Ayn Rand’s “Sense of Life” as a Tool for Aesthetic Reflection

Ayn Rand, concepts, and art. Two novels-of-ideas by Ayn Rand (1905-1982)–The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)–and the individualist and pro-capitalist political positions that Rand laid out over the course of her lifetime, have had an outsized impact on the contemporary conservative movement in the United States. Alan Greenspan, Ronald Reagan’s appointee as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is a Rand enthusiast, as is the libertarian Ron Paul, who named his son, Rand Paul–now a U.S. Senator from Kentucky–after her. Translated into many languages, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, though written over fifty years ago, continue to sell together in English about 300,000 copies every year.

Rand’s politics are well known, but what is less well-known are her aesthetic theories (art theories). Rand’s ideas concerning aesthetics can be found in her book, The Romantic Manifesto (1962), and are built on her understanding of concepts. From the time of Plato, Western intellectuals–be they in the classical, structuralist, or poststructuralist stream–have managed to agree on at least this one thing: words have some relationship to concepts. Concepts are the way we move from the particular to the general (you are a person, I am a person, each individual in the football stadium is a person as well—the word “person” does a lot of conceptualizing work, bringing diverse individuals under a single concept). Likewise, concepts can be integrated with one another (for example, if you hold to the metaphysical concept that people have free will, then it makes sense, ethically, to make people responsible for their actions; if you hold that people do not have free will, but are determined by forces beyond them, then it would be ethically incoherent to punish them for what they cannot keep from doing). Rand thus writes the following concerning concepts and conceptual integrations:

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? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics.

Sense of life. The sheer complexity of one’s conceptual integrations into a metaphysical-ethical worldview (a Weltanschauung) requires a final integration: art. So Rand defines art this way: “Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” An art object is an artist’s metaphysical-ethical summation of what deserves attention, emphasis, and representation; or, as Rand puts it: “An artist does not fake reality–he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant–and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence.” What art represents then is the artist’s “sense of life,” which Rand illustrates this way:

If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it.

But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely viscious attack on man, on beauty, on all values–and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist.)

The emotional response to that painting would be instantaneous, much faster than the viewer’s mind could identify all the reasons involved. The psychological mechanism which produces that response (and which produced the painting) is a man’s sense of life.

Does this mean that Rand could not appreciate art that did not match her sense of life? Here’s her response:

[T]here are many different aspects from which one may enjoy a work of art–other than sense-of-life affinity. […]

I love the work of Victor Hugo, in a deeper sense than admiration for his superlative literary genius, and I find many similarities between his sense of life and mine, although I disagree with virtually all of his explicit philosophy–I like Dostoevsky, for his superb mastery of plot structure and for his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil, even though his philosophy and his sense of life are almost diametrically opposed to mine […] I cannot stand Tolstoy, […] his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer.

Resources:

  • Ayn Rand, Romantic Manifesto (Bantam 1962)
  • Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Anchor 2009)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Ayn Rand’s “Sense of Life” as a Tool for Aesthetic Reflection

  1. MBA2MFA says:

    If Rand’s theories on artistic creation (vs. appreciation) were true at all, it’s likely less so in contemporary literature, where a work’s theme is often ambiguous and the “point” left open for debate in favor of emotional resonance. As she says, there’s psychology behind the emotion – I’m thinking of contemporary short fiction that feels like it’s punching you in the gut – but the writers’ objective seems to be focused more on transcendency through shared experience rather than creating a political/”ethical” platform. Sure explains why her characters were so wooden, though.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m not a follower of Rand, but to be fair to her, I think she would indeed have a relevant opinion on contemporary literature (such as Pynchon’s most recent work), and that is the following: unintegrated emotional representation is itself a metaphysical-ethical stance (the world as chaos and contingency as opposed to a cosmos where people can have serious and sustained purposes). Different art comes from these different senses of life. Both have to be imagined as true, then represented as felt.

      In rhetoric, Aristotle wrote of the enthymeme–a claim that doesn’t explicitly state all the premises functioning beneath it, but that we’re expected, as readers or hearers, to fill in. There’s something similar going on in creative writing and art–an unstated worldview is working beneath the explicit manifestation of the work. Rand, being an ideologically driven person, wants to tease these premises out of an artist’s productions, to make them explicit. I think it is helpful to do this; it brings light on a text. It shouldn’t be the only way to evaluate a work of art (obviously).

      –Santi

      • MBA2MFA says:

        Agreed – I think I am reacting more to the stance that this explains away the genesis of art on the part of the artist, as opposed to the analysis of it on the part of the viewer-reader. I last studied English lit a million years ago so I know nothing, but from my perspective as a writer, I do consciously develop my characters’ worldviews, but the gestalt of my stories’ thematic choices aren’t choices at all – they’re driven unconsciously by psyche. The teasing out of the psychological and ethical components of a work and the artist’s intent makes sense for researchers, teachers, and historians but I think that the process of reading/reacting is unconscious on the part of the everyday reader and perhaps even more so for the artist in the creation of the work. This may not be at odds with Rand’s theories. I think I just had a gut reaction to the name “Ayn Rand” and the topic at hand; her black-and-white, ideology-driven style of writing led to some very flat protagonists. The more self-consciously ideological the artist is, I think, the more self-conscious the work. But her work had its purpose, and some readers do enjoy heavy themes over story content. Say, for example, a high school student who’s bored stiff and eager to leave a small town and rise out of mediocrity – I’m not naming names.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Rand’s problems are numerous as a fiction writer, one obvious one being that her characters lack irony.

        The ironists and intuitionists of the contemporary art and literary world—in all their varieties—are reflecting key truths of the human experience, trying to capture what it feels like to go through the world inconsistently, accompanied by irony, spontaneity (or the failures of spontaneity), and unintended consequences. Real people alternate between cowardice and heroism. Real people wrestle with the contingent. A disconcerting honesty about the human condition is the postmodernist’s gift to art. Somebody has to say it. But Rand was trying to say other things; trying to recover the dignity of the productive and creative individual in a time when that sort of individual was under assault from all quarters (communism, fascism, socialism, religion). She did not live in a quiet time. She was combative and didactic in a combative and didactic era. And she was, in broad terms, on the side of Locke against Hobbes, as most contemporary educated people, when push comes to shove, I think are. If she’s a crank, she was a crank on the right side.

        –Santi

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