Winners and Losers

We tend to think that novels don’t make much of an impact on the world, but every so often one comes along to prove us wrong. Would you like to take a guess as to which book Americans voted most influential in their lives after the Bible? Which book has inspired countless captains of industry? And which has spawned an institute that organizes talks and lectures and distributes 400,000 free copies of the book every year to the most promising high school students? Well, that book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book universally despised by critics but still a bestseller today. Rand’s philosophy of ‘rational selfishness’ underpinned the capitalist agenda and bolstered the belief that governments should never intervene in the market or in the freedom of the individual. One of her most notable followers is Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, who met Rand when he was 25 and joined in her Saturday night gatherings. A devotee of Rand’s works and her ‘moral defence of capitalism’, it was unfortunate that his actions with derivatives (and please don’t ask me to explain – banking is a mystery to me) were influential in paving the way to the current financial crisis. Why did  Rand’s ideas prove so attractive, and why are they failing now?

First, a little background on the author. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenblum in 1905 in Soviet Russia, a serious, studious, stocky girl whose face did not match her destiny. She knew from the age of nine that she wanted to write, and when in her early teens the Bolsheviks stormed her father’s pharmacy in the name of the people, she was given a topic that would last her a lifetime. Having studied American history and stuffed herself full of Hollywood movies, she took the chance offered by generous relatives to emigrate to Chicago in 1926. She was carrying a message from the guests at her farewell dinner party: ‘If they ask you in America – tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly.’ Rand stayed in Chicago just long enough to crank out a few screenplays (easier on her English as a second language) and head off to Hollywood. There she was lucky: she bumped into Cecil B. Demille who gave her a job as an extra, then a chance as a junior writer. It was with films that she learned her trade and through them that she met her husband, a handsome, gentle man, who married her before her visa expired and whom she loved with a ferocious idealism of his good looks.

When you look at a writer’s life it’s always intriguing to see how the influences knit together. Rand had a powerful longing for pure meritocracy, and one that would be justly rewarded by fame and fortune. She also had a hugely purple romantic streak, a real Mills and Boon tendency towards worshipping handsome devils. Both of these came together in the notion of the Nietzschean superhero, a highly influential figure in Russian culture in the years before she left, and who took the place of God, quite literally, in her view of the cosmos. And the tapestry she wove out of these elements was in the style of her country’s art – a banner waving at the head of a revolution. In 1944 she wrote rather smugly that she was ‘the chief living writer of propaganda fiction’, and the propaganda part was true. Rand’s most potent literary device was to turn an impossible ideal of heroism into a prescription for living, to bring the gods down to walk on the earth again, embodied in men who knew they had talent, and who would make the world pay and the women weep.

It took a long while for Rand to bring her preoccupations together in commercial form. Seventeen years elapsed between her arrival in America and publication of the novel that made her name, The Fountainhead (she published a novel prior to this that sank without trace). Even then, The Fountainhead was not an instant success, relying on a powerful word-of-mouth campaign to become a bestseller, and its reviews were mixed at best. It’s the only novel of Rand’s that I’ve read and I found it powerful, overlong, flawed and yet better than I feared. Her architect protagonist, Howard Rourke, is one of those characters who sticks in the mind; strong, fearless, a stranger to doubt, Howard designs his unpopular buildings whilst we, on the right side of the narrative, are permitted to understand his genius. Roarke is uncannily free from emotion and so it takes an unusual heroine to attract him. Dominique Francon, thin, neurotic, self-destructive, passionate provides a steely foil to Roarke’s glittering ambition. ‘The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man’, Rand wrote, but the problem was how she had her women respond to him. The feminist Susan Brownmiller declared Rand ‘a traitor to her own sex’ for having Roarke effectively rape Dominique and worse, for Dominique to only like it that way. But in love as in economics, the celebration of domination comes always and inevitably at the cost of someone else’s submission. The greater the dominance of one spectacular individual, the more nameless grunts are cast to the outer margins of the world, or the more masochistic the acts committed in the name of loyalty and devotion.

This sounds plausible, but the disaster that was the movie version of the film shows up the underlying problem with this scenario – it contains no real people. Life does not foster individuals as two-dimensional as Roarke and Francon. For instance, creative people get discouraged when their work meets public disapproval; when Atlas Shrugged received its universally awful reviews, Rand wept for days and days. She was aware that her characters would handle it differently, but her real humanity got in the way of that. Equally when Rand began an affair with one of her disciples, a young man half her age, she did not understand why her husband became an alcoholic. Nor did she cope well when the disciple left her for a fashion model his own age. Those forced into submission do not retain their own kind of strength; instead they crumble and suffer without nobility.

