Alyssa – a Tribute (amended)

Nicholas Dykes's picture
Submitted by Nicholas Dykes on Mon, 2020-06-29 00:16

Alyssa – a Tribute (amended)

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 anybody 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 reread 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. However, I thought there was much to question about Ari's approach. I stopped reading at about page 80 and, in the first version of this essay, wrote five paragraphs which were very critical of his book, saying amongst other things that he had not given Rand any credit for her enormous achievements despite huge obstacles, such as escaping from Soviet Russia; learning how to write in a very different language; breaking into the sceptical world of US publishing, and developing a new philosophy which flew in the face of the insidious, omnipresent Judeo-Christian tradition which has so undercut and warped Western civilisation. I sent Ari a copy. He immediately wrote back, justifiably angry, and pointed to his page 20, where he does indeed give Rand considerable credit.

I no longer had the book so I asked a friend to send me a copy of Ari's p. 20, a request very kindly fulfilled within minutes. I was appalled. I had not read that page. How I missed it I have no idea. But I did. A bad carpenter blames his tools, so I immediately started wondering if Kindle had sent me a corrupted copy of Ari's book; or if my ten-year-old computer – as decrepit as I am – had chopped some bits out of it; or if the stroke had damaged my brain more than I thought; or if .... etc, etc. Anyhow, I immediately wrote and apologised to Ari and asked Linz to take my piece down so that I could correct it.

Let me therefore apologise here and now for my unconscious blunder. Even if it was inadvertent, I did Ari a grave injustice. I am very sorry. I shall buy his book and write a review. I hope that will settle the matter permanently. I may well remain critical of his book, but nobody should be accused of a major omission when they have done no such thing. I repeat, I am very sorry. I hope Ari will accept this public apology.

When I decided to stop reading Ari's book, it came to me that I might be 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 in an article 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 Ayn Rand and I, 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 the 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 (in England, a 'public 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 very economical so some find it cold and dry. But surely using only such words as are necessary is the hallmark 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 parasitic, conniving 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 'main stream 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 towards its true objective: creating a guide for human beings to show them 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 (in which she developed her insight that concepts are 'open-ended') 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. Wheeler? Den Uyl? Rasmussen? Hollinger?) 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. [However, please read Afterword]. 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 do not worship any person or thing. 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.

Afterword
(written a few days later)

I made some big mistakes in the first version of this tribute. I have already apologised to Ari Armstrong. Lindsay Perigo has also taken me roundly to task over some of my criticisms of Rand, expressing his thoughts in his usual robust manner on his website Sense of Life Objectivists (SOLO) where, a day or two earlier, he had published my tribute to Rand.

Two of his objections are correct. My brief comment about Rand's work on reason and emotion was poorly worded. Linz's is better. Sorry about that. I was also wrong about Rand's take on music, as shown by the extensive quotes from Rand which Linz provided. I apologise for that even more. I hadn't read that article for fifty years, and no longer have a copy. (I gave all my Rand treasures to the Objectivist Club of Michigan, home to the wonderful Karen Reedstrom Minto, the first, and the first rate, Objectivist journalist.) I think I misconstrued Rand's dislike of Beethoven's 'sense of life', which she said was revealed in his music, and which in turn suggested to me that she thought music had conceptual meaning or import. Aside from that, I recall being slightly puzzled at the time by her 'Helmholtz' article on music, though I can't remember why, and I suppose I must have transposed that remembered puzzlement and mingled it up with her view of Beethoven. Old brain, very old memory, proceed with caution!

As for Linz's other main objection, I don't agree about the Brandens. I knew Nathaniel personally. I produced one of his 'Intensives' in Toronto, and corresponded in friendly fashion with Barbara who agreed with my questioning of Rand's view of romantic love. I know of James Valliant's attack on them, though I have not read his book.

Personally, I found our Lenny's publication of Rand's journals slightly distasteful. It was too close to those still alive and in my opinion should have been left to a later generation of historians to examine. I did buy a copy, but only dipped into it a little when it arrived, and quoted a line from it in an essay. Nevertheless, as I read, I felt as though I was intruding, or going through someone's personal effects uninvited, and never opened it again. I don't believe Ayn intended it to be published. Whereas, I understand she was quite happy to have her letters published so I read those with great interest.

A concluding comment on this matter. During the winter of 1970-71, John Ridpath (who was part of Rand's 'inner circle') told me, at a small Objectivist gathering in Toronto, that Rand had indeed had a love affair with Nathaniel Branden. Up till that point, I had thought it was a libel put out by Nathaniel in his “Answer to Ayn Rand”, the open letter which he and Barbara wrote to defend themselves against the brutal assault on both of them which Rand had published in 1968 in the The Objectivist.

My reaction? I was deeply shocked, struck to the centre of my being by the sense that I had been betrayed and misled by Rand. I let my subscription to The Ayn Rand Letter lapse and immediately began buying Nathaniel's books as and when they appeared, starting with The Psychology of Self Esteem, which was already out. I found his books extremely helpful. I also went to several of his Intensives, which I found equally rewarding. I strongly disapprove of the way Nathaniel deceived Ayn, although I can understand why he did it. But, by the same token, I strongly disapproved at the time of the way in which I thought Rand had deceived me and everybody else.

