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.