Alice in Wonderland
5. Atlas Winced
Rand's best work by far is The Fountainhead, an extraordinarily gripping story based on the idea that a person who knows what he wants and strives for it without being afraid of other people's reactions is admirable, while a person who is continually taking his bearings from other people's evaluations is sadly warped. Rand's original title was Second-Hand Lives. The characters are stylised, diagrammatic representations of notions from Rand's ethical and psychological theories, but she has taken some pains to make them different from each other, internally consistent, and believable. The book is especially attractive for readers who know nothing of Rand's ideas, for the characters' bizarre motivations then seem to be sometimes inexplicable. and this adds an intriguing air of mystery to an otherwise cut-and-dried narrative. Judging from Branden's account, it is an enormous pity that Rand was made to shorten the novel by eliminating one major character. Inclusion of Roark's first cohabit, the film star Vesta Dunning. would have made Roark less conventionally well-behaved and his egoism more of a challenge. (Rand. who never fully mastered English, mistakenly used the term 'egotism' in The Foutainhead. Instead of correcting this in later editions, she attached a note explaining that she had been misled by a faulty dictionary - and. to prove it, citing the dictionary in question!) In this work Rand displays an extremely astute dramatic sense - inclined to run into crude melodrama, but there is a welcome niche in fiction for crude melodrama. Somehow this talent of Rand's was lost when she came to perpetrate that crashing failure, Atlas Shrugged. In The Fountainhead, the preaching is kept within bounds, and is generally not too jarringly inauthentic. The one bad lapse is the long speech in which Ellsworth Toohey lays bare his own motivations - but Rand had put herself in an impossible position with her ethical theory. For Rand, a villain must be a completely self-sacrificing person. Toohey is an intelligent villain who wants power. but somehow it has to come across that in wanting power he is not being selfish - which would be virtuous! If Toohey had been dedicated to a mistaken ideal - based on the theory that everyone would be happier in a world of self-sacrifice - it would be convincing, but we would have no reason to hate him. If Toohey had known that universal self-sacrifice would lead to universal misery, but wanted it for the selfish motive of getting power for himself, this would have been detestable, but dangerous to Rand's egoistic message. Toohey has to want to do his bit towards a goal which (it is made clear) can arrive only after his death, to know that the goal will make everyone completely wretched, and to want it for that reason. But this just makes him an unbelievable loony, bereft of any plausible link to real persons like Lewis Mumford and Harold Laski (who were among Rand's models for Toohey).
The film of The Fountainhead retains enough of the book that it must deeply puzzle any reflective person who sees it, unaware of the ethical and political baggage. Gary Cooper is a disaster as Roark. Branden claims that the film was shot nearly unchanged from Rand's script, but surely this must be wrong. As I recall, the film plays down or conceals altogether the crucial fact that the building dynamited by Roark is a government housing project. Surely Rand would never have willingly permitted that.
The Fountainhead illustrates Rand's disgust for people she called "second- handers". There is a strange oversight in the treatment of this subject by Rand and her followers. The second-hander is someone who thinks relationships are more important than ideas. The heroic or independent person is someone who thinks ideas are valuable in themselves and that relationships are merely instrumental. Neither Rand nor Branden ever seem to have noticed that the first is virtually a definition of a woman's personality, and the second, of a man's personality. Branden does note that Rand had problems with her own femininity, that when she was young she had a fierce crush on a beautiful female tennis-player, that Rand wore short hair and a cape, chain-smoked. and for a while even carried a cane, that she was always strangely drawn to beautiful women. Naively or wisely, Branden who psychologises a lot on other matters, does not speculate about this. Perhaps subconscious perception of Rand's gender ambiguity helps to account for her otherwise inexplicable spell, as, according to W.W. Bartley II was the case with Wittgenstein.
The Fountainhead continues to be a huge commercial success, but Branden cannot resist her usual extravagant overstatement. She refers to "the odyssey of The Fountainhead, unique in publishing history..." (180). Literally this is correct: the career of every book published is unique. But Branden makes clear that what she means is that Rand's novels are unmatched in their contrast between a slow start and subsequent multi-million sales. There have actually been much more extreme contrasts, for example The Great Gatsby, Steppenwolf, and Lord of the Rings.
