Late Afternoon Thoughts on Listening to Mozart’s Requiem

I’ve been attending the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York for about twenty years now, and spent Friday night at its penultimate performance of the season–Bach’s “St. John’s Passion,” Frank Martin’s “Polyptyqe,” and Mozart’s Requiem. Here’s a nice write up. A few random thoughts:

1. The festival is financially supported by a long list of corporate and private donors, and by The New York State Council on the Arts. A real, rather than rhetorical question: is state funding really financially necessary to put on the Mostly Mozart Festival? Or is it there so that, for political reasons, the imprimatur and funding of the state is implicated in the festival, in order to create an inextricable link between state funding and otherwise private artistic performance?

2. The Bach and the Mozart were, of course, traditionally tonal; the Martin piece, composed in 1973, was dodecaphonic, or twelve-tonal–interesting, but certainly harder to listen to. The Martin piece was played by the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, who performed it barefoot, in a rather odd-looking (but not at all unpleasant) dress, reminding me, in her performance style, of a cross between AC/DC’s Angus Young and Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the 1994 film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  (I mean that as a compliment on both counts).

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The enjoyable result was a bit like listening to contemporary classical religious music performed by a crazed shred metal guitarist–a first for me.

I suppose it’s one of my idiosyncratic obsessions, but I couldn’t help reflecting, even in my enjoyment of the concert, on the inadequacies and missed opportunities of Ayn Rand’s writings on aesthetics. Nothing in Rand’s Romantic Manifesto prepares one for an experience of the kind I had at the concert, and a great deal in the book militates against it.  What is one to make of a book on aesthetics that offers a theory of music but makes no reference either to Bach or Mozart? And however unconventional one might find Frank Martin’s music, it (and music like it) surely deserved more engagement than Rand’s dismissive, moralistic rhetoric in that book would suggest. I realize that there’s recently been some interesting revisionary work on Rand’s aesthetics, and I’m the first person to say that her Romantic Manifesto contains some brilliant ideas (along with the fatuous ones). But on the whole, I’m inclined to think that Rand’s aesthetic writings are a dreary, joyless, and depressing affair, which detract at least as much from aesthetic experience as they contribute to it–something I often find myself thinking in the midst of novel-but-enjoyable aesthetic experiences like the one I just had. I wonder whether others influenced by Rand’s writings have had similar reactions.

3. A parting thought: as I watched the chorus and soloists make their way through Mozart’s Requiem, I couldn’t shake the thought that they all looked like children: they looked the way children do when performing on stage for the first time, beaming rapturously and ingenuously at the audience, engrossed in the performance, but thoroughly enjoying the attention being lavished on them–with the difference that these children had the musical skills of phenomenally talented adult professionals. I also can’t help thinking that a scene like that is part of what makes life worth living–and, I guess, part of what will supply the inspiration I’ll need to teach the six course load I have this semester. Classes start Wednesday.

17 thoughts on “Late Afternoon Thoughts on Listening to Mozart’s Requiem

  1. Regarding Rand’s aesthetics, in all fairness to her, the subtitle of The Romantic Manifesto is “A Philosophy of Literature.” Music is a rather small part of the book, and she not only does not mention Bach or Mozart, she does not mention any of her personal favorites. I believe the only piece she mentions is one by Liszt and that was in passing.

    As a philosophy of literature, however, The Romantic Manifesto offers many literary examples, from Shakespeare to Hugo to Sinclair Lewis to John O’Hara to Mickey Spillane. This is clearly what interested her, not so much music.

    I don’t find the book dreary or fatuous. Over the years, as I’ve grown to be less of a fanboy, my reaction is that I have to find and analyze good art myself (actually, largely in conjunction with my wife, who is a novelist). As usual Rand leaves a good deal of “de-condensing” to the reader. One Objectivist I know became a Christian because he wasn’t up to the task, but I find it a refreshing, if challenging and sometimes frustrating journey. See my essay: http://www.kurtkeefner.com/2012/09/descending-mount-olympus/

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    • I think we’re only disagreeing at the margins here. Yes, the subtitle of Romantic Manifesto is “a philosophy of literature,” but the book is supposed to be a manifesto for a general aesthetic movement based on romanticism, so the subtitle is actually rather puzzling. Why a “philosophy of literature” if the book defends romanticism across the board? And why discuss music at all in a book devoted to literature? I think it’s a deficiency in the book’s account of music that it doesn’t discuss examples. As you say, the Liszt comes up only in passing, but what she says about music is badly in need of concretization.

