Book Review: Balancing the Books, Noble Solitude

By MAGATTE WADEMORE ARTICLES BY AUTHOR

Magatte Wade reviews Anne C. Heller’s new book, Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

This biography of immigrant, novelist, philosopher and moral crusader Ayn Rand should fascinate even those who have never cared about Rand’s novels or philosophy. Devotees of such perennial bestsellers as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged should find Rand’s own story just as compelling, although for somewhat different reasons.

An ambitious young woman arrives from Russia and works her way to success. Along the way she marries Frank O’Connor, a devoted suitor, only to indulge in a series of crushes on younger men while married, culminating in the nightmarish affair with her associate Nathaniel Branden. The affair between Rand and Branden, conducted with the full knowledge and approval of both their spouses, reveals the tragic flaw in this larger-than-life woman.

Rand made rationality the foundation of her Objectivist philosophy. But she was in fact the slave to her vanity, egotism, pride and lust. It is heart-wrenching to watch Rand destroy her husband, who is gradually reduced to drinking himself to death while Rand and Branden conduct their liaisons. When Branden finally broke with Rand after having an affair he kept secret from both her and his wife, Rand becomes increasingly brittle, breaking off with all but her most obsequious followers.

It is hard not to admire Rand’s extraordinary strength of will. She was a visionary who saw the value of capitalism and entrepreneurship when virtually all of the intelligentsia had turned against these principles. She was a powerfully sexual woman at a time when traditional sex roles still reigned–and for that reason alone, feminists ought to respect her. But by believing only in herself, she gradually separated herself from everyone except Frank O’Connor and supporter Leonard Peikoff, a young man who was too weak to take a stand against her.

With Frank incontinent and suffering from dementia, the thinker who emphasized “the virtue of selfishness” was left in her old age lying on rubber sheets next to the man she had destroyed. The novelist who stood above all for the dignity of the individual human spirit ended her late years largely alone and without dignity.

Anne Heller’s biography is an unforgettable portrait of a great woman who inspired noble ideals, but who was personally undone by her own dark side. •

Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, founder of Adina World Beverages, writes for the Huffington Post and blogs at magatte.wordpress.com.

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Ayn Rand and Reading Groups

Reading Part II, Chapter 10 in Atlas Shrugged: Why did Dagny stop the conductor from ejecting the aging tramp from the stalled train? "There was no astonishment in the tramp's face, no protest, no anger, no hope . . . The only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small, dirty bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train. It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions--a gesture of a sense of property--that made her feel an emotion like a sudden, burning twist within her. 'Wait,' she said."

As the date for a paperback release of my book approaches, I’ll be visiting a number of reading groups to discuss Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s novels and essays, and her immense influence on our national discussion of everything from literature to religion to a building site for the disputed downtown Manhattan mosque. (More on that in a forthcoming post.)

The 18th-century Princeton home base of Korelitz's reading group, which benefits Housing Initiatives of Princeton, and of Korelitz, her husband, the poet Paul Muldoon, and their two children.

The first of these visits, which took place on September 14, was to a venerable reading group hosted eight times a year by novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, in Princeton, New Jersey. Most of the group’s eighteen members–writers, publicists, parents, and teachers–had read my book and either The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged or both. (Since one of my goals for the book was to inspire readers to take a new look at Rand’s novels, this made me happy.) Members were especially interested in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement, but wondered, “Where is her empathy for those less able?” One reader thought she had spotted such empathy in Dagny Taggart’s favorable response to Jeff Allen, the tramp on the stalled and abandoned Taggart train in Atlas Shrugged; for those whose memory is hazy, Allen had worked for the Twentieth Century Motor Company and reveals to Dagny the identity of John Galt as a former Twentieth Century engineer and inventor. I pointed out that empathy is not a cardinal virtue in Rand’s universe; justice, as defined by John Galt, is:

“Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature,” Galt says on page 933 of my copy of Atlas Shrugged, “. . . that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero. . . that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement–that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devalue your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit.”

We also talked about private property as a basis of capitalism and at least one member’s recollection of Nixon’s final scuttling of the gold standard in the summer of 1971. She was in Europe and recalled that, within a day or two, her dollars bought ten percent less than they had. Of course, Europe was redeeming dollars for gold in that era of endless war and huge trade deficits, and she was reading Atlas Shrugged.

For a Knopf/Doubleday reading-group guide and suggested discussion questions about Ayn Rand and the World She Made, go to http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400078936&view=rg.

-Anne C. Heller