organization that launched the crusade against campus “political correctness”:


    I had some sympathy for the cause, but wasn’t sold on it: I was mostly doing the internship for the money ($10 an hour, 20 hours a week). I also got to meet and have dinner with Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb a week after a letter of mine had been printed in the Wall Street Journal, insulting Irving Kristol (for his views on Israel). He looked at me funny but somehow, the issue never came up during dinner.

    Peikoff’s essay struck me at the time (and strikes me now) as an idiosyncratic contribution to the already-tired-by-1990 literature on “the excesses of the campus left”: smarter than Roger Kimball but dumber than Roger Scruton. I do remember specifically thinking two things about his comments on “Hard Rock”:

    1. Objectivism has no doctrinal position on poetry. Obviously, Peikoff regards his claims as at least consistent with Objectivism. But if there is no Objectivist position on poetry, how is that possible? Is his view a subtle inference from some existing aesthetic doctrine, or is it just Peikoff exercising his independent thought by formulating his own doctrine?

    2. Does he mention Blake in the context of the discussion of Hard Rock because he regards Blake as worthy of inclusion in a way Hard Rock is not? But why not exclude Blake as an irrational mystic? If bizarre, inscrutable feeling-worship is disqualifying in poetry, why valorize Blake? What would he say about Wordsworth?

    I think what I was getting at was really a third set of questions, which was something like:

    3. What the fuck is he talking about? Does he know, or is he just outright bullshitting us about everything he says here?

    I regret how long it took me to get to the stage where (3) became my cognitive default setting in dealing with claims from Peikoff.

    I wouldn’t precisely call my own college experience a time of “joyous intellectual excitement,” but it certainly wasn’t a “miserable experience,” a “nightmare” or an exile in boredom of the sort Peikoff predicted. It was lonely but never boring–grad school aside, the most exciting, engaging time of my life, an intellectual buzz that’s lasted decades and will probably sustain me until the end of my life.

    I’d always meant to read the poem, but never took the time to look for it. So while you get to thank Peikoff for introducing you to it, I get to thank you for linking to it. This is one of those times in my life when I’m very happy to be the person I am rather than someone else.

    • Roderick January 4, 2018 at 12:45 am #

      Yeah, I likewise noticed his treating Blake as worthy here in order to contrast him with Knight, when he probably wouldn’t like Blake in other contexts. Though it can be surprisingly had to predict what literature Randians will like. if one read only Rand’s theoretical aesthetic passages without any of her examples (and without any of her own fiction), one would be hard pressed to predict some of her aesthetic preferences, such as Dostoyevsky and Sinclair Lewis.

      • Roderick January 4, 2018 at 12:50 am #

        I remember being at an Objectivist student meeting over at MIT’s Ergo when they were talking about what project to do next, and someone suggested holding a public burning of The Critique of Pure Reason. Thankfully the others rejected the idea, but the suggestion creeped me out.

        A little later I was making some sort of joke about being a Kantian, and one of the members took me aside and told me to be careful, saying, “I know you actually hate Kant, but some of our younger members might not realise you were joking.” And i remember thinking: “Well, I disagree with Kant, but do I hate him? I don’t think so.”

        • Irfan Khawaja January 4, 2018 at 11:29 pm #

          Was Ergo was an ARI-affiliated publication? I missed out on the whole ARI-sponsored part of the movement. I got into Objectivism around 1990, after the split, but knowing nothing about it. All I knew was that one wing of the movement was on the East Coast, and the other was on the West Coast, and being on the East Coast myself, it’d be cheaper to get involved with the East Coast wing of the movement. After I got there, it occurred to me that I’d made a momentous choice.

