Sunday, October 07, 2007

My Problem with Ayn Rand

My blog surfing this weekend has brought me across some gushing commentary on Ayn Rand and her magnus opus, Atlas Shrugged. I read that book some years ago. Although I found the writing itself to be mostly klunky, oppressive, tedious, and lacking subtlety and grace, it did have its moments of inspiration in the realm of ideas, if not in the realm of literary aesthetics. I can appreciate the regenerative and indefatigable individualism that she constantly beats over the reader's head. It's a very Teddy Rooseveltian kind of thing that I have some admiration for. But this individualism, presented in the untempered and unreflective way that she does, has its nasty side, too, which, unfortunately, dominates the narrative. Outside of some of my problems with the substance of her positions, which I'll get to in a moment, Rand tells a story in Atlas Shrugs that lacks joy and contentment. Her heroes, Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and John Galt are basically unhappy and unfulfilled human beings. They are angry and bitter with the world and with their fellow human beings such that they just opt out of the world. The entire story and its characters, including both the heroes and the villains, are devoid of love, empathy, and satisfaction. That's one thing.

The other has to do with the underlying point of the whole story, which is, when you boil it down to its essentials, to make a virtue out of selfishness. Her characters lack a kind of spirituality that nourishes souls. Call it a lack of religious faith, if you will, and the elevation and worshipping of the human will above all else. As a philosopher, Ayn Rand is nothing more than a poor man's Nietzsche. And Atlas Shrugged is a rather plebian version of the majestic Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Now don't get me wrong ... I'm not a great Nietzsche fan either, but one cannot deny the grandeur of his writing. On purely aesthetic and artistic grounds as a writer, Nietzsche puts Rand to shame. But I'm getting sidetracked. Back to the point. The virtue of selfishness characteristic of the "Objectivist" philosophy that Rand promotes in her writings allows no room for the virtue of altruism.

It is no wonder that Ayn Rand is wildly popular among the 16 to 24 year old demographic. Most of this demographic don't really understand unconditional love and the responsibilities, not to mention personal fulfillment, that come with it. Personally, I find it telling that Rand never had children. It would be hard for Rand to explain, much less embrace, her philosophy when faced with the selflessness and lifelong unconditional giving that not only comes with parenting and lasts a lifetime, even after kids are grown and independent, but which also actually provides joy to parents.

There is value in altruistic selflessness. It propels individuals to charity, it solidifies in human beings a sense of justice, and it cultivates a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of fellow human beings. It creates hope and provides a path to personal redemption. A healthy individualism has its place; but it should never replace unconditional love. It is a cold and lonely job that Atlas does, bearing the world on his shoulders like he does; but no one says it has to be that way.


President Friedman said...

Huck, Huck, Huck... you SAY you read Atlas Shrugged a number of years ago but then you go and act as if the entire point of the book flew right over your head.

First, Rand's heroes were the only one's in the book who experienced true joy and contentment. To the extent that they were angry and bitter with the world, it was to the same degree and for the same reasons you would be angry and bitter with a police officer who forced his way into your house and robbed you blind while calling it his duty. Rand did present an overly dramatic polarization in the behavior of her characters, but of course that was the point: to distill and emphasize the differences. The characters in Atlas who displayed the distilled essence of communism were miserable and contemptable beings, so it only makes sense that they would be a source for much misery in the lives of those they were trying to destroy (Dagny, Reardon, Galt, etc...).

The claim that Rand is a poor man's Nietzsche does not ring true. Having been a long time Rand fan, those types of claims led me over the years to the works of Nietzche, and after even just a little bit of study it became clear to me that the differences in their philosophy's far outweigh the similarities (though I'm sure it makes Rand's opponents feel a little better to associate her with somebody linked to Hitler's ideological beliefs).

Rand and Niettzsche both took adversarial positions to the duty laden ethical landscape of Immanuel Kant. They were both hostile towards religion and especially to Christianity. They both owed a heavy intellectual debt to Aristotle. Beyond that, they go in very different directions.

Nietzche's idealized man would be akin to a mortal version of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, or perhaps Napoleon or Hitler. His power is the root of his value and morality.

Rand's idealized man would be much more akin to Benjamin Franklin or Henry Ford (or of course, John Galt). His ability to reason is the root of his value and morality.

For Nietzche, conflict is inevitable, and the most powerful are always the rightful victors. For Rand, conflict is always avoidable (in fact, she argues that between two truly rational beings, conflict is impossible) and logic is the arbiter of justice.

This is just the beginning of differences between Rand and Nietzche... the list is long and it gets ever more distinguished as you delve into their beliefs and values. One very telling aspect is how each would propose you deal with your enemies. Nietzsche would have you laugh with contempt at even your most minor adversary as you grind their very soul beneath your boot heel. Rand would barely have you considering your enemies at all.

