Saturday, November 24, 2012

About Egoism, Selfishness, and Capitalism

One thing that can surely be said about Ayn Rand's writing is that it fills your head when you are reading it, and for a long time after you have finished. Her characters are strong and black and white. She writes lengthily, repeatedly and forcefully through the book on the distinction between the two distinct sets of characters in her stories: the creators and the second-handers. Even if you are quite numb or immune to getting affected through rhetoric, Rand just keeps saying it again and again. Eventually, for at least a few moments, for at least a few pages, you would want to liken yourself to John Galt or Howard Roark, and would like distinguish yourself from James Taggart or Elsworth Toohey.

I read Atlas Shrugged 15 years ago. In that highly impressionable phase of my life, the spell casted by the book lasted probably nearly an year after having finished reading it. I was then convinced that I belonged to the league of the creative people destined to changed the world. Ego, individualism, reason and selfishness mingled freely with my existing code. But, I couldn't get capitalism to fit anywhere. I really loved the book. To that extent that I remember myself having imitated the heroes of that story in certain aspects of my life for sometime. A fitting thing for a youngster to do who couldn't find his heroes on the bollywood screen or cricket fields.

I finished Fountainhead recently. I don't see any spell to speak of now. Only a revision of thoughts that have time and again visited me over these one and half decades about the contents and import of Rand's writing. Unlike 15 years ago, I don't any more consider myself a creative genius of any sort. I have got a sufficiently big collection of defeats and failures in my kitty to have no such illusions about myself. I am surely no Roark or Galt. But I don't see why that would automatically put me in the category of Toohey or Taggart. I belong to a large group of characters, a third group of characters, which doesn't have any place in Rand's books. Had she given some space to this third kind of characters, she wouldn't have found it so easy to give her stories such a taut shape. Good guys. Bad guys. Bad guys wage a war on the good guys. But the good eventually prevails. They would get all gooey and shapeless with people like us.

What is this third type of people Ayn Rand never speaks about? They are people who aren't creative geniuses, nor do they wish to destroy the creative geniuses. They are neither driven by their ego, nor are committing charity to fill their spiritual void. This third type is the normal human being. The person who is working hard. Sometimes for money, sometimes for happiness, sometimes for something he isn't sure about. This third type doesn't create creative marvels out of habit. But he is often creative, is capable of doing things which change the world in little ways. And he does so without attaching too much importance to it. In us normal people, the realisation of what creative fulfilment is and the jealousy and appreciation for our superiors exist healthily side by side.

The trick of trying to divide the people along the dimension of their capabilities and ineptitude into two distinct immiscible masses is the epitome of Rand's oversimplification of the world. She conveniently makes creative people the heroes and the incapable ones the villains. Her creative achievement lies in constructing the counter intuitive scenario where the incapable ones are able to take over the world in some sense by bullying over the creative guys. I suspect that it's a completely imaginary contraption of Rand, making it possible for such stories to be written. The counter-intuitiveness of the scenario is the prime claim of the idea that there's something evil and insidious going on in this world as a conspiracy against creators. There's no way to verify all this.

Rand throws a model of creativity at her reader which links it inseparably with the ability to create. That seems to miss the main point about creativity. Creativity is an urge, not a capability. We all have this urge in us in varying quantities. Some are more capable, some are less. And that eventually decides what and how much we create. But the presence of that urge decides whether one creates or not. The part of our lives when we are deriving happiness from creating, however lofty, however humble, are moments when we are the Galts and Roarks. In other moments, we are something else. Not Toohey or Taggart. Because the characters of the villains, particularly Toohey, doesn't sound realistic to me. Toohey comes across as an extremely capable character himself. Going by Rand's thesis, he didn't need to do all that crap he does.

Rand seems to bring in the issue of capitalism again as a reinforcement of her arguments that it's all about capability. Money isn't equivalent of value, whatever she may say or do. And capitalism is about money, not value. I can't understand why I would like to keep working for money when I know it can't get me any of things I really want beyond a point. Similarly, if an act gets me what I wish to get without the way of money, why can't I just do it, even if it's charity or altruism or whatever? Why do I care?

