(Part 1 of the review is in my
I started reading this novel since the opening was quite dramatic and it also boasted of some new philosophy. I got good comments on these by a couple of my friends who had read this and so I started to read it very expectedly. Initially I thought the story was quite good with some weird characterizations. Then the story also started getting weird. I knew something was wrong, but not quite what it was. About six months back I finally hit upon it when I read a stupid view on nature (given in the section on nature below). Not yet convinced, I did a search on Google and hit upon
Ayn Rand Institute’s webpage (the institute is headed by Leornard Peikoff, who is the ideological heir of Rand). I read two articles, one explaining why we should not care for nature because doing so would slow down ‘development’ and another arguing that there was nothing wrong in US invasion of Iraq, and in fact US troops should leave Iraq in anarchy and return immediately since the purpose of the war was served (this last part is a bit too much). It was then that I decided to go through the novel more carefully to understand how a novel on objectivism inspires people to advocate such subjective trash. In the first part of the review, I criticized the novel as I would from my heart alone. But since many “objectivists” would say that anything subjective is worthless, I am providing this review written as objectively as possible. I am not providing a plot summary since that would make the already long review, even longer. You can find a
plot summary here.
The main flaw with this novel is that Ayn Rand tries to justify her philosophy by only portraying two extremes. She has a black and white vision of the world, there is no grey, leave alone any color. Thus, there are two sets of characters in this novel. One is the ‘objectivist’ kind. They are a geniuses in their own field, mostly asocial, have absolute integrity, posses such ‘virtues’ like selfishness, self-centeredness, egotism and have weird personal relations. On the other side are the ‘subjectivists’ who are the exact opposite, incompetent in their own field, have no integrity, posses or pretend to posses these virtues - altruism, humility. There is no one who can posses a mixture of these (the exception being Ellsworth Toohey and few minor characters like Heller & Kent Lansing). So she manages to nicely bash up the subjectivists and their virtues. Now why can’t people posses a mixture of these characters? This question is never answered. In fact Rand tries to escape from this by saying that her characterization of hero is as “man ought to be and should be”. My simple question is that if a philosophy can be expounded only with such characters that are perfect (or totally imperfect), then how it is suitable to this world where the people have various shades in their characters? For instance, I have seen or known many people of immense original talent who don’t have the characters of Rand’s objectivists. For instance, Albert Einstien was one of the best scientists of last century. Yet, he was a humanist. He was know for his humorous, gregarious nature and though he
influenced US to build the atomic bomb (because of the threat of Germany), he was disturbed by it’s use and
later advocated for peace. Or consider, Linus C Pauling, the only person to get two unshared Nobel prizes, a noted chemist, he opposed the US government on nuclear issue so vehemently that he was not certain of being allowed to go to Sweden to collect his chemistry Nobel prize. Now was it not altruism? Or if still not satisfied consider the following quote –
“The one man who was, during the last years, certainly by far Einstein's best friend, and in some ways strangely resembled him most, was Kurt Gödel, the great logician. They were very different in almost every personal way - Einstein gregarious, happy, full of laughter and common sense, and Gödel extremely solemn, very serious, quite solitary, and distrustful of common sense as a means of arriving at the truth. But they shared a fundamental quality: both went directly and wholeheartedly to the questions at the very center of things.”
This exactly shows the point I am trying to drive at. These two men were both great scientists, yet very different in their personal traits. Einstein was unlike a Rand objectivist, but Godel was quite like one – like Roark for instance – though I don’t know whether he had the same ethics. Yet they were both good friends and worked together. This simply shows that being able to think rationally has nothing to do with a person’s personal relations and ethics – at least not in the black and white way it is described in the novel. Rand simply tries to impose her model of dangerous ethics and weird personal behavior as objectivism, when in fact, objectively analyzing it we find that this has nothing to do with it.
The other problem with the novel is that Rand twists and distorts the popular meaning of some common things like selfishness and selflessness, until it suits her philosophy. She defines selflessness and altruism in the most extreme way and of course manages to discredit them. Selfishness also has an extended definition which means that we care for what we own, where what we own can be anything which we rationally support. This is of course far from common meaning of selfishness (and is closer to altruism, in which case Rand has told nothing new) and thus the philosophy is ripe for a lot of misuse, which is I think what is happening now.
The only key positive takeaway is the importance of reason, but Rand is not the first one to tell this! Reason is always the main thing to guide our actions and I have seen its importance being stressed in many places in the traditional literature I have learnt in my childhood [for an instance see FOOTNOTE 4]. Also Rand, as with any other thing, takes reason to an extreme and claims it as the absolute and in the process doesn’t recognize that reason has its own limits [see FOOTNOTE 1].
