Alyssa—a Tribute

Nicholas Dykes's picture
Submitted by Nicholas Dykes on Wed, 2020-06-17 23:10

Alyssa – a Tribute

My warm and lasting appreciation of a true genius, Ayn Rand

Nicholas Dykes

I'm seventy-seven years old, the age at which Ayn Rand died – on March 6, 1982. Six years ago, on November 24, 2013, I suffered a near-fatal stroke, a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage, but was saved by the quick thinking of my wife, Rachel – who didn't panic, just got me into hospital as fast as possible – and by some brilliant modern surgery (I believe developed in the USA) carried out by Professor Stefan Zigmunt at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, assisted by neuroradiologist Dr Swarupsinh Chavda. The operation involved inserting a tiny camera and miniscule stents through my veins to seal the ruptured arteries. Professor Zigmunt did the insertion, Dr Chavda guided him to the ruptures.

I have made a truly remarkable recovery. I do have a few small residual physical defects, but I'm one of only about 15% of such stroke victims who survive reasonably intact. Dr Chavda told me afterwards that most simply drop dead, die in hospital anyway, or are left permanently crippled. Myself, I'm alive and well and happy and as grateful as any man can be to those I've mentioned. Every morning when I wake up I'm conscious of the indescribable preciousness of life, and know that without those people, and of course the many others who contributed unnamed in the background – ambulance drivers, hospital technicians, nurses – I would not be here to rejoice in it.

While recuperating, I put together collections of essays I had written over preceding years on Ayn Rand and Karl Popper in the form of electronic books for Kindle or other e-readers: Ayn Rand and I and Karl Popper and I. They are referenced on my website (nicholasdykes.com) and are available at very modest prices from Amazon. I then got on with other work, publishing a book of poetry, a novel, and writing another novel to which I am currently putting the finishing touches. Altogether six more years of productive and highly enjoyable life. I am a very lucky man.

Recently, two things happened. An e-friend, Lindsay Perigo in New Zealand, sent me a copy of a message he had posted which contained a long quote from Atlas Shrugged. I suddenly realised that it had to be fifteen years or more since I had read Rand's great novel. I went to the bookshelf and picked up my battered hardback copy, bought second hand in Hay-on-Wye some thirty years ago. Time for another look, I thought.

Almost simultaneously, I came across a reference elsewhere to a book by the Colorado journalist Ari Armstrong, entitled What's wrong with Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics? Intrigued, I went directly to Kindle Unlimited and borrowed a copy. Ari is right. Rand's ethics does need some work. Nonetheless, I found Ari's approach more than somewhat irritating. So, after getting to about page 80 I gave the book back.

What iritated me about Ari's book was, first, the absence of any mention of Rand's enormous achievements – in the face of tremendous obstacles: getting out of Soviet Russia; learning to write in a very different language, one which even used a different alphabet; breaking into the sceptical world of US publishing and, most difficult of all, developing a new philosophy which (as noted by her publisher Bennet Cerf) flew in the face of the insidious, all-entangling, Judeo-Christian tradition which has warped and undercut Western civilisation for two thousand years. Ayn Rand was an incredibly brave and insightful pioneer whose contribution to ethics alone was, as an American philosopher has pointed out so correctly, immense. And that is not to speak of her enrichment of American literature; of her very important contributions to epistemology and other areas of philosophy, such as aesthetics, and of providing a sound philosophical foundation for laissez-faire capitalism. Anybody who criticises Ayn Rand should at the very least acknowledge these facts before starting their critique. What would many of us be without her pioneering efforts? Second assistant bookkeepers?

Secondly, Ari indulges in a sort of continual carping over minor issues.

Third, his essay emits a tone, or sense, of superiority, as if what Ari claims is wrong with Ayn Rand's ethics was so obvious to him that it should have been equally obvious to Rand.

Fourth, by focussing on the narrow issue of survivability, Ari misses the point: Rand stressed again and again that the object of ethics was not mere survival, but man's survival qua man, which means living a fully rounded life replete with all the values, goals, joys and pleasures that a complete human life involves, and also engaging in the natural benevolence which flows from living a successful one.

Lastly, I don't recall seeing any reference to individual rights in Ari's essay, which are of course central to Rand's Objectivist ethics. The whole thrust of her philosophy is that the possession of rights to life, liberty and property means that each human being has the right to live for his or her own sake, neither sacrificing him or herself to others, nor others to themselves. Human beings owe nothing to anybody else, whether considered as a whole, a society, or individually as those less well off than oneself.

