Scattered thoughts on Ayn Rand

My early introduction to Ayn Rand was a chapter devoted to her in a book titled Architects of the Culture of Death by Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker (her chapter was written by De Marco). This is a Catholic work I picked up during my university years though I was not a Catholic at the time. The other knowledge of her came from the generally dismissive attitude people had to her and her philosophy of Objectivism whenever she was mentioned. So I was predisposed to be prejudicial against her when I was lent a copy of Atlas Shrugged some years later in either 2008 or 2009. My experience with this book was similar to that of many who have read it — total engrossment. I even enjoyed John Galt’s speech that her many gadflies often complain about. I loved the book.

I am not sure most of Rand’s critics ever read much of her work and were motivated more by a rejection of her philosophical beliefs than anything else. I’m sure most never got close to the Galt speech they love to mock as it appears a good way into the Atlas Shrugged. That’s not to say that nobody could find it tedious but the dismissive mockery tends to be so similar that I suspect many of her critics opinions are just passed on in ignorance. There is also certainly no shortage of professional jealousy as despite never being accepted in academic circles, her works are still in print and remain popular. While the average professor is lucky if his writing is read by the students assigned to read it.

Re-reading her chapter from the book mentioned above, I was disappointed to see it mostly followed these lines. It gave a short summary of her philosophy before quoting prominent people who have criticised her work as well as pointing out the inconsistencies with how she personally lived her philosophy. For a Catholic work, it lacked sophistication and though I remember enjoying the book, I now wonder, if the same lazy method is employed with the other thinkers covered.

What prompted this post was reading The Fountainhead which is her other major work of fiction before Atlas Shrugged. As admitted, I can understand why people criticise her writing as she definitely puts her message before the story and I am sure she would admit to this without apology. This doesn’t make her a bad writer. Just take these examples of characters introduced throughout The Fountainhead:

“Gordon L. Prescott wore a brown checkered tweed jacket and a white turtle-neck sweater of angora wool. He was tall, athletic and thirty-five, but his face combined a crisp air of sophisticated wisdom with the soft skin, the button nose, the small, puffed mouth of a college hero. His face was sun-scorched, his blond hair clipped short, in a military Prussian haircut. He was frankly masculine, frankly unconcerned about elegance and frankly conscious of the effect.” p 93

“Ralston Holcombe had no visible neck, but his chin took care of that. His chin and jaws formed an unbroken arc, resting on his chest. His cheeks were pink, soft to the touch, with the irresilient softness of age, like the skin of a peach that has been scalded. His rich white hair rose over his forehead and fell to his shoulders in the sweep of a medieval mane. It left dandruff on the back of his collar.” p 108

“Lois Cook was thirty-seven. She had stated insistently, in her publicity and in private conversation, that she was sixty-four. It was repeated as a whimsical joke and it created about her name a vague impression of eternal youth. She was tall, dry, narrow-shouldered and broad-hipped. She had a long, sallow face, and eyes set close together. Her hair hung about her ears in greasy strands. Her fingernails were broken. She looked offensively unkempt, with studied slovenliness as careful as grooming—and for the same purpose.” p 244

“Everything about the person of Mitchell Layton was almost and not quite, just short of succeeding: his body had started out to be tall, but changed its mind, leaving him with a long torso above short, stocky legs; his face had delicate bones, but the flesh had played a joke on them, puffing out, not enough to achieve obesity, just enough to suggest permanent mumps. Mitchell Layton pouted. It was not a temporary expression nor a matter of facial arrangement. It was a chronic attribute, pervading his entire person. He pouted with his whole body.” p 579

How can you say this is bad writing? I’ll go further and state that if you think she’s a bad writer, you’re an idiot. The problems with her work mainly come from her unwillingness to not do everything her way. This probably didn’t please her editor, but doesn’t make her writing bad. It matches her philosophy and gives her work a rawness seldom seen in most published works. And it should be telling to all that she could insist on this to publishers and still get published at a time well before digital or “vanity” publishing was available. Not only did she get published but she remains in print. The introduction to the edition of The Fountainhead was written well after the original publication and she reflected on a couple of trivial changes she considered but didn’t actually make.

On to the quotes themselves, Ayn Rand writes like a man but has the feminine ability to retain meticulous knowledge of people’s dress and grooming. I had an encounter with my wife the day I began writing this and couldn’t quite recall what anyone I had met that day was wearing when she was trying to find out who someone she’d met was at a function we both attended. This is typical of my sex and is one reason why female writers are often so good at giving detailed pictures of both a person’s character and their appearance.

I would have to re-read Atlas Shrugged to know for sure but I believe it is the better work of the two from what I remember. There is something very un-real about some of the characters in The Fountainhead — particularly Dominique Francon, the “heroine” who’s character is really hard to imagine as a real person. Others like Peter Keating and the media mogul, Gail Wynand are more believable. She writes the various academic and popular frauds very well too. The main antagonist, Ellsworth Toohey is the best example though I doubt that any would be so candid about (if even conscious), of their motivations as he is at one point in the book. The main character Howard Roark doesn’t really become a character until much later in the book when he verbalises his drive in life more clearly. In contrast, I found the drives of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged more believable as well as being better examples of Rand’s ideal of man. Also, you’ve got to love the names she gives characters.

