Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rand vs. Beethoven: "Du Du Du DUHH..."

   Every so often, the web comes alive with the chatter about Rand's infamous dismissal of Beethoven as "malevolent." (Usually this is harmonized with the other infamous dismissal of Mozart as "pre-music.") Recently this is been brought up as enemies come together to make the assertion that Rand was a "musical" ignoramus.

  For the longest time, those who did not have the benefit of meeting Rand in person or attend one of her lectures had to rely on second-third-hand accounts of her pronouncements and artistic "fascism." (With the publication of The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, one is reminded to "check one's premises, of course.) But Rand IS on record in Ayn Rand Answers answering a question on her opinion of Beethoven, where she uttered the shot heard 'round the world:

 He is a great composer, but I can't stand him. Music expresses a sense of life-an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man's heroic fight against destiny, and man's defeat. That's the opposite of my sense of life." 

 The horror, the horror...

  One can argue whether or not Rand is correct in her assessment, one would be right to ask of her which pieces she was referring to, or which ones she had heard, etc. But there's another issue involved here. As they say about pots and kettles...

  The problem I have with the reaction to this anecdote is that people are prompted to paint Rand as an "esthetic" fascist. Jeff Walker quotes someone sympathetic to Rand's p.o.v. on Beethoven in order to justify the claim of the "Ayn Rand Cult." There is a comparison to her pronouncement of Maxfield Parrish as "rubbish," which prompts a quip about the bonfires of Parrish's work raging across America. Yet Rand is also on record as saying that in the field of music, it's "every man for himself." So who's the fascist?

  I submit that what happened to Rand on this is a testament of second-handedness, by people who should know better, the so-called "individualists." Why? Because it has to be remembered that in the context of that quote, Rand was answering questions on her opinion of Beethoven. God help her, she answered. That was her mistake; may no good deed go unpunished. Maybe what Rand should have done was to pull a "Roark," and ask "Why do you care what I think of Beethoven?". To the extent that she did answer the question, and to the extent that she was in the public eye, the responsibility for defending her statements is on her, "judge...and prepare to be judged." Fair enough. Ask "why" all you want. But the issue, sadly, is not "was she wrong about Beethoven" but "See? Rand dislikes Beethoven! I told you she was a crazy bitch!"

  Because we don't have more in print on the matter from Rand herself, we can't really say much more about her opinion, since she's not here to elaborate. But there are plenty of people who claim to have known her well enough to present the full story. The Brandens are two such people, as well as Allan and Joan Mitchel Blumenthal, but another associate of Rand's tells a more intimate tale of the Beethoven question before the question was asked on another occasion. Stuttle posted a few posts on the matter at Objectivist Living, but one particular anecdote stands out:

Julie was a vivacious, glowing-with-life person, attractive, slim, mid-height, long wavy orange-reddish hair. Larry had told her of my love for Beethoven. "It's Beethoven and Rand, isn't it?," Julie said, holding the index and middle finger of her right hand up, pressing the fingers together to indicate unity: "The two are one; it's the same thing." 

  "W-e-l-l," I told her, I agreed that the dramatic sensibility did seem to me very similar, but that I was afraid she was going to be disappointed by Rand's response, that Rand didn't like Beethoven and considered Beethoven "malevolent." "Oh, she probably just hasn't heard much Beethoven!" Julie said undaunted. 

  Come the occasion, and the question. 

  Stuttle continues:

 The story didn't end with Rand's answer to Julie.  "But, Miss Rand," Julie said, innocently, exuberantly, "have you ever heard [and she reeled off the titles of several Beethoven compositions, the 4th and 6th symphonies and some non-symphonic works, I forget which ones]?" "I don't know," Rand said, just as a flat declarative statement. "Well, if I sent you some records, would you listen to them?" Rand said that she would (I surmised that Julie's style of sparkling openness appealed to Rand, eliciting her agreement). 

   The rest I can only report via grapevine sources. Rand listened to the records -- and sent Julie a letter couched in terms that changed Julie's view of Rand, and Julie quit attending the Objectivist club at the school where she was by then a student (I think the University of Michigan, or maybe Wisconsin). I never heard what became of her after that, and I don't know the details of what Rand said to her. 

  The way Stuttle tells it, you'd think poor Julie was shipped off to Siberia by Stalin...Stuttle goes to great lengths to paint "Julie" in a positive, innocent light. But what we don't get from the story is why Julie is so hung up on what Rand thinks of Beethoven to begin with, or the need to convince Rand that Beethoven was not so bad. For people who claim to be adherents to selfishness and individual judgement, what really comes off here, IMO, is a story of someone not secure enough in their own assessment seeking the approval of authority. 

  And so, a simple question-and-answer session becomes an opportunity for finger-pointing and abdication of responsibility. I thought the reason for asking someone their opinion was to learn more about something one didn't know about, to get perspective. But what is presented in these anecdotes threatens to come off more like a trap, and that's what bothers me the most. It's not a matter of "what can I learn from this person," but "how can I make this person look bad?".  The other vision that comes to mind is less devious, but still sad: the vision of finding out that one's hero does not have all the answers (at least the answers one WANTS to hear) and the disillusion that follows. Again, this is what happens when one looks for a guru. It sounds as if "Julie" already knew what they wanted to hear and would not accept anything less.

  Again, we don't have Rand to defend herself, only the "grapevine...". (I should add that Mary Ann Sures offers a different portrait of Rand's judgements that contrast with the sordid tales we know...). What I see in these stories is a lot of projecting: "By God, I LIKE BEETHOVEN, AND WATCH OUT ANYONE WHO DISAGREES!". But seeing as Rand did not feel the need to write formally on what one SHOULD listen to, and since I cannot verify first-hand the claims against Rand, I'm not going to worry myself about what Rand thought of Beethoven; I can make up my own mind. In the words of Roger Enright: 

 "God gave you eyes and a mind which are to use. If you fail to do so, the loss is yours, not mine..."

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