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?
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.
Whether or not you’ve ever read We the Living — first published in 1936 — I urge you to read (or re-read) it now. Better yet, read the book and view the restored English-subtitled Italian-made movie of the same name. (For detailed information on the movie version and when the new DVD will be available, see wethelivingmovie.com.)
When my husband, Henry Mark Holzer, and I first represented Ayn Rand, we were under the mis-impression that the only movie based on a Rand novel was The Fountainhead. It was only after our professional relationship had deepened into personal friendship that she told us about a 1942 pirated two-part version of We the Living made in then-fascist Italy.
With its hard-hitting anticommunist theme, Noi Vivi ("We the Living") and Addio, Kira ("Goodby, Kira") was shown in two consecutive parts and enjoyed an extremely successful theatrical run. After the war, Ayn was given a print of the bootleg film, courtesy of one of its stars, Rossano Brazzi.
Then she told us that Noi Vivi was a much better film than The Fountainhead!
But Ayn had lost the print, and the film had completely vanished. When my husband and I offered to track it down, Ayn, while not optimistic about our success after the passage of so many years, gave us her blessing. Initial queries to official Italian agencies led nowhere, so Hank and I concentrated on unofficial sources.
It took us three years before we hit pay-dirt. In 1968, we flew to Rome and met with some businessmen who owned dozens of vintage Italian films. On their list was Noi Vivi and Addio, Kira. Best of all, the technical quality of what they had — the original nitrate negatives — was excellent. After we arranged to have a set of duplicate negatives made on safety film, we called Ayn to relay the good news.
Back in New York, Hank and I, with filmmaker Duncan Scott, screened the film as Ayn gave us scene by scene input on what should be edited or cut. Hank, Duncan and I were in total agreement with her suggestions and made one of our own that Ayn, in turn, agreed to: In lieu of dubbing the newly resurrected We the Living, the film would be subtitled in English.
Hank, Duncan, and I co-produced the film, Duncan and I wrote the subtitled script. We the Living premiered at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival in 1986, and it was released to rave reviews in theaters throughout the U.S., Canada, and overseas.
Now, as Obama, backed by a Democrat-controlled Congress, pushes hard for socialized medicine — the legislation having been engineered by the far-left Nancy Pelosi — I can’t help replaying what Ayn told me that night in her living room....
“If a novel is well done,” she said 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.)
Even though We the Living’s basic theme — its philosophical message — is much broader than socialized medicine, its plot revolves in a crucial way around the compulsory “administration” of healthcare, doctors, and even the dispensing of medicine, by bureaucrats mired in corruption, favoritism, envy, revenge, power lust. It can become an acquired taste, the lust for power to decide whether a person lives or dies.
I was so immersed in the production, editing, and subtitling stages of the film version of We the Living for so long that it has a stronger grip on my emotions than the novel.
I cannot think of the book without seeing Italy’s leading star and brilliantly evocative actress Alida Valli as the protagonist. I cannot view the film with dry eyes. Without my sense of outrage flying off the charts.
But whether you see the movie or read the novel, I challenge any fair-minded (and unrepressed) person to keep from identifying with and rooting for the uncompromising idealistic heroine. To stop yourself from raging against the ruined lives of three individuals torn by impossible conflicts and enmeshed in a heart-wrenching love triangle. To deny that you feel on your 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.
In the Foreword to the 1959 Random House hardcover republication of We the Living, Ayn Rand wrote 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.’”
But in that same Foreword, 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 a minor character, 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 Ayn 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.)
So if you rise to my challenge — or if you choose to heed Ayn Rand’s warning — or if you’re 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 just want to find out for yourself whether or not We the Living is dated, pick up her novel. Watch the movie. Think of imaginative ways to maximize the sheer impact of Ayn Rand’s remarkable work of fiction by spreading the word.
What have you got to lose?
A rhetorical question. You know the answer.
Erika Holzer’s vigilante suspense thriller Eye for an Eye was a Paramount feature film directed by John Schlesinger and starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sally Field. For more about her other books, fiction and non-fiction, and her most recent book, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, see www.ErikaHolzer.com.