Spoiler Alert: This entry includes a discussion of plot points from “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
In the New York Times Adam Kirsch reviewed Anne Heller’s new Ayn Rand biography, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.” I have nothing to say regarding Heller’s book specifically because I haven’t read it yet. Here I wish to focus on Kirsch’s grasp on Ayn Rand’s two major novels. There is nothing to definitively suggest he hasn’t read them, although I suspect he hasn’t. There is plenty to prove that he hasn’t understood them if he has read them.
He reveals his ignorance in the first seven words of his review:
A specter is haunting the Republican Party — …
The implications of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are as relevant against the Republican Party as they are against the Democratic Party. Neither cares about anything beyond handing out favors to its preferred group of insiders in exchange for continued power. The individual is a tool to be manipulated for the party’s needs. Kirsch’s references to Whitaker Chambers and Wendell Willkie should’ve been enough for him to at least explore the validity of his thesis. Instead he cited the rantings of outrage-huckster straw man Glenn Beck, who is not a libertarian.
(Note: The term libertarian is the easiest way to represent liberty here. But Rand was an Objectivist, which is similar but not synonymous. See here, for example.)
Next, Kirsch attempts to summarize Rand (emphasis added):
And while it’s not hard to understand Rand’s revenge-fantasy appeal to those on the right, would-be Galts ought to hear the story Anne C. Heller has to tell in her dramatic and very timely biography, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.”
“Going Galt” is likely a revenge fantasy to those claiming they will now “Go Galt” as a result of some offense by the Obama administration, but that doesn’t guarantee it reflects the meaning of what they’ve co-opted. First, Rand would’ve been no less an opponent of George W. Bush’s administration than she would’ve been of Obama’s. Or likely any other presidential administration since the publication of Atlas Shrugged because of the ever-growing control of the modern presidency (and legislature) over the choices of individuals.
More importantly, “Going Galt” is about withdrawing from a society that seeks only to act as a leech. Some of the words Rand gave to Galt:
There is a difference between our strike and all those you’ve practiced for centuries: our strike consists, not of making demands, but of granting them. We are evil, according to your morality. We have chosen not to harm you any longer. We are useless, according to your economics. We have chosen not to exploit you any longer. We are dangerous and to be shackled, according to your politics. We have chosen not to endanger you, nor to wear the shackles any longer. We are only an illusion, according to your philosophy. We have chosen not to blind you any longer and have left you free to face reality-the reality you wanted, the world as you see it now, a world without mind.
We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it. We have no demands to present to you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.
Galt’s speech is “goodbye,” not “let’s negotiate a compromise.” But it’s only a goodbye to the world of moochers and looters, not from producing or living as he wishes. Galt’s Gulch was a society where men and women produced. This year’s “Going Galt” meme was about going idle. It is a reaction to the ongoing problem identified by Rand, but it is not her solution.
For one thing, it is far more interesting than anything in Rand’s novels. … The characters Rand created, on the other hand — like Galt or Howard Roark, the architect hero of “The Fountainhead” — are abstract principles set to moving and talking.
This is at once the failure and the making of Rand’s fiction. The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Hollywood screenwriter she once was; but her message, while not necessarily more sophisticated, is magnified by the power of its absolute sincerity. …
Rand was a Romantic, which is why her characters “are abstract principles set to moving and talking.” I’ve heard it said (I forget by whom) that Rand was a 19th century writer in the 20th century. That’s an accurate description, but as a criticism from Kirsch, it’s purely subjective. The proper approach to criticism is to judge whether or not the literature works at what the writer attempted rather than whether or not the reviewer approves of the writer’s intent and/or method. Her ideas, which are what Kirsch attacks¹ in his essay, are not false simply because he perceives her characters as abstract principles.
Personally, I enjoyed Rand’s approach to both novels as literature. I found her characters and situations compelling and effective in achieving what she sought to present. However, she could not write sex scenes. The sexual relationships in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged suggest that she had a bizarre concept of sexual intimacy. Whatever she believed in her life, Roark’s rape of Dominique in The Fountainhead is an inexcusable error in her presentation of Howard Roark as an idealized man. She was not a perfect novelist never to be questioned.
Kirsch reveals his misunderstanding (or ignorance) of Rand’s novels in this paragraph:
Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.
In Atlas Shrugged there is a difference between John Galt and James Taggart, but there is also a difference between John Galt and Eddie Willers. Rand presented the idea that talent is real and identifiable, but also that, while everyone isn’t moral, anyone can be. Eddie Willers wasn’t invited to “Go Galt” because he wasn’t a creator, but he wasn’t despised because the heroes of Atlas Shrugged knew him to be moral who recognized the difference between producing and looting. Patronizing to the untalented moral man? Probably. Evidence that Rand believed everyone could be an elite? No.
Kirsch next engages in the type of cartoonish characterization he attributes to Rand’s novels. When discussing Rand’s process for writing and publishing Galt’s speech, he states (emphasis added):
… Rand labored for more than two years on Galt’s radio address near the end of “Atlas Shrugged” — a long paean to capitalism, individualism and selfishness that makes Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” sound like the Sermon on the Mount. … [Random House’s Bennett] Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties,
she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. This was, perhaps, an understandable reaction against her childhood experience of Communism. …
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre. In fact, as Heller shows, Rand had no more reverence for the actual businessmen she met than most intellectuals do. The problem was that, according to her own theories, the executives were supposed to be as creative and admirable as any artist or thinker. They were part of the fraternity of the gifted, whose strike, in “Atlas Shrugged,” brings the world to its knees.
Wall Street is a fine film, but it’s full of hogwash as an attempted refutation of capitalism. The movie is Oliver Stone’s half-understanding of “greed”, which is similar to the very common misunderstanding of Ayn Rand’s vision of “selfishness.” Advocates of capitalism don’t push it as the best form of social organization in order to create an enclave of Gordon Gekkos. It is the best form of social organization because it is based on voluntary exchange. Decentralized decision-making is better at discovering and meeting individual needs and desires. It is based on the realization that elites can’t possibly know what’s best for everyone or anyone.
A key facet of economics is that all tastes and preferences are subjective. Rand’s willingness to concede 7 cents per copy to keep Galt’s speech unaltered indicates only that she valued the presentation of her unedited work more than 7 cents per copy. It was a voluntary exchange, mutually beneficial to her and Random House. Suggesting that this is a contradiction of her philosophy, that no “genuine capitalist” would ever give up money, is a pejorative little different than suggesting that “no genuine Jew” would choose principle over pennies. Kirsch’s statement is a smear of lesser magnitude because his stereotype is more acceptable politically, but it is still a smear.
Rand presented her view of money in Atlas Shrugged, as spoken by Francisco d’Anconia in his speech on money. An excerpt relevant to Kirsch’s cartoonish mischaracterization of capitalists:
“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
The notion that Rand’s only action consistent with her philosophy would be to hoard “lucre” reveals Kirsch’s ignorance of Rand. His disagreement with her does not disqualify him from critiquing her. Not understanding her novels or her philosophy does.
11/1 Update: The more I think about Adam Kirsch’s book review of
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, the more I realize it was worse than I depicted. Rand explained what she thought of Kirsch’s idea of the “genuine capitalist” in The Fountainhead. His name was Gail Wynand, the news tycoon who published ideas he believed to be false in order to collect “lucre” from customers. Nothing was beyond Wynand’s preference for pennies over principle, as evidenced by his publishing Ellsworth Toohey’s words. In the novel’s conclusion, Wynand did not get what he wanted because he did not deserve it. He’d sacrificed himself for something smaller.
¹ Remember, though, that his essay is ostensibly a book review of a Rand biography.