Monday, February 11, 2008
Some years ago -- I think it was part of my reading material for a trip to Australia -- I read most of Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction. I remember it being quite good, but if I was stunned by its brilliance at any point then, I don't remember feeling that way.
Well, then. It's time to chalk another one up to the spiral theory of learning!
I'll illustrate by example.
Near the beginning of the second chapter ("Choosing a Subject and Theme"), Rand makes the following ingenious integration:
Some people commit the error of trying to present all they know by writing an unanswerable article. This is a mistake on at least two counts. First, it is impossible, because if the theme is important, it would take a book to prove it. In an article, you do not prove your theme, you demonstrate it. These are almost synonymous, but here is the distinction. "Proof" applies mainly to theoretical subjects. But when you write about merely an aspect of a subject, such as a cultural or philosophical issue that is part of a cluster of issues, you do not try to prove some point. That would require a much broader and longer piece. Instead, you demonstrate your point, i.e., present it and indicate its proof (which is not the same as giving the proof). ...The whole passage is worthwhile, but let's focus on just the parts in bold. Were I to reformulate the rationale for writing The Unanswerable Article, it would be, "If I only get out all the facts and make all the right arguments, anyone who reads this will have to agree with it."
The second reason why trying to write an unanswerable article is a mistake is that the author is assuming his readers do not possess free will. He is assuming he must present, by some undefined means, a case no one could resist. But clearly such an assumption is false. People can evade the most obvious logical connections. Therefore, if you try to write such an article, you are defeated at the outset, because you are asking the impossible of yourself. As a result, either you will be unable to write (and will not know why), or you will write endlessly, following sidelines, each of which leads to further sidelines. Instead of being unanswerable, you will raise more questions than you answer. (This is an eloquent illustration of the fact that acting on a wrong premise achieves the opposite of your intention.) (8-9) [bold added]
I think that this type of error is very, very common in our culture, as manifested by the common practice of dismissing opponents as merely unintelligent (else they'd understand and admit the truth), and by the common acceptance by libertarians and many neoconservatives of the notion that everyone wants to be free (regardless of whether they even know what freedom is or what its existence requires). Indeed, this error reaches its full, anti-ideological fruition in Glenn Reynolds' An Army of Davids, which wrongly portrays mere technology and "fact-checking" as the saviors of the free world.
Not only does Ayn Rand manage to see an implicit misconception of the nature of man's consciousness in a common writer's error, but she pops it like the business end of a pin directly and forcefully hitting an overinflated balloon: "People can evade the most obvious logical connections." Or, in practical terms, "Don't beat yourself up trying to get a dishonest man to express agreement."
How many writers cripple themselves with self-doubt because they wrongly think they can "make" someone agree with them? How many dishonest commentators and interlocutors out there prey on such a misconception? And how many aspiring writers have been choked off prematurely by the practical consequences of a popular misconception about a highly abstract issue?
Who else but Ayn Rand could even conceive of some abstract issue like determinism (which has no obvious connection to writing) having anything to do with self-confidence in general and writing block in particular? That is an ingenious connection, and I am very grateful to the person who got me to crack that book open again. I highly recommend this book to anyone serious about writing any type of non-fiction.
To end on a somewhat amusing and instructive note, I ran across these comments (HT: Randex) by one Larry Wilson on a list of books favored by college students across the country. With no justification, he slams Atlas Shrugged, one of the greatest novels ever written, as "just awful" as he gratuitously insults the young part of its audience for the virtue of thinking:
[T]he more you recall that doing well on standardized tests doesn't mean you're intelligent - it means you test well. And that books liked by kids who test well at 17 can be just awful - case in point being No. 6 on the smart side, Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." (Objectivism, like its opposite, communism, is most embraced by those entirely new to thinking.)As someone not "entirely new to thinking" and who has admired Ayn Rand for over twenty years now, all I can say to that is that if you want an example of the kind of dishonest person you shouldn't waste your energy trying to convince, here's your man.
Many intelligent youths lack social graces and good taste, to be sure, but that does not make a love of Atlas Shrugged into a personality flaw or an aesthetic lapse. And as for the fact that "newness to thinking" can make one vulnerable to the errors of Marxism, that does not somehow make embracing "its opposite" automatically wrong. (Logically, one would suspect the opposite.) Indeed, I will even stretch my neck out and defend a few youthful communists: At least the ones who, as Mr. Wilson condescends, are "new to thinking", are giving "thinking" a try.
In the game of achieving happiness in life, I'll place my bets on a youthful, mistaken, but idealistic communist over a sneering, cynical hack any day. (Wasn't there a commercial some time back about people like this guy? I recall the phrase, "Don't be like me!") Happy reading and happy thinking, fellow Ayn Rand fans!