Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ayn Rand in Wonderland

This month, Atlas Shrugged completes fifty years of its existence. It reminds of my non-iterative love-hate relationship with Ayn Rand. I was in high school when I completed this book. It was the first piece of serious literature I ever read. And, expectedly, I was blown off by it

When I look back, the book resembles like an intellectual version of a bollywood potboiler. A fantastic escape for the ordinary into extraordinary. Everyone is exceptionally talented in the book. Some even exceptionally rich. Common man has no place in her society. He is a passive sheep who has to be led by the ‘minds of the world’. Only people who are the ‘best’ of the society need to be talked about. Sounds like an intellectual Page 3. Doesn’t it? Such artistic liberty may be fine for a book like Fountainhead which deals with objectivism at an individual level. But when you try to extrapolate it to the wider canvas of society, characterization should be representative. Rand easily forgets that all those “talented” businessmen and artists need the man on the road for their survival. Her conception of Atlantis, completes her denial of the common man. It is surprising that she chooses a fantasy land as a ‘rational’ solution to the problem.

Despite the flagrant contradiction, Atlas Shrugged comes out as the most influential book after Bible for the Americans. But I don’t find any influence of Atlas Shrugged on America. Rather, America stands for everything that was denounced in the book. Instead of innovation and ingenuity, the American corporations now rely on non-tariff barriers, strategic superiority and even brute force to make money. The nation that has a statue for liberty is holding thousands under indefinite detention violating principles of natural justice. The biggest joke is that while Rand celebrates the Dollar as the proof of infinite superiority of the human mind, every dollar itself states that “In God We Trust”.

The only visible influence is that most people just pick up Rand’s hedonistic morality to justify their ways and views of life. For this, Rand creates numerous characters to reinforce her idea of morality. One excellent example is, Hank Rearden, a man who invents some strange blue steel, which is supposed to be the elixir of infrastructure. The society, externally, and his family, internally, are depicted as thankless leeches who suck him for their survival. And just like the gullible readers, this man of munificence, suddenly realizes that there is nothing wrong in abandoning his factory and family. I say, he should actually be thankful to his family members for giving him a chance to be their savior and stoke his ego.

Societally speaking, what if Hank Rearden invented a cure for AIDS rather than that silly blue steel? Would all those who worship him still agree if he refuses to sell the drug at a price other than that he determines and only to people whom he chooses? Or still further, what if my happiness lies chopping the fingers of persons whose name begins with “H”? After all, by the Randian philosophy happiness should be the only guiding principle. So at close quarters, the whole philosophy becomes animalistic way of life. (May be that is why their sex is characterized by violence, rape, BDSM and adultery.)

Randians might argue that your happiness should be pursued only to the extent that it doesn’t hurt others. But who will draw the line? A neutral regulator? That can’t be. As Anaconia in his celebrated speech says “production cannot be decided by those who do not produce”. So unless you are a serial killer, you can’t regulate my homicides.

May be Ayn Rand did not know how to find answers to all these. So she very simply created an imaginary isolated land where all like minded people get away. Great. But why will the world stop? If Newton did not wonder about apples, Clinton would have. I wonder how all her “extraordinary” minds were so like-minded. Why did not their intellectual superiority have different perspectives of life and happiness?

She calls those who tax the ‘productive’ population to fund welfare schemes as ‘looters’. Her naivety doesn’t get better than this. It is because of the ‘looters’ that the ‘minds of the world’ had law and order and social and physical infrastructure on which their genius could blossom. Again, my friends on the other side of fence would love Rand as she gives them a reason to cuss the tax collectors.

Ayn Rand understood neither man nor the society. She knew neither economics nor politics. Yet she set off to paint a grandiose philosophy and, expectedly, it was neither rational nor sustainable. She should have done some reading of her compatriot, Dostovesky. The consequence of assumed intellectual superiority, and the resultant liberty to act by personal judgment alone, was beautifully brought out through Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. While he showed how one Raskolnikov was an abberation, Ayn Rand fills up the Atlas Shrugged with umpteen Raskolnikovs and claims them to be the saviors of the world. Atlas Shrugged is interesting, but, as Abi calls it, a hoax. ,“John Galt – it's time to come home and go to work.

15 comments:

mutRupuLLi said...

