The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand October 19, 2012

My good friend Marcelo has decided to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, to “see what all the hype is about.”

He has started with Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, the architect who heroically refuses to sacrifice his individual principles to the collective, no matter how they treat him. Marcelo is an artist, and he likes Roark’s pluck, his faith in his own artistic vision. Plus, Rand speaks with such conviction, it’s hard to resist.

As many young people do—in my experience, mostly young men—I once went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system.

Her philosophy is harshly categorical, and corresponds to the developmental stage of black/white either/or thinking of youth. No wonder the people I run across who take her philosophy seriously are always young, at least in their thinking.

As unsavory as these aspects of her philosophy might be, that isn’t what makes her writing bad. She herself says, “The fact that one agrees or disagrees with an artist’s philosophy is irrelevant to an esthetic appraisal of his work qua art.” With this I agree.

In the intro to Mark Musa’s The Portable Dante we are told that the great poet intended for his writing to work on four levels: the literal, which is the observation of what actually happens; the allegorical, which gets at underlying theological or philosophical meaning (for example Virgil as the embodiment of human reason); the moral or didactic, for teaching the reader; and finally the anagogical, which opens spiritual or mystical truths.

The fact that Dante consciously designed his poetry to work on all these levels is not what brings readers back to him. The literal level is where the thrill of recognition grabs you.

Dante describes souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.”

I am transported to my childhood in West Virginia, to the dirt road that ran between the church parsonage where I lived and the garbage truck garage. In the road is a mangy black dog with fur clumped into flat cakes, dropping to scratch, spinning to bite at fleas.

There’s the grotesque description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.”

I remember a deer hanging from a neighbor’s backyard swing set, split open, its bloody innards spilled onto a blue tarp. Grotesque, even horrifying.

Dante is excellent on multiple levels, yet he begins where all good writing—all good art—must: true to the literal, so carefully observed, that you cannot help but trust it.

Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.

Is it unfair to hold her to such a high standard as Dante? How about her contemporary Flannery O’Connor, who also saw her own writing as working on all four levels? Again Rand comes up short, and not simply because she’s not as good a writer—which she surely is not—but because her own aesthetic draws up short. She is writing bad fiction by design.

In her Romantic Manifesto Rand says, “The greater the work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme.” So far so good. She writes, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” What exactly does that mean?

Rand believes the work should set forth the author’s vision of an ideal world, not deal with the world as it is. Art, according to Rand should deal only with what is “important,” which sounds fine, but the problem is that when, as Rand consciously does, the artist lops away parts of human existence she believes to be unimportant, we get substandard art.

The artist knows what she is out to prove and sets out to do it. No discovery for the writer, then none for the reader. Rand never lets the story itself say anything meaningful. You want to tell her to shut up already and tell the story. Or find a form more suited for argumentation, like an essay.

We come to art to find something important, no doubt. But it is in careful attention to the literal, physical details—quotidian, often smelly and unpleasant, even disgusting and scary—that we find the important thing for which the work is aiming. The artist is as surprised as everyone else to find the discovery hidden in the muck of life.

It is also in this close attention to the literal that paradoxically we glimpse the transcendent.

The lotus flower floats on the surface of the water, blooms in the glorious sunlight and air; but its roots are down deep underwater, in the slime of rotting leaves. It cannot be otherwise.

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  • J.H

    Ayn Rand rejects mysticism and blind faith because existence exists. Are you angry at those who denouce the possibility of Santa Claus too?

    • No. The author is not angry about that. He’s annoyed by it, though I cannot speak to his ultimate reason.

      I’m annoyed by it, too. Rand doesn’t demonstrate that faith is the antithesis of reason; she merely likens it to blind devotion and arbitrarily precludes the inherent axiom of the immanent-transcendent dichotomy, ultimately, not because she properly understands Christian love, but because she conflates it with Comtian altruism.

      As for her aesthetics, she embraces romantic realism and, therefore, eschews the rot of sentimental emotionalism, yet she fails to appreciate the necessity to delve into what Vic calls “the muck” of reality in order to accentuate its stunning sublimities. She never gets there. But this goes to the shortcomings of her particular biases, those of the materialist, not necessarily to the aesthetics of romantic realism. I myself prefer the works of the classical romanticists, that is, those among the early romanticists who eschewed not only the excesses of empiricism but the bromides of Rousseau and the French Revolutionists.

  • Craig

    I’ve sometimes wondered at the significant demographic overlap of Ayn Randians and evangelicals. What explains it?

