I went through my Leo Tolstoy binge when I was about 24. I finally bit the bullet and read War And Peace, and then backed it up with Anna Karenina.
I must say, whilst War And Peace is both epic on the grand scale and deeply moving closer to home, I think, as a novel, I much prefer Anna Karenina.
Similarly, when I turn to another Russian novelist renowned for her lengthy novels, Ayn Rand (whom I binge read at age 20), I must say to the dismay of her devotees (those commonly known either as Ayn Rand Freaks or Randroids, but whom prefer to call themselves Objectivists) that I much prefer The Fountainhead over Atlas Shrugged. The Fountainhead really does work far better as a novel.
Which meant that I was quite pleased this evening when, on dropping off a number of outdated tour guide books at the book exchange at the bus station at Highpoint Shopping Centre, I saw a copy of The Fountainhead recently abandoned there. Now my copy of Atlas Shrugged can have company on my shelf.
It is a Cygnet edition, just like the other Ayn Rand books I have bought over the years (distant years now), and in the middle there is a tearaway postcard where you can send away to the Ayn Rand Institute to learn more about her ideas. Please don’t do that.
I have met several Ayn Rand devotees over the years, and it is very hard to generalise about them, given the one I know best is a highly eccentric and individualistic character, more suited to leading his own personality cult, than to the worship of that other unique individual.
But what I suppose I could say is that quite a few, transfixed with the ideas of Ayn in their late teens, try to emulate, as best they can, what they think would be the behaviour of the heroes in her novels. That is, they repress their own emotions and become rather wooden and almost robotic in their interactions, as if that is the way that John Galt or Howard Roark would behave.
That is, I guess, they ask themselves ‘What would John Galt do?’
As Jerome Tuccille wrote at the start of his 1972 memoir:
It usually begins with Ayn Rand.
The young crusader in search of a cause enters the world of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged as though he were about to engage in unheard-of sexual delights for the first time. He has been warned beforehand. There is no need to search any further. The quest is over. Here is all the truth you’ve been looking for contained in the tightly packed pages of two gargantuan novels.
Whilst I am mostly sympathetic to Libertarian ideas (although, just like Ayn Rand, I vehemently dislike the term Libertarian), there is something both abrasive and wooden about Ayn Rand’s prose and general attitude such as to turn most people off her ideas, and turn her into an almost Dickensian caricature of a real political thinker and writer. (Of course, she is far more entertaining than Robert Nozick – Anarchy, State and Utopia is a great cure for insomnia.)
Looking back with the acquired learning and further reading of three decades, I think that the problem with Ayn Rand is that there is nothing original about her, except in the Walter White way that she has meth-cooked the raw ingredients that have been provided to her by other, greater thinkers. She has the politics of John Locke; the epistemology of Aristotle (interesting that she claims intellectual descent from him, the first empiricist, rather than from Plato, the first rationalist, given the importance of Reason in her oft repeated utterances); the economics of Ludwig Von Mises (who incidentally was a dinner acquaintance of hers); and the attitude of Nietszche (is it an accident that the climaxes of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are a big explosion – literal in the former and metaphorical in the latter?). All four of those thinkers are far more interesting to read in the original rather than through her interpretation.
To all this, I could add that she has all the charm of the Marlboro Man. Her vehement affirmation that cigarette smoking is pro-life is something that brought her to a rather ironic but apt end.
Yet, there is still something fascinating and compelling about Ayn. It’s why, even though I do not really like her style, I have read a lot of her essays on top of her novels, and the two memoirs her former closest disciples, the Brandens, wrote about their lives with her.
But I guess I would give Jerome Tuccille the last word on Ayn Rand. Towards the end of the last chapter of his memoir, he recalls a TV appearance of Ayn Rand in May 1971 in relation to her views of the ecology movement as being anti-life, anti-man, and anti-mind. His paraphrasing of her words (and my editing of the page of text) appears below:
All of you out zere beyond the age of twenty-nine should get down on your knees every time you zee a smokestack.
Pollution is ze symbol of human achievement. Wizzout technolochy and pollution, man would still be living in ze Stone Age.
Trees, rocks and mountains are nonproductive elements. Zey just sit zere occupying space, creating nozzing of zeir own.
We are locked in a life-and-death struggle between nature and technolochy, between mindless rocks and trees and ze boundless genius of ze human mind.
We’ll build factories on ze beaches and highways over ze oceans. We’ll build a smokestack to ze moon.
It is quite easy to send her up, is it not?
As Tuccille then observes (although that chapter does not end there as the 21 year old me recalled it, but does go on for a few more pages):
Ayn, you sweet, lovable, crazy bitch. Don’t tell me it usually ends with you too!