Ayn Rand’s masterpiece ATLAS SHRUGGED has completed fifty-years in print. I thought this was a good time to pay homage to that visionary whose only fault perhaps was that she was way ahead of her time. For that fault alone she has been prosecuted by those who failed to understand her. Yet, the love she received from those who do understand her, far exceeds the criticism.
Understanding the thought of a visionary takes effort. It happens only after we tune into their frequency. For this tuning in, one would need to correct the errors in one’s basic premises. There were errors in my thought process too. They prevented me from understanding her and from learning from her. It is possible that similar errors are proving to be a road-block to others too. It is my endeavour to explain how–and what–I have understood of her thought.
It was my mother who introduced me to Ayn Rand when I was fifteen-years-old. She told me an abridged version of the story of Atlas Shrugged. I finally read the novel when I turned seventeen. I have been reading ATLAS SHRUGGED since then, and have read it over three hundred and ten times in the past twenty-three years.
In a way, I was lucky. I was introduced to a complex process of thought in a casual manner. My trust for my mom’s judgment made sure that I approached the novel with a readymade admiration and an accepting, undoubting mindset. In other words, I had already been primed to receive it. The willing suspension of disbelief that is deemed an essential prerequisite to absorb a new concept, was already in place. Despite the conditioning though, the first onslaught of the thought caught me unawares. I was hopelessly confused. But I’m tenacious. I began reading it immediately again, as soon as I finished it. It became a matter of pride… of duty almost… to understand something my mom admired. The process of understanding has continued over the years.
Over the years I have noticed one thing. People always have a strong reaction to the novel. Either they hate it utterly, or they love it incoherently. I am not much concerned with the lovers; they are already on my team. It is possible that some of them love the novel more than I do and some less. With them, the question is only of degrees of love.
I am more concerned with those who hate it. I wondered if could do something so that they could love it the way I do. There are some shifts in basic paradigms I feel one needs, before attempting to understand the novel. All other erroneous premises are off-shoots of this one. Initially, since I too had found the book indigestible, I think perhaps I can list out the readjustments I had to go through in order to love it the way I do now.
The first thing I had to understand was that the purpose of her novel was not to propound her philosophy of objectivism. It was the other way round. The philosophy had to be presented so that a proper background for the characters could be created. She was creating characters who were perfectly integrated and consistent. Without a strong philosophical background, the characters would be unreal. Of course, to us all (initially), the characters seem unreal despite this. They seem unreal because they display a consistency of character which seems humanly impossible. This was my first point of conflict with her. The non-stop 24×7 consistent integrity of her characters seemed robot-like and almost ruthless to me.
Her critics always say that her characters are unrealistic… that they are either black or white with no shades of grey… which is not natural. In her various interviews, she has given her reason very clearly. She did this because she follows the romantic school of thought as a writer. Here romantic does not refer to romantic love. She was never a romance writer.
It refers to the kind of story-telling in which the story is not one which could have happened but one which should have happened. The first forces the story into the realm of natural art- making it a glorified newspaper story told in advance–because it is so probable. True romanticism is when your story depicts events and characters as they SHOULD be… MIGHT have been. It is when your story challenges current behaviours and demonstrates alternative behaviours by showing what is POSSIBLE. This is what Ms Rand has done in all her works; whether it is The Fountainhead, Anthem, We the Living or Atlas Shrugged.
She knew that we retain only a fraction of what we read. Had she not created such intense characters, the impact wouldn’t have been this powerful. Hence the canvas, the characters, had to be larger than life. She created an ideal world where everything was perfect and of integrated thought. She was neither trying to copy the real world, nor was she expecting her readers to copy her fictitious world into real life, or to act with as ruthless a consistency as displayed by her characters.
It put me off that the things which give a normal, human touch to a story are missing from the novel. It’s like her characters neither eat nor drink; have no hobbies or personal possessions; are neither plagued with doubt nor indecision nor fear. But she left these human touches out because she didn’t want anything to interfere with the consistency of the character. This in turn was done because later in the story, the character was needed to behave in a way that normal people cannot even think of behaving. If she had cluttered up her story with human touches… and then unfolded the mammoth strike… its moral and ethical reasons… the whole enormous event, would it have seemed logically possible for those characters to have initiated or achieved it? Again and again, I had to remind myself that this was a piece of fiction, not to be taken literally, but to be taken conceptually.
Our basic dispute with her is that the world she creates and the world as is are so completely different from each other. When we look at the real world, hers does not seem possible. Nor is the real world tolerable when we come out of the world of ATLAS SHRUGGED. To my mind, that is the point when most people begin to resent her. I know I did. The world she creates is a consistently rational world that to be plunged into the irrationality of the real world seems like an immense betrayal. We look around and don’t find the person who has perpetrated the betrayal. She, then, seems the culprit herself. But for her, you tell yourself seething with annoyance, I would have adjusted, accepted the irrationality of my world as the normal, the expected, the given. Now she has shown me what is possible and with it has condemned me forever to an endless striving. I cannot now live with what I have, I must forever try to create what she has shown to be possible.
This inability to adjust, to find the balance between Atlantis and the real, is the reason I wasn’t happy with the novel. This was something I had to learn to do consciously. I did it because I knew that I can learn an immense lot from her. To deprive myself of that learning just because I was not able to transition between the real and the fictitious world, was not a worthy enough a reason. To paraphrase her- The pain wasn’t a valid enough reason to stop.
She said once that she wrote the way she had, because she wanted to write a story which, when she read it, would make her want to witness the events first hand. In that, I think she has succeeded admirably. The story gives me the same feel too. I found the only way I could appreciate the thought was to always remember that it was an inspiring STORY, not an imperative command for me to ape her protagonists. Given that paradigm shift, I found it far easier to relate to the story and to learn from it. I never noticed when her protagonists became my role-models whom I take pride in emulating.
There are hundreds of things I have learnt from the novel, from Ms Rand. Even now, when I find the world around me such that I want to withdraw from it in fastidious distaste, I read ATLAS SHRUGGED again. Every time I have read it, far from providing an escape from the real world, it manages to re-kindle my love, my passion for the world and for life. I am able to come to it with more tolerance, more understanding than before. The book and its author are the best mentors I have found because they not only warn me of the pit-falls I am about to encounter but also show me how to circumvent them. There are so many things for which I love the novel, but these are the core reasons.
This is why Ms Rand’s world will always be mine too. Thank you Ms. Rand.
Note: Pictures from the Internet.
Written on 1st Oct 2007
The World of Ayn Rand