Novels vs movies

Via The New Clarion, here is a fascinating review of a scene from the Atlas Shrugged movie. Ronald Pisaturo compares the original scene from the novel with the movie adaptation.

I would never have been able to identify all that is wrong in the movie scene, but the contrast between the movie scene and the original is obvious. Reading an analysis of the contrast – in style as well as meaning – is fascinating as it helps me understand what sets Rand’s novels apart from other novels. I have long wanted to write a review of Atlas Shrugged and lacked the ability to do so. This review of a single scene captures some key aspects of what a full review should express.

I have always thought that adapting a novel like Atlas Shrugged to the movie medium without missing a significant part of its power is impossible. Reading Pisaturo’s essay reinforced that idea. Here is the original passage from the novel

He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife.
As he touched it, he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called “his wife”—not of the woman to whom he was married. He felt a stab of regret, wishing he had not made the bracelet, then a wave of self-reproach for the regret.
He shook his head. This was not the time for his old doubts. He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been—for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.

                   — Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

No matter how well a scene like this is adapted to the movie medium (I think Pisaturo does a good job of describing a possible adaptation), understanding the scene would remain subject to the viewer’s perceptiveness and interpretation. The novel on the other hand is unambiguous. It states everything in plain words and the meaning is impossible to miss. Speaking for myself, I would surely have missed most of the meaning in the passage in any adaptation I can imagine. And that explains why I don’t really enjoy watching movies.

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Value – Intrinsic or Subjective?

Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject.

                                    —Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (posted at Aristotle The Geek)

Or, in other words: Value is subjective. This reminds me of the second paragraph quoted below taken from the Ayn Rand entry in the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Incidentally this also reminds me that I need to complete reading Theory and History which I started a few months year back and failed to finish.)

Fundamental to Rand’s outlook—so fundamental that she derives the name of her philosophical system, “Objectivism,” from it—is a trichotomy among three categories: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. (Rand 1990, 52–54; Rand 1965, 13–23) An intrinsic phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on factors external to the mind; a subjective phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on the mind; and an objective phenomenon is defined, variously, as that which depends on the relation between a living entity’s nature (including the nature of its mind) and its environment, or as that which depends on the relation between a properly functioning (rational) mind and extramental reality. Commentators are divided over the best way to interpret Rand’s views on this issue.

Rand holds that there is a widespread tendency to ignore the third category or to assimilate it to the second, thus setting up a false dichotomy between the intrinsic and the subjective; on Rand’s view, many of the fundamental questions of philosophy, from the existence of universals to the nature of value, involve fruitless debates over the false alternative “intrinsic or subjective?” in cases where the phenomenon in question is neither intrinsic nor subjective, but rather objective.

(Bold mine. Italics in original)

The essence of life

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.
—Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (End of Galt’s speech)

It is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead.
—Ayn Rand, Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Fountainhead”

This view is the essence of life. It is what makes life worth living. It is a precondition of all values. As Rand writes “It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible”.  This view of life is part of the ‘concept of life’ here. Retaining this view throughout life requires that one always examine and understand one’s desires as precisely as possible and act to achieve them. Having a desire and not acting to achieve it is the most damaging thing one can do.

Happiness

I was discussing the relative merits of movies vs novels as a medium for telling a story and happened to reread a passage in The Fountainhead that struck me deeply.

Just think, Howard, think of it! You’ll be rich, you’ll be famous, you’ll be respected, you’ll be praised, you’ll be admired–you’ll be one of us!…Well?…Say something! Why don’t you say something?”

