Monday, January 31, 2005

Ayn Rand Centenary: February 2, 1905-2005

This Wednesday marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand.

Rand -- whose birth name was Alice Rosenbaum -- arrived in this world on the eve of the first Russian Revolution, lived as a teenager through World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the civil war that followed, and escaped from Communist Russia at the age of 21, coming to the United States, where she learned English and became, in short order, a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, and essayist. She created a philosophy called Objectivism and her writings are a tour d'horizon of epistemology, aesthetics, metaphysics, economics, and politics.

One hears over and over that a 1991 survey -- sometimes attributed to the Book-of-the-Month Club, sometimes to the Library of Congress -- ranked Rand's 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, as the second-most influential book among American readers, after the Bible. (Does anyone have verification of who actually sponsored the survey? Could it have been both the Library and the Club?)

Needless to say, we are seeing a flurry of activity to celebrate Ayn Rand's birthday. The Objectivist Center is hosting a half-day conference at the Library of Congress on the actual anniversary, Wednesday, February 2, with a number of distinguished speakers, including two Members of Congress -- Edward Royce of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Other speakers include Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, Ed Crane of the Cato Institute, and Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Information about the event can be found at the Objectivist Center's web site.

A number of pundits and cultural critics are also beginning to weigh in on Rand's legacy in the popular press. In the past few days, articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and New York Sun, among other papers, and we can expect to see more as the week progresses.

What is particularly praiseworthy about these articles is that, although the writers invariably admire Rand either for her ideas or for her persistence, they are not shy about criticizing the artistic quality of her work. The fact is, Rand's novels are as popular (and as provocative and controversial) as they are not for their style, but for the substance of their ideas.

Here for instance, is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, Julia Keller, writing in the newspaper's Sunday edition:

Rand's fiction has been critically scorned in some quarters, her philosophy reviled, but her influence is undeniable.

Did somebody say "influence"? Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, counts himself among her devoted flock. Rand's books, vastly popular in her lifetime, continue to sell at a nifty clip: More than 5.5 million copies of "Atlas Shrugged" have been snapped up since its initial publication, and in the last few years, sales have averaged about 150,000 copies annually, reports Richard E. Ralston, publishing manager for the Ayn Rand Institute. "The Fountainhead" has sold more than 6 million copies, with annual sales currently topping 130,000, he adds.

Wooden characters

Clearly, then, Rand knew what she was doing when she created dreadfully wooden characters to represent her philosophical and economic ideas, when she put long, impossibly windy speeches in the mouths of those characters. Because for all that, for all the technical flaws that even moderately attentive readers could red-pencil in their sleep, for all the narrative rules Rand breaks -- the novel just won't leave you alone. Of how many books can that be said?

Read at the right moment in one's life -- usually in late adolescence, when the world seems like a tangled mess of hypocrisy and confusion, and you hate your parents and especially that stupid assistant principal who is seriously on your case -- "Atlas Shrugged" is a tonic, a dream, a throat-scalding draft of pure, radiant clarity. You feel as if you've been walking upside down for most of your life, seeing things the wrong way, and now -- now – suddenly you're right-side up again and everything starts to make sense. Turns out it was the world that was upside down, not you.

But here's the funny thing: Re-reading Rand as an adult in 2005 is not what you thought it would be. It's not a "Oh, wow, what a chump I was!" feeling.

In fact, the ideas from "Atlas Shrugged" you thought you had outgrown don't seem all that outlandish, after all. The themes you abandoned as hopelessly naive and almost comically operatic -- all those fist-shaking tirades about human destiny, all those "Greed is good!" screeds that predate Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" by three decades -- somehow start making a bit of sense again, in a world upended by religious fanaticism and a nation crippled by soaring government deficits.

Flaws and all, "Atlas Shrugged" still is a powerful novel, a sweeping epic that either pulls you into its sphere or scares the bejesus out of you, or maybe both.

