Monday 24 December 2012

"Atlas Shrugged" and the Pleasure of Sympathetic Reading (On Christmas Eve)

Honestly, I didn't know anything about this book when I started reading it, other than the fact that "Atlas Shrugged" is to middle-class liberals what "The Satanic Verses" is to Islamic Fundamentalists. I was actually pleasantly surprised when the story began, because I was pretty interested in the mystery that Rand wove around the disappearance of numerous captains of American industry. Unfortunately, Rand's heavy-handed polemicizing and torpid prose lost its energy after the first 50 pages. The length of the (in)famous John Galt speech is also unforgivable from a storytelling perspective, and could only appeal to readers who require constant reassurance of their rigid views (which is fairly common for egoists).

From an Objectivist standpoint, Rand's philosophical arguments would be much more convincing if she weren't so long-winded. Her repetitiveness reveals a fairly transparent anxiety about the close alliance between her brand of libertarianism and all-out anarchism. What's the primary difference? The fact that Rand believes that Government (with a capital "G") should intervene in private affairs to enforce property contracts. For me, that's a fairly arbitrary principle to tack onto the laissez-faire worldview, and it certainly doesn't emerge from any process of logical deduction. Also, I find it annoying that even though Rand suggests that the majority of humankind is made up of entitled leeches, I've never met a fan of "Atlas Shrugged" who thinks he/she is a leech. For the Objectivist in me, something doesn't add up there. This fact gives Rand's philosophy a distinct tone of self-pity, making every Randian sound as though he/she is constantly wailing, "Woe is me! I'm an exceptional person and the world of leeches won't stop oppressing me. Why can't people see how much better I am?"

With all that said, I actually have some deep sympathy for Rand. After the Bolsheviks confiscated her father's pharmacy and the building in which it was located, she moved to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1921, where her family lived on the verge of starvation. It doesn't surprise me at all that Rand would want to articulate a philosophy that was the exact opposite of Communism. I'm also not surprised that she felt pretty good about moving from her desperate conditions in Russia to the pro-capitalist United States in 1926. This aspect of her experience came out most strongly for me in "Atlas Shrugged" when she claimed [sic] "Human beings will always need something to mediate their relationships, and historically speaking, whenever it hasn't been money, it's tended to be a gun." That part of her philosophy is something I totally understand and sympathize with (although it is still a historical irony that the Communist Revolution opened Russian universities to women and in fact allowed Rand to obtain her post-secondary education).

Rand's views only apply in a world where everything is completely black and white, and quite frankly, I think the world is more complicated than that. There is no objective argument I could make that would  compel a Randian to agree with me. I simply believe the world is a complicated place, that perspective matters, and that helping others is a fundamentally good thing. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, "People don't need to be told to be selfish." We can count on them to handle that on their own. Unfortunately, the conversation surrounding Rand is often so politically and ideologically polarizing that people forget that Ayn Rand was a human being whose views were heavily influenced by her personal experiences.

I understand that the first person to reject this reading would be Rand herself, who would want me to adjudicate her views based on objective, impersonal principles. But in that case,  I have to refuse her reasoning and shower her with compassion whether she wants it or not.

Merry Christmas, Ayn.

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