Adventures from Back of Beyond

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Check your premises: the Novels of Ayn Rand

Check your premises.

If you keep this in mind as you read Ayn Rand, you will get the most from her books. For anyone with the time and mental energy to wade through her two thick novels, expect a wild ride that challenges you on many levels. Some find Ms. Rand’s novels to be profoundly life-changing. At a minimum, expect a very thought-provoking experience.

After hearing so much from so many different sources about the growing interest in Ayn Rand and her books, after learning about the enduring popularity and respect people have for her ideas, I wanted to understand her philosophy, her system, her worldview. I had to find out for myself.

What I discovered was a brilliant thinker and writer, one with profound thoughts and opinions on what life should be like, a writer willing to express her beliefs on what is moral and what is corrupt, and what the proper role of government in society should be.

I also discovered a person that defies any sort of stereotype or pigeonholing into any convenient concept or recognized political category. She is neither conservative nor liberal. When you read Ms. Rand, be ready to check your premises for something completely different.

To understand Ayn Rand, I read in chronological order her two novels, The Fountainhead, published in 1943, and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, released in 1957. I enjoyed both as very stimulating, thought-provoking books.

In particular, Atlas Shrugged is a rollicking adventure, full of unpredictable twists and turns. It includes elements of philosophy, logic, morality, science, economics, politics, sociology, science fiction, and fantasy. What an imaginative ride!

There is no question Ayn Rand was a very smart woman with a genuinely brilliant mind. I loved how she describes “clean, pure thought” almost like thoughts are as tangible as rays of the sun.

As a writer, Ms. Rand is not user-friendly in any way. She doesn’t make the reading experience easy. You’ve got to come to her. You’ve got to earn what she has to say. She’s in control the entire time. To find the valuable ideas, the kernels of what she’s saying, the reader’s got to make an extended effort to wade through a lot of what I consider extraneous information. It’s a worthwhile experience.

Ms. Rand writing style is often obtuse and dense. But once I got used to her style, I found her plot structure and arguments to be so compelling and brilliant that they kept me turning page after page.

Judging by her books – by both content and style – my take is that Ayn Rand must have been a huge outrageous narcissus. Her self-absorbed style often results in long tedious dissertations into the minutiae of inner workings of the mind. She indulges herself in her writing far beyond what’s necessary to make a point.

Her books are excessively long because of such tedious detail that doesn’t necessarily communicate effectively or add meaning. The excess detail in fact often needlessly bogs down the plot.

The Fountainhead is 752 pages. Atlas Shrugged is 1,168 pages long. You don’t meet the central character of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, until somewhere around page 700. Near the end of the book, Galt gives a 60+ page speech that takes him a Castro-like 3 straight hours without a break to deliver. I call it “the Narcissist Manifesto”.

Cutting out the excess verbiage I think could probably trim these books down to something like a concise 250-300 pages. The rest is something of a narcissistic and self-indulgent taking of the reader’s time and energy.

In particular, Ms. Rand is very good at articulating in fine detail inner mental feelings, the self-talk conversations her characters constantly have. She knows she’s good at these detailed descriptions, so she does it a lot. After reading a few of these tedious paragraphs I realized I was able to grasp the underlying meaning from the action and circumstances. These inner feelings were in effect implied by the context. I found the long dissertations to be redundant, and to some extent just extra and unnecessary words. Unwarranted. But Ms. Rand insists on them. She indulges herself in them. This was my first clue that I might be dealing with a raging, unrelenting, out of control narcissus.

One can speed-read through these tedious paragraphs, once one gets the hang of her writing style. However, there are two sections that one cannot skim – John Galt’s 60-page speech in Atlas Shrugged, and Howard Roark’s testimony at his trial in The Fountainhead. Rand uses these dissertations as the vehicles to drive home the elaborate points of her complex philosophies, and they are central to understanding her theses.

