“Just as no one writes to prove to men that they have faces, there is no need to prove to them that they have self-love. This self-love is the instrument of our conservation; it resembles the instrument that perpetuates the species: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and it must be hidden.”—Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
I’ve just recently finished rereading Ayn Rand for the first time in 20 years. I don’t think I fully realized when I was young what a terrible writer she is. Seriously, it’s embarrassing. And to those who say that her great ideas make the terrible prose worth it: um, not so much. Her reasoning is actually worse than her prose. Her use of straw man arguments is especially egregious, as is her shocking ignorance of history. When I read thinkers I expect to hate, thinkers like Foucault, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised to find that they’re richer and more interesting than both their detractors and their supporters might lead you to believe. But Ayn Rand is the exception that proves this rule. This is one of those rare cases wherein the worst caricature of a thinker’s thought is actually the most accurate: people really do like Rand because she tells them what they want to hear: namely, that it’s okay to be a selfish asshole. People are, it seems, surprisingly good at lowering their standards when you’re telling them what they want to hear.
A devout Randian recently told me that he regards Ayn Rand has “one of the best fiction writers of all time.” What’s more, he said that she is best compared with Dostoevsky. I’m finding it hard to express how completely full of shit this assessment is in an intelligent fashion. But I’m gonna try. You should know, incidentally, that I reread The Brothers Karamazov last summer, and I reread The Fountainhead last week. So I figure I’ve earned the right to weigh in on their relative literary merits. Okay, well, first and foremost, I think it ought to be obvious, even to most ardent Randians, that these two books aren’t even in the same league. That they don’t even live in the same literary universe is probably closer to the truth. So far as I can tell, the only thing The Brothers Karamazov and The Fountainhead have in common is that they’re both printed on paper.
The fact that you can say that you regard Ayn Rand as one of the best fiction writers of all time—and that she’s best compared with the likes of Dostoevsky—suggests to me that, regardless of your politics, you are woefully lacking in aesthetic judgment. Then again, maybe you were born without an intellectual conscience. Maybe that’s what’s missing. But perhaps that’s not the problem. Maybe you have an intellectual conscience which you simply stopped listening to years ago. Regardless, you’ve just lost all credibility with me. I wouldn’t even accept a movie recommendation from you now, much less a book recommendation. I wouldn’t even trust you to look after my pet goldfish. Saying you like Rand is one thing; saying she’s as good as Dostoevsky is another thing altogether. The first is a forgivable eccentricity, the second is a sin against the Holy Spirit of Literature. You have been banished—forthwith!—in the Inferno of my mind, to an especially kitschy circle of Hell reserved for Céline Dion fans, people who still wear Uggs, Dr. Fredric Brandt, and everyone who still believes in chemtrails.
But seriously, the most sympathetic estimation of Ayn Rand I can muster views her as roughly comparable to John Bunyan: Atlas Shrugged (1957) as a kind of 20th-century equivalent of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Few would accuse Bunyan of being a great writer or a penetrating thinker. And yet denying his immense influence would be a serious mistake; the same is probably true of Rand. What’s more, I must confess that if I squint, and try hard, I can actually see how Rand’s books might have a salutary effect on a certain kind of person: a woman, for instance, who’s been brought up in a very traditional, very conservative, very religious environment—wherein she was taught to put the needs of others first at all times, to a pathological extent. I can sorta see how Rand’s writings might help someone like this find balance. But, as is so often the case with prescriptive writers, those most likely to profit from them are least likely to read them. So far as I can tell, those who least need Rand are most likely to read her.
Why do we hate Ayn Rand so much? I think it’s because we secretly suspect that she might be right. Civilization is now, as it has always been, an achievement. Freud saw this with unusual clarity (maybe it was all that coke?). We all feel the call of the wild tugging at us from time to time, we all hear a little demon’s voice whispering in our ear: beckoning us to call it quits, give up on this marriage of convenience we refer to as Society, and do our own thing. Rand seems to have been possessed by this little demon. She found a way to channel its elemental energy and speak in its sirenic voice. Therein lies her mesmeric power. Therein lies her power to corrupt. Rand’s allure is, much like Rousseau’s allure, the allure of a promise of escape: an escape from the hated prison of modern life. Of course it never really delivers; but like the allure of forbidden fruit, that just makes it all the more alluring. Rand’s craziest and most hysterical critics said that she was an enemy of civilization. They were right.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)
*TRUE STORY: My name is John and the first time I read Atlas Shrugged I was living on Galt. This seemed deeply meaningful to sixteen-year-old me. Galt is a street in Montreal NOT named after the hero of Atlas Shrugged. But stop snickering, Señor Smartypants! Because a friend of mine recently moved to Nebraska, and he tells me that there is in fact a John Galt Boulevard in Omaha. Crazy, I know. But there it is.