Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 1

I’ve recently started following along with Adam Lee’s insightful and entertaining journey through Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Reading several of the older posts in his series as I’ve caught up, I’ve been struck by how well Rand seems to personify Erich Fromm’s conception of the necrophilous character. In this post I’ll describe what Fromm meant by the necrophilous character, and in the next I’ll draw on several quotations from Rand featured in Lee’s series as evidence of her necrophilous tendencies.

While Fromm saw the necrophilous* character as loosely related to sexual necrophilia, it was primarily drawn from a critical analysis of Freud’s idea of the “death instinct” and his own understanding of the human tendency and potential for biophilia. Here’s how Fromm defined biophilia and the basic biophilic ethic:
Biophilia is the passionate love of life and of all that is alive. It is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.** The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example; not by force, by cutting things apart, by the bureaucratic manner of administering people as if they were things….

Biophilic ethics have their own principle of good and evil. Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces. (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 406; all further Fromm quotations are from the same volume)
Necrophilous tendencies, as this suggests, were the antithesis of biophilic ones:
Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (369; emphasis in original)
Fromm didn’t believe that we have a death instinct or that the necrophilous character was innate and unavoidable. Instead, he thought people naturally had a more biophilic orientation which served human health and growth, but that its development could be blocked or subverted by childhood experience or culture. “Destructiveness,” he argued,
is not parallel to, but the alternative to biophilia. Love of life or love of the dead is the fundamental alternative that confronts every human being. Necrophilia grows as the development of biophilia is stunted. Man is biologically endowed with the capacity for biophilia, but psychologically he has the potential for necrophilia as an alternative solution. (406-7; emphasis in original)
So necrophilous tendencies are likely to develop in certain cultural atmospheres that interfere with biophilic growth.

While the definition of the necrophilous character above might seem to have a fairly narrow range, Fromm saw necrophilous tendencies as encompassing much of modern Western culture. The love of the “nonliving” could be seen not only in the direct attraction to the “dead, decayed, putrid, sickly” but also in an undue affection for the technological and mechanical, one of “the simplest and most obvious characteristics of contemporary industrial man: the stifling of his focal interest in people, nature, and living structures, together with the increasing attraction of mechanical, nonalive artifacts” (381).

While one recent biographer has suggested that Fromm was anti-technology, and some of his statements superficially suggest a hostility to science, what he in fact seemed to oppose was a particular orientation toward and conception of science and technology: one that wasn’t centered on life and growth or based in love of humanity and the world, that was alienated and alienating. After describing some examples of technological necrophilousness involving cars, cameras, and – a great word – “gadgeteers,” for example, he clarifies:
…I do not imply that using an automobile, or taking pictures, or using gadgets is in itself a manifestation of necrophilous tendencies. But it assumes this quality when it becomes a substitute for interest in life and for exercising the rich functions with which the human being is endowed. I also do not imply that the engineer who is passionately interested in the construction of machines of all kinds shows, for this reason, a necrophilous tendency. He may be a very productive person with great love of life that he expresses in his attitude toward people, toward nature, toward art, and in his constructive technical ideas. I am referring, rather, to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way. (382; emphasis in original)
Fromm’s go-to example of a techno-necrophilous culture (in contrast to the more traditionalist necrophilousness of the Spanish fascists) was F. T. Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists. Quoting from Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto”, he writes: “Here we see the essential elements of necrophilia: worship of speed and the machine; poetry as a means of attack; glorification of war; destruction of culture; hate against women; locomotives and airplanes as living forces” (383).

So as Fromm saw it necrophilous tendencies could be expressed through both the hatred of living things and the attraction to death, destruction, and decay and the rejection of the living world in favor of the mechanical, nonliving realm of techno-driven society. Importantly, though, in this age of ecological destruction, he recognized the latter as in some sense also an expression of the former:
The world of life has become a world of ‘no-life’; persons have become ‘nonpersons’, a world of death. Death is no longer symbolically expressed by unpleasant-smelling feces or corpses. Its symbols are now clean, shining machines; men are not attracted to smelly toilets, but to structures of aluminum and glass. But the reality behind this antiseptic façade becomes increasingly visible. Man, in the name of progress, is transforming the world into a stinking and poisonous place (and this is not symbolic).*** He pollutes the air, the water, the soil, the animals – and himself. He is doing this to a degree that has made it doubtful whether the earth will still be livable within a hundred years from now. He knows the facts, but in spite of many protesters, those in charge go on in the pursuit of technical ‘progress’ and are willing to sacrifice all life in the worship of their idol. (389; my emphasis)

…It makes little difference whether he does it intentionally or not. If he had no knowledge of the possible danger, he might be acquitted from responsibility. But it is the necrophilous element in his character that prevents him from making use of the knowledge he has.

