Monday, July 06, 2009

Adolescent essentialism: Ayn Rand

[Sometimes there just needs to be a takedown. Apologies in advance to anyone for whom the following is challenging--but I've thought about this stuff for decades and it's time to say it.]

At the age of 12 or 13, if you're bright, literate, and starting to question the world around you--and particularly if you've been raised by parents who encourage you in such questioning--there are a lot of different directions in which you can begin to move as you look for some kind of maturing world view. I was lucky, as I've blogged before: at right around that age, I encountered the community of creative artists, specifically musicians, and it was immediately apparent to me, though raised in a non-musician household, that a life spent making art in collaboration with other people could be deeply satisfying, on both creative and psycho/spiritual levels. That world-view made sense to me and, despite the price I paid (no kids, little money, and the likelihood that I'll never be able to afford to retire), I'm comfortable that it has served me well. For other people it's team-sports, or marching band, or Boy/Girl Scouts, and so on.

It's the same age at which others encountered Star Trek or Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia or Watchmen or Goth or punk-rock, perhaps, and the appeal of all of these latter is roughly the same: what Kevin Murphy, in his great A Year at the Movies describes as the "leather-hat" syndrome. Murphy talks about attending the premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's (really quite remarkable) translation of Tolkien's unwieldy storytelling to a different medium, and about overhearing two "fan-boys" (long coats, Elf-ears, slogan T-shirts, and the aforementioned big leather hats) arguing about the minutiae of Tom Bombadil and Aragorn's sword.

He links this--quite persuasively--to an essentially early-adolescent desire to enter a world which is more predictable, clear-cut, reliable, and egocentrically gratifying than an adolescent begins to sense the real world might be. It's essentially the same world-view that ANY fundamentalist, of whatever ilk or stripe, holds: that the world *isn't* really as complicated, unpredictable, scary, or simply indifferent as they fear it might be: that if only the "bad people" or the "sinners" or the "infidels" or the "Gays" or the "looters" (pick your scapegoating Fear Factor) could be put down once and for all, God/Allah/the Universe/Objectivism will PROVE that WE'RE the "good people" and that it's not *our* fault that our lives are frustrating, unsatisfying, or full of failure.

Any Rand's bullshit screenplay-as-philosophy "Objectivism" is just one more manifestation of this same, ultimately childish, egocentric obsession seeking Simple Answers to a complicated world. It's no surprise that the Rush Limbaugh's of the world are Any Rand promoters: her cult of selfishness (masquerading as "Objectivism") fits perfectly with Limbaugh's own cynical exploitation of his dead-end Ditto-heads' own desire to place blame for failure elsewhere than on their own heads. Alan Greenspan, the imbecilic "the market will adjust itself" Adam Smith-wannabe who got us into this collapsing stock-and-bank market, became a Rand disciple as a member of her Collective in the 1940s.

Rand was at least as accomplished as that other massive charlatan L. Ron Hubbard at generating sounds-cool terminology for essentially vacuous philosophical tropes, and had at least as big an ego: remember, this is a woman who, without having actually read any of the Greek philosophers in their entirety, had the gall to say that "in the history of philosophy she could only recommend "three A's"—Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand." Born in Russia just before the Revolution, she came to the west and set herself up in early Hollywood as a screenwriter and script-editor. So she was always skilful at creating gratifying fictions, simple story arcs, and reliable audience-satisfaction. She married an actor, and in the '40s, in the wake of the Bomb and post-War American triumphalism, managed to construct several puerile adolescent sci-fi fantasies which found an audience (they were in fact based, by her own admission, in her discovery as a child of a French serial called The Mysterious Valley and neither she nor her audience never really outgrew that essentially childish focus). Just as the hyper-masculine pulp-novel heroes of her novels are all permutations of "Cyrus" from that children's book, so all her heroines are permutations of--idealized extrapolations from--the image of herself she sought to promulgate.

All authors do this, of course: Steinbeck even developed a rueful theory recognizing it in himself. But adolescent authors--like the authors of fan fiction who write themselves into the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings cycle--do it apparently oblivious to the transparency of the wish-fulfillment such characters embody.

Anybody with an ounce of understanding of American political history will know all they need to know of Rand's actual "intellect" when they discover that Rand campaigned hard, in the 1940 elections, on behalf of Wendell Wilkie against FDR (certainly Roosevelt's 1930s programs must have stuck in her craw--there's nothing an ideologue hates more than having opponents' theories work out better, in practice, than her own).

There was a trend throughout the first half the 20th century for would-be utopians to try to find "solutions" in human messiahs: if it wasn't Hitler or Mussolini or Franco, it was Madame Blavatsky or Aimee Semple McPherson or that colossal charlatan Maud Gonne, or Robert Graves's demon-"muse" Laura Riding [not linked, because her executors are still distorting the online-record]--most of whom were capable of convincing themselves, in order to convince their disciples, that they themselves were the Utopian messiah.

As Nathaniel Branden, the young in-over-his-head writer who Rand seduced at age 25, put it "Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man’s life on earth." That's what Ouspensky and Maud Gonne and Laura Riding all did, what adolescents do: they scream and stamp their feet and and cannot see outside the bubble of their own self-interest. More fully-realized humans conclude that each of us is very small, our time here in consciousness a mere blip in historical time, and that what *matters* is connection with others. Adolescents are precisely the stars of their own self-engrossed movie--it's when they let go of that movie that they begin to grow to (emotional) adulthood.

Rand's world, her stories, her characters, her reinvented fictional autobiography, her "philosophy", was nothing but fantasy. It was always a glittering, gratifying, badly-written, adolescent fantasy. That she managed (and still manages) to hypnotize adolescents into believing there is any "There" there is more of a statement on adolescence than on Ayn Rand.

I'll close with a quote from the superbly-snarky Kung Fu Monkey, which grants Rand just about as much credibility as she earned or deserves:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.

The other, of course, involves orcs.


Seeker said...

I totally identify with this! I was a 14yr old who read both of those books. Took me years to get over AS (thank goodness for orcs!)

Mac Tíre said...

I couldn't even make it THROUGH AS....wanted to burn it about halfway through.

Sean Williams said...

But wait, Chris, weren't you going to conclude with something about what finding music has done for you and other former adolescents, rather than leaving us to look at our leather-hatted students with dismay? Please! My daughter is close to 15 and has discovered an abiding passion in music; give me hope!

Christopher said...

You bet.

Sean Williams said...

Agreed. Thank you!

Nickname unavailable said...

I was curious what would come up if I googled 'ayn rand adolescent' and this is the first hit. It is exactly what I was hoping for, incisive and informed. Thanks!

Christopher said...

OK, glad it was useful!