Randian Asceticism

1999-10-31

In Ayn Rand's play Ideal can be found the following lines about the ideal woman:

A woman who does not assume a glory of greatness for a few hours, then return to the children-dinner-friends-football-and-God reality. A woman who seeks that glory in her every minute and her every step. A woman in whom life is not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn.

I fail to see how life is a curse or a bargain (and not a hymn) if one finds value in children, a fine dinner, time spent with friends, or an occasional sports game. Perhaps these are not the central value of life, but I find them to be much of the seasoning for the main course. Why does Rand set up an opposition here? Rand and her followers tend to denigrate all values except work-values, and I think this is quite off the mark. Let me illustrate with a quote from Rand's essay "For the New Intellectual" about her archetype of Attila:

His pleasures are closer to the level of sensations than of perceptions: food, drink, palatial shelter, rich clothing, indiscriminate sex, contests of physical prowess, gambling -- all those activities which do not demand or involve the use of the conceptual level of consciousness.

Now, I suppose all Objectivists know what Rand means here: one needs to think. But she runs the risk of being perceived as a work-focused ascetic if the reader concludes that Rand is saying that food, drink, shelter, clothing, sex, and other such 'sensory' pleasures cannot "involve the use of the conceptual level of consciousness" -- or that all human values must be conceptual else they are not valuable at all. From the perspective of history, most citizens of the western world today enjoy the kind of food, drink, clothing, and shelter that even the richest kings could not afford in centuries past. Does this mean that we are all sybarites now and that to this degree we are focusing on pleasures that are "closer to the level of sensations than of perceptions"?

Such messages can be found also in Rand's novels, in which (for example) Roark's college room is described as bereft of all personal touches (even books!), containing only his drawings and a few articles of clothing.

I find Rand's focus on work as the exclusive source of value to be problematic because I feel it is indeed a form of asceticism. Even art, for Rand, seems to have value at root only because it is a source of fuel to keep on working. What a desiccated view of living!


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