The sexual aspect didn't concern me at all. We are sexual beings. I understand both the power of sexual attraction and the power of self-delusion. Even the most powerful minds can be drawn into rationalisation and deception by Aphrodite's lure or Cupid's arrow.

Nowadays, I think that one is very well advised to stay firmly away from other people's affairs of the heart. I don't take sides, and I flatly refuse to take a side in this one. There were rights done and wrongs committed by both Ayn and Nathaniel. Let's just leave it at that. And, whether I'm correct or not, I certainly don't want to fall out with anybody over something which happened over fifty years ago and had nothing to do with any of us anyway.

Finally – to conclude this rather long afterword – having revealed one aspect of my youth, parental negativity, and discovered that doing so felt mildly cathartic, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and reveal the other half of my father's opinion of me.

When I went to Carleton U, I was very fired up and had little knowledge of what professors expected of their students. So, for my first history assignment, I wrote an imaginary conversation, a sort of Platonic dialogue for two persons, between Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman Emperor, and a pupil of his. I think it was about stoicism, which of course, as a budding Objectivist, I opposed. The professor, Dr Noami Griffiths, laced into me for a total absence of footnotes, bibliography and discussion of minutiae in a history paper, but gave me a straight A. She told me later she'd never before awarded a straight A to a first year student – in fifteen years of teaching.

In my first English course, on world literature, one of the set books was Dante's Inferno. In my freshly adopted atheism, I got very cross with Dante for placing Jason (of Argonaut fame) and his lover Hypsipyle in Hell, even though Jason was introduced thus, “look at that great one coming, how kingly is his aspect still”. So for my first English seminar assignment I wrote a long, rather doggerelly epic poem called Jason and Hypsipylesharply criticising Dante: 'pretentious pulpit-pounding preacher' was one phrase I recall. I privately dubbed my poem 'the anti-Dante diatribe' and handed it in with some trepidation to an associate lecturer named Patrick Dunn who was leading the seminar. Dunn went quite crazy over it and gave me an A++. The course professor, an American named Charles Haines (a brilliant and inspiring lecturer) was more cautious; giving me an A – for two much shorter poems, one about the Irish uprising of 1916, I think we'd been studying an Irish play; the other about a Zola novel. The Irish one is included below. Professor Haines said to me on another occasion: “If I were you, I would publish 1916.” So here it is, although it is included in a small book of poems I published earlier.

'What on earth is all this stuff doing in here?' you ask. Well, on a trip home to England, enthused and inspired by Professors Griffiths, Dunn, Haines, and others, I confided to my father one day that I wanted to write poetry. His reply, “Nonsense, you don't have the creative ability.” Then, I said nothing. I just wilted, as I always had when confronted by his disapproval. Today, armed with esprit d'escalier nearly thirty years after his death, I wish I'd had the balls to say, 'Oh yeah? And what exactly the fuck do you know about it?'

I should explain perhaps that my father, David Basil Woosnam Dykes, was a very well respected lawyer; slim, erect and six feet tall; a polished and courteous English gentleman, and a man with considerable authority. An Army officer during WWII, he had been through the horrors of the Dunkirk retreat; seen fellow soldiers blown to pieces; narrowly avoided death on several occasions himself, and only got away on the last day of the evacuation, almost on the last boat to leave, the destroyer Venemous. Totally exhausted, it was months before he could sleep properly. I think he probably had (then unknown) PTSD. Fortunately, he got into military intelligence, MI5 and later MI6, soon after the Dunkirk debacle, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for his work in counter-espionage in France after D-Day. I still have the medal and the French citation. Quite a guy. Not a person whose opinion one dismissed lightly.

To complete the picture, he had been denied the place at Cambridge he dreamed of as a boy by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Instead, he was pushed by his own father, an austere and taciturn Scottish doctor, into a profession he had not chosen, the law.

After six years of action and adventure – working with and meeting all sorts of fascinating or famous people – my father must have found it extraordinarily difficult to settle back down to being a solicitor in a small country town. He didn't particularly like the job anyway; had three small children to contend with at home; and hardly knew the wife he'd married in June, 1939, and with whom he'd spent a total of three months of scattered days and nights during six long years.

It was hard for us kids too. One day, when I was three or four, I asked my mother resentfuly; “Mummy, when is he going back to the war?”
I've added this lengthy postscript to my Rand tribute as a heartfelt suggestion or recommendation to parents, whoever and wherever they may be, that they never be anything other than positive towards their children and, as NB said in one of his Intensives, even if you don't share them, be a friend to the enthusiasms of those you love.

Nicholas Dykes, Herefordshire, England, 28 June 2020.

1916

Eyes wide and sightless in the mud
an auburn innocent lies;
pale mouth kissed with caked blood
cold cheek the mating ground of flies.

Shy bodice pierced, the hidden bosom punctured
the not-yet milk by muddy cobbles sculptured;
fright-triggered, veering bullet spilled
a running girl whom no-one meant be killed.

Its pattern flecked with scalded ochre dregs
a gala skirt conceals her slender legs.

A green land, a saffron sky,
a white dead body lying;
a broken shoe, some passers-by
and a poet softly crying:

"It's alright, darling, the Lord will heal your sores
you died for Ireland and that's a lovely cause."

(Note: 'poet' read 'preacher' in the poem submitted as course work. The verses were inspired by hearing a recording in class, an eye-witness account of the rebellion by an Irish poet. I'm afraid I can't remember his name.)