A murderer as hero

There are so many hitjobs on the internet based on Rand’s “praise” for (and being inspired by) the murderer William Hickman (google it)—I guess tabloid journalism will never go out of fashion—that the real story risks being buried under a pile of (overwhelmingly liberal) crap. It’s not a case of “serial killer love” and Rand’s not a “serial-killer groupie.” One must suffer from a special kind of incurable stupidity to write gibberish like that.

Nevertheless, here’s what Burns says about the inspiration-

When the tabloids filled with the sensational case of William Hickman, a teen murderer who mutilated his victim and boasted maniacally of his deed when caught, Rand was sympathetic rather than horrified. To her, Hickman embodied the strong individual breaking free from the ordinary run of humanity. She imagined Hickman to be like herself, a sensitive individual ruined by misunderstanding and neglect, writing in her diary, “If he had any desires and ambitions—what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromises.” Glossing over his crime, Rand focused on his defiant refusal to express remorse or contrition.

She began to plan “The Little Street,” a story with a protagonist, Danny Renahan, modeled after Hickman. It was the first of her stories to contain an explicit abstract theme. She wanted to document and decry how society crushed exceptional individuals. In a writing notebook she explained her attraction to the scandal: “It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me.” Still, Rand had trouble interpreting the case as anything other than an exercise in mob psychology. She wrote, “This case is not moral indignation at a terrible crime. It is the mob’s murderous desire to revenge its hurt vanity against the man who dared to be alone.” What the tabloids saw as psychopathic, Rand admired: “It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul.”

And here’s “The Hickman Case,” in Rand’s own words-

The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the “virtuous” indignation and mass-hatred of the “majority.” One always feels the stuffy, bloodthirsty emotion of a mob in any great public feeling of a large number of humans. It is repulsive to see all those beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal, proud and secure in their number, yelling furiously in defense of society. This is not just the case of a terrible crime. It is not the crime alone that has raised the fury of public hatred. It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that this man knew it was against all laws of humanity and intended that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul.

A mob’s feeling of omnipotence is its most jealously guarded possession and therefore a dangerous thing to wound. The mob can forgive any insult or crime except one: [the act of] challenging its ultimate power. It can forgive a criminal who erred, but who is just one of itself, i.e., has the same soul and ideas and bends to the same gods. But to see a man who has freed himself from it entirely, who has nothing in common with it, a man who does not need it and who openly disdains it—this is the one crime a mob can never forgive.

It seems to me that the mob is more jealous to possess a man’s soul than his body. It is the spiritual despotism that is so dear to it. It does not care whether it [physically] possesses a man, as long as the man acknowledges to himself that he belongs to it. It cannot stand to see a man who does not belong and knows it. That tyrannical monster, the mob, feels the helpless fury of impotence in the presence of the one thing beyond its power, that it cannot conquer, the only thing that counts—a man’s own soul and consciousness. And when the mob sees one of those rare, free, clear spirits, over which it has no control–then we have the [spectacle] of a roaring, passionate public hatred.

Worse crimes than this have been committed. Not one has ever raised such furious indignation. Why? Because of the man who committed the crime and not because of the crime he has committed. Because of Hickman’s brazenly challenging attitude.

[It can be seen in] his strange letters, which are a little theatrically melodramatic, but so boastful and self-confident, eg: “If you want help against me, ask God, not men,” signed “The Fox.” [It can be seen in] his utter remorselessness; his pride in his criminal career and in things that are considered a “disgrace”; his boasting of more and more crimes and his open joy at shocking people, instead of trying to implore their sympathy; his utter lack of anything that is considered a “virtue”; his strength, as shown in his unprecedented conduct during his trial and sentencing; his calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society—shouting to it that it cannot break him; his immense, explicit egoism—a thing the mob never forgives; and his cleverness, which makes the mob feel that a superior mind can exist entirely outside of its established morals.

No: [the reaction to] this case is not moral indignation at a terrible crime. It is the mob’s murderous desire to revenge its hurt vanity against a man who dared to be alone. It is a case of “we” against “him.”

And when we look at the other side of it—there is a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy turned into a purposeless monster. By whom? By what? Is it not by that very society that is now yelling so virtuously in its role of innocent victim? He had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character. What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career. And it is not the petty financial misery of these that I have in mind. They are representative of all that society has to offer: a high social standing and a million-dollar business position is essentially the same Y.M.C.A. club and bank-page job, merely more of the same.

If he had any desires and ambitions—what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; a degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromises. Succeed? How could he succeed? How do men succeed? By begging successfully for the good graces of the society they must serve. And if he could not serve? If he didn’t know how to beg? It’s a long and tortuous road that an exceptional man must travel in this society. It requires a steel-strength that can overcome disgust, which is a worse enemy than fear, and also a steel-hypocrisy, the patient art of hiding oneself when it is wise not to be seen.

A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet. That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime? Is it his crime that he was too impatient, fiery and proud to go that slow way? That he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command? That boy could not get along with the men that society forgives and tolerates. He could not get along with the majority. He could not lick boots—and one can’t succeed without licking boots. He was superior and he wanted to live as such—and this is the one thing society does not permit.

He was given [nothing with which] to fill his life. What was he offered to fill his soul? The petty, narrow, inconsistent, hypocritical ideology of present-day humanity. All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn’t accept it? That it left his soul emptier than it had been before? That boy does not believe in anything. But, oh! men, have you anything to believe in? Can you offer anything to be believed? He is a monster in his cruelty and disrespect of all things. But is there anything to be respected? He does not know what love means. But what is it that is worthy of being loved?

Yes, he is a monster—now. But the worse he is, the worst must be the cause that drove him to this. Isn’t it significant that society was not able to fill the life of an exceptional, intelligent boy, to give him anything to outbalance crime in his eyes? If society is horrified at his crime, it should be horrified at the crime’s ultimate cause: itself. The worse the crime—the greater its guilt. What could society answer, if that boy were to say: “Yes. I am a monstrous criminal, but what are you?”

This is what I think of the case. I am afraid that I idealize Hickman and that he might not be this at all. In fact, he probably isn’t. But it does not make any difference. If he isn’t, he could be, and that’s enough. The reaction of society would be the same, if not worse, toward the Hickman I have in mind. This case showed me how society can wreck an exceptional being, and then murder him for being the wreck that it itself has created. This will be the story of the boy in my book.

Rand wrote a short story in ’40 entitled “The Simplest Thing in the World.” The protagonist, Henry Dorn, is a fiction writer whose last book, “Triumph,” didn’t sell well. It got bad reviews, and the reviews that were “good” missed everything of substance while praising “the touching love story” in it. He struggles—with himself—to write a simple story that would sell, but can’t do that. He manages to convert every corny plot he can think of into a mighty crisis-of-values struggle with a heroic figure at its center. And that, naturally, doesn’t sell. In his final attempt, he tries to write a murder mystery, a blackmailer who kills to avoid exposure. And…he “slides,” again-

What if all those people he blackmails are utter lice? The kind that do horrible things, but just manage to remain within the law, so there’s no way of defending yourself against them. And this man chooses to deliberately become a crusading blackmailer…. He’s a Robin Hood of blackmail. He gets them in the only way they can be gotten. For instance, one of them is a corrupt politician, and the hero—no, the murderer—no, the hero

Oh, what a story! […] Prove honesty and courage and strength and dedication! Prove it through a blackmailer and a murderer! Have a story with a murderer for a hero and let him get away with it!

Dorn stops writing and looks for a menial job because he cannot compromise. Just like Roark, who chooses breaking stones in a quarry over making a minor change to his design.

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