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
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.