"...to give us Ayn Rand faithfully..."
a critical note on the Boeckmann transcript

Roger E. Bissell

 (First published on The Daily Objectivist, 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?


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.