Book Review: Exasperating But Necessary

Ayn Rand was a kind of 20th-Century Jonathan Swift, with a keen eye for the inhumane underbelly of the humanitarian project

By PHILIP BOUNDS
Published :1 November 2010

AYN RAND WAS ONE OF THOSE WRITERS who exert immense influence in spite of being burdened with an unenviable critical reputation. The consensus among literary types is that her novels and essays are utterly derivative, two-dimensional and dogmatic. This has not prevented her from becoming a heroine to thousands of activists on the libertarian wing of conservative politics in the USA and elsewhere. No other apologist for ‘free markets and free minds’ has been loved quite so ardently by the battalion of youthful ideologues who regard capitalism as God’s greatest gift to mankind. The likes of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman are all more highly esteemed by academics, but their work remains the property of the few. Only Rand has won the hearts of the rank and file.

One of the reasons for Rand’s cult status is the epic sweep of her life, which has now been recreated with great facility in Anne C Heller’s fascinating biography. Born in St Petersburg in 1905 to an affluent Jewish family, Rand spent her early years in a Russia traumatised by the decline of Czarism and the rise of communism. She seems to have been ferociously intelligent and unashamedly weird from early childhood onwards. Solitary, bookish and contemptuous of her mother’s social pretensions, she responded to the October Revolution with horror but took full advantage of the Soviet government’s policy of expanding the number of Jews in higher education. She had already sketched the outlines of what she would later call her ‘objectivist’ philosophy by the time she graduated from Petrograd State University in 1924.

American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand espoused her philosophy of objectivism and ‘rational selfishness’ in her novels, which included The Fountainhead.

Granted a visa to leave the Soviet Union in 1926, Rand fled immediately to the USA and remained there until her death in 1982. Her first three decades in the States were devoted to a tireless effort to achieve success as a writer of fiction. While working as a playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter she set out to dramatise her ideas in a series of novels, two of which—The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—became runaway bestsellers and remain her most widely read works. The latter in particular illustrates her enormously melodramatic cast of mind with great vividness. Set in an America where the smooth workings of the free market are increasingly undermined by industrial militancy, it lovingly depicts a co-ordinated attempt by the ruling elite to rid itself of the working-class menace. Its simple but arresting premise is that the best way for the capitalist class to reclaim control of society is to bend the strike weapon to its own purposes. Led by the improbably Promethean John Galt, Rand’s heavily idealised clerisy of industrialists, financiers and scientists simply remove themselves to a mountain retreat and refuse to put their talents (or their money) at the disposal of the common herd. The result is that America grinds to a halt as the limits of ordinary people’s competence rapidly become apparent. No other book has ever communicated love for the rich and contempt for the poor as vehemently as this.

Rand’s success as a novelist emboldened her into trying her luck as a leader of men. In the early 1950s she began to surround herself with a small group of disciples, each of whom was expected to play a role in popularising her objectivist philosophy. Among the most able of her early acolytes was the young Alan Greenspan, whose obdurate devotion to free-market principles came close to sinking the American economy when he served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006. Inspired by the thought that she was doing more than anyone else to inoculate the public mind against socialism, Rand wrote voluminous amounts of non-fiction in her later years and eventually became the high priest of a substantial libertarian subculture. More than one writer has commented on the tension between her ostensible principles and her treatment of her followers. She was clearly the sort of person who loved the idea of individual liberty in the abstract but expected iron discipline from her associates in practice. As the British philosopher John Gray has recently reminded us, she even insisted—or at least was rumoured to insist—that her fellow objectivists use the same sort of cigarette holder as she used herself. Nor was she averse to inflicting terrible pain on the people closest to her. In her late 40s she openly embarked on an extramarital affair with Nathaniel Branden, the author and polemicist who later founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute in order to promote objectivist ideas. Rand’s position was that Branden’s wife and her own husband should accept the affair without demur. Why should the gifted be bound by the same standards as everyone else?

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Tehelka Magaizine Reviews “Ayn Rand and the World She Made”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 29, Dated July 24, 2010

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Catching them young. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Ayn Rand’s harangues have long assaulted the blameless. An unflinching biography tells us why but with dishonest intent, says ARUL MANI.