In a review of a new biography of Ayn Rand in the New York Sun, Andrew Stuttaford of National Review Online writes:

Rand herself, alas, was no beauty; her glorious heroines, ridiculously gorgeous, impossibly named, remarkably lithe, are less the template for -- as some allege - a sinister eugenic agenda than the stuff of Ayn's randy dreams garnished with a dollop of Art Deco kitsch. The first, extraordinarily violent, coupling in "The Fountainhead" of Howard Roark with Dominique Francon is not a general prescription for the relationship between the sexes but merely Rand's own erotic fantasy ("wishful thinking," she once announced, to the cheers of a delighted crowd).

Likewise, her sometimes-overwrought style is no more than - well, judge this sentence from "Atlas Shrugged" for yourself: "She looked at the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building rising in the distance - and then she thought she understood: these people hated Jim because they envied him." Call Dr. Freud.

If sex in Rand's fiction can be savage, so is argument. Her sagas deal in moral absolutes, her protagonists are the whitest of knights or the blackest of villains, caricatures of good or evil lacking the shadings of gray that make literature, and life, so interesting. Yet "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," at least, have a wild, lunatic verve that sweeps all before them. Like Busby Berkeley, the Chrysler Building, or a Caddy with fins, they are aesthetic disasters, very American aesthetic disasters, which somehow emerge as something rather grand.

There is plenty in Rand to make a modern reader queasy, though you would not know so from Mr. Britting's worshipful text. For example, there is something to the claim that like so many of the intellectuals, left or right, of her time she succumbed to the cruder forms of social Darwinism. For a woman who worshiped man, Rand did not always seem that fond of mankind.

But the accusation by Whittaker Chambers in National Review that there was a whiff of the gas chamber about her writings is wrong. Rand lived in an era of stark ideological choices; to argue in muted, reasonable tones was to lose the debate. As a graduate of Lenin's Russia, she knew that the stakes were high, and how effective good propaganda could be.

Rand's nonfiction may have a greater claim to intellectual respectability, but it was the lurid, occasionally harsh, simplicities of her novels that would deliver her message to the mass audience she believed was out there. She was right. Her key insight was to realize that there was an appetite among Americans for a moral case for capitalism. In a restless age that believed in the Big Answer, neither historical tradition nor utilitarian notions of efficiency would suffice. Ayn Rand gave Americans that case, perhaps not the best case, but a case, and she knew how to sell it.

The establishment always disapproved. Critics sneered. Academics jeered. The publishers Macmillan turned down "Anthem" (1938), saying that Rand, a refugee from the Soviet Union, "did not understand socialism." Oh, but she did, and so did those millions of Americans who bought her books, books that played their part in ensuring that the dull orthodoxies of collectivism never prevailed here.

Imagine the audacity of telling a refugee from the Soviet Union that she does "not understand socialism"! Of course, this was more than a decade before The God That Failed and Witness. (Not that those books had much effect on the Left's squishy views of Stalin, Mao, and Fidel.)

The executive director of the Objectivist Center, Ed Hudgins, explained the central facets of Ayn Rand's philosophy in the Boston Globe last weekend:

Rand's plots taught economic lessons better than do most college textbooks, showing exactly how one government regulation after another can punish productive individuals and destroy a country. Even more important, in her novels and her nonfiction works she developed a philosophy -- Objectivism – that provided a moral defense of free markets.

Rand began with the observation that since the ultimate alternative for human beings is life or death, the ultimate moral goal for each individual is survival. That might not seem so radical, but Rand went on to observe that because we are humans, the goal is not just physical survival; it is a happy, joyous, and flourishing life. Further, the means by which we discover how to achieve this goal is our unique rational capacity, not instincts, feelings or faith. Thinking allows us to produce food, clothing, shelter, medicine, printing presses, computers, rockets, and theories to explain everything from atoms to galaxies.

Rand developed an ethos of rational self-interest, but this ''virtue of selfishness" was not an antisocial creed for predators. Instead, it led Rand to her great insight that there is no conflict of interest between honest, rational individuals.

Since individuals are ends in themselves, no one in society should initiate the use of force or fraud against others. All relationships should be based on mutual consent. This became the credo of the modern libertarian movement, found today in think tanks, publications, and public policy proposals.

