Monday, February 07, 2005


This year marking the centenary of her birth, and her novels being among the first "important" books I ever read, I have to say something about Ayn Rand. I just don't know what.

From an introduction to Objectivism:

One of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed" or "Wishing won't make it so." 2. "You can't eat your cake and have it, too." 3. "Man is an end in himself." 4. "Give me liberty or give me death."

Sounds reasonable enough when you put it like that.

The problem?
Perhaps Rand’s biggest error was the totalism of her philosophy. Having rightly concluded that the values of the free market were moral, she went on to make the sweeping assertion that those values were the only moral ones, and that all human relations must be based on the principles of "trade." Yet there is nothing unreasonable and nothing anti-market or anti-individualist to the belief that individualistic and market-based values need something to complement them.

It's much clearer to me now as an adult, a woman, a mother. The romance has worn off.
In her 1964 Playboy interview Rand flatly declared that it was "immoral" to place family ties and friendship above productive work; in her fiction, family life is depicted as a stifling, soul-killing, mainly feminine swamp.

It’s noteworthy that in The Fountainhead, the heroes—Roark, newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, and Roark’s troubled lover, Dominique Francon—have all grown up motherless, while the arch-villain, critic Ellsworth Toohey, spent his childhood as his mother’s pet and the worthless Peter Keating, who relies on Roark to do his architecture work, has a grotesque caricature of a "selfless," smothering, tyrannical mother. The only Randian heroic couple to actually reproduce is the hero of Anthem and his girlfriend, who is pregnant at the end of the dystopian science fiction novelette; but they have the excuse of needing to breed a new race of free men, since the world around them has regressed to post-apocalyptic primitivism and slavery.

In its pure form, Rand’s philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that so many people become infatuated with Objectivism as teenagers and "grow out of it" later, when concerns of family, children, and old age—their own and their families’—make that fantasy seem more and more impossible.

Was Rand a 20th-century woman? The New York Times:
But these novels and the art described in them are actually far from revolutionary. They draw on the Romantic myth of the misunderstood artist and derive more properly from the mid-19th century than from the mid-20th.

Nora Ephron on The Fountainhead, The New York Times Book Review (1968):
Like most of my contemporaries, I first read The Fountainhead when I was 18 years old. I loved it. I too missed the point. I thought it was a book about a strong-willed architect...and his love life….I deliberately skipped over all the passages about egoism and altruism. And I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect. I am certain that The Fountainhead did a great deal more for architects than Architectural Forum ever dreamed.

Yes. I read The Fountainhead when I was 16, and I very much missed the point. I enjoyed Rand's novels for their plots and their characters. But I didn't get Objectivism out of my reading; in fact, my interpretations were pretty much opposite of what was intended. Is that more evidence of the paradox that was Ayn Rand, or just the sort of happy accident that befalls a teenage girl aspiring to big cities and Matters of Consequence and love? What was his name — that guy in high school who first rhapsodized about Rand to me? That fine young capitalist — what has become of him?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eek. I got as far as the rape in The Fountainhead, put the book down, and never touched any Rand again. My high-school philosoper/sexy writer was Kundera, specifically The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And similarly, I only THOUGHT I understood it then.