Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Journals of Ayn Rand: Sucking out all the Goodness

When I was a little boy sitting with my family after Sunday dinner, my grandfather, then in his seventies, would sit at the end of the table while everyone talked, and pick apart the roast, chicken or whatever was the main course of that meal. And I do mean he picked it apart. He'd dismantle a chicken bone by bone picking and chewing each one clean. To most of us today in our processed, boneless, nuggetized world of cheap and plentiful meat this might seem a bit off-putting, but to a man who supported a family of five through The Great Depression on a postman's salary, it is simply basic survival tactics. By the time I knew him, although he no longer needed to do it, it was an ingrained habit and I always got the sense he actually relished it. He used to needle me about how much "good stuff" I was "leaving behind" on my drumstick.

And as someone who has read Atlas, and The Fountainhead numerous times, along with all of Rand's non-fiction, I feel somewhat like him as I make my way through The Journals of Ayn Rand. It's the same sort of messy, picking through the scraps of Rand's thoughts, but oh the flavor! There's no plot or drama to hold your attention, but if you're willing to sort through it, what you'll find is amazing.

I was always in awe of Rand's writing as finished work, thinking it so perfectly composed and flawless, but a bit intimidating, as though it came from some superhuman being, springing perfectly formed from her mind. The Journals humanize Rand, not to bring her "down a notch" but to show how superlatively rational and tenacious she is, how brilliance does not spring forth fully formed, but rather manifests itself in the tenacious drive to think, connect, integrate, edit, chew and refine until it is perfectly formed.

At the same time even when constructions are still developing you can see the gems of her thought already present. Her own conviction to core ideas already more mature. Although I'm not half through it yet, I had to share with you some examples of my favorite little nuggets of juicy goodness.

I. in 1928 at age 23 (23!), only two years after coming to America, Rand made her first notes in English for a novel. It was a malevolent universe premised novel called The Little Street. It's hero was a criminal, but with Howard Roark's sense of life. Already her in her notes you can see the themes of The Fountainhead, and her early ideas for the concept of a "sense of life."

He has a wonderful "sense of living." He realizes that he is living, he appreciates every minute of it, he wants to live every second, he is unable to exists as other men do. He doesn't take life for granted and live as he happens to be living - just calm, satisfied, normal. For him, life [must be] strong, high emotion: he has to live "on top," "breathing" life, tense, exalted, active...

Most people lack [the capacity for] reverence and "taking things seriously." The do not hold anything to be very serious or profound. There is nothing that is sacred or immensely important to them. There is nothing - no idea, object, work, or person - that can inspire them with a profound, intense, and all-absorbing passion that reaches to the roots of their souls. They do not know how to value or desire...

The boy is just their opposite. He is all passion, will and uncompromised absolutes. He takes everything seriously. Life is very serious and sacred to him. And, as Nietzsche said: "The noble soul has reverence for itself."

II. Her beginning notes about The Fountainhead were about it's fundamental ideas. You can see how thorough she was and how grounded she was in the ideas that would ultimately drive her stories, even as she's still trying to form them properly.

If the higher values of life (such as all ethics, philosophy, esthetics, everything that results from a sense of valuation in the mental life of man) come from within, from man's own spirit, then they are a  right, a privilege and a necessity - not a duty.

III. Her character notes are just delicious. We get to see her talking about her characters, from outside of them. Discussing the key aspects both spiritual and physical of them. Some of this stuff made it into the novel of course but some of it, written in the "he should be like this" form is new or complimentary material.

An important thing to remember and bring out in the book: while Howard Roark, at first glance, is monstrously selfish and inconsiderate of others - one sees, in the end, his great consideration for the rights of others (when they warrant it) and his ruthlessness only in major issues; while Peter Keating, at first glance, is unusually kink, thoughtful, considerate of others and unselfish - in the end, it is clear that he will sacrifice anyone and everyone to his own small ends, whether he has to or not. In other words those who show too much concern for others and not for themselves, have no true respect for either....

[Howard Roark:] Tall, slender,. Somewhat angular - straight lines, straight angles, hard muscles. Walks swiftly, easily, too easily, slouching a little, a loose kind of ease in motion as if movement requires no effort whatever, a body to which movement is as natural as immobility, without definite line to divide them, a light, flowing, lazy ease of motion, an energy so complete that i assumes the ease of laziness.... His clothes always disheveled, disarranged, loose and suggesting an unknown. No awkwardness but a certain savage unfitness for closthes. Definitly red, lose, straight hair, always disheveled...

A quick sharp mind, courageous and not afraid to be hurt, has long since grasped and understood completely that the world is not what he is. Consequently he can no longer be hurt. The world has no painful surprise for him, since he has accepted long ago just what he can expect from it. Indifference and an infinite, calm contempt is all he feels for the world and for other men who are not like him. He understand men thoroughly. And, understanding them he dismisses the whole subject. He knows what he wants and he knows the work he wants. That is all he expects of life. Being thoroughly a "reasons unto himself," he doe snot long for others of his kind for companionship and understanding...

Sex - sensuous in the manner of a healthy animal. But not greatly interested in the subject. Can never lose himself in love. Even his great and only love - Dominique Wynand - is not an all-absorbing, selfless passion. IT is merely the pride of a possessor.If he could not have her, it would not break him or affect him very deeply... His attitude toward Dominique is not: "I love you and I am yours." It's: "I love you and you are mine." It is primarily a feeling of wanting her and getting her, without great concern for the question of whether she wants it.

