The Buddha Of Objectivism

First things first.  Let’s get this clear.

Ayn Rand was always supremely full of shit.

First of all, friends of mine whose familes are in the railroad biz were actually offended by the way she portrayed it in Atlas ShruggedIvory tower bullshit! is what they called it.  And secondly, if nothing else is logically necessary in this world it is logically necessary that should all our billionaire CEOs withhold their labour we would be, materially, better-fucking-off overnight.  In Ms. Rand’s own words:  pity for the guilty, is treason to the innocent.  In the days we are living in, when corrupt plutocrats are raining on the earth like cometary fragments, when Friedman has ridden us into the trashcan and everybody is up in arms and suddenly John Galt’s speech makes sense once you understand Ayn Rand was tripping on speed when she wrote it, and when there is no longer any question but that private vices frequently make for public ACCIDENTS and that being “virtuously selfish” makes no one want to talk to you anymore and that…and that…and that…

Well…

She was kind of a bitch, right?  That Ayn Rand?

And everything she said turned out to be a big, fat, lie.

But, that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

Do you know the story about the Buddha who wasn’t really a Buddha?  But his follower turned out to be one.  The real Buddha, yeah…sometimes a lie is all it takes, to meet him on the road.  And of course when you meet the Buddha on the road, you are famously required to cut his head off and then take a piss in…!  Sorry.  What I mean is, you’re the only Buddha that you’ll ever meet…so if you never meet the Buddha, that’s on you.

And not, strangely enough, on Ayn Rand.

So enter Steve Ditko.  Because you know I think he’s the only one who makes it make sense?  He won’t take a penny of Spider-Man money, not a red cent — if you have chosen to act in this way it is on you that the moral consequences must fall, and I will not not absolve you! — I mean I really thought calling Peter Parker’s landlord “Mr. Ditkovitch” in the movie was both horribly insolent, and also like a kind of moral crowbar, a self-flattering “gee please join us Mr. Ditko, join in our comics-are-great singalong!” kind of a thing…well, we’ve seen it before, haven’t we?  “Please say the Watchmen movie is going to be awesome, Alan Moore!”  You guys know I love Alan, but he’s not a patch on Ditko.  In a way he’s a copy of Ditko, eh?  After he left Marvel, Ditko did simply amazing work for about twenty years or more…and I will come back to some specifics about that work before long, don’t worry…and now he does Dodgem Logic.  He does outsider art, now.  But if you look at his compositional skills, the subject may be something you think is nutty but his command of mood and gesture is even more expert now than it was before.  Cripes, no wonder Dave Sim is so interested in him!  Both Alan and Dave are pale shadows of the master.  Steve Ditko was uncool before uncool was uncool.  Look at Mr. A…have you ever read it, comics folk?  You know what?  It’s good.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd are straight-up comics geniuses, but if you want to know who got to the question of “what sacrifices does your morality require of you” first, in superheroic form…well, do you really even have to ask?  Ms. Rand has got nothing on Mr. Ditko — he’s no hypocrite, even if she is!  I think it entirely possible she’d take the money;  after all, for all her protestations, does she not seem a bit more amoral than moral?  A bit more self-less, than self-ish?

And Steve Ditko doesn’t seem that way at all.  Ever read “Shade, The Changing Man”?  It may be the most purely trippy comic I’ve ever read (part of the reason why I always rated Peter Milligan’s reinvention of it second-best — damnit, I still want to know what is beyond the Meta-Zone!), but trippiest of all is what grounds the thing:  Ditko’s hero simply will not give an inch, because it would be wrong.  You want your black-and-white stuff?  Ditko’s heroes are all about cost, above all:  who will pay it?  And if they can’t pay it, then who will step in for them?  In the seriousness with which he tackles these questions, Ditko is probably the only truly ethically-oriented Objectivist I’ve ever heard of, read about, seen, or imagined:  because he puts his heart and soul into it, his work is intrinsically heroic in a way few others can match.  Ditkovian heroes get as lucky as any other kind, maybe even luckier — like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, Ditko breeds Sufferin’ Supermen, not average joes! — but they don’t know that, and so their luck’s usually commensurate with their effort.  The classic Dr. Strange stories, irreplaceable treasures of the modern age of comics no matter what country you come from, never feature any magic power more important than bravery…bravery!  It is the one superior quality that Ayn Rand’s spokespeople lack, because they never need it.  Black and white are simply given to them, Objectivism’s princelings.  But I can almost believe in the whole mess when following the adventures of Rac Shade, or Stephen Strange, or Vic Sage, or even — yeah, it’s true! — Mr. A.  Because I really feel it, you know?  That anyone can have a great soul.  Still it’s odd to think of how many great artists there are, who create wonderfully open-minded work and yet seem to personally believe crazy locked-down things.  Dave Sim made Jaka come to life, and he actually denies it, you know?  But the skilled hands have their own knowledge, and if they’re skilled enough they’re fair.  In Ditko’s The Djinn with Steve Englehart, he presents a classic Marlowesque anti-hero, a conflicted loser with an ironically-beating heart (although Ali’s more Bogart to me!) who isn’t morally-perfect by Randian standards and whose side the writer is not on…it sort of reminds me of G.K. Chesterton a bit, a great writer who very nearly spoiled every one of his own books for me by being overly committed to me converting to Catholicism…!  And yet that king of paradoxes was sufficiently paradoxical himself to give his opponents the most sterling ripostes.  Oh, where is that damned David Langford bit about “The Ball And The Cross”…?

