Things that don’t exist, but should:
Things that don’t exist, but should:
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.
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.
Insightful quote from Adam Bates:
Q: What is it about the libertarian movement that attracts as you say, “rape apologists, Islamophobes, and nativists?”
A: I think there are two largely distinct strains of belief that lead people to anarchism/libertarianism. One is a fundamental commitment to the liberation of others, and the other is a fundamental and exclusive commitment to the liberation of oneself or one’s tribe.
Both of those sets of people are going to be anti-government, both of them are going to be largely non-interventionist, both of them are going to feel like they support liberty (albeit one definition is universal and the other is tribal), and I think libertarianism has obvious appeal beyond the alternatives.
But with the rise of the social justice movement and increasing global connectivity, we’re seeing that distinction grow starker by the minute. The “tribaltarians” aren’t going to support immigration, they’re not going to support race or culture mixing, they’re not going to support trade, they’re not going to accept any arguments about collective crimes against groups of people that aren’t them, they’re going to recoil at any and every effort to erase the philosophical and moral buffers between “them” and “us.”
So I get it. I get how they got here. But if there ever was a reason for these two groups of people to caucus together, it has now evaporated entirely.
I’m also reminded of Rand’s analysis of tribalism [link goes to an MS Word document]. (The fact that Rand herself was frequently guilty of tribalism doesn’t make her analysis any less useful.)
I just got back from seeing Atomic Blonde, which was a lot of fun (especially for those of us who came of age in the 80s). But it really made me sad once again that Charlize Theron never got her wish to play Dagny Taggart, because she would have been perfect.
But hey, when Daniel Craig finally stops teasing and finally gives up playing Bond, Theron could totally replace him.
In a recent defense of mandatory national service, establishment media apparatchik Mark Shields writes:
Contrary to Ayn Rand, we all do owe much to each other and to our country. And mandatory two-year national service – civilian or military – is imperative to help us understand the responsibility, as well as the rights, of citizenship and build our connections with our fellow citizens. Two years, with no deferments and no exemptions.
It’s an unintended compliment to Ayn Rand that Shields feels the need to bash her in order to defend slavery.
In We the Living, Rand describes a song that was popular in Russia during the early years of the Soviet era:
Historians will write of the “Internationale” as the great anthem of the revolution. But the cities of the revolution had their own hymn. In days to come, the men of Petrograd will remember those years of hunger and struggle and hope – to the convulsive rhythm of “John Gray.” … It was called a fox-trot. It had a tune and a rhythm such as those of the new dances far across the border, abroad. It had very foreign lyrics about a very foreign John Gray …. Its gaiety was sad; its abrupt rhythm was hysterical; its frivolity was a plea, a moan for that which existed somewhere, forever out of reach.
Rand translates the first stanza as follows:
Was brave and daring,
Was very pretty.
John fell in love with
Hard to restrain –
His feelings plain,
Said ‘No’ to that!
I’ve long suspected that We the Living’s “John Gray” inspired Atlas Shrugged’s “John Galt” (and likewise that We the Living’s “Café Diggy-Daggy” inspired Atlas’s “Dagny”).
Michael Berliner, in his invaluable article “The Music of We the Living” (in Robert Mayhew’s Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living), tracks down most of the real-life music that Rand refers to in the book. But “John Gray” seems to have eluded him.
In contrast to other cases, he does not identify its composer; he also says that there are “no standard lyrics to this song,” and in evidence he offers some lyrics completely different from those Rand cites:
In a faraway southern land
Where blizzards do not blow
There once was a handsome man
John Gray, the cowboy,
John Gray, strong and rakish
As tall as Hercules
As brave as Don Quixote
But I’ve managed to track down some more info, thanks to the internet and a hazy memory of college Russian, and in fact the song Rand referred to has a known composer, and seems to have canonical lyrics as well; the “cowboy” lyrics, as we’ll see, are a red herring.
The composer is Matvei Blanter (1903-1990), one of the Soviet Union’s most popular composers, who wrote “John Gray” (“Dzhon Grei”) in 1923. And the lyrics, by Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), are the ones Rand cites. Here’s a link to a page with the song’s Russian lyrics, naming Blanter and Mass, followed by a copy of the original sheet music likewise featuring Blanter’s name.
And here’s the song itself:
This is clearly the version Rand discusses. The tune matches her description, and as for the words, one doesn’t need much familiarity with Russian to identify “Kat skazala nyet!”
Here are a couple of instrumental versions; the first one does a particularly good job of capturing the “sad gaiety” of which Rand speaks:
(It’s funny how Rand thinks the “John Gray” song sounds so foreign and un-Russian, since to me it sounds utterly Russian, or possibly Russian-Jewish.)
What about the “cowboy” lyrics that Berliner cites? It turns out that they come from a completely different song, with not only different words but different music. The song’s lyrics may mention a “John Gray,” but its title is “In a Far-off Southern Land” (“V Stranye Dalëkoi Yuga”). I haven’t been able to track down any author for the song. But here it is:
As you can see (well, hear), while the two songs have some musical similarity – enough to suggest the possibility of influence (though the direction of influence can’t be determined without knowing the date of “In a Far-off Southern Land”) – the tunes aren’t the same (and to my ear, that of “John Gray” is the more complex and sophisticated of the two).
Well, that’s all.