Ayn Rand and Me

4 January 2010
art by Morton Meskin

I believe that my first encounter with the works of Ayn Rand was in seeing as a child some of The Fountainhead (1949) on television. All that I really remember seeing of it then were the final two scenes, which may indeed be all that I saw. I would have been unable to tell anyone very much about the movie (I didn't even know its name), and unaware of there being a book whose ideas were behind it.

Later, I read some distinctive stories by Steve Ditko in Charlton Comics. I was not a fan of Ditko's graphic work (which combines spareness of detail with an a propensity to put figures in ape-like positions and to present an abundance of wildly exaggerated facial expression), but the stories were written from an unflinching, and seemingly grim yet ultimately optimistic belief in straight-forward good and beauty. I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone whose prior work had informed his.

My next encounter was as a teenager, in a Midwestern drug store. Some of Rand's books were in a rack there; on the backs of the volumes were remarkable claims about Rand's popularity and about her significance to many people. I was skeptical, as I'd not otherwise heard of her. In any event, I didn't buy any of the books, but a mental note was made.

When I became more politically active over the next few years, I began to encounter frequent reference to Rand from people with whom I had some ideological allegiance. So I decided to read one of her books.

I tend to read authors' works in the order in which they were written, and the earliest of Rand's works that I found when I looked at a book-store was The Fountainhead (1943); and I had begun to think that I'd seen part of a movie based upon it; so that was the book that I first read. It was rather a while before I read any more.

Reading The Fountainhead was not the transformative experience for me that it has been for some people. There weren't any notions in it that were new to me (albeït perhaps in part due to my prior exposure to Ditko), and Rand seemed to confuse egoism with egotism. In a preface, she blamed a use of egotism for egoism on a poor dictionary (English was not her first language), but it seemed and seems that the confusion at the time that she wrote that novel was not merely one of words but of ideas.

I think that Rand suffered from mind-blindness of a sort, such that she could not use ordinary intuïtions as most people do to understand other people. That is not to say that she could not use some other means; and being compelled to use other means sometimes even caused her to have insights that other people would miss. But it was a struggle, her understanding could be imperfect, and it left her treating empathy as if it were an unfair demand. (It surely didn't help that she'd been forced to live under a regime that willfully confused coërcive redistribution with brotherhood in order to license a considerable amount of repression and brutality.)

One sees this lack and rejection of empathy somewhat reflected through-out her writing. Its expression diminished over time, but at its worst it embraced sociopathy. In some of her journal notes of 1928, a young Ayn Rand seriously planned to have a hero modelled on William Edward Hickman, who in late 1927 had kidnapped a 12-year-old girl, and then delivered her grotesquely mutilated corpse when her father paid for her return. Hickman, as Rand saw him, had acted without concern for others, with the supposed motto What is good for me is right. In The Night of January 16th (1934), the protagonist is a woman whose heroic love is for a man whom she knows to be a conscienceless swindler (inspired by Ivar Kreuger). In We the Living (1936), the heroine at one point thrills in response to a depiction of a man whipping serfs, and her truest love, Leo, lives only for himself. In The Fountainhead, that has largely been left behind, but it has a very ugly echo.[1]

In The Fountainhead, the hero rapes the heroine. I put rapes in quotation marks because, even though it is called as much in the book, it (as Susan Brownmiller noted in an moment of lucidity) isn't a genuine rape; rather, it is a confrontation, pretty literally by engraved invitation, between two individuals over whether they will have sex on her terms or on his, which he wins largely by physical force. It was enough like a real rape that I was deeply appalled. Bearing in mind the historical context, that this was written in a time when rape was still widely romanticized, did not help much.

Thereäfter, the relationship between the two remains perverse, with the heroine marrying a couple of other men, whom she certainly does not love, simply to hurt the hero, whom she does love — in her own, Randian way.

