A Critical Note on the Boeckmann Transcript (2000)


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AESTHETICS

"...to give us Ayn Rand faithfully..."

a critical note on the Boeckmann transcript

by Roger E. Bissell

(First published on TDO March 28, 2000)

It is true, as Russell La Valle claims in the February issue of Navigator, that Tore Boeckmann's "edited transcript," The Art of Fiction Writing by Ayn Rand, "in broad terms...genuinely represents Rand's thought."

But it is not true, as Leonard Peikoff claims in his introduction, that Boeckmann did not once "omit, enlarge, or misrepresent AR's thought, not even in the subtlest of cases." Boeckmann did actually omit and/or misrepresent Rand's thought, and in one of the most glaringly important cases possible.

Oral tradition

This flaw in the Boeckmann transcript has gone undetected because of the Objectivist movement's unfortunate long-standing "oral tradition." Because of this shortcoming, recently highlighted by Chris Sciabarra and others, many of Objectivism's most significant and provocative ideas remain interred for years, even decades, in taped lecture form.

It is a little-known fact that Ayn Rand's definition of art did not emerge fully formed in her 1958 lectures on fiction, but instead developed in at least three stages. The final, most familiar version, which was not stated until her 1965 essay, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" (reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto), reads: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

The above definition and essay grew out of an earlier piece, "Our Esthetic Vacuum." This essay should not be confused with another essay, partly derived from it, entitled "The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age," which was first delivered publicly on April 25, 1972 at Boston University and appeared November 1972 in The Objectivist Newsletter and later in The Romantic Manifesto. "Our Esthetic Vacuum" was first delivered by Rand over Columbia University radio station WKCR in early 1960, then again in 1961 at the Creative Arts Festival at the University of Michigan, and again on April 26, 1972 on WKCR.

Unfortunately, the original version's radio script, sent by Rand to John Hospers sometime prior to April 1960, is unavailable for comparison. However, the definition of "art" in the 1961 version was quoted by Nathaniel Branden in his 1962 essay "The Literary Method of Ayn Rand" in Who is Ayn Rand? and is identical to the definition given in the 1962 taped lecture (available from Second Renaissance Books), so we may reasonably presume that they are all as follows: "Art is a re-creation of reality according to the artist's values. It is not a creation out of a void, but a re-creation, a selective rearrangement of the elements of reality, guided by the artist's view of existence."

Rand's mind at work

Notice the relative primitiveness of the 1960-62 definition. "Selective" is not part of the definition and, instead of "metaphysical value-judgments," Rand simply says "values." Both elements found in the later definition are clearly intended to be part of the meaning of the concept, however, as can be seen by the quoted sentence that immediately follows the 1960-62 definition. What is remarkable is the radical increase in precision and clarity that results by the addition of two words and the change of a third one—a fascinating illustration of Rand's mind at work that has been lost as a result of the obscurity of the 1960-62 essay.

Yet, even here, we do not have the original definition that Rand presented in her 1958 lectures on fiction: "Art is a re-creation of reality according to one's values." To meditate upon this definition, we need merely refer to editor Boeckmann's masterful transcription of the lectures, right?

Wrong!

While the definition is clearly audible on the tape (which can be purchased from Second Renaissance Books as part of a set for a tad under $300), it is nowhere to be found in Boeckmann's book.

Boeckmann explains that Rand's general views on art have already been presented in the essays contained in The Romantic Manifesto, to which he refers us. As a result, we are led to believe that whatever was on the tape but not in the quasi-transcription Art of Fiction may be found in The Romantic Manifesto, so that the absence of the 1958 definition is no real omission, no real hardship for Randian scholarship, no real big deal at all. But this won't wash. The original definition appears nowhere in print (except here, for the first time, of course). It is vintage Rand material that was simply expunged from the printed record, for whatever reason.

All right, so Boeckmann's non-inclusion of Rand's original definition of art is both an omission and a misrepresentation, contrary to Peikoff's firm assurances that nothing of the kind escaped his watchful eyes. But how important, really, is this error? Well, very.

Subliminal seduction?

First, Boeckmann includes statements by Rand stressing the importance of defining one's terms and being objective. In chapter 2, "Literature as an Art Form," referring to "important words," Rand says we should "define specifically what you mean by those words, and make your meaning clear by the context in which you use them. This is an important rule of thinking for people generally, and an invaluable one for writers." Later, in chapter 10, "Particular Issues of Style," she says "...be careful to be objective. Do not rely on any knowledge which the reader does not yet have."

