Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Who’s afraid of Ayn Rand?

In this the novelist-philosopher’s centenary year in 2005, Sheila Kumar looks at life after the Howard Roark effect...

No one talks about the Howard Roark effect anymore. It seems to have got lost in the melee of MMs scandals, political intrigues, multiplex cinemas, rocking malls and the debate on whether Kolkata is dying, Mumbai is the maximum city or if concrete has finally buried the oleanders in Bangalore.

The Howard Roark effect is what happens to most people, of architectural as well as non-architectural bent, immediately after they read Ayn Rand’s 1943 bestseller, The Fountainhead. Howard Roark is the book’s carrot- haired architect, the man who will not compromise, who will never sell his soul, who dynamites his building rather than let it be redone to suit popular tastes. For all of six months to a year after reading the book, the Roark imprint makes the readers stand up straighter, walk in a purposeful manner, look people directly in the eye, act like men and women with values and principles.

After the six months or the year is over, the world comes rushing in. The walk becomes a shuffle, the figure starts to fall back into its comfortable slouch, and it’s hard to look people in the eye when you are cutting all manner of deals with them. "Values," the recovering Roark wannabe snarls, "doesn’t work in real life." The Howard Roark effect, often likened to a hurricane, has all too obviously worn off.

My philosophy is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
The Russian-born cult novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, and founder of the philosophy she called Objectivism, was born on February 2, 1905 and died, at the age of 77, in March 1982. Garnering more brickbats than plaudits for her uncompromising stand on life and living, Rand nevertheless continues to feature in all lists, as one of the 20th century’s most read writers. A 1991 survey revealed that after the Holy Bible, it was Rand’s books that impacted people most; one cannot but help reflect wryly that coming in after the Bible would not have exactly thrilled the atheist author. The US Postal Service has released two commemorative stamps featuring Rand looking austerely glamorous. Closer to home, just about every roadside stall loaded with pirated books has copies of The Fountainhead and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, thus ensuring a wide section of the reading populace gets access to her works in the most economical manner possible. The Canadian rock band Rush has credited her with being their fountainhead of inspiration. There have been films and documentaries, Academy Award- nominated ones, on the life and times of Ayn Rand. The cult endures.

Objectivism is a take-no-prisoner system of values which celebrates individualism, reason and self-interest, and rejects the moral code that sacrifice, altruism and religion is good for the soul. Objectivism asks man and woman to live for the sake of himself/herself and not for others, to make his/her work the focal point of life and to develop a set of values; having developed which, never ever to compromise on them. Objectivism propounds a free market over communism; ironically enough, both use the same language when urging people to break free of the shackles.

Photographs of the woman behind this powerful philosophy show her to be short in stature, stocky, dressed impeccably, invariably holding a burning cigarette between stubby fingers and wearing the dollar sign as a lapel pin or brooch on her suit jacket. The gaze is keen, relentless, indeed what you’d expect from someone who has given us a series of tall and spare, quiet and uncompromising heroes and heroines like Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, John Galt, Hank Rearden, Francisco d` Anconia and Dagney Taggart. These architects, engineers, miners, builders, journalists, shape an Utopian world where everyone recognizes his rights and discharges his responsibilities, and where governmental shackles are minimal.

Do not let the hero in your soul perish.
Drawn in, held in absolute thrall by the world created in The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, her earlier and what some consider her most evocative work, We the Living, readers then graduate to Rand’s non- fiction works, wherein she lays out her philosophy cogently, books with provocative titles like The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. For someone who initially thought in Russian and learnt the English language even as she wrote Hollywood screenplays as well as her books, Rand’s prose is a veritable onslaught of ideas. All too often, the ideas take over the plot, making caricatures of some of her characters, who mouth improbably long sermons at unlikely places like parties. However, the reader understands.

Twenty-three years after Rand’s death, no one carries the Objectivist card overtly any more. One- time acolyte Nathaniel Branden who later became the author’s lover, Branden’s former wife Barbara who actually attempted a biography of Rand even as her marriage was being torn asunder, close friend Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (who once sent this writer a note assuring her that he believed in Objectivist principles), seem to have all moved on, widened their philosophical base. Liberals shy away from her radical defense of capitalism, a defense that refuses to look capitalism’s flaws in the eye. The Right, of course, have always been alarmed at the author wearing her atheism on her sleeve. Feminists prefer not to debate a writer who is seen to be contemptuous of women wanting equality at home and in the workplace.

Leonard Peikoff who was designated Ayn Rand's sole legal heir, is now her self-appointed intellectual heir and attempts to keep the spotlight focused on Objectivism and its charismatic founder. The Washington DC-based Objectivist Center continues to disseminate Randian thought. On a lighter if inevitable note, `Who is John Galt` magnets, pins, mugs, T- shirts, are all available online from the John Galt Store.

I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
Objectivism found a resonance in India, too. In the 60s, Tara Malkani and her friends ran an Ayn Rand club based in Bombay, where Rand’s ideas were discussed and debated, her taped lectures circulated, documentaries and films were screened. In the south, a scion of the Travancore royal family, Lakshmi Bai Nalapat and journalist T.N. Gopakumar picked up the baton and started their own forum. Rand Readers’ Groups flourished across the country. While most of these groups have wound up, in Delhi Barun Mitra who heads a think tank called the Liberty Institute, has been holding the Fountainhead Essay Contest for high school students, for the past seven years. Liberty Institute marked the Rand centenary at its stall at the Calcutta Book Fair, with a special display of all the works of Ayn Rand; other events in the year include a contest based on Atlas Shrugged for university students, a Howard Roark Prize for a concept note with supporting sketches, on a temple to the human spirit.

Even so, has Objectivism run its course except in pockets? The wheeling and dealing that 'real life' involves, seems to have smothered the flint-edged theory of individualism. Rational discourse is not happening any more, alas. The religious Right foments passions and keeps them simmering. All around us, self-help experts and gurus expound the spirit of sacrifice and selfless giving; self- pride, self- confidence and self-esteem have once again, become tarnished words, tarnished concepts. Rand has been idolized by many, reviled by many more but no one has doubted the power of her ideas. A hundred years on, the ultimate tragedy is that neither the works of Ayn Rand nor her ideas come up for debate any more. That is not so much Ayn Rand’s loss as it is for that shrinking constituency, the thinking public.

[Sheila Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.]
[A shorter version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, March 27, 2005: here.

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