Speaking of Fountainhead in particular, I couldn't comprehend several things. Wynand's character could never take the shape that 700 pages allow you to give it. Only making a character intense doesn't make it well-defined. Rand seems to depend too much on the reader being fully convinced. Periodically, she adds passages so that there's sufficient sense of scandal associated with not agreeing with her. As if not agreeing immediately drops you off the list of her audience. Roark does something outrageous towards the end, and gets away with it rather inexplicably. After having written 700 pages, Rand had no reason to hurry up the end without explaining things. Unless of course if she didn't have any explanations. Rand continuously demonstrates an intolerance for mediocrity. Nothing except the most superior qualities are of any consequence to her. Two things: firstly, being able to write long books doesn't gain her a fellowship among her heroes. Secondly, when you compare the writing of Ayn Rand with that of those authors who are known to write books of comparable length -- Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy -- you will be forced to give her the title she spends all her words to despise: mediocre.

Fountainhead sprawls over 700 long, dense pages. Atlast Shrugged just falls short of 1500. Being so verbose, Ayn Rand was definitely not one of the people she presents as her heroes and heroines. They are terse, concise, and they don't give a damn. Ayn Rand is verbose, condescending, and seems to care too much that people agree with her. She uses every conceivable trick of argumentation, emotional blackmail, sensationalisation and scadalisation to keep the reader wanting to be on her side. While reading it, I often felt the book was the prime antithesis of what Rand tries to propose.

Yet, Rand's books are a good read, if you have the time. Because they talk about topics which are eminently important and relevant, not necessarily because they do these topics any great justice.


Prakash said...

Nicely analyzed and written, Sujit! Enjoyed reading it :)
- Prakash

Arun said...

Interesting .. this book does affect in various ways.. had written this post years ago where I seem to even refer to one of your posts -

Sambaran said...

Random thoughts:
I found one spelling issue in your blog post. You have consistently written 'Traggart'. It is actually 'Taggart'.
There ARE normal human beings in Rand novels. How will you classify 'Eddie Willers'?
I am reading Rand for last 3 years now. Her writings agree with my view-point. She puts it more nicely though. It pains me to see how anti-Rand most of the world around us is.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Dear Sambaran,

Thanks for correcting the spelling. I have fixed it. It shows that it's indeed many years since I read Atlas Shrugged. And the reason why I forgot about Eddie Willer is, I would say, he is designed to be forgotten. I will take a step back from my hard stand that Rand portrays black and white characters only. However, I will maintain that she puts black characteristics and white characteristics in distinct individuals. Further, Eddie, is really a white character. He's just not as heroic as John Galt or Dagny. I don't mean a normal guy in terms of that. I mean, a normal guy who is a mix of 'moral' black and white. This time I will be careful about claiming that such characters don't exist in Rand's book. I will just say that they are lost in the crowd of heroes and villains. Compare this with characters in Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Godaan ... even Ramayana and Mahabharata. What makes those stories epic is that they are full of people like us -- people each of whom hides in his breast a war between heroism and villainy.

Sambaran said...

I agree that Ayn Rand is not the best fiction-writer I have come across. Actually, I am smitten by her philosophy. Or to be precise, I am falling in love with my own philosophy which she expressed in a much superior and emphatic manner. Some random points:

1. Just for the sake of argument, Hank Rearden is slightly 'mixed'. He could not apply the same standards of ruthless honesty in his family life (as he does in his factory-life) in the first part of the novel. Anyway, I am doing eNRey-torko here (as they call it in Bengali, meaning argument for the sake of it). I agree that Ayn Rand is not adept in creating believable fictional characters. However, as I said, her fictional ability is not what floors me.

2. Mahabharat is my all time favorite. Every character is grey (the god included, in fact he is most grey, may be verging on the dark side). I fill proud as a Hindu that we could create a story like Mahabharat where our gods too have shades. I like my gods when they are more human.

3. One of my favorite pass-time is discussing with my wife about clear 'white' characters in Mahabharat. The closest I come to is Vidur and Gandhari. And then they become grey too. Mahabharat is delicious.

4. The world's philosophy is closer to what Ayn Rand calls as looters and moochers' philosophy. It pains me. The sheer number of people who are tch-tch-ing Amazon and Jeff Bezos over the recent NYT article is mind-boggling and painful.

5. I read fountainhead 3 times. First time was to satisfy the curiosity of whether the boy-finds-girl, boy-meets-girl etc etc.

6. Second time I sat with wikipedia handy to cross-check and understand every architectural term that was used. I am now a pop-architecture connoisseur. I pass judgement on the straight lines and curves of buildings, damn buildings of victorian design, all based on my 2 months of fountainhead reading.

7. Third time I read fountainhead to get Ayn Rand's philosophy and read every line of the long monologues and nod my head in violent agreement.

6. Class of 92 KVAmbajhari (i.e. my batch) is having a reunion in Nagpur this winter. Many teachers will come too. Going to Nagpur after 16 years this winter.