“Check your premises,” a theme which recurs throughout both books, is an apt description for what she’s trying to make you do with her novels. It is virtually impossible to guess the twists and turns of the plots, or especially to anticipate the complex personalities of the characters. They are, like Ms. Rand, very unique – and very into themselves. You are constantly challenged to check and recheck your underlying premises to understanding the actions of the characters.

Both books appear to be very well researched – the field of architecture in The Fountainhead, and railroads in Atlas Shrugged. Ms. Rand’s done her homework and this helps to give both novels verisimilitude, a sense of believability, which is much needed as a counterbalance to the caricature-like personalities she creates.

The Fountainhead revolves around a brilliant architect, Howard Roark, who refuses to compromise his ideals and style to be accepted, popular, or even to graduate from architecture school. Several contemptible characters recognize his inherent talent and ability, and feel threatened by it. She calls these people that fear him “second raters.” They try to bring him down, to defeat him; they do this to protect their own positions and mediocrity from looking excessively bad in comparison. This leads the uncompromising Roark almost to his own destitute destruction, but in the end he is vindicated and those who oppose him get their due. How Rand makes that happen I have to admit is satisfying.

Atlas Shrugged is more of an epic that revolves around 3 male heroes and one female heroine. All are productive masters of industry, high achievers, in one form or another – copper mining, steel-making, a brilliant mechanical engineer, a domineering railroad executive. Corrupt politicians limit their productivity, making it increasingly difficult to conduct profitable business. These masters of industry go on strike in protest, and without them society gradually crumbles. When complete chaos eventually reigns, John Galt emerges to lead the country from ruin to a new prosperous version of the United States based on economic freedom and the supreme right of individual achievement.

Ms. Rand projects herself into both novels as the heroine. In The Fountainhead she is Dominique Francon, the brilliant and beautiful daughter of an architect, spoiled, haughty, insolent, arrogant, untamed. She gets raped by Roark, after in effect asking for it – and decides she likes the experience. They develop a romance from there. Check your premises.

In Atlas Shrugged she is Dagny Taggart, the daughter of the founder of a trans-continental railroad. She is brilliant and capable, hard-working and competent in her job. She has not one, not two, but count ‘em 3 lovers in this book – all three of the book’s main heroes in fact. In the end it is the one and only John Galt who gets her. But enroute she has an affair with a married man (the steel magnate), this while she is the lover of the copper-mining tycoon. Several of her sexual encounters involve sado-masochism, complete with blood. This I found weird – check your premises – but it made for interesting reading if for no other reason than it was different from the usual.

Believability is important, because the most important points she tries to make in her novels resonate with society today, with business, politics, and how we live our lives currently. That is why, perhaps, her books continue to sell and why there is so much continued interest.

In a nutshell the central axioms of her philosophy, which she calls Objectivism, are these:

1. Man is a heroic being who’s highest goals are to achieve happiness in his own selfish self-interest, and to be productive to the best of his ability.

2. No man is the keeper of his brother. No governmental, religious, or any other authority has the right to dictate that any man should sacrifice his own self-interest for the betterment of others. Such dictated sacrifice, according to Ms Rand, is immoral.

3. The fact that you exist is the only rationale you need to do whatever you think is best for you, whatever that may be. Compromise of your ideals, your life’s purpose, is irrational, equivalent to death. Logically, anything less than you being in charge of yourself is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole, like trying to say one plus one doesn’t equal two. “A is A” as a central concept is repeated throughout Galt’s epic speech.

By the way, Ms. Rand uses the term man exclusively to refer to all of humanity. She precedes equal opportunity.

Simplistically, considering the complexity of her ideas, only two types of characters populate her novels –heroes and villains, and nothing in between. The two types are extreme – either totally consumed with self-interested purpose and achievement and nothing else (good), or morally corrupt and utterly contemptible (bad). There is basically nothing in between.

