The more you look, the less you see.

A.K.A., let’s see Ayn Rand misunderstand both chess and her own philosophy.

So Ayn Rand wrote an open letter to Boris Spassky. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s look at a quote from her essay “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made “.

Man’s faculty of volition as such is not a contradiction of nature, but it opens the way for a host of contradictions—when and if men do not grasp the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.

It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary. Man is not omniscient or infallible: he can make innocent errors through lack of knowledge, or he can lie, cheat and fake. The man-made may be a product of genius, perceptiveness, ingenuity—or it may be a product of stupidity, deception, malice, evil. One man may be right and everyone else wrong, or vice versa (or any numerical division in between). Nature does not give man any automatic guarantee of the truth of his judgments (and this is a metaphysically given fact, which must be accepted). Who, then, is to judge? Each man, to the best of his ability and honesty. What is his standard of judgment? The metaphysically given.

The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is—and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong—it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be. Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice.

Now let’s move on to her open letter, cleverly titled, “An Open Letter To Boris Spassky”. She opens by calling him “comrade Spassky”, but let’s assume this was just what she assumed had to be done, if the evil commies were ever going to allow him to read it. After explaining that she only vaguely understands chess, because she’s “a novelist-philosopher by profession”, she talks about how they clearly put forth all of this mental effort, and then says:

Then I was struck by the realization that the game itself and the players’ exercise of mental virtuosity are made possible by the metaphysical absolutism of the reality with which they deal. The game is ruled by the Law of Identity and its corollary, the Law of Causality. Each piece is what it is: a queen is a queen, a bishop is a bishop—and the actions each can perform are determined by its nature: a queen can move any distance in any open line, straight or diagonal, a bishop cannot; a rook can move from one side of the board to the other, a pawn cannot; etc. Their identities and the rules of their movements are immutable—and this enables the player’s mind to devise a complex, long-range strategy, so that the game depends on nothing but the power of his (and his opponent’s) ingenuity.

In case you don’t see the problem here, you’ll note in the earlier quote that she says everything man comes up with has to be judged, and it is most definitely NOT metaphysically given. So no, a queen is NOT a queen because it has some sort of queen nature determining its actions, as water has a nature which causes flooding under the proper conditions. That’s one of her examples in the other essay BTW, flooding in a place where there are no humans is metaphysically given, the dam to try to control it is man-made. Now it is certainly the case that if we set rules, and follow them, then a queen can only move in certain ways. But there is nothing whatsoever that makes those rules immutable and gives identity and causality to chess pieces. Speaking of rules:

1. Would you be able to play if, at a crucial moment—when, after hours of brain-wrenching effort, you had succeeded in cornering your opponent—an unknown, arbitrary power suddenly changed the rules of the game in his favor, allowing, say, his bishops to move like queens? You would not be able to continue? Yet out in the living world, this is the law of your country—and this is the condition in which your countrymen are expected, not to play, but to live.

2. Would you be able to play if the rules of chess were updated to conform to a dialectic reality, in which opposites merge—so that, at a crucial moment, your queen turned suddenly from White to Black, becoming the queen of your opponent, and then turned Gray, belonging to both of you? You would not be able to continue? Yet in the living world, this is the view of reality your countrymen are taught to accept, to absorb, and to live by.

3. Would you be able to play if you had to play by teamwork—i.e., if you were forbidden to think or act alone and had to play not with a group of advisers, but with a team that determined your every move by vote? Since, as champion, you would be the best mind among them, how much time and effort would you have to spend persuading the team that your strategy is the best? Would you be likely to succeed? And what would you do if some pragmatist, range-of-the-moment mentalities voted to grab an opponent’s knight at the price of a checkmate to you three moves later? You would not be able to continue? Yet in the living world, this is the theoretical ideal of your country, and this is the method by which it proposes to deal (someday) with scientific research, industrial production, and every other kind of activity required for man’s survival.