Additionally, this was a book without much salvation. In particular, no one saves Catherine, a woman crushed by abandonment, who is then drawn into a life of soul-less self-lessness, and Gail Wynand's redemption is in suïcide. If anyone is actually saved in the book, it is Mallory, who fell so far as to have made a private attempt at popular sculpture, before Roark summons him to reälize his true vision. I would note that salvation was something that I had seen in at least one of Ditko's stories, in which the hero and heroine reach out to pull a fellow doing an imitation of Ellsworth Toohey (Rand's principal villain in The Fountainhead) back into a world-view of truly humanistic possibility.[2]

I finished reading The Fountainhead with little desire to read anything more by Rand.

But she continued to be referenced, positively and negatively, by friends and by allies, and I was ultimately moved to read her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Atlas Shrugged was not so unpleasant as had been The Fountainhead. Rand again manages to toss her heroine into bed with two men other than the hero, the second much to the distress of the hero (and to that of some hapless other fellow), but this time she isn't out to cause anguish; she isn't even aware of him as a person. The descriptions of sex between the principal hero and heroine seem a little peculiar, but markèdly different from the confrontational initial sex of the previous book.

There's salvation of one sort in the book — the main hero is persuading the most genuinely productive members of society to withdraw, in order to bring an end to a social order of unreason that demands self-sacrifice and becomes ever-more totalitarian. But none of these people are in danger of being lost to the unreason itself. The two characters who are in such danger, Cherryl and Tony, are basically left by the heroes to sink or swim. Cherryl literally drowns, unable to cope (with no one helping her) when she begins to grasp the prevailing social order. Tony figures it out, with little help, and is shot dead for trying by himself to stop a group of thugs from the other side; by the time that a hero could be bothered to help him, Tony was really past help.

As well as the lack of empathy expressed in the treatment of such characters, there's something else that I take to be a manifestation of Rand's mind-blindness. Some of the villains demand to be understood; the heroes reject the idea that they must understand such people. And understand is the recurring word, without the heroes asserting that there is a difference between understanding and acceptance. Personally, I very much want to understand my opponents, without any expectation that this will cause me to think much better of them. In fact, having a working model of what makes them tick often intensifies my rejection, but it allows me to anticipate their behavior. However, Rand seems truly to object to a demand of understanding. I think that it was because understanding did not come intuïtively to her.

Atlas Shrugged is often criticized for the fact that its characters are archetypal, and apt to present long philosophical monologues in the context of extemporaneous discourse. I think that such criticism is actively ridiculous (especially when it comes from people who haven't directed the same criticism at the works of Shakespeare, or at various ostensibly classic works by Russian novelists,[3] whose characters are like-wise archetypal and like-wise given to unlikely speeches). Atlas Shrugged is a novel of archetypes and of monologues because it seeks to present a fairly comprehensive philosophical statement. Even with the device of archetypes and monologues, it is a very long book, and without those devices it would be less clear and probably much longer. It is also, somewhat more reasonably, criticized as belaboring ideas, but Rand was plainly concerned not to allow a point to be treated as obvious when presented and then repeatedly ignored in application; I think that such concern is quite well-founded.

As with The Fountainhead, reading Atlas Shrugged was not a transformative experience for me. There were only three philosophical novelties for me. The first was simply interesting; the second and third were not clear to me.

It used the word justice in reference to something inexorable. I'm not sure that I would use that term in that way, though it does seem useful to me to recognize that a natural law that says that one should or shouldn't do X is founded on one that says what obtains from doing X.

What I didn't understand, but wanted to pursue, were her claims about causality being necessitated by logic and that Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.

I came away from Atlas Shrugged more willing to read other things by Rand, especially to understand what was meant by those last two assertions. The book in which the last was answered (she was cryptic on the other, and I had to figure that one out largely on my own) is also the book by Rand that most affected me philosophically, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1979). I didn't agree with everything in it, and have since come to reject more in it than I did at first. I also came to recognize that a considerable amount of it is unacknowledgedly borrowed from Locke and from others. But I believe that there is a core to it that is an original synthesis and a genuine advancement in epistemology, more properly conceptualizing logic in terms of a Lockean notion of concepts.

As well as Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, I got and read We the Living, Anthem (1938), various anthologies derived from The Objectivist Newsletter and from its successor, The Objectivist, and a few interviews. I also found and watched a movie whose screen-play she wrote, Love Letters (1945). (And, somewhere along the line, I watched the movie The Fountainhead from start to finish.)

