This essay was originally published in the October – November 1963 issues of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself — to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.
Let me stress this: my purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers, it is not the beneficial influence which my novels may have on people, it is not the fact that my novels may help a reader’s intellectual development. All these matters are important, but they are secondary considerations, they are merely consequences and effects, not first causes or prime movers. My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark or John Galt or Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia as an end in himself — not as a means to any further end. Which, incidentally, is the greatest value I could ever offer a reader.
This is why I feel a very mixed emotion — part patience, part amusement and, at times, an empty kind of weariness — when I am asked whether I am primarily a novelist or a philosopher (as if these two were antonyms), whether my stories are propaganda vehicles for ideas, whether politics or the advocacy of capitalism is my chief purpose. All such questions are so enormously irrelevant, so far beside the point, so much not my way of coming at things.
My way is much simpler and, simultaneously, much more complex than that, speaking from two different aspects. The simple truth is that I approach literature as a child does: I write — and read — for the sake of the story. The complexity lies in the task of translating that attitude into adult terms.
The specific concretes, the forms of one’s values, change with one’s growth and development. The abstraction “values” does not. An adult’s values involve the entire sphere of human activity, including philosophy — most particularly philosophy. But the basic principle — the function and meaning of values in man’s life and in literature — remains the same.
My basic test for any story is: Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?
It’s as simple as that. But that simplicity involves the total of man’s existence.
It involves such questions as: What kind of men do I want to see in real life — and why? What kind of events, that is, human actions, do I want to see taking place — and why? What kind of experience do I want to live through, that is, what are my goals — and why?
It is obvious to what field of human knowledge all these questions belong: to the field of ethics. What is the good? What are the right actions for man to take? What are man’s proper values?
Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man, I had to define and present the conditions which make him possible and which his existence requires. Since man’s character is the product of his premises, I had to define and present the kind of premises and values that create the character of an ideal man and motivate his actions; which means that I had to define and present a rational code of ethics. Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function — a free, productive, rational system, which demands and rewards the best in every man, great or average, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.
But neither politics nor ethics nor philosophy are ends in themselves, neither in life nor in literature. Only Man is an end in himself.
Now observe that the practitioners of the literary school diametrically opposed to mine — the school of Naturalism — claim that a writer must reproduce what they call “real life,” allegedly “as it is,” exercising no selectivity and no value-judgments. By “reproduce,” they mean “photograph”; by “real life,” they mean whatever given concretes they happen to observe; by “as it is,” they mean “as it is lived by the people around them.” But observe that these Naturalists — or the good writers among them — are extremely selective in regard to two attributes of literature: style and characterization. Without selectivity, it would be impossible to achieve any sort of characterization whatever, neither of an unusual man nor of an average one who is to be offered as statistically typical of a large segment of the population. Therefore, the Naturalists’ opposition to selectivity applies to only one attribute of literature: the content or subject. It is in regard to his choice of subject that a novelist must exercise no choice, they claim.
The Naturalists have never given an answer to that question — not a rational, logical, noncontradictory answer. Why should a writer photograph his subjects indiscriminately and unselectively? Because they “really’’ happened? To record what really happened is the job of a reporter or of a historian, not of a novelist. To enlighten readers and educate them? That is the job of science, not of literature, of nonfiction writing, not of fiction. To improve men’s lot by exposing their misery? But that is a value-judgment and a moral purpose and a didactic “message” — all of which are forbidden by the Naturalist doctrine. Besides, to improve anything one must know what constitutes an improvement — and to know that, one must know what is the good and how to achieve it — and to know that, one must have a whole system of value-judgments, a system of ethics, which is anathema to the Naturalists.
Thus, the Naturalists’ position amounts to giving a novelist full esthetic freedom in regard to means, but not in regard to ends. He may exercise choice, creative imagination, value-judgments in regard to how he portrays things, but not in regard to what he portrays — in regard to style or characterization, but not in regard to subject. Man — the subject of literature — must not be viewed or portrayed selectively. Man must be accepted as the given, the unchangeable, the not-to-be-judged, the status quo. But since we observe that men do change, that they differ from one another, that they pursue different values, who, then, is to determine the human status quo? Naturalism’s implicit answer is: everybody except the novelist.
The novelist — according to the Naturalist doctrine — must neither judge nor value. He is not a creator, but only a recording secretary whose master is the rest of mankind. Let others pronounce judgments, make decisions, select goals, fight over values and determine the course, the fate and the soul of man. The novelist is the only outcast and deserter of that battle. His is not to reason why — his is only to trot behind his master, notebook in hand, taking down whatever the master dictates, picking up such pearls or such swinishness as the master may choose to drop.
As far as I am concerned, I have too much self-esteem for a job of that kind.
I see the novelist as a combination of prospector and jeweler. The novelist must discover the potential, the gold mine, of man’s soul, must extract the gold and then fashion as magnificent a crown as his ability and vision permit.