There are no conflicted characters. This of course is unrealistic, because it just doesn’t happen with normal human beings – so it tends to cast a caricature-like pall around the characters.

There’s no middle ground between good and evil to confuse the reader, she makes the difference very clear. And she spares no contempt toward those who differ from her belief system.

This all good or all bad approach to characters creates on occasion an almost laughably superficial and naive plot. For instance in Atlas, one poorly developed character, Cuffy Teigs, takes over “Project X”, a top secret weapon that uses sound waves with the capacity to destroy on the magnitude of a nuclear bomb. At one point Teigs becomes so irrational and animated that he just starts pulling levers and flipping switches on the machine’s control panel, just to prove he has the authority to do it if he wants to. In the process he blows everything up within a 100 mile radius, including himself. I’ve checked my premises, and this just isn’t sufficiently plausible for a quality work of fiction.

Another insufficiently developed superficial character is the brief encounter with the social worker in Atlas, a woman portrayed as a nosy busybody, prying and making false assumptions about the Cheryl Taggart character (also poorly developed). The brief accusations against Cheryl by the social worker are the straws that break the camel’s back and sends poor Cheryl off to the East River to commit suicide.

I for one resented such an unflattering and unrealistic portrayal of social workers, perhaps because two are family members. These hard-working people deal with a lot of negativity to help make the world a better place for us all. They don’t deserve to be cast in such an inaccurate and negative light.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is widely studied today as her books continue to sell in the millions. And as much value as she provides, as much as there is to be said for her views, there are also huge holes in her system, voids big enough to sail a battleship through.

For instance, she goes on for pages and pages justifying through reason and logic why altruism is immoral. She maintains no one should have to sacrifice for another, no one is anyone else’s keeper. Any system of government that forces this sort of altruism is corrupt and prevents those who receive help or aid from thinking and therefore helping themselves. This is a powerful argument against a government welfare system, and in particular socialism with its various entitlements.

However, there are definite limitations to this assertion. Consider a few years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, in the mid 1960s, when many of America’s cities erupted in race riots with much suffering, death, and destruction. Significant political and social changes resulted from those race riots, changes that were needed at that time, changes that included such far-reaching social engineering policies as Affirmative Action in this country. Rand’s philosophical system has no provision for justifying any of that. Yet the social changes happened, the system worked with at least some degree of success, and it was the morally correct thing to do.

There is also no room in Rand’s philosophy for random acts of kindness, for the selfless act of giving for the betterment of mankind, the need many people feel to give of themselves anonymously. The only kind of altruism supported in Rand’s system is the kind where the giver does so to receive some sort of payback, to have some ego need satisfied by the act of giving, the sort of giving to get something back in return.

Further, there is absolutely no comprehension or awareness of environmental values shown anywhere in Rand’s philosophy. In fact she apparently feels some antipathy for environmentalists. At one point she says, through Dagny on page 280 of Atlas Shrugged, “how often we hear people complain about billboards” (ruining the views of the countryside, and) “...they’re the people I hate.”

Guess nobody told Ms. Rand that hate is ugly. Not that anyone could!

She also makes it a point to indirectly refer with disdain on more than one occasion to eastern philosophy, including Oriental and Indian cultures.

Yet another huge disconnect is Ms. Rand’s assertion that government has no moral right to interfere with business in any way, except to enforce laws. Yet in 2008 and 2009 we experienced how perfectly legal transactions like credit default swaps nearly brought about a complete collapse of the world’s financial system and its interlinked economies – and they might have been completely ruined if the U.S. and other governments around the world hadn’t intervened in a number of ways to stabilize the financial system. This form of constructive intervention has no place, no justification, and no explanation in Ms. Rand’s system. As she would’ve put it in Atlas Shrugged: it's a “blank out.”