      There are more examples in the parts of the book that discuss literature, but even these are oddly idiosyncratic and elliptical. She writes as though Greek tragedy and nineteenth century British literature don’t exist, and Hugo aside, what she says about most literary works is brief and cryptic. There is truth to what she says about Shakespeare, but none of what she says captures Shakespeare’s greatness or grandeur. She is so dismissive of contemporary literature that if you took her at face value, you’d have to give up on it altogether. (To be fair, her Art of Fiction is a much better book.)

      I didn’t mean that the whole book was dreary or fatuous, but parts of it certainly are. My favorite passage to make fun of is the one about “empty eye sockets” and “stinking basements” in the Introduction. But I would also insist that there are some brilliant insights in the book, so perhaps I shouldn’t dwell so much on the negatives. I find RM challenging too, but I seem to be going through a frustrating phase, where what’s wrong with it stands out.

      I liked your essay (“Descending Mt Olympus”). By a strange coincidence, it mirrors part of my own experience. I started reading fiction in the 1990s at the urging of my then-girlfriend (not an Objectivist) who read a lot of contemporary fiction (probably one novel every two weeks or so). Also by coincidence, one of the books I read and enjoyed was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I hadn’t heard of David Bradley before I read your essay, but I’ve wanted to read Ward Just for awhile now. So thanks for both suggestions. I’ll make a few in the combox on your blog.

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  2. I think it’s a common mistake to treat Rand as a source of general knowledge or experience . No, she doesn’t write about Greek tragedy or 19th-century British lit. So what? RM is a tiny book and it’s not a history. I am reminded of my Objectivist friend who became a Christian partly because he said Objectivism was “barren.” But you’re not supposed to be schooled by Rand. I suspect she presupposes readers who already know about Oedipus and Jane Eyre and can form their own evaluations. Maybe she never read Jane Eyre. That would be shocking, but nobody reads everything. (I don’t.) Just because she doesn’t write about something doesn’t means she’s writing about it as if it didn’t exist. I sure hope people don’t read my book that way!

    It might help to remember how Rand wrote non-fiction: short essays on discrete subjects stitched together as a collections with little “knitting.” She only ever wrote one actual non-fiction book, ITOE. I suspect this was a personal thing with her. There was a lot of turmoil in her life in the non-fiction years, and I suspect that small canvases were all she could manage. She’s a bit reminiscent of Nietzsche in this way. Perhaps we should take it a little easier on the old girl and glean what gems we can from her.

    Anyway I didn’t get enough sleep, so forgive me if I’m rambling a bit. I was eager to respond.

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    • My problem with RM is not that it doesn’t cover everything in an encyclopedic way, but that it has huge aspirations that it doesn’t fulfill, and also that it’s extremely dismissive of art that it doesn’t engage with in any serious way.

      Huge aspirations: “Those who know that nothing is outside of the province of reason will find in this book the base of a rational esthetics” (vi). “It is Romanticism’s identity that I want to transmit to the future” (viii). One shouldn’t write like that if one can only manage “small canvases.”

      On a narrower point, she doesn’t write about Greek tragedy, but she still helps herself to claims about ancient Greek art: ancient Greek art tells us that “disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are [man’s] proper, natural state” (p. 23 in the 1975 rev ed). Maybe Praxiteles does that, but how about Sophocles? She treats questions of the latter kind as somehow irrelevant to what she’s saying. But a properly critical reader would ask, and want to know the answer. Sophocles is not, after all, incidental to Greek art. Here is a case where the subtitle (“a philosophy of literature”) is totally misleading. What she’s really discussing in the ancient Greek case (without saying so) is visual art; literature doesn’t bear out what she’s saying at all. It’d be one thing if she wrote in the spirit of saying, “Well, I’ve left a lot unsaid here, and I’d have to qualify a lot of what I’m saying, so be careful.” But she doesn’t. There’s too much bombast in the book for that message to get through.