“Look, Peter. I believe you. I know that you have nothing to gain by saying this. I know more than that. I know that you don’t want me to succeed–it’s all right, I’m not reproaching you, I’ve always known it–you don’t want me ever to reach these things you’re offering me. And yet you’re pushing me on to reach them, quite sincerely. And you know that if I take your advice, I’ll reach them. And it’s not love for me, because that wouldn’t make you so angry–and so frightened….Peter, what is it that disturbs you about me as I am?”
                                             — The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Some people criticize Rand’s dialogues for being unrealistic. And that is true. Real life dialogues are really as perceptive as this. But the question is: Why should dialogues in a novel be realistic? Here Rand contrasts riches, fame, respect, praise, admiration, acceptance – Peter Keating’s values – with pride and self-belief – Howard Roark’s values. Second-hand values against first-hand values. And Peter and Howard both realize that despite Peter’s having achieved all his values, he is still disturbed by the fact that Roark does not pursue Peter’s values. The dialogue is a tool to move one aspect of the story – Roark’s discovery of the difference between his values and that of most others – forward. And it does that job brilliantly. Why would one want real-life dialogue instead of dialogue like this? I read novels for entertainment; for those things that I cannot get in real life, atleast not in a short timespan. Significant events in real life are mixed up with so many mundane events that one needs a condensed depiction of the significant things to remind oneself of what is important and what is not. Every event, dialogue or description in a novel should be significant. It should serve a purpose; it should move the story forward. Real life dialogue in a novel is a waste of time.

Anyway, I got distracted. The point of this post was that by rereading this passage I have a better definition of happiness. My mental definition of happiness was – “the state of mind that results from the achievement of one’s values”. The passage above emphasizes that happiness results from the achievement of one’s values only if those values are objective – consciously chosen by one’s one mind by an objective standard. Achieving a value when one does not know why one values it does not bring lasting happiness.

Object Oriented Programming and Objectivist Epistemology

I have just started reading Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and chanced upon this very interesting paper by Adam Reed. Prof. Reed writes about models of causation and the exact architectural parallel between Rand’s epistemology and object oriented programming. I am very busy with work right now and ITOE is a difficult read but this is definitely something to explore once I am done with it.

Probability

I have struggled with the concept of probability for a long time. Not with the maths but with the meaning. Does a probability number really mean anything at all? And if so, what? Recently, I have reached a definite position on this. Here it is.

In a metaphysical sense, it seems clear that the probability number is meaningless. Or, more accurately, that it is not a property of the event in question at all (I am using the word ‘event’ loosely to refer to anything for which a probability may be calculated). An event either occurs or does not occur. No fractions are possible. Probability therefore must be a measure of a person’s state of knowledge of the factors that determine the event in question. That is, probability is an epistemological concept rather than a metaphysical one. It originates because of the need to make choices in the face of incomplete knowledge. This is clear since probability is used not just for future events but also for past ones. A classic example of this is the use of medical tests in conjunction with statistical analyses to arrive at a probability of a patient’s having a particular disease. In reality, either the person has the disease or not. The probability assigned to the possibility of disease is merely a tool used to decide whether further investigation is warranted.

This seems to suggest that probability is a subjective rather than an objective. But the precise math used to calculate probabilities suggests otherwise. Is probability subjective or objective? To answer this, it would be useful to look at what the words subjective and objective mean. In a comment on an old post, Burgess Laughlin wrote (and I agree):

“Objective,” in my philosophy (Objectivism), has two meanings. First, in metaphysics, it means existing independent of consciousness. The redundant phrase “objective reality” captures this meaning. Second, in epistemology, “objective” refers to knowledge that is drawn (inferred) logically from facts of reality. (See “Objectivity,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

Subjective, as I use the word, refers to judgements or responses that cannot be traced back to facts of reality or the thought processes of the subject (A typical example is emotions).

Probability is not objective in the metaphysical sense. In fact, without consciousness, it would not exist at all. It is also not objective in the epistemological sense since it arises only in cases where the subject does not have complete knowledge of the facts of reality. And the fact that there are precise mathematical rules to calculate probabilities means that probability is not subjective either. If probability is neither objective nor subjective, what is it? Consider the case of a coin being tossed. Lacking any knowledge of the composition and weight distribution of the coin, the velocity with which it was tossed, the composition of air, the nature of the ground etc, the probability of a particular side showing up is taken to be 0.5. Where did this number come from? It is quite clear that this choice is purely arbitrary. The entire math of probability is based on a simple principle applied consistently. Given multiple possibilities and a complete lack of quantitative knowledge of relevant causes, each possibility has an equal probability. Clearly this is arbitrary, but it is the best one can do. And applied consistently, it provides a very precise framework for quantifying a lack of knowledge. It allows quantification of that which we do not even know!

