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Unpopular writers 2: Ayn Rand

A few anecdotes about the perception of probably the most virulently disliked fiction writer in English, Ayn Rand: 1) In Dirty Dancing, there is only really one actively unsympathetic character. Where Baby’s father just fails to understand his daughter or where the greasy and irascible hotel owner, Mr Kellerman, has a moment of pathos near the end when he realises that his life and hotel belong to a passing era, only one character is so two-dimensional as to be wholly without redeeming features: Robbie the waiter. He is on the other side of the class divide from Jonny Castle/Patrick Swayze and all the other dirty sexy, mambo-dancing entz staff, who are all kids from the block. Robbie is at Harvard Med, where that’s a sign not of talent of but privilege. He is the one who has knocked up Jonny’s friend and refuses to take responsibility, seeing it more or less as his droit de seigneur. Later on, he, the unrepenant Robbie, wants to compound his crimes by ‘doing it’ with Baby’s misguided and frankly awful sister. When Baby confronts him about his villainy, the unpsychological, hate-figure defence he gives is “Some people just don’t matter”. To provide a more comprehensive explanation, he offers her his copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead.

            2) Urban Dictionary defines Rand as “Mid-20th century pop-philosopher who first propounded objectivism in a set of rather poorly written cult novels of dubious quality. Her philosophy is founded on unremarkable restatements of the obvious, prizing material achievement, self-centred pride, and unfettered commerce as virtues over love, humility, generosity, and faithfulness. Followers of objectivism, called randroids, tend be a rude, selfish, condescending bunch, intolerant of anything that does not perfectly match their ultra-naturalist, laissez-faire dogmatism.

‘A=A, oh, yes, A=A,’ the randroid muttered again and again, softly, obsessively, as he cut out heart-shaped pictures of Ayn Rand from a magazine for his objectivist collage showing her to be the pinnacle of human evolution.”

Urban Dictionary also describes her as “a perennial favourite of the marginally intelligent.”

            3) Nerve.com, online New York magazine, hipster Bible, sex-positive exemplum, home to the campaign that made Republican senator Rick Santorum’s first google-hit “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that can be a by-product of anal sex”, home to the “It Gets Better” campaign aimed at gay teens bullied in high school, forum for the idea of being “sex positive”, accepting chronicler of everything from vanilla dating experiences to where to buy and how to use a cast of your own penis to literally fuck yourself in the ass, this shining beacon all of that is right and ahead of the curve in today’s America, gives us the page Why Liking Ayn Rand Makes You A Terrible Lover. It mentions that Paul Ryan cites Rand as the reason he went into public service and starts a paragraph with, “I have to think that Ayn Rand must never have had any truly satisfying sex in her life.” It also quotes from profiles on the Randians’ dating website Atlasphere (named for her book Atlas Shrugged): “You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice,” and “I am rational, integrated, and effacious. So far, I’ve never met a person who lives up to the standard I hold for myself.”

            4) Holy running mates, Batman, Paul Ryan!

            5) In 1998, Modern Library, an American division of Random House, asked its editors to compile a list of the 100 best novels written in English. Everything you would expect the Americans to choose is on there, Ulysses, Gatsby, Lolita, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath. The following year, they published the results of a poll of 200,000 American readers. Best novel ever written in English: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Second best: The Fountainhead. In a top 10 that included To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, Rand also took spots seven and eight, for Anthem and We The Living.

            6) I can easily remember the first two sentences of The Fountainhead, which should tell you a lot about what you should know of its style. No need to look them up, here they are: “Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff.”

Aside from being criticised as morally abhorrent and philosophically indefensible, Rand’s writing is also seen as pathetically transparent, wholly lacking in convincing characterisation or any kind of nuance. But characterisation isn’t the point, because the novel is an allegory of Howard Roark as the perfect human being. He is a young architect, exorbitantly talented, who refuses to play the games required by the industry, which wants more buildings in pseudo-classical styles, post offices with Corinthian columns or banks with Romanesque porticos. Roark wants modern buildings for the modern day, designed for perfect function and in marvellous juxtaposition with their surroundings. Despite every deprivation and attempted humiliation, Roark builds his buildings, and those with eyes to see gradually come to recognise his rightness. He is an embodiment of unwavering (and how inhuman that adjective is) resolve, self-belief, conviction, and, above all, the unshakeable knowledge that only he can sit in judgment on himself.

The high-point of the novel, apart, possibly, from when the evil newspaper magnate stands at the stern of his yacht in wonder at mankind’s brilliance in conquering the seas and throwing cables over continents and oceans, is when Roark is commissioned to build a Temple of the Human Spirit. This is what it looks like:

“The Temple was to be a small building of gray limestone. Its lines were horizontal, not the lines reaching to heaven, but the lines of the earth. It seemed to spread over the ground like arms outstretched at shoulder height. Palms down, in great silent acceptance. It did not cling to the soil and it did not crouch under the sky. It seemed to lift the earth, and its few vertical shafts pulled the sky down. It was scaled to human height in such a manner that it did not dwarf man, but stood as a setting that made his figure the only absolute, the gauge of perfection by which all dimensions were to be judged. When a man entered the temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed. It was a joyous place, with the joy of exultation that must be quiet. It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the peace of spirit never granted save by one’s own glory. There was no ornamentation inside, except the graded projections of the walls, and the vast windows. The place was not sealed under vaults, but thrown open to the earth around it, to the trees, to the river, the sun and to the skyline of the city in the distance, the skyscrapers, the shape of man’s achievements on earth. At the end of the room, facing the entrance, with the city as background, stood the figure of a naked human body.”

For me, Rand’s writing oscillates between the exhilarating and the ludicrous. I wouldn’t like to live in a society built solely on rational self-interest and the worship of strength and achievement. It should, however, be axiomatic to state that the morality or the philosophy of the state needn’t be that of the individuals in it, that they serve different functions and are constructed for different reasons. But nor do I think I would particularly enjoy having Randian friends or lovers who would presumably start to disdain me after every moment of failure, sickness or doubt. So ultimately, this Randian exhilaration I do undeniably feel is internal and akin to the famous lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

  Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

  We are not now that strength which in old days

  Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What I mean really is a feeling. That though I strongly believe that societies and people when engaging with each other can’t justifiably be anything but kind, patient, understanding, forgiving and supportive, that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, I would like to reserve a circle of mental space in which to ask more of myself than being the subject of that attitude implies and, when I’m alone, to stand naked at the edge of a cliff, and laugh.

Alexander Starritt
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