Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Atlas still Shrugs

My 15-year-old son is reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. This perennial blockbuster-doorstopper novel by Russian-born American writer/philosopher Ayn Rand is still in print, still being read, still being carried around by people of all ages absorbed in its story and awakened by its philosophy, and it is still being raved about and reviled--precisely because it is really more than just a novel.

First published in 1957, it is today consistently rated a clear favorite and one of the most influential of all books--though it and Ayn Rand's other works and her philosophy of Objectivism all remain marginalized below the radar of the mainstream media, "high-brow" culture, and academia in the U.S. Yet it can be argued that it was Ayn Rand and her ideas that have led to the proliferation of libertarian and "classically liberal" conservative thought (free minds and free markets) as they exist in the U.S. today. She has long had her admirers and it seems today they are more numerous than ever.

Atlas Shrugged in particular continues to have its passionate detractors despite its influence and longevity. Indeed it is an easy book to parody if you are only taking it as literature (which would indeed be myopic). Yet reviewer Thomas Reed Whissen wrote in 1992, “Rand's critics say that she cannot write, but one senses in such an indictment more of a political than a literary posture; for surely the enduring success of The Fountainhead --not to mention the enormously popular Atlas Shrugged --cannot be attributed to her philosophy alone. Her style may be somewhat overwrought and her characters cardboard, but she is a genius at plotting, and she knows how to tell a story.”

That is grudging praise that I think only barely recognizes the appeal of this book. I too read this novel for the first time when I was 16, and not only did I fall in love with it, but it changed my life because it forever afterward changed the way I think. It made me aware of the necessity of systematic reasoning and the necessity of my taking responsibility for my own life and thoughts. It taught me to consciously examine premises and values. And it not only told me, but showed me, how certain people and certain societies (including capitalism and collectivism) operate.

I am glad my son is reading this book as part of his self-education. And although my old worn paperback copy is still hanging around the house, I wasn't the one who ultimately got him to read it--it was one of his friends. This is something that hasn't changed between my generation and my son's--people, including teenagers, are still telling each other to read Ayn Rand and start to think over the things she describes and explains, and decide for themselves. (In fact, these days, there are even Ayn Rand essay contests offering large cash prizes for young people.)

And just as it was in my younger days, reading and liking Atlas Shrugged will introduce a young person to the phenomenon of "political correctness." It is still distinctly uncool to truthfully admit to certain people, in a job interview, or in certain social circles, or on an application to a college, that Atlas Shrugged is one of the books that you admire or that changed your life. As I once learned, the institution of academia is still largely inhospitable to the very existence of Ayn Rand. It was Ayn Rand's work that excited me to enter college as a double major in English and philosophy, but I eventually learned that philosophy as she practiced it (asking at base, as the Greeks once did, 'what is the well-lived life?') is by most modern academic philosophers considered to be old-fashioned and outdated, irrelevant, unworthy of serious study. (So I dropped the philosophy major and concentrated on Shakespeare.)

Ayn Rand wrote, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Bold words--and much food for thought, discussion, analysis. More thought, more debate, more examination of big, important ideas, by more people in all walks of life--this is all to the good, in my opinion. If it must take place outside of academia, so be it. (In fact, so much the better.) Ayn Rand has made a tremendous and lasting contribution to the betterment of her adopted country.

Although I am glad my son is tackling some big issues through this novel, I have to admit that there are two areas reached in my advanced age where I seem to have parted from Ayn Rand's philosophy:

1) While I understand (given her own personal background) why she held so much antipathy toward religion and religious faith as being mystical and anti-rational, and while, in fact, I did become an atheist due to her writings, today I disagree that atheism must necessarily follow in a libertarian (if not in an Objectivist) philosophy. In fact, I don't think Rand had a clue of how the confluence of a specifically American viewpoint (voluntary, pragmatic, and individualistic) and Christianity as it has developed and can be practiced in the U.S. today can work, on a purely personal level. Though many people do assume that Christianity is at base a collectivist philosophy, that all charity is altruistic and self-sacrificing, and that all spiritual or religious faith is mystical, I disagree vehemently from my own experience and today call myself a Christian.

2) Ayn Rand knew squat about raising kids or being a parent. So her moral imperative: "By my life and my love of it, I will not live for another man, nor allow another man to live for me," has nothing to say to me as I "put my life on hold" (in the eyes of some) outside the realm of heroic romance to wallow through the diaper years and all the rest to raise my little darlings. I would not change one whit of that. Years of "self-sacrifice" in this arena have been the most rewarding and deeply happy years of my life. My toiling in this arena to me seems to jibe well with my Christian faith, and I still feel able to call myself a libertarian. If Ayn Rand would have had a problem with that, I'd just have to say it would've been her loss.

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