Monday, November 16, 2009

Ayn Rand

The last M/MLA conference where I spoke the day after getting married was good in all respects except one: the book-fair. Normally, I love book-fairs at conferences, but this one looked more like a parody of a regular fair. It was held in the same room where banquets were served to the participants. The abundance of food presented a disturbing contrast to the paucity of actual books available for purchase. It were as if the conference organizers were trying to suggest that food for our stomachs is way more important than food for our minds. The only book there that attracted my attention was Anne C. Heller's biography of Ayn Rand titled Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I couldn't have afforded to buy this book (especially in the light of the threats by the governor of Illinois to stop paying our salaries) if it weren't for a much cheaper Kindle version. I have only just begun reading this dense 600-page book and I will write a detailed review of it when I finish it. For now, however, I just wanted to write about Ayn Rand and the reasons why I find her work fascinating.

Ayn Rand, the author of the immensely popular The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is the inspiration of Libertarians (whom I dislike profoundly) and is often grouped together with people like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan (whom I despise and consider to be disgusting individuals.) I hate Ayn Rand's deep-seated mysoginy and her profound self-hatred as a woman and as a Jew. I find her gushing descriptions of enormous dollar signs made of gold to be vulgar and pathetic. I consider her admiration of "progressive capitalists" to be childish and silly. I find many of the things she wrote to be deeply offensive. But still I believe that she is a great writer and I love her books.

I know it is hard to get past all the offensive stuff in Rand's writing. Once you do, however, you might encounter a veritable treasure, just the way I did and continue doing every time I reread her two most famous novels**.

Of course, part of my interest in Rand has to do with the fact that I identify with her on many levels. She emigrated from a Russian-speaking country to North America almost at the same age as I did. She was Jewish by ethnic origin but not by virtue of religious belief. From what little I have been able to read from Heller's biography, it has already become clear to me that Rand must have had an exceptionally strong form of Asperger's. (Many of the things that seem to baffle her biographers become perfectly understandable once you think of them in terms of Asperger's.)

If you think about it, Ayn Rand's achievement as a writer is truly unique. She only started to learn English at the age of 21 and managed to achieve the level of language skill that allowed her to write extremely long, complex, and beautiful novels. I cannot think of any other writer who achieved a similar linguistic feat. (Please do not bring up Nabokov. He spoke English from his early chilldhood and spent a lot of time in England and surrounded by English-speaking people starting from infancy.) I started learning Spanish more or less at the same age Ayn Rand started learning English, and even though today, when I'm 33, my Spanish is really great, I could never hope to write a work of fiction in this language. And my complete lack of literary talent is not the only reason. The amount of effort it would require to achieve such a level is simply beyond me.

I'm going to share some of my favorite quotes by Ayn Rand, which hopefully will make it clearer why I enjoy her work.

This quote, for example, sounds like a veritable Aspie manifesto: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." If you don't find this beautiful, Asperger's is probably not a part of your existence. :-)

In spite of Ayn Rand's declared homophobia, the following quote can be addressed to the idiots who keep voting against gay marriage rights: "Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual)."

Today, I find the following to be especially relevant. The state is threatening us with withholding our salaries and we are fed the constant exhortations to service and sacrifice: "It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."
 
As a teacher and a researcher, I absolutely have to agree with the following: "The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see."
 
This is so profoundly true: "The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt."
 
If only the Democrats in general and our current President in particular remembered this, how different would this country be: "There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil."
 
Come on, don't tell me you don't like the following: "To say "I love you" one must first be able to say the "I.""
 
I wish the people in charge of the US foreign policy for the last century and a half thought about this: "An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes."
 
Nothing could be truer than this: "People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I've learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one's reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one's master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person's view requires to be faked."
 
And this: "No one's happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy."
And this is just simply beautiful: "The only man never to be redeemed is the man without passion."
 
** I want to reiterate that my praise is solely for Rand's novels. Her essays and treatises are nothing other than silly and outdated, in my view.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really look forward to your review of this book. Although I have serious ideological conflicts with Ayn Rand, I am fascinated by her. This Slate review of the biography you are reading and another is very good - http://www.slate.com/id/2233966/.

I never thought about Rand having Asbergers. Thanks for making that connection!

- J

Clarissa said...

Thank you, J!

When I started reading the biography, I recognized so many things in Rand's behavior. And many things become very clear when you think about them in terms of Asperger's. Everybody wonders, for example, wher her pen name came from. There are all kinds of versions of its provenance. However, people with Asperger's often have a strong resistance too calling any one with their actual name. They come up with unusual names for everybody, often including themselves. Somehow, these unusual names sounnd more right than people's actual names. I have a secret name for myself, for example, that I haven't shared with anybody. I have a feeling that it was the same for Ayn Rand, and we should just stop looking for any other provenance of her pen name.

