I was recently contacted by a woman who was researching American views of Ayn Rand’s work. My initial concern was that she had an ideological axe to grind and that this was going to be a cherry picked study designed to confirm the biases of progressives. She assured me this wasn’t the case so I responded in good faith. These are my responses.
Q: When and how did you first come in contact with Ayn Rand’s work?
A: I remember seeing copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged at the college bookstore. I was vaguely aware that Neil Peart of Rush was sympathetic to her ideas. I actually read my first Rand book in 2014.
Q: Which among Rand’s fictional works have you read?
Q: How would you describe the effect of Rand’s writing on your beliefs concerning society and politics?
A: Her work affirmed and solidified certain convictions, but her worldview as a whole doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Q: Which work(s) of fiction have you found most compelling – for example, the one you would be most likely to read again or that you have read several times?
A: The Fountainhead. I have others on the shelf which I intend to read at some point.
Q: For each work listed above, identify the reading experience that impressed itself most strongly on your mind, i.e. that you remember most vividly. This could be a character, an event, a description of a scene or object, a speech or a piece of dialogue, etc.
A: I got a kick out of the first trial against Howard Roark. He refuses every opportunity to cross examine and then drops the photos of his building on the judge’s desk as his final defense.
Q: What do you think accounts for the relative power of this reading experience?
A: It demonstrates that if you are grounded your convictions and certain of the quality of your work, you don’t need to be cowed and intimidated by opportunistic and vindictive jackals who thrive on defamation and the debasement of others in order to accumulate power.
Q: What meaning does this experience have for you?
A: It demonstrates that there are higher ideals that exist beyond the transitory, fickle and often malevolent vagaries of those who hold institutional power. Ironically, Rand’s worldview tries to justify this through materialism, but it’s a metaphysical and ultimately theological proposition.
Q: Please feel free to add your own comments on your experience with Ayn Rand’s work here.
A: Ayn Rand’s work is an attempt to reconcile the dialectic of post-Enlightenment liberalism. She sees the will of the individual inexorably pitted against the will of the collective, and ultimately the nation state. She holds that objective moral truth (and beauty) exists while at the same time asserting that these virtues are accessible through a process of pure reason and the sublimation of emotion. It’s an absurd proposition on its face because she presupposes the existence of things that are inherently metaphysical while suggesting that the observation of the natural world alone will lead others to reach the same conclusions she did. I don’t think she was wrong about everything and I do believe that there are powerful insights in her novels. I understand why people find her work repellent and I certainly think there’s plenty to criticize from a literary and philosophical point of view. The thing I find ironic is that if you strip away her contempt for altruism and her veneration of the capitalist entrepreneur, she’s not that far away from your average progressive. She wasn’t a conservative by any measure and her social outlook was completely cosmopolitan and libertine. So the progressive Rand hate mill can go shove their hit pieces right up their asses. In short, I think her work has merit. It’s not without flaws, but I think that the majority of the criticism out there is uncharitable and often completely dishonest.