My War Against America

Almost thirty years ago, as a callow Rand-intoxicated undergraduate, I bought Ayn Rand’s collection The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, opening with breathless anticipation to Leonard Peikoff’s anti-academic rant, “Assault from the Ivory Tower: The Professors’ War Against America.” This passage briefly arrested my attention:

If you want still more, turn to art – for instance, poetry – as it is taught today in our colleges. For an eloquent example, read the widely used Norton’s Introduction to Poetry, and see what modern poems are offered to students alongside the recognized classics of the past as equally deserving of study, analysis, respect. One typical entry, which immediately precedes a poem by Blake, is entitled “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” The poem begins: “Hard Rock was ‘known not to take no shit / From nobody’ …’ and continues in similar vein throughout. This item can be topped only by the volume’s editor, who discusses the poem reverently, explaining that it has a profound social message: “the despair of the hopeless.” Just as history is what historians say, so art today is supposed to be whatever the art world endorses, and this is the kind of stuff it is endorsing. After all, the modernists shrug, who is to say what’s really good in art? Aren’t Hard Rock’s feelings just as good as Tennyson’s or Milton’s?

Two things struck me at the time about this passage:

1. On the one hand, Objectivism has no doctrinal position on poetry. On the other hand, Peikoff regards his claims as at least consistent with Objectivism, and more to the point, as exemplifying it. Transcendental question: how is that possible? Is Peikoff’s view a subtle inference from some existing aesthetic doctrine, or is he just exercising his own independent thought–qua Objectivist–by formulating his own doctrine on the basis of a doctrine that is decidedly not his own? How does one do that?

2. Does Peikoff mention Blake in the context of the discussion of Hard Rock because he regards Blake as worthy of inclusion in a way Hard Rock is not? If bizarre, inscrutable feeling-worship is disqualifying in poetry, why valorize Blake? Why not exclude Blake as an irrational mystic? While we’re at it: What would Peikoff say about Wordsworth? And where do any of these aesthetic judgments come from, anyway? How are they justified? For that matter, what kind of justification is involved?

Lots more things have struck me since.

I eventually went on to read Tennyson, Milton, and Blake, but never bothered to look up the poem about Hard Rock. Though I was skeptical of Peikoff’s argument, I guess it had its intended effect on me: given his implicit estimate of the poem, it didn’t seem worth following up, so I didn’t. Apparently, at age 20, I had enough respect for Peikoff to take his estimate of a poem as a given. Twenty-eight years later, I know enough not to take Peikoff’s estimate of anything as a given. Better late than never.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened on a post by Roderick Long on the Peikoff essay, with a convenient link to the notorious “Hard Rock poem.”  The poem turns out to be Etheridge Knight’s “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” As Roderick says, read it, and “judge for yourself.”

I did, and liked it–a lot. By chance, a colleague in the English Department, Sherida Yoder (a poet herself), invited me to participate in the University’s annual Student-Faculty Poetry Reading celebrating Black History Month. Perfect timing! I asked if she’d let me read the Knight poem at the event, rough edges and all, and she agreed. (Such, such are the workings of academic freedom–when it works.)

Image result for leonard peikoff

And so we come full circle: from cowed and callow Objectivist undergraduate anxious about the “professors’ war against America,” to middle-aged radical at a non-tenure-granting institution,  prosecuting The War from within the Ivory Tower itself.

Put somewhat more benignly:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In any case, I’m looking forward to it: Hard Rock gets the last WORD–and I get the last laugh.