      And it doesn’t get more dismissive than this: “Our day has no art and no future” (viii). Really? She wrote that in 1969, the year I was born. Here is Wikipedia’s list of the novels that were published in 1969. Could any reasonable or informed writer dismiss all of those novels like that, or even summarize the year that way? The late 60s were the heyday of classic jazz, but Rand writes as though Miles Davis and John Coltrane were not worth mentioning. Her derision for “primitive and Oriental music” (p. 62) overlaps exactly with Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin’s classic “East Meets West” collaboration. But that was the future, and she missed it entirely.

      I agree that we should glean what gems we can from Rand, and that there are gems there to glean. But diamond mining starts out as dirty work–you have to hack at things pretty hard before you can extract and polish the gems. That’s the way it seems to me with RM.

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  3. Speaking of jazz, I put together an idiosyncratic list in my first article in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I wanted to note Rand’s use (in a talk from 1966) of sensory deprivation studies from psychology (a positive, so far as I’m concerned) while pulling back from her despairing portrayal of The Culture as a value-deprived environment, artistically and otherwise:

    The analogy that Rand wished to draw between sensory deprivation (as it was imposed in these studies) and value deprivation required a virtually total absence of positive moral exemplars or inspiring art in the milieu. What drives the remainder of the essay is a determination to find irrationality, emptiness, and depravity throughout American culture. While the political machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson and the esthetic judgments of New York literary critics were genuine occasions for disgust, Rand overlooked many instances of positive creativity in her surroundings. In just one artistic region—the American music known as jazz—the decade leading up to the publication of Rand’s essay saw the appearance of such complex, challenging, and emotionally fulfilling works as: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love” (Herbie Nichols, 1957); “Haitian Fight Song” (Charles Mingus, 1957), “Ancient Aeithopia” (Sun Ra, 1958); “Ramblin”‘ (Omette Coleman, 1959), “Better Get It in Your Soul” (Charles Mingus, 1959); “So What” (Miles Davis, 1959); “Giant Steps” (John Coltrane, 1959); “Stormy Weather” (Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy, 1960); “Jesús Maria” (Jimmy Giuflre, 1961); “Somewhere in Space” (Sun Ra, 1962); “Alabama” (John Coltrane, 1963); “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (Charles Mingus, 1963); “Hat and Beard” (Eric Dolphy, 1964); “Malagueña” (Pete La Roca with Joe Henderson, 1965); “Toothsome Threesome” (Elmo Hope, 1966); “Dancing Shadows” (Sun Ra, 1966); and “Isfahan” (Duke Ellington, 1966). The value deprivation, then, was a good deal less than total. (JARS Volume 1, no. 1, page 114)

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    • Absolutely. Actually, you may be a little too kind to Rand: what New York literary critics did you have in mind? She doesn’t mention any in Romantic Manifesto, much less discuss their arguments. When I think of “New York literary critics” of the era, I think of people like Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler: not always right, but hardly on par with Lyndon Johnson! (Fiedler was not technically a New York critic, but was born and raised in New Jersey, and educated in New York).

      I’ve spent the last few months immersed in a house purchase and a move across the state, so I’ve had to neglect the blog for awhile. But by coincidence, I’ve been preparing for a philosophy seminar I do each summer with Fred Seddon and Glenn Fletcher, and this year’s topic is The Romantic Manifesto. So I’ve been re-reading the book, and will hopefully be posting some of my thoughts on it soon.

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  4. I happen to be re-reading The Romantic Manifesto, as I mentioned in my last comment, but I read it this time with your comment in mind. There are two passages in “Art and Cognition” that are relevant in an odd and paradoxical way.

    On p. 64, she decries the popular music scene ca. 1971:

    The products of America’s anti-rational, anti-cognitive “Progressive” education, the hippies, are reverting to the music and the drumbeat of the jungle.

    It’s not clear what she means (it rarely is in this context), but I assume she’s referring to the rock and roll of the Woodstock era, including bands that didn’t perform at Woodstock, e.g., the Beetles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Though she professed to hate folk (and would have hated Joan Baez or Arlo Guthrie), I take it that the “drumbeat of the jungle” is a reference to the more blues-influenced music of the time. I don’t know what else it could be (assuming it has any meaning at all, which may be overly charitable to her).

    A few pages later, in a discussion of dance, she famously valorizes tap dancing, and names Bill Robinson and Fred Astaire as its “best exponents” (p. 68). (Not sure why she mentions Fred Astaire but omits Ginger Rogers.) What’s odd here is since tap dancing is an enabling art (my term) of the music it serves, this seems an implicit endorsement of the music to which Bill Robinson danced–including jazz, scat, swing, etc.

