Rand Versus Lewis: It’s No Contest

For someone who represented herself as the acme of philosophy and individual strength, Ayn Rand could be remarkably touchy.  Whittaker Chambers’s famous review of Atlas Shrugged in National Review infuriated her, to the point that she would not be in the same room with William F. Buckley ever after.

Buckley and Chambers weren’t the only ones to feel her volcanic wrath.  Over at the fine First Things blog, Matthew Schmitz directs our attention to an obscure 1998 volume by Robert Mayhew entitled Ayn Rand’s Marginalia : Her Critical Comments on the Writings of over Twenty Authors.  I’m not sure it is proper to publish anyone’s marginalia or casual notes, and this project certainly doesn’t do Rand much credit.  Turns out Rand didn’t like Hayek, von Mises, or Barry Goldwater.  She appears to be the perfect person to argue why the People’s Front of Judea is superior to the “splitters” in the Judean People’s Front.

Turns out she really didn’t like C.S. Lewis.  Fair enough for an atheist like Rand.  But the Lewis book she takes on is The Abolition of Man, which is Lewis’s entirely reason-based argument against moral relativism and in favor of natural law.  Lewis’s theology doesn’t turn up at all.  It builds a strong case against centralized political power based on scientific pretensions to principles that he reveals to be nihilism.  Yet Rand proves herself the most casual and sloppy reader of Lewis’s argument, making marginal comments that would earn a high school student a C- grade for missing the point entirely.  For example, there this passage from Lewis:

I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

The underlinings are Rand’s.  To which she attaches these comments in the margin:

So in the pre-science age, there was no power of majorities over minorities – and the Middle Ages were a period of love and equality, and the oppression began only in the U.S.A. (!!!) The abysmal bastard!

It gets worse, but this is enough.  Schmitz has more if you like in his original post.  If Rand had taken care to grasp the whole argument of this short book (I read it in high school, and had no difficulty), or if she had bothered to read Lewis’s other essays on the subject of government, she’d have known that Lewis regarded the idea of world government—or increased government power of most kinds—with horror.  Better still, she ought to have read the dystopian novel Lewis wrote to dramatize the point: That Hideous Strength.  Dare I incur the wrath of Randians everywhere if I suggest that Lewis’s dystopian novel is the best of the entire genre of mid-20th century group that includes 1984 and Darkness at Noon.  Which means it is also far superior to Atlas Shrugged, not only in style but in content as well.

Whittaker Chambers had it right that Atlas Shrugged is a “strenuously sterile world” filled with “operatic caricatures.”  By contrast, Lewis’s portrait of the academic bureaucrat Withers holds up along side Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution.  (It has some other relevant wit: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments—or N.I.C.E.—is dead-on for the kind of authoritarian bodies and processes—sensitivity training anyone?—the therapeutic Left imposes on all of us today.)

To be sure, Atlas Shrugged has taken on a whole new salience in the Age of Obama.  As Glenn Reynolds commented way back in the early weeks of Obama’s rule, the Obamanauts seem to regard it is a how-to manual for expropriating the wealth and demonizing the productivity of American business.  But Shrugged doesn’t capture the subtle shadings of what Lewis rightly called “the Progressive Element” nearly as well, and hence it lacks persuasive force beyond true believers.  So today it ironically fits the criticism leveled by Chambers that it is “a massive tract for the times.”  That doesn’t mean it will have staying power over the very long run, which is why I continue to think that in the fullness of time Rand’s works will become, like Edward Bellamy’s wildly popular socialist novels of 125 years ago, more a literary curiosity than a vibrant creed.

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