On the Spectrum: An Existentialist Comparison of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged And Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception

The Person: Bruno

Two truths inform my nature as a reader: I read books primarily for entertainment and I read passively. My books you’ll find devoid of highlights and notes on the margins, each paperback or hardcover unburdened by the weight of sticky notes. I find those activities distracting and ultimately inconducive towards a meaningful immersion into the book’s universe. My nature informs my reading method as I’m reading, that is, while the book has yet to end. Invariably, the intellectual osmosis that occurs from passively ingesting an author’s ideas begins to set after the last punctuation mark and then calcifies; this process provides a concrete dimension to what was previously equal parts fluid and transcendent, like a state of matter that is and is not, at the same time.

They say you should make a to-do list before you sleep or think about something that you want accomplished in the future to let your mind ruminate over the list or ambitions while you sleep and find some kind of answer filed away in the forgotten files of your consciousness. I don’t make to-do lists before sleeping, but I have experienced my mind performing the equivalent of a background task at a book’s conclusion. A few days will go by after I have finished a book and I will suddenly become aware of much more than I had even been thinking about. Having recently completed Atlas Shrugged and The Doors of Perception, I am forced to examine, by a nagging desire, the two polar answers to the question of existence, to its meaning and purpose.

Rand v. Huxley: The Person and the Not-Person

Rand and Huxley do not exist on ideological extremes—not from one another, anyway. Rand is certainly an extremist whose Objectivist philosophy is so black-and-white in its perspective that ever mentioning the color gray would be considered a crime punishable by swallowing a pair of dice. Huxley stands further down on the spectrum from Rand, but both he and Rand know what the extreme on Huxley’s side looks like. Before we picture this person or not-person, we must first state the contrasts between Rand and Huxley.

The Person: Rand

Happiness comes from the reaffirmation of your existence. You, the person, exist in an objective sense, as a matter of simple fact. Material happiness is valid because material objects reinforce your existence. Materialism is a virtue because you are consuming objects created for the comfort of man, or his betterment. Rather than separate from the world, one should claim more of a stake in it. Thinking that there is more to life and a higher purpose than an emphasis on the self is a logical impossibility, since such beliefs aren’t informed by logic, but rather by feelings and gut instincts. An alteration of the senses does not reveal true reality, but is rather an alteration of objective reality informed by deformed senses, and is therefore, a false reality. To feel that there is something more beyond our senses, to have a feeling that there is a deeper truth uncoverable by faith, mysticism, or religion, is to ignore the senses that have contributed to our survival, the effort by which life’s comforts outweigh its dangers, and the dismantling power of logic against faith, mysticism, and religion. You, the person, are real. To think otherwise is akin to committing suicide, since you would advocate for the intellectual murder of the idea of man. To promote separation from this world is to promote the extinction of mankind.

The Person: Huxley

Our senses aid our survival. By acting as a funnel and screen, our brain filters out all manner of sensory signals so as not to overwhelm us with infinite sensory details. We are able to look at a wall as just a wall, or clothing as just clothing, because we aren’t aware of the infinite, fascinating variations within the surface of the wall, or the intricate details within the fabric and fold of clothing. This lack of awareness helps us focus on more immediate tasks crucial to our survival, but it also means that we take an indifferent, bored look towards existence because we are just surrounded by ‘mere things,’ not incredibly complex and captivating experiences disguised as everyday objects. Through the use of psychotropic substances, man temporarily eliminates the brain’s filter and finally becomes aware of the magnificent nature of all things and becomes enthralled by all of the now observable variations in what were before only ‘mere things.’ This new insight makes man aware of a higher truth: One is in all and all is in One. Rather than think of oneself as a solitary creature, one now comes to realize the true interconnected nature of existence and the transience of our bodies. The awareness granted by psychotropic drugs, though also available by other means, diminishes the allure of material pursuits and the need to emphasize the Self.

The Not-Person: End of the Spectrum

Huxley is a proponent of mind-altering substances because of the insights imparted upon their use. But he recognizes that being constantly under this influence would lead to the extinction of humanity. Why? Imagine if you were perfectly content to sit in front of a tree and marvel as to the brilliance of its bark, or feel with profound intensity the grooves in its leaves. You would be the Not-Person. This experience would be so incredible and fulfilling that you would forget to eat or defend yourself in case of attack by a wild animal. We can say that experiencing the tree in this way is the result of a higher state of existence, but if we wanted everyone to feel this way all of the time, humanity wouldn’t last a week. Rand wouldn’t consider this experience beneficial, but she would agree that thinking it is beneficial would lead to humanity’s extinction. She would say that it is within your right to take a drug, but you would be wrong to peddle the experience as equal to achieving a higher truth. For Huxley, taking the drug is beneficial because it broadens your perspective; Rand, however, would say that you’re merely altering it, which results in the crippling of senses that are crucial to your survival.

The Not-Person stands at the opposite end from Rand. Huxley is closer to the Not-Person on this spectrum because he advocates a truth beyond the senses, or a truth that amplifies the senses. For Rand, your default senses are truth and advocating or believing otherwise results in a mendacious existence. In other words, Rand represents the retrenchment of the Self, while Huxley represents the pursuit of a temporary detachment.

What’s the Use?

Here are two answers to the question of existence. You either double-down on the Self, or you don’t even believe in such a thing as the Self. You either regard your everyday senses as fulfilling, or you consider them as limiting and inhibitory. You are either completely beholden to logic, or you make room for the unknown unexplainable by logic, and therefore run the risk of being considered illogical by Rand fans. So, what’s the use? That’s for you to decide.

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