Sep 132002

My old friend Jim Valliant takes issue with my old article on Objectivism and sexual psychology, which goes to show he should be reading me more often. You can read his comments in full in the archives; they are lengthy, and I shall excerpt them here. He begins and ends by accusing me of hostility to Objectivism, writing:

…he should read Atlas Shrugged first as he appears to be much better versed in Ms. Branden’s biographies of Rand than in Rand’s work itself.


Mr. Haspel’s use of the terms like “canon” and “official version” shows an inherent hostility to Rand. [Incidentally, we’ve known each other for twenty years, so it’s OK to call me Aaron. Really.]

I should state my bona fides. I am sympathetic to and familiar with Objectivism, as Jim well knows. Ayn Rand made a capitalist out of me, with help from Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises. She taught me the importance of being good at my job (when I have one), which I should have figured out on my own but didn’t. I agree with most of what she wrote and any criticisms I make are in that spirit.

The suggestion that I read Atlas Shrugged is an unfortunate example of a style of argument that is all too common among Objectivists. Any disagreement can be traced to ignorance, or misunderstanding, or both.

What I am hostile to is Objectivism™ — the school and business that grew up around the philosophy. Ayn Rand created Objectivism; Nathaniel Branden created Objectivism™. Objectivism is a philosophy; Objectivism™ is schisms, and denunciations, and hair-splitting disputes about who is an “Objectivist” and who a mere “student of Objectivism,” and expensive lectures on cassette. (A useful heuristic for cults: if you sell taped lectures, at high prices, you’re probably a cult. One characteristic all cults share is a shrewd understanding of price elasticity.) Objectivism has done many people, including me, a lot of good; the same, I am afraid, cannot be said for Objectivism™. It is Objectivism™, not Objectivism, that has official texts and authorized representatives. It is Objectivism™ that encouraged people to discard their non-Objectivist lovers. Jim knows all this perfectly well too.

Now let’s get to sex. Jim continues:

Mr. Haspel should definitely read my analysis of the Brandens’ biographies…

Rand rejected the “face-character” dichotomy being assumed here. While aspects of beauty are amorally outside of choice and control, much is not. A person’s posture, how she looks at things — including you — how she smiles, etc. are all reflections of her psychology and comprise initial evidence of her character even before any words are exchanged…

For Rand, thinking someone is “hot” already implies an active metaphysics. Rand correctly observed, we have no instincts. We are not born with any template of human appearance, for all we are born knowing, humans are multilegged spiders and there are three sexes, not just two. The process of sex itself must be learned. Which sex do we find “hot”? What age group? What demeanor, emotions and STYLE of soul are we attracted to, etc. All of this does reflect choices, values and beliefs. The fact that we value human faces at all is, as Rand says, a “response to values,” much less the KIND of face.

Dichotomy n. Logic. Division of a class into two subclasses, esp. two opposed by contradiction, as white and not white. A distinction is not a dichotomy. Even if we include matters like posture and carriage in looks, as Jim rightly insists that we should, they remain, compared to speech, a rather poor index to character. Speak, that I may see thee. Whatever one may think of Orwell’s assertion that at fifty we all have the face we deserve, it is surely not true at twenty-eight, which was Frank O’Connor’s age when Ayn Rand met him.

Jim then proceeds to make my point.

In reality, unlike fiction, people can be contradictory and, therefore, “disappointments” to their looks, if you will. In Rand’s fiction, her characters are consistent expressions of their souls down to the smallest gesture of a pinky. They never disappoint…

What Ms. Branden was saying is that Rand’s meeting with O’Connor was like her fiction, i.e. Frank did not disappoint, his character matched his look, his character was consistently expressed in his demeanor and looks.

Rand’s characters are indeed consistent, down to word and gesture, which is what gives her fiction both its exhilirating and its cartoonish aspect. To the best of my recollection, no Rand character, hero or villain, ever tells a lie, the most common of human foibles. (There’s a master’s thesis in that for someone.) Back in the world, however, not every distinguished person has an erect carriage and a piercing stare and wavy chestnut hair. He says Frank O’Connor was not a disappointment to Ayn Rand. I don’t think he was either. She was obviously in love with him, and that’s good enough for me. Frank O’Connor disappointed only the acolytes of Ayn Rand who expected her to marry an exceptionally distinguished person.

Of course sexual attraction is, as Jim says, a “response to values,” but it is a response to values largely assumed, projected, in the absence of remotely adequate information about their object. Certain circumstances in courtship, like prolonged absence after the first meeting, make this projection more intense — almost unbearably intense for someone of Rand’s intelligence and imagination. Stendhal, the first to point this out, comes in for some rough handling.

Stendhal, of course, begins the subject in the middle and continues through it in an emotional fog reflective of his own (and perhaps Mr. Haspel’s) psychology as opposed to any principles of universal applicability, such as Rand was articulating.

What Stendhal does in Love is to introspect successfully. He recognizes the kernel of truth in cliches like “love is blind” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but he does far better, and goes into great detail about how and when and why. This is not imprisonment in one’s emotions: it is liberation. We should all be so fortunate to walk around in such an “emotional fog.”

Update: Mark Riebling comments.

  One Response to “More Objectivism! More Sex!”

  1. Well, well, well. I guess this one is going to be going on for a while.

    Let me say this:

    1. The foundation of Miss Rand’s view is among the many she could have credited Nietzsche with originating — it would have been at least good intellectual manners to cite his aphorism, which I believe is from "The Gay Science":

    "The degree and kind of one’s sexuality reaches to the very pinnacle of one’s spirit."

    Or something like that, I don’t have the exact quote; but the idea is that one’s physical and one’s spiritual lives are not split.

    As for the rest: my own view runs along the lines suggested in that old Yuppie bible, DRESS FOR SUCCESS, which my father gave me when I was going off into the world, or anyway into college. The author, whose name I forget, raised the question what type of underwear one should wear, and dismissed it in one clause:

    "A gentleman should be allowed to choose his own underwear."

    So it is with one’s sexuality more generally — it’s the most intensely personal aspect of one’s personallity, and the area in which normative, universal, philoscophical propositions are least appreciated by me.

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