Monday, August 04, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — August 3, 2008

Ayn Rand, Crank

In a passage quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s introduction to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand reveals that she misunderstands the nature of fiction. She refers to it as “a process of translating the abstract into the concrete,” but that’s not what it is, at all. Another writer for whom English was not his native language, Joseph Conrad, gave us a far wiser description: “...art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.”

Conrad succeeded in his aim, and so did Rand. Her mechanistic conception of fiction produced a mechanistic novel, in which the characters are puppets moved by ideological strings, forever making long clumsy speeches to each other, even when they’re supposed to be in love, and the narrative itself, in spite of its 1100-plus pages, seems a long tiresome exercise in driving home one single point. (I did think it picked up a bit after the first 900 pages, but then I came to the Slough of Despond, the 60-page ranting manifesto delivered by John Galt in a speech which would have had to last for some three hours, and which is surely among the most tiresome things ever written.)

The plot of Atlas Shrugged can be summarized briefly. The industrialists of the world become fed up with the encroachments and injustices of socialism and decide to teach the world how dependent it is on them by withdrawing from all productive activity. As they do so, their industries collapse, or in some cases are deliberately destroyed. And as the socialists try ever more desperate measures of state control and redistribution, industrial civilization disintegrates into rule by gangsters who make themselves rich in the name of the people.

I’ll grant that there is a useful point there. Regardless of whether one thinks industrialization is fundamentally a good thing or not, it has certainly been a spectacular achievement of human ingenuity and energy, and most of us—most people who will read this—live in abundance and comfort because of it. And yet we have a tendency to treat the wealth it produces as something akin to a natural resource, something that just appeared spontaneously and requires no effort to preserve, leaving us only the question of how to distribute it. It’s worthwhile to be reminded that it was the product of intelligence and an enormous amount of hard work.

But the novel which is supposed to teach us this, among other things, is, to my taste, simply lifeless. Others apparently find narrative excitement in it; I found none. Had enjoyment been my guide, I would have given up on the book after a hundred pages or so. It was sheer determination that kept me plodding on until the end. I had wanted to read it in the first place because it is apparently a very influential book, and I wanted to understand why and how—why people like it, and what it teaches them. And I insisted on finishing it because I didn’t want to state a firm opinion of it without having given it every chance. Now I can say without any qualification that I think it’s a bad novel in the service of a bad idea.

The bad idea is radical atheistic individualism or libertarianism, which sees every individual as a sovereign and competent king or queen who deals with other kings and queens on terms of pure self-interest and according to Rand’s very narrow view of rationality. The individual owes nothing to anyone, and every exchange between persons is a commercial transaction, usually in fact and always in principle. Rand’s sacred symbol—I’m not joking—is the dollar sign. She regards any sort of altruism not based on a strict exchange of value as a destructive obscenity, and likewise those who teach it, whether for religious or secular-socialist reasons.

And so she presents us with a set of characters who are clearly divided into good people and bad people. The good people are producers: strong, intelligent, competent, and lean. The bad people are parasites: weak, stupid, incompetent, and fat; again, I’m really not joking or exaggerating. And one feels that the driving force of the book is less admiration of the good people than hatred of the bad. It often feels like a vast and implacable flood of anger and contempt.

Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and therefore grew up in the early days of the Revolution. The family business was expropriated by the communists, and presumably this was the source of her rage against “the looters,” as the government’s agents of confiscation and redistribution, as well as its beneficiaries, are called in the novel.

She has been called a fascist, and she and her supporters insist that this is false and unfair. They’re right, as far as her stated convictions are concerned. She is passionately anti-collectivist and therefore no more tolerant of fascists than of communists. She explicitly and vehemently repudiates violence in any and all situations apart from defense against a direct attack. And yet I can see why people accuse her of fascism: it’s the intensity—I think it’s fair to say the violence—of her hatred and contempt for those who do not meet her standards. Here’s just one of many typical examples:

“She could not descend to an existence where her brain would explode under the pressure of forcing itself not to outdistance incompetence.”

Or this, the most extreme of a number of instances I marked:

“…he saw what Paul Larkin must have been at that time—a youth with an aged baby’s face, smiling ingratiatingly, joylessly, begging to be spared, pleading with the universe to give him a chance….Rearden knew what the boy he had been would have felt: a desire to step on the obscene thing which was Larkin and grind every wet bit of it out of existence.”

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the strange pathologies in evidence here. Perhaps a longer essay is in order, because I remain almost as puzzled by the book’s popularity as I was before I read it. What is it that speaks so strongly to so many people? Do most of them see themselves as one of the supermen? Do they think it might be a good thing if the word “give” were forbidden, as it is in the secret utopia of the capitalists in this novel?

Make no mistake, Atlas Shrugged, and, I assume, Rand’s work in general, is utopian. And like all utopian schemes hers must eventually come to grief on the reality of human nature, and end with the bitter conclusion that human beings are simply not worthy of it. Rand seems a sort of capitalistic and individualist inverse of Marx, falling off on the opposite side of a balanced and truly rational conception of what human beings are.

Perhaps most of the books admirers are like those who admire John Lennon’s “Imagine”—picking up only the superficial ideas and missing the implications. I think most people hear “Imagine” and think Yes, it would be nice if people stopped hating and killing, completely missing the song’s totalitarian implications. Similarly, it may be that many of the admirers of Atlas Shrugged come away thinking, Yes, enterprise and competence and personal responsibility are good things, and don’t absorb the rage and the dogma of pure self-interest.

Several hundred pages into the book I noted to myself that it contained no love, no children, and no humor. It did eventually bring in a notion of love, a rather strange and constricted sort of love which is more accurately called admiration: the producers love the work of their hands, and they get involved with each other romantically, but even their romances have a weird ideological charge, being defined as an exchange of value. And two perfect (in Randian terms) children do appear briefly in the capitalist utopia, the offspring of two perfect producers. But I never saw any humor whatsoever—no intentional humor, anyway, although some things struck me as unintentionally funny, such as the constant application of adjectives like “lean,” “hard,” “superlative,” and “incomparable” to the heroes and the heroine. (There is only one heroine, Dagny Taggart—a name which I find amusing and can’t help pronouncing as DAGNY. TAGGART. And another weird quirk of the book is that she is worshipped in turn by each of the three major heroes and gives herself to each with a submissiveness that made me wonder if the sequel to Atlas Shrugged is The Story of O.)

Humorlessness is one of the characteristics of a crank, and judging by Atlas Shrugged a crank is what Ayn Rand was: not stupid, but narrow and shrill; not entirely wrong, but fixated on one inadequate idea which she thinks can explain everything; hostile to and uncomprehending of any disagreement. Believing that she has absorbed all philosophy and religion and that almost all of it is nonsense, she only demonstrates how little she really understood. And like everyone who denies that there is something fundamentally and inherently amiss in the human condition, something that no mere idea or program can remedy, she ends up as one more proof of the truth she denies.

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