Regarding Rand on children, it really is simple. If family life is what makes you happy, Rand would have little problem with you sacrificing yourself to pursue it. She would, however, point out that if you are obtaining long term personal hapiness from the pursuit, then your short term pain isn't really much of a sacrifice. That leads to "altruistic selflessness", and it is here where I tend to disagree with Rand. She thought altruism was evil. I simply think it is a myth. If "hope and personal redemption" are conditional on altruistic giving, then aren't you really making a type of purchase when you "give"? Why do we purchase things? For selfless reasons? I think not.

Also, regarding Rand's writing style... to each his own. I often enjoy a good bit of poetry and flowery lyricism in my literature, but I can also appreciate a good storyteller who can get their point across. Ayn Rand is certainly not Proust, but I disagree that her writing is "klunky, oppressive, tedious, and lacking... grace" (OK, I'll grant you... subtle, she ain't). As far as "dry" writers go, I find Rand to be on par with Hemingway, stylistically.

President Friedman said...

"It is a cold and lonely job that Atlas does, bearing the world on his shoulders like he does; but no one says it has to be that way."

I know it wasn't meant as such, but you do realize you just summed up the entire book?


Huck said...

Hey, President_Friedman! Thanks for leaving the comments. You make some good points. True, I didn't really leave much room for differentiating Nietzsche and Rand; and you do a nice job of clearing that up enough to make your point. My only response can be to admit that there are the kinds of differences you point out; but I think they are more ones of degree as opposed to ones of philosophical essence. They both extol serving the self as the ultimate and only moral good. Maybe Nietzsche's "will to power" is used to justify crushing the dependent and weaker other by any means as a good, whereas Rand would rather that a less direct route to this end be taken. One might go so far as to say that Rand's philosophy is a kind of "tough love" one, but it's hard to see any "love" and lots of "tough" in how her heroes approach the caricatures of the seedy leeches that want to suck them dry.

I disagree that her heroes are the only ones to experience true joy and contentment. It seemed as if dealing with needy people sapped their happiness and that the only path to contentment was to remove themselves from a world that included the needy.

I also disagree with you that altruistic selflessness is a myth. Perhaps because it is because I come out of a strong Christian faith tradition, but I believe in the example of the crucifixion as testament to this. It is irrational and seemingly paradoxical (and that's why it's called faith), but I believe that atruistic selflessness does lead to one's salvation (so there is something always in it for me), but (and here's the kicker) only if one's life is lived selflessly without the expectation of personal reward. I believe it is possible, and personally fulfilling, to do for others without condition or expectation of any return on that investment. I'm not saying that letting oneself be robbed by despicable thieves under the false guise of altruism is something to be accepted. Rand is correct to urge resistance to that abusive tendency in our world. But Rand goes too far when she translates that resistance to an attitude that looks down on charity or sees in charity only selfishness at work.

As to her writing style, how can you put her anywhere near to Hemingway!?!? You can't seriously believe that Rand is a good, direct, and to-the-point storyteller. My God, that John Galt soliloquy at the end of the book was interminable and, perhaps, the single most painful reading experience with a work of fiction I've ever had. I almost didn't finish the book because of that offense to literary aesthetics! It took me a Nietzschean/Randian effort of pure and raw willpower to muscle through that abomination of a chapter.

As for my comment on the cold and lonely job of Atlas, yes, I can see how that would encapsulate the point of the book at one level. Rand would look at Atlas and ask him: "What, except your naive pride, keeps you there? Just walk away." In other words, she'd have Atlas give up on the world and walk away from it with nary a second thought. But, then, where does that leave the world?

What I had in mind was that Atlas not give up on the World, thinking he had to go it alone; but that he swallow a bit of his pride (or his silly pig-headedness) and trust that there are others around who would gladly share the burden with him for nothing more than to keep him company.

President Friedman said...

"My God, that John Galt soliloquy at the end of the book was interminable and, perhaps, the single most painful reading experience with a work of fiction I've ever had."

Ever read any Proust? I brought up Proust's name earlier specifically because I've been trying to sink my teeth into the first book of "In Search Of Lost Time". Talk about interminable... at least Galt's speech had a point! I'm thinking it will take me at least another year of reading to get an inkling of what Proust is trying to get at.

Yet Proust is universally regarded as a literary demigod, and Rand is snubbed as a no-talent hack by every liberal critic who has an axe to grind with her philosophy. Rand carefully unfolded incredibly complex plot lines in her novels, even in her short stories like Anthem, and yet her stories never for a minute loose sight of their philosophical themes. She was a master of symbolism... from cigarettes, to bracelets, to trains, to old dead trees, nearly every inanimate object in her stories is a metaphor for some larger concept. Yes, her style can be dry and her characters often wooden-or more correctly, they are purposefully one dimensional-but if she was such a horrible writer why on earth would so many people expend the effort to get through her voluminous books?

