Claudia Moscovici

Levi Asher’s Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong: A Strong Case for a New Humanism

 

The name Ayn Rand is well-known in our culture largely for being unpopular, or, at best, popular with unpopular people. And yet, argues writer, philosopher and literary critic Levi Asher in his new book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (And Why It Matters), her legacy is being short-changed. Not that Asher agrees with Rand’s defense of egoism. Yet he believes that her philosophical argument is important enough to be taken into account and given a proper refutation.

Why is it important? For two main reasons: first, because the moral debates between altruism and egoism are as old as humanity yet also very current. They’re central to philosophical discussions about economics (implicit in the debates between libertarianism versus socialism), moral frameworks (be they individualist or altruist) and politics (is the state’s role to protect only individual liberties or the collective welfare?). Second, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is important because… Ayn Rand herself is an important cultural figure. Born Alisa Rosenbaum, the daughter of Russian immigrants, Rand was a big success as a fiction writer (her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were best-sellers), as the proponent of Objectivism and even as a playwright. Few American intellectuals have had as widespread a cultural impact as she did.

Having established the relevance of his chosen subject, Asher zeroes in on his main goal, which is offer a multidimensional refutation of Rand’s basic philosophical tenet of egoism, or “the belief that humans are ultimately self-interested at a basic scientific level”. Being a thorough philosopher, Asher follows Rand’s own advice to “check her premises.” He begins by unraveling the first premise of Rand’s argument for egoism: namely, that the “self” is clearly defined and distinct from other individuals. He shows how our sense of self is based on our interactions with others, our love for our families, our collective and national identities. The self, in other words, is not an individual unit living in a social vacuum. Ontologically, ethically and epistemologically, we’re connected to others. Therefore, Asher argues, even a philosophy that begins with the self will end up considering others.

Moreover, he pursues, the self is naturally empathetic. Just as we see and feel our own pain, if our brain wiring works correctly and we’re not sociopathic, we see and to some extent can identify with the pain of others. Because of this we suffer when we see our children hurt, or when we witness crimes against humanity. Any philosophy of the self will therefore end up considering the family and the group, which are inextricably related to and shape our identities.

In his eloquent, clear and impeccably argued book on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, Levi Asher not only does justice to her arguments and persuasively refutes them, but also makes a compelling case for an ethics of empathy, based on an understanding of the self that is complex and intersubjective. This book presents the foundations of a new humanism.  Original, impassioned, rigorously argued and touchingly eloquent, Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is a must-read not only for fans and antagonists of Ayn Rand, but also for all those who love a good philosophical debate about moral and social issues of the utmost importance.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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May 13, 2011 Posted by | Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethics, humanism, individualism, Levi Asher, Litkicks, moral philosophy, Objectivism, philosophy, refutation of egoism, The Fountainhead, the self, Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong (And Why It Matters) | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Levi Asher’s Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong: A Strong Case for a New Humanism

Bernard Salzman’s Mihaella: Chekhovian Fiction Meets Kabbalah

 

When one thinks of Eastern European fiction that tackles the big ontological questions—what is divinity, what is the nature and purpose of existence—as well as difficult metaphysical questions—such as the problem of theodicy, or why suffering exists in a God-created world—one thinks of writers like Dostoievsky and Tolstoy. However, often these questions seem too big for human beings to handle. Even a philosophical character like Ivan Karamzov seemed to give up on finding any satisfactory answers to such questions and, along with that, he also gave up on individual human love. In a famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan states: “But it always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” For Chekhov, on the other hand, the balance seems to be tipped in favor of depicting with compassion individual human beings. In the Russian literary tradition it is Chekhov, I believe, who brings large metaphysical questions down to Earth. His short stories and plays stage moral dilemmas in all-too-human characters, which he portrays with some irony and a lot of tender-hearted indulgence.

This is the tone of Bernard Salzman’s newest screenplay, Mihaella, currently in development by his film company, Eye Opener Films. This screenplay centers around the character of Mihaella, a young girl who lost her mother and is being taken care of by her uncle, Noah, and his wife Elizabeth. They live in a small town, reminiscent of Russian and Romanian villages where people go through difficult lives and pray to be spared some of their suffering by a divine miracle. Yet when faced with a being as miraculous as Mihaella–a hybrid of girl and angel—how will they react?

The answer isn’t simple, as nothing that crosses the boundaries of the explicable ever is. Neither religious dogma, epitomized at times by Father Gregory and some of his followers, nor empirical science can explain Mihaella’s mixture of special powers and human vulnerability. She’s not able to answer all of the villagers’ prayers to heal their ailments, as angels are supposed to do. Yet she grows angels’ wings, learns how to fly, and seems a mixed blessing for her new friend, Wright, a handicapped young man. Moreover, when pursued by a group of thugs, Mihaella manages to escape from harm thanks to her angelic demeanor and superhuman powers. But she can’t save Wright from being beaten by them, nor his father, Dean, from having his house burned to the ground. The best this human-angel can do is help people save themselves.

Like human knowledge of divine mysteries itself, Mihaella’s powers are only partial. And that seems to be why the villagers, including the local priest, regard her with ambivalence. They can accept the supposed certainties of religious dogma or the apparent truths of empirical reality much more readily than Mihaella’s hybrid nature and limited–yet clearly extraordinary–powers. When I asked Bernard about the religious and philosophical overtones of his screenplay, he replied that “The script is actually based on a short story I wrote many years ago. There are many universal questions I struggle with and I have spent many years studying Kabbalah in an attempt to understand.”

By depicting our human fear of the limits of our knowledge, this screenplay confronts one of the biggest metaphysical questions facing humanity: why does the suffering of innocents exist if the world ruled by an omnipotent and omniscient God? Why does Mihaella’s young mother have to die? Why does the sweet and innocent boy, Wright, have to endure so much humiliation and pain at the hands of others? Mihaella offers no easy answers about the nature of divinity and God’s ability to answer our prayers. In the Kabbalah, God is, like angels, a liminal being: neither matter nor spirit; the creator of both. God is unknowable to human beings, yet there is a revealed aspect of divinity that human beings can come to know and interact with. In the screeplay by the same name, Mihaella represents this aspect of divinity: one which the villagers must learn to embrace in order to learn the biggest lesson of this upcoming movie: “I think it’s not how much you pray, it’s how much you love,” Mihaella tells Father Gregory. But will he and the villagers get the angel-child’s message or chase her away, in their simultaneous longing for the unknowable and fear of the unknown? Watch and see for yourselves when Bernard Salzman’s new movie–filled with wisdom and hope–is released.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

May 3, 2011 Posted by | angel, angels, Bernard Salzman, book review, book reviews, books, Celebrity Dialogue Interview with Cinematographer Bernard Salzman, Chekhov, Chekhovian fiction, Chekhovian screenplay, cinematographer Bernard Salzman, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Dostoievksy, Inner Circle Films, Ivan Karamazov, Kabbalah, La Tricoteuse, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love, Mihaella, miracle, miracles, new fiction, screenplay, theodicy, William Bouguereau | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Bernard Salzman’s Mihaella: Chekhovian Fiction Meets Kabbalah