In the fictional work, I perceived a recurring theme. As Rand herself essentially says in a later introduction, The Night of January 16th is about how Rand felt people ought to have reäcted to Ivar Kreuger's selfishness. Anthem is an unacknowledged re-write of We (1921), by Yevgeny Zamyatin; it is the novella that she thought that he ought to have written. I think that The Fountainhead is about the sort of man whom she felt Frank Lloyd Wright ought to have been. Love Letters is supposedly based on a book, Pity My Simplicity, by Christopher Massie, but when I skimmed through that I book, I found it hard to recognize the one in the other; meanwhile the screen-play bears a significant resemblance to Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac, except that it ends with the true author of the love letters getting the girl; it is Rand again setting things as she feels that they ought to be. And Atlas Shrugged is, of course, about the strike that really ought to be held (and, on the side, with a pirate of the sort who ought to be out there plundering and sinking the ships that ought to be sunk). As to We the Living, well, I think that it's about the man whom Rand felt ought to have loved her.[4]

The non-fiction was often insightful or amusing; and, my objections to aspects of the sexuality in her novels not-withstanding, I also thought that some of the claims concerned love and sexuality were important insights. But, at some point, I just didn't think that I was likely to get much more value out of her work. Before Rand had died, I had stopped reading her work, except occasionally to read an excerpt here-or-there.

While she was alive, I didn't encounter many people who could admit both that Rand was right in some of her unpopular assertions and that she was wrong in others. Instead, the vast majority of people who recognized her name either denounced her as having had nothing to say that were both unusual and correct, or endorsed her every claim without exception, and each group was condescending and curtly dismissive of anyone who would say otherwise. (The preëmption, whatever its motive, insulated them from potential correction.) But, over time, I have increasingly noted people who self-identify with her philosophy, but not without their own criticism, and not without a willingness to entertain the thought that further criticism might be neither knavish nor foolish.

My own philosophical position is removed from Rand's in some very important ways, and I would simply not count myself as a subscriber.

For example, Rand treated existence as a property of things; I would join with various philosophers who would assert that existence is not a property of the thing considered, but of the consideration. When one says something such as that unicorns do not exist, one is really saying something about the idea of unicorns. (And to say that the idea of unicorns does exist is really to say something about the idea of the idea of unicorns, &c.) The reason that existence seems to be a property of things is that our natural discourse isn't clearly distinguishing between things and ideas of those things. If unicorns do not exist, then it is absurd to talk about the unicorn itself as having a property of non-existence, because there is nothing to have the property. Rand objected to Reification of the Zero, but if we treat existence as a property of elephants themselves, then its contradiction, non-existence, becomes a property, which can only be held by, um, nothing; the Zero would then be reïfied. Rand's formula existence exists isn't particularly helpful, and its invocation seems to be nothing more than an artefact of confusing a crudity of grammar with a metaphysical insight.

By the way, I want to mention a book by another author, The Watcher (1981) by Kay Nolte Smith. Smith was at one time amongst those personally associated with Rand, but (like many) eventually left. The Watcher is a novel that successfully fused much of what virtue is to be found in Randian fiction with a deep sense of empathy. And its heroes don't simply march relentlessly towards triumph, but reach back to save people who ought not to be lost.

[1] I wasn't at all positioned to write that paragraph until years after I read The Fountainhead.

[2] However, Ditko certainly does not present all of his characters as saveable; and, in particular, those characters of his who step across the line between Good and Evil with the thought that they will later redeem themselves are inevitably morally destroyed.

As to such crossings, Ditko's villains are more likely than those of Rand to be conscious of when they are crossing the line or that they have crossed the line. While both Rand and Ditko would declare wickedness to be founded in a choice not to think; Ditko's villains are more likely to be in fact thinking.

[3] It is certainly worth noting that Rand was a novelist from Russia.

[4] And thence I would explain much of the sexual dynamic across her fiction.