In Atlas Shrugged a future United States is sinking into interventionist chaos, with more and more government controls causing more and more disorganisation. The rest of the world has long since collapsed into the barbarism of starving "peoples' states". One by one, all the most brilliant intellects in the US - businessmen, artists, scientists. businessmen, philosophers, businessmen, businessmen, and businessmen - mysteriously disappear. The heroine, who manages a large railroad corporation. becomes aware that there is a conspiracy behind the disappearances. The plot is that of a mystery story, but there is no mystery: the solution is obvious before page 50, and is hammered into the reader's head on each of the next few hundred pages. The great achievers are going on strike, because they are fed up with the way everyone else is living off their achievements whilst maligning and persecuting them. The achievers have disappeared into obscurity. and every year they all take a holiday together at Galt's Gulch, a utopian haven in the mountains, based on gold coinage and the mutual respect born of rational greed.
The book has many virtues, including a fundamentally sound plot and a lucid, unpretentious narrative style. It was the first major work I read connected with twentieth-century free market ideas, and I was at first dazzled by its seeming audacity and its eerie, anachronistic, dreamlike quality. I was also inspired by its hints of a fully-worked out theoretical system, a metaphysical. epistemological, and ethical structure which somehow supported the author's political conclusion. It was a great disappointment to found later that this system did not exist. The various speeches and allusions in Atlas Shrugged - so obviously far-fetched and logically slipshod, but perhaps defensible as rhetoric within a novel - are themselves quoted at length in Rand's fiction essays on philosophy, art and politics. The horrible, pitiful truth finally dawned: this is all there is to Rand. She really believes that this mouth-frothing sloganeering is philosophy, is reasoning, is the way to persuade rational people.
All the faults of The Fountainhead have become horribly magnified, and most of its saving features have been lost. Atlas Shrugged doesn't contain any convincing characters. only cardboard cut-outs which move jerkily this way and that, while the ventriloquist-author has them spouting her doctrines. The good characters all agree exactly with die author's views on sex, business, music, philosophy, politics and architecture - the only exception is that sometimes one of the good characters hasn't quite grasped a significant point, and when the penny drops and he comes into full conformity with Rand's opinions, this is a highly dramatic development. The bad guys all agree with what the author says all her ideological opponents must believe (almost entirely different from what these opponents actually do believe, outside fiction). Both goodies and baddies continually expound their incredibly shallow Weltanschauungen in Rand's stilted jargon. None of them is authentic or has a personal voice. Unlike Toohey in The Fountainhead, none of the villains is intelligent or effective. (Stadler doesn't count; he is stated to be a genius, but this never affects his described behaviour.)
Just as in real life Rand surrounded herself with yes-persons, hanging on her words and reciting them anxiously back to her so in Atlas Shrugged she creates a world of zombies mouthing her patented terminology and going into the zombie equivalent of convulsions of delight whenever they hit upon another of her conceptual gems. Galt's Gulch is indeed Rand's Utopia: a society where everyone makes speeches all the time expounding Rand's opinions. the listeners all blissfully nodding their heads in agreement The true plot of Atlas Shrugged is: how some good-looking individuals were saved by coming to agree in every particular with Rand, and how everyone else was eternally damned. The book has often been described as nightmarish; it has something of the unnerving quality of a delusional system made real which we find in some Philip K. Dick novels, notably Eye in the Sky. (But Dick could really write, and he was doing it on purpose.)
Of all modern tendencies in fiction, Rand's novels are closest in spirit to the socialist realist works favoured by the Stalinist regime. Stalin said: "Artists are engineers of the soul." Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul."
One of the climactic points of Atlas Shrugged is Galt's long speech. which explains Rand's theories, in Rand's language, over all radio and TV channels simultaneously, and helps to bring about the downfall of "the looters". Actually, airing this tedious drivel over all stations would speedily lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government which permitted such lax regulation of the airwaves, followed by the guillotining of Galt. With cretins like Rand's villains running the US, I reckon I could take over within a week. given a handful of marines and a few rock 'n' roll tapes, except that plenty of others would get in ahead of me. Galt's speech is 58 pages long, and I suppose 90 percent of readers skip most of it, as I did on my first reading. Branden claims that it took Rand "two full years" to write (266). It feels like two full years reading it.
