On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear
av Gene H. Bell-Villada (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013)
This is a book by and about immigrant Gene Bell-Villada (he came to the US in 1957 when he was 17) and his experiences in American society, his family background, his interests and his exploration of two very different Russian-American writers, Ayn Rand and Vladimir Nabokov. Bell-Villada is now a ”professor of Romance Languages”, but still his book is filled with falsehoods about and misinterpretations of Rand.
Some parts of the book are interesting; the author’s reflections on his experiences in America as a US citizen who spent his first 17 years outside the US, his views on Nabokov, Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky, etc. But when he speaks about Rand (and other free market supporters), the only thing that is interesting is how grossly Bell-Villada’s misinterpretates their views.
Bell-Villada says that his father “could well be described as a “Randian””. Why? Because he “lived for money-making at the exclusion of all else, whether these be family, parenting …” (p. xii). To describe a man who lives only for money-making at the exclusion of all else as a Randian is wrong; none of Rands heroes, neither Roark, nor Galt, nor Rearden, were much interested in money. “Money is only a tool”, Rand’s premier hero John Galt says. And here is Rand speaking for herself (in the article “The Money-Making Personality”, Cosmopolitan, April 1963): “The Money-Maker does not care for money as such”. But still, Bell-Villada labels a man who lives only for money-making as a Randian.
Rand, as we know, chose not to have children. She knew that having children is a great responsibility, and she would not take the time necessary away from her career in order to take care of children. Bell-Villada´s father did have children, but he ignored them in order to concentrate on his monomanic moneymaking. Bell-Villadas´s father and Rand choose opposite paths here, but still, Bell-Villada says that his father´s path is the Randian one.
Bell-Villada claims that a more appropriate title for Rand’s book on ethics would be “The Virtue of Selfishness and the Evilness of Caring about Others” (p. 7). Bell-Villada thinks that altruism means caring for others. It is nothing of the sort, as everyone who had read Rand’s books with a modicum of attention knows. Altruism is the ethical doctrine that says that the only good is to live for others and that it is evil to live for oneself. To equate compassion (when appropriate) with altruism is a trick, it is trying to present something bad and harmful as something good.
Bell-Villada says that Rand opposes compassion by quoting Rand’s character Dominique Francon: “Compassion is … what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar” (p. 7).
One must be careful when one tries to hold an author to the same views that his or her characters expresses. What a character in a novel says depends on the mood of the character at that time, on whom he or she is talking to, on the context in the novel, on the need for drama, etc. Granted, Rand is a special case, especially when it comes to her heroes, and her relationship with Dominique is very special, but here are Rand’s own words on compassion: “I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims” (from the Playboy interview). In other words: Rand´ view is that compassion can be proper. Bell-Villada ignores all this and says that Rand is opposed to compassion, a view he bases upon an out-of-context-quote from one of her fictional characters.
Bell-Villada says that Keating should be more grateful towards his mother who “scrimped and saved in order to put her son through college” (p. 20) . But Keating’s mother practically bullied her son into giving up his ambition to become a painter; she wanted him to become an architect – the reason being the social prestige that comes with being an architect. At the end of the novel, his life in ruins because he chose a career he did not care for. Keating regrets not choosing painting. So, the ungratefulness is well deserved.
Bell-Villada says that Rand’s heroes are all ”handsome … Anglo-saxon … unfailingly right about everything [emphasis in original]” (p. 64). Not true. Francisco d’Anconia was not Anglo-saxon, and Roark, Dagny and Rearden were wrong on important issues. And non-hero Keating was also handsome; he even worked as a model in his student days.
“…any interference with these superior beings’ endeavors she [Rand] viewed as objectionable and indeed immoral”, writes Bell-Villada (p. 63). The view Rand actually held is quite different; she viewed all initiation of force against anyone as immoral. Rand’s important principle that initiation of force is evil, becomes, when transformed through Bell-Villads creative imagination, “interference with the endeavors of the superior beings is immoral”, losing all contact with Rand’s important principle in the process.
Bell-Villada claims that Rand reviewed Rawls´ “A Theory of Justice” without reading it. Is this true? Let us see what Rand actually said. She wrote (in the article “An Untitled Letter”): “…I have not read and do not intend to read that book. But since one cannot judge a book by its reviews, please regard the following remarks as the review of a review.” Bell-Villada presents this the following way: “In keeping with her cavalier treatment of other philosophers, she once wrote a review of John Rawls´ “A Theory of Justice” without so much as having skimmed [it], consulting the reviewers instead” (p. 98). As we saw, Rand explicitly said that her article was “a review of a review”, i. e. it was not a review of the book. And Bell-Villada talks about “cavalier treatment” ….
