In an essay I wrote a few months ago, I raised a rhetorical question in response to the huge increase in sales of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Yes, there was a gratifying surge in the sales of Rand’s magnum opus. But why Atlas? Given the no-holds-barred assault on free-market capitalism and individual rights, why the unprecedented boost in sales of a 52-year-old thousand-page novel, but no corresponding boost in Rand’s equally relevant and highly persuasive non-fiction?
Here’s how I answered my own rhetorical question:
“One evening back in the mid-60s, when my husband and I were Ayn Rand’s lawyers [and] the three of us took a break from business . . . Rand drew a fascinating distinction about the impact that . . . fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, has on readers. ‘Reading non-fiction,’ she told us, ‘is mainly an intellectual exercise whereas fiction involves the reader in a personal experience. It’s the difference between reading a technical manual on flying a jet airplane as opposed to experiencing the actual sensation of hurtling through space in one. The manual may be educational, even stimulating, but the plane ride is happening to you.’” (Emphasis Rand’s.)
I’m convinced that Rand was right. That the surge in sales of Atlas was to a large extent a remarkable example of readers—perhaps whole new generations of them—responding in a personal way to government intervention that was increasing at an alarming rate in the first few months of Obama’s presidency.
But how, you may be wondering, does Ayn Rand’s fiction/nonfiction distinction relate to the raging controversy in town hall confrontations all over America on the issue of socialized medicine?
I’ll make a prediction: Anyone who takes the time to fully grasp Rand’s fiction/non-fiction distinction will discover that he has armed himself with a powerful ideological tool with which to persuade other people, including politicians, about what’s wrong with government-managed or controlled health care.
You wouldn’t be reading this article if you weren’t already concerned about the issue. So yes, a lot of us are writing essays or letters-to-the-editor or signing petitions. But what
I’m suggesting is that you also put into play G. K. Chesterton’s famous maxim that fiction is one of the most potent means of addressing the public.
No, this time I’m not beating the drums for Atlas Shrugged. The Ayn Rand novel so powerfully written that it causes the reader to “personally experience” the horrors of bureaucrat-controlled health care is her first novel, We the Living.
“If a novel is well done,” Rand told me in her living room all those years ago, “the reader feels the dramatized events of the story on his own skin, so to speak. He is impelled to rage against some injustice. To root for characters he cannot help identifying with.” (Emphasis Rand’s.)
Whether or not you’ve ever read any of Rand’s oeuvre, let alone We the Living—first published in 1936—I urge you to read (or re-read) it now. Better yet, read it and view the restored English-subtitled Italian-made movie of the same name.
I challenge any fair-minded (and unrepressed) person to keep from identifying with and rooting for the uncompromising idealistic heroine, Kira Argounova. To stop himself from raging against the ruined lives of three individuals torn by impossible conflicts and enmeshed in a heart-wrenching love triangle. To deny that he feels on his own skin the wanton, ruthless—and yes, careless—destruction of innocents whose only “sin” is the desire to live their own lives; to shape their own destiny.
We the Living’s theme—it’s philosophical message—is much broader than socialized medicine. In the Foreword to the 1959 Random House hardcover republication of We the Living, Rand writes that her novel is “ . . . about Man against the State. Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life—using the word ‘sanctity’ not in a mystical sense, but in the sense of ‘supreme values.’” (Emphasis Rand’s.)
But in that same Foreword, Ayn Rand issued this “warning”: “ . . . [D]o not be misled by those who might tell you that We the Living is ‘dated’ or no longer relevant to the present, since it deals with Soviet Russia in the nineteen-twenties . . . .” As someone who was born in Russia and educated from the age of twelve under the Soviets, Rand tells us, she knew—without yet fully knowing why—that, in the words of one of her minor characters, Irina Duneav, “There’s your life . . . . [I]t’s something so precious and rare, so beautiful, that it’s like a sacred treasure. Now it’s over, and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone . . . that treasure of mine . . . . ”
Ayn Rand was a child at the time. Even so, she was smart enough to grasp what was under assault when the Communists took over her country. In the Random House Foreword, as Rand reflects upon her character Irina and “the sacred treasure” that is one’s life, one can almost feel the vehemence in Rand’s words :
“[T]his is the issue at the base of all dictatorships, all collectivist theories and all human evils. I could not understand how any man could be so brutalized as to claim the right to dispose of the lives of others, nor how any man could be so lacking in self-esteem as to grant to others the right to dispose of his life.” (Emphasis Rand’s.)
The novel’s broader theme aside, We the Living dramatizes the Soviet takeover of Russia. Its plot revolves in a crucial way around the compulsory “administration” of health care, doctors, and medicine, by bureaucrats mired in corruption, favoritism, envy, revenge . . . and an acquired taste for the power to decide whether a person lives or dies.
If you rise to my challenge—or choose to heed Ayn Rand’s warning—or if you’re just plain curious about whether the fiction/non-fiction distinction Rand once called to my attention and I’ve just called to yours has validity—or you want to find out for yourself whether or not We the Living is dated, pick up the book. Watch the movie. Think of imaginative ways to maximize the sheer impact of Rand’s remarkable work of fiction by spreading the word.
What have you got to lose?
A rhetorical question. You know the answer.