This character is Rand’s illustration of how a ‘selfless’ man ends up unhappy. This is worst characterization flaw in the novel. I have never known any topper in my entire academic life who is so bereft of original talent. It seems Rand simply wanted to bash up academic establishments by this. Accepted that toppers may not be the best in their class, but a topper in Architecture in Stanton (parody of Stanford?), not confident enough to design a house is simply too much. He also seems to be so emotionally weak. However lacking in integrity a person is, there is always a breaking point and realistically it should be when he is asked to send Dominique(his wife) along with Wyanand, for the sake of a single commission. He wouldn’t have starved without that single commission!
She is the heroine of the novel. I was confused as to which last name I should use, so I have given all those which come in the novel. She seems to a character with no aim in life until she sees Roark and from the moment she sees him, her only aim is to live for Roark (this is individualism?). She proudly states that she has no purpose in life in the following quote (conversation between Dominique and Alvah Scarret, pp 134):
“…Is it an inspiring sight to see a man commit a heroic gesture, and then learn that he goes to vaudeville shows for relaxation? Or see a man who’s painted a magnificent canvas- and learn that he spends his time sleeping with every slut he meets?
What do you want? Perfection?
- or nothing. So you see, I take the nothing”
Rand has provided an ideal excuse for any idler! Dominique doesn’t seem to be educated in any grad school but suddenly becomes an expert in Architecture. She is the one who can separate wheat from chaff, and also judge that the one who designed Enright house was an objectivist, just with its drawings! (Dominique to Toohey, pp.232) She also dumps two of her husbands Keating and Wynand very rudely. In fact I could never get the way she dumped Wynand. It was at the worst possible time, in the worst possible manner and for what? How did she suddenly realize that she should defend Roark? What if Wynand had never defended Roark in the first place? It seems Rand just wanted a picture perfect ending with the hero and the heroine living happily together ever after!
He is Rand’s idea of a perfect man. Except for his genius in architecture, everything in this character is weird. I won’t discuss about his ethics, since I don’t like to trivialize ethics by discussing them as Rand has done ‘objectively’. But still some things were very irritating. He eats drinks and sleeps only architecture and he can’t live without it. I don’t know how he ‘objectively’ (at the age of ten!) chose architecture. If he is exposed to other fields would he not find another interesting? Can’t he work in that field and architecture simultaneously? Again Rand seems to forget history. We have had many multi-faceted geniuses, like Leornado Da Vinci, who was good as a painter, engineer, mathematician, architect and philosopher. So does this mean that he was not good in any of those? Probably according to Ayn Rand.
Being a powerful antagonist character in the novel, this is quite well etched. However there is still a small flaw I perceive. Why does he try to encourage mediocrity when he himself is certainly not mediocre? The reason Rand gives is that he finds that “only weak people need his help”, which doesn’t seem a strong enough motive. Rand also says that he wants power, but it is very uncertain as to what sort of power it is and how he intends to use it.
Treatment of Nature:
Rand for some reason seems to utterly despise nature. The quote below would be enough to show it (Wynand to Dominique, pp. 433)-
“… When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all this senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at planets, I think of aeroplanes.”
This is at the core of the mistake of the industrialized world and Rand stresses it as a philosophy! Why is the ocean senseless? Is human kind really independent of sea life? Similar themes that man’s principal aim is to “conquer nature” are consistently and quite unobtrusively inserted in the whole novel, mainly in philosophical dialogues. The fact that we view nature as something external to us and to be exploited and not as something which is a part of us and necessary for our own survival has been the reason for much of the environmental crises arising of late. If our rampant industrialization destroys our environment then how do we live? The answer by the objectivists may be something like in the dialogue I have given in the previous post. Though this may be a bit of an exaggeration this was the impression I got from going through many articles in ARI website.
Ayn Rand considers unrestrained capitalism to be the cure for all evils and I don’t quite see the reason in this. Rand, quite rightly, criticizes social vanities like party circuits, fashion and escapist entertainment and recreation as being “irrational”, but I don’t think she really acknowledges that capitalism plays an important role in promoting these. Also, she seems to assume that capitalism always encourages original talent, with which I strongly differ.
It was my individual interest which made me have a closer look at the novel and there in lies the irony – some ideas (like reason) work against many other ideas in it. Also Rand ironically becomes similar to her main fictional antagonist, Ellsworth M Toohey.
Toohey has an amateur knowledge of Architecture, but still writes a book which becomes a bestseller and changes public opinion in architecture. Rand too explains her philosophy in two dramatic novels with a lot of pop-heroism, makes it a bestseller and has a dedicated cult like popular following
(article here). Their intentions may be different, but their means is very similar. Again, ironically a saying which best fits the situation would be this, though Rand would scorn at it as being mystical.