Naturally, not having read the whole book, I may be doing Ari an injustice. If so, I apologise profusely. If what I have just written is wrong or mistaken I shall be happy to retract. Perhaps I should have persevered. But judge and be prepared to be judged. At my age I cannot know how much time I have left, and I didn't want to waste another minute on a book I wasn't enjoying. The clincher was the perfectly serviceable yet rather arid style in which the book is written. (No pun intended, I don't do puns). Not very engaging.

When I decided to stop reading, it came to me that I was equally at fault. I have been very critical of Ayn Rand myself, particularly of the many flaws in her political theory, but I have never fully expressed just how much I owe her. To balance things up, therefore, I want to make it clear – out loud and at length – that Alysa Rosenbaum (I prefer Alyssa) from St Petersburg, Russia, who wrote as Ayn Rand, had the most profoundly beneficial effect on my life, and also to join the many others who have already done so in restating, no, trumpeting, loud and long, just how incredibly good she was, both as a writer and as a philosopher.

To repeat what I said in my Introduction to this collection, I first encountered Rand in 1963, in Montréal, Québec, shortly after arriving in Canada as a callow twenty-year-old immigrant. I took this slim little paperback called Anthem off a friend's bookshelf one Sunday morning. I'd seen it there for a while, but because I'd never heard of the author, I read most of the other books first. I've always been a voracious reader.

Anyhow, I opened the book, and was hooked from the first line: “It's a sin to write this.”

Perhaps being sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school at the age of seven and having the concept of 'sin' rammed down my throat for the next ten years had something to do with it; but the idea that it was a sin to write, evidently in secret, and in danger, was for me the grabhook of all time.

An hour or so later, I was in a state of near rapture. What an incredible book! The hundred-odd brief pages had more impact on me than anything or everything I'd read read up till then. That afternoon I read it again. After work next evening, I went straight to Montreal Public Library and to my delight found this massive novel, Atlas Shrugged. I don't think I need say any more. I've been an Objectivist ever since.

Going back a bit further, when I told my father one day – I was fifteen or sixteen at the time – that I'd love to go to Oxford University he told me “you are not university material.” My extremely expensive, private secondary boarding school evidently shared that view. The headmaster even suggested to my father that I should go to the local technical college and learn a trade. Perhaps my father meant 'you are not scholarship material (true enough perhaps) and I can't afford to send you to university without a scholarship'. Nonetheless, the lasting consequence of those parental and pastoral attitudes was that I left school aged seventeen with the conviction that I was not very bright.

However, reading Atlas inspired me to test that view. I first applied to McGill University in Montreal but, although I had two A levels, in English and French, I had not passed either Latin or Maths 'O' Level, so was rejected. The first subject I had thought pointless, who spoke Latin? The second I found utterly boring, a sentiment that continues to this day. I see numbers, and my brain goes on strike. Yet, eventually, I was admitted to Carleton University in Ottawa as a 'mature matriculant'. I was by then 24. To my complete astonishment I got 'A's in my first essays. Not so dumb after all.

I had intended to take a degree in philosophy. But when I found out that the philosophy faculty included a Jesuit priest, a Methodist minister, a card-carrying member of the Canadian Communist Party, a linguistic analyst and sundry others of that ilk, I took history instead. It was a struggle. I was a quarrelsome Randroid trying to overcome the negative self-assessment I had brought with me from England. It took a long time, including a break of two years, but eventually I got my degree in History. My parents flew over from England for the graduation ceremony. My father said nothing about his earlier judgement. Neither did I. I think I'd forgotten about it. But I'll stop there. The Introduction covers the rest of my intellectual story adequately enough.

What is so good about Ayn Rand? Many have criticised her writing style. Her writing is extremely economical so some find it cold and dry. But surely using only such words as are necessary is the essence of good writing? It also gives great power, which Rand's work has in abundance. The French have a word for it, 'dépaillé', which means 'straw removed'. There is no straw padding in Rand's work, nor any chaff. I don't think there's a spare comma in Atlas Shrugged, all 1168 pages of it. There is a bit of over-use of some terms, such as 'looter' but when used it is always exactly to the point.

