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Ayn Rand - Turd, Literature Or Something Else?

Posted on the 11 October 2012 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

My short piece remonstrating with Guardian literary critic Nicholas Lezard on the fact that he writes at length in critical terms about Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged while admitting he hasn't read it has prompted a businesslike reply from Mr Lezard himself:

Dear Mr Crawford, I am, indeed, a literary critic. Rand's books are only "literature" in the sense that they appear on paper between covers. One only has to sniff a turd to know that it will not be pleasant to eat. Now here's a quote, malodorous enough, from Atlas Shrugged. "The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."

I wonder: seeing as you are someone who has happily taken the government shilling in the past, do you, too, think that you deserve death?

I have emailed him the following reply.

Dear Mr Lezard,

Thanks for engaging.

I disagree with you. Let me say why.

The whole point about Rand's two main massive novels is that they do not fall into easy literary categories because of what she was trying to do, and the grand scale she was attempting. (The fact that she was Russian writing in a second language from a Russian tradition of great sweeps of philosophical novel also makes a difference, a fact usually neglected by her critics). Thus there are passages that are superb by any standard, passages that are strong and insightful, passages that are obnoxious and/or tedious if not ridiculous, and lots somewhere in the middle.

The reason why these books are sui generis lies in the fact that she was writing about sprawling ideological themes (above all the logic and moral basis for collectivism, especially communism) that in themselves are not easy subjects for flowing writing. No less important, almost all the characters in the book are defined to represent some sort of specific and clear-cut ideological or moral distinction based on the choices they have made. Choices involving family life, love, career, ambition, responsibility and so on.

This creates a stilted literary effect in many respects, but it also allows as never before a searching look at some very subtle philosophical issues and some important new ideas. One of these is the concept of the 'second-hander', a person who in one way or the other outsources his/her private responsibility to other people and thereby loses all autonomy and integrity. 

The famous train crash scene to which you refer takes the idea of the second-hander to an unrelenting conclusion. As I have written elsewhere:

The book describes the battle of different people against the blandishments of collectivist socialism which slowly but surely drag the USA down. In one grim passage the corrupt owners of a railway company insist on an express train driving through a dangerous tunnel. But all down the command-chain line they sneak away from putting their own names on the order that it do so.

Eventually a hapless junior official authorises the journey and a drunk train-driver is found who will drive the train into what he knows is a high-risk situation.

In a chilling way Ayn Rand describes the attitudes of many of the passengers on the train:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

She describes one by one how in their professional and private lives they each have espoused different sorts of facile sloganising irresponsibility, and/or blind adherence to collectivist dumbing-down of basic principles, and/or ungrateful sneering at talent and achievement. They hurtle to their doom...

Surely the point of the train-crash scene is not that the decadent, smug people on the train 'deserved' what they got. The idea of giving a view on what they deserve seems to suggest a higher being pronouncing on who should get what and why - just the opposite of what Rand proposed.

See here a baffling misreading of this passage by someone who should have known better, which asserts that it reveals the sheer cruelty/heartlessness of the Rand vision:

Indeed, her contempt for ordinary people extends so far that when a railway worker in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ decides to punish the wicked socialist government by making a train crash happen, Rand implies the passengers had it coming.

Not only is the cause of the train disaster totally mis-described in this review, the argument quite misses the point.

The core issue is rather that 'ordinary people' too have to think, and to have responsibility for the results of their decisions. Sooner or later if we all in our own spheres, high or low, act in a way which in fact risks disaster, disaster is inexorably what we eventually get. It is the sheer relentless 'objectivism' of this position which is powerful and striking:

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”

In other words, I think that the question of what people on that Rand train or old people left to starve in NHS wards (or indeed in private hospital wards) 'deserve' is irrelevant. Likewise your odd question as to whether I as a former civil servant 'deserve death' because I was paid from public funds.

If you glumly submit full responsibility for your life to others, you 'deserve' only what they choose to give you - or not.

Have you read about the catastrophic death of Simon Burgess in the boating pond in Gosport? What did he deserve, do you think? As Western governments day by day take lumps from our traditional liberties and run up unaffordable public debts to give us a standard of living we have not earned, what do we deserve as a civilization other than accelerating ruin? That's the essential Rand question, and one of ever more acute relevance.

The really fascinating thing about this passage is how so many well-known writers of a progressive inclination rail against it with massive inexactitude and without having read it. We now have you, Johann Hari, George Monbiot and all the various liberal Americans who assert that it shows that Rand was selfish or cruel or a turd or evil or a monster or whatever.

What is it with you all? Why does this one passage bother you so much, even though you don't bother to try to find out what it actually says and really means?

Best regards.


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