    My guess is that it’s the result of democratic politics. Put yourselves in the shoes of the very wealthy. In a democracy you need votes to secure your interests. Your own demographic, the very wealthy, is far too small. What large constituency can you cheaply and effectively entice over to your side? The obvious answer is the very religious, the evangelicals. Say a few things against gay marriage, the evils of abortion, or drugs, or gambling, or Islam, and you’ve won them over; you’ve tapped into their religious fervor; you’ve made crusaders of them for your own political party. And you needn’t worry about these folks being overly critical; they believe, after all, in talking snakes. The ideal infrastructure is already in place: preachers, priests, and pastors will declare your message to large and captive and unquestioning audiences across the nation every Sunday morning.

    Once enticed into political marriage to the interests of the very wealthy, the church begins to adopt the economic views of partner and ally, the peculiar ideology custom-fit to serve the rich. Church goers even begin seeing libertarian principles in Jesus’s teaching. And so young evangelicals, even those left cold by their parents’ social conservatism, come to discover in themselves surprising affinities to Ayn Rand. The kids are simply taking up the interests of their new stepfather.

    Is there a better explanation?

    • David

      A better explanation would be an unshakeable belief in a ‘just world’ binds together the fundamentalist and the Rand lover. The just world view is that you get what you deserve in life. Therefore, people who ascribe to a strict traditional moral code will be blessed by God and those that disagree should be punished, ostracized, and even killed. Bad things do not happen to good people except when it is the will of God. This is the basic idea behind the steady stream of rape comments by politicians that want to criminalize all abortions.

      From an economic standpoint, that means the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve to suffer. Replace God with the “free market” and you left with the same simplistic view that bad things do not happen to good people and good things do not happen to bad people (unless government gets in the way).

      I am not sure younger generations are buying the just world idea as much as previous generations. Many have worked hard in school, played by the rules, and cannot find living wage jobs. Many are working low wage jobs with few opportunities for advancement and few benefits. No matter how hard they work, they will always be living on the edge economically. Likewise, these same young people are turning away from religion because they see it as just meaningless or mean-spirited rules.

      When you hear blame the victim rhetoric, just remember the people saying it probably believe that bad things do not happen to good people.

      • In some ways, this explanation is even worse than Craig’s. Deplorable. Frightening. Behold the future of America: the sophomoric, infantile assessments of political correctness.

    • I’m an evangelical.

      New flash: Christians do not see themselves or the world as you imagine. They are the least gullible people in the world. You just imagine that they are easily taken in by demagoguery because (1) you do not appreciate the devastation of sexual immorality, for example, and (2) assume an elaborate political conspiracy of sorts as a result of your collectivist, slogan-riddled narrative of reality.

      The best answer to your question: the metaphysics, epistemology and politics of Objectivism and Judeo-Christianity are similar, more similar than even Rand herself appreciated . . . though Objectivism‘s metaphysics and epistemology be woefully incomplete with regard to its account of being and for the justification of knowledge. It’s she who unwittingly flies close to the truth despite her atheistic materialism and rational egoism.

      Long before Atlas Shrugged, the principles of classical liberalism were extrapolated from Judeo-Christianity’s moral system of thought. Christians were expounding the principles of liberty predicated on private property long before Rand came along.

      Dear Lord, you don’t know your history, that of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening and the American Revolution, just for starters.

  • Recently, Ayn Rand and her novels are in the news again. I was jolted back to the experience of reading Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged in high school. A friend of mine suggested it, and I was shocked by Rand’s extreme philosophy of selfishness. The other day, I asked that friend why she was so interested in Rand when we were young. She answered in a way that revealed just how much she had changed over the years by saying, “Everything I believe now is the antithesis of what Ayn Rand stands for.”

    Personally, I would also add that it is the antithesis of Christ’s teaching. I think what shocked me is that Rand’s philosophy is so like the thinking behind financial institutions or companies, which apply extreme tactics for credit cards or mortgages, or make poor quality or unhealthy products. After knowing a “young” candidate for vice president respects this kind of thought and adheres to most of it caused me to have the realization that Rand has had much more influence on our society than I ever imagined. Not that she’s responsible for human selfishness, but her novels seem to be guidebooks on how to trick and cheat those who do not have economic wealth or are middle class by extreme tactics for credit cards or mortgages. It was a kind of epiphany for me: The drive for greed no matter how poor the products are or how high the fees are is not just human nature, it’s a philosophy I read about in high school and had forgot about.

  • I have enjoyed Rand’s fiction because of her passion for the ideas she espouses, even though I don’t agree with her. I have not enjoyed Dante much, but I wouldn’t claim Rand was a better writer.

    It seems worth noting, though, that –

    ‘when, as Rand consciously does, the artist lops away parts of human existence she believes to be unimportant, we get substandard art.’

