Ayn Rand: recruiting sergeant 5

Of extraordinary interest, we think, is an essay by Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion, titled Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. (We cannot link to it, but it’s easy to find.)

We are admirers of Ayn Rand, but not uncritically. We believe, as she does, that capitalism is the only creator and sustainer of prosperity. We despise religion as she does. Like her we value reason. Her enormous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have probably won more believers in capitalism and devotees of personal liberty than any other book in any language, even surpassing Hayek’s essential text The Road to Serfdom; and for that she deserves lasting honor.

But her vision of humanity has a comic-book hyperbole about it which keeps her out of the rank of great writers. Her heroes are too big, too superior to us and everyone we’ll ever meet, to be likable. They inspire awe but not affection. We can be sure they’d look down on us if they knew us. We cannot emulate them, we can only wonder at them. They are like gods. They are intensely romantic, and romanticism is the enemy of reason.

Anthony Daniels lists her virtues and vices:

Rand’s virtues were as follows: she was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease. Her vices, of course, were the mirror-image of her virtues, but, in my opinion, the mirror was a magnifying one. Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do. …

A passionate hater of religion, Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication; a passionate believer in rationality and logic, she was incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work. She was a rationalist who was not entirely rational …

He goes on to paragraphs of stronger condemnation. He finds “horrible” cruelty in her. He perceives that though she was fanatically anti-collectivist, and though she had fled from Soviet Russia to the freedom of America, Stalin’s Russia remained within her.

Her unequivocal admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction as a mark of progress is profoundly Stalinist. Where Stalinist iconography would plant a giant chimney belching black smoke, Randian iconography would plant a skyscraper. (At the end of The Fountainhead, Roark receives a commission to build the tallest skyscraper in New York, its height being the guarantor of its moral grandeur. According to this scale of values, the Burj Dubai would be man’s crowning achievement so far.) Industrialists are to Rand what Stakhanovites were to Stalin: Both saw nature as an enemy, something to be beaten into submission. One doesn’t have to be an adherent of the Gaia hypothesis to know where this hatred of nature led.

Finally, Rand’s treasured theory of literature, what she called Romantic Realism, is virtually indistinguishable from Socialist Realism …

Rand’s heroes are not American but Soviet. The fact that they supposedly embody capitalist values makes no difference. Rand fulfilled Stalin’s criterion for the ideal writer: she tried to be an engineer of souls.

The analysis is not unjust.

But the recruiting sergeant to the Army of Light does not have to be the best exponent of the cause for which it fights.

While acknowledging and regretting all her faults, we keep, for her success as a dedicated recruiting sergeant, an abstract monument to Ayn Rand in our personal Hall of the Defenders of Individual Freedom.

Jillian Becker   June 19, 2010