I’m in rehearsal right now, directing Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (which opens at the Covey Center for the Arts Oct. 4; tickets on sale now!). The cast is very young, with actors playing characters many years older than they are, but they’re enthusiastic and talented and I’m enjoying working with them. Anyway, we were on break last night, and for some reason the conversation turned to books we read in high school English classes. And I was amazed/appalled/astonished to hear that basically all of them had read (had been required to read) Ayn Rand. Anthem, to be specific, though some of them had also read The Fountainhead. A couple of the kids had read Atlas Shrugged, but on their own, not as required class reading.
I do not intend to be critical of high school English teachers in the state of Utah. In ancient times, when I was in high school, after we hitched our horses to the schoolhouse rail, we read, I don’t know, all kinds of stuff. Most of the books assigned I’d already read–I was a major lit nerd. But we read Catcher in the Rye, assigned by my super cool favorite English teacher ever, Kenny Mann, and it felt like I’d been hit by lightning, I loved it so much. It shocked me, how much I loved that book.
But, seriously, Ayn Rand?
It just seems to me that perhaps high school English teachers could read something, maybe, a little, you know, better written. Well written, interesting story, characters, ideas. Like, I don’t know, maybe To Kill a Mockingbird, or Of Mice and Men, or I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, or Night, or Whirligig, or 1984, or Animal Farm or Farenheit 451, or Brave New World or The Old Man and the Sea, or Into the Wild or The Joy Luck Club or Beloved, or Lord of the Flies or The Pigman, or I Am The Cheese, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Things Fall Apart, or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or Life of Pi or Watership Down, or Huck Finn (which my daughter hated when it was assigned in her high school English class, but still, Huck Finn) or The Chosen, or House on Mango Street, or, I don’t know, something. (I did that off the top of my head, a few good books high school kids might like that I love; took me three minutes).
Plus, you know, Ayn Rand.
Because this is Utah, and yes, I absolutely support the separation of Church and State, and yes, we can’t be proselytizing for or against any particular religious or non-religious ideology, and certainly novels have ideas and we should be open to all ideas, maybe even especially ideas we disagree with and we should teach kids that important principle, that of reading stuff we may find wrong-headed or repugnant or vile, but this is Ayn Rand, and she really is anti-Christ, right? As in, opposing Christ?
Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins, but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected to or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal for the nonideal.
That’s Ayn Rand. The virtue of the self-realized I over the socialist we. Human progress advanced only by a few ‘ideal men’, strong men, who pursue their own rugged self-interest for purely selfish reasons, but who incidentally thereby advance all of mankind.
Okay, I’m a liberal Democrat, I think government has an obligation to care for the poor. I know a lot of conservative Republicans disagree, and think caring for the poor is best handled in the private sector, government screws it up, we should act altruistically on our own, personally. Fine, that’s a political argument worth having. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, would not have agreed with either position. She thought welfare, charity, altruism were the definition of evil. Her villains are altruists: most prominently, the altruistic Ellsworth Toohey in the Fountainhead. Should we perform acts of private charity? If it makes you feel good, sure, as long as it’s understood that you are not under any moral obligation to do anything for anyone, and that doing them is generally a bad idea, as it advances the interests of the ‘non-ideal.’
. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. . . . The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. . . This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him, and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others . . . that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental.
It might also be worth pointing out that this elevation of human selfishness has a sexual component. One key plot point in The Fountainhead is Howard Roark’s rape of Dominique Francon. Roark is, let’s not forget, Rand’s “ideal man”. But of course, rape, in the wacky ethical world of Ayn Rand, is perfectly justified. Dominique really wanted it, you see. Oh, and Hank Rearden basically rapes Dagny Taggart, early in Atlas Shrugged. Women like it rough, you see.
You may have noticed at this point that I’m not a big fan of Ayn Rand. In part, I harbor some resentment over having to slog my way through hundreds of pages of her turgid, purple prose. I mean, she can write an occasional paragraph felicitously enough, but she’s always building to some huge effect, and just the writing, just the prose becomes comical. But it’s prose in the service of Big Ideas, and her Big Ideas are just warmed-over Korihor, I not We, the virtue of selfishness and contempt for the weak and unsuccessful. Her writing embodies the attitudes of the Evil Space Alien leader in every bad 50’s sci-fi movie every made: “You puny Earthlings! Bow down to your Masters!” Or, to quote Paul Krugman quoting John Rogers: “There are two books that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings, and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a life-long obsession, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Give me the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin instead:
Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain. . .Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God?
And one last thought: does it bother anyone else that one of the two major party vice-Presidential candidates in this election has said that his favorite book ever is Atlas Shrugged? Or that the favorite book of that same party’s Presidential candidate is Battlefield Earth? By, yep, L. Ron Hubbard. That was Mitt Romney’s answer to the ‘your favorite book’ question.
At least he didn’t say The Fountainhead.