Bell-Villada quotes a Rand-supporter: “Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should” – and Bell-Villada thinks that “parasites” means “the poor, the orphaned, the unemployed, the maimed, the sick …”. (p. 30-31). This is really strange. Bell-Villada really says that Rand’s view is that the poor and the sick should die (Bell-Villada: ““Perish” does mean “die”, p. 32) There is absolutely no basis for inferring that by “parasite”, Rand means “the poor and the sick”.
Here are some quotes from “Atlas Shrugged” that show what Rand really means by “parasite”: Eugene Lawson: “I wasn’t concerned with the parasites of office and laboratory. I was concerned with the real workers – the men of callused hands who keep a factory going”.
Dagny Taggart “thought suddenly of those modern college-infected parasites who assumed a sickening air of moral righteousness whenever they uttered the standard bromides about their concern for the welfare of others”.
John Galt: “Sweep aside the parasites of subsidized classrooms, who live on the profits of the minds of others and proclaim that man needs no morality, no values, no code of behaviour”.
To have read this, as Bell-Villada has, and to claim that Rand by ”parasite” means “the poor and the sick” is really strange and has absolutely no basis in fact.
In Objectivism, according to Bell-Villada “there is nothing new. Her focus on reason is as old as philosophy itself. Her moral system … is essentially a popularized, vulgarized and stealthily Americanized distillation of Nietzsche”. (p. 98). This only shows that Bell-Villada neither knows Objectivism nor the history of philosophy. Rand’s view that concepts are formed by measurement-omission; that man’s life is the standard of moral value; that productivity is a moral virtue; that initiation of force is evil; and that art is a condensation of philosophy and brings man’s widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness; those are some of the important philosophical points that are new with her.
Bell-Villada also makes the fantastic claim that libertarians (people who favour free markets, free trade and limited government) really are very close to being fascists: “Libertarians are not, strictly speaking, fascist, inasmuch as they still believe in and rely on the established mechanisms of democratic governance in accomplishing their ends…” (p. xi). I.e. they are not fascist only because they want their politics to be implemented via democratic means.
Bell-Villada supports this by saying that Nazi-Germany was capitalistic, (i.e. he says that nazism/fascism and capitalism is one and the same), and that no conservatives opposed Hitler and Nazi-Germany during the 30ies – and neither did Rand.
Capitalism rests upon the full recognition of private property. In Nazi-Germany, private property was not seized by the government (as it was in Soviet Russia); it remained in private hands, but in name only. All production and all trade was heavily regulated by the government. In reality, there was no respect for private property in Nazi-Germany, and therefore, the system was not capitalistic.
As for Rand not speaking up against nazism during the 30ies – during this decade, she was not a public figure. She was not known, she could not get an audience. Furthermore, she had escaped from communism in Russia, and she saw that communism was on the rise in the US. Therefore, she spent her energy fighting communism. She had published “We the Living” in 1936, but it did not sell well and soon went out of print. There was also a stage adaption of the book produced on Broadway in 1940 (“Anthem” was published in US only in 1946.) She used her energy fighting communism, which was a real danger in the US. Nazism was not a real danger in the US. To criticize the then unknown Ayn Rand for not also speaking up against nazism during this period is grossly unfair.
Bell-Villada also doubts Rand’s story that she took her first name from a Finnish writer (Rand’s original name was Alyssa Rosenbaum): he cannot find any Finnish writer named Ayn (p. 14). But maybe Rand’s memory was slightly off; in the Finnish national poem “Kalevala” (1835), a work Bell-Villada surely knows, there is a female character named Aino. Maybe Rand used this as an inspiration for Ayn, and confused a character in a literary work with a writer.
Bell-Villada ridicules the view that society does not exist; this point is number 5 in a list of 21 items that constitutes “a broad pattern of denial of the libertarian Right” (p. 193-4): “Point 5) Denial of the existence of society ([among people who have this view are] Rand, Nabokov, Hayek, Thatcher)”
Mrs. Thatcher did indeed say that “There is no such thing as society”. But let us do what Bell-Villada did not bother to do, let us check the context.
Here is the full quote from Mrs. Thatcher: ““[Someone says]: I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first … There is no such thing as society…. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves”. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
She is saying in effect that when someone blames society for their problems and demand that society should solve them, there is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women … and that help can only be given through individual man and women (“no government can do anything except through people”).
