Friday, May 29, 2009

Thesis: Ayn Rand, Post-Modern Heroine part I

I recently received a copy of The Gonzaga Historian, Gonzaga's (hopefully) biannual history journal. Included in it is my senior thesis in history, titled "Ayn Rand: Post-Modern Heroine" subtitled "Rescuing modernity from itself." I reread it over the past couple of days, and found that I still like it, for the most part. I'll cut-and-paste it over the next couple of days, and then comment on what I wrote. Comments from the peanut gallery are more than welcome!

Part I, Introduction

Ayn Rand is one of the most polarizing figures in the 20th century, in any discipline. Many hated her for a particular aspect of her or her philosophy; her unwavering belief in Capitalism, her atheism, her individualism, her feminism (or lack thereof), or her uncompromising and combative personality. Ayn Rand, who was strongly and fundamentally a moral absolutist, was painted by Whittaker Chambers in a National Review article as a moral relativist: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”[1] He also denounced her for her strict materialism; but her condemnation of materialism was loud and clear in Atlas Shrugged. While Whittaker Chambers was a Quaker and had legitimate reasons to dislike the book, he clearly had not read it. Accusations such as these plague Rand and prevent her acceptance into academic canon; the literary establishment considers her a philosopher, and the philosophy establishment considers her a novelist. While Rand cared little about academia’s evasion of her, her work merits inclusion within today’s discourse.

Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Czarist Russia, in 1905. Her parents were relatively successful small business-entrepreneurs, who lost everything when the Soviets took over. Even before this event, Rand was fiercely individualist and anti-collectivist. She escaped to the United States in 1926 and never returned to the USSR. Though her philosophy is unique, she did not formulate it in a vacuum; she is part of a greater reclamation of premodern ethical and philosophical foundations, and while she admires the material gains which society has made, she loathes modern philosophers. A truly complete analysis of her work requires that the context of her philosophy be examined, her relation to the modern, the postmodern, and the critics of both. The modernism-postmodernism divide shows that a philosophical critique like Ayn Rand’s was inevitable and necessary.

[1] Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957.


Whittaker Chambers's article is linked here. Just to note again, there are a lot of things not to like about Ayn Rand's philosophy, and a lot of things not to like about Atlas Shrugged, but in the article Chambers sounds like he heard about the book second-hand and didn't bother to read it himself. He is correct in that Atlas Shrugged reads like a "War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" but that's really the point of the book, and of her entire view on how fiction should read. She's a Romantic - she wants to create the best of all possible people who embody all of her virtues. The characters do struggle with real life issues, it's not like her protagonists are all supermen (of course, their struggles generally come from their interaction with the antagonists, or from them not embracing completely what Rand views as virtue). But not a small amount of fiction is based on a good vs an evil, so it's silly to criticize her for that. He also criticizes her for being 'eugenic,' since all of her characters are good-looking. Not only that, he later goes on to call her both Nieztchien and Marxist.

So if all you knew of Rand was Chambers's book review of Atlas Shrugged, you would get the impression that she was a Materialist, Nihilist Statist. Which is about as far from the truth as you can get.

I'm not sure how much I like this as an introduction; it does start off introducing Rand, which is good, but I'm not sure that this was the right point to include Chambers's dissent, before expounding her philosophy more. On the other hand, it kind of transitions into my next section, which is all about defining the Modern and Postmodern.

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