The Goal of My Writing

by Ayn Rand
From The Romantic Manifesto
The Romantic Manifesto
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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.”

(October-November 1963)

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.