Monday, August 20, 2012

When I was wise and foolish: Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand and me

       Like Paul Ryan, my thinking was deeply influenced by Ayn Rand.  When I was 15.
     Like Ryan, I renounced her. When I was 15 and a half.
     Though Ryan’s fervid admiration and subsequent rejection may have different roots and causes than my youthful infatuation, I share with him the simple belief that Rand’s books changed my life.
     Looking back it was a pivotal few months in my intellectual life because it was the first time… the first time I felt the thrill of  working out a literary opinion.  
     Shy and slight, more observer than a participant in social circles, I was a watcher, a listener and a reader. In my sophomore year, the year I learned that “sophomore” derives from the Greek, sophos, wise, and moros,  dull or foolish, my reading was, well …  sophomoric. I read and “liked” books – or not.  I read what was assigned and whatever was suggested by teachers or librarians, but I didn’t think about books, didn’t really understand how to think about them. Words like “style,” “theme” and “archetype” were just beyond my mind’s grasp; even words like “character” and “context” were words I was gawkily trying on like sophisticated adult clothing.  I could spout them and match the words with definitions on multiple-choice tests, but applying them to what I read was an ill fit.
     Then mid winter, my English teacher gave us an assignment with a list of choices matching books with themes.  I picked Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead despite, or maybe because of the length. I had already identified myself as a reader after all – and length would be a measure of how serious I was.  Serious, sophomorically serious, I plunged into reading and then thinking about reading. Though I don’t remember the details, I recall the great exciting gush of thoughts, my mind fluid and swept away into a world of romance, superheroes and villains as sure and certain and as any contemporary action figure film. Rand confirmed my status as a nonconformist, defiant, outsider, (though I doubt anyone else would have), standing just outside the status quo and what was popular.
     Rand was so right. And so many adults in the world were so wrong.  There were a very few men like Howard Roark, and women – like Dominique Francon, like me – who would fall in love with them.  I was taken by Roark, by Rand and by her Objectivism, her anti-collective philosophy that proclaimed selfishness to be virtuous.
     So taken that as soon as school got out, I continued my Rand reading --plowing through the thousand plus- page Atlas Shrugged and then Anthem.
     Perhaps it was the long slog of philosophy I had to get through.  Or maybe it was just too much repetition, Rand hammering away, repeating the same characters the same conflicts and ideas, just giving them different names and situations. I didn’t get bored.  I got annoyed.
     So annoyed that I wrote letters to a friend articulating all that was wrong with Ayn Rand. I composed a new rush of thoughts – my first real stab at literary response, my awkward first steps into what might be called literary criticism.
      It probably went something like this: all the characters were the same, superior people or losers; good guys or awful people; strong self-made, independent sorts who didn’t need God or anyone else and the leeches, those who lived – or tried to live off others.
     Neither type really resembled anyone I knew.  Characters were more like cartoons and the more I thought, too extreme. I didn’t know any bureaucrats. In my family the emphasis was on jobs that served others – medicine, nursing, teaching, that sort of thing. I  spent a lot of time in church listening to gospels and sermons about helping the poor and the disadvantaged, about forgiveness and humility.  Selfishness would never be a virtue.
     It likely turned into a Rand rant:  She’s rigid, uncompromising. Too simplistic. Too extreme. Too dualistic.   Rash, and maybe even a little nasty.  Lacking humanity.  Lacking generosity of spirit. Generosity. Spirit.
     And she didn’t write very well either…
      I liked most people.  She didn’t.
      So as fervently as I had embraced Rand, I rejected her.  For a while I privately basked in my newfound intellectual acumen and all the big new words I was learning to use to show the flaws in her thinking, the weakness of her writing.
     Then I forgot her altogether.
      Years later when a college professor posed the question: “Has a book ever changed your life,”  I considered it a profound and interesting question. Henry James? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Herman Melville?  Shakespeare? But my answer was “No, I could not think of one.” Altered my thinking a little, but changed my life? Not really. 
     In recent hoopla over Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, I was again brought to thinking about her books and why they were again causing so much stir. When it was announced that Ryan would be Romney’s running mate, three names flooded twitter: Romney, Ryan and Rand. News reports said Ryan was a “fervent” admirer who handed out her books as Christmas presents and encouraged his staff to read them. I identified with that word “fervent.”  Ryan, who also first read Rand in high school, was apparently so taken was he with her philosophy that he spoke to the Atlas Society, a Rand-inspired group just a few years ago. His pro- Rand views caused the Catholic Bishops to take notice. In addition to being pro-capitalism, anti-government and anti anyone who is poor, Rand was an atheist with pro-abortion views. As Ryan is also Catholic and conservative, he either had some explaining or some renunciation to do. He chose the latter.
      Drawn to the controversy, I read two quotes written about Rand in her heyday by writers I now admire, writers I had not yet heard of when I was 15.
      First Gore Vidal from Esquire:

“This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the ‘freedom is slavery’ sort….
 She has a great attraction for simple people ….
What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her ‘philosophy,’ but the size of her audience.”
And then Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.”
     Well, I was one of those simple people, part of that audience, and I am grateful that my English teacher, whatever her motives, didn’t toss Rand’s books in the garbage but rather suggested The Fountainhead as a book to read my sophomore year.
     For, in retrospect, I think Rand and her books changed my life.
I went on to be a reader and a teacher, as well as a journalist often writing about literature and theater, something I now do only for the love of it as an “amateur,” from the Latin, amator for lover. I most love deeply layered, inventive, complex books that seem at first a bit beyond my understanding, books that resonate, books that linger in my thoughts and feelings long I’ve finished them. I  don’t care  if they are very difficult or very long, but I don’t care for polemics -- or most politicians.
     I learned that if ever I am to be wise – and I don’t foolishly think I have achieved that yet, I must first, and also, be foolish.  That’s the value of an oxymoron  from the Greek oxy, sharp, and moros, dull or foolish– seemingly contradictory words yoked together, that nevertheless make sense,  another one of  the many literary vocabulary words I learned my sophomore year. Sophomore year:  when I was very young, when I was very wise, when I was very, very foolish.

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