North Texas Objectivist Society (NTOS) Message Board › Ayn Rand in Star Telegram Sunday
|A former member||
This was in today's paper.
What a noble mind was there o'erthrown
By Alan Cochrum
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
For a great many people, Ayn Rand is a glowing light in a dark abyss, an intellectual beacon that draws them into a circle of rational illumination.
She has a certain fascination for me, too, but the gravitation is different. It is the appalling spell cast by a train wreck: the grotesque allure of crumpled metal, pools of fuel and oil, shattered ties, wrenched rails -- the shining products of the human mind, smashed by some great error.
Early in Rand's last novel, a dashing industrialist looks at his ex-lover's evening-gown-clad body and remarks: "Dagny, what a magnificent waste!"
I look at the life and writing of Rand -- who was born 100 years ago this month and produced one of the most influential books in American history, and the philosophical system of Objectivism to boot -- and I come perilously close to thinking the same thing.
If Rand's work is stereotypically a youthful rite of passage, I came late to it -- or maybe not. Well into my adult years, her landscapes of the American and Russian spirit were unknown to me. But Anthem -- ah, yes, that I knew.
Published years before George Orwell's 1984, Anthem is a short, stylized, almost poetic dystopia about a decayed society in which individualism is anathema: "We are one in all and all in one./There are no men but only the great WE,/One, indivisible and forever." The hero -- Equality 7-2521, a young man of scientific bent sentenced to street-sweeping -- rebels against this tyranny and, along with his beautiful girlfriend, goes into triumphant exile until a future day of liberation.
I rather liked the story, or at least most of it. But at the time, Rand's name meant nothing to me.
Fast-forward about two decades. Two of my newspaper colleagues were Objectivists, and I was curious.
I read Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand, a 1989 memoir by Nathaniel Branden; and The Passion of Ayn Rand, a 1986 biography by Branden's ex-wife, Barbara; and Who Is Ayn Rand?, a 1962 tribute/analysis by the Brandens, written while they were sitting at the author's right and left hand in her intellectual kingdom.
I read We the Living, Rand's 1936 first novel, set in the Soviet Union that she fled as a young woman. I read The Fountainhead, her breakthrough 1943 tale of an intransigently individualistic architect.
And I pored over Atlas Shrugged, the massive 1957 tale of a steel magnate and a railroad executive who -- with a supporting cast that includes a flamboyant copper king, a philosophy student turned pirate, an elusive engineer and a multitude of slovenly, parasitic villains -- seeks the answer to the societal malaise that is leaching the life from a once proud and mighty America.
(Full disclosure: Did I actually peruse this 1,000-plus-page book cover to cover? No. But I read so much of it piecemeal, and so much about it in other sources, that I'd be willing to pit my familiarity with the novel against that of anyone with a mere once-all-the-way-through acquaintance.)
One can cross swords with the mind behind Atlas Shrugged on any number of grounds: economic philosophy, ethics, literature, theories of knowledge … But to pick an issue out a hat, I question her view of human nature.
• • •
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" the Psalmist asks God. "For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour."
Rand, of course, had no interest in that deity stuff. For her, there was no god but man, and she was his literary and philosophical prophet. (She proclaimed her atheism on two grounds: There is no convincing evidence of God, and the existence of God essentially would bump man into second place in the universe.)
Read Atlas Shrugged, and you see humanity with an odd double vision.
There are "the men of the mind" -- the innovative, the productive, the strivers, those rigorous with themselves and all others: the Francisco d'Anconias, the Hank Reardens, the John Galts.
And there are their opposite numbers -- the "looters," the "mystics," the spiritual and literal thugs, the moist weaklings, the death-worshipers: the James Taggarts, the Wesley Mouches, the Floyd Ferrises.
And in the world of Atlas Shrugged, that is pretty much it. Oh, yes, a certain number don't quite make the starting lineup but still do their best -- particularly Eddie Willers, one of the book's most likable characters. But in this literary world, you're generally either a madonna or a whore.
The Passion of Ayn Rand quotes publisher Bennett Cerf: "She thinks that strong, selfish people should prevail, and that, in reality, two percent of the population is supporting the other ninety-eight percent." Here is half of the problem with Rand's view of human nature: Are most of us really the dull-witted drones or outright leeches who inhabit so much of Atlas Shrugged?
One of the novel's key plot devices is the gradual vanishing of brilliant business leaders. Time after time, these disappearances are swiftly followed by the companies' collapse. The clear implication: The remaining executives and employees are too incompetent to keep things running.
In fairness, one could argue that Rand is using stylization and compression to paint her picture and that too much should not be read into this. However, Nathaniel Branden portrays his former mentor as an excruciatingly careful writer who labored for hours over her sentences. It's hard to avoid the idea that what's in her magnum opus is there because Rand believed that it needed to be there.
There is more to this argument than the nuances of Atlas Shrugged. Rand had a record of thoroughgoing disdain for those who didn't measure up to her intellectual standards.
"When anyone compliments me," she says in Barbara Branden's biography, "my first question is: What's my estimate of the source of the compliments? Is it a mind I respect? When it's a mind that understands what I've done, then it's an enormous pleasure. Anything less than that -- no. I don't really want anything but the response of top minds."
In the wake of reviewers' eviscerating response to Atlas Shrugged, Rand felt "like an adult sentenced to live in a world of children," Nathaniel Branden recalled, "some of whom might be very 'nice' but children nonetheless."
And then there is the other -- more subtle, more crucial -- half of the problem with Rand's view of mankind.
Atlas Shrugged is a hymn to the human spirit. "Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads," Galt says in a speech that is perhaps the book's most famous section. "… Do not let the hero in your soul perish …. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind."
Hymns, of course, are sung to gods, and gods need to be … well, close to perfect if not actually there. And between the many lines of Atlas Shrugged is the idea that human beings can indeed measure up to such standards -- that we can reach an Atlantis of unquestionable ration-ality and principled self-interest in which conflicts are always avoidable.
It is the dream of the societal machine that needs no oil -- a device in which the parts are so perfectly crafted, and work in such exquisite harmony,
|A former member||
I know you guys will like this. Good job Edwin!!!!!
Posted on Wed, Mar. 02, 2005
Read Rand yourself
Regarding Alan Cochrum's Sunday essay, "Ayn Rand/What a noble mind was there o'erthrown":
I wish to alert your readers to the fact that there's an extensive subculture of Ayn Rand haters -- so much so that a book titled The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (available from AynRandBookstore.com) has been published to expose the constant din of vicious and spurious attacks on her and her philosophy of Objectivism.
Cochrum's piece was typical of the flurry of hatchet jobs on the occasion of Rand's centenary. By his own admission, he has read her magnum opus only "piecemeal." But it's necessary to read Rand's nonfiction works to understand Objectivism.
In lieu of a fundamental grasp of her works, Cochrum admittedly got his information from others, most notably from the very two individuals in the forefront of the incessant drive to impugn Rand's legacy.
I discovered Rand almost four decades ago. I heard her lecture many times and have read virtually everything she published -- most of it repeatedly. One cannot obtain an understanding of Rand's works from secondhanders. Read her for yourself.
Edwin R. Thompson, New York