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Various Thoughts on The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged from a 2013

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shlomif
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I had read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which I really enjoyed and which became my favourite Adult-oriented book (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was my favourite children-oriented book) and some time later read Atlas Shrugged, which I also really enjoyed. Here are my thoughts about them from the perspective of a 1977-born (but still quite trendy) enthusiast of free/open culture (open source, Creative Commons, web culture that's not technically Creative Commons, but is in effect), who has recently decided to make a transition from being a professional software developer, to being a writer, Internet entertainer, and amateur philosopher, with the aspirations of becoming Independent and self-sustaining, if not famous and successful. (I still see software development, maths and having a firm grasp of many different fields of science, as necessary means for that, and won't mind being employed or consulting for software development as a way to pay the bills, but still that's not how I see myself).

First of all, let me say that Rand was a gifted writer. While I found the writing style of Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment to be boring, and excessive, Ayn Rand kept me captivated and was not too wordy and to the point. I often wish I could write as well as her. I also found her books or quotes from them to be of great inspiration.

That put aside, I feel that Rand’s books are definitely showing their age, and I'd like to explain why. The reason is that while Objectivism in its purest and most natural form is sound and clear, Ayn Rand fell victim to various moral/ethical fashions of her time, that other people and I now find ridiculous, and often a cause of a big generations' gap and lots of problems.

Here are some examples:

  1. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand still implied that Mickey Mouse was low culture. Perhaps Rand as a worked in the more traditional live actor film industry found the cartoons that were easier to create, usually shorter and more succinct, and produced less impressive and not as professional results, as low culture. But nowadays, Walt Disney is considered a genius (with some naturaly recent backlash about various supposed faults of his, such as his racism), and Rand seemed to have realised it by Atlas Shrugged.

    Thing is what made cartoons great was the fact that they were easy to create, and more intense and to the point than traditional film-making.

  2. An even worse offense is the fact that in The Fountainhead, Roark sorts of expects success to magically come to him without doing anything to promote himself, in direct violation of the Gods help them that help themselves principle. In a sense it reflects Ayn Rand’s older self that wrote and published books and did not network in the primitive means of the day to build a reputation.

    On the other hand, by the time Miss Rand published Atlas Shrugged, she realised the error of her ways, and worked hard on promoting herself and her books by word of mouth, and it is evident in Atlas Shrugged, where almost all the major benevolent characters are travelling far and wide across the united states and constantly network. Like it should be.

  3. Yet another bad aspect of Ayn Rand's work is her advocacy of multiple sexual/romantic-love partners. No, it's not unethical when done openly, just that having one relationship requires enough hard work and dedication that being involved in more than one relationship would be unfair to both (or more) partners. In all of my stories and screenplays including my parody of The Fountainhead, all the characters are 100% monogomous, throught the story.

  4. Another thing I now dislike about classical Randianism is its disapproval of most cultural aspect except the narrow one of that leading to Americanism (i.e: Ancient Greek culture → Renaissance → English culture → American culture) instead of accepting and embracing the pluralism of ancient and modern idea systems. In a late edition of Atlas Shrugged, Peikoff quotes Ayn Rand's diary on implying that a good work of art reflects a good philosophy, and that philosophy is the absolutely necessary means for a good work of art.

    Larry Wall (who is reknown and reverred in the open source world as the father of the Perl programming language and previously as the author of the original patch program which despite being of more limited scope and ability, was arguably more important in the historical context of the open source world, and is a very witty and funny guy and a gifted public speaker), once said this:

    I have a book on my bookshelf that I’ve never read, but that has a great title. It says, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” And I believe that. The most viable belief systems are those that can reach out and incorporate new ideas, new memes, new metaphors, new interfaces, new extensions, new ways of doing things. My goal this year is to try to get Perl to reach out and cooperate with Java. I know it may be difficult for some of you to swallow, but Java is not the enemy. Nor is Lisp, or Python, or Tcl. That is not to say that these languages don't have good and bad points. I am not a cultural relativist. Nor am I a linguistic relativist. In case you hadn't noticed. :-)

    I think keeping modern 2013 Objectivism in its Randian roots would be stagnating it. By all means we should reach out and integrate memes and concepts from other idea systems - serious and funny (because like Peter Ustinov said “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”), old and new, non-fictional and fictional.

    Among the modern day essayists that I'm familiar and like the most I can point out that Joel "Joel on Software" Spolsky has been integrating insights from software and business management, from Judaism and Israelism, from 60s-70s American culture, from New York City life, from popular films and T.V. shows, and even a bit from gay culture (Joel is gay), into something truly funny and insightful, that I learned a lot from. In the meanwhile, Paul Graham has been using metaphors from open culture life, from medieval and renaissance Europe, and from his experiences in working on startups, and many other things.

