Monday, November 16, 2009

On the resurgence of Ayn Rand

The Bitch is Back

Goddamn, the experience of being 19 years old and reading Ayn Rand! The crystal-shivering-at-the-breaking-pitch intensity of it! Not just for that 19-year-old, but for everybody unfortunate enough to be caught in his psychic blast radius. Is "experience" even the right word for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand's idolization of Mickey Spillane and cigarettes and capitalism—an experience? Her tentacular contempt for Shakespeare and Beethoven and Karl Marx and facial hair and government and "subnormal" children and the poor and the Baby Jesus and the U.N. and homosexuals and "simpering" social workers and French Impressionism and a thousand other things the flesh is heir to: experience?

"Isn't that book the Bible of right-wing losers?" - Lisa Simpson

Ah, Ayn Rand. Human beings don't work the way she says they do. Societies don't work the way she says they do. Economies don't work the way she says they do. Her books are painfully awful and warp the term "literary art" even as one hesitates to apply it. Yet her ideas and novels persist because they feed the most indestructible and gullibility-producing force in the universe, human egotism.

I do grant, as a reviewer on Goodreads said, that the books are useful. Anyone who is a fan of Ayn Rand is someone to avoid. It's good to know that before you get too involved. And unlike more personal questions, it's easy to work into casual party conversation: "Hey, what do you think of Ayn Rand's books?" If the person's eyes light up and they declaim upon their admiration of Howard Roark or John Galt, you have the opposite of a keeper. You know to throw that one back.

I, like many people, read The Fountainhead as a teenager. I intended to enter the essay contest the Ayn Rand Institute runs every year. They offered a lot of money, and I'd already won a couple of state-level writing competitions. I was seventeen or eighteen, and no less arrogant than bright eighteen-year-olds generally are: the target audience.

I couldn't bring myself to write anything that wasn't scathing.

"This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." - Dorothy Parker, on Atlas Shrugged.

The books are terrible in all respects. They are bad art, bad writing, foully mis-representative of human behavior, laughably improbable, bone-headedly self-contradictory, morally putrid, and pragmatically incoherent. Even the supposed free-market ideals which Rand espouses with such Darwinian cheer don't actually appear in her books. There is something the characters call that, but even they don't actually believe that it should apply to them. For example, Roark's clients don't like his work and he can't make money as an architect. This is seen, incomprehensibly, as evidence that they are stupid and he is a genius, instead of being the only real example of the free market winnowing someone out that actually happens. When he blows up his own building this is proof of his ideals instead of an appalling waste of resources; instead of being rightfully excoriated as a trifler and an inefficient wastrel he's a hero. Why? We don't know. There is no sensible reason given. Nothing any of her characters do in The Fountainhead makes any sense, or bears any resemblance to how actual persons behave. If you dare ask why of a Randroid, you will be told that you just don't understand.

They are all like that, her books. They are brick-sized cesspools of badness held together with binding glue. They are wastes of ink, and of the effort required to lift them from the shelf and turn the page. You could spend those calories and that time watching Wife Swap re-runs.

If it were only that. If only...a waste of time is perhaps not a good thing, but it's your own business. You might read Ayn Rand, or watch Fox News, in perfect peace for all of me if you would just exhibit a moderate degree of decency and decorum and keep it to yourself. I myself like to read and chuckle with schadenfreude. It is a perfect waste of time, and not nice of me, but essentially harmless.

Alas, no. Rand devotees are right, they know they are right, and they have to share, with, as noted in the GQ article, a grim impervious defiance of logic rivaled only by Fundamentalists.

And that points to the real, true and basic contradiction of the Randroids. They declare, with that special dollop of Nietzschean contempt, that they are free and the rest of us (of course) are sheep. But if you cannot ever reflect upon an ideology, if you can't evaluate its limits or especially admit when it fails (and the Randian philosophy has spectacularly failed on all levels and by all measures; even its name, Objectivism, embeds a lie), if you not only can't admit that it might be wrong but believe anyone who dares to disagree is actually evil, then you aren't free at all. You are ideology's slave.

And I have a little secret to tell you. You aren't the genius you think you are, either. All of the Randroids I know are kind of mediocre, maybe a little brighter than average but not all that. All the most brilliant people I know, and I know several truly brilliant people, are altruists.

I've heard of some people threatening to "go Galt," that is, to withdraw from participation in society and their imagined contributions to it. To which I say, God I hope so. Go Galt and get the hell out of the way. It's actually possible, I deem, that if all the people who actually produce and do and accomplish things in the world left or quit doing what they do, society would crumble. However, if all of the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, Rand-addled egomaniacs with a firm belief in their own superiority and entitlement left, there would be nothing but a huge sigh of relief.


  1. I determined a while back that the best first-date question is "What do you think of Ayn Rand?" Nice summation of her work.

