Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Of Fundamentals and Fidelity - The Sequel
by Lindsay Perigo

In my original article, Of Fundamentals & Fidelity, I warned that I might frighten the horses by endorsing Leonard Peikoff's pronouncement that Objectivism was a "closed system." Actually, I was confident the horses would maintain their equanimity once it was made clear that by "closed" I didn't mean what Peikoff behaved as though he meant that Objectivism is simply the sum total of what Ayn Rand wrote - but what he said he meant that if one wishes to call oneself an Objectivist one must leave the fundamentals alone, but after that is at perfect liberty to engage in innovation. Sure enough, the horses did remain calm. One slightly skittish stallion wondered why any of it mattered (answer: because honesty matters - hence my use of the term fidelity) but by & large, equestrian equilibrium was maintained.

That is, until a few preliminary skirmishes occurred over just what are the "fundamentals?" Since Peikoff has never deigned to answer this question, & without presuming to lay claim to his stature in the movement or intimate knowledge of the philosophy, I proffered a list of what I thought must be regarded as fundamentals, stressing that I didn't pretend this list was exhaustive or definitive. The last item on my list was: Art as a requirement of man's existence & Romantic Realism as his appropriate kind of art. This caused consternation among a particular stable of horses named, after their head stallion, Equestrius Sciabarrius. They appeared to be - & initially it was very difficult to tell perturbed by my use of the term "appropriate" & the implication that values had anything to do with art at all. Now forget about fundamentals for a minute their view was not even anywhere near the Objectivist ball park, let alone its horse stables, & in my customary gentle way, I pointed this out.

I can't be sure what happened next; I can only speculate. It is known that lurking in the stable next to Equestrius Sciabarrius is a pet snake, Bernstein (named, alas, after Andrew, famous for his ridiculous apologies, not Leonard, famous for his sublime music-making). It is also known that Bernstein's venom induces temporary insanity. I can only assume that at about this point, Bernstein slithered into the precincts of Equestrius Sciabarrius & bit the occupants. For suddenly their contributions to proceedings became quite unhinged. In short order, it was suggested, directly or by implication, that we who carry the banner for values & valuing were guilty of the following:

1) Encouraging in spirit the practice of compiling lists of "approved" & "disapproved" art works a la the Vatican &, apparently, the Objectivist movement of the 1960s.

2) Passing sweeping judgements on people's emotional attachments to certain music with no regard for their context.

3) Thinking Elvis was a nihilist.

4) Holding views on music akin to saying, in the realm of food, that pizza, per se, is immoral (& so "cruising for a bruising, the immoral threat of force notwithstanding." My, my, my, my, my!)

5) Encouraging "totalism" wiping a person from one's Christmas card list because of one (probably small) flaw - & with it intolerance, incivility, & the damning of people to hell for not liking Rachmaninoff.

6) Emulating the Nazis.

7) Shooting President Kennedy. (All right, I made that one up.)

Now all of this was bizarre on its face. I expressed my astonishment at the straw men that had been set up by folk who should know better, & announced I would have more to say this weekend. At that point, Bernstein's venom must have worn off as well, because something much more sensible then emanated from the Equestrius Sciabarrius stable. Instead of statements like, "The whole battle within Objectivism centers on the tension between 'totalism' & 'contextualism' - & that battle is bubbling under the surface of this debate over aesthetic tastes [italics mine]" from the unhinged period, which placed me & others firmly in the "totalist" camp, we now got "I do not believe that Linz or any of my SOLO pals are totalitarian or authoritarian on any of these matters. What I was writing against was a hyper-rationalist tendency that has been on display in Objectivist circles ... Lindsay has been exemplary in his critique of this sort of rationalism."

Well, I should say!

Given the backtracking, I was tempted to drop the matter & spend the weekend listening to Rachmaninoff but I decided instead briefly to state or restate my own position on a few matters germane to this discussion. These are random thoughts, now, in no particular order:

1) The aesthetic battle going on in the world is not between "totalism" & "contextualism" but between nihilism & the affirmation of life. "Totalism" & nihilism are really flip sides of the same coin: intrinsicist, gratuitous, reckless, contextless value-judgements on the one hand vs. militant opposition to any value-judgements on the other. Like dictatorship & anarchy, these are really one & the same.