“The more two things are different, the more they are the same”
In summary, the following is my opinion on the novel. As a literary work it is good in parts (I like especially the dialogues of Dominique). However, I should also note that in my limited exposure to fiction I have read authors much better than her in style and characterization (like Marquez and Okri). As a philosophy it is ironically very subjective [Footnote 2] and even dangerous. Rand destroys even some good ideas like reason and integrity by taking them to an absurd extreme. The dangerous extreme to which the novel goes is best summarized by this quote. (Roark’s speech, pp. 667)
“All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil”
In this way, all products from our big companies are evil! In addition, she links reason with such unreasonable ideas like utter disregard for environment, asocial behavior and retrogressive portrayal of women (I have not touched on this, but this aspect is too well known). This might have been a vehement counter to socialism when it was written, but today it is apparent that it has aged very badly. It is also quite a dangerous book since Rand manages to be quite manipulative, especially if read quite lightly. This aspect is also apparent from what her followers like ARI and to some extent Libertarian party[FOOTNOTE 3] are doing. I don’t know why this novel is so popular and influential, but probably because people like reading weird things told in a dramatic way or worse because they like the philosophy since it allows them to justify some of their actions which can’t be justified otherwise.
Now I know that many would pounce upon me saying that I am commenting on objectivism without reading Rand’s masterpiece “Atlas Shrugged” or her few philosophical books. This is true. But I guess Rand has fully defined objectivism in this novel and it is only explained in more detail in “Atlas Shrugged”. Nevertheless I would like to read it some day, but since literary/ideological criticism is not my livelihood I wouldn’t like to spend much time on it very soon (especially since I would like to read it “in depth” as I had done with this novel). Also, as much as I try to refute it, it is undeniable that criticizing a novel to this extent results in a certain negative emotional drain and thus I would like to move away from all this and read some works I really like. Of course I am open to answering any comments/queries based on this review/novel, which in any way shouldn’t require much effort since I have done most of the home work already.
Why reason is not the absolute
A mathematician Godel discovered a result in 1931 which has far reaching consequences. He proved that “No consistent logical system can prove itself to be consistent, unless it is inconsistent in which case it can prove anything” [Kozen, D.C, Automata and computability, Springer]. As a result of this, no logical system can claim to prove all known truths (mathematical truths or “true theorems”) and worse some truths proven by it may not be true because we can never know whether it is consistent. Of course we can prove a system is consistent by going to a meta-system, but again that meta-system may be inconsistent and hence we have to stop some where by just trusting that the system is consistent until an actual inconsistency is found out. Thus our entire mathematical system is in essence built upon faith. Not the same faith as used in common parlance, but faith nevertheless. Now, I am not a philosopher or a mathematician and so I won’t try to elaborate on the philosophical significance of this, though it is true that it does have a lot. The simple question that I wish to ask is, when logic (or reason) is not absolute even in the idealized world of mathematics how Ayn Rand expects it to be the absolute in the imperfect physical world?
Some glaring subjectivisms in a book on “objectivism”!
- Roark and Dominique seem to understand each other through telepathy (as in their first meeting and many meetings later)? Is telepathy scientifically proven?
- During their first love making Dominique doesn’t have any idea of Roark’s creative skills or his ‘objectivism’. Or did she find it out by how he grilled through stones at the quarry!?
- “The first motor was considered foolish [Roark’s speech pp. 664]”. Who considered it foolish? When? Can somebody provide some reference on this, as I am not able to find any despite my best efforts!
- “…when I look at the planets, I think of aeroplanes” .Who ever told Wynand (and Rand) that an aeroplane can fly to a planet? ‘planets’ should have read ‘sky’ or something else, but is it a innocuous mistake or a sinister distortion of truth?
- How is the art (sorry, science) of knowing a person by his face and first glance objectively justified? (Toohey’s speech, pp. 252)
There is a
movement called Libertarianism which is closely related to objectivism (though
"objectivists" don't recognize this). It is the “third largest” political party in the US now. I came across an open letter
by its "pioneer" president-candidate asking voters to vote for Bush in this
presidency elections (though I saw this in ARI, I don't have that link now ). I don’t question his political stand, since I can’t lay claim to enough first-hand or even second-hand information on the political scenario in US. My point here is that this article, coming from a
"objectivist" movement is very subjective. It is common knowledge that one of the main accusations against Bush was that he lead US to war on Iraq on still unsubstantiated grounds of existence of WMDs. The author who supports Bush, doesn’t mention
this even once and beats about the bush for most of the part claiming things like "terror network in Iraq" has been destroyed. Alas, to what levels has objectivism fallen!
This couplet from the nearly two thousand year old Tamil work Thirukkural is one which quickly comes to my mind, but surely there are many others.
“Epporul yaryarvaik ketpinum apporul
Meypporul kanbadhu arivu” (Kural 423)
“What ever we may hear from whichever source, to find the true meaning of that, is the function of the intellect”