    What’s interesting is Rand’s general relationship to music with distant African origins. On the one hand, she wants to say that philosophy determines esthetics: rational esthetics belatedly tracks rational philosophy. Her account of music takes the European classical tradition as the paradigm: melody is central, rhythm peripheral, if that. Those features are somehow supposed to have arisen from the “man-centered philosophy” of the Renaissance.

    On the other hand, tap dancing, her favorite form of dance, arose in part in West Africa, and in part in Ireland, in contexts almost completely isolated from the classical philosophical and the classical musical traditions. And what it emphasizes is rhythm, not melody. How did that happen? How did her favorite form of dance arise from origins totally disconnected from the rational philosophy that supposedly underwrites good art? The apparent paradox is that from her perspective, her favorite form of dance had its sources in music that came from “the jungle.” (I don’t mean that Africa is “the jungle.” I mean that on her hyperbolic conception of “the jungle,” tap dance has its origins in tribal dance that may as well be “the jungle.”)

    For that matter, given her estimate of Aristotle as the greatest philosopher in history, why isn’t she concerned to recover, say, the Hellenistic music inspired by his work? But by her standards, ancient music was all “primitive music” not worth paying attention to. She wants us to believe that Aristotle’s musical influence lay dormant from the time of his death until the development of the diatonic scale in the Renaissance (assuming that we place its development there). Even as a just-so story, that’s preposterous.

    Further, if Bill Robinson was an exponent of the best dance form, tap dancing, which is best because of its obedience to the music it enacts, we have to infer that the music was itself worthwhile. Why then can’t we infer that the general tradition of music involved is worthwhile? She not only doesn’t think that, but seems to suggest the reverse (without quite saying the reverse): it’s as though Bill Robinson’s dance music was great, but the jazz that followed it was unworthy of her notice. That seems arbitrary and bizarre. How could someone valorize Bill Robinson but ignore the entire subsequent development of jazz, and have so viscerally negative a reaction to jazz- and blues-influenced rock?

    In other words, my problem is a more intense version of the one you point out in your JARS piece. It’s not just that she happened to ignore jazz altogether. It’s that when it came to African-influenced music, she had inexplicably idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. Bill Robinson, swing, scat? Great. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, et al: unimportant. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix? Trash. Music from Africa? Unimportant because unintegrated with the Western philosophical tradition. Greatest music of all time? Late nineteenth century operetta, obviously influenced by Aristotle. Source of the greatest dance music of all time? West Africa and Ireland. Not exactly a set of commitments that hangs together in the most natural way.

    I don’t mean to suggest that there’s any overt contradiction here. My point is that her view lacks coherence without being guilty of outright contradiction (along with an extreme ethnocentrism and parochiality). There are more questions there than answers, and more puzzles posed than puzzles resolved.

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  5. A couple of thoughts.

    I didn’t have big-name literary critics in mind in my old JARS article. I can’t recall a time when Rand ever cited Leslie Fiedler or Lionel Trilling. Her complaints were mostly directed at reviewers for New York newspapers.

    As for “the drumbeat of the jungle,” I’m reasonably sure she was referring to late-60s rock. Another phrase she used was “the even beat that dulls the senses.” Did she ever think about most jazz not being played on the beat, and most rock being played on the beat? Her slams at rock can’t be taken any more seriously than Adorno’s dismissal of jazz. Adorno never named any jazz group or soloist whose music he didn’t like. Rand never named any rock band or performer whose music she didn’t like.

    European music *theory* doesn’t put melody first; it’s mainly about harmony, counterpoint, and larger forms. In certain periods, one could argue, European composers put melody first. But one wouldn’t normally say that of J. S. Bach or Franz Joseph Haydn. And, officially, rhythm is not at the core of European music. Officially. The couple of times I’ve taught psychology of music, I’ve given students examples of European music that is *not* to be played as notated (Schwung in Strauss waltzes, notes inégales in Couperin’s harpsichord music, tempo rubato in Chopin).

    When Rand arrived in Chicago in 1926, Jelly Roll Morton was in town, at the height of his powers. Some of the places he was playing were within walking distance of the place where she was living. Did she even hear his name?