But the messiness of reality has never made the glowing strength of principles any the less attractive. Rand’s novels were curious oxymorons – bestselling blockbusters of ideas. Mostly idea-driven fiction drives readers away like wildebeest crossing the Serengeti, but that’s because it tends to occupy the upper echelons of literary fiction where, on the whole, ambiguity reigns supreme. Rand’s fiction is different, in that it uses ideas to tell people what to think, and how to live. And there’s a reason why propaganda is dangerous: it only tells one side of the story, and one side alone is both seductive and misleading. We need the complexity of the world, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it. The fact, for instance, that disaster can be productive is its saving grace. But generally, ambiguity makes us insecure. It’s comforting to think there might be reliable answers, and even better if they encourage us towards the things we wanted anyway.

And here’s the rub with principles: the ones we bond with are the ones that appease us emotionally. Principles and ideas lure us into the belief that as humans we can apply rational precepts to life, but that mistakes the complex dynamics of existence as well as our own hidden emotional reserves. The principle of domination, applied across The Fountainhead makes for uncomfortable and ludicrous reading in places. Just as those same principles applied to Rand’s life made her very unhappy at times. But letting principles and ideals go can be terrifying and threatening because we’ve invested emotionally in them. The real courage of the individual comes in facing change and in changing with it; that really is reserved for superheroes.


12 thoughts on “Winners and Losers

  1. Ah, Rand. I credit “Atlas Shrugged” with getting me to think and apply logic while I still think there were many things she missed. First, and this really must be said, Alan Greenspan completely abandoned notions of Rand’s Capitalism when he took the job with the Federal Reserve. You might wonder at the how of this, but the easiest answer of that is in the control of people’s income via a manipulated income tax. Never mind that the US was founded upon principles of NOT having an income tax, but the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 actually heralded in, for the first time, that income tax. Since then wealth has been manipulated and controlled through government agencies (never mind inflation, deflation, manipulations of markets – all is in control by the Federal Reserve) and regulated in businesses when businesses could curry favor via lobbies (Rand was completely against this – Atlas Shrugged is true to form what has been happening in the US for the last several decades; regulations favoring companies/industries with political clout, etc). The underlying premise seems to be that Randian notions obviously failed, when in fact the things Rand championed economically haven’t been at play in the US in more than a century. They are ideals, and ideals are things people should try to live up to, but many people simply don’t think of things on that level now; the lure of pragmatism and the justifications it allows is far easier and more tempting than forming a personal philosophy.

    [FYI: I’m not an Objectivist, but the supposition that Greenspan was a champion of the free markets and therefor working off Rand’s proposals is a complete myth. As you said, beware of propaganda. That’s all it is. Free markets aren’t free when they’re controlled by the government.]

    “The Fountainhead” and even “Atlas Shrugged” had too many black and white characters which enables people the ease of disregarding the notions put forth (“Atlas” had a few three dimensional characters: Hank Rearden and Jim Taggart’s wife); it also forces people into polarization instead of encouraging necessary and vital thought. The issue with principles isn’t the marriage of them to emotions, it’s that people don’t have principles. Principles can be boiled down to the definition that they are nothing more or less than the internalization of an ethic; few people do this. Change on a deep and abiding level is difficult, but commitment to a philosophy, a principle and ideology are far rarer these days.

    FYI: Rand did not live by her own principles; she ruled her cult with an iron fist and did not respect the individual minds if flaws were pointed out in her philosophy. No greater understanding could be come to of Rand than in reading “We the Living”. It was her first novel and, while awkward reading at times, it has secured itself as a book I continue to recommend by way of a history lesson for those who won’t/haven’t/can’t read “The Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn and those who wonder at my reasons for not having faith in a system. [She was known to state this book was as close to an autobiography as she’d ever get. As such it gives brilliant insight to Rand’s drive to being so thoroughly and damagingly absolute.]

  2. It was funny to read this post after a late night at work (I work at a book store in Cambridge, Massachusetts) where I sold someone a copy of “Atlas Shrugged,” and we chatted about how everyone ever has “told him never to read it” because it was one of any number of types of awful. Personally, I’ve nothing against her…I’ve never read any Ayn Rand, and the closest I’ve come is the role her fiction played in Tobias Wolff’s “Old School” and short pieces like this one on McSweeney’s:

    but as I told the customer, as I handed him his 1000 page long paperback, there are only so many 500+ page books I’ll get to read in my lifetime, and I’m not sure that “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” will end up being one of them. But we do sell a lot of them.

  3. Kimberly – thank you for that full and interesting response – so many things there I didn’t know! I have to admit that this post came out all wrong on me and I very nearly took it down again after I’d posted it (and still wonder whether it shouldn’t be removed. Note to self: don’t bite off more than you can chew). But the joy of comments is that other people can cover all the ground I didn’t and much better than I could.

