Ayn Rand

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.

Ayn Rand.

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.





17 thoughts on “Ayn Rand

  1. Moriah Jovan (@MoriahJovan)

    I’ve had to read plenty of books that offended me or I disagreed with or otherwise made me wish I was anywhere but in that book. I have even CHOSEN to read books I knew I wouldn’t like or that would offend me because I wanted to know how other people thought. I have plenty of friends who read stuff I don’t like, and I read lots of stuff my friends don’t like.

    And I have learned from things I didn’t like (maybe not what the author wanted me to, but still). I have been made to think. I have had my mind changed about certain things.

    Why do you let it bother you that people are reading (or are made to read) stuff you don’t like? Is it possible they could judge for themselves? Is it possible you’re not giving these people enough credit for being able to figure it out, if not immediately, then later on?

    I don’t intend to defend the book or the author. I’m here to defend the intelligence of the people reading it to decide for themselves.

    1. admin Post author

      I’m sorry, Moriah, I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I don’t mind reading books I disagree with; I do it all the time, as you do. But for a high school English class, why have the kids read not-great books when there are SO MANY really really really good ones? It doesn’t bother me that people read things that I don’t like; just that English teachers, who can only realistically pick like three books a semester, tops, should choose carefully.

      1. LEM

        As a former English teacher, I taught Anthem to freshmen. I did it partially because the books were part of the classroom library I inherited from the previous teacher and I had no budget for books. Plus, Anthem, being short, is a nice snippet of Rand without it being so horrid and long as Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. And my students–self-involved teenagers–related to the message of self-discovery that Anthem contains.
        Do I like Rand? Not particularly. I once tried to read Atlas Shrugged and found the novel boring, overly political, and gross. I put it down after about half of the novel. I also feel that her personal politics are so selfish that it makes me feel queasy.
        But her stuff can be a place where discussions can start.

  2. lanfearlKellen

    I read To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men,1984,Farenheit 451,Brave New World,Joy Luck Club,Lord of the Flies,Huck Finn, and The Fountainhead during high school. This was in California.

    You typically read 2-3 novels per year of high school english.

    There is no doubt that Ayn Rand took things to the extreme, but I don’t think that means there isn’t value in what she has written.I remember reading The Fountainhead and feeling empowered. He created buildings exactly the way they needed to be made and shunned the world who disagreed with him.

    Objectivism is.. in a word evil. But I consider the Fountainhead to be a worthy read. I didn’t read the book to focus on its prose . I enjoyed the characters and the story, even if they were essentially flat.

  3. Ellsworth Mouch

    It’s worth pointing out that Ayn Rand was not opposed to charity as such:

    “My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

    She enjoyed being a linguistic provocateur, and so defined her terms in unusual ways. She defined altruism as sacrificing yourself for another person or goal that you believe is less important than yourself (i.e., sacrificing a greater good in favor of a lesser good). That’s not the way most people use the word, and most people when they engage in charity and service to others don’t meet Rand’s idiosyncratic definition.

  4. April

    2-3 a year? Angel is only a freshman this year and he’s gotten a list of over 8 books to read so far. I can’t recall anytime in HS that I only read 3 books for class. and I totally agree. There are so many fantastic books out there, it does make one wonder “what were they thinking?” with some.

  5. D.L. Walker

    Have you READ “Battlefield Earth?” It’s also MY favorite book. Why is it bad just because it was written by L. Ron Hubbard? He was a fiction writer. He was good at it. And yes… he also created a fictitious religion.

    1. admin Post author

      it’s a fair cop. I haven’t read Battlefield Earth, and probably shouldn’t dismiss books I haven’t read. Thanks for the well deserved rebuke!

      1. Julia

        L Ron Hubbard was a good science fiction writer, and an even better editor and anthologist. He introduced 100s of new science fiction writers to readers with his New Voices in Science Fiction series is a treasured thing in my house. Battlefield Earth was not a bad book, but not my favorite. I can understand why a lot of LDS members like it. There is a lot of emphasis on fighting the invasion through cooperation, with a good dose of “I can do it myself.”