In Branden's judgement, part of Gait's speech takes "a major step toward solving the problem that haunted philosophers since the time of Aristotle and Plato: the relationship of 'ought' and 'is' - the question of in what manner moral values can be derived from facts." No such problem has haunted philosophers since the times of Plato or Aristotle. In the eighteenth century, David Hume raised a different question. whether values could be derived from facts (alone) at all, but this attracted no attention at the time, and didn't haunt anyone until the twentieth century.
According to Gait's speech, in a passage singled out by Branden, "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non- existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms." This is false. Any class of matter (atoms. crystals. stars, etc.), not just living organisms, may exist or not exist. Galt (Rand) also emphasises that: "to think is an act of choice ... man is a being of volitional consciousness." This too is false. Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds. Galt (Rand) also keeps insisting that "existence exists". This seems to he of momentous importance to Galt (Rand), but in the only sense I can make of it (that 'existence' is something which exists in addition to all the things which exist) it is not evident, and I believe it is false. (If what is meant is that "Things which exist exist' - existence exists - then that is trite and has never been denied by anyone.) And so it goes on, 58 pages of it. one pompous vacuity after another.
There is the possibility that Atlas Shrugged may be produced as a TV mini-series. This would probably be its most favourable incarnation. The characterisation is not up to the level of Falcon Crest, but the plot is a lot more interesting, and thankfully most of the pedantic dialogue would have to be cut. Galt's speech could be eliminated altogether and something should he done about the fact that Rand's 'future' is now impossible, since she did not forsee such developments as the eclipse of rail by air travel. Maybe Dagny Taggart should run an airline instead of a railroad.
Some of Branden's misjudgements are astounding. In Atlas Shrugged, she refers to "the faint sadomasochistic overtones of its love scenes, the troubling violence of the sexual encounters." (299) Nearly all of Rand's romantic scenes in all her works are loudly and obviously sadistic. She was into domination. There is much grabbing of wrists, yanking of arms, ripping of cloth, and brusque insertion. Both Penthouse Legend and The Fountainhead contain rapes, performed by the heroes and presented as entirely admirable. (It is true that in both cases it is made clear that the rapees 'really want it'.)
The disciples of Ayn Rand were second-handers par excellence. They quavered at the thought of her disapproval. They humoured her outbursts and reverently went along with the make-believe that she was a towering intellect. Mrs Branden, for example, could have walked away from it all. Potentially, she seems to have been a better writer than Rand, but she gave that up for the sake of her submission before the cult. All this was done in the name of reason and self-interest. It is a familiar spectacle to see individuals suffering the cruel and vindictive humiliation reserved for sinners within a religious cult, but it is appallingly ironic when this deliberate humiliation is done in the name of that person's self-interest. Rand and her circle - including the Brandens - helped to introduce a lot of entirely pointless misery into the lives of their followers, and I am afraid Branden is insufficiently clear about expressing her regrets for the harm that she participated in doing, even though she was also one of the victims.
Randism was and is a religious cult. ('Religion' is 'a system of faith and worship'.) Branden has often described Objectivism as a cult, but in this book she withdraws this label. She now states that although Objectivism has some of the features of a cult, it cannot be a cult because of its commitment to reason and individualism (352). Well, there is a lot of talk about reason and individualism, just as among Bolsheviks there is a lot of talk about science. But reason does not consist in shrieking the word 'reason' all the time. It consists in subjecting one's ideas to rational criticism, holding every position tentatively, and being prepared to abandon any position if it is successfully criticised. Reason consists, as Socrates put it, in 'following the argument wherever it leads', especially. of course, if it leads where you don't want to go. There is no evidence that the Randists understood the most elementary requirements of rational discourse. Branden quotes Sidney Hook, from his review of Rand's For the New Intellectual: "Despite the great play with the word 'reason', one is struck by the absence of any serious argument in this unique combination of tautology and extravagant absurdity." (321) That is exactly right. The Objectivists, no less than the devotees of a theistic sect, are engaged in abusing their minds by reiterating articles of faith. As for their individualism, it reminds me of the individualism of the mob in The Life of Brian. Trying to get the crowd to stop worshipping him, Brian shouts: "You are all individuals." The crowd drones back ecstatically. "We are all individuals." Unlike Brian, Rand was addicted to the idolatry of her besotted admirers.
