I was re-reading Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and a thought came to me quite unexpected. Ayn Rand once said the theme of Atlas Shrugged was “The role of the man’s mind in existence“. What struck me was how true this is of children’s literature and its ancestor the fairy tale. What is writing for children if not an attempt to define the role of the child’s mind when confronted with the awe-inspiring mystery of the world through which he or she must pass on the journey through adolescence and into adulthood. And not only is it for the child but the adult also benefits from the way’s children’s literature have been used to delve into that existential question.
In “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl James, upon entering the Giant Peach was confronted with something of the awe filled wonder of the universe and over the course of the book must learn for himself what his own mind’s role is in determining what it means to exist, to live, to be real. So it was for Alice. Who are you is a question that strikes at the heart of what Rand was getting at. That was a single question but her adventures in Wonderland proved to be equally daunting questions as to what her intellect was in defining her place in the world above. Lewis Carroll took the old hermetic idea which states “as above so below” and turned it on its head, which was a special gift of his, and in doing so foreshadowed (though certainly without knowing) Ayn Rand’s own philosophical questioning (although without her realizing it).
The very self centeredness of childhood which is almost always an integral component of the childs adventures in literature was hinting at the objectivist thought that Ayn Rand would come to represent in her own time. Indeed children in literature, being enamored with their own artifice, engaged in their own pursuits of pleasure and devoted to their own sense of well being (even Mary was driven to find Collin in “the book “the Secret Garden” for reasons that were centered on her own interests) can be near perfect models for objectivist thought. To a child everything including parents are understood as objects with which he or she must interact and the child’s imagination, which is a world fully created to serve the individual pleasure principle is an objectivist utopia; the place where the individual takes precedence over all.
This is not to say children lack care for others. Quite the opposite, children have great emotional depth and their connections with friends and family reveal a startling dependency which would seem to undermine the basic tenant of objectivism, which as Rand once put it was her refusal to live for anyone else, or to desire anyone else to live for her. But under closer scrutiny we begin see a strange connection between objectivism and collectivism in the mind of a child. There is a push and pull between these two opposing forces at work, between the ego which states that “I” and everything and the symbolic heart which claims the “I” is nothing without the “we”. Or to put it another way, without the group the individual would have no means to create a definition of the self. Ayn Rand’s social philosophy breaks down when it is understood that her objectivist philosophy which promotes the supremacy of the self was given its most iconic meaning only by creating a collective of like minded people devoted to a shared purpose (the strike lead by John Galt). So it is with children’s literature. No matter how strong the ego of the child in the end all they really want is to belong. What is the role of the child mind in existence? It is to define his or her place within the group and in so doing begin to define his or her own identity.