          The closest we East Coast Objectivists ever came to burning Kant’s work was during the 1991 Summer Seminar at Franklin & Marshall College. George Walsh gave a series of presentations on Kant’s ethics. (And if there was a closet Kantian among us, it was George.) Despite the relatively sedate character of George’s criticisms (“criticisms”) of Kant, someone got the idea of creating T-shirts featuring the name “Kant” in a red circle with a slash through it. We all found this hilarious (in my defense, I was all of 22). So we went out to some bar one night, wearing these ridiculous T-shirts, and encountered a white supremacist biker gang there (I’m not making this up). For some reason, the members of this gang misread “Kant” as “the Klan,” and got angry at us for wearing anti-Klan T-shirts. Being the only non-white Objectivist in the entire group–and half-coincidentally, the only teetotaler–I made a very early decision to get the hell out of there. But the others, less egoistically inclined, stayed around to remonstrate with the gang. One guy, if I remember, tried to make a very bad argument to bridge the gap between the two groups, pointing out that Kant and the Klan were different things (that part was OK), and then trying to produce a Rawls-type argument, forging an overlapping consensus between Objectivism and the Klan. That was about the time I fled.

          The only interaction I had with ARI was as a grad student. I went to Chicago one day to stroll around the campus of the University of Chicago, and encountered a guy furtively stapling flyers to bulletin boards and telephone poles near campus. I read a few of them, and figured out that he was advertising meetings for (an ARI-affiliated) Objectivist campus club. I somehow was not aware at the time that all Objectivist campus clubs were ARI-affiliated.

          Delighted, I walked right up to him in this puppy-doggish way and said, “Hi! Are you associated with the Objectivist Club here?” His eyes grew wide with fright. “No, no, no, no, no,” he muttered. “I’m doing this for…a friend.” “Oh,” I said, “unfazed. “Well, I’m an Objectivist myself. and I’m kind of interested in attending some meetings.” Suddenly, the guy’s demeanor changed. “Oh!” he rejoined. “You’re an Objectivist! Well, actually, I’m the President of the Club.” He launched into some pompous speech about something or other. I was tempted to point out that five seconds ago he’d said he wasn’t associated with the group. I never caught his name, and never attended a meeting. What a goofball. “Objectivist Club President was known to eat shit/Everybody’s shit…”

        • Roderick January 5, 2018 at 3:32 am #

          Was Ergo was an ARI-affiliated publication?

          This was before ARI existed. But no, they had no official connection to the Randian establishment. And they once were chastised by the high-church Randians for “exploiting” Rand’s popularity by handing out copies of Ergo to people in line to hear her speak at Ford Hall Forum. To their credit, they were unmoved.

          I lost touch with those folks before the Peikoff/Kelley split, so I’m not sure who went which way when that happened, though I recall seeing a few names that seem to have gone Kelley-ward.

          forging an overlapping consensus between Objectivism and the Klan

          Oh man, they’d fit into day’s political scene perfectly.

          “No, no, no, no, no,” he muttered. “I’m doing this for…a friend.”

          Did he have a face without pain or fear or guilt?

        • Roderick January 5, 2018 at 3:40 am #

          Some reference points for those playing along at home:

          1982: Ayn Rand’s death.

          1982-1984: My association with Ergo.

          1985: Founding of the Ayn Rand Institute (the Peikoff wing).

          1989-1990: The Peikoff/Kelley split, and founding of the Institute for Objectivist Studies a.k.a. the Objectivist Center a.k.a. the Atlas Society (the Kelley wing).

  4. Irfan Khawaja January 4, 2018 at 12:05 am #

    Sorry, I wrote “Hard Rock” up there as though Hard Rock were the author of the poem–I should have written “Knight.”

    • Roderick January 4, 2018 at 12:45 am #

      I assumed it was just a plug for the Cafe.

  5. Irfan Khawaja January 4, 2018 at 11:58 pm #

    I finally read the poem. It’s a brilliant poem.

    Peikoff’s response to it (I hypothesize) has a fairly transparent meaning: a certain kind of Objectivist is conspicuously committed to the “benevolent universe premise.” This premise, on one simple-minded reading, asserts that the world is a fundamentally good place, fundamentally or “essentially” amenable–or conducive–to survival, flourishing, happiness, and success. Art, being an “essentialization” of one’s metaphysical value judgments, ought always to be focused on people in these positive states, or at least people in transition to them and successfully making the transition. An art form that reflects too long on death, misfortune, unhappiness, or failure betrays a morbid fascination with these things, and thereby betrays a warped personal metaphysics (hence, a failure of moral character, and above all, a failure to internalize the benevolent universe premise).

