Queen of the Cult

A New Book Review by Jeff Madrick of Moment Magazine.

Queen of the Cult

Ayn Rand the World She Made
By Anne C. Heller

Nan A. Talese
2009, $35.00, pp. 592

When Ayn Rand published her second blockbuster novel Atlas Shrugged in 1957, Alan Greenspan, then starting out as a Wall Street economist but still a member of her close circle of young acolytes, wrote that the book was “radiantly exact” and so would compel all honest readers into agreement with her case for individualism.

Today, ironically, we are living the consequences of Rand’s ideological evangelism. Its appeal was, in part, her certainty. Greenspan who, in fairness, was skeptical of some Randian precepts, nevertheless applied similar open-and-shut reasoning to economic policy during his long chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when asked to regulate sub-prime mortgages or complex derivatives—the investment vehicles that make it cheaper to buy bonds, stock, currencies or commodities—he refused, claiming with avuncular confidence that the market regulated itself. Competition among free individuals was a sufficient check on the dangers of greed and fraud.

Nothing could change his mind —until the current financial crisis. Forty years of observation, he now admits, turned out to be wrong. In those 40 years, in fact, financial turmoil had erupted time and again; it just didn’t compare to today’s devastation. Ideology trumped empirical observation. There was, after all, a place for government, apparently, and pure individualism may well have met its limits. Greenspan recanted.

No one can deny that Ayn Rand was a figure of power, persuasion and unbendable will. Whether she was a truly fine thinker and able novelist is quite another matter. In her competent and gracefully written biography, journalist Anne C. Heller, former managing editor of The Antioch Review and fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook, deals with neither the first issue nor the second. To the contrary, she seems to accept Rand’s greatness as a thinker and novelist without argument. Rand considered her first major novel The Fountainhead, published in 1942, the preeminent case for individualism. The enormous Atlas Shrugged, was her grand case for capitalism. Did she seriously add to the understanding of either issue? Or was she principally an ardent, effective and melodramatic proselytizer of previously developed ideas? Heller does not address such concerns.

What we do learn, and in great detail, is a more sordid side of Rand’s life. It is not clear that the biographer’s intention was to show how Randianism—or Objectivism, as she called her philosophy—had all the earmarks of a full-blown cult. But the story she tells warrants the conclusion. After a certain age, Rand tolerated neither criticism nor discourse and accepted into her circle only those who supported her completely. She created rules to live by, but she had the cult leader’s double standard. One should only fall in love with a great person, for example, like her famed hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, the brave architect who rebelled against society to create his vision. But Rand fell in love with and married Frank O’Connor, a beautiful man who could have modeled for the cover of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and whose other distinctions were merely kindness to others and a saint-like tolerance of Rand. When she was 50, she took as her lover her leading acolyte—25 years her junior—whose life she subsequently tried to ruin.

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3 thoughts on “Queen of the Cult

  1. what is there to be said to a review that does not review, and conclusions without arguments? the idea of “indistinguishable from a cult” has some interest, but this reviewer is too much of a butterfly to send any time on it. it is, of course, untrue that inflexible free market ideology caused the financial crises. we can see, also, what inflexible interference in economic decision making by individuals creates in certain economies that have not yet learned their lesson.

    • The reviewer is wrong, by my lights, and doesn’t appear to be an attentive reader. The whole point of the book was to trace the development of Rand’s ideas within her own context and demonstrate the gifts she brought to bear–and the risks she took–in working them out in fictional form. I don’t think a biographer’s mandate includes judging his subject, but I think it would be hard to miss my admiration for many of the literary qualities of the novels.

      • Anne –

        I think you and the other recent writer on Rand have begun a new era in writing about her: that of the moderatedly sympathetic critic. For so many decades it was seemingly impossible to discuss Rand as almost any other writer could be discussed, even those who were commonly regarded as turgid (Henry Miller), or had drug issues (the Beats, anyone?), or had sexual oddnesses (almost any artist you name, say the benzedrine-using Sartre). You two have continued the work begun by her first biographer and by Chris Sciabarra, in which Rand can finally be looked upon as – to quote the former – neither goddess or devil, but as a human being. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, upon finishing your book, I said to Chiara, “If there’s an such thing as a ghosts, Ayn Rand’s can rest easier. Anne’s helped give her back her humanity.” In doing so, of course, you had to fight your own subject! But that’s such important work. Now we can begin to see more deeply what was good and what was not-so-good in Rand’s thinking. (I think there’s a lot of both that almost never gets talked about.)

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