Rewriting Ayn Rand

AtlasDo you have a novel that you have read time and time again? A story that – despite there being so many stories in the world to discover – you keep coming back to? Which one is it for you? What’s your dark, literary secret?

For me, it’s Ayn Rand’s half-a-million word magnum opus Atlas Shrugged.

I’m re-reading it now, for the… actually, I have no idea how many times I’ve worked my way through those 1,184 pages, but it’s got to be my fifth outing at least. This time, and the last time I read it, I’ve used my Kindle, which at least keeps the weight of the book down.

I read Atlas Shrugged every 2-3 years. And in many ways, it’s a terrible novel.

Lacking in creativity, realism (but Rand herself acknowledged that it was a romantic novel where realism wasn’t the goal), pace, brevity and rounded characters, it’s almost an exercise in how not to write a novel. But still, something about it makes me keep coming back.

That something is its didactic message. It’s an honest novel. It speaks the truth about how the world works, and how morality, and reason matter.

The fact that Rand bashes us over the head with the same 2/3 lessons and scenarios time and time again, is simply because that very honest, truthful and moral dilemma is at the heart of many of the worlds problems. And generally, art doesn’t discuss it. That’s why we need to bashed over our heads time and time again.

Rand was heartbroken when it wasn’t a well-received novel. One critic compared the message of the book to the Nazi concentration camps. When of course, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a promotion of quite the opposite.

Because this novel speaks a raw truth to me, I find myself coming back to it, over and over. It’s like in a world where the benefits of reason are ignored, where the reality of human nature is discarded or distorted, I turn to this book as a top-up of morality.

So despite it being the one novel I can read over and over, I can’t help feel the language of Objectivism as well as the style of the book are what’s kept it from full-blown mainstream attention.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a phenomenally successful book, that’s had more reprints than you and I have had proverbial hot dinners. But the ultimate moral message – despite it chiming with the way rational beings live their lives – has not shined through.

I think I might know why.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, Atlas Shrugged is long. Way long. Half-a-million words is more than five times longer than the average book. That, on a practical level, puts people off. The inflexible use of language and the equally inflexible repetition may also do the message a disservice.

The fundamental idea – that some mysterious man is taking away the great producers of the world – is a fun mystery, that could – and should – play out like a pacy thriller. But there’s no pace here. Add to that the way that Rand lays down the same (in my opinion valid) argument over and over, on page after page doesn’t help either. But it’s the language employed that really makes it hard.

And that’s the problem with Objectivism generally. If you wish to take words that are used by people a certain way, and use them in another, then you’re simply not communicating effectively. Even if your use of the words are more accurate. Simply stating that it’s moral and good to be selfish, does not help persuade people to your line of thinking, if they associate selfishness with immoral behaviour. But it’s not necessarily an argument between one person saying “A is good” and another saying “A is bad”. It’s actually that they both agree “A is good”, but what the first calls “A”, the other calls “B”.

I know that’s a very difficult paragraph to read. But Objectivism is a philosophy, and nailing down a philosophy in a succinct way is – as Rand has demonstrated over countless pages – difficult to read sometimes.

Let’s take that example of “selfishness”. To most people, they’d describe the act of breaking into a car and stealing it as “selfish”. So when Rand describes the Virtue of Selfishness, to them, they think she’s practically saying it’s a virtue to steal a car, or do one of a million things they’d consider selfish.

But Rand isn’t saying that. She’s saying that being selfish is to be motivated by – and living for – your rational self interest. Yes, strictly speaking, this could be defined as “selfish”, but most people wouldn’t consider it to be so. And that’s the problem, her inflexible language – and the language of so many who consider themselves to be Objectivists – stops them from having a normal conversation.

Let me be clear. I consider myself an Objectivist. I happen to think that Rand herself wasn’t the best example of an Objectivist in the world (but maybe that’s for another blog post), but more importantly, I think that it’s worth using better language to describe that philosophy, language that communicates with clarity what Objectivists believe. To do so would – in my opinion – make the message both more acceptable and understandable to many more people. For example, the occasional moral musings of entertainer Penn Jillette, or any given Objectivist discussion by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, do more – in my opinion – to promote the philosophy of Objectivism than Ayn Rand’s entire life work. They are more productive than she is in this regard, which is quite ironic.

We need more Objectivist thinking in the world. It’d be a better world for it. I just sometimes wish it’d been explained better in the first place, and not recited by self-described Objectivists today, who seem to be keen to do an Ayn Rand impression (and defend her personal life and every quote, etc) than actually persuade more people to embrace the ideas.

If only Thomas “The Pursuit of Happiness” Jefferson was still around, I think he’d translate the philosophy of Objectivism in a far greater way than Rand was able to.