        I would MUCH rather have my kids read Hubbard than Rand, but reading whatever they are helps me to be able to discuss what is good and bad in each book or story. Which is why I am reading Ramona and Beezus, and The Walking Computer, at the moment. 😉

  6. Eva Herrey

    I think it is a nice gesture that you raise a warning flag over proclaimed values that directly would hurt the progress of the human species. We are certainly not robots and true happiness is never found in selfishness but in hard work and charity. I for one was forced to read Erica Young’ s perverted sexual fantasies as a 16 year old in high school English. I’m not against intimacy and love but that was just as bad as any day in China’s worse days of air pollution. I told the teacher to ….and tested out of the class. Thanks for your being protective and sharing your thoughts.

  7. Anonymous

    I think it all comes down to what you perceive as Moral. We did have a war in heaven over being forced to do what was right. You and I chose to not be forced. I don’t think we should be forced to do what is right here on earth. And yes, if I decide to not pay for Medicare people with guns will eventually come to my house.
    I’m all for helping the poor and needy. I provide help through my contributions to the LDS church every month.
    I think that people should be educated on the virtues of helping others or even given peer pressure to help or even shaming, but never compulsion, never against one’s will. That defeats what we fought for in heaven…
    I think that is why a lot of people gravitate to Ayn Rand. There is something Moral about using your own will. There is something deep rooted that creates a passion that is misunderstood by people who really want to help others (any way they can).
    Ayn Rand was an atheist, but I’m sure if she were to hear of the Mormon Gospel as it relates to free agency or moral agency she would respect that view.
    Jesus never taught the virtues of forcing one to do Good. Just the Good itself.
    I’ll let Jesus be the Judge of those who use their will to not help others.

    1. Julia Taylor

      I am not sure that Rand would have been very interested in the gospel. Any organization that required membership of any type was not in her sphere of “moral things.”

      She saw all religions as coersive, and would have been aghast at a church that took 10% tithing from its members and that taught that free agency should be used to “do good things.” It is exactly what the church teaches, that we should willingly give away money, goods and services, that Rand thought was the heart of immorality.

      I think you are right that members of the church like Rand because they have something “intellectual” to look at and say, “See, the world thinks it is right that we not force people to give,” but I am an even better person because I choose to give on occasion. Members liking Rand (or parts of her writings) is not the same as having Rand agree that Mormons are “moral people” according to her philosophy.

      This is another interesting post about Rand and Mormonism. http://captainmormon.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/mormonism-and-ayn-rand/

  8. Joe Andersen

    If you’re interested in Ayn Rand, try anything by a man named Chris Mathew Sciabarra. He’s an Ayn Rand biographer but not an objectivist, himself. Not only does he believe that it is “the unlikeliest cult” but his favorite movie is Ben-Hur. And for a gay agnostic, that’s just interesting.

    Good stuff, Eric. I guess my only view on Ayn Rand is that I think reading her stuff has value in that she offers a different perspective. But, of course, I also enjoy reading the myths of Tolkien, young earth creationists and even the expanding earth theory of geology. Seriously!

  9. Anonymous

    I think you miss the main point of Ellsworth Toohey. There are a lot of parallels between that character and pre-earth Satan. He wants to force others to do the good. He wants the good for all, but for his own glory. If you can’t see that parallel, then do you really understand what is evil?

  10. Jeremy

    I’m obviously late to the party here but found the page from google so I figured I’d leave my thoughts for whatever that is worth.

    First off I do enjoy Rand’s work but not because I think they are literary masterpieces but because I like the ideas of being responsible for your own life. I’m also an active member of the LDS faith and while I don’t agree with every thought of Ayn Rand I do with some. Obviously not her points on religion. 🙂

    What I have always got from Rand was that in everything the ultimate decision ends with the individual. In charitable situations it is MY decision to give to my fellow man. For church it is MY decision to pay tithing. I receive blessings for each and in that sense the act was a selfish one. I don’t believe the responsibility of making that decision should be taken from the individual. I receive no blessing for having social security ripped from my paycheck twice a month because it took no action on my part. I had no say in the matter.

    For me Rand’s ideas center around the right of ‘I’ and not ‘WE’. Each person should make their own decision and not have them made for them.

    Again this is just how I personally have always read/applied Rand’s ideas.


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