From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ayn Rand Is My Nemesis

So I've known for a while that I don't particularly like Ayn Rand.

Then yesterday I read Anthem.

It's a bit of a long story why I ended up reading it, but suffice it to say my roommate and I read it simultaneously yesterday afternoon on Project Gutenberg. It's very short (thank do people suffer through Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead?) and easily readable in an afternoon.

To be totally honest, I had so many problems with it I'm not quite sure where to even start. My roommate and I kept up a running commentary on Google chat, so maybe I'll just start with that. And believe me, I will do my best to be civil. (And to that end we won't even talk about the writing style...or the dialog...)

Probably the main crux of my problem with this book is that Rand sets up a false dichotomy from the very beginning. One of the rules in this dystopic community she's set up is that "If you are not needed by your brother man, there is no reason for you to burden the earth with your bodies." She sets this rule up as sort of an "evil" to be fought, which in contrast sets up the "correct" rule that taking care of ones own needs is primary and serving others is secondary, if not pointless. Let's keep going before we address this, because she just keeps making this point more and more strongly.

When the main character meets a beautiful girl, they decide to give each other individual names. He calls her The Golden One (which is also problematic, and we'll talk about it later) and she calls him The Unconquered. Again, Rand is setting up this dichotomy that because Main Character is thinking about himself rather than some sort of collective, he is free and "unconquered."

This idea of the main character as "Superior Enlightened Individual" is further strengthened when he attempts to offer up his newly discovered power of electricity. The community "brethren" are frightened and shocked at his stepping outside the collective knowledge, refuse his offering, and Main Character is basically sentenced to death. The way this interchange is described, with the Main Character talking about discovering and offering "the power of the skies," frames the Main Character as vastly superior and everyone else as very unfortunate, dim-witted, and brainwashed.

Once Main Character and Golden One have escaped into the forest and discovered the word "I," the main character says, "Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars."

Do you see the point Ayn Rand is trying to make? She's not exactly subtle. She is again and again saying that all is in service of the Self, that even considering the needs of others is of last priority, if it makes the list at all. Main Character says of their newly discovered house and life: "We shall not share it with others, as we share not our joy with them, nor our love, nor our hunger. So be it to the end of our days."

Sorry, but...can I go throw up now? Doesn't this character sound like such a nice guy? And to make it even better, after he says this, the only response from Trophy Wife is "Your will be done." (Told you she was problematic. We're not super focused on complex female characters who are there to do anything other than serve the needs of the Man in this book...) Okay sorry, back to attempting civility...

I see the dichotomy that Rand sets up of "I vs. We" as a false one and here's why: Can't we be a means to an end for someone else without existing only as a means to an end for someone else? Can't we be useful to someone without being a tool? Can't we serve without being a servant, comfort without being a bandage, sacrifice without being a sacrifice?

And I'll take it another step further. Not only do we absolutely not give up any individual identity in the service and care of others, but I firmly believe that in many ways we discover and develop that identity through that service. I feel like it's a core, foundational belief for me that he who loses his life in the service of others will find it. And there are lots of scientific studies that back that up. And amazing, amazing TED Talks about how focusing so strongly on our own goals and desires and needs can actually be the very thing that makes us unhappy.

Now, contrast the point Ayn Rand is making in Anthem with this quote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. 
Yeah, that's my good buddy C. S. Lewis, and I kept thinking of this quote while I was reading Anthem. Roommate and I use the term "Special Snowflake" occasionally as a shorthand for characters that think they're somehow set apart, or superior, or "special." We definitely used it to refer to the Main Character of Anthem. But really nobody is a "special snowflake" because everyone is.

Really though, which of these two societies is more true to your experience? I don't mean this in a what feels the nicest and happiest kind of way, but actual lived experience. I know we all have days when we feel like we're surrounded by idiots, but I absolutely do not believe for a second that I live in a world where I am not obligated to care about anyone else, and that the most deserving and enlightened are a select group of "special snowflakes." But I do live in a world where everyone I see is complex and nuanced and just as intricate as I am.

I don't believe in ordinary people.

I am not "conquered" by serving and helping others and sometimes putting their needs above my own; in fact to use Michelangelo's metaphor, I believe that those moments of altruism (Rand's least favorite word) are exactly what chip away at the marble and expose the true shape within. We become more ourselves, not less, when united with others.

I know this is a bit long and philosophical and rambly, but what do you think? Do you agree with Ayn Rand? Do you have an ideological nemesis?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  1. Great post. I've never read Ayn Rand, but the little I know about her always made me queasy. Now I know why.

    The further I got into your post, the more disgusted I got. Serving is important. People who serve only themselves lack something important. We were created to serve! And we should take advantage of it, because God can do wonderful things with us when we serve.

    As for Ayn Rand's book... it seems to me like it's one of those literary books that academics love to talk about, but is completely out of touch with reality. It's the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. Academics pretend it's full of great meaning because of the style, or the symbolism, or the author, or the time period, when in reality, it's a bunch of bunk.

    Just some thoughts from an English professor.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read a long, analytical post :) You are absolutely right. As we were discussing this book yesterday my roommate said that this book seemed meant to be some kind of mythology, but mythologies are meant to provide ideological tools that can help us in the real world, except this book is absolutely useless. Like you said, out of touch with reality. Although my roommate also pointed out that Rand came from a communist Russia background, which somewhat explains why she went so extreme on like, self-identity and individual freedom and property.

    2. All in all though, a bunch of bunk ;)

  2. OH, not Ayn Rand for me. I picked up the book in a bookstore, read two pages, and put it down. Political agendas should not be woven through a worthless book or any book.

    1. Oh I'm so glad we agree :) Really the only thing that got me through it is a sense of being able to really justify my disgust :)

  3. I read the book when I was about thirteen. I was just getting into science fiction. At the time, I thought it was great, about being an individual. I suspect I'd see it very differently now. By the way, that same year I also read Animal Farm and I DID pick up the meaning, which I ddn't with this book. :-)

    1. Yes, all those books are definitely thought provoking :) It might be an interesting experiment to go back to it and see what your reaction is this time around. I'd be interested to know :)

  4. The first greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart. The second greatest is to love thy neighbor as thyself.

  5. I finally read Atlas Shrugged in late 2012, followed shortly thereafter "Rise of the Meritocracy", and then the father-of-all-dystopian novels, We, by Zamyatkin, written in the 20s. Of course, I also had to re-read 1984 and Brave New World to fully experience the holiday season good tidings.

    Clearly, it was a very uplifting time for me.

    I literally cannot stand the Ayn Rand worldview. You make me a very proud father the way you identify her false dichotomy and counter her world-destroying ideology with some CS Lewis sweetness. Your essay is extremely good.

    But now, you have to read Atlas Shrugged, and we need to have a few long discussions about it over the holidays. :)

    1. Aww, thanks Dad :) I can't stand her either. In other words I don't know if I can take any more for a while, esp not a door-stopper like Atlas Shrugged. (I suspect door stopping is basically the only use for that book). And C.S. Lewis basically has the answer for everything :)

      See you soon ;)


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