A couple of brief examples to show how well she wrote will have to suffice here. This is from the account on page 49 of Jim Taggart's meeting with his cronies in a low, windowless, dank 'cellar' – the most expensive barroom in New York – at the top of a sixty-floor skyscraper: “There was a small bar in a dark corner of the room, where an old, wizened bartender stood for long stretches of time without moving. When called upon, he moved with contemptuous slowness. His job was that of servant to men's relaxation and pleasure, but his manner was that of an embittered quack ministering to some guilty disease.”

In total contrast, on page 95, here's a description of Dagny walking with Francisco during their childhood: “... later, when they went on through the woods, down a narrow path of damp earth, ferns and sunlight ....”. In scarce a dozen words Rand has taken us to a summer's day beside the Hudson River. There are few pages in my copy of the book without a thin pencil mark indicating a striking sentence or insight.

Rand has also been accused of poor characterisation. That is complete rubbish. In the first three chapters of the novel we are introduced to Eddie Willers, a loyal but bewildered employee; his childhood friend and forthright employer, Dagny Taggart, the book's brave, tough, incredibly hard-working heroine; her spiteful, parasitic and useless brother, Jim; Hank Rearden, one of the three main heroes, and my favourite, because of the struggles he has to fight through; his repellent wife, Lillian, and various minor characters, all depicted in lean, clear sentences which go directly to the essence of their personalities. John Galt, the main hero, is often criticised for being remote and inhuman. But when one thinks of what he set out to do, and achieved, he is a colossus, even if on a pedestal of attainment few of us can reach.

Atlas Shrugged is also startlingly prescient. There are thousands of Bertram Scudders in our 'mainstream media'. Industry is manned by many an Orren Boyle. Science has its share of Robert Stadlers. And, tragically, our youth has been educated by Dr Ferris and not by Dr Akston. Most significantly today, the Chinese Communist Party coronavirus would probably be no more worrisome than the common cold if the US Federal Drug Administration, and others like it worldwide, had not been so effective in stifling medical progress.

The plot of Atlas Shrugged is one of the marvels of world literature: long, complex, ingeniously mysterious, and perfectly integrated with the characters who make it unfold.

When one combines these elements together – writing, characters, plot – it is impossible to feel anything other than the uttermost contempt for those who deride Ayn Rand's ability. The worst was the former communist spy, American Whittaker Chambers, a repulsive, craven nobody, who wrote in the Roman Catholic-edited journal National Review, “from almost any page of Atlas Shrugged a voice can be heard .... commanding: 'To a gas chamber – go!'” which has to be the most despicable lie and libel ever printed in Rand's adopted homeland. William Buckley, the editor, deserved the tortures of his imaginary Hell as much as did his traitorious pal Chambers for allowing such filth into his second-rate, tawdry journal.

Much more recently, in the UK, we have seen a similar, though less poisonous, effort from a publisher's editor who wrote a spiteful little smear piece in a now defunct A3 magazine comparing Rand to a science fiction writer (of whom I still haven't heard twenty years later) saying 'he could really write' as if Rand couldn't. The editor's own claim to recognition at the time – a turgid, boring thesis, almost entirely devoid of concrete evidence for his case – hardly even ranks as a doorstop. Perhaps needless to say, what animated the man's spite was deep and long-held prejudice. The editor was a devotee of one of Rand's opposites, the arch-sceptic Karl Popper, whose own heroes were Hume and Kant.

Ayn Rand the philosopher has met with similar disdain. Failing to conform to the nihilism, subjectivism, determinism, cynicism, scepticism and other isms of 'modern philosophy', or the sheer gibberish of clowns like Wittgenstein, she is usually dismissed as an inconsequential amateur. I once heard a contemporary philosopher, who had been highly influenced by Rand, Tibor Machan, admit to an audience in London, UK, that he found acknowledging her influence on him to professional colleagues to be an 'embarrassment'.

The heart of the matter is that philosophy after Hume and Kant slowly degenerated into literal nothingness, as the German National Socialist Martin Heidegger, and the French communist Jean-Paul Sartre, would have us believe is its proper destiny. Rand, in sharp contrast, sought to redirect the discipline into its true objective: creating a guide for human beings on how they might live successfully and happily on earth. Her greatest strength was her perceptiveness, her ability to think hard about a philosophical topic then to see right through to the core of it and thus to observe what was wrong with current fashionable trends.

Typical of this was her approach to concept formation in the most crucial area of philosophy, epistemology, the study of the foundations of knowledge. The American philosopher Wallace Matson said Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology was the best work in philosophy he'd read in fifty years. And, as a professional teacher of philosophy, he didn't read much else. Likewise, another professional, whose name I can't remember (age and a stroke don't help memory) said Rand's contribution to ethics was 'immense.'