    Similarly, I've now decided that I'll be happy to mix and match concepts, memes and characters from such modern and ancient idea systems - including Objectivism, Neo-Objectivism, post-Objectivism, Judaism (Bible and Midrash), Aesop's fables, Stoicism and other Greek and Roman philosophy, Star Trek, the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, role playing games and some computer games, many influences from geek culture and “hackerdom” (not “crackerdom” mind), Cognitive Therapy, ancient and medieval history of the Near East and Europe, etc. into my works of fiction and non-fiction in a kind of big mish-mash which will hopefully either be very coherent or so incoherent it will be amusing. For instance, see the Selinaverse.

  5. At one time, I remember posting to an early forum of Israeli Objectivists (in Hebrew and which used a very badly designed interface), before 11-Sep-2001, when I said how much I liked humour and being amused, and then someone (who was quite a fanatic of Ayn Rand's literal writing) said that humour was a weapon of destruction, and that the only character in The Fountainhead that says we have to laugh at everything we do there is Toohey. Aside from the fact that this may be a variation of a fallacy called argumentum ad Hitlerum, where we say something is wrong just because Toohey said it, I think it is false. In this day and age most people I care about will be convinced more by integrating humour into what I try to say, than by being “serious”.

    A brief look through my Humorous works will reveal that I kept no stone unturned: my friends and I have parodied Aristotle's Logic, the Holocaust and World War II, ethics and morality, murder, death, mass destruction, drug abuse, religion, made cheap sexual, sexist, and cultural jokes, etc. etc. Naturally, a lot depends on the context of the joke, its delivery, and target audience, but I don't see a topic that's too holy not to laugh at.

  6. However, the worst thing that offends me in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is her endoresement of trade secrets and "keeping your knowledge to yourself" instead of “Publish or Perish” (follow the link to see why it means “Life or Death”). As most creators of creative works will tell you, it is impossible to stop them from creating their works and wanting practically everyone to know about then, experience them, comment about them, and in this day and age - even build upon them (see Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book “Remix”). Ayn Rand was not different that that in her deeds.

    However, in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt has an unrealistic (and evil) power of convincing creators and innovators to keep their ideas within their own extremely closed and limited circles as a technical advantage (and I've always thought that John Galt was a real jerk), and moreover Henry Rearden keeps the formula of Rearden to himself, instead of opening it and allowing people to improve it and build upon it (possibly by giving him some royalties).

    I don't like that and I think this and I think this aspect of Atlas Shrugged sucks, and that trade secrets should no longer be enforceable. If a company wishes to maintain a secret to itself, they can, but they shouldn't complain if it leaks. Patents and copyrights can help "protect" a technical advantage, as long as they are within reason and not the atrocious "intellectual property" regime that is in vogue today (as brought to a pinacle in the recent Smartphone patent wars).

I have given several aspects that I find of fault in Ayn Rand's books and Randianism, and given some links for various resources for future enlightenment that aim to remedy it. Note that like I said, I enjoyed Rand's books and found them of great value, and derived many past, present and hopefully future insights from them. But saying “Ayn rulez because of X, Y, Z” would be too much preaching to the choir here.

------------------------------------------------------

Now for how I improved upon the situation in my works, all of which were inspired by Objectivism in the more general sense:

  1. “The One with the Fountainhead” is an unofficial episode of the television series Friends (which I can recommend every Objectivist and non-Objectivist to watch) that parodies The Fountainhead. I used to think that I held the book in much respect and was just having fun with my crazy imagination, but now I think I was lying to myself and found some aspects of it contemptible, and was trying to see how if Ayn Rand had lived today and was a writer (rather than say an independent YouTube artist making cool and zany videos) would have written it instead. So it's also a modernisation.

    Note that you don't have to be familiar with the Friends to enjoy the parody (but it helps). Furthermore, some people who hated the book, told me they loved my parody of it.

  2. Selina Mandrake - The Slayer is marketed as a Buffy reflection, modernisation and parody, and had a complex history in my mind. I originally imagined that the original “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” story was written by a certain Bajoran author around the time when The Fountainhead became famous, and ended up making echoes in Bajor. Then, after Ayn Rand read its translation to English, she exclaimed that it was “the real Fountainhead”, to which the Bajoran mission replied “This may be The Real Fountainhead, but your book is The Fountainhead”. And Miss Rand in turn replied that “Bleh! You will never learn!”.

