Monday, August 24, 2009

Enemy of many, friend to all.

i finished reading ayn rand's The Fountainhead a couple months ago. this came some months on the heels of finishing Atlas Shrugged. i don't remember what i read in between. probably an assortment of CS textbooks and news articles on how barack obama will simultaneously be the next messiah (JL!) and the anti-Christ.

i love ayn rand. she's completely insane and i love her for it. her ideas are both brilliant and ridiculous. she believes so totally in her world that a willing mind can't help but be sucked in completely, left to wander the vast halls of her intellect, listening as voices boom and then furtively whisper from all sides, examining the reliefs carved in the walls of places where people compete to cooperate and destroy their loved ones and the treasures of their souls in order to save them.

i borrowed The Fountainhead from a friend who had read it, but had not read Atlas Shrugged yet. it only made sense that we exchange the books and share our thoughts. my friend read Atlas in about two weeks. less even. i don't know how. i was floored. such an accomplishment is on par with running a four-minute mile barefoot on broken glass while a band of unruly mexicans throws frozen bananas at you. it took me, i think, four months to read Atlas. i don't remember how long it took me to finally finish the Fountainhead, but it was way longer than two weeks, and the Fountainhead is about 400 pages shorter than Atlas.

and it turns out that i loved the Fountainhead more than Atlas. it's strange because the two main characters of Atlas are my favorites of ayn's, but the content and presentation and story of the Fountainhead are more appealing. i half-jokingly like to pretend that i am a shadow of Hank Rearden, one of the protagonists of Atlas. there are some similarities, both in physical description and in the way i see the world. i don't know what it says about me that i identify more strongly with Hank instead of Howard Roark (the equivalent protagonist of the Fountainhead), since at the end of Atlas (spoilers) Hank ends up losing the the woman he loves to that pompous savior John Galt, whereas Howard gets the girl at the end of the Fountainhead. perhaps i am destined to look for my own Dagny Taggart forever, coming close but never succeeding. or, more likely, it means nothing and says nothing about me. quem sabe.

my friend who has now read both books along with me does not seem to share my enthusiasm for all of the same things i love about ayn rand. ayn has a very peculiar attitude when it comes to certain kinds of people and certain kinds of professions, and she has a noted bias against those she perceives as weak of mind or heart. compassion for those unable or unwilling to help themselves is therefore a waste of time and effort, time and effort better spent on creation, innovation, on bettering the state of the world through universally mutual self-interest. this is very different than the attitude a compassionate, generous, person is supposed to take. it's not a very Christian attitude and ayn was decidedly nonreligious. this makes it difficult to reconcile things you know to be true with other things you believe should be true. you know you should help those in need. this is a fundamental tenet of my religion and our society at large. but why do you help them? what is your motivation? this touches on a basic question of human motivation. how do you define a selfless act? if you're helping someone in need, are you doing it because they need help or because it will make you feel good? probably some combination of both, right? which would mean your actions are not entirely selfless, which means your motivations are tied up in your own self-interest. if you can accept that you're motivated by self-interest, why is it such a leap to accept that there are certain actions you can take that are entirely motivated by self-interest that still benefit humanity as a whole? ayn advocates a rational, objective notion of self-interest. there is a mutual exchange or allocation between rational parties, legal and, assuming these, resulting in a pareto-improvement (an exchange that makes at least one party better off without making any other party worse off). if we can accept this as a worthwhile goal, then where does that leave those who cannot or refuse to help themselves, who time and time again fall into self-destructive patterns, who harm themselves and others through bad behavior? would a bright, intelligent, mature person's time not be better spent improving the state of the world for those who are willing or able to help themselves? where do we draw the line?

all questions i don't have the answers for. i respect ayn's point of view, one of hard-line competition between rationally self-interested parties without room for weakness, but at the same time i recognize its faults. ideally, everyone would be rational and able to understand how to overcome their weaknesses and would be willing to do it, but that's simply not reality and we can't dismiss a large swath of humanity with legitimate disadvantages and legitimate problems simply because we don't have time for them. ignoring them or marginalizing them in order to further improve the part of the world and the part of our society gilded with the light of our understanding and capacity is not only impossible, it's immoral and self-defeating. my friend is a social-worker who understands this better than anyone. the fact that she was independently willing to not only read ayn rand's writing but openly discuss its merits and ideas says a lot about her strength of character. it's easy for me, removed from much of the sheer ugliness of the world to pontificate on "the way things should be" and the "the way people should be," but it's much more difficult for someone, like my friend, to see how truly awful things are on a daily basis and not only not succumb to the pervasive sense of despair and ubiquitous unhappiness and hopelessness of such people and places, but to also explore the possibilities of something better through ideas and concepts presented in such a cold, unfeeling manner. would that i were similarly capable of such a thing.