Ah.

“[D]espite Chesterton’s bias Turnbull gets some splendid lines — as in the early vow to fight that duel, no matter what. MacIan spends a whole paragraph swearing this by everything in and under heaven. “The atheist drew up his head. ‘And I,’ he said, ‘give my word.'”

For sure.  And, can you feel it?  Well, just give Chesterton time and he will explain to you why the person who’s an atheist is the person who most believes in God…but whatever, he may have the argument but we have the dialogue, and you know what trumps what.  Hell, I didn’t ask the guy to put his heart and soul into his work, you know…!

And in just such a way does Ditko show a storyteller’s compassion to his characters, that can’t help but come through the characters.  His version of Kirby’s Machine Man (and why is it, exactly, that Ditko could always manufacture such strangely-suitable takes on Kirby characters?) is all about the secret value of human foibles;  the main villain in Shade, while inarguably bad (“yes, bad and rotten, as all proper villains should be!” – Zom) is nonetheless a villain whose ethicity we get — not that there aren’t chaotic cackling bad ‘uns aplenty in Shade, but interestingly the main villain does a bit more than mere cackling, is a bit more caring, is a bit more…heck…

Sympathetic?

Perhaps that’s a bit over-strong.  Being that it’s Ditko, it gives one a shudder to think it.  And yet it remains true, that…well, the villains could have great souls as well, if they only chose them, and so even if it really is all their fault (and it is, oh it is!) it’s still something of a human tragedy that they choose so deliberately poorly.  To feel too sorry for them would of course be to choose poorly ourselves — they knew what they were doing, the bastards! — but to fail to acknowledge their potential, their human dimension, wouldn’t that just be another way of absolving them of responsibility?  No Ditko villain ever gets to evade the cost of his or her choices;  if the heroes aren’t allowed to do it, then why should they be so privileged?  But everybody always pays to play.  No one gets any convenient excuses.  The heroes may always win, and get better breaks than you or I would, but that’s only because they’ve sweated buckets to get them.  They’re better, but it isn’t by accident.  Without the luck, they wouldn’t survive at all;  but then without the bravery, they wouldn’t get the luck either.  It’s a pretty far cry from Ayn Rand, really!  And maybe “sympathetic” isn’t entirely the wrong word for it, because your sympathies do get involved;  they just don’t get confused, is all.  They go to their targets properly.  Even the contempt, is somewhat healthy and well-nourished.  Clean-limbed, or at least well-limned.  Hell, because these are comics, you know?

And we know what kind of ethical presentations are appropriate to this form, don’t we?

And so to deny that knowledge, to pretend we don’t have it, would surely be wrong.  Wouldn’t it?

But that sword cuts both ways, of course.  And in fact it’s just what cuts off Ayn Rand’s head, when Ditko meets her on the road.  For her, Objectivism seems to have been a convenience!  But Ditko doesn’t play that game.

Well…

The heroes never do, do they?

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9 responses to “The Buddha Of Objectivism

  1. And yet it remains true, that…well, the villains could have great souls as well, if they only chose them, and so even if it really is all their fault (and it is, oh it is!) it’s still something of a human tragedy that they choose so deliberately poorly. To feel too sorry for them would of course be to choose poorly ourselves — they knew what they were doing, the bastards! — but to fail to acknowledge their potential, their human dimension, wouldn’t that just be another way of absolving them of responsibility?