    So I would put her attitudes to parochiality, mostly. She knew little about the history of European music, or of American music. She didn’t have enough to work with in any systematic way.

    Not that that’s easy for anyone. At a minimum, it would be nice to be able to explain how Indian musicians versed in Indian music theory (and Indian listeners versed in Indian musical practice) respond to European music—and the other way around. Who’s done it?

    The other day I was listening to a collection of baroque music featuring the (period) bassoon. The bassoonist was playing an anonymous period arrangement for bassoon (“Les gentils airs, ou les airs connus, ajustés en duo”) of a harpsichord piece (later orchestrated for use in an opera) by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who, among other things, published the first modern European analysis of harmony. The piece is titled “Les sauvages,” and it is supposed to have been inspired by Rameau’s visit to an exposition in Paris at which native Americans from Louisiana sang and danced. The bassoonist, who is from the British Isles, must have seen or heard some real native American dancing, because he made the piece sound like it. The harpsichordists who play “Les sauvages” generally don’t. I suspect Rameau would have liked his rendition. Questions about music have a lot of layers.

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  6. I haven’t keep up with the advancing brain sciences possibly bearing on these philosophers’ conjectures, but I bet by now they do have something pertinent to report (contra Rand’s express, specific pessimism). Nozick 1981, 428, had a conjecture alternative to Rand’s hypothesis concerning phenomena (alleged) of emotional responses to music. Looking up what she wrote, I see along my way that Rand knew a piece by Mendelssohn and one by Liszt, used to illustrate a point—I hadn’t remembered that.

    I wrote some on Rand’s esthetics a few years ago. However, I did not take up her kinship with Aristotle’s POETICS, which subsequently I’ve read, and there is significant overlap between them. I’ll try to find what I wrote and post it in this thread.

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  7. OK, some pasting from those essays:

    The importance to man of a work as art “is not in what he learns from it, but in that he experiences it” (Rand 1963, 41). An art work as such, “an art work, as distinguished from a utilitarian object, serves no practical purpose other than that of contemplation” (37). I should point out that a vase, a chair, or a building can be an artwork alongside its utilitarian function, and any expression of that function in the art is not the same as the function itself. I shall develop this point further when we come to Schopenhauer, Kant, and two estheticians writing today.

    Not every possible subject for an artwork is appropriate for contemplation as an end in itself. “Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, . . . are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake. In art, and in literature, these negatives are worth re-creation only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive—but not as an end in themselves” (Rand 1963, 38).

    Within Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, one sees people who have already died, people in despair, and people with hope, waving to get the attention of a very distant ship. This painting fits squarely within what Rand described as having a subject containing negatives of human existence, yet also a positive in contrast, and worthy of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.

    When it comes to the great negatives in life, I have some reservations concerning Rand’s idea that negatives are unworthy as whole subjects of a work of art. Sometimes there is widespread common background of the beholders, who know the subject is from a larger story with its road to a positive; such would be a painting showing only that the dead Jesus is being taken down from the cross. War scenes as subjects of artworks, containing no positive aspects in the subject, may have viewers who know some history from which the scene is taken and some evaluation of that history, possibly positive. On the other hand, a war scene—say, a massacre—as subject of a painting, might be effective in inducing the horribleness of such an event to a viewer and nothing more than that horror. I would not want to contemplate it so much that I put it on the living room wall opposite me just now, in place of the triptych of Monet’s water lilies spanning that wall. However, the well-executed massacre painting might be worth my contemplation in a memorial museum of the event or in an art museum, where one passes from one feeling of life to another.

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  8. Rand specifies a function of art beyond its beckon of experience and contemplation for its own sake. Art has integral place in the realm of life functions (cf. Greater Hippias 295c–e on the fine). In its selective re-creations of reality, according to Rand, art isolates and integrates aspects of reality to yield a new concrete that can serve certain functions for the human psyche (1965a, 16). From general philosophical knowledge, there branches knowledge of the physical world in abstract science, which leads to applied science and technology, which leads to the production of material goods. From philosophy branches also knowledge of the phenomena of consciousness, which leads to art, “the technology of the soul” (Rand 1963, 41).