Just as men of ambition for material values do not rummage through city dumps, but venture out into lonely mountains in search of gold — so men of ambition for intellectual values do not sit in their backyards, but venture out in quest of the noblest, the purest, the costliest elements. I would not enjoy the spectacle of Benvenuto Cellini making mud-pies.
It is the selectivity in regard to subject — the most severely, rigorously, ruthlessly exercised selectivity — that I hold as the primary, the essential, the cardinal aspect of art. In literature, this means: the story — which means: the plot and the character — which means: the kind of men and events that a writer chooses to portray.
The subject is not the only attribute of art, but it is the fundamental one, it is the end to which all the others are the means. In most esthetic theories, however, the end — the subject — is omitted from consideration, and only the means are regarded as esthetically relevant. Such theories set up a false dichotomy and claim that a slob portrayed by the technical means of a genius is preferable to a goddess portrayed by the technique of an amateur. I hold that both are esthetically offensive; but while the second is merely esthetic incompetence, the first is an esthetic crime.
There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means — neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef.
That particular painting may be taken as a symbol of everything I am opposed to in art and in literature. At the age of seven, I could not understand why anyone should wish to paint or to admire pictures of dead fish, garbage cans or fat peasant women with triple chins. Today, I understand the psychological causes of such esthetic phenomena — and the more I understand, the more I oppose them.
In art, and in literature, the end and the means, or the subject and the style, must be worthy of each other.
That which is not worth contemplating in life, is not worth re-creating in art.
Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them — but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake. In art, and in literature, these negatives are worth re-creating only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive — but not as an end in themselves.
The “compassionate” studies of depravity which pass for literature today are the dead end and the tombstone of Naturalism. If their perpetrators still claim the justification that these things are “true” (most of them aren’t) — the answer is that this sort of truth belongs in psychological case histories, not in literature. The picture of an infected ruptured appendix may be of great value in a medical textbook — but it does not belong in an art gallery. And an infected soul is a much more repulsive spectacle.
That one should wish to enjoy the contemplation of values, of the good — of man’s greatness, intelligence, ability, virtue, heroism — is self-explanatory. It is the contemplation of the evil that requires explanation and justification; and the same goes for the contemplation of the mediocre, the undistinguished, the commonplace, the meaningless, the mindless.
At the age of seven, I refused to read the children’s equivalent of Naturalistic literature — the stories about the children of the folks next door. They bored me to death. I was not interested in such people in real life; I saw no reason to find them interesting in fiction.
This is still my position today; the only difference is that today I know its full philosophical justification.
As far as literary schools are concerned, I would call myself a Romantic Realist.
Consider the significance of the fact that the Naturalists call Romantic art an “escape.” Ask yourself what sort of metaphysics — what view of life — that designation confesses. An escape — from what? If the projection of value-goals — the projection of an improvement on the given, the known, the immediately available — is an “escape,” then medicine is an “escape” from disease, agriculture is an “escape” from hunger, knowledge is an “escape” from ignorance, ambition is an “escape” from sloth, and life is an “escape” from death. If so, then a hard-core realist is a vermin-eaten brute who sits motionless in a mud puddle, contemplates a pigsty and whines that “such is life.” If that is realism, then I am an escapist. So was Aristotle. So was Christopher Columbus.
There is a passage in The Fountainhead that deals with this issue: the passage in which Howard Roark explains to Steven Mallory why he chose him to do a statue for the Stoddard Temple. In writing that passage, I was consciously and deliberately stating the essential goal of my own work — as a kind of small, personal manifesto: “I think you’re the best sculptor we’ve got. I think it, because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be — and should be. Because you’ve gone beyond the probable and made us see what is possible, but possible only through you. Because your figures are more devoid of contempt for humanity than any work I’ve ever seen. Because you have a magnificent respect for the human being. Because your figures are the heroic in man.”
Today, more than twenty years later, I would want to change — or, rather, to clarify — only two small points. First, the words “more devoid of contempt for humanity” are not too exact grammatically; what I wanted to convey was “untouched” by contempt for humanity, while the work of others was touched by it to some extent. Second, the words “possible only through you” should not be taken to mean that Mallory’s figures were impossible metaphysically, in reality; I meant that they were possible only because he had shown the way to make them possible.
“Your figures are not what men are, but what men could be — and should be.”
This line will make it clear whose great philosophical principle I had accepted and was following and had been groping for, long before I heard the name “Aristotle.” It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them “as they might be and ought to be.”
Why must fiction represent things “as they might be and ought to be”?
My answer is contained in one statement of Atlas Shrugged — and in the implications of that statement: “As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul.”
Just as man’s physical survival depends on his own effort, so does his psychological survival. Man faces two corollary, interdependent fields of action in which a constant exercise of choice and a constant creative process are demanded of him: the world around him and his own soul (by “soul,” I mean his consciousness). Just as he has to produce the material values he needs to sustain his life, so he has to acquire the values of character that enable him to sustain it and that make his life worth living. He is born without the knowledge of either. He has to discover both — and translate them into reality — and survive by shaping the world and himself in the image of his values.