Nothing can really touch him. He is concerned only with what he does. Not how he feels. How he feels entirely a matter of his own, which cannot be influenced by anything and anyone on the outside. His feeling is a steady, unruffled flame, deep and hidden, a profound joy of living and of knowing his power, a joy that is not even conscious of being joy, because it is so steady, natural and unchangeable...

That last paragraph (bold mine) should have somehow made it into the novel, and I don't remember it. But it is stunningly great already.

IV. Her ruthless editing style is evident. Her desire to make sure everything integrates with her main ideas, that all character details contribute. After she finished a draft of Part I of The Fountainhead, in one of her editing steps she pulled out in outline form, each of the major details of each character in order so that she could examine them and see if what she had written developed each character consistently.

V. Finally for anyone who has ever been troubled by the rape scene in TF, I found this tidbit. There is not much commentary written by Rand on it, and many people I've known have had trouble with the scene. Over the course of reading and re-reading the scene I developed a sense of how I personally interpreted it, that the only reason Roark could be justified in committing such an act is that Dominique wants it to occur as a form of debasement, and he knows it. It's tough to tell from the actual prose since it is all so subtly suggested.

[For the scene by the granite quarry, when Roark and Dominique speak for the first time.]

His mockery in his quiet acceptance of the position she is imposing upon him - and when she attempts (faintly) to bring in the personal, it is he who refuses, sticking to the "Yes, Miss Francon" attitude of a respectful worker.

[Roark:] "You want me and I know it and I'll make it vile, to show you the enormity of your desire, because you'll want me still. I'm obedient to you now, I'm nothing before you - and it won't change things. I'll crush you in spite of it, because of it, when the time comes."

[Dominique:] "I have you in my power. I'll torture you. I enjoy it. I want you to know that. I enjoy debasing you, because I'm debasing myself through it, because you'll conquer me some day - I want it - I hate you and I'll punish you for it."

All this on what appears as a discussion of his living conditions and her interest in the workers.

Ha! I knew it! :)

If you're a fan of Rand, and you enjoy getting every little last drop of goodness out of her work, then The Journals of Ayn Rand will not disappoint.


exaltron said...

Yeah, I dove right into JoAR when I picked it up, it really is an amazing insight into her process and her discipline as an artist and thinker.

I'm curious about the independence aspect of her earlier heroes, for example in the excerpt on Roark, she seems to indicate that he doesn't need Dominique, and yet I can recall a scene in the novel where he admits to her freely that he does. Perhaps I'm thinking of a Rearden/Dagny scene, but either way, her views seem to change on the subject. I think early on she has a more simplistic, Neitzschean view of independence, where the idea of needing another person is a sign of weakness. At the same time she does qualify this by pointing out that she is specifically against an "all-absorbing, selfless passion" in her hero.

I think ultimately she modified her view of Roark as a person whom "Nothing can really touch", or perhaps she is referring to a certain part of him. But it seems to me in the novel that he does let Dominique into his life in a fundamental way.

Very interesting read in any case. I may have to dust it off and peruse again!

Kendall J said...


Coincidentally, that is the very reason I inserted that particular para on Roark. I think you are thinking of Reardon. Roark does express need, but it is not any sort of dependence. You have to read it very carefully. Galt also does not express his need this strongly. Reardon however, did. I'm not sure her views changed much, but this was definitely a contrasting statement to the way I originally read Roark. I think it is part of her view of masculinity / feminity as opposed to some fundamental idea around independence.

Kendall J said...

I pulled a couple of quotes I know well.

This is a conflicted Rearden to Dagny: "I held it as my honor that I would never need anyone. I need you. It had been my pride that I had always acted on my convictions. I've given in to a desire which I despise. It is a desire that has reduced my mind, my will, my being, my power to exist into an abject dependence upon you—not even upon the Dagny Taggart whom I admired—but upon your body, your hands, your mouth and the few seconds of a convulsion of your muscles."

But the next two I think still echo the same tone that Rand gives in her journals.

Roark to Dominique: "You'd rather not hear it now? But I want you to hear it. We never need to say anything to each other when we're together. This is—for the time when we won't be together. I love you, Dominique. As selfishly as the fact that I exist. As selfishly as my lungs breathe air. I breathe for my own necessity, for the fuel of my body, for my survival. I've given you, not my sacrifice or my pity, but my ego and my naked need. This is the only way you can wish to be loved. This is the only way I can want you to love me.

Rearden to Dagny: "I love you. As the same value, as the same expression, with the same pride and the same meaning as I love my work, my mills, my Metal, my hours at a desk, at a furnace, in a laboratory, in an ore mine, as I love my ability to work, as I love the act of sight and knowledge, as I love the action of my mind when it solves a chemical equation or grasps a sunrise, as I love the things I've made and the things I've felt, as my product, as my choice, as a shape of my world, as my best mirror, as the wife I've never had, as that which makes all the rest of it possible: as my power to live."

That's Rearden and Roark talking an awful lot of their love for the women in terms of themselves.

Scott said...

Hmm, lots to say on this. I'm going to paste this into the thread you put on OO, maybe you can repost your responses and we can open it up..

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