    The highest goal Rand had in her novels was the portrayal of ideal men. The experience of meeting those characters in the stories is an end in itself. She aimed for a story offering an experience worth living through for its own sake, and she aimed for protagonists to be a pleasure to contemplate for their own sake (Rand 1963, 37). That kind of contemplation, in all art, serves a human need, the need for moments sensing as complete the life-long struggle for achievement of values (41). Notice that the concept of contemplation here is broad enough to include rapture, esthetic rapture (cf. Crowther 2007, 35–36).

    There is that Randian integration in the esthetic experience of art. However, there are other kinds of contemplation of art for its own sake besides that one, I would say, important and lovely as that one is. We shall reach them in later installments of this study.

    Rand counted as a merit of her esthetics that it could explain why some artwork or other can be of such profound personal concern to many a person. I shall include in this study introduction to an alternative contemporary esthetic theory that also accounts for that intensity, and I shall determine how this more recent theory sits with Rand’s account.

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  9. Rand thought that Romantic art is the main source of a moral sense of life in the child and adolescent (cf. Kant 1788, 5:154–57; 1797, 6:478–84).
    Please note that art is not his only source of morality, but of a moral sense of life. This requires careful differentiation.

    A “sense of life” is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics—an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man’s nature and the nature of reality, summing up one’s view of man’s relationship to existence. Morality is an abstract, conceptual code of values and principles. (Rand 1965b, 10)

    I can understand what Rand means by a moral sense of life being conveyed to the child or adolescent if I think of the Lone Ranger and Tonto of television and movie in my own childhood (cf. concluding paragraphs of 1965a, 14). It does not detract from Rand’s esthetic theory, but I should note that for many children, there can be another, more important source of a moral sense of life. That is from clergy. The experience of child or adolescent with the manner and behavior of their pastor, priest, rabbi, or iman—especially in the setting of worship ceremony and sermon—is a major source of a moral sense of life.

    Rand observed that “every religion has a mythology—a dramatized concretization of its moral code embodied in the figures of men who are its ultimate product” (1965a, 16). Such characters and their associated deeds and ordeals, when visualized in a drawing or painting, I should say and likely Rand would say, do not bring a moral sense of life to the artwork by their iconographical status there. The means of sense of life, including moral sense of life, in a work of art are from other elements in the work, not iconography or, for that matter, biographical circumstances of the artist.

    In Rand’s “For the New Intellectual” (1960), she had conceived of human consciousness as preserving some continuity and as demanding “a certain degree of integration, whether a man seeks it or not” (18). Philosophy should formulate “an integrated view of man, of existence, of the universe” (22). “Man needs an integrated view of life, a philosophy, whether he is aware of his need or not” (18). Rand saw art as addressing a related need for integration. “Art is a concretization of metaphysics” (Rand 1965a, 16). It provides the power to summon in a full, perceptually conscious focus, a condensation of the chains of abstract concepts forming man’s “fundamental view of himself and of his relationships to reality” (16).

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  10. Rand elaborated further what she meant by a sense of life. It is a person’s “generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion—an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences” (1966a, 17). This generalized feeling she took to be the result of a subconscious integration summing the history of one’s psychological activities, one’s reactions and conclusions. This conception of sense of life is an extension of her earlier notion that human consciousness preserves willy-nilly some continuity and demands a certain degree of integration (1961, 18). “The enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness is there at birth; his only choice is to drive it or be driven by it” (1966a, 18).

    As we shall see, Rand was not alone in finding metaphysical, cognitive, and evaluative linkages in art. Her final characterization of their assembly was under her concept of a metaphysical value-judgment.

    Rand’s explications of sense of life and metaphysical value-judgments are in terms of metaphysics that bears on human life and the role and character of values in it. She said that a sense of life sums up one’s view of man’s relationship to existence. That suggests that when she said this subconsciously integrated appraisal that is sense of life includes appraisal of the nature of reality, she was confining the metaphysical appraisal to implications for moral, human life. That would include some notion of the intelligibility or lack thereof in existence in general and in living existence in particular.

    Rand had used the phrase sense of life once in Fountainhead, twice in Atlas, and evidently routinely in conversation (Branden 1999, 38, 56, 101, 105, 168, 171) before beginning to write about the meaning of the phrase in 1965. The phrase and concept “tragic sense of life” was title of Unamuno’s book of 1913 (Spanish; translated into English 1921; Dover edition 1954).