4. Would you be able to play if the cumbersome mechanism of teamwork were streamlined, and your moves were dictated simply by a man standing behind you, with a gun pressed to your back—a man who would not explain or argue, his gun being his only argument and sole qualification? You would not be able to start, let alone continue, playing? Yet in the living world, this is the practical policy under which men live—and die—in your country.

5. Would you be able to play—or to enjoy the professional understanding, interest and acclaim of an international Chess Federation—if the rules of the game were splintered, and you played by “proletarian” rules while your opponent played by “bourgeois” rules? Would you say that such “polyrulism” is more preposterous than polylogism? Yet in the living world, your country professes to seek global harmony and understanding, while proclaiming that she follows “proletarian” logic and that others follow “bourgeois” logic, or “Aryan” logic, or “third-world” logic, etc.

6. Would you be able to play if the rules of the game remained as they are at present, with one exception: that the pawns were declared to be the most valuable and non-expendable pieces (since they may symbolize the masses) which had to be protected at the price of sacrificing the more efficacious pieces (the individuals)? You might claim a draw on the answer to this one—since it is not only your country, but the whole living world that accepts this sort of rule in morality.

7. Would you care to play, if the rules of the game remained unchanged, but the distribution of rewards were altered in accordance with egalitarian principles: if the prizes, the honors, the fame were given not to the winner, but to the loser—if winning were regarded as a symptom of selfishness, and the winner were penalized for the crime of possessing a superior intelligence, the penalty consisting in suspension for a year, in order to give others a chance? Would you and your opponent try playing not to win, but to lose? What would this do to your mind?

After this, Rand claims Spassky would be unable to even think of these questions, being disallowed by his government, let alone answer them. But she knows the answers, and they’re all no, no he couldn’t play, and that’s why he fled into the world of chess, to escape the horrors. Let’s dispense with one thing right here and now. Yes, he most certainly COULD play, with the possible exception of point 5. In fact, there is a game pretty much based on question 6, here’s a link to it.

I am thinking here in particular of fox and geese, where the whole point for one player is to protect as many geese, “the masses”, from the fox as possible. No doubt, Rand would have been horrified by this game. Or maybe she would have loved it, since the individual fox devours the masses of geese, if it wins. Now Rand isn’t against games, she says so, and she even proclaims that chess might be a respite for a man who is working really hard. Keep that in mind as you read our final gem.

You, the chess professionals, live in a special world—a safe, protected, orderly world, in which all the great, fundamental principles of existence are so firmly established and obeyed that you do not even have to be aware of them. (They are the principles involved in my seven questions.) You do not know that these principles are the preconditions of your game—and you do not have to recognize them when you encounter them, or their breach, in reality. In your world, you do not have to be concerned with them: all you have to do is think.

The process of thinking is man’s basic means of survival. The pleasure of performing this process successfully—of experiencing the efficacy of one’s own mind—is the most profound pleasure possible to men, and it is their deepest need, on any level of intelligence, great or small. So one can understand what attracts you to chess: you believe that you have found a world in which all irrelevant obstacles have been eliminated, and nothing matters, but the pure, triumphant exercise of your mind’s powers. But have you, Comrade?

Unlike algebra, chess does not represent the abstraction—the basic pattern—of mental effort; it represents the opposite: it focuses mental effort on a set of concretes, and demands such complex calculations that a mind has no room for anything else. By creating an illusion of action and struggle, chess reduces the professional player’s mind to an uncritical, unvaluing passivity toward life. Chess removes the motor of intellectual effort—the question “What for?”—and leaves a somewhat frightening phenomenon: intellectual effort devoid of purpose.

If—for any number of reasons, psychological or existential—a man comes to believe that the living world is closed to him, that he has nothing to seek or to achieve, that no action is possible, then chess becomes his antidote, the means of drugging his own rebellious mind that refuses fully to believe it and to stand still. This, Comrade, is the reason why chess has always been so popular in your country, before and since its present regime—and why there have not been many American masters. You see, in this country, men are still free to act.