Now, the concept and definition of art are the central, fundamental factors on which all of Ayn Rand's exposition about literature as an art form rests. That Boeckmann included neither the authentic form of the original definition, nor the definition she ultimately settled on seven years later, is a major gaffe, major breach of consistency and objectivity, major default on his mandate from Peikoff to "give us AR faithfully." It is a poor example to set for newcomers to the philosophy, all the worse because it seeps into the reader's mind subliminally and is thus so difficult to detect.

Second, Boeckmann presents to the public what could have been a major gift to laymen and Rand scholars alike—the first-ever example of Rand's mind at work in understanding the nature of art in general. Instead, that information was quietly lost in the shuffle and is accessible only via the considerable inconvenience of buying and listening to expensive audio tapes. This is a major pitfall of the Objectivist movement's widespread reliance on an "oral tradition" for disseminating many of its best ideas. But we must also wonder whether what we have here is yet another instance of the "rewriting of reality" that Rand's literary stewards have apparently countenanced in many another instance. (See, for example, the entry for "second-handers" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, which scrupulously expunges the phrase "social metaphysician," a Brandenian concoction, from lexicographical memory.)

That's the problem. What is the solution? How can proper consideration be given to those who want an accurate and comprehensive picture of the development of Ayn Rand's views on esthetics? I think that at least two remedies are necessary: The 1960-62 lecture "Our Esthetic Vacuum" and the 1958 lecture material on the nature and definition of "art" should be completely transcribed and included as a supplement or appendix to an expanded 3rd edition of The Romantic Manifesto; and, should a second edition of The Art of Fiction ever be published, the material on the nature and definition of "art" should be included, along with an appropriate footnote reference to Rand's later definition of "art." (And while the editor is at it, he can also re-introduce all the other material of interest unnecessarily ejected from the printed memory of that course.)

Until these are done, Peikoff's mandate, "to give us AR faithfully," will remain unfulfilled.

–DO–

Roger E. Bissell is a professional musician and graduate student in psychology at California Coast University.

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THanks to Roger for his extensive comments. Here's mine: the Boeckman transcript is crap. (Sorry if I'm violating a rule here...just let me know and I won't do it again!)

He left out sooo much from the tapes, that the meaning of Rand's comments are seriously changed. A few years ago, Susan McCloskey gave a presentation/analysis of this book at the summer seminar, with serious, and accurate, criticisms -IF THE BOOK ACTUALLY REPRESENTED WHAT RAND SAID. David Axel and I had to let her know that it didn't, and that she needed to hear the taped course to get an idea of the complex and subtle understanding Rand had to fiction, how to experience it and how to write it. Of course, I don't know if they've edited those tapes more, too (they were obviously edited when I heard them about 20 years ago).

Whew, I know we're supposed to restrain our ranting to a specific area-sorry if I've goofed.

Marsha

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  • 2 weeks later...

At the Roger's request, this thread has been split, since it was veering off topic (aesthetics and his article) and going into some fascinating memories people had of Ayn Rand. The new thread is called "Remembering what Ayn Rand was like" and was moved to the Objectivist Living Room. Since the subject of some of the posts overlapped, I am repeating the pertinent ones here. (I deleted the posts relative to splitting the thread, with thanks to Marsha Enright for providing a suggestion for the split point, leading to the solution.)

Tue Mar 07, 2006 10:13 pm

I had a chance to listen to the -unedited- tapes of fiction writing and non-fiction writing (much longer than the tapes which were eventually sold) when I lived in NYC.  I listened to them in their entirety, start to finish over the course of many months. (Allan Blumenthal if I recall had loaned them to several people and I was allowed to join in listening to them once a week).

What struck me was that editing destroyed lots of little asides and witticisms and insights and tangents on many other issues.  When Ayn Rand 'rambled' a bit, she was always illuminating and interesting.  It was a great loss to cut -any- of it.  She didn't just talk about the weather. You learned how a great mind worked, which to me is at least as valuable as the insights on FW or NFW. (Especially since a number of the insights she has on FW and NFW are not unique to her and can be found in other books on this subject.)

Besides, if you are going to sell the edited form in a book, then the taped form you sell should be -different-, i.e., completely unedited with the explanation attached that if you want writing in a nutshell, get the book, if you want Rand on many things and interactive, get the tapes.

Listening to those tapes, with not a single word changed, was one of the great experiences of my life to that point.

[Also, I find it hard to remember her getting angry at anyone...she was always relaxed and calm and gentle and supportive in those sessions, sort of the ideal teacher, if I recall correctly... another reason to hear the tapes in original form.]

Phil

Tue Mar 07, 2006 11:47 pm

Phil writes:

"Also, I find it hard to remember her getting angry at anyone...she was always relaxed and calm and gentle and supportive in those sessions, sort of the ideal teacher, if I recall correctly... another reason to hear the tapes in original form."