Yes, in all seriousness I would compare her to Hemingway, in STYLE (not in theme or gravitas). I realize that is not a popular opinion, but then again Hemingway's work hasn't had to endure five decades of liberal literature professors who felt philosophically and perhaps even existentially threatened by Hemingway's ideas.

Huck said...

President_Friedman - I'm with you on Proust. In all honesty, I've never been able to work through Proust's writings. People rave about it, but I've always figured that it must be much better in the original French than in translation. Not that I understand it or even agree with it, but what it seems most Proust fans like about his writing is what might be described as its pointless lyricism and beauty. Personally, I prefer my stories to have some meaning beyond simply a kind of rambling stream-of-consciousness diary of sorts that sounds mellifluous.

I do, though, have to disagree with you still even on the claim that Rand's STYLE is Hemingway-esque; and it has nothing to do with either the politics or the ideology encapsulated in their stories. I think you confuse what I'll call Rand's style of didactic sermonizing, which she presents rather directly without nuance or subtlety, with Hemingway's brusque and direct spareness. But they are two very distinct things. I would explain the difference this way: In the Galt lecture, Rand takes pages and pages and pages and pages (and more pages) to pound home basically a single point that Hemingway would have dispatched in a couple of paragraphs.

As to your question about why people expend the effort to get through her books, as painful as it is to do so, my answer would basically be that it is for the same reason that people plow through Proust or Joyce: For better or for worse, Rand's work has significantly influenced modern thought, especially in America, and any cultured intellectual in this country worthy of being called such simply has to be familiar with it.

President Friedman said...

One more point and then I'm off to bed. You said:

"Rand would look at Atlas and ask him: "What, except your naive pride, keeps you there? Just walk away." In other words, she'd have Atlas give up on the world and walk away from it with nary a second thought. But, then, where does that leave the world?"

I think you miss the point Rand was making with Atlas Shrugged. The book was not, in fact, designed to urge the metaphorical Atlases of the world to lay down their burdens and walk away. Yes, that was the story she told, but it wasn't an alter call. It was a cautionary tale. It was designed to illuminate the importance of our proverbial Atlas to the people who benefit from his labor, who often don't consider him at all other than to complain that he hasn't done enough for them today and declare that if he had any heart he would carry more weight.

You say Atlas should trust that there are others who would share his burden, but where is the proof of this? Even in the unlikely event that they were willing, would they be able to shoulder such burdens? Atlas carries so much weight in part becaue he is strong. Much of Rand's argument centered around that fact that we should allow Atlas to labor unencumbered as much as possible, because his very labor is his gift to humanity, and that should be enough. The platitudes, outlays, and impositions we demand from him in addition to his laobr (demands, I might add, that are often backed with a threat of violence) are dishonorable and unjust.

President Friedman said...

And I will grant you that the John Galt speech (and it's cousin, the Howard Roark courtroom speech from The Fountainhead) was a bit of overblown mental masturbation on Rand's part. It was sort of a self contained book within the book, and is famously talked about outside the scope of the greater story. But to define Ayn Rand's entire portfolio by those 40 or 50 pages is dishonest. She was a much better writer than what you'd see if you just read the John Galt speech, and it has always bothered me that academic types go out of their way to run down her writing abilities. I am an avid reader, and Rand is one of the most accessible philosophic writers I've ever read (Orwell beats her, but only because he wrote short novels) and it is precisely her talent with the written word that makes her so.

PS Kudos to you for not laying down at the alter of Proust. I have been at it for awhile, and am beginning to wonder if it is just something I'm not ever going to grok. If I invest much more time in it without getting some sort of insight into what the big deal is, I may go slightly insane.

PPS I should probably have noted when I compared Hemingway's style to Rand's that I am not the world's biggest Hemingway fan. I don't hate him, but neither am I overly impressed. That was probably meant more as a knock against Hemingway than a prop up for Rand. I'm not saying she is the cream of the crop, just that she has a wealth of talent.

PPPS Good night. For real.

Huck said...