So let’s see, apparently unless you’re out punching a bear to death, I’m sorry, that’s way too much nature for Rand, let me try again. Unless you’re out quarrying stone or milling some steel or taking train trips across the country, or maybe doing science, that might be OK, you’re probably a dolt who just wants the scary scary world to go away. And by the gods, you’ve found your 64 squares of heroin baby! Seriously, I simply do not get this. First she proclaims that chess pieces have a sort of inherent nature, they are what they are and this makes the game possible. Then she makes up a bunch of weird scenarios and proclaims nobody could play under them. This is patently false. Those games wouldn’t be chess as currently defined, but they ARE in fact playable games.

Take, for example, question two. I would set up the rule as follows: For X moves, your queen is yours, then for Y moves it becomes your opponents. Finally, for the rest of the game, it becomes a piece belonging to both players”. It seems pretty clear to me that the queen would still work the same way in all other respects. So say we’ve reached the point where it belongs to both players. This doesn’t make the game unwinnable. Since it’s impossible for both players to move the same piece at the same time, each player would have to take turns. A clever player, particularly if matched against a careless one, could still move the queen in such a way that it could capture their opponent’s pieces. Would this be an interesting game? No, I would assume if you had players of decent intelligence it would result in a stalemate. However, there are plenty of games which can result in stalemates, and we play them, for all of that.

Finally, Rand, who isn’t against games at all or even chess you’ll recall, goes on a tirade about how chess is an escape from the world. Earlier she compares chess players and athletes, athletes BTW are building the body’s capabilities to perfection. Here’s one of the stunningly insightful questions she puts to the chess players of the world. “But what would you think of a world champion runner who, in real life, moved about in a wheelchair?” Apparently chess players are just stunting the hell out of their minds because, see above, chess has nothing whatsoever to do with reality … Oh except for when Rand wants to make her point about how awesome Aristotle and her are, then chess players can play because chess exemplifies the laws of identity and causality.

However, it’s evil if you’re a professional at it, and the only reason you do that is because you’re scared of reality. Because of course you are. I mean, you wouldn’t do it because you find chess, I don’t know, actually interesting or something, gods no. The ONLY reason you’d do that is because you’re frightened of reality, and chess provides an ordered place that gives you the illusion that all questions are settled. That’s why, according to Rand, Bobby Fischer threw temper tantrums and stuff, because he was incapable of dealing with messy people and their messy irrationality, which is the REAL enemy he and Boris Spassky should have been fighting, instead of each other on a dumb chessboard. Yes, she actually says that, though she doesn’t name Fischer. She just mentions a youth bewildered by the world.

So there you go. Not only does Rand completely and utterly misunderstand chess, and her own philosophy while she’s at it, she also completely misunderstands people too, there’s a huge shock. So if you ever wonder why I’m not that worried about people who mostly read or mostly garden or whatever the hell they mostly get obsessed with as long as it’s not harming anybody? This is why, right here. Because worrying about that shit leads to craziness like this here. Hey, I think horse racing is really dumb. Every year it happens, people insist on telling everybody which horse with a stupid stupid name won the Kentucky Derby. I have no idea why, because they don’t give a shit about it. You know how I know that? Because NONE of them talk about horses or horse racing at ANY other point in their lives. You just have to have all the news reports about which dumb horse won though, because … I have no idea, but people sure are determined that you find out about that shit.

But you know what? If people want to race horses, go for it. Sure I think it’s dumb, but then, they probably think playing an instrument that hasn’t existed for at least a thousand years and has no known music is dumb too. That’s fine. I’ll play my six-string Anglo-Saxon lyre, and they’ll race their horses with the dumbest names ever conceived of by the mind of man. Somebody else will pretend Sherlock Holmes was a real person and try to reconcile all the weird issues of chronology and such that pop up in the stories, somebody else will totally own gardening, somebody else will know about all the birds ever, somebody else will do puzzles, you get the idea here. Some of them might even get payed for some of that stuff, and you know what? More power to them, I say.