    Did Ditko ever write Luthor? Because it seems to me that Luthor fits into that very well indeed.

    I haven’t read much Ditko. I read most of the early Spider-Man stuff, which was of course excellent, but maybe I’ll have to hunt down some more, if it was as good as you’re making it sound.

    I don’t really want to have an Ayn Rand argument; I’ve had enough of them in my life already that I’m tapped out. I mean, I’m not an Objectivist. I was way big into Ayn Rand in university – the old story – but at a certain point I didn’t renounce it so much as decide that to be an Objectivist you have to be at war with the rest of the world all the time, and that didn’t sound like any fun. So I allowed my interest to recede. I wrote this (http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/2007/06/random.html) about it once, in which I didn’t make myself understood quite as well as I intended. But my point was and is that, contrary to the most widely available evidence, it’s possible to take Rand’s ideas seriously, or to take something from her ideas, without being a total jerk. That’s where I’m drawing my line in the sand: I do try not to be a total jerk.

    But it seems to me that the issue you write about here is the key issue when it comes to Rand. The key issue isn’t her ideas, really, which actually are normal enough not to be the key issue. The key issue is, what did she intend? Is Objectivism a) a philosophy allegedly based on objective reality, logic, and individualism, intended to set everyone free to pursue happiness in their own ways, or b) a pretext for allowing a few really rich people to eat the rest of us? It’s an important point, given that at the moment a few really rich people actually are eating the rest of us. (Not the only or even most important point.)

    The position of your post here seems to be that, for Ditko, it was a), but for everybody else, including Rand (and also presumably including me to the extent that I still identify with this stuff (although I don’t imagine that that was your intention)), it’s b).

    Now, I’m not Rand, so I don’t know what was in her mind. I have read a whole lot of her stuff, though, and I know that in her books, Objectivism is presented as a). If, in Rand’s mind, it was really b), then she was lying. And, as someone who never met her but who has done the reading, I don’t think she was. I think she was sincere. I could see how there were times in her life when she rationalized things she wouldn’t have found acceptable on a strict reading of her philosophy; for all I know, she would take the money were she in Ditko’s situation. But I think she was sincere anyway. With blind spots.

    Honestly, I don’t know how these people in The American Far Right get away with using Rand to justify their current attempts to ruin the world. She’s a foreign-born anti-war pro-choice atheist who once said about the prospect of a Reagan presidency something along the lines of, the great thing about getting old is that there’s a good chance I won’t live to see anything so monstrous. Does nobody ever call them on anything?

  2. Very nice plok! My interest in Rand stems more from her followers, as we’ve discussed before. (Ditko, Peart far more than Greenspan, the pig)

    I’ve always marveled at how much of the comics mainstream labels Ditko a nut for sticking true to his principles. Whether or not you agree with his stand, at least he stands FOR something.

    Not sure I could say the same about Stan The Man.

  3. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention here an essay written by Gene Phillips in a book about Watchmen called Minutes to Midnight that came out just last year. In his essay, Phillips compares the Question and Mr. A with Rorschach, and he persuaded me that Moore and Gibbons did a grave disservice to Ditko’s philosophy. You don’t have to agree with a word Ditko says to admire his integrity. (If nothing else, you’d at least expect Alan Moore to have a bit more respect for someone who’s famously prickly, convinced of his own moral rectitude, prone to excommunicate others for their lapses, and not interested in being bought off by Hollywood. Surely these two must have something in common?)

  4. Ah yes, “Minutes To Midnight”, a fine publication! By an odd coincidence, I’ve just settled down to re-read it!

    Hmm, so I guess that if I call Ditko the Buddha of Objectivism then I am saying everyone else has got it wrong? But the Objectivist road strikes me as a hard one to travel…lapses in integrity may happen, but they aren’t forgivable just because of that: in fact that’s exactly where the question of responsibility comes in. Because the choice is still — always — before one’s eyes. So, but this in itself is hardly an inherently crackers point of view! Objectivism’s really simplistic, I would say “far too simplistic”, but that doesn’t mean its moral concentrations can be dismissed. To the extent we can talk about absolutes at all (and obviously we can: if we couldn’t, then “justice” would be an inaccessible concept in daily life, unproductive even of cognitive dissonance), “A is A” still counts…and Moore at least lets Rorschach be a) right and b) an inspiration to others by the end of Watchmen, doesn’t he? At least he’s as right as he can be without being a God, and having a God’s perspective. Adrian’s arguably mad as a hatter, Dan and Laurie are intensely conflicted…Rorschach, on the other hand, as paradoxical as it may seem (and I’m sure we’re meant to see that paradox, too!), has a very firm hold on his humanity. Anyway at least you wouldn’t call him as mad as Adrian, would you? Or maybe you would, but the that’s a whole other philosophical discussion…