We must conclude that the lifeless world of total technicalization is only another form of the world of death and decay. This fact is not conscious to most, but to use an expression of Freud’s, the repressed often returns, and the fascination with death and decay becomes as visible as in the malignant anal character. (390; my emphasis)
Though Fromm wrote in individual terms, he saw the necrophilous tendency as a cultural product (driven by capitalism and Cold War politics; he paid less attention to patriarchy). He didn’t claim that people could be neatly sorted into “necrophilous” and “biophilous” boxes, but that most people exhibited both tendencies to some degree and that their relative strength was influenced by experience within a given culture and age. Very few people, he argued, could be described as fully one or the other. But he did mention, notably, several individual scientists (391) whom he considered representative of biophilia, and contended that there existed “a small minority…in whom there is no trace of necrophilia, who are pure biophiles motivated by the most intense and pure love for all that is alive. Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Pope John XXIII are among the well-known recent examples of this minority” (408).

I imagine many would question at least one person on this particular list - Fromm had an annoying tendency to idolize certain living or historical men (always men, as far as I can recall) as representatives of biophilia and as borderline messianic figures. In my next post, I’ll suggest some ways in which Ayn Rand fascinatingly illustrates the necrophilous character – in a manner that illuminates particular features of capitalism, patriarchy, and contemporary attitudes toward science, technology, and ecology.

* Fromm took the term from an angry response from Spanish writer-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno to a speech by the Francoist general José Millán Astray in 1936 which he quoted frequently (368).

** Although today the term “biophilia” connotes a relationship with the whole of the living world, Fromm’s formulation was often very human-centered. As his ideas developed, they did become more ecological (as can be seen in Anatomy and also in To Have or To Be?), but they never really came to include nonhuman animals in any meaningful way; in fact, nonhuman animals were often presented as objects or oppositional forces in Fromm’s work. This is somewhat surprising since Fromm repeatedly lists Albert Schweitzer as among those most representative of biophilia – “one of the great representatives of the love of life – both in his writings and in his person” (406). (I suppose this shouldn’t be so surprising: Jean-Paul Sartre was Schweitzer’s second cousin and he still managed to become one of the most speciesist of humanistic thinkers.)

*** The best example of the overlap between these two forms of necrophilousness, in which the attraction to the “antiseptic façade” barely conceals the desire for the “stinking and poisonous place” is in contemporary factory farming. As it grows bigger and more wrapped in mechanical rhetoric and “clean,” scientific practice, the ecological destruction becomes more and more visible – the toxic lagoons that surround CAFOs, the pollution of the surrounding water, the emissions of methane, the stench,…


  1. This is a false dichotomy. You make glancing reference to this, but keep going anyway, so it is clear you know it is false. Can't wait to see how you construct Ayn Rand into anti-life; that promises to be a new one.

  2. This is a false dichotomy.

    I don't even know what dichotomy you're talking about. Between biophilous and necrophilous tendencies? As I said, Fromm sometimes presented this in dichotomous terms for the sake of simplicity, but saw it more as a spectrum in which one or the other tendency could predominate in an individual or culture.

    Between the two major forms of necrophilousness? That's not a dichotomy in any sense that matters. In fact, Fromm's useful insight, as I discuss in the post, was that necrophilousness can be expressed in ways that aren't generally or traditionally recognized as such, and that modern techno-necrophilousness, given its relation to ecological destruction, can be seen as another face of traditionally conceived necrophilousness.

    In any case, I'm not sure how the suggestion that it's a "false dichotomy" is supposed to affect my argument, unless you're misreading it to mean something like "Everyone attracted to mechanical things or technology is a necrophile." That would be a strange misreading, since I addressed it in the post itself.

    You make glancing reference to this, but keep going anyway, so it is clear you know it is false.

    I honestly don't know what you're talking about here.

    Can't wait to see how you construct Ayn Rand into anti-life; that promises to be a new one.

    Wait no longer:


    I have to say I'm surprised that anyone would consider this a strange or novel idea. I'm talking about Ayn Rand here, not Rachel Carson or Martin Luther King, Jr.