Anyone who is familiar with Rand’s philosophy should note that my use of ‘arbitrary’ is different from (though related to and inspired from) Rand’s use of the word in the classification of the epistemological status of statements as true, false or arbitrary. To apply the principle of equal likelihood, one already needs to have identified all the possibilities. This means that probability cannot be applied to arbitrary (in Rand’s sense) assertions. What about the truth status of a statement involving probability? Such a statement can be demonstrated to be true (or false) subject to the equal likelihood principle. Without the principle, it is arbitrary (in Rand’s sense).

I think this classification – objective, subjective and arbitrary – might be useful in several other areas of math as well. For example (I need to think more about this though), it can be applied to Euclid’s axioms (in geometry). These axioms could be described as arbitrary and theorems could then be considered as true subject to the axioms.

In my next post, I will try to relate my position to statistics and randomness.

Ayn Rand’s contradictory life?

Via Muse Free, I came across this article in the NY Times by Adam Kirsch. From the article

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” …
In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable…
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

Anyone who has read and bothered to understand The Fountainhead should remember the scene where Howard Roark refuses a contract for a building to protect the integrity of his vision when that contract is the only thing that can save him from bankruptcy. When asked “Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?” Roark replies “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Perhaps Kirsch missed it or perhaps he just took it as an unbelievable part of the plot. “The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Holly­wood screenwriter she once was.” Either way he has no conception of what Rand meant by selfishness or capitalism. Kirsch should read this excerpt from The Fountainhead

“Dominique,” he said softly, reasonably, “that’s it. Now I know. I know what’s been the matter all the time.”
“Has anything been the matter?”
“Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind.”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“But it’s…it’s like death. You’re not real. You’re only a body. Look, Dominique, you don’t know it, I’ll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can’t move any more, when it has no…no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves–but that’s all. The other, the thing inside you, your–oh, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking religion, but there’s no other word for it, so I’ll say: your soul–your soul doesn’t exist. No will, no meaning. There’s no real you any more.”
“What’s the real me?” she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.
“What’s the real anyone?” he said, encouraged. “It’s not just the body. It’s…it’s the soul.”
“What is the soul?”
“It’s–you. The thing inside you.”
“The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s it. And the thing that feels. You’ve–you’ve given it up.”
“So there are two things that one can’t give up: One’s thoughts and one’s desires?”
“Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you’re like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That’s worse than any active crime. It’s…”
“Negation?”
“Yes. Just blank negation. You’re not here. You’ve never been here. If you’d tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you’d rip them off and put up some you like–something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You’ve never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner.
You’re not here, Dominique. You’re not alive. Where’s your I?”
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
He sat still, his eyes wide. She knew that his thoughts, in this moment, were clear and immediate like visual perception, that the act of thinking was an act of seeing a procession of years behind him.
“It’s not true,” he said at last, his voice hollow. “It’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“What you said.”
“I’ve said nothing. I asked you a question.”
His eyes were begging her to speak, to deny. She rose, stood before him, and the taut erectness of her body was a sign of life, the life he had missed and begged for, a positive quality of purpose, but the quality of a judge.
“You’re beginning to see, aren’t you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You’ve never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn’t want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act–a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn’t like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn’t want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It’s real only when it’s independent–you’ve discovered that, haven’t you? It’s real only when it chooses curtains and desserts–you’re right about that–curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you’ve never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what
you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being–only with the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment–I said I
had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence–I created nothing. I didn’t say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind–I just agreed with everybody.
You call it death, Peter? That kind of death–I’ve imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you–you haven’t done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You’ve spared them the blank death. Because you’ve imposed it–on yourself.”

But then, Kirsch probably won’t understand it anyway.

And while I am at it, consider this from Kirsch’s article

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

Mass market elitism? Talk about contradictions. Elitism, by definition, cannot have a mass market. Yet, Kirsch is desperate to label Rand’s ideas as elitist. Why?

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