Rand’s hostility to the natural world

I’ve just added a comment to the entry, “Rand and conservatism” (where the discussion still continues) and am cross-posting it here as well:

Here is an example of Ayn Rand’s hatred and rejection of the structure of being. There runs through both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged the theme that the world of nature—earth, trees, plants, animals, birds—has no value whatsoever apart from what man makes of it by re-forming it into objects for the satisfaction of his own needs. Nature has no value in itself, and, moreover, in the Randian moral code it is a sin to think that it does. Thus when Dagny wakes up in the mornings in John Galt’s house in the valley and looks out the window and sees the sky, trees, sunlight, etc., she immediately rejects any idea that these things are beautiful or worthwhile or enjoyable in themselves. They are only valuable as material to be shaped by man into manmade things. There is even a passage (I don’t have the book with me now so I can’t cite it) where Dagny expresses positive hatred for the idea of enjoying nature for its own sake.

Now of course man shapes non-human nature to his ends, and this is essential to man’s nature. But to deny that the things of nature—animals, plants, trees, rocks, mountains, leaves blowing in the wind, a sea lion playing delightedly under the ocean—have a reality and value in themselves apart from man is a form of madness. It constitutes a rejection of the world in which we live and of its meaning and beauty.

The attitude I’ve just described exemplifies Rand’s ideological reduction and totalization of the world, in which (1) all the things that exist must be reduced to what man can make of them with his reason and his productive capacity; and (2) what man can make of things with his reason and productive capacity represents the totality of all value. In order for man to worship himself and his own reason and ability, everything outside man—i.e., the world itself—must be denigrated. Which, further, is in keeping with the Randian compulsion, stemming no doubt from Rand’s somewhat twisted psychological make-up, to imagine oneself to be completely self-sufficient and in absolute control of one’s own existence.

Furthermore, it’s not just the natural and biological realm that Rand rejects (except insofar as it serves the satisfaction of man’s rational needs). She also rejects the realm of society and culture (except insofar as they protect man’s individual rights), and, of course, she also totally rejects, as the epitome of anti-life evil, the realm of the transcendent, the objective good, and God.

I have often said that there three orders of reality in which man lives—the natural or biological; the social or cultural; and the spiritual or transcendent, and that the liberal belief in equality and non-discrimination denies all three. Randianism also denies all three, on a more profound level than liberalism does. Randianism, like liberalism, is at war with the structure of reality.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

I read this, and got the horrors. Rand’s vision of the natural world, as you’ve described it, is like something out of CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. No, it’s the very same thing as the hatred of being and life as such that animate the bad guys in that novel. That Hideous Strength opens with the good guys, who have driven out into the British countryside to get a good view of a particularly violent storm. They stand and exult in the howling wind and lashing rain. They like weather. It exhilarates them.

Ferg writes:

I don’t know if Ann Rand spent much time riding in airplanes but I don’t know how she could look out on the scene from on high and not be awe struck. Of course from up on the flight deck where you have forward visibility the effect is far greater. I have spent many hours flying simply spell bound by the beauty and scale of what I could see. The power of the weather, the blinding light of the sun, the incredible blue of the sky which from high altitude is just matchless.

You can see the curvature not only of the earth, but of the sky itself. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are darn few on flight decks. You would have to be dead to be unmoved. The atmosphere, particularly at high altitude can not be manipulated by man kind. But its beauty is transcendent and needs no justification from us. Hard not to believe in an all powerful God when you are at 41,000 feet.

LA replies:

Rand was afraid of flying and never or almost never flew, except later in her life. I happen to know that because I recently read Anne Heller’s well-written and informative (if not particularly deep) 2009 biography, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.”

LA writes:

A few months ago I threw out my paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged because it was falling apart. I need to get a new copy so that I can quote the passages where she conveys her attitude toward nature, which she puts in Dagny’s mouth, or rather in Dagny’s thoughts. That will convey the problem more convincingly than my talking about it from memory.

April 20

Ferg replies to LA:

Interesting. I thought individualists like her were not afraid of anything, least of all riding in a man made machine. What could go wrong? Are not airplanes the ultimate in man’s accomplishment?

Alan Roebuck writes:

Rand is an unusually pure atheist so she can teach us something about atheism.

On the most basic level the atheist says “No!” whereas the Christian (and the general theist) says “Yes.” The atheist says, “No God, no creation, no supernatural realm, no morality that originates above man, no truth that is above man,” and so on.

(It should be noted that not all atheists have a strong disbelief in the supernatural. I recently heard of a survey indicating that atheists and agnostics are, in general, more superstitious than Bible-believing Christians. Perhaps these unbelievers have taken the first step of subtracting God, but not the second step of constructing an alternate model of reality in which only the humanly-understandable exists. Their rejection of the God of the Bible thus leaves them adrift in a sea of subjectivism and superstition.)

The atheist says “No!” to what frightens him, or what he cannot fathom, or what he cannot control. (But, as per the above comment, some atheists find the supernatural and the bizarre to be attractive.) He often erects his denial into a formal system, as Rand did, based on what is (at least in principle) non-frightening, fathomable and controllable. The rest he declares not to be real. For Rand, what was not human-based—such as a nature that has value and meaning in itself, without reference to man, was not real.

I have heard that Rand was quite clumsy at handling the material world—for example, she was not simply a poor cook, but showed almost no sense of how to handle ingredients and utensils in order to produce a meal. Apparently material reality intimidated her to a certain extent, which may be one reason why she admired men who build and invent and are expert in handling material reality, such as her fictional heroes Howard Roark, Henry Rearden, and John Galt.

We may sympathize with the atheist’s desire to expunge the difficult and the troubling. Christianity, for example, declares that the supernatural realm is knowable to a certain extent through Revelation, and that it is controlled by God for his greater glory and the ultimate good of those who are in Christ. We therefore need not fear demons because their power is limited by God, or monsters because most of them do not exist and those which do exist are ordained by a good God.

But although we sympathize, we do not join the atheist in his folly. Existence exists, including the parts that Rand and her crew find troubling.

LA writes:

I should add that Anne Heller’s biography of Rand, while well worth reading, has some appalling errors. When she sums up the plots of Rand’s novels, she says, e.g., that Roark is 19 when the novel begins. Of course, he is 22, as stated clearly in the first chapter, which also tells us that it is the year 1922; Roark is, symbolically, the same age as the 20th century. Then in recounting the first run of a train on the John Galt Line in Atlas Shrugged, Heller says that Dagny is at the controls of the train. That is false and ridiculous. Dagny is the head of the John Galt Line, and rides along with the crew, but of course she doesn’t t drive the train herself. Then Heller refers to how the train stops in a series of towns in Colorado. No, the three hour trip is nonstop, a fact made very very vivid in the novel.

Now if Heller could make such gross errors, which would not have been made by someone who knows the books as well as she says she does, and which in any case could easily have been avoided by looking at the relevant passages, what does that say about her reliability on questions of fact that the reader does not know and cannot check so easily? I want to believe that her book, which seems carefully researched, is reliable. But there are reasons for doubts.

May 27

LA writes:

Rand’s hostility to nature was not expressed only in her novels:

Two or three times, Barbara [Branden] experienced the sting of Rand’s displeasure—once, when she mentioned her love of the mountains and the ocean, which the writer interpreted as a rejection of “man,” …

(Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Anne C. Heller, p. 229.)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 19, 2011 10:10 PM | Send

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