My story

[On cleaning out old files on my hard drive, I came across this which I posted in 2012, on the occasion of my 50th “birthday” as an Objectivist. In the hope that you will enjoy reading it, I am reposting it now, with a few very small changes.]

Exactly 50 years ago, a bored, depressed college freshman, who was only half-listening to a lecture, suddenly sat up straight, leaned forward, and strained to understand every word he was hearing.

The place was MIT’s Kresge auditorium, the lecturer was Ayn Rand, the student was me.

I’m taking this 50th anniversary as an occasion to tell the personal story of my introduction to Objectivism.

These were the words that, 50 years ago, struck me to the core and set my life on a new trajectory:

Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality–or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

I recall my reaction–the exact words–very clearly. It was “Jesus Christ! I’m drifting in a semiconscious daze right now!”–which had been absolutely true right up until I heard Ayn Rand speak those words. I thought, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the key to everything: I can take control of my own mind, and thus of my life.” (The wording of that part is approximate.)

I next was puzzled and intrigued by this aspect: her idea sounded familiar, as if I, and everyone, already knew it, as if it were the accepted wisdom; yet I was dead sure I’d never heard anyone say anything remotely like it before. How could that be?

That passage occurred halfway through Miss Rand’s presentation of “The Objectivist Ethics.” For the rest of the lecture, I strained to focus on it, though I couldn’t absorb more than 10% of what she was saying–almost all of it was just unintegrateable to me (in my defense, I was 17). But here’s what I have always recalled.

First, she quoted, more than once from John Galt. But clearly, he was her own fictional creation, so she was quoting herself as an authority. “What nerve!” I thought–but in admiration. (From my college experience, I was already sick of the pretentious, second-handed over-quoting of “authorities”.)

Second, she was absolute, radical, black-and-white. I loved that. It especially made her stand out in what was still the atmosphere of the Eisenhower, “Leave it to Beaver,” 50s, even though JFK was president. It was an era when “That’s a value-judgment” was said in reproach, when no one wanted to rock the boat, when one of the top intellectual hits was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s book, “The Vital Center” (which argued that the arguments for communism and free enterprise were interchangeable, so the best thing to do was take a middle position).

It was a time when profundity was ascribed to statements like, “Everything is relative,” and “Values are subjective.” So Ayn Rand’s certainty, passion, and non-centrism made her stand out–and fit very well with my own premises. (About the only thing I knew about Ayn Rand before attending her talk was when I overheard a student saying, “I’m not advocating radical individualism, like Ayn Rand.” I thought, “Radical individualism? That sounds good.”

Ayn Rand herself gave the best description of what then was de rigeur for intellectual sophisticates: “militant uncertainty, crusading cynicism, dogmatic agnosticism, boastful self-abasement and self-righteous depravity . . .” [For the New Intellectual] That description is unfortunately still applicable.

Third, in the question period, I was struck by her response to two questions. When asked, “Are you an atheist?” she answered, “Of course,” as if slightly surprised by being even asked–something like how you would respond if asked, “Do you wear warmer clothing in winter?” On hearing that “Of course,” I instantly became an atheist. Before, I had been a woozy agnostic (“Maybe there’s some basic principle of the universe–like ‘Every process tends toward equilibrium’–that’s an impersonal kind of divinity.”) The sheer tone with which she said “Of course,” yanked the whole issue out of the realm of “What if?” and threw it into a factual, rational, scientific context for me. I realized that the actual question was: “Do I believe there’s some Spirit-Stuff out there beyond the moon? Is that rational?” And the answer was clearly “No.”

Now, Ayn Rand went on to explain that she accepted reason and only reason, and that in thousands of years, no purportedly rational argument for God had ever stood up to inspection. And that added a sense of objectivity to my reaction (I already held infinite respect for reason, knowing that it was what had lifted man up from the cave.)

The other answer which impressed me was in response to being asked what Objectivists held in regard to “sexual ethics.” Her answer began: “We are very chaste.” I was impressed once again. Here was a modern, science-loving intellectual who dared to say “chaste”–in an age when everyone pretending to be sophisticated claimed that sex was a matter of hormones held in check only by taboos.

She went on to explain that sex was a great value, that she was pro-sex, not prudish, etc. What her answer said to me was: she takes herself very seriously. She considers her choices, her values, and her person to be sacred. That appealed to me on a deep level.

Shortly after her speaking event came MIT’s spring break, and I returned to my family home in Richmond, determined to buy the book she had been quoting from: Atlas Shrugged. I went to Thalheimer’s department store, which had a book section, and picked up the paperback. It was very thick. I didn’t like reading, finding it a physically uncomfortable process (perhaps due to visual problems), and I had never read a book of more than about 200 pages. Looking at the size of Atlas, I thought, “Wow, this could be 300 or even 350 pages long!” (Fortunately, I didn’t check the actual length.)