    Mbolit – whenever I read your posts, all I want to do is go and work in a bookstore again. I loved it so; I’ve no idea why I had to abandon it for academia. I enjoyed Rand more than I thought I would, but couldn’t bring myself to read Howard Roarke’s rousing 8-page speech about architecture at the climax (at least I presume it was about architecture). Enough already! It’s always intriguing to see which books from the back list sell steadily. Where I worked, it was Catch 22 and The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I had to keep re-ordering.

  4. I was fascinated with Rand in my late teens because of her emphasis on individualism and my own struggle to individuate from a dominating household. Once I left, I left her behind too, and had no idea of her origins or what her life was like. This was so interesting to read Litlove. I don’t think you bit too much off at all, and I’m glad you left the post up.

  5. You are much more generous in your assessment of The Fountainhead than I could ever be. I read it a number of years ago now for a book group and if it weren’t a book group composed of friends I never would have finished the book I thought it was so dreadful.

  6. Mostly idea-driven fiction drives readers away like wildebeest crossing the Serengeti, but that’s because it tends to occupy the upper echelons of literary fiction where, on the whole, ambiguity reigns supreme.

    I think what you say here is true of that idea-driven fiction that does occupy the upper echelons of literary fiction, but I think there’s also an awful lot that lies elsewhere: in genre fiction land, where I would sort of classify Rand’s work as well. I think there’s a lot of science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy/etc. where, while there are a plot and characters, it’s the ideas that really make the book. Or things like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I have never read). I think the wider public does have an appetite for idea-driven works but it needs to be something more easily digestible.

  7. I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around Ayn Rand–your post and the comments remind me why. She certainly sounds like she was an intriguing person in any case. You’re right though, this is a book that has been read and read and read–I remember looking at it more than once in my high school days–it’s the sort of book that has a reputation, one that everyone is sort of familiar with even without having read it.

  8. Lilian – thank you so much! I found the account of her life really fascinating (I have a thing about writer’s lives). I can imagine she would be a transitional author, someone to carry a reader through change, because she is so clear and powerful in her messages.

    Stefanie – some books just don’t hit the spot, do they? It’s a huge book, so it was good of you to finish it for your friends – commendable loyalty!

    Nicole – I do agree that science fiction is an ideas-driven genre. It’s also the genre I have probably read least in (well, that would be a tie with horror) so I can comment on it less. I have the sense that ideas look different in speculative fiction than they do in analytical or philosophical fiction. If you can play the idea out however you want, that’s very different to trying to create an accurate picture of reality. But I guess in both cases, the author has ultimate control over the material. I have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Full of ideas, but not well integrated to the story if you ask me (others would certainly howl in protest). I think what I’m half saying about Rand is that she sold ideas as propaganda, and the simplicity of that makes for a powerful read and one that’s very accsessible. But also a little dodgy in places.

    Danielle – I do like the stories of author’s lives, they are always so fascinating. I did read The Fountainhead just last year, but it took me a long time. Mind you, I’m also interested in books with reputations – I think that always must be saying something about the culture. Like here in the UK, Shakespeare is the hero, and if you don’t like his works, there must be something wrong with you. He’s the basic foundation stone of literature and you can’t really call yourself literary without a decent knowledge of him (and I know practically nothing about Shakespeare!). That’s because Brits love anyone or anything that stands the test of time. Hang around long enough and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done (or not done). That’s why the Queen sends telegrams to anyone who lives to 100! 🙂

  9. I was interested to see that Slavoj Zizek listed The Fountainhead as one of the most interesting US movies to watch. Perhaps because of the way people become enslaved to capitalist ideals perhaps? I would be interested to read it but not interested enough to buy it. I suppose there’s always the library. Thanks for sharing the ambiguities with us!

  10. Coming in late here after holiday, but I read The Fountainhead last year with my book club, and it’s a book I never would have read if I had’t been forced to. Saying that, I plowed through it, devouring the story while understanding at a rational level that there was a lot of “whoa, did she really mean that?”. I agree with the harsh feminist critique of Rand, and I also feel that if we push Howard Roark to the extreme he becomes a sociopath. Suppose his passion was not architecture, but experimental medicine or something with more human contact…would we want him to so single-mindedly, so unswervingly focus on his goals? Without regard to its effect on others. I’m sure there is a better example of what I’m trying to say, but I developed a deep suspicious of Roark’s perfection as the novel grew longer and longer. I’ve heard that Atlas Shrugged is where she finetunes her philosophy, so I suppose I should read it. Someday, perhaps.

  11. I would never have guess that this book would have been chosen as most influential. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read it. Years ago (almost 20 now) I had a co-worker who brought a copy into the office and gave it to me to read. He knew I was a reader and said the book would change my way of thinking. I’m not sure why he thought that would be the case but I never got around to reading it and he left the company shortly after giving me the book. I suppose if people have voted it most influential after the Bible I should reconsider!

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