    But in any case, maybe it’s a bit too easy a criticism, but I think you could say that one place where Ditko exceeds Rand is that where she shrinks from existentialist implications he has no difficulty diving right into them…reading Sartre (maybe I should’ve just said Nietzsche) doesn’t relieve one of moral responsibility but instead presses it more firmly into one’s hands — in a morally-blank universe we are free to scrawl our own meanings on the sky, but that doesn’t let us off the hook for the choice we make in so doing, because we can’t blame that choice on anything but ourselves. And for Ditko’s heroes, just like Rorschach, the black-and-whiteness of things involves a lot more than just seeking self-interest, or even a larger political good. What compels Vic Sage to act as the Question, exactly? Why does Mr. A bother saving the woman on the rooftop? Why doesn’t Dr. Strange just go on home, why does Peter Parker take his own specific ironic comeuppance and paste it generally all over the walls of the world? The power he gets from the spider’s bite is just an accident, after all — society didn’t give it to him, and he sure didn’t ask for it. He couldn’t even have known to ask for it. He couldn’t have worked for it. He really is Just Some Guy. So in my own opinion, this is a big blind spot for Rand’s Objectivism, that Ditko fills in almost before he begins: the self can reason its way to unselfishness without necessarily calculating its way there. Huh, you know this actually makes me think of how some Americans try to recontextualize political history in such a way that it includes a subterranean “libertarianism”…basically all the freedom-loving elements of any other “-ism” being revealed as “secretly” having been libertarianism all along, a bit like how Idries Shah claimed Zen for the Sufis. So in this way they try to make libertarianism “natural”, when to just about everyone living outside the United States it really is not. Like, I have no doubt that there are libertarians, but they’re not following in a millenia-old mystery tradition, or anything. Libertarianism isn’t a basic colour of the soul anymore than indigo is a basic colour of the rainbow.

    And just so, as far as I can see, is the “calculation of good” that recontextualizes the apparently selfless act. As I was saying to a friend just yesterday, indulging in nomenclature isn’t actually the same thing as propounding a theory, right? But for political purposes it’s as useful to conflate those two things, as for ethical purposes it’s essential to keep them properly separate. So, in my reading, Objectivism fails because it doesn’t go far enough, because in not going far enough it actually goes too far…whoa, channelling a little Chesterton there, sorry…but Ditko seems not to know there’s even a thermocline there, between politics and ethics, and so he just steps right over it. It’s a bit like what Matthew is saying in his post, there…in superhero comics, good and evil are things, while in Rand novels they’re names

    …But to Ditko, names and things and things and names are all the same.

    Apparently.

    This might have been a bit longwinded, and possibly not as well thought-out as I would’ve liked.

    But, oh well: blog.

  5. Huh, you know this actually makes me think of how some Americans try to recontextualize political history in such a way that it includes a subterranean “libertarianism”…basically all the freedom-loving elements of any other “-ism” being revealed as “secretly” having been libertarianism all along, a bit like how Idries Shah claimed Zen for the Sufis. So in this way they try to make libertarianism “natural”, when to just about everyone living outside the United States it really is not. Like, I have no doubt that there are libertarians, but they’re not following in a millenia-old mystery tradition, or anything. Libertarianism isn’t a basic colour of the soul anymore than indigo is a basic colour of the rainbow.

    What I think about this is that you can imagine a field, say, a two-dimensional space, where all the ideas live. Freedom, as one such idea, is in a particular place in this field. (For instance.) And different schools of thought may all have found their way to the freedom place. As such, all these schools of thought and their adherents can recognize some kinship with each other, because it’s the same basic idea no matter which path you took to get there.

