Virtue Is Its Own Reward
Copyright © by SuZi, 7/9/06
"It is a sin to write this": Thus begins the first sentence of the simplest of prose works, a speculatively post-apocalyptic novella written in the mid-1930s and called Anthem. Now, some eighty years later, one might expect-especially given certain situations in current events-that such the resonance of this phrase would place it into someone's list of famous quotations (or, at least, an email signature). One might also suspect that the author of the phrase, of the novella and other works, would have a securely bronzed position in the American Literary Canon. In fact, the shadowy position of this author, as is true for other authors, within the hallowed halls of the American Literary Canon reflects more on the fickle, fashionable nature of the process by which work is determined worthy of canonization than upon the quality of any given piece of writing.
Perhaps a crude but much utilized view of the American Literary Canon can be found as the authors' list for any English class textbook. Textbooks, in general, are constructions of the ugliest aspects of American publishing: subjected to the flatulence of current educational theory, the belchings of politics and other wearisome winds, they are expensive in more than their sale price. For the guy next door, whose primary concern is the proper adjustment of the thermostat to accommodate the heat from the plasma TV, the English textbooks he had (from whatever dim dreams of his school days that still ping in memory) are the only experience with the American Literary Canon that will ever be had. A quick appraisal of any English textbook will yield as much attention paid to expensive illustrations and annoying assignment suggestions as to the literature included. Of the writings that are included, as investigation into a generation or two of textbooks yields a bizarre choice of inclusion: some authors are in everything; others used to be read, but are now absent; some authors were never and might never find institutionalized inclusion. None of these conditions are reliable assessments of the literary quality any author produced, yet they are a tacit indication of the best American literature has to offer.
So the American Literary Canon is suspect: rather that an ever-growing bibliography reflective of the intricacies and brilliant idiosyncrasies found in American writing, the institutionalized canon is an ever-shrinking catalogue of politically correct and sanctioned literature. The effect, socially, might result in a citizenry oblivious to literature, to thought. Such a citizenry is the target of the author of Anthem, who wrote the novella while preparing for The Fountainhead (Forward, 1995 edition). Such a sub-literate citizenry, easily swayed by spin, is referred to in The Fountainhead as "second-handers" and in Atlas Shrugged as "looters". Ayn Rand refers to "second-handers" as having 'deadliness" and continues with
They have no concern for facts, ideas, work [ ] Not to judge,
but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing.
Not creation , but show. Not merit, but pull[ ]You don't
think with another's brain and you can't work through another's
hands. When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment,
you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life
And whereas it may seem paradoxical to inform a citizenry of their "literary heritage" (as Blanche says in another shadowy American Literary Classic, A Streetcar Named Desire), while simultaneously restricting information about works in that heritage via the limited contents of textbooks and the odd governmental efforts to keep tabs on bookstores and libraries, our situation in our current literary culture is in exactly the state guaranteed to promulgate Rand's second-handers and looters among our neighbors right now.
Our passive acceptance of restrictions placed upon our own access of our cultural inheritance will guarantee the continuation of a dire and despair-filled cultural wasteland.
Although Rand's biography has a moment or irony in that she left a restrictive environment to become an American writer, greater irony can be found in the speculations her three fictional works make that strike the reader as either logical conjecture or prophecy. A comment made by the protagonist in Anthem might be construed as applicable to the American Literary Canon itself:
The Council of Scholars has said that we all know the things
which exist and therefore the things which are not known by all
do not exist (52).
The idea of restrictive group-think, of socially sanctioned xenophobia while oxymoronically giving lip-service to multi-culturalism seems to be the primary function of the canon as codified in textbooks. Rand comments on this herd mentality in The Fountainhead , calling it "collectivism" and stating
[ ] to act together, to think-together, to feel-together, to unite, to
agree to obey. To obey, to serve, to sacrifice [ with the result of]
the individual held as evil, the mass --as God (639).
Surely, any human in America, citizen or not, can see Rand's collectivism at work in grocery stores, blue jean purveyors, automobile sales lots. The failure of the American Literary Canon to include Rand is more than an act of censorship against perceived sedition, it is our failure to cherish our own ability at the very critical thought that wide reading nourishes.
From a literary constructionist point of view, Rand's fiction is heavily symbolic. Characterization seems to evolve from Anthem through The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged. The primary female character in Anthem is The Golden One, who becomes Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead and finally Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. They are, of course, painted as physically attractive in some superlative degree, with symbolic character traits as well. Rand has Dominique Francon say of herself:
I take the only desire one can really permit oneself. Freedom
[ ] to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing
The immediate rebuttal in the text is made by another character, who says "It's abnormal to feel so strongly about anything." Yet Rand argues for the virtue of passion in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged through both the speeches of the characters and through the tribulations they endure. If Rand's protagonists symbolize the superlative, they so by their focused passion. Of Dagny Taggart's character, Rand wrote
She could not function to the rule of: Pipe down---keep down-
slow down-don't do your best, it is not wanted (300-301).