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  11. In Atlas Rand once used the phrase sense of life tied to a sense of beauty and to the love of human existence. During Dagny’s tour of Atlantis, she visits the composer Richard Halley, who plays some of his piano pieces for her.
    She was thinking of the years when the works he had just played for her were being written, here, in his small cottage on the ledge of the valley, when all the prodigal magnificence of sound was being shaped by him as a flowing monument to a concept which equates the sense of life with the sense of beauty—while she had walked through the streets of New York in a hopeless quest for some form of enjoyment, with the screeches of a modern symphony running after her, as if spit by the infected throat of a loud-speaker coughing its malicious hatred of existence. (AS 781)

    In this passage, beauty and a sense of life saturated with it are aligned with life and the love of it. This is a use of the phrase sense of life consistent with Rand’s later definition of it I quoted above. Notice that Rand’s conception of sense of life fits just as well with my conception significance and meaningfulness as the concern of esthetics in art as it fits with Rand’s conception importance as that concern.

    I have said Rand’s theory of esthetics is too restrictive in two ways. Firstly, the cognitive and emotional function of art is, I say, a family of end-in-itself integrations, among which Rand’s function is an important one, but only one. In “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” Rand wrote that art fulfils a need for end-in-itself concretization of metaphysical value-judgments. That is consonant with her idea, stated earlier in “The Goal of My Writing,” that the function of art is to supply moments of sensing as complete the life-long struggle for achievement of values. In the later essay “Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” Rand was not broadening her view of what is “the” function of art; she was only articulating more of the means by which it fulfils that function (see also Rand 1966a, 34, 36–37, and 1971, 1009). In Rand’s view, there are other enjoyments in art besides fulfillment of that function, but no other function (1966a, 39).

    About psycho-epistemology: Rand and her circle had been using the term to refer to an individual’s characteristic method of awareness. Is the time scope of his outlook brief or long? Is his concern only with what is physically present? Does he recoil into his emotions in the face of his physical life and need for action? How far does he integrate his perceptions into conceptions? Is his thinking a means of perceiving reality or justifying escape from reality? (Rand 1960, 14, 19, 21). Chris Sciabarra reports that Barbara Branden was the one who originated the concept (and, I presume, the word) psycho-epistemology (1995, 194). In her lecture series Principles of Efficient Thinking, Ms. Branden defined psycho-epistemology as “the study of the mental operations that characterize a man’s method of dealing with reality” (1962, 178). Nathaniel Branden further specified the compass of psycho-epistemology in an essay with that title (1964).

    Art performs the psycho-epistemological function, in Rand’s view, of converting metaphysical abstractions “into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception” (1965a). Rand held art to be a need of human consciousness. So did Kant, and I shall set out in a future installment of this study the relationships between those two needs.

    Secondly too restrictive, importance as Rand’s criterion of esthetic abstraction is a salient criterion in such abstraction, but the broader criteria of significance and meaningfulness also sort the esthetic from the purely cognitive and normative types of abstraction. To those two overly narrow restrictions in Rand’s esthetics—function of art and criterion of esthetic abstraction—I should add a third. Rand’s range of philosophical issues going into the makeup of all the facets of one’s sense of life might well be too limited. Moreover, there is no muster of evidence that a sense of life is a singular, well-integrated thing.

    Importance is the concept Rand took to be key in formation of a sense of life. She then restricted importance to a fundamental view of human nature. A sense of life becomes an emotional summation reflecting answers on basic questions of human nature read as applying to oneself. Such questions would be whether the universe is knowable, whether man has the power of choice, and whether man can achieve his goals (Rand 1966b, 19). In development of one’s sense of life in childhood and adolescence, Rand was thinking of more particular forms or ramifications of those broad questions in application to oneself. Later the broad questions themselves can be formulated and generalized to human kind, not only oneself.

    The fundamental importance-questions whose emotional answers are vested in a sense of life were the same as Rand had listed the previous year in spelling out what are metaphysical value-judgments. Those questions had been:
    Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life—or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? (1965a, 16)
    That last question would seem at first blush to be a normative question, rather than a metaphysical one. I suggest, however, that it is a question for (i) the metaphysics of life and value in general, to which, as metaphysical fact, man is no alien and (ii) for the metaphysics of mind joining (i) (see also Peikoff 1991, 189–93).