2) Much of the defensive whimpering about "complexity" etc., that is used to deter folk from taking a clear, principled stand against nihilism is simply rationalisation on the part of those who like nihilism. I've written before of the drummer for the hard rock band Slipknot who responded to a recording engineer's comment - that if this were the future of music he didn't want to be alive - by saying: "We must be doing something right." Now you don't need to be an aesthetician or a musicologist to know that that drummer has to be a sick fuck, & that in all likelihood many people who enjoy Slipknot's "music" are sick fucks also, at least in that aspect of their lives (& it's hard to imagine it not spilling over into others). You don't need to explore glimpses of intimations of subtleties of nuances of complexities to know that. They are telling you! You're entitled to take them at their word.

3) To be "intolerant" of nihilism is not a threat to freedom; nihilism is. While abominating the nihilist's preferences, one should defend to the death his right to them. It is the rights of others one must respect, not necessarily the way they are exercised. As I've written elsewhere: "Here's how it works: Respect for reason gives rise to respect for the right to exercise it freedom. Freedom gives rise to prosperity & enormous diversity, including ideas & art works that are inimical to it. Against such ideas & art, while defending to the death their right to exist, we should be eternally vigilant." The in-your-face, musically cacophonous glorification of violence, hatred, rape, "mother-fucking" & so on that blares out at us ubiquitously, is most assuredly not reason- or freedom-friendly, & we are fully entitled to express our contempt for it, but so long as it is not acted upon we must defend the rights of those who enjoy it to enjoy it.

4) It is also true, as Chris argues though not as widely true as he would like to think that not everyone who worships at the altar of crap is a sick fuck. Some do it for social- metaphysical reasons. I've told the story before of a conductor friend of mine who visited a modern "art" gallery in Auckland. The first thing he saw was a vacuum cleaner on the floor. He assumed it was an exhibit, so psyched himself up to "appreciate" it. Alas, a cleaner appeared & began vacuuming with it. My friend is not a sick fuck, just a pretentious twat. In such matters. He is not like that all the time, else he wouldn't be my friend!

5) Then there are some who get hooked on crap quite innocently. In this day & age, for instance, it's perfectly possible, (though still difficult, I would have thought), not to know that anything better exists. Given that man needs art, if the only art of which one is aware is excrement, I suppose it's inevitable that one will at least accommodate, if not embrace, excrement, albeit with a strong sense that something is seriously awry. In any event, we are left with the very interesting example Chris raises of the young man who was on the verge of destroying all his headbanging caterwauling ("progressive rock") CDs because he thought Objectivism would require him to, but who didn't in the end because Chris' writings persuaded him otherwise. Hmmm. Possibly he had it right the first time ... not so much because Objectivism would require it but because his life would be infinitely better for it. (By "life" of course I don't mean just survival, but "flourishing.") My experience with lovers of headbanging caterwauling is that they do indeed have serious sense-of-life issues generally & severe psychological problems specifically. (No, this is not rationalistic, a priori "totalism," but empirical observation.) But here's where I agree with Chris entirely: there would be no point in this young man throwing away his CD collection unless it was something he truly realised he should do & wanted to do. If he did it out of duty to Objectivism or because some Objectivist "authority figure" said he should ... well, even to put it that way makes one shudder. Sense-of-life matters are indeed complex; improving a poor sense of life is most assuredly not just not even - a matter of throwing away one's CDs & starting a collection based on someone else's recommendations. To embark on personal growth of any kind, one ought always to start with a completely honest, guilt-free assessment of where one is right now, draw up a realistic action plan & move forward at one's own pace.

6) My concern with those who are truly victims of nihilism, rather than its apologists or perpetrators, is to have them lift their eyes & see the shining vistas that are there, above the stinking swamp that is modernity. That's part of SOLO's mission. It's the mission of people like Alexandra York & Michael Newberry. Not just rediscovering past glories but picking up from where they left off, forging a new Renaissance. (It's a selfish mission I'd rather live in that kind of world than this.) Pretending that contemporary culture, generally speaking, is not a stinking swamp, or making excuses for it, will not help accomplish it. But there is nothing totalitarian about any of this folk are at perfect liberty to remain in the swamp if they choose.

7) In this regard, a quotation from The Romantic Manifesto:


As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history. ... If one has glimpsed that kind of art - & wider: the possibility of that kind of culture one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasis that I am not speaking of concretes, nor politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e. concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities, & above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends & political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, & of man to life. ... It is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential & what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men ... before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) & the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.


Enough for now. Let the discussion continue. I'm going back to that date with Rachmaninoff!

And pizza.

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