But let us investigate this a little further: a society is obviously not an object (or, as Mrs. Thatcher said, a thing), and it then does not exist in the same way that, say, an individual man exists. Does a society, then, exist in the same way an organization exists? In the same way that a firm exists? In the same way that a state exists? Of course, men and organizations and firms and states can do things, they can take action, but can a society – as a society – do things?
One can choose to be a member of an organization or not, one can even be elected to its board. One can choose to deal with a firm (as a customer, as an employee, as an owner) or not, but one cannot choose to be a “member” of a state or not, if you are born as a US citizen you are a US citizen and then you are a “member” of the US state for life (you can of course emigrate to another country, but then you become a “member” of the state in that country). So there are different types of cooperation between individuals, and there are different type of relations between an individual and an organization. But what is the connection between an individual man and society? Can one opt out if one wants to?
A firm, an organization, a state, have rules that are binding for its customers/members/citizens, and that is why these kind of entities can act; they (their leaders) can give orders to their members/employees. But is a society just a collection of men with norms and rules and habits living in a delimited area? If so, a society cannot act as a society. A society, then, is not the same as a state. (It is normal procedure for leftists to equate society with the state, but this is obviously incorrect.)
Bell-Villada could have discussed these kinds of questions, but he chose not to. Instead he just dismisses the view that society does not exist – that society does not exist as a formalized organization and therefore cannot act – and bases his view upon a quote he removed from the context in which it appeared. But as we have seen, this is typical of Bell-Villada’s approach.
Bell-Villads mentions the following story, which sheds some light on Bell-Villada himself. Vladimir Nabokov, whom Bell-Villada admires greatly, worked as a professor of literature, and on exams, he focused on elements like these: “List the contents of Anna Karenina’s handbag!” or “Describe the wallpaper in the Karenins’ bedroom” (p. 84). Bell-Villada apparently approves of this approach during an exam. But facts like these are not essential parts of a novel. They can add color to the essentials, and can be somewhat important elements in a story, but they are not essentials. On an exam one should focus on essentials.
In a similar vein, but even more so, Bell-Villada tells the following story of his enjoyment of certain passages in Nabokov’s most important work, “Lolita”: “I read “Lolita” maybe three times and carried around photocopies of some of its key pages … I don’t know how many times I grinned at the episode of Valeria and her lover the Tsarist taxi driver, who leaves a liquid souvenir of himself in cuckolded Humbert’s toilet bowl …” (p. 30). Bell-Villada will search in vain for similar incidents in Rand´s books, and this may be one of the reasons Bell-Villada does not like them very much.
Bell-Villada is a man who grins at the contents of a toilet bowl (or over the literary expression of it), who thinks that the description of the pattern of the wallpaper in the protagonists’ apartment is an essential a part of a novel, who has severe problems getting his facts straight, who really believes Rand wants poor people to perish – or die; he is a man who prefers “Lolita”, a book about a middle aged pervert lusting after a 12 year old girl, over “Atlas Shrugged”, a novel about the role of the mind in man’s existence. It is then to be expected that Bell-Villada thinks that Ayn Rand is a bad novelist and a bad philosopher – he even compares “Atlas Shrugged” to junk food (p. 138). But it should be obvious which of the two novels that has the most nutritional value.
Bell-Villads’s book is also about the political views of the classical liberals or neo liberal (Bell-Villada’s preferred term, p. 176: “Hayek, then was a classical … liberal who indeed identified himself as such … “Neo-liberal” is thus a strictly accurate term … for denoting the committed, ideological defenders of the free market”).
But what Bell-Villada does is only to present the classical liberal views on various topics, and he finds them so absurd that they do not deserve even slightest attempt at refutation. What Bell-Villada really says is that it is obvious that the government should run schools and health care systems and social security, etc., and that the critique from the neo liberals about the dangers of the welfare state is not even worth an opposing argument. He implies that the success of the welfare states in Europe confirm his view: the welfare state is not a road to poverty and serfdom, as the neo liberals and Ayn Rand says.
To refute Bell-Villada’s view, I will only here direct his attention to the recent developments in Europe (unemployment, deficits, general decline, etc.) and in left-wing bastions like Detroit, and recommend Don Watkins’ short, but excellent book about the sad history of and the grim future of Social Security and those who will be forced to pay for it: “Rooseveltcare. How Social Security is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance” (2014). The book is available here on Amazon, and as a free pdf here: http://ari.aynrand.org/~/media/pdf/rooseveltcare.ashx
There is much more in Bell-Vlllada’s book that needed comments and corrections, but I will stop here, this piece is already way too long.