    Which is not to be overly reductionist, because just because two philosophies overlap doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Two people can both believe in freedom, but depending on how they came to it it can make them more or less likely to be moved off it by this or that. So libertarians can certainly put together a case that their way is the right way of getting to the same freedom that so many people have been trying to properly access all this time. And then it’s just a question of whether they’re right about that or not.

  6. Well, there’s that old PolSci thing — a graph with the X axis stretching right from Freedom to Order, and the Y axis stretching up from Freedom to Equality…so liberals are in the upper-left quadrant, conservatives are in the lower-right quadrant, libertarians are in the lower-left quadrant, and in the upper-right you have…the Terror in France? The Tea Party, maybe? So that’s a fairly useful description of all those things…but probably not a very useful definition. “Libertarianism” isn’t a particularly contested term (unlike “liberal” or even “conservative”) but to my mind that’s because it’s a catch-all for sentiment that’s deeply associated with the myth of America’s founding. The graph’s clear, but the people aren’t.

    Also, I should maybe clarify something, which is that I do believe in “libertarianism” — that is, I believe it exists — as something like a coherent political philosophy, albeit still a pretty distinctly American one. I just haven’t heard anyone talking about it in a while! But when I was a kid, the sense I got of this “-ism” was that it veered a lot closer to Noam Chomsky’s politics than to Robert Heinlein’s — and just coincidentally, to more rigourously-defined political terminology. “Freedom”, as Orwell might have said, is a word that now just means “something that is good”…and this is a boat that doesn’t float too well, because it can’t really be contradistinguished by neighbouring concepts. Like I’ve said before, only half-jokingly, in Canada freedom is really easy to get: just go fifty miles north. But political freedom is something quite different from what you find in the woods. And “liberty” is something else again. Now as it happens, I like all these things as much as the next guy, but I DON’T recognize modern-day “libertarianism” as even being in “the freedom place” with my philosophy. They say that’s where they are, but I don’t see them here…and wherever they are, they sure as hell don’t see me! So I dunno…a “basic idea” it may be, but I’m not sure everybody’s calling everything by the same names around here…

    With respect to Chomsky, though, I do see him in “the freedom place” — he’s just over there, behind that tree.

  7. The pilgrim who would learn of the Ditko Nature should soak himself in the man’s ’50s work in little SF and horror tales as much as his current stuff, I think. Back when he could express himself freely and honestly because basically no-one was bothered. His art didn’t come with any pronouncements; he could leave that up to Stan Lee. But there’s an undeniable Literature of the Body going on. You only have to see how bestially out-of-control his people look when greed has them in its grip; or how remote and dessicated his scientists look when they’re standing on the edge of the natural order, preparing to tamper with the unknown. All his zen is portraiture, or caricature.

    I came to a dead end every time I tried to read an original Objectivism out of his Mr A period, and I think that’s because the soul of this work there is caricature, per se. He’s saying: Look, idiot, this is what you look like when you think you’re winning, and this is what you look like when you’re facing the reality of your actions. This is what you look like inside. And this by contrast is how you’d look if you were at one with your integrity: more solid, more centered, standing full-square. All that emotional reaction stuff you do is squishy. See, I’ll draw it for you: squishy. It’s all bark and no bite. It’s a confession of being at the world’s mercy, and bluffing.

    The absolutism works when it’s a matter of taking a hard look at yourself. It doesn’t even apply to ethical reasoning out in the world; it has no traction there. And so, if this is Objectivism, it’s the part of it that deals with the subjective.

    Well, Rand makes some claims in the subjective sphere; mainly, if you know your own values, and don’t keep adjusting them for immediate reassurance or gratification — if you’re not a Tartuffe — then you can operate from that four-square centered place. Then you’ll stop trying to adjust the world so much.

    There is zen in that; it’s not so different from modern “mindfulness training”.

    But where there is no zen, is in the eerie ignis fatuus accompanying Objectivism, the notion that, if you only break your unfortunate habit of falsifying reality, you’ll have Absolute Vision and be instantly able to tell Right from Wrong. Of course that’s crap. When you face reality, usually the first thing that happens is that you realize you need more information. And soon you realize you’re in the same boat as the rest of us mugs … gambling on hopes.

    Back to Stalwart Steve, I have this to say about my own reading of him. After the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords I was reading everyone’s reactions, everyone in sight. Meanwhile I came across this review of Ditko’s independent pieces from Mr A to the present.

    The match was perfect.

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