    On Rand’s definition, art is “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments” (1965a, 16). I am not persuaded that all art under the dictionary definition I quoted in the preceding section nor that all of what should be grouped under art is captured by Rand’s theoretical explanatory definition. Her definition holds for a major subclass of art.

    We are able to sense the feelings indicated in a great variety of created illusions, or re-creations of reality. One would expect the same for artists, and some artists might have considerable success in expressing a sense of life not their own. It is only a slight modification, a slight broadening of Rand’s definition to say art is a selective re-creation of reality according to metaphysical value-judgments, leaving in suspension how much they are favored by the artist, if at all. It is, I think, also overly restrictive to confine the metaphysical in art to man’s relationship to reality, that is, to Rand’s metaphysical value-judgments. That said, Rand’s house of metaphysical value-judgments itself need not be so restrictive as one might first think from her list of metaphysical value-questions. For example, to ask whether the universe is intelligible is also to ask whether existence is one and interconnected within itself and whether a negative judgment on that question-couple leaves existence intelligible and, if so, differently so than were existence truly one and highly interconnected. This would seem to be an expansion of Rand’s list of questions, remaining within her conception, because the judgments the question and its subsidiaries invite are metaphysical and bear on basic human purposes.

    There is something else to remember about Rand’s compact definition of art, which is intended to cover arts literary and visual (and more). When she says these crafted illusions are re-creations of reality, one needs to remember two things implicit in that conception: imagination and stylization. An artist stylizes reality in his re-creations. In that re-creation are his integration of facts and his metaphysical evaluations, and these are set concrete in his selection of theme and subject, brushstroke and word, and indeed in all his craft with elements of the medium (Rand 1966a, 35; 1971, 1011–12).

    One might concur with Rand’s definition of art, and with her further ideas that metaphysics is implicit in the subject of an artwork, psycho-epistemology in its style. Yet one might disagree with Rand’s analysis of various artworks within this framework (1966a, 37–39; 1968, 501–3; see also Sures 1969; Peikoff 1982, 173–74; 2012, 84–101). Those analyses will not be discussed in this essay.

    I have not covered Rand’s thought on Romanticism and Naturalism, and I shall not be doing so. More of Rand’s esthetics than what I have covered thus far will unfold in the sequel. Let me compile my more substantial differences with Rand to this point and with some anticipation of their further unfolding. What Rand called “literary mood studies” are not to be excluded from the concept literary art, otherwise poetry would have to be excluded as well. Rand’s proximate and ultimate functions of art are not the only ones. Rand’s definition of art is too narrow. Her criterion of esthetic abstraction is importance, in a sense we have examined, and that is too narrow as the criterion of esthetic abstraction. Lastly for now, Rand’s range of philosophical issues going into the makeup of sense of life is likely too limited, and I doubt one’s sense(s) of life has been so well-integrated by the subconscious as Rand supposed.

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  12. There’s a lot to digest here, very helpful to me as I work through Romantic Manifesto right now. It’s too bad you two won’t be able to attend the seminar on RM that Fred, Glenn, and I are doing in Lewisburg soon. But I’ll pass your comments on to the two of them, in the hopes that your comments will inform our discussions. I’ve generated some notes on Romantic Manifesto on this last reading, many of them overlapping with things you’ve said above. I was thinking of posting some of that here, along with snippets of a discussion we’ve been having at Anoop Verma’s blog about originals and copies of paintings.

    I don’t have time to work spell this out right now, but the thought I had while reading Romantic Manifesto is that on the one hand, I found the text a complete mess, but on the other hand, I found some of the ideas in it original and arresting. The irony is that taken as aesthetics, its intended subject, it’s a mess. What’s original and arresting is the psychology–her account of the relationship between conscious and subconscious mental processes, or put another way, the relationship between volitional consciousness and “sense of life.” In a sense, Romantic Manifesto is less “philosophy of art” than it is a theory of psychodynamics married to some ad hoc comments on aesthetics. I would say that her psychology seems an advance over Freudian psychodynamics but ends up leaving more questions than it answers. At any rate, it seems more promising an avenue of inquiry than anything she has to say about art or aesthetics.

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  13. Pingback: Originals, Fakes, and Copies: Reductionism and Anti-Reductionism About Painting | Policy of Truth

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