President_Friedman - All fair points. Just a couple of responses. I didn't come away from Atlas Shrugged thinking of it as a cautionary tale, but as a threat. I'm no fan of the villains in that story, either, who really were ignoble creatures that Rand caricatured. But the world is not just the small sliver of such Atlases and Mephistopheleses. The vast majority of the world's inihabitants, whether because of structural constraints or because of the real limitations of our abilities, need stronger people. And it's not that such people themselves are leeches. In fact, most tap their abilities to the limit and survive without the expectations of handouts or charity, they just don't have the wherewithal to be rocket scientists who can build miraculous motors and more efficient railroads. In spite of this, Rand has her heroes put conditions on access to their strength. This alone reduces and demeans what is supposedly the essence of their greatness and makes them nothing better than petty opportunists who have the ability and power to exploit the weakness of the lesser among them and to use their suffering as a kind of extortion.

Regarding your point about letting Atlas labor unencumbered is one thing and I agree with it; but that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm suggesting that, as a matter of faith, there are people willing to help Atlas bear his burden. And it is foolish stubbornness for Atlas to presume that the assistance of others who may not have as much strength to bear the world on their shoulders alone is an encumbrance more than an assistance. It is a sign of strength to accept help when offered. And though such help may not ease the burden all that much, it is still an easing of the burden nonetheless. The message that a hubristic Atlas conveys by demanding to be left alone is one that discourages the less powerful by highlighting their relative inadequacies. In this scenario, Atlas thinks too much of himself and doesn't trust the intentions or the abilities of others.

Back to the literature discussion, it's probably best to let particular tastes and preferences define the value of a work of fiction for a reader. In that sense, I am a good liberal! But, I'm not a pure literary relativist, though. I do believe there are objective standards to determine good literature. I happen to think Rand falls short on this spectrum, even for a philosophic writer. In terms of philosophic novelists, I'd pick Tolstoy or Dostoevsky over Rand every time. For me, in Rand's writings, it seems as if the philosophy gets too much in the way of the storytelling. One of your complaints is that the Galt or the Roark lectures (that's what I like to call them, because they are really didactic in nature) shouldn't be used to define Rand's writing. But the simple fact is that these lectures do define the works, even by her most ardent advocates. Without them, what kinds of novels do you have?

By the way, President_Friedman, I have very much enjoyed this exchange. It has been a highlight for me over the past 24 hours! Thanks.

Don_cos said...

What we perceive in Rand's writing has more to do with our own paradigms then with Rand’s true intent. We cannot bring out her views without corrupting them with our own biases. What one sees as selfishness another sees as self sufficiency and responsibility.

This is the same as the liberal who wants to help the poor by giving them money and the Conservative who wants to give them job training and a limited amount of time to get on their feet. Each wants to improve the world, but they differ on the how.

Everett said...

Both Huck and President Friedman ignore the key element of Randian(implicitly) and Nietzchean (explicitly) philosophy found in the notion of the superman. They both allow for the largely self-selected superior person, who can act with perfect understanding of any situation and works to the perpetuation of the power of themselves and those who are like them. That is where the chasm yawns. Such abilities are where they are found. We have, at least so far, found no way to identify the source of or any way to breed to such capability. And, intelligence and capability are multivariate things for which we have no clear formula nor even agreement as to what we seek. Not to belabor a point, but I do not believe that we seek more Hitlers by any formula. Of all the "great" people of whom I am aware, all had or have significant flaws, and most, truly monstrous flaws. We celebrate their accomplishments and often live with the enduring results of their flaws.

What I do see on a regular basis, in the image of Rand's protagonists, is an inordinate pride in things not necessarily of one's own doing. Most people, in their heart of hearts and unless they are truly psychotic, realize their own limitations, even when they are unable to publicly admit them. In more than a scientific sense do we need to echo Bernard of Chartres' little ditty about giants and dwarves(made famous by Newton) and how that speaks to what we owe to those who go before and sometimes with us. No person grows or stays rich without a society able to provide them with those riches and/or the means to retain them. No idea becomes broadly accepted and used without the understanding and agreement of others. In more than a religious sense are we drawn to the words of John Donne:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Altruism is not some spiritual asceticism, but a necessity to the formation of effective and enduring societies. Research is more and more clearly showing that altruism is a heritable characteristic. In the instrumentality of global warming, we are about to run a very large laboratory experiment on the sufficiency of the altruism we have to preserve the society in which we all exist.

No false meritocracy will preserve us in the face of widespread disaster from global warming or other source, natural or human made. We will probably need to take the talents that are available where we find them and use them to their utmost to survive what comes. We certainly see some of the lines of division forming up in the prelude, regardless of what comes or if it comes. Most seem unwilling to sacrifice any small part of present prosperity, however fragile, even when those sacrifices clearly lead to positive outcomes in several dimensions. To survive, we may need the good will of at least a large majority within most nations, and at this point in time, that seems greatly unlikely. In the midst of wide scale disaster, any group that holds themselves aloof will be greatly vulnerable to the "mob", and rightly so. Their self-perceived great value to society may not hold much meaning in such situations.