4 thoughts on “My War Against America

  1. The predictable Objectivist “response” on Facebook:

    Nicholas Gramlich
    Nicholas Gramlich “mediocre poetry = great poetry”
    Manage
    Like · Reply · 3h · Edited

    Nicholas Gramlich
    Nicholas Gramlich “Hard Rock was lobotomized = Hard Rock laughed”
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    Like · Reply · 2h

    Nicholas Gramlich
    Nicholas Gramlich Why aren’t anyone’s feelings as important as prisoners, so their poems are seen as great? Because I don’t idolize a crazed murderer enough that I’m hurt when a lobotomy takes him out of the game? Why aren’t my poems seen as great?
    PS I’m kind of glad they lobotomized Hard Rock. The guy sounded like a cunt.
    Manage
    Like · Reply · 2h · Edited

    Nicholas Gramlich
    Nicholas Gramlich Knight didn’t even try to make his prose take the semblance of poetry. It’s just him telling a story. It’s a kind of interesting story. Great poetry? Not even close.
    1
    Manage
    Like · Reply · 2h

    Like

    • My response:

      Irfan Khawaja If you’re interested in having a bona fide argument about poetry and aesthetics, feel free to comment at my blog. I’m not going to have at you on someone else’s Facebook page. But if you decide to go that route, the first equation we’re going to have to discuss is “ignorant, dogmatic one liner = argument worth taking seriously.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good motivation here to read the poem in question (and more poetry in general)! My undergraduate, Objectivist self wanted to explore literature, but upon mentioning Rand in English class and getting derided by the professor, I said screw it. And promptly signed onto Peikoff’s war against the professor’s “war against America” (with posters plastered all over campus to start an Objectivist club, no less). The same professor later took to the student newspaper for further derisive, politically-correct take-downs of me (my being articulate enough and clever enough that his left-wing values felt threatened, I’m guessing). I wish I had known then that I was dealing with two different sorts of “cultural warriors” doing their own sort of damage to the life of the mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s been awhile since I’ve had a student interested in Rand enrolled in any of my classes, or as an advisee–maybe a decade. I’m not sure how I would handle it. I wouldn’t deride them, but I can’t say that I’d encourage the interest, either. I guess I’d just engage with them, and encourage them to read more broadly, and think about Rand’s claims with a critical mind. (I’ve done more or less the same with Marxist or quasi-Marxist students.)

      Similar issues arise in related contexts: the usual problem I face at Felician is intellectual apathy, but every now and then I’ll encounter students with enthusiastic interests in things I find problematic or objectionable. Though it’s a mixed-bag example, Black Lives Matters is one of these. Though I’m generally sympathetic to the spirit of what they’re doing, I’m not about to sign on to the letter:

      https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/what-we-believe/

      I’d say something similar about #MeToo, Antifa, and BDS.

      The trickier thing for me has been to formulate a position on student recruitment by certain parts of the government, e.g., Immigrations and Customs Enforcement: I wouldn’t deride it, but I do refuse complicity in it, and can’t support it. The same is now true for students interested in joining the military: I will not serve as a reference, or write letters of recommendation, for students interested in joining the military. Every now and then I’ll get students who want reference letters for positions with the local Republican Party establishment. Before 2016, I might not have balked at that, but now I’m less sure.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/

      On pursuing an interest in literature: Just as you wouldn’t be deterred from listening to your favorite music by anyone’s derision, you shouldn’t be deterred from pursuing an interest in literature by the long-lost derision of some half-forgotten professor. I was lucky to have developed an interest in literature early on, forged in part by a religious upbringing focused on Scripture. I’ve occasionally let it lapse, but never let it go–and like music, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

      I’ve always found it odd that Rand offered up a “Romantic Manifesto” and “philosophy of literature” that says almost nothing about poetry, much less Romantic poetry. Officially speaking, this is the sum of what she has to say on the subject:

      A poem does not have to tell a story; its basic attributes are theme and style. (Romantic Manifesto, p. 81)

      Even that little bit is contestable: it’s not clear to me that all poems have themes (e.g., haiku).

      Despite its title and subtitle, The Romantic Manifesto makes no contact whatsoever with the great Romantic poets of the English tradition (Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, etc.), much less any other tradition. The passing reference she makes to the “Byronic view of existence” raises more questions than it answers (p. 104). Most of the book, honestly, is ridiculous. But the lack of content (and lack of argumentation) hasn’t stopped Objectivist dogmatists from treating their preferences about poetry as self-evident axioms on the subject. And don’t get me started on music or the visual arts.

      Liked by 1 person

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