Growing from a common root, which is philosophy, man’s knowledge branches out in two directions. One branch studies the physical world or the phenomena pertaining to man’s physical existence; the other studies man or the phenomena pertaining to his consciousness. The first leads to abstract science, which leads to applied science or engineering, which leads to technology — to the actual production of material values. The second leads to art.
Art is the technology of the soul.
Art is the product of three philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics. Metaphysics and epistemology are the abstract base of ethics. Ethics is the applied science that defines a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions which determine the course of his life; ethics is the engineering that provides the principles and blueprints. Art creates the final product. It builds the model.
Let me stress this analogy: art does not teach — it shows, it displays the full, concretized reality of the final goal. Teaching is the task of ethics. Teaching is not the purpose of an art work, any more than it is the purpose of an airplane. Just as one can learn a great deal from an airplane by studying it or taking it apart, so one can learn a great deal from an art work — about the nature of man, of his soul, of his existence. But these are merely fringe benefits. The primary purpose of an airplane is not to teach man how to fly, but to give him the actual experience of flying. So is the primary purpose of an art work.
Although the representation of things “as they might be and ought to be” helps man to achieve these things in real life, this is only a secondary value. The primary value is that it gives him the experience of living in a world where things are as they ought to be. This experience is of crucial importance to him: it is his psychological life line.
Since man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process — and the higher the values, the harder the struggle — man needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel. Art gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.
The importance of that experience is not in what he learns from it, but in that he experiences it. The fuel is not a theoretical principle, not a didactic “message,” but the life-giving fact of experiencing a moment of metaphysical joy — a moment of love for existence.
A given individual may choose to move forward, to translate the meaning of that experience into the actual course of his own life; or he may fail to live up to it and spend the rest of his life betraying it. But whatever the case may be, the art work remains intact, an entity complete in itself, an achieved, realized, immovable fact of reality — like a beacon raised over the dark crossroads of the world, saying: “This is possible.”
No matter what its consequences, that experience is not a way station one passes, but a stop, a value in itself. It is an experience about which one can say: “I am glad to have reached this in my life.” There are not many experiences of that kind to be found in the modern world.
I have read a great many novels of which nothing remains in my mind but the dry rustle of scraps long since swept away. But the novels of Victor Hugo, and a very few others, were an unrepeatable experience to me, a beacon whose every brilliant spark is as alive as ever.
This aspect of art is difficult to communicate — it demands a great deal of the viewer or reader — but I believe that many of you will understand me introspectively.
There is a scene in The Fountainhead which is a direct expression of this issue. I was, in a sense, both characters in that scene, but it was written primarily from the aspect of myself as the consumer, rather than the producer, of art; it was based on my own desperate longing for the sight of human achievement. I regarded the emotional meaning of that scene as entirely personal, almost subjective — and I did not expect it to be shared by anyone. But that scene proved to be the one most widely understood and most frequently mentioned by the readers of The Fountainhead.
It is the opening scene of Part IV, between Howard Roark and the boy on the bicycle.
The boy thought that “man’s work should be a higher step, an improvement on nature, not a degradation. He did not want to despise men; he wanted to love and admire them. But he dreaded the sight of the first house, poolroom and movie poster he would encounter on his way. . . . He had always wanted to write music, and he could give no other identity to the thing he sought. . . . Let me see that in one single act of man on earth. Let me see it made real. Let me see the answer to the promise of that music. . . . Don’t work for my happiness, my brothers — show me yours — show me that it is possible — show me your achievement — and the knowledge will give me courage for mine.”
This is the meaning of art in man’s life.
It is from this perspective that I will now ask you to consider the meaning of Naturalism — the doctrine which proposes to confine men to the sight of slums, poolrooms, movie posters and on down, much farther down.
It is the Romantic or value-oriented vision of life that the Naturalists regard as “superficial” — and it is the vision which extends as far as the bottom of a garbage can that they regard as “profound.”
It is rationality, purpose and values that they regard as naive — while sophistication, they claim, consists of discarding one’s mind, rejecting goals, renouncing values and writing four-letter words on fences and sidewalks.
Scaling a mountain, they claim, is easy — but rolling in the gutter is a noteworthy achievement.
Those who seek the sight of beauty and greatness are motivated by fear, they claim — they who are the embodiments of chronic terror — while it takes courage to fish in cesspools.
Man’s soul — they proclaim with self-righteous pride — is a sewer.
Well, they ought to know.
It is a significant commentary on the present state of our culture that I have become the object of hatred, smears, denunciations, because I am famous as virtually the only novelist who has declared that her soul is not a sewer, and neither are the souls of her characters, and neither is the soul of man.
The motive and purpose of my writing can best be summed up by saying that if a dedication page were to precede the total of my work, it would read: To the glory of Man.
And if anyone should ask me what it is that I have said to the glory of Man, I will answer only by paraphrasing Howard Roark. I will hold up a copy of Atlas Shrugged and say: “The explanation rests.”