But Rand was not a member of the gang. She didn't engage in elaborate games with symbolic logic, nor contribute to journals where 'publish or perish' professionals competed in showing off obscure erudition to obscurantist peers. She was too clear, too blunt, too popular, too financially successful to be taken seriously in academe, except by a discerning few. There are many able men and women who have taught philosophy to students over the years but those who realise, or know, or acknowledge publicly, just how great a contribution Rand made to philosophy are few and far between.

Did Ayn Rand ever go wrong? Of course. She was human. Some instances. She was mistaken in her view of politics; government is not the necessity she thought. She knew little or nothing about anthropology and hence misunderstood and misrepresented the role of chiefs in early societies. She was mistaken in her analysis of the nature of human romantic love and was very unrealistic about it in her own life. She ignored the vital part played in human life by our inherited nature as animal beings. She over-emphasised the role of reason in our lives and tended to treat emotions as substantially less important. In aesthetics, she thought music had meaning, rather than accepting that it merely echoed the shape of our emotions in another form. But for someone who was breaking so much new ground, and who achieved so much in other areas, her mistakes hardly matter.

Rand was also difficult to know as a person. Barbara Branden's excellent biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Nathaniel Branden's Judgement Day, make this clear. Rand was prickly and pernickety; took criticism badly; demanded total agreement with her every dictum; couldn't understand joshing humour, as displayed most notably in her break with John Hospers; bore grudges; was occasionally dishonest, or at least was so focussed on her own views that she was unaware of behaving in conflict with them herself; and, shame on her, didn't like Shakespeare – or Beethoven!

Otherwise, to me, she was the closest thing to a goddess there ever was. I do not worship her, the way some of her followers do, taking her every word as Gospel. I don't do worship. I do love her though. And, for myself, love is quite enough. I shall love Alyssa to my dying breath.

Nicholas Dykes, Herefordshire, England, June 2020.


Don't

Mr_Lineberry's picture

worry - no spoilers

You may find this is a perfect example of what both Rand and Nicholas mean; a man who goes through life full of pride in himself at his ability to bother only with logic. Watch right to the end for the shock of your life... Eye

St Nicholas Is Right and Wrong

Lindsay Perigo's picture

She was mistaken in her view of politics; government is not the necessity she thought.

Ayn was right, Nicholas is wrong. See CHOP.

She was mistaken in her analysis of the nature of human romantic love and was very unrealistic about it in her own life.

St Nicholas is right, Ayn was wrong. See Romance and Rationalism on this site.

She ignored the vital part played in human life by our inherited nature as animal beings.

Nick right, Ayn wrong.

She over-emphasised the role of reason in our lives and tended to treat emotions as substantially less important.

Not a good characterisation. Her mistake was to say that not only should emotions not over-ride reason, but also that in a rational man they are never in conflict.

In aesthetics, she thought music had meaning, rather than accepting that it merely echoed the shape of our emotions in another form.

Nick egregiously wrong here. This puzzles me, since I pointed it out to him privately, but he persisted anyway. Here's what Ayn said:

It is in terms of his fundamental emotions—i.e., the emotions produced by his own metaphysical value-judgments—that man responds to music.

Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.

Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion—until and unless it unites with one’s own sense of life. But since the music’s emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way.

Nick goes on:

Rand was also difficult to know as a person. Barbara Branden's excellent biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Nathaniel Branden's Judgement Day, make this clear. Rand was prickly and pernickety; took criticism badly; demanded total agreement with her every dictum; couldn't understand joshing humour, as displayed most notably in her break with John Hospers; bore grudges; was occasionally dishonest, or at least was so focussed on her own views that she was unaware of behaving in conflict with them herself; and, shame on her, didn't like Shakespeare – or Beethoven!

Right and wrong, and too reliant on the Brandens' tawdry tabloid cashings-in on Ayn's corpse, saying what they wouldn't dare say while she was alive. Being difficult to know and all of that twaddle is just touchy-feely snowflake psychobabble. Who cares if she was prickly?!

Shakespeare and Beethoven? Ayn definitely wrong. But Shakespeare certainly needed an editor; Ayn didn't! As Nick observes, a model of economy. Willie had to write to keep live crowds amused for hours in a time long before sow-phones, so there was lots of flannel.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.