Rand wrote an article called 'The Argument from Intimidation' (included in The Virtue of Selfishness) in which she describes the kind of ad hominem argument which says that only those who are in some way deficient can hold a particular point of view. In the heyday of socialism, this kind of argument was commonly employed against any voices dissenting from the socialist dogma. However, there is one writer who resorts to this kind of argument more frequently than any other, and that writer is Ayn Rand. The Argument from Intimidation is her stock-in-trade. (For example, the essay 'Collectivised Ethics', in The Virtue of Selfishness, opens: "Certain questions, which one frequently hears, are not philosophical queries, but psychological confessions..." Again, on the first page of the introduction to that book, we are told that to raise doubts about the advisability of Rand's use of the word 'selfishness' implies ..moral cowardice".)
As Branden points out, although Rand in principle conceded the possibility of honest disagreement or honest error, in practice she tended always to conclude that disagreement with her opinions was a sympton of sickness and therefore of evil. Rand herself announces that she had "long ago" lost interest in debates with critics.
7. Egoistic Ethics
Rand asserts that ethics is entirely based on reason, and that the supreme moral virtue is selfishness. or rational self-interest. This is developed at times (See the 'Objectivist Ethics' in The Virtue of Selfishness) by biological, or biological-sounding, arguments. What is good for an organism is what contributes to that organism's survival and well-being. This seems clear enough: it is moral to do what is to one's advantage, and immoral to do what is against one's advantage. It follows that it is moral to cheat, murder, and steal, on those occasions where a rational analysis shows this to be to one's advantage. But no such conclusion is drawn by Rand. Respecting other people's lives and property, even when this hurts one's bank balance or survival prospects, is stated to be in one's rational self-interest. From a biological point of view - maximising one's chances of survival, good health, or reproduction - this is obviously not always the case. Rand explains that the standard of ethics is not the individual's bodily or biological survival, but the survival of man qua man", or man as a rational being. Thus, all Rand's biological- sounding arguments go by the board: it may even be 'selfish', in her redefinition of the term, to court death for the sake of a 'cherished value'. But there is no clear stipulation of how the nature of man as a rational being, or the values which it is permissible for a rational egoist to cherish. are to be determined. The outcome is that Rand appears to be urging egoism. but is actually urging unselfish sacrifice of one's interests to what she tells us is the life proper to a rational being. All this terrible confusion and double-talk arises because Rand cannot stomach the manifest truth that it can be to a person's advantage to violate the rights of another person. If ethics is to tell us that people's rights may not he violated, it must tell us that we ought sometimes to do things against our own interests.
Rand's main weapon against the above point is to imply (Argument from Intimidation) that anyone who makes it must believe that "man is a sacrificial animal". Here she overlooks two points: 1) that it is generally held that many decisions are morally neutral: ethically, you may do one thing or the other; and 2) that moralists have focussed on cases where individuals ought to sacrifice their interests, not because sacrifice of one's interests per se is held to be necessarily good. but because it is assumed that there is comparatively little problem about getting individuals to do what is right when that happens to be also to their advantage.
In talking to various Randists, I have been offered two sorts of elaborations of Rand's argument. 1) It is claimed that to violate someone's rights when this appears to be to one's benefit will always be to one's net disadvantage because of the psychological repercussions to wit, the loss of one's self-respect.
This, however, throws the justification of morality onto something which is either an 'irrational whim', or some other principle of morality (what forms one's standards of self-respect) which in turn requires justification. It is not true that everyone's self-respect will suffer if they violate someone else's rights (or suffer enough to outweigh the gains). I have met people who would never be able to live with themselves if they passed up the chance to gyp some poor sucker, especially by violating his rights, the more violations the better. One might say that they ought not to be like this, but in that case one is appealing to a moral standard not derivable from that person's self-interest. (Rand holds that all morality is rational self- interest alone.) 2) It is claimed that violations of rights wouldn't work out well for everyone in the long run. One version of this is to claim that, for instance, if everyone were a thief, wealth would be greatly reduced, and there would he a lot less to steal - which is no doubt true. However, this is not an argument from self-interest. It is an argument from the welfare of society. A rational-minded person will weigh the consequences of his actions - if he is a pure egoist the consequences for just his welfare. Any one act of theft or even any one person dedicating his life to theft is not going to make the difference between a society in which rights are generally respected and a society of interminable pillage. A rational egoist will scoff at appeals to the long- term consequences for society, especially if he is getting on in years. The rational egoist will be a free rider on other people's unselfish respect for rights. (It is even perfectly reasonable for an egoist to support laws against theft whilst himself practising theft: there is nothing contradictory about this position.)