One wonders how Ms. Rand’s self-indulgent ,narcissistic philosophy might have been seasoned and matured had she been a mother, had she felt first-hand the incomparably powerful bond of a mother for her child. Ms. Rand remained childless, and the beliefs she espoused certainly do seem consistent with one who has never had the awesome responsibility – one who has literally shed blood, sweat, and tears – involved with bringing up a human life, been responsible for the shaping of a human soul. I believe her worldview probably would have changed for the better and been more complete with this experience.

If Ms. Rand had been a mother, can you imagine her saying this, in response to a question by Alvin Toffler during an interview in March of 1964:

  • Toffler: According to your philosophy, work and achievement are the highest goals of life. Do you regard as immoral those who find greater fulfillment in the warmth of friendship and family ties?
  • RAND: If they place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man's life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite; whereas, if he places his work first, there is no conflict between his work and his enjoyment of human relationships.

Rand’s extreme philosophy is an example of a completely circular system – meaning she invents terms and concepts to explain the terms and concepts she invents. She is true only to herself, in true narcissistic fashion.

It’s quite possible that Rand’s true belief system really wasn’t this far out; perhaps her real intent in portraying such extremism might have been only to provoke thought. And in doing this she certainly has been successful.

Overall, there is much to like and much to learn from reading Ayn Rand. The main points are, to me, these:

1. The USA has the best, most moral form of government and economic system ever devised by man anywhere, at any time in human history.

Ayn Rand appreciated the USA based on personal experience, having escaped from the Communist USSR in 1926, at the age of 21. Her father was a successful chemist and owned his own pharmacy, but her family’s property was confiscated “for the greater good” by the Communists. They lost everything. Her sympathy for free-market capitalism probably stems largely from this experience. She managed to get a travel visa to the U.S., stayed with relatives in Chicago for awhile, and never looked back. She changed her name from Alisa Rosenbaum, moved to Hollywood, and in that golden era of the movies in the 1920s managed to get a job as a screenwriter for the great Cecile B. DeMille, of all people. For a time she was the head of the costume department at RKO Pictures. Quite impressive for someone who didn’t even speak English when she got here.

2. She internalizes, understands and in her philosophy reflects the beliefs and attitudes expressed by the founding fathers of this country, including such central values as freedom, rationality, reason, and enlightenment

Ms. Rand loved the U.S. in a way that reflected the vision and values of the founding fathers of this country. In Atlas Shrugged she depicted a dystopian time in the U.S., where reason is no longer supported, one is expected to unthinkingly sacrifice for the good of the State, personal profit is bad, and the country is run by corrupt bureaucrats. All of this sounds like a warning to not go down the path of the USSR, a failing system that she experienced first hand.

It would be a mistake to categorize her positions as either liberal or conservative, as she rejected both points of view. She was an American, and at her best, she reflected a patriotic American outlook.

3. Capitalism is the best and only moral economic system in the world. Profit is good. Free trade is good. The process of making the most money you can, earning money from people who willingly pay you for your best efforts to produce, this system is the most moral economic system ever devised, because it enables and rewards individual achievement, bringing out the best in people.

It is very difficult to pigeonhole Ayn Rand. She wasn’t left or right. She rejected all sorts of political and philosophical groups, and viewed with disdain conservatives, liberals, and libertarians alike.

Liberals disliked her because of her anti-socialist, anti-humanitarian views, and her disdain for altruism; conservatives disliked her atheism and rejection of traditional governmental authority.

Libertarians like to claim Rand as one of their most important influences, but Rand rejected Libertarianism as a political movement.

Ayn Rand was unique in a complete world of her own creation, a world where she was the absolute authority. She created a total philosophical system tailored to herself and her worldview, centered around the importance of the individual and rational self-interest. From her writings and especially her novels, she developed a loyal following. For these people, many of whom were profoundly influenced by her, Ms. Rand was the ultimate expert in all matters; no one else could speak about these concepts like she could.

She was the boss in a world of ideas she created. In the end, it might be most accurate to say that, in classic narcissistic form, Ayn Rand was true only to herself.