Steeling myself, I purchased it anyway, went to a nearby coffee shop, and began reading over my grilled cheese sandwich.

At the top of the second page, I came to this:

The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories.

I was puzzled: how come there was a long crack in a skyscraper? How come the atmosphere of decay? Was this set in the future? Was it science-fiction?

I turned back to the beginning and started to read much more carefully. The rest is history.

I read Atlas very slowly, in small segments, because I needed time to integrate the meaning of what I was reading. It took about a month to finish the novel. By the time I reached Galt’s speech, I was completely sold.

Several things in that first reading stood out in my mind. Early on–I think it was about page 60–I got the idea that Dagny (and Ayn Rand) considered selfishness to be good. On realizing that, I thought: “Wow! She’s gone further than I have: I’ve rejected the idea that selfishness is wrong, but she is saying it is good! I like that!” (I had always been accused of being selfish by my mother, which only made me dislike her.)

To brag a bit: I knew from the first scene with Eddie in the Taggart cafeteria that his mysterious friend, who never was given any lines, was John Galt. That’s because the back cover of my paperback had the line: “The astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world–and did.” I remembered that line when I read Eddie Willers saying to the mysterious stranger:

Motive power–you can’t imagine how important that is. That’s the heart of everything. . . . What are you smiling at?

What, indeed! I “got” it.

Leaving aside falling in love with the characters, especially Francisco, I remember being troubled, from a literary standpoint, when I came to this statement by the old cigarette vendor in the Taggart Terminal: “Miss Taggart, to the best of my knowledge, that cigarette was not made anywhere on earth.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “Is this signaling that the strikers have gone to the moon or Mars?” Because I knew that their doing that was just not credible, and it would have taken the whole novel–and its meaning–into the realm of fantasy. In comparison to that thought, the refractor ray in the Rockies seemed downright conservative.

Another needless (though author-intended) worry came when I read:

In mounting panic, the watchers lost their sense of context and language–and their three voices blended into a progression of indiscriminate shrieks: “We want you to take over! . . . We want you to rule! . . . We order you to give orders! . . . We demand that you dictate! We order you to save us! . . . We order you to think! . . . ”

They heard no answer but the beating of the heart on which their own lives depended.

The current was shooting through Galt’s chest and the beating was coming in irregular spurts, as if it were racing and stumbling–when suddenly his body fell still, relaxing: the beating had stopped.

What? Has Galt died?! That would ruin the whole thing!

It was with infinite relief that I read what actually happened, climaxed by Galt calmly saying:

“It’s the vibrator that’s out of order,” said a voice behind them; they whirled around; Galt was struggling for breath, but he was speaking in the brusque, competent tone of an engineer. “Take it out and pry off the aluminum cover. You’ll find a pair of contacts fused together. Force them apart, take a small file and clean up the pitted surfaces. Then replace the cover, plug it back into the machine–and your generator will work.”

What a scene!

What was I to do when I finished the book? Well, for one thing I read this in “A message from the Author,” that was appended to the end of the paperback edition:

If you are the kind of reader who knows that for 1084 pages he has lived in the atmosphere of John Galt’s world–if you now feel regret at the necessity of returning to the gray hopelessness of a culture that is truly bankrupt–if you have understood that it is ideas which create or destroy a world, a culture or a man–if you have understood that the rejection of reason by the neo-mystics of our age is responsible for the present state of the world–then you now why only a philosophy of reason can lead to an intellectual Renaissance.

I was that kind of reader, at least about the regret of leaving John Galt’s world. To her appendix, my reaction was: “Jesus! She not only gave me this unprecedented emotional and intellectual experience, she knows that she did!”

That served even more to take this out of the realm of “a story” into the realm of practical reality. There followed a reference to lectures on her philosophy in New York City, with contact information. I realized there was much more to be gained, that there was a “movement,” which had action-implications for me.

After finishing Atlas, not wanting to accept anything on emotion, I decided to take a full year before absolutely committing myself to this philosophy. During the year, I made it a point not only to learn everything that I could about Objectivism, but also to seek out criticism from opponents. I knew that people disagreed with her, and I wanted to hear “the other side.” I knew I was young and ignorant–maybe there was some fatal flaw in the philosophy that could be pointed out to me. People sure seemed to think there was.

But over the course of the year, every time I asked what the error was in her ideas, I got back some answer that was reminiscent of lines given to the villains in the novel. You know, things like “It isn’t that black and white.” And, “She’s advocating dog-eat-dog, the law of the jungle.” And, “No one can prove an issue of values.” And, “Businessmen use force, too–economic force.”

I thought, “It’s not that her opponents see something she missed; she knows their arguments–and the answers to them. She knows what they know–and more.”

So, on March 12, 1963, I formally accepted what had long been true in fact: I was an Objectivist. To mark my acceptance, I repeated the striker’s oath:

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another to live for mine.