Rand’s idea of romance is genuinely bizarre and The Fountainhead is even worse in this regard than Atlas Shrugged was. Dominique Francon is raped by Howard Roark and despite their mutual attraction, their relationship is all over the place with her marrying two different men including Roark’s pathetic opposite Peter Keating. It definitely makes me wonder what sort of proclivities Rand had. De Marco’s briefly mentions her strange marriage and infidelities but luckily not much else.

Something else I remember thinking was a bit much in Atlas Shrugged was the often insane shrillness of Rand’s antagonists. However more and more since I’ve seen life was imitating art and I can’t help drawing connections between prominent politicians and social critics publicly behaving in the same manner.  There is a bit of this in The Fountainhead but not as much. Toohey reveals himself in one long speech to Peter Keating. This quote below captures some of Rand’s prescience.

  “Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed. Then there’s another way. Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It’s simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humor is an unlimited virtue. Don’t let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul— and his soul won’t be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man. One doesn’t reverence with a giggle. He’ll obey and he’ll set no limits on his obedience—anything goes—nothing is too serious.” p 665-666

Something else that I believe Raz0rfist recently pointed out was that Rand has been as if not more prescient than Orwell and Huxley though I’ve not read Huxley. The above quote has happened as well as the slow collapse of the United States which more people than me were noticing at the time I read Atlas Shrugged in 2008 and 2009.

Critics rightly point out the lack of children in her fiction and the idea that a truly objectivist society would not breed and die in a generation. I haven’t read any of her philosophy outside of fiction but I expect this is a strawman on her outlook. I doubt she ever expected her philosophy to widely be embraced and she seems to have respect for people who aren’t capable of being the superman her main protagonists are. Mike the electrician in The Fountainhead and the loyal-to-the-end Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged are clearly respected by Rand. The way her heroes and heroines see no indignity in doing hard physical labour is also further proof of this. What I took away at the time I read Atlas Shrugged was that there are really great people at the heart of human progress and that we need them.  I don’t see how that is wrong and the world will obviously still need people to clean, deliver, repair and breed. Her philosophy can be rejected without engaging in strawmen or throwing it all out without considering what aspect of the truth she has right.

I have come to consider my blanket dismissals of Marxism for example as ignorant. Marx himself has remained influential well past his time on earth whether right or wrong and not everything he wrote was wrong. One should also generally know what his philosophy is before outright dismissing him. I’d like to see Rand’s critics take the same approach to her philosophy. I can actually reject both Objectivism and Marxism for the same main reasons and that is they are both based on the assumption of atheistic materialism.

There is also plenty of basic good sense to be found in her work such as this from Roark in The Fountainhead:

“I think it’s a worthy undertaking—to provide a decent apartment for a man who earns fifteen dollars a week. But not at the expense of other men. Not if it raises the taxes, raises all the other rents and makes the man who earns forty live in a rat hole. That’s what’s happening in New York. Nobody can afford a modern apartment—except the very rich and the paupers. Have you seen the converted brownstones in which the average self-supporting couple has to live? Have you seen their closet kitchens and their plumbing? They’re forced to live like that—because they’re not incompetent enough. They make forty dollars a week and wouldn’t be allowed into a housing project. But they’re the ones who provide the money for the damn project. They pay the taxes. And the taxes raise their own rent. And they have to move from a converted brownstone into an unconverted one and from that into a railroad flat. I’d have no desire to penalize a man because he’s worth only fifteen dollars a week. But I’ll be damned if I can see why a man worth forty must be penalized—and penalized in favor of the one who’s less competent.” p 605

You must of course adjust wages from the 1940s to now but these are problems that are not only still with us but have gotten worse. I am one of those people that is just competent enough not to deserve any breaks so there are plenty of people who earn less than me and have much nicer (and cheaper) homes. It is worse because now we also have generations of people who don’t work at all and are still entitled to these breaks. This now includes no small number of foreigners.

Although associated with the political right, Rand was an atheist and hostile to all religion. She was supportive of most of what the political left was with the deal-breaking exception of any form of collectivism. To someone who sees God as a necessary precursor to any belief in rationality, I found her views as expressed by Roark contradictory:

“Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary.” p 712

Rand rejects the very idea of God though I would question how any sort of intelligence or sense of what is rational could come if our existence came about without a rational force. Were she to accept this she would also have to accept that God as our creator came first and we as his creation owe everything to him. Our mind, our ability to reason and create all comes from the one source. It is not intrinsically ours.

This was as I titled it “scattered” but I will conclude by stating that while I reject much of Rand’s philosophy, there is still a lot of good sense to be found that is useful today. She is also by no means a bad writer, certainly not one that deserves much of the mockery she receives from her legion of green-eyed critics.

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