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.)
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.
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.