As a final note, yes, I know those were long quotes. I did that for a reason. You can see the full arguments, save for me simply quoting the entire letter of course. Did I get something wrong? The proof should be right there. Did I mischaracterize what Rand said? Again, ample evidence should be right in this post. I don’t think I did though, and you can see her actual words for yourself. For anybody who’s bored to death with my periodic forays into Ayn Rand, don’t worry, I’m pretty much done I think. I mean, if she gets this much stuff so fundamentally wrong about a game and the people who play it, really, what more can you say? Well there is ONE more thing, but it’s pretty short. It’s also pretty important though. So I might do that one at some point, but then that’s about it.

Reading Rand reminds me of a saying. With all this horse shit, there’s got to be a pony around here somewhere! I’m pretty sure I’ve read enough, and I think it’s clearly demonstrated in my posts quoting her, that there is in fact no pony to be found in her philosophy. I’ve given her a fair shot, though doubtless her followers would strenuously disagree. You can, as with her quotes, judge for yourself, if you’re of a mind. I’ve given my understanding, and I think I’ve given enough quotations so that you can easily see where my understanding is coming from, whether you agree with it or no. I have to say, I just don’t get what people see in her. She was big again back around 2008, when some conservatives were proclaiming that her novel “Atlas shrugged” was indeed prophetic, and yea verily what “Ms. Rand” hath spoken is fast coming to pass. “Harken to her words”, they said, “lest ye surely die”. Well, we’re all still here, and you’ve had quite a sample of her words right here. Pay attention to them if you like. Me? I’m finding something that’s actually interesting and useful to read, as opposed to inspiring morbid curiosity.


H. P. Lovecraft was a crazy racist, but you should read him anyway.

OK, so I’ve been meaning to start this for a long time now. I haven’t, because here’s my problem. H. P. Lovecraft was a crazy racist. Here’s a link if you want a good chunk of the awful details.

In case you don’t want to read that, he called black people something between beasts and humans, (he used a word to rhyme with figure), claimed he wished he could exterminate whole races, at least initially thought Hitler had some damn fine ideas, and so on. But that’s not really what I want to talk about, and here’s why. The post implies that those of us who read Lovecraft either have no idea in the depths of hell he was a racist, or that we try to sweep it under the rug so as not to taint his majestic legacy. But here’s the thing. The very first thing I read of Lovecraft was “Dagon And Other Macabre Tales”. In it, there is an excellent introductory essay by T.E.D. Klein, called “A Dreamer’s Tales”. Though T.E.D. Klein doesn’t quote HPL’s thoughts on Hitler, or the poem opening the blog where he proclaims black people some sort of intermediate between man and beast, he is quite explicit, and does give detailed quotes, about Lovecraft’s racism. So let’s just accept the fact that most of us do indeed know that old HPL was a crazy, and get to some other points.

The author insists that we should pay attention to Lovecraft’s stories and ideas sure, but also not forget the fact that he was super duper racist, because it will help us “appreciate” his stories. I don’t think this argument works, and here’s why. There are two senses of “appreciate” that I think are relevant. One is, gain a deeper understanding of the story. This fails on its face. What deeper understanding of, say, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, do I gain by knowing Lovecraft was against interracial relationships? I mean, the story is about these undersea fish people aliens interbreeding with humans, such that their offspring transform into alien fish people. So OK, now that I know Lovecraft thought mixing races was equally hideous, now what?

