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Objectivist Zen
Or: If You Meet Ayn Rand on the Road, Kill Her

SmurfHat [1]2,641 words

I discovered Ayn Rand when I was 20 years old and a college student (as prescribed by Scripture). I was living at home and tagged along one day when my mother went to the public library to return some books. There I loafed around, waiting for my mother to finish her usual gratuitous chat with the librarians, when suddenly it caught my eye: a paperback copy of The Fountainhead nestling innocently in one of those tall metal racks that spin around.

I frequently borrowed books from the library and seldom did more than flip through most of them. When, on a whim, I added The Fountainhead to my mother’s stack it was not with any serious conviction. I remember my mother saying something like “People thought she was weird,” referring to Rand. This was typical of my mother, who began a lot of sentences with “People think . . .” and “They say . . .” — much like one of Rand’s “secondhanders.” In my eyes, her remark was as good as a recommendation. On the drive home, I began skimming the Introduction, which Rand had penned for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition. There’s a paragraph where she mentions that she is an atheist — and this was what sold me. At the time, I was a militant boy atheist, or at least thought that I was.

To make a long story short, to my great surprise I wound up reading all 700 or so pages of The Fountainhead, and then detaching and mailing in the card in the middle of the book, which promised me more information on Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism.” This was the beginning of my four year association with the Rand cult, during which time I enountered such Randian luminaries as Nathaniel Branden (excommunicated by Rand herself, but still on the periphery), David Kelley, and Allan Gotthelf. More importantly, The Fountainhead was actually my introduction to philosophy. What was most striking to me about the characters in the novel was that they took ideas seriously.

By the age of 20, after a rather difficult adolescence, I was a cynic and a nihilist (or, at least, thought that I was). Rand made me ashamed of that. I wanted to change, and she was my first guide. But I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Branden et al., and after four more years of studying philosophy I was “cured” of my Objectivism. I had actually changed my major to philosophy with the intention of spreading the gospel. I set about studying Plato, Kant, Hegel, and the other luminaries of the tradition rather like Batman collecting intelligence on Known Super Criminals. Plato, according to Rand, was “the great destroyer,” bidding us to “crawl down into the muck of [his] cave,” and Kant was “the most evil man in mankind’s history,” whose philosophy was “like a hippopotamus belly dancing” (I kid you not). But things did not turn out exactly like I thought they would. I had good teachers, and after a while I began to read these philosophers with an open mind. Before I knew it I was down in the muck of that cave, belly dancing with the hippos. I had gone over to the Dark Side.

It’s easy to understand why many people who get into Rand stay into her: like I did, they need something that makes sense out of the world for them. They need a vision — something that’s beautiful and inspiring. And though I have moved far, far away from Rand, I would still name The Fountainhead as my favorite novel. It’s well written, intellectually exciting, and — above all — inspiring. Its philosophy is more or less Nietzschean (Rand contemplated opening each of the novel’s four sections with a quote from Nietzsche), and actually at odds in many ways with the pro-capitalist, “libertarian” message of the later Atlas Shrugged (a fact to which Rand fans are invariably oblivious). Atlas is itself an impressive achievement, and filled with passages that are literarily brilliant and inspiring — but it is marred by excess (e.g., one character makes a 60-page speech) and philosophical wrong-headedness. In many ways, it’s like a hippopotamus belly dancing (but who wouldn’t want to see that?).

What I don’t get, however, is folks like Kelley, Gotthelf, and Rand’s “intellectual heir” Leonard Peikoff (who I never met) all of whom earned Ph.D.s in philosophy and remained Objectivists their entire lives. How is that possible? These men are not dummies. One thing is for sure: it’s not a case of being honestly mistaken. These are men who are willfully blind in multiple ways. Blind to the stuff in Rand’s philosophy that’s superficial, sophomoric, and sometimes makes very little sense, blind to the obvious superiority of the canonical philosophers of the Western tradition (especially the evil ones), and blind to the simple fact that Objectivism just doesn’t deliver what it promises: “a philosophy for living on earth” (not this earth, anyway).