True individualists would not debase themselves by living the life of a thief, whether robbing a store with a gun or their fellow citizens with a government mandate or wealth-redistribution scheme. Rather, they would take pride in taking responsibility for their own lives, actions and moral character. Rand wrote, ''As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul."

Thus an ethos of rational self-interest justifies and supports individual liberty; a free market -- not a communist, socialist, fascist, or welfare-state system -- is the only one that protects the rights of each individual. Entrepreneurs, workers, professionals, and all others need not justify their quest for the highest wages or profits or to seek permission from ''society" or their neighbors; they are free to live their lives as they please as long as they respect the similar freedom of others.

The result of such self-interest is a peaceful, prosperous society of achievers. Such a society would be a joy to live. Not only would we each benefit materially from the goods and services we purchase from others, we would obtain spiritual fuel from their inspiring examples. As one of Rand's characters states, "Don't work for my happiness, my brothers -- show me yours . . . show me your achievement -- and the knowledge will give me courage for mind."

Meanwhile, syndicated columnist Steve Chapman asks, "Has Ayn Rand gone mainstream?" His partial answer begins:

The radical champion of individualism and capitalism, who died in 1982, is no longer an exotic taste. Her image has adorned a U.S. postage stamp. Her ideas have been detected in a new mass-market animated comedy film, "The Incredibles." And Wednesday, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there will be a Rand commemoration at the Library of Congress--an odd site for a ceremony honoring a fierce anti-statist.

In her day, Rand was at odds with almost every prevailing attitude in American society. She infuriated liberals by preaching economic laissez-faire and lionizing titans of business. She appalled conservatives by rejecting religion in any form while celebrating, in her words, "sexual enjoyment as an end in itself."

But her novels found countless readers. "The Fountainhead," published in 1943, and "Atlas Shrugged," which followed in 1957, are still in print. In 1991, when the Book-of-the-Month Club polled Americans asking what book had most influenced their lives, "Atlas Shrugged" finished second only to the Bible. In all, Rand's books have sold about 22 million copies and continue to sell at the rate of more than half a million a year.

Rand emerged in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II--which were taken as proof that the free market was obsolete, that prosperity required an all-intrusive government, and that national success demanded the subordination of the individual to collective purposes. After the traumas of the 1930s and '40s, America was intent on building a well-ordered welfare state based on compromise and consensus.

In that setting, Rand resembled the female athlete in Apple Computer's 1984 Super Bowl commercial, who sprinted into a mass assembly of oppressed drones to hurl a sledgehammer at the Big Brother orating from a giant TV screen--smashing it and bathing the audience in a dazzling light.

* * *

Looking back, it's hard to recapture how jarring that phrase was a generation ago, when altruism and self-sacrifice were seen as the central elements of an exemplary life. Today, Americans take it for granted that they are entitled to live for their own happiness, without apology.

It may seem curious to honor a writer who merely defended free markets, preached the superiority of reason over blind faith and extolled the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness. David Kelley, head of the Rand-oriented Objectivist Center, jokes that he's reminded of the theatergoer who complained that "Hamlet' was full of cliches. Rand's beliefs have been so widely disseminated and absorbed that we have forgotten where they originated.

The truth is that for all she did, they are no longer her ideas. To a large extent, they are ours.

There is a book called It Usually Starts with Ayn Rand, which tries to explain how young people, in particular, come to accept and act on libertarian philosophy. In my own case, I was already a diehard libertarian before I read any of Rand's novels. I began with We the Living (cheating a bit, I saw the movie first), then moved on to The Fountainhead and Anthem, and ended -- after considerable effort -- with Atlas Shrugged. During this time I was delighted to discover that a play I had worked on in college, The Night of January 16th, had also been written by Ayn Rand. Back then, I was unaware of Rand's reputation as a philosopher and had no idea that the play were were doing was anything more than a run-of-the-mill courtroom drama with the twist of letting the audience act as the jury. The things one learns when one grows older.

1 comment:

Tim said...

If more people read Emerson, Rand wouldn't even merit as a second glance.