Monday, October 19, 2009

Great ideas, shame about the writing

'Why Ayn Rand is Hot Again: The unconservative Ayn Rand and her relationship to the American right'

Interesting article. I'm just in the middle (OK, nearer the first quarter, but whatever) of 'Atlas Shrugged' and here are my observations so far.

Seems very much influenced by Nietzsche and Hegel. Its all about will and overcoming and fighting in a very selfish and self-directed fashion for what you want. In that respect, it comes across as the thoughts of an adolescent in the throes of separation from her parents. The characters are not characters at all. They are chicken-wire constructs which wander about according to the dictates of the author. They do not have distinctive voices- all of them sound the same, from the bums and winos to the masters of industry. The 'world' itself does not seem like the world, but sketchily drawn 3-D space for rendering the chicken-wire people. The interaction between the 'characters' is laughable. There has not been one situation so far which I would deem authentic or realistic. The language is very heavily larded with the same phrases used over and over again. They are mostly to do with loneliness, isolation and emptiness.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the fundamental ideas in 'Atlas Shrugged' are very interesting ones. And despite the literary shortcomings, she does manage to introduce the ideas successfully. What happens to driven, ambitious people when the atmosphere and environment in which they work becomes so hostile to drive and ambition that they pretty much can't work? What is the difference between those not driven to succeed in business and commerce, and those who are? Can driven successful people only have inchoate emotions, the roots of which are hidden from them? Is a driven, successful person morally superior to a not-driven, unsuccessful one? Can it possibly be true that 99% of people have the wrong conception of sexual fidelity, and that only driven, successful people do it right? If selfish desire is the only moral rule, why can't I kill you if I want to?

And to me, the most important question: if you throw away Judeo-Christian morality, do you really know what would happen in societies based on it? My first thought was that Nazi Germany would seem to be the closest mankind has come to achieving the Randian dream. Although saying that, National Socialism was based fundamentally on group (Aryan) identity rather than personal selfishness. So perhaps not. America is definitely not Randian- although the domestic and international left havew been trumpeting for the last hundred and twenty years that it is. American society is based on a mixture of protestant Christianity, enlightenment political theory and Anglo-saxon notions of equality, social responsibility and fair play. To remove any of those things would coarsen and diminish the health of American society. To the extent they have been removed and negated, America is starting to be like everywhere else.

The world proffered by Ayn Rand is extreme- it reminds me a lot of the new world as proposed by Karl Marx. Brutal, violently birthed and full of a hollow grandeur. It is the kind of greatness admired by tyrants and mass-murdering dictators. It is large-scale and completely despises the small-scale, cosy and bourgeois. There is no room for mercy, for generosity, for playfulness or absent-minded meandering. You are not allowed to disappear into a cottage on the edge of the woods and grow a cottage garden. You aren't allowed to have have a nine to five mediocre job, or collect miniature fantasy figures. The only valid life, the only life given the Ayn Rand seal of approval is a high-flying executive lifestyle without the fun. It must be Spartan as well as successful to pass muster. If you swan about on your yacht or have parties you actually enjoy, you are just as bad as the clumping mediocrities.

It is a world without love. Love is for sissies. Tenderness and intimacy are for sissies. Only the toughest fighters are morally good in the Randian world. Sex is used as a way of signing off someone as a fully paid-up member of the Randian elite- and only for that. All other uses of sex are crap and diminish those participating.

I can't help coming away from 'Atlas Shrugged' feeling that everybody in it is Ayn Rand. That it is a map of her soul rather than a story about the world, about us. Saying that, I'm only a quarter of the way through, so I'll update the review when I'm done.

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