Saturday, October 17, 2009

TAKING ON AYN RAND AND A WORD ON MY FOCUS THESE DAYS

A REFLECTION

Yesterday I bought Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. For years, I've debated whether to read Rand's books. I always decided against it because I yielded to the general left-wing prejudice that Rand is a "capitalist muse" and "free market apologist." In submitting to that prejudice, I thought that because I lean toward socialism, I would inevitably feel revulsion if I read her works.

But I do not want to be intellectually prejudiced. I have always enjoyed reading authors whose ideas I detest, notably Adam Smith and St. Peter. I also really enjoy reading judicial opinions by arch-conservatives whose utter lack of sympathy provides me with prime material for satire. In short, I like understanding how my ideological opponents think. I disserve myself when I simply avoid their works. It is much better when I take the time to read them, and then ruthlessly criticize them. In most cases, my criticism takes satirical form. In some cases, however, I respond with text-based essays. In the process, I see my own values more clearly. To quote an old Chinese general (probably apocryphal): "If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you cannot lose." That explains my attitude toward reading everything, even the stuff university liberals urge me to avoid.

Ayn Rand has obviously had immense philosophical influence in America. I see people reading her books all over the place, even in the New York subway. Generally, they are well-groomed looking people (always white; usually women) with small bags who look like they are going to work or coming from work. I want to understand why her ideas have won so much traction over the years. I hear that she sings odes to the individual. In that sense, I share her views. But I also hear that she sings her odes in the key of "self-interest" and "free market economics." Here I part company with Ms. Rand. Still, I will withhold calling her books "scandalous drivel," "the most abysmal trash ever printed," "repugnant, odorous nonsense," or "sheer right-wing balderdash" until I have taken the time to read them and grasp their arguments. Contrary to most American judges' approach to judicial work, I will actually give Ms. Rand her day in Court before hanging her.

So far I have read the first two pages. I am not impressed with the style. "Wet with sunrays?" "Granite explosion?" "A body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes?" This sounds like bad high school poetry, not cogent economic analysis. But I am too hasty... perhaps in the next 600 pages I will uncover some comprehensible passages.

I also noticed that Ms. Rand published The Fountainhead in 1943. This was the height of FDR's New Deal. Was she angry about governmental intrusions into "private economic autonomy?" If she was, then her position mirrors modern-day conservative objections to increased governmental encroachments into private enterprise. Just as FDR revolutionized government's role in everyday American life during the 1930s and 1940, so too is Obama "threatening" increased government involvement in American life. I think this makes reading Rand a worthwhile enterprise; there is a historical parallel at work.

Having said all this, I am sure you have noticed that I have not written a satire in a while. In less fractious times, I generally alternate between essays and satires each day. But in recent weeks, my life has been fractious at best. I am happy to have mustered the strength and mental intensity to write anything at all. My satirical ideas arise when I feel relatively carefree and confident about the future. I have not been feeling that way lately. To the contrary, I feel as if my mind is in a vice grip. I cannot really see past tomorrow or the next day. I live from hour to hour. Things have improved since last week, but I am not healed yet. Still, I am glad that I have the mental clarity to write a few essays, even if they are not as nuanced or expansive as usual.

I can assure you that more satire will land on these pages. It's just going to take a while until I can really laugh hard again. In the meantime, thanks for reading what I manage to throw down.

4 comments:

Timoteo said...

Geez, next thing we know you'll be reading Ann Coulter! LOL

Balthazar said...

Ha ha, Timoteo. I can assure you that won't happen. But I'm not afraid to read absurd stuff in order to mock it. It might turn my stomach as I read, but I will transform that into some biting satire.

SteveW said...

You should understand that Ayn Rand is not a native English speaker. Her works are philosophical, not great literature. Therefore, if you confine yourself to phrasing and grammar you should be able to tee off on her all day long.

The FountainHead is truly an inferior work to Atlas Shrugged. I would love to hear your commentary on Francisco D'Anconia's "money" speech if you should ever get that far through her material.

I would also note, for your consideration, that the super-human heroes in her works are not (IMHO) intended to be actual people, but rather intended to be that noble and capable portion of each of us. Her argument is not that society is dependent upon individual superheroes, but rather that it is dependent upon keeping the heroic portion of each individual alive. When her heroes are attacked, it is not the attack of society on the superhuman sector, but rather the incremental death of that which is great within each of us.

Trulyfool said...

Balthazar,

Years ago Rand was the darling of high schoolers I knew when I was in high school. That was largely because they considered themselves 'intellectuals' and she perched on that label while she wrote cardboard novels.

Her traction has proven durable. One reason is her adherence to capitalist 'market forces' and her understandable hatred for the centralized government she suffered under early while in Stalinist Russia.

She, like many capitalists, freely equate any centralization with totalitarian terror. They're willing to take the risk that corporate decisions may not always 'timely correct' so long as they're ahead of the curve and making a bundle.

If I'm correct, she came to the USA hoping to get that Hollywood career going, and made small headway in that direction.

Maybe there is a 'selfish basis' for us all, but there are degrees of self-interest and wider-angled notions of what 'self-interest' means -- my shotgun plus my food supply OR a community that cooperates even so far as to help those who are incapable.