Very well written piece...CV.....You do have a very nice style.
Have never read Rand's novels...but have read enough on objectivism to not agree with it though......And quite unusually for a scientist I don't really care much for rationalism......

Cosmic Voices said...

Thanks Mutrupulli!

I am sure you will have an interesting career ahead. I say this not because you are one my very few regular readers; but because you are ready to go beyond rationality.

The moment to abide by rationality, you are limiting the boundaries of your thought process. More importantly, behavior of no living organism is rational. So only those who attempt to go beyond rationality, would understand man, failing which, there is not much charm in being a human being.

mutRupuLLi said...

Attaboy CV...:)

mutRupuLLi said...

BTW, I hope u wrote Clinton thing just because it rhymed with Newton... Hard to see which American President would have had the brains to think about all the stuff that Newton thought....

kuffir said...

'Her conception of Atlantis, completes her denial of the common man. It is surprising that she chooses a fantasy land as a ‘rational’ solution to the problem.'

that about sums up rand.. liked this post a lot, cv.

Cosmic Voices said...

@Kuffir

Glad that you liked it.

@ Mutrupulli

I don't see much difference between Newton and Clinton.

Newton raked his brains on why things went down. Clinton put in the same effort to understand why "things" went up.

You educated people don't appreciate politicians and their "efforts".

Krish said...

I never respected Ayn Rand. I always considered her philosophy as a reactionary response to soviet communism than anything positive. Her opinions about women made her the most irrational person to talk about rationality.

PS: Sorry for responding to this post now. After I landed in India, I have not checked my feed reader.

Cosmic Voices said...

Krish,

The cause of worry is that there seems to be a sudden resurgence of Atlas Shrugged. I remember getting that book from Delhi many years ago as it was not available locally.

But these days, it is available in plenty on the footpaths, which is a sure sign of its rising popularity.

And her language and the plot is so seductive, that teens easily fall prey to it. Just like they fell to RDB.

By the way, thanks for pointing out her condescending attitude towards women. I wonder how many girls still swear by the book.

Chimera said...

I did go thro' the phase of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged in college, but believe me my best dream is to viualise how objectivism would work in India (it's even difficult to dream about it..)

Ravi Ivaturi said...

Dude, I am no Ayn Rand’s fan either.. But some of your criticism comes off as pretty na├»ve and immature. The title ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is an allusion to the Greek Titan who’s forced to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Clearly this novel is about those who ‘make things happen’ rather than‘who watch and wonder what happened’ and surely your ‘common man’ wouldn’t fit the bill. Ayn Rand represents an elitist’s view point- which means in the ‘intellectual’ sense; there is not too much room at the top. That doesn’t necessarily translate into denial of the common man.

And pursuing happiness in any way you want has consequences, for John Galt it meant loneliness/betrayal and I presume I don’t have to describe explicitly the consequences of cutting of fingers…

Cosmic Voices said...

Naive and immature?

May be I am so. Or may be the idea was so that it attracts such criticism. After all, any stupid idea can be presented in a very intellectual manner.

When she went on to paint her vision of society, she should have taken a holistic perspective, not elitist. To think that the world would collapse just because a microscopic minority quit, is the heights of immaturity. But since she makes an interesting presentation, it becomes a drama that is to be taken with a pinch of salt and since I am plain and prosaic, I am naive.

And by the way, it takes a lot of people to "make things happen". Not just a handful peer-certified intellectuals.

Madhukar said...

Nice write-up!

When I had discovered Rand, as an adolescent, I found her individualism quite romantic and appealing (maybe that is what one needs psychologically when one is young and growing up) but soon realised that it was, after all, only 'romanticism'. Got disillusioned by a couple of realisations:

one, what you rightly and nicely said in the last comment, that it takes a lot of people to make things happen. Rand's world revolved around the metaphor of 'lone-ranger' cowboys and "angry young man"...

and two, all her protogonists were invariably "engineers"... other professions, somehow, never featured in her scheme of what make the society work. Correspondingly, her world seemed to be mechanistic, devoid of any "human" interface...

I think one should treat the necessity of reading Ayn Rand the same way one treats the necessity of reading fairy tales at a particular age in life. They look real at that time, and then one grows up ;)

Cosmic Voices said...

