March 12, 2021

My frustratingly appreciative feelings on Ayn Rand.

Let's make this clear right up front: Ayn Rand sucked. She was a delusional, petty person who admired mass murderers, espoused a political worldview that was contemptuous, racist, and a little too giddy about borderline-genocidal fantasies. People who like Ayn Rand frequently but not always manage to be, not only pieces of shit, but tedious pieces of shit, as if they couldn't even bother to be charismatic shitheads, the way psychopaths typically are.

Conventional wisdom is, Ayn Rand sucks through-and-through. She's radioactive. Everything about her is bad. And that's the part I struggle with. Because, much as her work is deeply poisonous, there's something buried beneath the poison—decidedly not the other way around—that I found extremely valuable growing up, and find myself thinking about more often than I'm comfortable with. A friend of mine is dealing with some garbage in their life right now, and the writer I find myself wishing I could recommend is... well... Rand. Because Rand said the things I wish I could say to them. She just also said a bunch of gross things about how poor people deserve to die, and how non-American companies should be invaded for their own good.

It is possible, God bless, that you have never read any Ayn Rand. Let me do my best to explain a little.

Rand was a huge fan of conflating personal and sociopolitical matters. She loved saying things like The way you fuck tells me everything about what kind of world you believe in, and wrote really raunchy/problematic sex scenes in between her characters' famously long monologues about "philosophy". In other words, girl was grandiose—and a lot of what makes her work frustrating is that she had a wildly misplaced idea of just how Big her ideas were. Things which might've raised eyebrows when they were studies of characters making out and looking for work become, well, a bit creepy once you turn them into parables about how government should work.

Where Rand's typical haters and I diverge is that I think she was a shockingly precise judge of a certain kind of character, and a certain kind of emotion. Specifically, she was a fantastic chronicler of self-doubt, and of the ways in which people struggle to accept their own perceptions and feelings in the midst of peer pressure. She was also, and this is key, eagle-eyed and vicious in depicting the myriad ways in which insecure people lash out at others for daring to have opinions of their own.

Both of Rand's two major novels, The Fountainhead (rapey) and Atlas Shrugged (genocidey), are fundamentally about Decent People struggling with a world that thinks they're arrogant, conceited, and possibly evil. In both books, the key theme is: these people only struggle to the extent that they accept that judgment, and allow other people's opinions of them to define who they really are. Eventually, they decide that they're not arrogant so much as they just want to dream of wonderful things and a better world, stop listening to the #haters, and go on to have lots of good times/sex with their friends.

The difference between the two novels is that The Fountainhead is fundamentally about a person, and Atlas Shrugged is fundamentally about society. Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead, is a young architect in a world that just hates him, mainly because he doesn't know how to apologize for liking a certain type of building. The novel is about the slow, rocky start he has to his career, and the self-hating hottie who's so upset at his suggestion that people could be Better that she sets out to ruin his career. Meanwhile, over in Atlas Shrugged, the protagonist is Dagny Taggart, president of a major railroad company. Roark starts on the very bottom; Taggart starts more-or-less on top. Roark's story is of a man learning to find his place in the world. Dagny's story is of a very successful woman learning that, unless we all vote Republican, the world will hate us for being successful and slowly ruin our lives. Hm!!

The problem is, "bitchy people want to drag me down" makes for realistic interpersonal conflict—and while The Fountainhead exaggerates just how much the world is out to get this one guy, there's still something recognizable in his struggle. Rand does a fantastic job (in my opinion) of capturing this guy's weird dreams and the ache he feels at not birthing them, while depicting why others struggle to recognize what they are until it's way too late. She captures a marvelous range of negative reactions to him, and has a pretty solid grasp of where all the #haters are coming from! His chief rival got into architecture solely for purposes of fame and money, and spends his time surfing trends; his success doesn't keep him from resenting Roark's earnest passions, though, so he oscillates between smarmily bragging about his success and sullen, childish resentment. Meanwhile, there's a newspaper magnate who, while brilliant, feels nothing but contempt for his readership, stirring up their lowest and basest elements to make a quick buck. (You've also got a hilarious mustache-twirling communist who's absolutely implausible and just an absolute delight to behold, so we forgive him his cartoonish villainry.) The whole book is a study in personal grievances, deep-rooted resentments, and how people react when faced with things they don't understand, and people who don't share their paranoias and anxieties towards the world.

Atlas Shrugged takes that and attempts to blow it up into a geopolitical argument about how communism is... the ideology of resentment, more-or-less. Its wide-eyed thesis, which it believes without a shred of irony, is that there are Successful people and Unsuccessful people, the latter of which are trying to pass laws to punish the former. They claim to be humanitarian, but they actually hate humanity: they want to punish anyone who dares to be better than anybody else in any way, more-or-less. From the very start, Atlas Shrugged is a weirdly flawed and broken novel, which is wild, coming from someone who spent a long time chronicling the ways in which miserable people fuck each other up just fine without the government's help. She's surprisingly sympathetic towards her Fountainhead sadsacks, but "sympathetic and well-meaning" only goes so far when you want to end your book with (spoilers) a cabal of billionaire capitalists destroying America so they can remake it in their image, and still call themselves the heroes. So, while she has a couple of killer character portraits in Atlas—there's a bitter wife who I absolutely adore—the villains, by and large, are reduced to shrill assholes who hate nice things for no reason.