    Selina Mandrake is subtitled “Caught between post-Modernism and the New Age” but perhaps another good subtitle would be “Will the real The Fountainhead please stand up?”.

  3. I have an idea for a story that I did not begin to write, which I perceive as a modernisation of Atlas Shrugged and as Romanticist Realism in a funky, funny, and zany, 2013 way. I call it The Earth Angel and it tells how a former Black U.S. soldier who is now working as a junior software developer in a small consulting firm in Los Angeles, and who has co-authored a funny and far-fetched screenplay based on his workplace’s culture and metaphors, which ended up becoming a somewhat popular junior high production, decides to teach a local Los Angeles copyright lawyer, a thing or two about life, love, money, and the legal system.

    I have yet to write it, but I started writing an informal screenplay that is very similar in concept titled “Summerschool at the NSA” where “the Hollywood actresses Sarah Michelle Gellar (of Buffy fame) and Summer Glau (of xkcd notability) conspire to kick the ass of the NSA (= the United States government’s National Security Agency), while using special warfare that is completely non-violent.”. It is now finished yet, but you can start reading it, and I hope to write a short plan/spec for the story soon.

I am grateful for Ayn Rand and for Neo-Tech, which is an idea system mostly based on Ayn Rand’s philosophy, for being the final major catalysts in my ability to become a writer of quality works of fiction and non-fiction, but my life did not end there. Like Madonna told once in an interview with her in an Israeli magazine, about whether her study of the Jewish Qabbalah has influenced her, everything that I have experienced have provided an influence on me, and I wish to experience more in the future, and become even more influenced and inspired.

So I hope you'll know better than to think that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the “Omega”, or the "Be-all-and-end-all" of human philosophy.

Best regards,

Shlomi Fish

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Way too many different topics, for one thread, to fully address them all. I'll give a quick retort to some of them, because you're blatantly misrepresenting the Objectivist position, but if you wish to debate the topics, just join the various threads that are dedicated to them.

For instance, I won't address your claims about IP, because a. you do not blatantly misrepresent the Objectivist position (well, you do put an unfair spin on it, but no overtly false claims) and b. there's an active thread on the subject.

(with some naturaly recent backlash about various supposed faults of his, such as his racism)

Racism isn't a "supposed fault". It's a fault. It's also not "supposed" that Disney was it. He was.

An even worse offense is the fact that in The Fountainhead, Roark sorts of expects success to magically come to him without doing anything to promote himself

No, he doesn't.

Another thing I now dislike about classical Randianism is its disapproval of most cultural aspect except the narrow one of that leading to Americanism (i.e: Ancient Greek culture → Renaissance → English culture → American culture)

It's not true that Ayn Rand disapproved of everything not part of Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, English or American culture.

With that in mind, do you have any actual statements she made about things she disapproved of, that you disagree with, and why?

I think keeping modern 2013 Objectivism in its Randian roots would be stagnating it.

Objectivism is the name Ayn Rand chose for her philosophy. If you wish to be treated respectfully and taken seriously by Objectivists (people who ascribe to Ayn Rand's philosophy), then you should respect her choice of a name, rather than use the insulting "Randian".

Yet another bad aspect of Ayn Rand's work is her advocacy of multiple sexual/romantic-love partners. No, it's not unethical when done openly

What's the difference between "bad" and "unethical"?

At one time, I remember posting to an early forum of Israeli Objectivists (in Hebrew and which used a very badly designed interface), before 11-Sep-2001, when I said how much I liked humour and being amused, and then someone (who was quite a fanatic of Ayn Rand's literal writing) said that humour was a weapon of destruction, and that the only character in The Fountainhead that says we have to laugh at everything we do there is Toohey. Aside from the fact that this may be a variation of a fallacy called argumentum ad Hitlerum, where we say something is wrong just because Toohey said it, I think it is false.

It's not as big a fallacy as your argument. For one, you're calling someone a "fanatic" for liking Rand's literature more than you (argument from intimidation), and second, you're implying that something this "fanatic" said reflects Ayn Rand's beliefs.

You are wrong, Ayn Rand was not against humor.

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Hi Nicky,

thanks for your comment. Let me reply to some of the points.

Racism isn't a "supposed fault". It's a fault. It's also not "supposed" that Disney was it. He was.

You are right that it's a fault of Walt Disney - sorry for mispeaking. However, it doesn't make him any less great. Sir Isaac Newton had far more redeeming faults of his own in modern eyes, and yet he was also a superb heroic man, who lived and died as a non-tragic hero. Even today, many heroes, even those who are not and never were or never will be tragic heroes, still have many faults, and we need to accept them as such. Many people I admire or look up to are Republicans, or Democrats, or are self-proclaimed Christians, or are militant vegans, or support the prohibition on drugs, or are homophobic, or whatever, and they are still great people, which provide inspiration and that I love.

