Book Review: The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand
In the introduction to the author’s collection of essays on art, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand observed that “[i]t is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man’s higher potential and what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men — over the brief span of less than a century — before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) and the last memory of man’s greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.”
Rand disclosed that:
As a child, I saw a glimpse of that pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history…”
The prospect of catching a glimpse of what Rand observed, thought and wrote about in the afterglow is reason enough to read this outstanding series of her writings. I first read this book as a young artist, when I was dancing and writing in Chicago. I was struck by its lucidity. As a child of modern, progressive, state-sponsored education, I instantly recognized in her assertions that I, too, had been deprived, demoralized and damaged as a student. Making a point about those who had given up on achieving the best in life, Rand referenced those she described as “drained, embittered hulks whimpering occasionally about the hopelessness of life.“
In a world dominated by movies and shows about goblins, dragons, gargoyles and other horror or fantasy figures, with the rare heroic figures reduced to sniveling misanthropes in disguise, it’s hard not to notice that most of what the author of Atlas Shrugged wrote about and forewarned against between 1962 and 1971 came true. But Rand primarily wrote about art she admired, loved and revered. For example, starting with Western philosophy in her introduction, she identified Thomas Aquinas as “the bridge between Aristotle and the Renaissance, spanning the infamous detour of the Dark and Middle Ages.”
Capping the commentary, which she wrote in New York City in the month of June of 1969, she noted that “[o]ur day has no art and no future. The future, in the context of progress, is a door open only to those who do not renounce their conceptual faculty; it is not open to mystics, hippies, drug addicts, tribal ritualists — or to anyone who reduces himself to a subanimal, subperceptual, sensory level of awareness.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
The rest of The Romantic Manifesto unfolds from there. Delving deeply into what she called the psycho-epistemology of art, the philosopher begins, of course, with the best premises for art, paving the way for an exploration of her school of art, which she calls romantic realism. Rand always defines and contextualizes her terms. For example, in “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” she explains that “the myth of a supernatural recorder from whom nothing can be hidden, who lists all of a man’s deeds…That myth is true, not existentially, but psychologically. The merciless recorder is the integrating mechanism of a man’s subconscious; the record is his sense of life.“ [Emphasis Rand’s].
What he does not know is that every day of his life is judgment day — the day of paying for the defaults, the lies, the contradictions, the blank outs recorded by his subconscious on the scrolls of his sense of life. And on that kind of psychological record, the blank entries are the blackest sins.“
Possibly anticipating future readership, she goes a bit further:
A sense of life, once acquired, is not a closed issue. It can be changed and corrected — easily, in youth, while it is still fluid, or by a longer, harder effort in later years. Since it is an emotional sum, it cannot be changed by a direct act of will. It changes automatically, but only after a long process of psychological retraining, when and if a man changes his conscious philosophical premises.”
I’ve gained immeasurable value from reading and re-reading The Romantic Manifesto, which I celebrated with scholars at an event for the 50th anniversary of its publication at Southern California’s Ayn Rand Institute last year. Whether discovering whether, why and how to judge works of art, which has been part of my own livelihood as an intellectual, or finding fascinating paintings, dancers, musical compositions, plays and other works of literature, this book challenges everything you think you know about the arts.
Examine art and cognition with Ayn Rand as she breaks down each of the arts. Consider her identification of how humans perceive art through the senses and can access its rewards with the mind. Rand accounts for every imaginable aspect, detail and nuance of the fine arts, whether music, architecture or motion pictures. For example, with regard to dance, she asserts: “Every strong emotion has a kinesthetic element, experienced as an impulse to leap or cringe or stamp one’s foot, etc…The dance stylizes it into a system of motion, expressing a metaphysical view of man.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
However, the woman who created Objectivism, a philosophy for living on earth, to help herself write fiction also addresses various arts-related fields of endeavor, questions and issues, from circus performances to photography. Each point she makes contains often masterful clarity and consistency.
Note Rand’s explanation of dance:
Dancers are performing artists; music is the primary work they perform — with the help of an important intermediary: the choreographer. His creative task is similar to that of a stage director, but carries a more demanding responsibility; a stage director translates a primary work, a play, into physical action — a choreographer has to translate a primary work, the composition of sounds, into another medium, into a composition of movements, and create a structured, integrated work: a dance.”