Clarissa said...

From Heller's biography: "[At Rand's ranch] there were more than 200 grocer's cartons, each divided innto sections and filled to the brim with colored stones Rand had collected and sorted."

Clarissa said...

"The intensely thoughtful child was not only solitary, but she was also awkward and offbeat."

"She was violently enthusiastic about the things she liked... and immovably indifferent, even hostile, to the things she didn't."

From Heller's biography of Rand.

NancyP said...

Joseph Conrad also learned English as an older teen or adult.

Anonymous said...

Misogynist? The woman who wrote "The woman executive possible only in America, the operating vice-president of a great railroad, Ms. Dagny Taggart!"? The woman who wrote, "Dagny was X when she decided that she would run the railroad some day. She was Y when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that some people might object. 'To hell with that,' she thought, and never thought about it again." (I don't have Atlas on me at the moment and don't remember the precise numbers.) The woman who created the character of Kira Argonouva, who dreamed of being a female engineer... in 1921? The woman who stood as an ardent supporter of abortion rights and said with regards to womens' careers, "Certainly a woman can work at whatever she chooses. What is proper for a man is proper for a woman." Granted I don't agree with all of Ayn Rand's ideas about sexual relationships, but to go from that to calling Rand a misogynist is frankly ludicrous.

Clarissa said...

Ayn Rand also wrote (and I'm quoting from memory here): "It gave her the most feminine look, the look of being chained." She also wrote a rape scene in Fountainhead that the female protagonist actually enjoyed. Which is disgusting.

I also want to remind you that Dagny did not earn her position, she inherited it. That's hardly a huge feminist ideal.

Anonymous said...

Not her fault that she was born into the family. She also deliberately started at the bottom of the ladder (night operator of Rockdale) and worked her way up. And I already agreed that Rand had strange ideas about sex, so why you bothered to bring that up again I'm not really sure.

Clarissa said...

Her ideas about sex aren't "strange" at all. They are widely shared by chauvinists.

In my blog, I will bring up whatever the hell I please as many times I please. What are you, a wannabe KGB censor?

Kittyspurrrr said...

Thank you for your insight. I too read Ayn Rand utterly fascinated by her writing skills. She certainly had passion! I was only 19 when I began to read so I am glad I didn't allow her to influence me to any degree.

Having just ended a relationship with a man with aspergers, and thinking about the brilliant people who masterminded the money over people collusion that resulted in this depression I was reminded of Ayn rand and thought how she must have Aspergers.

There is no doubt in my mind that many economists, financiers, computer whizzes and many more attached to the financial crisis could not see the evil as they focused on the successful outcome.

Sex for someone with Aspergers is most often perfunctory and lacking the lovely bonding hormones, which is why it often a robotic act rather then a loving and sensual expression of love or caring.

If sex is quick and orgasmic they still get the dopamine without all the distracting, noises and time consuming touch and foreplay.

For anyone reading who has Aspergers, had my ex been open and communicative about his feelings (or lack thereof)and willing to get some relationship help, we would still be together, but to deny another person caresses hugs and touch is to deny some people 'life.' It also denies both people of the bonding hormone that is known to keep a couple together.

Pen said...

"For anyone reading who has Aspergers, had my ex been open and communicative about his feelings (or lack thereof) and willing to get some relationship help, we would still be together, but to deny another person caresses, hugs and touch is to deny some people 'life."

-I find that it also helps the relationship greatly if the person needing constant contact didn't beg the person not needing constant contact to make contact. I'm on the other side of the argument (as a girl with Aspergers), and my situation was a bit different. My boyfriend was constantly seeking contact, and even went so far as to put down my best friends for not seeking the same level of constant contact. My friends are like family to me. They understand what I have to go through, and that sometimes I really am busy. This guy didn't, and the level of selfishness he had was simply disrespectful. He wouldn't pay attention when I tried to tell him this, and even complained openly about what I had said. I ended the relationship because he was unable to take into consideration my own thoughts on the matter. I honestly don't think relationship help would have aided us in keeping us together. In conclusion: you speak for yourself. Everyone has different experiences.

Anyway, back to the post in question. I love the ideas behind Ayn Rand's novels. Just looking at the level of writing (I think I was in heaven when I first read a book by her at a time when I was not challenged nearly enough in class), you can tell she was truly passionate about her work. And I haven't read the biography, but I can see why Aspergers is such an easy conclusion.

What I didn't know was that an aversion to calling people by their own names had something to do with Aspergers. With the exception of people I know very well, I rarely call them by any name. It's part of the reason I like talking with teachers so much--the title provides me with some sort of comfort. But I thought it was just a random quirk I had.