One American writer who seems to be on every Republican's reading list, an author whom they might describe as a "formative influence" on their philosophy of conservatism, is Ayn Rand. Everything I have heard, and overheard, about this sometime novelist and self-styled "philosopher" has seemed to me negative, which is why I have made it a point to avoid her work.
In 1961, responding to Orville Prescott's favorable review of the book The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Gore Vidal defined, quite inadvertently, what I consider to be the contrary philosophies of the Left and Right, what used to be called Progressives and Reactionaries but are known in the U.S. as Liberals and Conservatives. He would probably hate my contextualizing his words like this, but rather than subject you to the typically awful layout of Esquire's web page, which is a painful reminder of the magazine, I present Vidal's "Comment" unadorned. Needless to say, I am on the side of morality.
Comment, July 1961
by Gore Vidal
Since what seems the original publication of The Scarlet Letter, the book reviews of Orville Prescott have made gaudy the otherwise impeccable greyness of The New York Times. Until now he has been spared criticism on the ground that, since few people seriously interested in writing read him, he can neither harm nor help a literary reputation. This is certainly true, but a great many people who don’t read books do read the Times. With a Prescott as view-finder, their picture of American literature is distorted, to say the least.
My own objection to Orville Prescott is not so much his style (J. Donald Adams’ words are winged by comparison) nor his ignorance of the more sophisticated critical strategies (he tells you the plot, anyway), but his identification with what he thinks to be his audience: the middle-aged, middle-class, moderately Affluent American woman who lives in Darien, New Canaan, Scarsdale, a region bounded on the south by the Theatre Guild, on the north by Womrath, on the west by Barry Goldwater and on the eats by…oh, well, you name it. Prescott knows these ladies are interested in sex; he also knows that they stand firmly united in condemning all sexual activity not associated with marriage. Grimly, they attend each Tennessee Williams play so that they can complain furiously in the lobby that this time Williams has gone too far! that this time they are thoroughly revolted by that diseased mind! and never again will they expose themselves to such filth! And of course the next play Williams writes they will all be back on deck, ready to be appalled again.
Now it is true that The Girls (as Helen Hokinson nicely called them) sound like this. It’s expected of them. They don’t want any trouble from one another and they have such an obvious vested interest in the Family that any work which seems to accept or, worse, celebrate non-Family sex presents them with a clear conflict of interest which they must resolve, at the very least, by certain ritual noises of dissent. But Prescott has missed the point to The Girls. Though they must flap when the Family as an idea seems endangered, they do read more books than anyone else; they try to educate themselves politically and aesthetically; they are remarkable open-minded to new ideas and, all in all, more tolerant of life than a great many of the husbands whose days are spent trying to make it up the ladder, lips pressed lovingly to the heel of the shoe on the next rung above. The Girls are O.K., but they have their hypocrisies and prejudices, and these Prescott tends to confirm.
Lately, after a decade’s abstinence, I have been reading Prescott again and in a changing world it is good to know that the Good Grey Goose of the Times is unchanged. He still gives marks to novels not for style nor insight nor wisdom nor art, but for “morality.” Are these nice people? Is this a nice author? Adultery, premarital intercourse, aberration, are wicked things nice people don’t do and if an author does not firmly put them down and opt for marriage and fidelity the offending work must go. Prescott’s favorite pejorative adjective is “dull.” Lolita, he declared with more than usual horror, was “dull, dull, dull!” Now Lolita was many things (there is even a case to be made against it morally, and on its own terms), but it was never dull. It was also literature, a category peculiarly mystifying to Prescott.
Recently he reviewed Alfred Duggan’s new historical novel Family Favorites, about Elagabalus. He tells us he admires Duggan. Now, watch the action: The novel is “artfully done and full of wit and irony,” but it won’t do since Elagabalus “was a degenerate. His depraved orgies make tiresome and depressing reading…. He is not an interesting subject for a full-length novel.” Well, for sixteen hundred years Elagabalus has been a fascinating subject for writers, from Cassius Dio to Gibbon, and if Duggan is really “artful,” “witty” and “ironic” I reckon he’s spun a right swell yarn which is resting at this very moment on many a maple whatnot out there in Darien.
Even dizzier (and the occasion for these corrective remarks) was Prescott’s review of William Brammer’s political novel, The Gay Place. After first admiring Brammer’s skill in recreating the political scene, Prescott starts that old familiar hissing noise. He expresses wonder that young politicians commit adultery, have premarital intercourse, get drunk and otherwise behave even as people did back when Albert the Good mounted Victoria glumly to birth the Age of Gilt. Then Prescott exclaims: “Men who never dream of being faithful to their wives, who enthusiastically seduce the wives and mistresses of their friends, are faithful to standards of political conduct.” He pretends to be stunned by this paradox, and that brings us to the main issue: To the average American the word “morality” means sex, period. If you don’t cheat on your wife, you’re moral. It is part of our national genus to have no tradition of public morality. We are pleased to dismiss politics as entirely corrupt, if not financially, intellectually. Cheating the government of its taxes, and one another in business, is not only natural but necessary to survival. Now I would suggest that a man’s relation to society is a matter of greater moral urgency than his sexual dealings which, after all, are a private and relative matter. When a writer convincingly shows us, as Brammer does, young politicians devoted to right action, I am profoundly moved and morally edified. Prescott misses the moral point, preferring to dig for sex.
Now, before I’m investigated for having taken the un-American stand that sex is a minor department of morality, let me try to show what I think is morally important. Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. She has just published a book, For the New Intellectual, subtitled The Philosophy of Ayn Rand; it is a collection of pensées and arias from her novels and it must be read to be believed. Herewith, a few excerpts from the Rand collection.
• “It was the morality of altruism that undercut American and is now destroying her.”
• “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom…or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.”
• Then from one of her arias for heldentenor: “I am done with the monster of ‘we,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”
• “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself.”
• “To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”
• “The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral….”
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. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.
She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of “moral” is: “concerned with the distinction between right and wrong” as in “moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform.” Though Miss Rand’s grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.
Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead. But to counter trolls and Caesars, we have such men as Lewis Mumford whose new book, The City in History, inspires. He traces the growth of communities from Neolithic to present times. He is wise. He is moral: that is, he favors right action and he believes it possible for us to make things better for us (not “me”!). He belongs to the currently unfashionable line of makers who believe that if something is wrong it can be made right, whether a faulty water main or a faulty idea. May he flourish!