Well said Madhukar!

Atlas Shrugged is a fairy tale for the adolescents. The tragedy is that some refuse to grow up from there.

Nikhil said...

"Everyone is exceptionally talented in the book. Some even exceptionally rich. Common man has no place in her society. "

Disagree. Common men did have a place in her novel. Eddie Willers epitomized the common man. He was neither exceptionally talented nor exceptionally rich, but he knew a man of ability when he saw one.And he did have a place in an Ideal Randian society.


"He is a passive sheep who has to be led by the ‘minds of the world’.

Of course. Eddie, being the epitome of the common man, was, in a way, a passive sheep who was led by
The "minds of the world"(And, in fact, dint have an qualms about it). But don't you think that is the very Definition of a common man?!

"Only people who are the ‘best’ of the society need to be talked about. "

Of course, that was the very purpose of the novel. It HAD to concern itself with only the best minds of the society, failing which defeated the purpose of the novel. But if you are talking about an Ideal Randian society, then I would have to disagree. Every Man, according to Rand, ideally, is an end in himself. He does not require nor seek the validation of another man nor the society, save the tacit appreciation of his peer.


"Rand easily forgets that all those “talented” businessmen and artists need the man on the road for their survival."

How, may I ask?


"Her conception of Atlantis, completes her denial of the common man."

I don't think so. Was it denial of looters? yes. They were also people who ran grocery stores in her Atlantis.

"It is surprising that she chooses a fantasy land as a ‘rational’ solution to the problem."

I don’t think it was a solution to a problem in the novel. It was rather presenting a problem to the world, expressed as
"What happens when men of ability go on strike?" The theme of the novel ,best expressed in Rand's own words, was-" the role of the mind in man's existence"


" But I don’t find any influence of Atlas Shrugged on America."

You will never find the influence, If the book which influenced people many , many times over Atlas shrugged, is the bible-- the exact anti-thesis of the atlas shrugged.

"Would all those who worship him still agree if he refuses to sell the drug at a price other than that he determines and only to people whom he chooses?"


You have to first understand the motivations of the people whom Hank refused to deal with.
Please read the novel again.


"But who will draw the line? A neutral regulator?"

Isn't Rational thought enough to draw a line for ourselves? We have to be our own regulators. You don't need a neutral.Besides, chopping off fingers(or any similar destructive thought), no matter how much happiness it brings to your life, is not rationality. It is Insanity.

"As Anaconia in his celebrated speech says “production cannot be decided by those who do not produce”. So unless you are a serial killer, you can’t regulate my homicides."

Bad Analogy. A line which was never intended to be analogised to suit your conclusions.

"Why did not their intellectual superiority have different perspectives of life and happiness?"

Good point. History has shown us some intellectuals or men of ability, who would beg to differ with
Rand's point of view.But again, Like the author voices Aristotle in one of her other works- the romantic manifesto- that " Fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history(or reality) because history
Represents things as they are,while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be."On these
Lines, Rand took the artistic liberty of selectively recreating the reality.


"She calls those who tax the ‘productive’ population to fund welfare schemes as ‘looters’".

From which Chapter of the novel did you conclude this Idea??!! You have to understand the motivations and the psychology behind the looters of the novel. If you understand the characters like wesley mouch or Orren Boyle, you will have reason to believe that they never had such intentions and merely made themselves believe they had.

sudhanshu shekhar said...

See. No person can claim to depict a society which is having no infirmities. But one must try to understand the basic principle of Rand's envisaged society.
There is no 'common man' as such. Every person is special. He becomes common only when he does something different from what he is best in. Rand envisions a society wherein every man is doing the thing he is intrinsically interested in. And thereby eliminating the 'common man'. The practical viability of such society is disputable but there is no harm in striving for it in terms of degrees.
We will understand Rand well when we will devote some time everyday to do in which we are intrinsically good. It is hundred percent sure that we will be giving to the world something new.
You see, in Rand's world Arvind will be a writer, Amitabh Bachhan, a radio jockey, will be an actor, Sachin Tendulkar, a tenth fail student, will be a batsman, the common man who is a sweeper on road may be a potter. So, even though that world is a pure hypothesis, still this world can strive for that when Arvind starts writing a little more.

Shayad thoda jyada ho gaya. :)