Atlas Shrugged, Ad Nauseam

Ayn Rand and I have history. My junior year of high school, I entered an essay-writing contest conducted by the Ayn Rand Institute, putting together one-thousand-or-so words in response to a prompt about Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. I placed third (I think) and won a cool fifty dollars–until very recently, the most money I had ever received as a result of something I wrote.

By the time I finished writing my essay, I was more or less convinced that Rand’s worldview lacked nuance and compassion. (Rand herself might’ve agreed with the latter accusation, and she notably championed self-interest above most other qualities. Better novelists than Rand have produced works about society and the individual’s place in it without choosing one over the other, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The essay did not reflect my conclusions. In fact, it read as you’d imagine an essay enjoyed by the Ayn Rand Foundation would—not, like, sycophantic, but reasonably generous toward Rand’s philosophy. I submitted it anyway.

If this all sounds sort of mercenary, bear in mind that before the eleventh grade, I had no idea what objectivism was. I at least approached the contest with an open mind. I took time with Ayn Rand, the however long it takes to read 752 pages of The Fountainhead, the 114 minutes it takes to watch the Gary Cooper film adaptation, and some hours more to digest both. So I won’t say I have a knee-jerk reaction when I see Rand’s work mentioned in the press—basically that is how I react, hastily and emotionally, with an opinion at the ready. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction in the way that the literal jerking of one’s knee is a knee-jerk reaction—a response from deep in one’s programming which presumably happens because at one point it was important on the level of basic human survival that one’s knee jerked that way.

Rand’s books, one-man-against-the-world pseudo allegories, will have an audience as long as people anywhere feel that they’ve been taxed too much or too often, or seek to use the virtues of individualism as justification for acting like assholes. But the regularity with which politicians, activists and journalists continue to mention Rand’s work still surprises me. Take this TPM article from Tuesday, about a debate between candidates for one of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seats:

[The] debate ended up including a discussion on the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand, about a world where business owners and innovators rebel against and abandon a society that over-regulated them and redistributed their earnings. [Republican candidate Ron] Johnson, who is himself a plastics manufacturer, has cited it as a favorite book of his.

Decades after the last of Rand’s work was published, people—important-type people!–continue to follow a leader who failed even to follow her own example.

I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, and probably never will, and admittedly this prevents me from offering any sort of holistic critique of Rand’s work. But the flaws that run through The Fountainhead present a pretty damning assessment of the let’s-worship-at-the-altar-of-individual-achievement bit. The Fountainhead tells the story of master architect Howard Roark, who struggles against repeated attempts by critics and bureaucrats to sabotage his uncompromising vision. Roark’s buildings are described as more or less the greatest shit ever built by anybody ever, model weddings of form and function, distinct from any earlier school or style. The irony being that the book itself is a ham-fisted, profoundly lazy piece of writing.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

After trying for several hundred pages to convey her worldview through Roark’s actions (which include an act of sexual aggression that would be considered rape if performed by anyone other than Howard Roark and the demolition of an aesthetically-compromised group of housing projects), Rand goes for broke and devotes several thousand words to a speech Roark delivers to a courtroom’s captive audience—in which he spells out everything readers may have failed to intuit about his (/Rand’s) personal philosophy. It’s a weird, self-defeating move that speaks to, if not a lack of confidence, at least a lack of imagination.

Rand chose literature as the primary venue for articulating her beliefs while being seemingly oblivious to its advantages. She’s a writer for whom a fictional world is fully realized once it can provide adequate context for its characters’ endless speechifying—and that’s about it. Rand’s work is dangerous (hence the knee-jerking) inasmuch as hypocrisy and laziness are dangerous, and whatever her intentions were, books like The Fountainhead advocate these qualities as much as any others.

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3 Comments on “Atlas Shrugged, Ad Nauseam”

  1. Erinrose Says:

    Liked this bit a lot, Greg.


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