Wrapping up early on the Friday of a week of long days — and with an optimism that I haven’t had for quite some time, perhaps somewhat attributable to the sense of autumn’s onset… and the pumpkin beers now on liquor store shelves — the moment seems just right to jab at my libertarian (specifically, Randian) friends. I do so from the foundation of Jason Lee Steorts’ excellent general review of Ayn Rand’s two most noted books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:
[Egolessness’s] antithesis is Roark’s foil [in The Fountainhead, Peter Keating, also an architect, whom we meet graduating from college as valedictorian and self-consciously enjoying the fact that many people are looking at him. The crucial distinction between these types is that only a Roark can be creative. A Keating, a man who must justify himself before and in comparison with the world, is essentially derivative. He cannot create anything his own, because he has accepted a standard not his own. And this principle comes with a corollary for anyone who wishes to be a creator: He must not — as Rand puts it in a note that her heir, Leonard Peikoff, reprints in his Atlas Shrugged introduction — “place his wish primarily within others” or “attempt or desire anything that . . . requires primarily the exercise of the will of others. . . . If he attempts that, he is out of a creator’s province and in that of the collectivist and the second-hander.”
This corollary is not, properly speaking, a moral imperative, because no obligation has been established to try to be creative. But the Randian hero is creative, and will observe the corollary, and that is why, in addition to never sacrificing his interests for another’s, he will never ask others to sacrifice their interests for his. Much like the Nietzschean superman, the Randian hero cannot be predatory or exploitative; this would not give him what he wants, because no one outside himself has it to give. (Chambers’s statement that the Randian voice commands “from painful necessity,” his belief that Rand favors rule by a technocratic elite, and the title of his review, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” are all, therefore, in error.)
I’d make two points, one artistic and the other political. First, the notion that creativity belongs only to those who care nothing for the opinions of others is complete and utter hogwash. Comprehensible creativity is, above all, a matter of communication, and one cannot communicate without a deep sympathy for what others expect, desire, and understand.
Slavishness to approval is certainly an impediment to creativity, because it hinders the artist’s ability to display the truth that he or see observes. Moreover, one must expect always to meet with disagreement. But disconnection from the very principle of interpersonal appreciation requires either reliance on primitive impulses that are derivative not of others’ creativity but of our basic biology (lust) and have therefore been repeated countless times for millennia or adherence to modernist insanity that says nothing at all for the purpose of being misunderstood. We must accept a standard not our own, or else all creativity is a repetition of that which is available within our natural boundaries.
Second, the reason for the resonance of the famous statement that Atlas Shrugged is a mandate for the gas chamber is that, in conjunction with their adulation for liberty, Randians have a visceral detestation of others who don’t share their sense of liberty — whether the source is a belief that human beings have a legitimate claim on each other’s behavior or a simple apathy about personal freedom. The prerequisite for sharing in their vaunted mutual respect is acceptance of a narrow range of premises about what it means to harm or hinder other people.
More traditional conservatives will sense the connection to these two points. In arts and communications, one must accept technical and social standards in order to unearth that which is truly creative — truly original — at their intersection. In terms of liberty, one must accept socially implemented boundaries to achieve higher orders of liberty.