    – could very easily be applied to everyone’s darling, Jane Austen…

  • You want Ayn Rand to give us more of the quotidian – the mundane? She is too abstract and didactic you say? Well our current economic crises has gone on for so long it has gotten boringly mundane, but it mirrors the world of Atlas Shrugged – a society disintegrating from the morality of self-sacrifice. Her powers of abstraction were awesome, but they were based on the ability to integrate real events into first hand generalizations from which she could project the future. That is why she is as relevant today as she was fifty years ago.

    • mizlily

      I write fiction and poetry. I hope no one ever tells me that my writing is only as dull as the current economic situation.

      • ploober

        Your poetry is as dull as a rock left in water.

    • Eric

      So she’s totally irrelevant now, just like she was fifty years ago? Atlas Shrugged literally bears no recognizable traits that would imply it’s relevant to today’s society. Hyper simplistic, borderline evil economic policies are not valuable now, and they were not valuable at the start of the Cold War.

  • Ryan

    Craig asked what explains demographic overlap with “Randians” and evangelicals? Then supposes they are simply deceived by the very wealthy in order to get their votes. Myself being one of these individuals can give some insight. I have decided of my own to follow the teachings of Christ. But I do not believe the teachings of Christ should be mandated onto the public through social policy. I believe we were created as free souls and that liberty and individual freedom are honorable characteristics of a free society. I agree with the founding fathers of our country that people are born with inalienable rights from their creator, and that these rights should not be infringed upon by government. Ayn Rand believes that prosperity is acheived through society seaking individual interests. So personally, we choose to follow Christ, but we desire others to choose that way for themselves, not be mandated how to live by government.

    • ploober

      To further push for Craig’s probing, the issue is not that Ayn Rand opposes economic and social systems that seem inherently Christian, (I recognize that that is debatable,) but that her Objectivist “philosophy” is actually entirely incompatible with Christian ethical philosophy and the theological “truths” of that religion. So many parrots of the right wing political pundits toss around the term Randian or claim affinity with her philosophy as if she were the first to espouse individualist and capitalist ideals in tandem. I would argue that her ideas are extremely derivative, her epistemology is poorly argued for, and her philosophy is entirely based upon reason. All reputable philosophers today [imo] are those that take an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, when making claims about the baseness of the altruist, she might present anthropological/statistical evidence for her claims. Rather, she uses anecdotal, or worse, fictive analogical evidence by way of her novels. The point is, she is not a good example of a philosopher and one could certainly cite other advocates of individualism and the protection of “inalienable rights” who have stronger arguments and who’s views are at least compatible with Christianity (and also better artists). Rand’s popularity is likely due to the exposition of her hardline laissez faire capitalist views by Americans with political interests in the time of the cold war. These people were driven to establish the capitalist/communist false dichotomy and, evidently and unsurprisingly, had a field day with Rand’s novels.

  • Mattiedef

    I’ve read fountainhead. At the time I was young, I considered it somewhat interesting. But not about her philosophy. I thought Roarke was boring and uninteresting character. Anyone who considers change of character from being an eleven-year old a BAD thing is going to come off hilariously 2D. Sure, Roarke was a mature 11 year old, but hey. It did turn me onto architecture and the affect it has on everyone’s daily lives. How it can change and shape the world around us for better or worse. Why it can be important for people to use local area construction techiniques combined with modern psychology and sociology.

    Also the logic behind blowing up the building was “I designed it, so I get to destroy it.” I’m sorry, but you designing it negates everyone’s labor to build it? All the money spent funding the design process and the capital spent on the construction? You, having one little niggle on your artistic vision, get to destroy it? That’s selfish to the point that anyone who has any thought or claim that they had the hand in the design could destroy it… as opposed to say, suing someone? That’s completely 100% insane.

  • I don’t mind so much the lack of realism (though I think that keeps her books from being great literature) as I do their length. If you’re going to tell me that I should brutalize women, oppress the poor and weak, and worship myself, please do it in less than 100 pages so I can get on with my life and not have to feel like a monster for not finishing a book.

    • ploober

      lol. yousafunnyguy.

  • So I just came to this article researching reasons why Ayn Rand is a bad philosopher, which I do believe, but — for whatever it’s worth — I find your criticism of her aesthetics to be strictly your opinion. I don’t see any reason to say that your account of aesthetics is necessarily the case. For whatever reason, some people really like her stuff. It may be horrendous philosophy, but it is nevertheless aesthetically appealing to some, which is precisely what gives her bad philosophy a glamorous finish to allow its faults to pass by unnoticed.