    “Hard Rock” does just that: instead of exalting the positive, it valorizes a felon. So the rejection of “Hard Rock” is the perfect form of virtue-signaling for one’s commitment to the benevolent universe principle. In Peikoff’s case, I strongly suspect that it is as much a case of virtue-signaling as an invitation to others to start virtue-signaling among themselves in imitation of him. Such Objectivists would tell you, sincerely, that their rejection of the poem was the ultimate proof of their benevolence.

    I labored for a long time in the delusional belief that the Objectivist movement was itself a fundamentally good thing–that there was nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by way of whatever was right with it. It took a long time to figure out (I’m almost 50, for Christ’s sake) that one can’t make common cause with people who think this way. And considering how many Objectivists think this way, it’s no longer a mystery to me why my delusion was a delusion.

    “We could not fool ourselves for long.” A few decades, maybe. But not that many decades.

    • Roderick January 5, 2018 at 3:26 am #

      Many (not all) of Rand’s theoretical aesthetic pronouncements do lend themselves to a simplistic positive-attitude approach. But her actual aesthetic preferences (e.g., Hugo, Schiller, Dostoyevsky, Rostand) suggest a high tolerance for the tragic (and for a focus on people who are criminals or disfigured or — in the case of Dostoyevsky’s characters — somewhat mentally disturbed). And of course she not only wrote the tragic We the Living which one might think is a special case since it’s set in a dictatorship, but even in stories set in the semi-free u.s., such as Ideal and The Fountainhead, she depicts society as so awful that it destroys most good people, and the few who survive do so only by dint of almost superhuman effort.

      She was also a fan of Sinclair Lewis, whose vision of society as one of stifling, banal conformity she embraced and used as a background for her un-Lewisian protagonists.

      • Irfan Khawaja January 5, 2018 at 1:33 pm #

        Even at the height of my enthusiasm for Objectivism, I found Rand’s aesthetic views a lost cause. The connection between the theoretical principles and the examples used to “illustrate” them was often so unclear that in reading her, you faced the constant dilemma: should you focus on the overarching theoretical structure, or focus on the first-order claims about specific pieces of art?

        Even in the cases of Hugo and Dostoevsky, she qualifies her admiration for them in ways that tend to reinforce the simplistic positive-attitude approach. She tells us that she admires Dostoevsky for the way he integrates plot and theme in his novels, and his “merciless dissection of the psychology of evil,” then tells us that his philosophical views and sense of life are “almost diametrically opposed to mine.” I’d have paid a lot to know what the “almost” referred to. But could his dissection of evil really cohere with hers if his philosophical views and sense of life were so opposed to hers? It’s the sort of puzzle she never resolves, despite the baffles it produces. Elsewhere, she says that an artist who puts “monsters” front and center and then demands sympathy for them crawls “outside the realm of values.” So much, I guess, for Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and the “Penny Dreadful” series. But doesn’t Dostoevsky do just that? Aren’t we supposed to feel sympathy (however complex or attenuated) for Rasolnikov and the Brothers Karamazov? Perhaps she had answers to such questions, but I’ve now lost patience with the idea that it’s the reader’s job to guess at them. It’s unsurprising, in this light, that some readers stop guessing, overlook the idiosyncratic nature of her aesthetic preferences, and just fast-forward to simple-minded versions of the dogmas (or “doctrines,” as I was taught to call them).

  6. Irfan Khawaja February 19, 2018 at 6:25 pm #

    I think you’ll be gratified to learn that this post not only inspired me to go out and read the poem for the first time, but inspired me to offer to read it at my university’s annual poetry reading next week, in honor of Black History Month. Will mention this post as part of my introduction to the poem, to explain why I decided to choose it for the reading. Thereby giving you everlasting fame (or notoriety) at Felician University, the Franciscan University of New Jersey. Hard Rock gets the last laugh.

    • Roderick February 20, 2018 at 12:18 am #

      Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Hard Rock.

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