Of course, the most in-depth and compelling parts of The Romantic Manifesto involve her insights on reading, writing and literature. These thoughts are remarkably relevant, timely and enlightening. By the time you’re done reading a particular section, you’re likely to have a better understanding of what you like about what you like to read and why you like it. “… At the end of the novel the reader must know why the characters did the things they did,” Rand wrote. “…The author has to be consistent in his view of a character’s psychology and permit him no inexplicable actions, no actions unprepared by or contradictory to the rest of his characterization.”
“The theme of a novel can be conveyed only through the events of the plot, the events of the plot depend on the characterization of the men who enact them — and the characterization cannot be achieved except through the events of the plot, and the plot cannot be constructed without a theme.“ She concludes: “… A good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.“
Again and again, Rand provides examples, illustrating her points and affirming her convictions. About I, the Jury author Mickey Spillane, she wrote that he “… [p]resents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.”
Don’t read the book strictly for specific arts guidance, though. The principles of art are deep, rich and often ingenious. This is like reading a comprehensive true story of ideas about art in terms of interlocking essentials. After defining romanticism and identifying a key difference with a heinous distortion of romanticism, for instance, she claims: “Romanticism demands mastery of the primary element of fiction: the art of storytelling — which requires three cardinal qualities: ingenuity, imagination, a sense of drama.”
Yet the biting brilliance of Rand’s late 20th century non-fiction, evidenced in her periodicals, lectures and underappreciated collected works, such as The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, always comes through. Can you not think of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and every middling Netflix or streaming film everyone’s raving about when you read this pointed cultural criticism, which turns out to have been a keen forecast?
… Today’s romanticists are escaping not into the past, but into the supernatural — explicitly giving up reality and this earth. The exciting, the dramatic, the unusual — their policy is declaring, in effect — do not exist; please don’t take us seriously, what we’re offering is only a spooky daydream.“
Consider social media and the constant droning by today’s leading “influencers” about statistics, metrics and analytics and the smallness of today’s prevailing stories when reading this part of her essay “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age”: “Naturalism … substitut[es] statistics for a standard of value. That which could be claimed to be typical of a large number of men, in any given geographical area or period of time, was regarded as metaphysically significant and worthy of being recorded.“
“What one reads today is not naturalism any longer: it is symbolism; it is a presentation of a metaphysical view of man, as opposed to a journalistic or statistical view. But it is the symbolism of primitive terror,” she wrote, making me think of Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. “According to this modern view, depravity represents man’s real, essential, metaphysical nature, while virtue does not; virtue was only an accident, an exception or an illusion; therefore, a monster is an appropriate projection of man’s essence, but hero is not.“
“[T]he romanticists presented heroes as “larger than life“; now, monsters are presented as “larger than life“ — or, rather, man is presented as “smaller than life.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
Other comparisons, such as the scads of mindless, mediocre Marvel Comics-themed films, come to mind as Rand writes about the bastardization of writer Ian Fleming’s James Bond depictions in movies. And, in Rand’s magnificent “Art and Moral Treason”, there is the scathing prediction of the postmodern “Millenial” generation, college-bred youths filled with chronic terror in the eyes while blindly submitting to indiscriminately wearing a mask:
When I saw Mr. X for the first time, I thought that he had the most tragic face I have ever seen: it was not the mark left by some specific tragedy, not the look of a great sorrow, but a look of desolate hopelessness, weariness and resignation that seemed left by the chronic pain of many lifetimes. He was 26 years old.
“He had a brilliant mind, and outstanding scholastic record in the field of engineering, a promising start in his career – and no energy to move farther. He was paralyzed by so extreme a state of indecision that any sort of choice filled him with anxiety – even the question of moving out of an inconvenient apartment. He was stagnating in a job which he had outgrown and which had become a dull, uninspiring routine. He was so lonely that he had lost the capacity to know it, he had no concept of friendship, and his few attempts at a romantic relationship had ended disastrously – he could not tell why.
“At the time I met him he was undergoing psychotherapy, struggling desperately to discover the causes of his state. There seemed to be no existential cause for it. His childhood had not been happy, but no worse and, in some respects, better than the average childhood. There were no traumatic events in his past, no major shocks, disappointments or frustrations. Yet his frozen impersonality suggested a man who neither felt nor wanted anything any longer. He was like a gray spread of ashes that had never been on fire.“
Ayn Rand wrote that in 1965. But the great radiance with which she begins the story of her romantic manifesto pre-dates the 55-year mark.
“It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period,” she wrote in the introduction to The Romantic Manifesto. I think it’s probably true. But Ayn Rand, in presenting her philosophy of art, gives the reader something extraordinary: power tools and a battery recharge with which to find, regard, contemplate, revere and create works of art on your own.