Phil, Barbara, in her book, if I recall correctly, tells a story about an incident where Rand got angry during the FW class.  The incident had to do with Rand giving the class a story to read and asking the class to comment.  The class was highly critical of the story, not knowing it was actually one her own early stories.  I think it was the light-hearted O'Henryish story about a somewhat staged kidnapping.  Rand felt the criticism was misplaced and became angry.

As I recall, when I heard the somewhat-edited tapes, there was reference to this incident, but it was in the form of a calm discussion during the NEXT meeting of what mistakes had been made by the classmembers in the previous meeting.  Do you recall this?  Just wondering.  

Thanks for your comments about the unedited tapes, by the way.  I am jealous of you!

Wed Mar 08, 2006 12:05 am

John, I don't remember it.  But that may be because if someone gets angry or yells at someone and then it's over soon or a momentary flash in the pan, I tend not to attach much importance to it.  People have emotions and they get mad.  As a teacher, every once in a while I'm likely to say "goddammit, whatsamatta with you" or "pay attention dammit"...or raise my voice. No big deal.  I think emotional volatility is ok.  [i know we are too often horrified at this in this WASP culture.] Have you ever raised your voice, etc. with your children?

I don't know if I've ever had a friend or girlfriend who never said "Phil Coates you are a f**** idiot."

(Please don't make the obvious comeback.)

Wed Mar 08, 2006 5:24 am

"Have you ever raised your voice, etc. with your children?"

That  would be a yes, Phil.  I have raised my voice with pickpockets, children, dogs, and even cats.  I wasn't trying to be critical of Rand.  I was just asking out of nosy curiosity.  I do think with Rand the anger flashed on and then vanished off a lot of the time.  I admire this ability.  I can only do that when I'm acting.  If I actually get really angry, I tend to stay that way for a while until I "simmer down."

Wed Mar 08, 2006 5:36 am

I thought the story the class read and negatively criticized (on the grounds that its philosophy was off or something like that) was one of Rand's stories, like "The Simplest Thing In The World."

I agree with Phil - and this is part of what I meant about the emptiness of the FW book - even in the somewhat edited tapes I listened to, Rand made many fascinating and valuable comments about the fiction they discussed.  She had  *first hand* emotional/intellectual experiences with a work and analyzed her responses without preconceived ideas and moral judgments - which allowed her to have the kind of unique and brilliant insights she did.  You could hear this in her discussions on the tapes.  There was no "this is a good work because it is philosophically correct" kind of stuff.  She even analyzed a novel of pulp fiction!

Also, her manner was very kind and patient - excellent teaching manner, despite all kinds of questions one could get impatient with.  It gave quite a different picture of her than the kind of volatile anger and quick moral judgments I saw sometimes at Ford Hall Forum, or even in person.

Marsha

Take it away, folks!

Michael

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I just want to add one more point to my post about the loss of lots of material when the live sessions were edited into a book: You need -both-. Each format has value. Each has an appropriate context. While I described the brilliance of the unedited sessions, there are audiences (general layman audience, not long time objectivists - who want a condensed series of entry level lessons on how to write, for example) for whom the two condensed FW and NFW books are excellent. I do recommend those books and that condensation for that purpose. I think they were very good in that sense.

Phil

(Marsha said: "He left out sooo much from the tapes, that the meaning of Rand's comments are seriously changed." This is a separate issue. I don't know if I'd agree without this being further concretized. Then seeing the original and the book side by side.)

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I have no argument with the idea that Rand's wealth of concrete examples and asides in her FW and NFW lectures should be preserved, preferably in print. But as a scholar, my stronger concern is that the historical origin of Rand's aesthetic concepts should be preserved in print. So much ink and paper was consumed to put out her journals, showing how she developed characters like those in Atlas Shrugged, on the assumption that the nitty-gritty of that developmet would be of interest not just to scholars but to the general reader. I think that it would have been a similar benefit to all readers, not just scholars, to have allowed us to see what Rand's more refined ideas (published in The Objectivist Newsletter and later in The Romantic Manifesto) looked like in their original form. Otherwise, there will be a very misleading impression for people: that in her novels and in her other philosophical writing, Rand went through a sometimes lengthy developmental process of gestation and refinement, but in her aesthetic writings, the ideas just sprang forth in their final, perfected form, like Athena from Zeus's forehead. I'm sure Rand wouldn't have wanted to perpetrate such an impression, but that is all we're left with, when Boeckmann and others toss away the earlier formulations of Rand's ideas on the assumption that they're not essentially or interestingly different from the perfected later versions.

REB

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