The essence of life

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.
—Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (End of Galt’s speech)

It is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead.
—Ayn Rand, Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Fountainhead”

This view is the essence of life. It is what makes life worth living. It is a precondition of all values. As Rand writes “It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible”.  This view of life is part of the ‘concept of life’ here. Retaining this view throughout life requires that one always examine and understand one’s desires as precisely as possible and act to achieve them. Having a desire and not acting to achieve it is the most damaging thing one can do.

Happiness

I was discussing the relative merits of movies vs novels as a medium for telling a story and happened to reread a passage in The Fountainhead that struck me deeply.

Just think, Howard, think of it! You’ll be rich, you’ll be famous, you’ll be respected, you’ll be praised, you’ll be admired–you’ll be one of us!…Well?…Say something! Why don’t you say something?”

“Look, Peter. I believe you. I know that you have nothing to gain by saying this. I know more than that. I know that you don’t want me to succeed–it’s all right, I’m not reproaching you, I’ve always known it–you don’t want me ever to reach these things you’re offering me. And yet you’re pushing me on to reach them, quite sincerely. And you know that if I take your advice, I’ll reach them. And it’s not love for me, because that wouldn’t make you so angry–and so frightened….Peter, what is it that disturbs you about me as I am?”
                                             — The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Some people criticize Rand’s dialogues for being unrealistic. And that is true. Real life dialogues are really as perceptive as this. But the question is: Why should dialogues in a novel be realistic? Here Rand contrasts riches, fame, respect, praise, admiration, acceptance – Peter Keating’s values – with pride and self-belief – Howard Roark’s values. Second-hand values against first-hand values. And Peter and Howard both realize that despite Peter’s having achieved all his values, he is still disturbed by the fact that Roark does not pursue Peter’s values. The dialogue is a tool to move one aspect of the story – Roark’s discovery of the difference between his values and that of most others – forward. And it does that job brilliantly. Why would one want real-life dialogue instead of dialogue like this? I read novels for entertainment; for those things that I cannot get in real life, atleast not in a short timespan. Significant events in real life are mixed up with so many mundane events that one needs a condensed depiction of the significant things to remind oneself of what is important and what is not. Every event, dialogue or description in a novel should be significant. It should serve a purpose; it should move the story forward. Real life dialogue in a novel is a waste of time.

Anyway, I got distracted. The point of this post was that by rereading this passage I have a better definition of happiness. My mental definition of happiness was – “the state of mind that results from the achievement of one’s values”. The passage above emphasizes that happiness results from the achievement of one’s values only if those values are objective – consciously chosen by one’s one mind by an objective standard. Achieving a value when one does not know why one values it does not bring lasting happiness.

Ayn Rand’s contradictory life?

Via Muse Free, I came across this article in the NY Times by Adam Kirsch. From the article

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” …
In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable…
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

Anyone who has read and bothered to understand The Fountainhead should remember the scene where Howard Roark refuses a contract for a building to protect the integrity of his vision when that contract is the only thing that can save him from bankruptcy. When asked “Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?” Roark replies “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Perhaps Kirsch missed it or perhaps he just took it as an unbelievable part of the plot. “The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Holly­wood screenwriter she once was.” Either way he has no conception of what Rand meant by selfishness or capitalism. Kirsch should read this excerpt from The Fountainhead

“Dominique,” he said softly, reasonably, “that’s it. Now I know. I know what’s been the matter all the time.”
“Has anything been the matter?”
“Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind.”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“But it’s…it’s like death. You’re not real. You’re only a body. Look, Dominique, you don’t know it, I’ll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can’t move any more, when it has no…no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves–but that’s all. The other, the thing inside you, your–oh, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking religion, but there’s no other word for it, so I’ll say: your soul–your soul doesn’t exist. No will, no meaning. There’s no real you any more.”
“What’s the real me?” she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.
“What’s the real anyone?” he said, encouraged. “It’s not just the body. It’s…it’s the soul.”
“What is the soul?”
“It’s–you. The thing inside you.”
“The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s it. And the thing that feels. You’ve–you’ve given it up.”
“So there are two things that one can’t give up: One’s thoughts and one’s desires?”
“Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you’re like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That’s worse than any active crime. It’s…”
“Negation?”
“Yes. Just blank negation. You’re not here. You’ve never been here. If you’d tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you’d rip them off and put up some you like–something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You’ve never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner.
You’re not here, Dominique. You’re not alive. Where’s your I?”
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
He sat still, his eyes wide. She knew that his thoughts, in this moment, were clear and immediate like visual perception, that the act of thinking was an act of seeing a procession of years behind him.
“It’s not true,” he said at last, his voice hollow. “It’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“What you said.”
“I’ve said nothing. I asked you a question.”
His eyes were begging her to speak, to deny. She rose, stood before him, and the taut erectness of her body was a sign of life, the life he had missed and begged for, a positive quality of purpose, but the quality of a judge.
“You’re beginning to see, aren’t you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You’ve never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn’t want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act–a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn’t like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn’t want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It’s real only when it’s independent–you’ve discovered that, haven’t you? It’s real only when it chooses curtains and desserts–you’re right about that–curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you’ve never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what
you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being–only with the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment–I said I
had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence–I created nothing. I didn’t say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind–I just agreed with everybody.
You call it death, Peter? That kind of death–I’ve imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you–you haven’t done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You’ve spared them the blank death. Because you’ve imposed it–on yourself.”

But then, Kirsch probably won’t understand it anyway.

And while I am at it, consider this from Kirsch’s article

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

Mass market elitism? Talk about contradictions. Elitism, by definition, cannot have a mass market. Yet, Kirsch is desperate to label Rand’s ideas as elitist. Why?

Trials in The Fountainhead

I have been very busy at work lately and have fallen behind on my usual reading schedule but I took the time to read this piece by Prof Hornstein (via Ayn Rand in India). It is a good analysis of the significance of the two trials in ‘The Fountainhead’. Definitely worth reading.

Ayn Rand’s novels

For some time, I have been thinking of writing a series of posts on “Atlas Shrugged”. What I took away from it, why I was so influenced by it, why I enjoyed it. So I was delighted to discover the comment thread on Aristotle The Geek’s post Dry Humor that featured an excerpt from “The Fountainhead”. I think Aristotle The Geek nails quite a few of the things I would have written myself. I still intend to do the series, but meanwhile, go read the thread.

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