8. The Gospel of Spleen
In one respect, the tragedy of Rand is like the tragedy of the Beatles: because she could do one or two things very well, she became surrounded by a lot of admirers who were prepared to encourage her to believe she could do any number of things superbly. By sticking to fiction, she could have become a sort of minor rightwing Jack London. As it was, she didn't write much fiction, and most of it is not outstanding.
But the tragedy, in Rand's case, begins earlier. If Branden's reconstruction of Alice's early life is at all reliable, it seems that she had the makings of a good mind, but lacked any training in critical thought. She was more intelligent than almost everyone she met, and soon formed the theory that other people's inane and unsystematic defences of conventional thinking were the only alternatives to her own half-baked notions. Since she was quick-witted, she was always able to improvise new elaborations to these notions, without ever wondering whether some of them might be radically mistaken. By the time she was able to read arguments by people cleverer than she was, it was too late for her to learn the elements of rational enquiry: she was a messiah who announced the truth and cursed all who rejected it.
Recalling what she said to Nathaniel after their first meeting with Rand, Branden reports: "I feel as if, intellectually, I've always stood on a leaking life raft in the ocean. and as I jump to cover one leak with my foot, another spurts forth - and I leap to cover it - and then there's another... But now I have the sense that it might be possible to stand on solid ground... as if for the first time the earth is firm beneath my feet." (236) Rand fed the appetite for certainty. She spoke as if she had a fully worked-out system which accounted for everything. Such a system. if it could exist at all, would be a vast structure made up of minutely- reasoned segments. Rand's theories. such as they are, do not form a vast structure, and she had no talent for minute reasoning. The impression of all-encompassing explanation is given by bold, broad, sweeping, imprecise assertions. An unrelenting covering fire of vituperation and demeaning is maintained against anyone who might point to any of the difficulties with these assertions. Presumably some of the brighter disciples are able to keep the faith by telling themselves that these assertions can he interpreted as gestures indicating the general lines upon which a more rigorous argument might one day be built - but this is an unwarranted attitude- a kind of faith, because (apart from Randism's demonstrable errors at the broadest level) surprising refutations often spring from fine details. The doctrinal structure of Randism is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics.
In every sect there is an official and an unofficial doctrine. The official doctrine is formulated, written down, and recited. The unofficial doctrine is conveyed more indirectly. It is a set of attitudes and responses. It may even he denied if an outsider detects it and tries to formulate it. In the case of Randism, part of the unofficial doctrine is that rational people can discern the truth about things at a glance, by a swift act of 'integration'. (Enemies of Randisin are described as 'unfocussed': correct thinking is characterised as 'focussing'. The impression conveyed by this questionable metaphor is that the more rational you are, the more you will focus, and if you are very rational, you will he able to discern the truth just by looking because, you see, everything will be sharply in focus.) Another part of the official doctrine is that it is fine and laudable to be a spiteful person, to nurse spiteful feelings and express spiteful sentiments against everything evil and sick - everything that is not Randist. Three-quarters of Rand's essays are exercises in unremitting spitefulness. (In a review of Barbara Branden's book. Peter Schwartz declares: "Ayn Rand does not need me to defend her against lice." Circular letter to readers of The Intellctual Activist, 20th August 1986. To appreciate that sort of remark, you need to understand not merely that Schwartz doesn't feel ashamed of having written it, and not merely that he pats himself on the head for having written it. but that he pats himself on the head because it is such a very rational thing to write. He abandons all intelligent discrimination to let loose his infantile rage, and is able to feel that this is a worthy and heroic, because supremely rational. way to behave.)
'The virtue of selfishness' sounds like a serious challenge to conventional thinking, or at least an echo of Stirner, but because 'selfishness' is redefined, most of traditional bourgeois morality comes out unscathed. What Randism adds is the denigration of common decencies. Randism excoriates 'whims', but since the reasoning performed by Randists is so slovenly, it amounts to a rationalisation of whims usually nasty ones. Randism is a Gospel of Spleen.
of Ayn Rand
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