  2. Nietzsche for morons, basically.

  3. More or less...Rand was a big Nietzsche fan, apparently, but like so many things she didn't really understand him.

  4. Nice overview. As a British expat who's had occasional unpleasant dealings with Randian types, I was at first bemused at how anybody at all could like her stuff. Nowadays I think that Rand novels are to American culture roughly what stately homes are to many conservative Brits: huge, outdated pompous edifices that can look briefly appealing from certain angles, but whose usual effect is to encourage gullible people to fantasise about themselves as holding seats of nobility in a natural aristocracy. In reality of course, the type of social order which both types of edifice serve to propagandize for is one that would put such fantasists in a very different social position, namely as that which is sat upon. On a related tack, you might like this sharp review of two biographical books on Rand by the award winning young British left journalist Johann Hari -

  5. Heh. We have stately homes here in the South, too, and romanticizing of same. Never mind that only a tiny fraction of the population lived that kind of lifestyle, at a huge cost to *other people.*

    Oh, Ayn Rand, we hardly knew ye. Despite pages and pages and pages...If you can't say anything else good about her (and I can't) at least she was able to make her crazy into a career. I have a certain degree of admiration for that.

  6. Well yes, one can respect somebody's ability to shape their fixations into vocations even while recognising the fixations as unhealthy - and given Rand's situation in her final years, living a life like that of the elderly Scrooge but minus the redeeming ghosts, it's hard even to see her own life as much of an advert for her values in the end. It greatly helps career progress if what you're saying is congenial to powerful people, however. As Galbraith put it, "the modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness", and from that perspective, Rand's work has a natural and immediate appeal. One can easily understand why she soon found promoters. In broader terms, I do think that Rand connected to something distinctive in the American psyche, namely the idealisation of the self-creating commercially successful individual. (There's not another nation where she's regarded as anything more than an egocentric self-publicising mediocrity; it's only in the US that she's popularly revered). Hence there's another level to my analogy with English stately homes, for concern for social class has historically permeated English life in a way that's similarly distinctive to the culture, just as the ethos of possessive individualism runs deep and distinctive in America. But there are residues of those English attitudes here in the South too, often also bound up with old houses as you note, and indeed one of the pleasant surprises I have had since moving here has been the extent of Southern Anglophilia.

  7. I was more giving the devil her due :)

    I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page and promptly got someone defending her, starting with "If you've read her..." Yes, yes, I've read her, and I'm profoundly sorry that I can never get those moments of my precious irreplaceable life back. It's like I said, if you don't admire Rand the way they do then OBVIOUSLY you just don't UNDERSTAAAAAND....*sigh*

    *I* think Rand is an egocentric self-publicising mediocrity. But I tend to reside philosophically in a very different strand of American culture, the one where Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, John Muir and a whole bunch of freaks and weirdos hang out.

  8. "For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be". That's Oscar Wilde, of course, but it's also the core difference, to my mind, between the popular but false individualism of Rand and her sort on the American right and the marginalised but genuine individualism of Thoreau, Whitman et al on the American left. I quite see where you're coming from. (In fact, I'm beginning to suspect we may have bumped into each other online before). I see and react to this polarity very strongly myself. My American left-liberal friends and colleagues seem to me to belong to a culture that's the best in the Anglophone world to be part of - tolerant, generous of spirit, broad in inspiration, open-minded yet intellectually vigorous and questioning, individualist and expressive but caring for others too - and I've no intention of ever returning to Britain for more than a holiday as a result. But the other America could scarcely be more different: five minutes of Fox News and I find myself wondering if Pravda was ever more vicious and callously dishonest. Behind the spurious Randian pseudo-individualism, there's actually a monstrous conformity and a loathing of any human difference that doesn't manifest itself in "successful" greed. As the Slate piece and your story illustrate, they even react to criticism with the utter predictability of a metronome...

    I suspect there may well be a deeper paradox there too. An oddity I've noted on both sides of the Atlantic is that political allegiances often seem to contradict the characters of those who hold them. Thus the left, certainly in Britain and also here to a slightly lesser extent, see individuals as importantly defined by relationships, and thus emphasise values such as care, social equality, solidarity in support of the oppressed, and so forth. But look at the behaviour of the Democratic Party, or indeed of the grassroots of the British Labour Party, and you'll find that there's endless internal dispute and splits as individuals just won't bury their own consciences in the collective. The talk is often collectivist, but the conduct is individualist. On the right, it's exactly the opposite. They are nominally supposed to stand for individualism, innovation and achievement through hard work, but they scarcely ever question authority within their party or split amongst themselves. Just look at how utterly predictable the views are, right across the range of issues, that you find coming from the congregations of the religious right, or the callers to talk radio stations - the homogeneity is stunning. No Maoist ever managed to get so many people to think exactly the same things, or to so predictably declaim any who dare to waver from the path of orthodoxy. There's a real set of contradictions there, and I think it says much about whose is the true individualism - that is, the truly felt variety.

  9. I read an essay once where a Rand scholar (I shudder at using the term, but being charitable on the internet is the only way to get listened to) was trying to defend that she had solved the Is-Ought problem. He even had quotes from her work. He only proved that she, and he, did not understand the problem. It was a very clever straw man - setting up a problem only slightly easier to solve than Hume's delicious, infuriating, frightening, conundrum - but it was still not an answer.