I have been posting quite a bit about Ayn Rand, and there are a few reasons for this. One, I think she’s influential in current movement conservatism. Two, having just finished re-reading the 1700+ pages of tiny print that make up The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged I would like to get a few blog posts out of them. But perhaps the most important reason is a personal one; I used to like her writing. When I was in high school, like so many intelligent and socially awkward teenage boys before me, I found myself drawn to her protagonists and her way of seeing the world.
Lost in the economic implications of Atlas Shrugged are the more social themes that she pushes in The Fountainhead, which celebrates the architectural vision of Howard Roark. High school is a time of high amounts of insecurity during which high schoolers simply care way, way, way too much about what other people think. Roark is the ultimate antidote to insecurity, a man so secure in his own vision that nothing can sway him from it.
To an extent this is a healthy message to hear. It is a reminder that one’s own ideas matter and that being talented and productive is a good thing. Other people insulting you or making you feel like you don’t fit in doesn’t really matter. You are your own judge and should be proud of everything you have accomplished.
The problem, as it usually is, is that this insight gets carried too far. Yes, other people’s opinions of our social standing in high school doesn’t matter that much and high achievers should be proud of what they have achieved. Rand, however, believes that other people’s opinions don’t matter because other people don’t matter. Those other people are incapable of creativity and productivity. They don’t matter, so of course their opinions don’t have to matter either.
What perhaps makes it worse is that Rand is fully aware that she is writing off most of humanity. Rand writes in the introduction to The Fountainhead, “It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature – and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning – and it is those few that I have always sought to address. The rest are no concern of mine.”
By the end of Atlas Shrugged Rand will have completely dehumanized everyone who does not live up to her impossible standard of human perfection. Besides the obvious and unforgivable elitism on display it’s also simply the case that her fictional world is wildly unrealistic. Rand is not even remotely charitable to her opponents points of view, instead making them gross caricatures of simpering idiots unable to make even the most basic decision. (Her character development for her heroes is also quite lacking, and all of her heroes are actually the same person, which is an ironic result for a novelist celebrating individuality). Rand truly believes that she fully and completely understands the world through reason and therefore all of her opponents are completely and unequivocally wrong.
As the old internet joke goes, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”