As usual, I find Rand often infuriating, sometimes brilliant, and impossible to walk away from.
Her philosophy is attractive, but ultimately she castigates what is in fact goodness: balance. She draws a stark line between those who live only for themselves and those who live only for others. Anyone who wavers from the former is part of the latter; “sin” in its old English form. The thought that one could live for himself with others is near treason if “with” requires bending an iota, and it always does and rightly so when we are in balance.
Rand infuriates me when she resorts to just making up history to support her premise. She speaks of how everyone in all history who brought great discoveries to man has been reviled and torn down. After the obvious allusion to Galileo, she spins a tale of the first neolithic man bringing fire and being killed by his tribesmen for his trouble, though they kept the fire (as the parasitic common men always do). This is poetic, but of course fabrication. Even Pometheus was honored by men; he was tortured by gods. Her argument falls apart in the face of facts. The man who “snatch’d the raised lightning from the arm of Jove” was exalted through half the world by exactly the people Rand claims would never accept a man of brilliance, both scholars and common folk.
Fountainhead is better than Atlas Shrugged in its willingness to consider characters who are a mix of good and evil (in their Randian forms). There is something like pity for Peter Keating. There is even something that passes for respect for Guy Francon. Ellsworth Toohey is evil, but knows he’s evil and is brilliant in it, unlike the impotent, ignorant, sniveling “villains” of Atlas. Roark has level of almost childlike naivety that is refreshing against the cold reason and colder fury of Galt.
As much as her fabrication infuriates me, her misogyny bores me. In Rand’s world, strong women can only be the pale, dependent shadow of the men they emulate and who dominate them. Rand said of the rape of Domnique, “if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” I’m not here to discuss the good or ill of rape fantasies among consenting adults, but both the Roark/Francon and Rearden/Taggart relationships suggest that the ultimate aspiration of women is to be the worthy concubine of a brilliant man, and even then to be treated as a cheap whore. That these are the women that Rand exalts is staggering.
In the end what struck me most is how much Rand intends to make timeless arguments, but how obviously she is speaking from her own time. She saw the rise of Communism as part of an eternal struggle because she was in the middle of it. With fifty years hindsight we popularly see Communism as “a good idea that doesn’t work with real people.” “Communist” countries like China are more capitalist than the US. The ideas that she rails against seem so naive today that we think Rand is putting up strawmen. But at the time “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was seriously considered a workable government policy, and people were actually using violence to make sure that everyone had the same, even if it meant everyone had nothing. Rand makes much more sense in her context. She just didn’t realize she was in a context.
Rand waffled back and forth as to whether mankind had always exalted the mediocre, or whether it was a contemporary situation. As I look back I see the cycle that she seemed to think was a steady decline. Today we disparage the “elite” and every Presidential candidate wants to show he’s “a regular Joe” no smarter than the rest of us. I agree with Rand that this is unhealthy. We should aspire to greatness, not to the average. But I also see that this is a cycle. We swing between elite junk and everyday junk. That Yuppies stand between Rand and us shows that the worship of mediocrity is not a one-way street. Whether Yuppies capture true excellence is irrelevant; Rand’s fight is against the pursuit of the average. At times we do that in half-hearted ways (multi-millionaires who call themselves as “middle class”) or other times we pursue excellence in the same half-hearted ways (using fake Italian words to make our coffee worth its crazy price). Rand thought she was at the inflection point, but she was only in a swinging cycle.
In the end, Rand tries so hard and with so much passion, but she is blinded by her convictions and projects them upon the people she sees. That she can make her beliefs factual in her fiction does not make them universally applicable.
And yet, she’s brilliant and no writer has made me think so much of excellence as virtue. If you can get through her hyperbole, there is the germ of wonderful philosophy in there. Her celebration of humanity’s potential is inspiring. Her embrace of our deepest drive (selfishness) changes us from an inherently evil creature who must overcome our nature, into inherently good creatures who need only learn the wisdom of enlightened rather than foolish self-interest.
The man who tells you that you are by nature evil is the man who wants to own you. Do not listen to him. You are by nature good, as a child, and ignorant, as a child. You do not need to be saved. You need only to grow up and grow wise, as nature intends all creatures to do.