Ayn Rand


[Tuesday evening, 23 October] Some twenty-five years ago my son brought a pile of books with him from the United States, where he went to college, when he came to visit us. My wife and I were living in West-Africa and every replenishment of our reading stock was in those days even more welcome than it is today. One of the books he had bought for me was a thick paperback by an author I had never heard of before. It was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

I began to read the 1.500 page book with considerable curiosity. Usually I finish the books I have begun to read, even if they prove to be somewhat disappointing. But this time I could not get beyond the mid-way point. I found the book in many ways quite fascinating, but I could not stomach the message. If I remember well, I threw the horrible book away when, a few years ago, I had to clear some shelves for new books that somehow keep arriving.

When this morning I was reading a copy the Christian daily Trouw in the high speed train to Brussels, I found a full-page article with the title: The time is ripe for Ayn Rand. The article was ae review of the Dutch translation of Atlas Shrugged that is being published this week, some thirty years after Rand’s death, by a Dutch publisher. Earlier, a rather amateurish translation had been privately published in the Netherlands, but this is the first serious publication of Ayn Rand’s most important book. From tomorrow the book will be in the Dutch bookstores at a price of 29,95 euros.

Ayn Rand was a Russian Jewess who, as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, emigrated to the United States in 1926, adopted a new name, and started a writing career. In her books she applauded the freedom of her new country and its laissez-faire capitalism. But she soon pointed to the ‘danger’ that this principle, that made the US into a ‘great’ country, could easily be undermined by socialist pervertions. She developed a philosophy (Objectivism) which proclaims that man’s highest objective is to care for his own interests and not to be led astray by altruistic sentiments. The dollar sign is the central symbol of this philosophy. Greed is good! Altruism is to be shunned, and sharing what you have is totally irrational. Atlas Shrugged translated this abject philosophy in a cleverly constructed novel.

A few decades after it was written, the book is once again quite popular, especially with many Americans—in particular with those Republicans who are attracted to the Tea Party ideas. This is quite remarkable, since many of those are conservative Protestants, while Ayn Rand was a diehard atheist. The influential Allen Greenspan found many of Rand’s ideas (also at times referred to as the ‘utopia of greed’) rather attractive. And, yes, Paul Ryan, the running mate of Romney, is one of her fans.  Now an important Dutch publishing firm thinks that the Netherlands is ‘ripe’  for Rand’s ideas. For the small Libertarian party in the Netherlands Ayn Rand’s book functions as a kind of Bible. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, last year praised her as ‘one of the great spirit’ of liberalism.

In spite of my deep dislike for the philosophy that is espoused in Atlas Shrugged, there is something in it that I admire. By pouring her ideas in the shape of a novel she succeeded in reaching a far broader public than she could ever have dreamed of, if she had written a complicated scholarly tome. Other authors have also used this model with success. One could think of The World of Sophie, written by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder, who presented an introduction to the history of philosophy in the form of a narrative, or Theo’s Odessey’, a history of theology by the French author Catherine Clément that is packaged as a novel. Or to point at yet another example: The Shack, by W. Paul Young, in which the theme of the Trinity is dealt with in the format of a novel. This remarkable book has helped millions to reflect on one of the great mysteries of the faith.[1]

Would it not be great of there were more Christians (including Seventh-day Adventist Christians), who have the creative skills to translate the Christian values and ideals in a literary form, in a way that would attract a worldwide public (and might also perhaps even interest Prime Minister Mark Rutte)?

[1] See my blog of 22 February 2011.