I started having misgivings about Rand’s philosophy after having called myself a “student of Objectivism” for only two years. It started with the feeling that Rand’s philosophy was “incomplete” (I wasn’t yet prepared to say that it was “wrong”). This was occasioned by reading Walter Stace’s classic book The Philosophy of Hegel. By Rand’s standards there was much in Hegel that was, well, evil. But the sheer grandiosity of his attempt to account for everything inspired me — as did the wonderful pull-out chart of Hegel’s vast system in the back of Stace’s book. Rand started looking like she needed to be aufgehoben: sublated as a mere moment within my own vast and labyrinthine philosophical system. And this was another factor that made it possible to put some distance between myself and Ayn: I had philosophical ambitions; I wasn’t really content to be someone’s follower.

The major step in my thinking came, however, when I realized that with the most simple and subtle of gestalt switches, one could turn Ayn into Zen. At the risk of understatement, Rand would really hate this. She dismissed Zen as “mysticism” (= irrationalism) and for some odd reason frequently coupled it with Existentialism, as in “Existentialism and Zen Buddhism.” So how did I get Zen out of her? Well, when I was in the thick of my Objectivist phase, and passionately trying to make sense out of every jot and tittle the woman wrote, the Randian sentence that fascinated me the most was “Existence exists.” The full context is to be found in Galt’s speech (the sixty-pager) in Atlas:

Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

I parodied this in my novel Heidegger in Chicago [2] as follows:

Atoms atom and the conceptual articulation of that axiom implies three correlative lemmas: that atoms are, that nothing else is save empty space (viz. nothing), and that human beings exist possessing consciousness characterized by cognitive powers constituted by the atoms, and for the cognition of the atoms, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving aggregates of atoms.

(The novel includes a chapter-length parody of Rand.) What I am lampooning here, chiefly, is the ostentatiously “philosophical” way in which Rand is expressing what are in fact very simple ideas. What she means is that whatever is is, that we are confronted by what is, and that we are so constituted as to be aware of what is. This is all well and good, one might say, but why say it at all? The reason is that many people live in denial of what is: they refuse to face existence. They refuse to face facts. But what is is: existence exists. If we deny it we live not just contrary to existence, but contrary to our nature, which is to perceive what is.

“Existence exists” also serves a more exotic function in Rand’s philosophy than simply being a way to say “face facts!” In Rand’s pretentiously titled Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology she devotes a chapter to what she calls “Axiomatic Concepts.” One of these axioms is “Existence.” In geometry, an axiom is a very basic starting point which is simply assumed without proof, but from which all proof flows. In philosophy, an axiom tends to be understood as a basic starting point which is self-proving, or self-validating, rather than simply “assumed without proof.” An excellent example would be Descartes’s “I think,” which is proved true the moment one doubts it, and serves as a basis for deriving other truths in Descartes’s philosophy.

For Rand, “Existence” is like Descartes’s “I think.” If we deny existence, then what is it that we are conscious of? Further, since everything that exists is a specific something (it possesses identity), to affirm existence is to affirm things as having specific identities or natures, rather than being whatever we “wish” them to be (an attitude which denies existence in favor of what Rand called the “primacy of consciousness”). Consciousness implies existence, and existence implies identity. The existence-identity connection is quite useful, actually, and it’s one of the arrows in my Alt Right quiver: much of today’s madness consists of denying that things have any definite identity. Thus, there are no male and female “natures,” there are no natural differences between the races, everything is “constructed,” blah, blah, blah. (For all her errors, Rand’s analysis of the Left as in denial of existence, as a “cult of zero worship,” is spot on.)

I recall how I poured over Rand’s “Axiomatic Concepts” chapter, convinced that here were hints at the inner mysteries of Objectivism. If only I could unlock the intricacies of the Existence-Identity-Consciousness triad. There was something that captivated me about “Existence exists,” some depth I felt had not been explored, perhaps not even by Rand herself.

For help, I turned for a while to phenomenology, convinced that it could shed light on Ayn Rand. (How ironic.) Heidegger claimed that the most fundamental of all philosophical questions is “why does anything exist at all, rather than nothing?” When I read that, it finally hit me: the reason I found “Existence exists” so fascinating was because my mind wanted to immediately think beyond it — to question why existence exists. I have always been a peculiarly visual thinker, and strange, usually impossible-to-describe images float through my mind as I contemplate abstract concepts. When thinking about “Existence exists” I always visualized a kind of blacker-than-black blackness within empty, black space. A kind of a void, or black hole. It was as if I wanted to know what was on the other side of that. Whence comes existence? And why? Why is there anything at all?

