Friday, April 08, 2011

The Acolyte Maker

A co-worker of mine is currently slogging through Atlas Shrugged and hating life. I think she lost a bet. No, she promised a family member she would read it. In any case, she feels obligated to finish it now. She’s constantly telling us she’s nearly a third or half or two-thirds of the way through it, and we keep reminding her that each of those milestones only means she still has thousands of pages to go.

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 18, I would estimate. I’m not entirely sure. It was after I read The Fountainhead, which was definitely in high school, and I don’t think I read it in college, so 18 sounds right. Around that time, I also read Anthem, a very short novel by Rand, and a decent amount of her philosophical writing (though the novels are really just cudgels for her philosophy anyway). There were several reasons for this: I was a debate nerd, and was reading a bunch of philosophy of different sorts; my dad had read and liked The Fountainhead at some point in his life; one of my best friends in high school was a fairly avid Randian; and maybe most important of all, I was a highly opinionated teenage male who thought, among other things, that religion was patently absurd.

The Fountainhead is fun for stretches. Rand’s insane character names and soapy melodrama would be guilty-pleasure page-turners of a certain stripe if it weren’t for the frequent insertion of multiple-page screeds that say in 10,000 leaden words what could be comfortably conveyed in seven. The Fountainhead has fewer of those screeds than Atlas Shrugged does. (The famous climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged runs to more than 70 pages, though it feels like hundreds, and I can only guess that I made it through it because I was young and had a natural stamina I now lack.)

I was never a Rand acolyte, so it’s not even accurate to say I disavowed her. But like many people, I grew up and realized that her philosophy was, in a nutshell, insane. This is not to say it entirely lacks truth. In fact, it might be fair to say it features too much of one truth. Or to say that its every inch is composed of just one part of truth, leaving no room for any of its other components.

I was motivated to write about this because Salon recently ran an essay by a woman named Alyssa Bereznak, who writes about how her father follows Rand’s dictates to the exclusion of all others. You realize reading the piece that her father is likely a pretty bad person to start with, and that Objectivism didn’t make him that way — like most religions or hyper-strict political philosophies, Rand’s lends itself to chicken-egg arguments: Was the person this way before, or did the belief make them that way?

Bereznak writes:
I don't know exactly why he sparked to Rand. He claimed the philosophy appealed to him because it's based solely on logic. It also conveniently quenched his lawyer's thirst to always be right. It's not uncommon for people to seek out belief systems, whether political or spiritual, that make them feel good about how they already live their lives. Ultimately, I suspect Dad was drawn to Objectivism because, unlike so many altruistic faiths, it made him feel good about being selfish.
Rand had her own reasons for believing what she did. She spent her childhood in Russia, and when she was still a young girl, she saw her father’s business, a pharmacy, taken away from him by the Red Army. In many ways, Rand’s work is a cartoonish morality play about the starkest form of individualism vs. collectivism, and her biography makes that perfectly understandable. It’s also true that individualism is a damn fine -ism, trumpeted by many of the great thinkers throughout history. But Rand made it a hard virtue to defend, draining it of any and all relationship to other people.

In a way, the silent assumption behind Rand's philosophy is that we are always in the position of watching a conquering army take away an innocent individual's livelihood; that this is the core relationship of men. But it's incredibly easy, philosophically, to side with the individual in that scenario. What about every other scenario? The vast majority of humanity (all of it, by any reasonable standard) depends to varying extents on other people. Rand had no use for that fact.

Even genius of the type that floats at the center of Rand's work, to think of it, operates within systems, and those systems can just as easily encourage, nurture, and reward that genius as they can discourage, fear, or extinguish it, as is always the case in Rand’s work.

Rand does for the individual what utopians do for the group — she turns it into something so pure that it’s completely unrealistic, winning a following of zealots but losing anyone who thinks the world is an even slightly complicated place.


Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

You said, "But like many people, I grew up and realized that [Rand's] philosophy was, in a nutshell, insane."

In the thick bubble-headed -- nothing factual, reasonable, nuanced, complicated gets past in --mentality of way too many Americans, Rand's writing means nothing to them anything except what they are fed of it by Sarah Palin & her toxic ilk who embody mean and selfish, all part of the cult of Rand-ists, the disaffected powerless -- like, as you point out, Ayn & her daddy. Wah-Wah!

The Tea-Party is running the country from their bouncy-castle in Washington.

9:31 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

Fantastically good post. The insight about how the individuals in Rand's books can only flourish within systems which are collectivities seems particularly smart.

Like many another callow, intellectually arrogant high school student, I also had a fling with objectivism. I never made it though Atlas Shrugged, but I loved the Fountainhead. And then, I hit my twenties. And I saw it for what it was.

Why on earth would anyone our age read Atlas Shrugged? The mind reels....

1:13 PM  
Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

How long does it take for our Comments to be approved? We've all got three blogs to check out!
Hut-Hut! What else ya got ta do?

3:37 PM  

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