How does knowing that ADD to my appreciation of the story? Does it become more relevant? Certainly not, in fact less so since I have no problem whatsoever with people of different races getting together if they’re so inclined. Does my knowing that Lovecraft held this belief add to the story? Nope. If anything, it detracts from it, because now I can’t think “wow yeah, what if there WERE alien fish people? That would be pretty creepy huh”? Now I guess I’m supposed to think, “oh alien fish people was code for Jews” or something. Congratulations, you’ve just reduced a weird/horror tale to a thinly veiled racist rant. Which brings me to the second understanding of appreciation, it helps gain insight into the story process, i.e. how/why it was written. Again, I’m not sure I buy this. Let’s take Psycho as an example, because I assume everybody’s familiar with it. Does it add to our understanding if we know that Robert Bloch wrote Psycho because he had issues with his own mother? How about if he wrote it based on deep psychological research, or based it on a particular person?

If I recall correctly, it was the latter two. I don’t know that it does. That is, sure, we might find some detail, oh that’s in there because real life serial killer guy did that, or that’s in there because he was reading about some psychological condition. But what I’m driving at is, does that change Psycho, as a story? I don’t think it does. I think the story can stand on its own, and I think, more often than not, these little tidbits, at least for me, bring the story down, so to speak. As another example, take The Birds. Fun creepy story, right? One of the things I love about it is, you never get a reason. This stuff just happens out of nowhere, and then it kind of ends.

I should note I’m thinking of the movie, as I haven’t read the book. So what if we learned, I’m making this up as an example, that the whole thing came from the author’s fear of chickens, because she was attacked by a chicken as a child? For the sake of accuracy I looked it up, and she saw a man plowing a field with seagulls wheeling over him and apparently thought “what if they turned hostile and attacked him”? My point is, I think knowing this stuff makes it very easy to go, “oh he wrote that thing about the giant spiders because he has a phobia of spiders”, and suddenly we’re not talking about the story anymore, but about the author. Which leads me to my other big problem with this post.

The author discusses somebody wanting to put up a statue of Lovecraft, laments the fact that they received the funds to do so, and then said about the inscription: “If I had put the bust together however I might have tagged it with something slightly different: H.P. Lovecraft
Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite
Also wrote stories.”

Oh, OK. We’re supposed to talk about his ideas and influence and all of that while of course understanding he’s a racist, but he “also wrote stories”. You might note, if you read the post, that the ONLY ideas talked about in HPL’s stories are racist ideas. I’ll also add that lots of people were racist, maybe not to the same extent, but they don’t seem to receive nearly as much press for it. Here are a couple of examples:

Now let me get back to why I didn’t want to write this. I did, because I’ve had people ask me about reading Lovecraft in light of his racism. But I also didn’t, because, were I to go by posts like this one, if I wanted to comment on a story, I should mostly comment on the evil evil racism, and I’m sorry, but that’s tiresome. There’s only so much time I feel like devoting to “yes yes, and here’s this racist bit here that detracts from an otherwise excellent story because …” Also, I still don’t understand how it matters, as the author implies, that Lovecraft believes things. For instance, in “Herbert West”, a character says, of a dead black boxer, that he had abnormally long arms he couldn’t help thinking of as “forelegs”. Again, I return to appreciation. What difference does it make whether that’s purely a fictional character speaking, or Lovecraft inserting his belief that black people are like apes? By which I mean, what difference does it make to reading the story? It’s a story about a guy who reanimates dead people, and parts of dead people, and about how you can go crazy with rationality and too damn far with science. But again, though the author mentions the story, and the racism naturally, we don’t hear about any of that.

So, let’s sum up with one of my favorite stories, it also has the virtue of being short so if you end up hating H. P. Lovecraft, well, at least you didn’t suffer much.

First, let’s read this the way I presume the author of the post would like us to. Oh, it’s a rant against the filthy evil Eskimos! It even says so right at the end, and anybody who’s familiar with it knows that Inuto looks a lot like Inuit. The awesome people are tall and stuff, that means they’re white! Although, if we’re going to read the story this way, I have to say it reminds me very much of the Greek and Roman attitude towards other peoples, and we read the Greeks and Romans all the time. Since Lovecraft was heavily influenced by “the classics”, i.e. racist writers at the foundation of Western civilization, these attitudes are only to be expected. Note the Greek character of the one personal name, Alos.