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9 Responses to Ayn Rand and Me

  • I realize I am late in reading this post and commenting., but I found your critique on Ayn Rand intesely fascinating. Clearly you are a supremely articulate person whose intellectual achievements have surpassed mine long ago, as i must confess some of the content on your site is beyond my experience (an example to illustrate this might be your choice for your web page background. The mathematical equations ( I am assuming!) shown will undoubtedly intimidate 99.9 percent of individuals visiting your site, and leaving them with the impression that was designed by you, which is:
    You are smarter than us.).

    I will freely admit you are smarter than me.

    I don't know what those symbols mean...looks like writing discovered at the Roswell crash site...that's what it is! Plans for a UFO?
    Just kidding. I am supremely intimidated!

    Back to your post, I must say how extremely well you write. I enjoyed reading about your impressions of her and her work. I again confess I have never read her books, I only know 'of' her. By reading your post, with your experiences so well detailed, and your analysis of Rand's gifts and deficiencies, I am that much closer to actually reading her books. In truth, I feel you've explained enough to get me through a surprise pop quiz, a sort of Cliff's Notes on Ayn Rand, so I at least will not appear to be a total ignoramus when interacting with those more well-read than I.

    All I really wanted to say was, fantastic writing. Great job. And thanks for throwing Ditko in the mix, it gave me an anchor to hang onto (that which I already know) whilst you pummel me with intellectual winds that take me to a place I've not been before.
    You smart fella you.

    • Daniel says:

      Part of what I wanted to provide with this entry was framework for people who'd read little or nothing by her, so I'm very glad that you feel a bit more empowered.

      The mathematical formulæ presently used in the background image for my 'blog are drawn from a paper that I've written. Here at the 'blog, they are meant to suggest what I do qua economist, which is rather different from what most economists do.

      (After my next paper is closer to completion, that graphic may change.)

      As well as the paper itself, I've written a companion piece that provides a kinder, gentler discussion. The meanings of six of the formulæ used to creäte that background image are explained in a section that begins about half-way down on page 5 of the companion piece and continues to about half-way down page 6. The remaining formulæ are explained in a section that begins about half-way down page 8 and continues into the beginning of page 10. (You'd need the primary paper at hand to know which formula is which.) Examples are given in terms of familiar stuff such as Coke, Oreos, and Warren comic books.

      I'm one of those 'bloggers who mostly just 'blogs about whatever strikes my fancy. In my case, that means that some of the entries are abstruse or preöccupied with minutiæ or both.

      • Daniel, this is fantastic!
        This may take me a while to digest, my eyes are not used to seeing things that cause me to think in such a way.
        How kind of you to tone it down for the faint of heart! My pride demands I read the original version (the unkind, ungentle paper).

        I will read it intently until my brain understandeth.
        Thank you.

        • Okay, I fooled myself. I needed the kinder gentler version, and even so, my brain hurts!

          • Daniel says:

            Even those who'd already taken a graduate microëconomics course would typically find the paper a challenge to follow, and presumably you had little or no prior exposure to formal notions of preference structures or of choice functions.

            The kinder, gentler explanation skips over the proofs provided for the theoremata, but otherwise tried to explain pretty much everything in the paper, and that attempt limited how kind and gentle it could be.

      • Daniel says:

        The set of formulæ that appeared in the background when the comments above were made was replaced this morning with a new set, drawn from my paper on qualitative probability.

  • lvcipriani says:

    By the way, Kay Nolte Smith used to work as a technical writer at AT&T. She was interviewed in the company newsletter shortly after winning the Edgar for mystery writing. I read a few of her books and liked them pretty well. I may end up buying some used copies for my girls since they are into the arts featured in Smiths books.

    • Daniel says:

      I read that interview of Smith when it first appeared, and I believe that I did because you were kind enough to bring it to my attention (though I may have stumbled upon it in my father's copy of the news-letter).

      It's a shame that Smith's stuff is no longer in print. Perhaps had she lived a bit longer she would have attracted a larger persistent audience.

  • twv says:

    I really liked The Watcher. The bad guy was very much in the Randian mold. But the book was more adventure than tractatus, and a lot of fun.

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