OK, so I’m already deviating from my stated purpose on my second post – Atlas Shrugged is not a book I just recently read. But as the movie comes out today (after 50 years of failed attempts) it seemed like a good topic. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged three times – as a child, in college, and about five years ago. Who reads Atlas Shrugged as a child?, you may ask. Good question. Here’s the story: my father was trying to convince my older, teenage, sister to read it and she refused. (Not surprising. He also tried to get her to read the encyclopedia as he had done as a child. She refused again.) I decided that I would make my daddy happy and read the book myself. Yes, that’s the kind of child I was. I obviously didn’t understand the book completely at that age, but people to whom I’ve told that story have been known to say, “Wow, that explains so much.”
Atlas Shrugged gets a bad rap as not really being serious literature. Cynically, I would say that’s because people who disagree with the political message want to degrade the book in every way possible. On the other hand, I do agree that it’s not of the same literary quality as, say, In Search of Lost Time. Atlas Shrugged is as much political manifesto/philosophical discourse as it is novel, and that inevitably leads to some of the art being sacrificed to the political/philosophical message. But there certainly is beauty in the book. Ayn Rand knows how to express an idea and she does it with her own unique cadence and poetry. Another common detraction relates to the long speeches, most particularly Galt’s approximately 50-page speech toward the end of the book. This is Rand using a character to expound her entire philosophy of life in one place in her novel. (This speech, by the way, took her two years to write.) Sure, it’s not super realistic. But it’s not intended to be. Rand was a romantic – she didn’t want her characters to sound conversational, she wanted them to sound heroic. And after just finishing a book in which the author spent several hundred pages describing one short afternoon party, it doesn’t seem overly long to me.
Whether it’s high art or not, there’s no denying that people love it. In a survey asking people to name their favorite books, Atlas Shrugged was in the top ten. And it was considered the second most influential book in another survey. Of course, the number one book on both lists was the Bible. Considering that Rand was a staunch atheist and clearly advances that idea in the book, this doesn’t say much about the internal consistency of most Americans. But nonetheless, it obviously resonates with people. Mere popularity doesn’t mean that a book is actually good (see, e.g., Dan Brown), but it does show how far her influence has stretched.
People who disagree with Rand are afraid of that influence and they try to diminish her power. A recent New Yorker article compared The Fountainhead to Mein Kampf in terms of both books’ ability to influence “susceptible” minds. Wow. Similarly, a friend in college once said to me, “How can you like Ayn Rand, she was a Nazi.” I responded, “She most definitely was not. She hated the Nazis as much as she hated the communists – to her they were all the same, collectivists. What makes you think that?” “Oh, my teacher told me that.” She had never read anything by Rand and she believed the word of her teacher. I wonder if the teacher had ever read Rand, either. How many people have a skewed view of her based on faulty information? People assume she was cold-hearted, but she had a wonderful, long marriage and she believed that the most important things in life are love and art. When her husband died she said that, if she believed in the afterlife, she would kill herself immediately to rejoin him there. In fact, she did die soon after him, having lost the most important thing in life.
Rand’s objectivism has greatly influenced my political thought and I would say I agree with almost all of what she has to say. Rand despised the religious right just as much as she despised the left in this country. Here’s a great quote to that effect:
“The battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors–between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and the good is to live it.”
Rand specifically disavowed tacking her philosophy to a specific political party, but most people agree it accords most closely with libertarianism. Rand would have balked at saying there was any non-selfish motivation behind her philosophy, but almost every libertarian I know (myself included) believes that a libertarian approach will raise the quality of life of every person, even, and maybe most especially, the poorest among us. Although that is a side effect, the moral grounding of Rand’s philosophy is inalienable individual rights and the idea that every person has a right to realize the fruits of his labors and may not be deprived of such against his will. I can’t think of a better moral principle on which to base my politics.