Now, let’s talk about the story. This is clearly an amplification of zhuangzi’s (Chuang-Tsu’s) question after he woke up from a dream that he was a butterfly. How does he know the person him is real, and not the butterfly him? It’s an interesting question. I’ve heard people respond to it by saying that we know it’s a dream, or hallucination, or whatever because we have different words for those things, since we have the word for the concept “dream” then we know there’s a difference. Leaving aside the simple fact that this is wrong, we have the concept “unicorn” but we agree they don’t really exist even though we know differences between a unicorn and a horse, this still offers us nothing to distinguish between which set of events in this story is “real” and which is “a dream”. Then there’s the use of language: “Long did I gaze on the city, but the day came not.” This very much strikes me as largely poetry, even though it’s written as prose. Suppose the narrator is right? Was he reincarnated? Did he go through multiple reincarnations? Was his consciousness projected forward in time into another body while he was sleeping?

All of these strike me as much more interesting ideas for discussion than “yeah it was totally wrong for Lovecraft to call the Eskimos hellish warlike brutes’. Because here’s the thing. We all KNOW that’s wrong, or we should at any rate. And sure, you could link it with modern themes, we’re basically dealing with a clash of civilization vs. barbarians, shades of some conservative ideas about Muslims/Islam. But to my knowledge, nobody’s going “ah man you see? It’s just like H. P. Lovecraft said in Polaris man ,we gotta fight the bastards”! I suspect Lovecraft would have felt right at home with those claiming that we’re in a struggle of civilization against Islam. In fact, he wrote a story pretty much to that effect called “The Street”, though it wasn’t about Islam, though again, the more interesting point of the story is that the street basically performs a reboot of reality.

But it seems to me that to read this as the point of something like Polaris misses the point entirely. By all means, proclaim Lovecraft’s poem about how the gods made black people as the missing link, so to speak, as the worst sort of racist idiocy, just as we should proclaim as the worst kind of idiocy Aristotle’s idea that some men were simply born to be slaves. But we don’t say things like “Aristotle, racist, misogynist, also did some philosophy”, implying that the philosophy was just something that he did while taking a break from his hating on women and the lesser barbarian peoples. Absolutely, if we talk about Aristotle’s attitude towards women, or slaves, or barbarians, then we should explore it and condemn it. I don’t think that means we should, as IMO the author does with Lovecraft in the blog post, pick through all of Aristotle’s writings seeking out all the racism and so on, all the while proclaiming we shouldn’t ignore his ideas and contributions while not actually talking about any of them.

I’d further add that if anything, writers like Aristotle are even more problematic than writers like Lovecraft. Even if Lovecraft is a million times more racist than Aristotle, entirely possible, Lovecraft is writing fiction. He’s not trying to tell anybody how they should think, or what constitutes a good life, and so on. But just as well-informed people know about Aristotle’s racism, or even if they don’t, they reject his ideas that some men are simply born to be slaves when they encounter them, so too we can reject, say, the description of the boxer as “gorilla-like” in Lovecraft, but still read him because he wrote interesting stories which, for me at least, imply some interesting philosophical ideas in some cases. Whether the description is simply in the mouth of the fictional narrator, or near and dear to Lovecraft’s heart, shouldn’t matter one bit, for the same reason we can read Aristotle, knowing that he really believed that some men were born to be slaves.

I had originally intended to comment on all of Lovecraft’s stories, with links. I don’t know if I’ll actually do that or not. I may instead pick some an focus on my thoughts on some of Lovecraft’s interesting ideas, at least, the things that interest me. Part of this is because, as I’ve mentioned above, I feel like I’d have to keep addressing the topic of his racism, or conservatism, or lack of female characters, or … But it’s also true that, just as say episodes of The Twilight Zone, a number of his stories share ideas. It would probably be tedious to comment on every single story. I know a couple of people said they’d be interested in this, so here’s the first post. Feel free to comment, if you’re of a mind.