Yesterday on Facebook (sounds like the lead-in to a dirty joke, but I digress…), I had a brief exchange with friends about Great Philosophers. One of the names that came up was Ayn Rand. Now, it is my opinion that certain people reference Ms. Rand the way they reference the Bible: i.e. to fill a certain agenda, completely devoid of complex analysis, and frequently having never read the source material in its entirety.
For the “Astrid’s Spark Notes” version of understanding the writing/philosophy of Ayn Rand, the key is to appreciate fully her origins, which is as a member of the intelligentsia trying to escape the Revolution that would eventually lead to the forming of the USSR (stick with me, dear reader, and I’ll give you the introductory course in literature you must read to understand Soviet Russia and the history leading up to it; this lesson will be presented at some point later in the month). When certain political groups quote Ms. Rand (or, misquote her, which is more likely), they do so from a void that does not appreciate that she was fighting against a specific type of totalitarianism as a member of the ruling class. She doesn’t quite go so far as writing, “Let them eat cake!” but she certainly has overtones of that separation between the one percent and the other 99.
I have read most of Ms. Rand’s work, including lesser essays and plays. I love Ayn Rand; she’s among my favorite writers of all time. This stems from two facts: My long sordid history of being a Russian major (my Master’s is in Russian; one of my B.A.s is in Russian Lit) and my love of a really good story. Ms. Rand’s philosophy is no more specious than that of Socrates or Aristotle, but it isn’t her philosophy that drives my love of her work. In fact, her greatest—and most quoted, probably out of context—piece of philosophizing, Atlas Shrugged, is not among her better works, if you ask me. The philosophizing gets in the way of the story telling, which is death to a work of fiction.
The very first book I read by Ms. Rand is, in my not so humble opinion, among the best books in all of literature and far and away the best thing she ever wrote. The Fountainhead was written when Ms. Rand was still only a cult figure and not well known in general literary circles. It was this book that brought her fame and fortune, along with a wider audience to whom she could preach her ideals of “Objectivism.” The novel about an architect who refused to compromise both in terms of art and living is possibly the best creation in Ms. Rand’s oeuvre. Howard Roark is the guy every woman wants to marry (or f*ck) and the guy every man wants to be. I fell in love with both him and the woman he possesses (Dominique Francon) instantly. Whereas Atlas Shrugged took me multiple attempts to wade through, I finished The Fountainhead in a few days, barely putting it down. I immediately picked it up and started rereading upon finishing it. Ms. Rand had written a perfect balance of pulpy fiction, indelible archetypes, and that oh-so-precious philosophy thrown in. She didn’t go overboard in any respect, taking the reader to the edge of plausible writing but never casting us into the abyss of “over the top.”
If you read just one Ayn Rand book, do yourself a favor and skip the “As.” Go straight to “F” for Fountainhead (The).