It's telling that The Fountainhead is fundamentally about an artist—one whose work is rooted in materials and businesses and can't be made cheaply, but an artist nonetheless—while Atlas Shrugged is principally about a businesswoman. Art is an attempt, not just to express, but to communicate: to make others see what you're seeing. Following an artist lets Ayn Rand address some of the big questions about how we relate to others: how do we let others see what's inside us? How do we handle people who are simply unable (or unwilling) to see what we see? And what leads people to attack and belittle other people, simply for not immediately fitting in? Rand tries to argue, in Atlas, that business is to societies what art is to individuals, and that capitalism is the expression of a nation's soul... but to tell that story, she has to reduce business and politics to caricatures of themselves, including the infamous part where her heroes literally only succeed by inventing a perpetual motion machine. Her vision of the world, in other words, is physically impossible.

And I'd be remiss if I acted like Rand is as simple (or as salvageable!) as "one book good, one book bad". The Fountainhead has a lot of icky bits in it, including its iconic is-it-rape-or-isn't-it scene, and its slightly-less-iconic bit where Our Hero bombs a public housing facility. There are nuances to both moments—and I'm actually likelier to view both sympathetically than not—but even the most generous interpretation is that Rand is playing with some very dangerous subjects, loudly and loosely and without the sophistication she'd need to really pull them off. Ironically, The Fountainhead is at its most likable before Roark fully develops his ideology; once he pieces it all together, it's impossible not to see how slimy and oily it is, how glibly it denies humanity to people it deems unworthy, how casually okay it is with the prospect of violence. And that's true before you jump ahead to Atlas Shrugged, in which Rand flat-out tells you that a trainful of people deserved to die horrifically for not having the same politics as her, and climaxes with a billionaire shooting a security guard point-blank in the face and calling it a noble act. 

I'm not here to say that Ayn Rand deserves to be re-evaluated. She doesn't deserve an advocate—not even a devil's advocate. But that doesn't keep her work from being memorable to me, so much so that I think back to it frequently and fondly. Most frustratingly, I think about her most of all when friends of mine are struggling with their self-esteem, or dealing with people who seem hellbent on cutting them down for no good reason. Rand captures what it feels like to doubt yourself more comprehensively than I've discovered in any other writer. And her portrayals of the sorts of shithead who would rip into your vulnerabilities and passions without bothering to understand them first are simultaneously empathetic and brutal: she takes the time to see why those people might behave the way they do, but isn't above savaging them either. She's not a brilliant student of human behavior, but what she captures, she captures beautifully—right up until she doesn't.

There's a passage that lives rent-free in my head, from an early chapter in The Fountainhead. It's the first time we meet Ralston Holcombe, the president of the Architects' Guild of America. We get a great snappy description of him physically ("Ralston Holcombe had no visible neck, but his chin took care of that"), and then Rand gets down to telling us what kind of man this is:

Ralston Holcombe did not subscribe to the views of his colleagues in the organization. He was not a grubbing builder nor a businessman. He was, he stated firmly, a man of ideals.

He denounced the deplorable state of American architecture and the unprincipled eclecticism of its practitioners. In any period of history, he declared, architects built in the spirit of their own time, and did not pick designs from the past; we could be true to history only in heeding her law, which demanded that we plant the roots of our art firmly in the reality of our own life. He decried the stupidity of erecting buildings that were Greek, Gothic or Romanesque; let us, he begged, be modern and build in the style that belongs to our days. He had found that style. It was Renaissance.

Holcombe, a relatively minor character, is one of a dozen-odd architects we meet who suck in some way, shape, or form; each one serves, as surely as the children in Willy Wonka's factory do, to illuminate a different kind of hypocritical shithead. Holcombe is one of a few who seems to come this close to getting it, then veers off at the last minute into a brand-new flavor of awful. And the idea of an artist who boldly hollers about how bold and original and authentic they are, and just means that they're ripping off a slightly different older thing, rings deliciously true to me. Trendsetting often just means stealing trendiness from a different era than what's currently being stolen from; intellectual circles sometimes get locked into a pattern of people figuring out which names haven't dropped lately, so they can seem fresh and original for dropping them. And there's something that rankles about them doing that while simultaneously yelling about how daring and original they are—because, no matter what's in style, what matters is of course standing out and seeming new. Even if "new", in this case, means "novelty" more than it means anything substantial.

If Rand had been content to be a chronicler of hypocrisy, a portrayer of how much of a struggle it can be to be sure of yourself in a treacherous world of other people's opinions, she might have made something wonderful. But she was a megalomaniac, and refused to believe that her gifts were for detail rather than big-picture. So she developed an ideology around the struggle she saw, and the ideology flattered narcissists and sociopaths, and when she broadened it enough it also flattered the rich and powerful, who subsequently helped her gain influence and win power. In the end, it's hard to divorce Ayn Rand from her ideology, and it's hard to adopt any part of her ideology without becoming an asshole about it, at least for a couple of years. I typically don't recommend that people read her; I'd consider it actively immoral to suggest her to people, when there's a chance they might take her too seriously and start to hurt other people in the process. 

But god, I wish I could. And I get why she's as popular as she is—I think she has gifts which her critics refuse to take seriously. More than any other author, I find myself wishing I could recommend the parts of her which I love most to other people; more than any other author, I find myself hearing about other people's struggles and wanting them to be able to get what I got out of her, at a time when I sorely needed it.

Sucks to suck, I guess!

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