Now, the Objectivists (though not Rand herself) actually try to deal with such questions. I remember slogging through the entirety of Nathaniel Branden’s audio lecture series “Basic Principles of Objectivism,” in which he tackles such “mystical” questions at one point, his voice dripping with contempt. Essentially what he says is that any attempt to posit where existence comes from simply posits something else that exists. If one asks why existence exists, well, presumably any answer to “why?” would posit something that exists. In short, “existence” simply can’t be questioned: you can’t go any deeper, there is no “why” behind it. It just is. Existence exists.

Needless to say, this answer did not satisfy me. And I realized that Rand and company were sitting on something big, something they were just far too flat souled to see. They were sitting, in fact, on a miracle. The sheer fact that existence exists is miraculous. Let me put that a different way: the fact that something is, rather than nothing, is miraculous. I studied Zen a few years later and realized that the experience of satori was the experience of being struck with wonder by the fact that existence exists. It’s the experience of the sheer thereness or thatness of things: It is — it’s there — that is — that! In Indian Buddhism this was called an awakening to tathātā, “suchness” or “thatness.” (You either know what I’m talking about by this point or you don’t; if you don’t, please ask someone to crack you over the head with a stick.)

This is not an “intellectual” realization; it’s not the conclusion to a chain of reasoning. Rand unwittingly gets to tathātā when she writes that “to define ‘existence,’ one would have to sweep one’s arm around and say: ‘I mean this.’” And Branden’s attempts to argue that “existence exists” cannot be questioned are perfectly compatible with a Zen construal of this “axiom.” No, you can’t penetrate the sheer fact of existence any more deeply using logic or familiar categories of thought. One such category is causality: if we ask “why?” of existence and are looking for a cause (e.g., God as craftsman), well the cause would also have to exist. But why? Why does it exist? Why does anything exist? Branden’s facile answers accidentally set the stage for the “mysticism” he and Rand despised: if neither logic nor empirical investigation can tell us why existence exists, then the fact that it does should strike us with wonder — again and again.

I suppose the reason why Rand liked to couple Zen Buddhism with Existentialism is that the latter philosophy also treats the experience of being struck by the fact that anything exists at all. But it does so in a way radically different from Zen. In the hands of the hideous and twisted Jean-Paul Sartre this experience is one of nausea: the fact that things are made him want to puke. But then, he had to look at that face in the mirror every morning. Zen Buddhists manage to feel wonder and joy in the face of what is — no matter what kind of face they have, and having proven themselves unable to resolve the issue of what kind of face they had before their father and mother were born. Rand claimed to possess a benevolent “sense of life”; she thought the universe was basically good. But that’s not the same thing as registering the fact of existence and experiencing satori.

I will close with a Zen story I picked up from Alan Watts (I forget where). A man came to study in a Zen monastery, professing that he was searching for enlightenment. “I will hold nothing back from you,” the master said to him. After many months of washing his bowl and sweeping the floor, the student felt no closer to being enlightened. Then, one day, he was walking on the path with the master when both stopped to appreciate some beautiful chrysanthemums. Suddenly, the master cried “You see! I said I would hold nothing back from you.” At that moment, the student achieved satori.

And so we might imagine our own Zen story. Camped outside Rand’s New York apartment, having been refused admission twice by a caustic Nathaniel Branden, we are finally let in on the third day. We find ourselves at once enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke and by the stench of cat urine. One of the students of Objectivism offers us a plate of sweet pastries. We politely refuse it and are bidden to approach the Master (for surely only Branden can call Rand “mistress”). She sits perched on a blue-green couch, wearing a black cloak and something that looks a little like a Smurf hat.

“Vould you like to ask a question?” she says in her thick Russian accent.

“What is existence?” we pipe forth rather timidly.

“This!” she cries, sweeping her arm around in a dramatic arc.

“But why does existence exist?” we respond.

Rand does not speak. Instead, she simply smiles slightly and holds up a single cigarette, emblazoned with a gold dollar sign.

At this moment, we achieve satori. And then we go and dynamite a housing project.