No matter how poorly her work is regarded nowadays, no matter how crazy and sleazy her personal life was, I still love Ayn Rand’s writing, and admire her as a person. She was for me, as I suspect she has been for many of you, a life-changing force of inspiration. Even though Rand wildly hyped “logic” and “mind” and “thinking” and “rationality” as her main ideals, for me Rand is most powerful and effective in the emotional realm, in the feelings she inspired, in the evocative and stirring images she created, and the simple and even sometimes brutal sense of Promethean excitement she created (and continues to create) in susceptible people like me. I sometimes refer to Rand and her ideas as “caffeine for the soul!”
I first read The Fountainhead when I was about 15, which is the right age to read it. This is the age where a budding intellectual wants to establish her individuality against what she perceives as the boring, conservative, collectivist establishment at home and school. The political and economic philosophy is simplistic, the kind of stuff that teenagers thrive on, and the erotic bits are juicy enough to read over and over again. It was much later, when I was struggling to escape from Harvard Graduate School, that I read Atlas Shrugged, a monumental work of highly influential kitsch that also changed my life. I was enthralled by that passionate sense of heroic struggle and upward striving, all those things one cannot talk about now without getting stuck in silly sexual metaphors.
The silly sexual metaphors only return when Ayn Rand talks about skyscrapers and the city skyline, and they make us giggle and laugh and trivialize something, which is much more than just a joke. Ayn Rand loved skyscrapers. She loved them not only for their phallic erectness, but because they symbolized exactly what she stood for and what she thought was best about not only our country but our whole Western civilization - things which she had paid for dearly and left her own country to attain. She wrote a brilliant paean to one such building in The Fountainhead:
The building stood on the shore of the East River, a structure rapt as raised arms. The rock crystal forms mounted in such eloquent steps that the building did not seem stationary, but moving upward in a continuous flow - until one realized that it was only the movement of one’s glance and that one’s glance was forced to move in that particular rhythm. The walls of pale gray limestone looked silver against the sky, with the clean, dulled luster of metal, but a metal that had become a warm, living substance, carved by the most cutting of all instruments - a purposeful human will; the skyscrapers, the shapes of man’s achievement on earth. (The Fountainhead, pages 300 and 327)
This passage, with a few changes, could have been written about the Twin Towers - including the well described “rapt as raised arms” for two-ness. No matter what you think about the design of the WTC, no matter how ugly or box-like (though many natural crystals grow in just that long rectangular shape) or outsize or out-of-place the Towers seemed to many “tasteful” and cultivated New Yorkers and connoisseurs, the Twin Towers embodied what Rand was getting at in the passage above and in many other rapt passages praising the New York skyline and other skyscrapers. Skyscrapers like the WTC are meant to be audacious, meant to challenge the world, to advertise to all below in a pure macho display that this civilization can build such structures, rather than mud huts. That this civilization can organize ourselves to build such structures, rather than toiling miserably under some tyranny or killing each other in endless street fighting. And even more (or worse, for many people) these towers were built not to demonstrate the greatness of some religion’s God, nor to show off the power of some single Dictator, nor as weapons of war - they were built to make money (whether they did so or not), and were inhabited by workers whose purpose for being there was making money. Rand loved capitalism, the ideal of capitalism at least, as much as she loved skyscrapers, and she linked the two in her thought and writing.
Rand, despite her nods to pragmatism and her almost Protestant (I‘ll get to that in a bit) praise of work and industry, lived in a world of ideals. It wasn’t the actual capitalists or skyscrapers or factories which she depended on, though she was happy when she found them - it was the ideal ones, the ones that live as symbols in our minds. Rand lived in New York City and died in 1982, so she knew about the building of the World Trade Center and saw it completed in the late 70s. I don’t know of any specific mentions of it in her writing, though I would think there must be some. I can’t imagine that she would criticize it. The WTC is just the kind of thing that Ayn Rand would love. So I am glad that she never lived to see it destroyed.
The events of September 11th unfolded as if Ayn Rand had written them; her apocalyptic side can be seen towards the end of Atlas Shrugged, when the social order in the United States breaks down, technology fails, and finally the lights of New York City go out. Rand, despite her militant atheism, often used religious metaphors from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and held a starkly dualistic moral position worthy of any Evangelical Protestant (or Zoroastrian!). No wishy-washy moral relativism for Rand: there is GOOD, and there is EVIL, and you better choose which one to go with, because there is no middle ground. Zarathushtra (the real one, not Nietzsche’s though Rand learned a lot from Nietzsche) said the same thing more than 3,000 years ago. Atlas Shrugged is permeated with this dualism, which she disguises as philosophical or “Aristotelian” (“A or not-A”) when in reality it is directly from the conservative side of the Zoroastrian/Judeo/Christian - and Islamic - tradition. She speaks just as much of the “creators” and the “destroyers”, those who build civilization and those who would tear it down, out of pure satanic hate and envy. It is hard not to imagine the terrorists as Rand ‘s destroyers. There they are, practically embodying Rand’s most nightmarish concepts of villainy - motivated by a fanatic mystical-religious ideology which suppresses human freedom and thinks nothing of destroying thousands of innocent human lives in its quest to kill “the best within us, - that is, everything that those skyscrapers represented. In Rand ‘s great 60-page rant towards the end of Atlas, she could have been preaching about our current assailants from the Middle East:
…those hatred-eaten mystics, who pose as friends of humanity and preach that the highest virtue man can practice is to hold his own life as of no value; parasite(s) in spirit, who plunder the ideas created by others...There is only one state that fulfills the mystics longing for infinity, non-causality, non-identity: death. A mystic relishes the spectacle of suffering, of poverty, subservience, and terror; these give him a feeling of triumph, a proof for the defeat of rational reality. (Atlas Shrugged, pages 941 and 970)
It is just that dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, which is informing George W. Bush’s rhetoric as he speaks to us about the war in Afghanistan and at home. There is an embarrassingly Rand-like sound to it. He called the terrorists evil! Those folks who laugh at Rand and think of her as ridiculously simplistic (i.e. most “thoughtful” folks, and all academics) are still bewildered by a real-life situation of such starkness. “We can’t call anybody evil, no, the world is all shades of gray and all morality is conditioned.” Rand absolutely hated talk like that, and often said so. And yet, as she grew older, more isolated, and more captured by her own mythology, she ended up morally dualizing out of control, until even her friends fell under the axe of good vs. evil, declared “evil” for some minor infringement of her dualistic all-or-nothing distinctions.
Do we dare to agree with Rand, and share in her spirit? Or is it too dangerous, in a very complex situation such as our modern world, to admit that some situations may be matters of distinct right and wrong, black and white? I find, when I look at Rand these days, that her value is not as a moral or philosophical guide, but as a kind of impressionist painter in blazing words and images. As I said above, Rand’s passion and feeling are more effective for me than her often convoluted and odd political and philosophical ideas. The heartbreak of seeing the towers “rapt as raised arms” destroyed, along with thousands of their people, is made more terrible (if that is possible) by knowing how much they meant in the ideal world of the creators, of civilization as Rand wanted it to be, the soaring, ambitious, and shining world of “man’s achievement on earth”.
|©2001 Hannah M.G. Shapero|
Hannah M.G. Shapero is an American artist, writer and incorrigible baseball fan. Check out her website for some beautiful work.www.pyracantha.com