No, he doesn't.

Well, he should have networked much more instead of being anti-social and keep to himself, etc. (which, BTW, was a huge mistake that I have done as well). Ayn Rand ended up growing out of that, as is evident in Atlas Shrugged and in her later deeds, so it's OK - no one is perfect.

Objectivism is the name Ayn Rand chose for her philosophy. If you wish to be treated respectfully and taken seriously by Objectivists (people who ascribe to Ayn Rand's philosophy), then you should respect her choice of a name, rather than use the insulting "Randian".

You may be right. Perhaps I should say "classical Objectivism" or whatever. Sorry if I mispoke.

You are wrong, Ayn Rand was not against humor.

<p>

Yes, you may be right - sorry for mispeaking . Like I said it was an "Argumentum-ad-Tooheyum" and despite Rand's burning desire to describe Ellsworth Toohey as the ultimate evil, there are many good things that we can learn from him, from the eyes of people living in 2013. This is like the fact that Milady de Winter in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Musketeers is actually insurgent, sexy, formidable, resourceful, and awe-inspiring, and a model of emulation (while the real villain in the story is the Queen - Anne of Austria.).

</p>

<p>

Regarding humour I should note that http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Peter_Ustinov is quoted as saying that "Comedy is just a funny way of being serious." (which is just one of his great quotes) and I give more insights to contemporary stuff like that here:

</p>

http://www.shlomifish.org/philosophy/philosophy/putting-all-cards-on-the-table-2013/

<p>

The rest of your points may be considered as accepted by me in a silent agreement.

</p>

<p>

Regards,

</p>

<p>

— Shlomi Fish

</p>

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You are not the first of Rand's readers or the last to make the mistake of thinking that Rand's goal was to deliver microwave-ready, single-serving packets of moral instruction when in fact she was, before anything else, an artist who wanted to tell a story.

 

The remark about Mickey Mouse is a case in point.  She wanted to achieve a particular effect at a particular point in her story by juxtaposing the silliness the character connotes with the sense of solemnity of the moment.  That is all, and The Fountainhead's enduring commercial success suggests that the succeeded.  It does not imply general disapproval of Mickey Mouse or more broadly of popular art.

 

I'm not sure what you mean by "low art."  Is it bad art (vs. good) or popular art (vs. esoteric and esthetically demanding)?  You find all degrees of goodness (i.e. skill and effectiveness) in both highbrow and lowbrow, and Rand was aware of this.  Her published writings and the available biographical material show that she had a lively affection for popular art - the operettas, pop songs and silent movies of her youth, Merwin & Webster, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, The Untouchables and Charlie's Angels among others.

The virtues of the cartoon form that you point out - immediacy and intensity - are reasons why they probably aren't the best medium for high art.  (Did you know that she supervised a comic-strip serialization of The Fountainhead in the 1940s?  She couldn't have created it as a strip, but she had no objections to an adaptation.)

 

Another example is your statement that Roark does nothing to promote himself.  He doesn't use self-promotion as a substitute for talent the way Keating does, and for dramatic reasons we see more of Keating doing this, but this doesn't bear the weight of the conclusion you draw - that he never does this and that Rand necessarily disapproves of such activity.  His buildings get published.  That requires the architect to supply drawings or photos and to provide supporting information to a reporter.  He builds here and there all around the country, so the word is getting out whether we see him get it out or not.

 

Yet another example is what you say about trade secrets.  The characters in Atlas Shrugged have a particular purpose in keeping a secret.  This won't support the generalizations you draw about what Rand did or did not advocate generally.  (How many well-plotted stories, short or long, in any medium, can you name, in which the characters don't keep secrets?)

 

Some of Rand's characters have more than one partner over a lifetime, but they aren't polygamous or promiscuous as you seem to suggest.

Kira Argunova's love is Leo; she takes up with Andrei under duress (as the story makes clear), not because she prefers the arrangement.  In any case it works out badly for all three of them.  Dominique Francon has a lover whom she eventually marries, after two intermediate husbands, but never more than one partner at a time.  Dagny, too, has only one at a time.  Hank Rearden has more than one sexual partner simultaneously, and this arrangement, too, works out badly.  Verdict: Rand did not show multiple-partner arrangements in a favorable light.

 

Most of the rest of what you say comes down to the fact that your tastes in art and entertainment are different from Rand's.  No argument there.

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