In direct contrast to the heroic females of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are both the male characters and the other females --the unheroic, the shrill, the shallow: Rand repeats the unpleasant mother character in both texts, first as the mother of symbolic looser Peter Keating, and as the emotionally extorting mother of Hank Reardon. Hank Reardon, one of many symbolically admirable male characters in Atlas Shrugged , has the same initials as the heroic architect of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. Both characters are painted as tall, lean and prominent of facial bones; they are accused of a lack of concern for social codes, as is Dagny Taggart, about whom Rand attributes a certain confusion
[ ]wondering how they could imagine that she would feel guilt
from an undefined accusation (51).
Other characters are painted as symbolically grotesque, both with the hyperbolic accentuation of physical characteristics that remind one of the German Expressionist drawings of the 1930s), as well as the thoroughly unlaudable traits of cowardice, duplicity and betrayal. As Rand has Hank Reardon finally surmise about his unpleasant wife, Lillian
[ ] to the self-haters and life-haters, the pursuit of
destruction was the only form and equivalent of love (474).
One can perhaps see the resonance of this characterization in our current ubiquitous experiences of road rage, deforestation, domestic distress and other forms of depravity. Indeed, Rand predicts these modern global emergencies by calling the self-haters "looters" upon whom she attributes responsibility for many forms of unpleasantness, including planetary destruction:
Their plan -like all the plans of the royal looters of the past-is
only that the loot shall last their lifetime (740).
An ironic observation, now that we are paying at the pump for generations of car-crazy culture.
Additionally, Rand's use of American settings is noteworthy: from the post-apocalypse society of Anthem, through the utopia of Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, with the presence of cities -notably New York -and the presence of homelessness and economic collapse as easily discernible in all of Rand's fictional texts. With all the aids to assignments ladled into teachers' editions, teachers' supplements, activities enrichment workbooks and other educational tools, even middle level students would not be overly windblown by consideration of Rand's work --despite the purient handcuffs of community standards ( ironically, a recent interview with a reality TV starlet in the April Earth Day issue of Elle magazine featured the thespian toting a copy of Atlas Shrugged).
Posthumously, and privately, Rand's work is used in the institutions of education --despite being shunned by textbook conglomerates. Although not every dead writer has an organization dedicated to encouraging continued reading of the work, Rand does. Interestingly, The Ayn Rand Institute willingly sponsors educational interaction: sponsoring both essay contests and, in some cases, book donation. On the telephone, the institute personnel are friendly and seem interested in being helpful -exactly the opposite experience one routinely has with textbook publishing institutions. That the second hand looters of American literature and elitist dogmaticians of the American Literary Canon would choose the pose of hegemony should come as no surprise.
Rand's socio-political philosophy is given through the speeches of the characters, with pro and con given classical rhetorical weight. Rand spent the last part of her writing life working in expository format, but most of the exposition given through the speeches of characters rather thoroughly informs the reader of Rand's primary tenents. What is most enjoyable in these speeches are both those which laud the superlative and those which castigate the triflin', no-account, sorrier citizenry:
[ ] whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort,
who do not posses the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the
income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure
and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing as an
equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to
reward than your effort, who demand that your strength be
the voiceless, rightless, unpaid, unrewarded slave of their
incompetence [ ] that yours is only to give,but theirs only to
take, that yours is to produce, but theirs to consume,
that you are not to be paid, neither in matter nor in spirit, neither
by wealth nor by recognition nor by respect nor gratitude [ ]
A recitation of this passage drew hosannahs from a number of working folk, as did many other passages quoted from Rand. One person said Rand convinced her that it was not necessary to compromise upon mediocrity. Is this the lesson censored from the American Literary Canon?
Although Rand's three fictional works mentioned here are far from perfect -this reader found the sex scenes grueling and unpleasant ("the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained." (Atlas Shrugged 136))-there is far more in Rand's work that is uplifting to those chafed by the pressures of assimilation than in shelf after shelf of self-help drivel:
[ ] vicious nonsense. Just weakness and cowardice. It's so easy
to run to others. It's so hard to stand on one's own record. You
can fake virtue for an audience. You can't fake it in your own
eyes [ ] it's easier to donate a few thousand to charity and to
think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal
standards of personal achievement. It's simple to seek
substitutes for competence --uch easy substitutes : love, charm,
kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence
Is this the sedition requiring censorship by the American Literary canon -that the Ministry of Culture would have us
kill [our] capacity t o recognize greatness or achieve it [ that we
would no longer see] the great is the rare, the difficult, the
exceptional. [Are we to] set up standards of achievement open to
all, to the least, to the most inept -and stop the impetus to effort
in all men, great or small [ ]stop all incentive to improvement,
to excellence, to perfection (Fountainhead 635).
If we do value cultural excellence --whether or not individual readers find it in Rand per se -- we are obligated to be passionate about literature: to ignore the restrictions imposed upon us and to read widely, to read passionately, to insist our literature demand our thought, and to live true to our personal standards that value literature, value culture, and value the efforts of a mid-twentieth century author writing between the volatile periods in our country's history now called the tragedy of the Great Depression and the shameful events of the McCarthy era.
Return to Bylines