AYN RAND was responsible for my first book review some two decades ago. A classmate in college asked if I had heard of Atlas Shrugged and took my no as invitation to shove a new excerpt under my nose every day. Each excerpt was some long unreadable harangue that caused my eyes to glaze over but he mistook this for ecstasy. One day he pointed out some pithy saying on excellence or money, or both, and the note his father had scribbled in the margins— “read this now, and through the years”. I drew a pair of testicles below that line because I felt under pressure to offer some gesture of further benediction. He never spoke to me again. Rand has enjoyed for years an unacknowledged second life in India. She is for the unfortunate above a life-changing instructor in how to be modern. Her works, with their overt agenda of creating “a morality of rational self-interest to defend capitalism”, also provide a vocabulary for upper-class darlings unable to articulate their own discomfort with a changing world beyond mantric intonations of the word ‘merit’. This book allows us to see how the experiences of the impoverished Jewish student Alisa Rosenbaum in post-revolution Russia shaped her enthusiasm for America and provided the motor for the best-selling author that she became.

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AYN RAND: AND THE WORLD SHE MADE Anne C Heller Nan A Talese 567 pp; Rs 499

HELLER SURVEYS the limited reading life from which came Ayn Rand’s beginnings as author — primary inspirations seem to have been Victor Hugo and The Mysterious Valley, a serialised adventure for boys whose hero, Cyrus, meets his foes with defiant laughter, thus providing the template for all her heroes. She does not flinch from showing us Rand’s peptalks to herself (“You must be nothing but will, all will and all control”) nor from admitting the ‘gauzy sadomasochism’ of her love scenes (“His embrace”, Rand once wrote, “was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash”). The Rand who described the content of her novels as ‘metaphysics, morality, politics, economics, sex’ is also discovered to have an overly “rhetorical pitch and a tin ear for American diction”. Documented with equal scrupulousness is ‘The Collective’, an Ayn Rand cult of ideal readers which decents into “a pallid kind of Stalinisation, marked by tantrums and purges.”

My quarrels with Heller arise from the fact that all this truthtelling is in aid of setting up its subject as a model of intellectual sexiness, albeit with faults. Ayn Rand is thus somebody who was conservative yet pro-abortion and anti-Vietnam, somebody who brought rigour and dazzle to the simple business of being right-wing, conservative and paranoid. Heller thus ducks all questions about Rand’s intellectual laziness and the small irony revealed in the fact that the cult of heroism Rand propounded needed millions of ordinary people swallowing such a fairy-tale without asking too many questions is also ignored.

The book’s saving grace is that it strikes a far less triumphal note than suggested by title and precedent. On the whole, I see no reason to revise the opinion of Ayn Rand I expressed in succinct hieroglyphics all those years ago.

OPEN Magazine: “Reason is All”

Book review published by Sudha G. Tilak of OPEN Magazine:

A new biography of Ayn Rand takes us closer to one of the more complex literary personalities of the last century.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography.

It is impossible to have not known or read Ayn Rand. For most readers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were an introduction into the muscular world of Rand and her approach to individualism against collectivism. The appeal of Howard Roark, the young architect hero of The Fountainhead (published in 1943), who chased an individualistic approach, resisting the traditional, was enormous on her readers. Atlas Shrugged (1957), led by the hero John Galt, again spoke of a world where the government takes over collective control and the individual is expected to toe in, giving up on his mind and desires.

Rand’s influence on America had been a powerful one as a polemicist on objectivism, and her philosophy of staunch individualism, reason, capitalism or market economy found many supporters, especially among right-wingers. Rand’s compelling and persuasive philosophy about the pursuit of money and her career as a Hollywood screenwriter added to make her one of the most interesting personalities of our times.

At 19, Galt and Roark’s petitions as young rebels seeking subjective gratification against a monochromatic social or governmental order held great appeal for her supporters. Both in her times and later, Rand’s theories were challenged for advocacy of vulgar, selfish satisfaction and egoism. Whatever the position, Rand’s influence remains powerful and her books continue to sell in thousands.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography. It takes us closer to the creature that Rand was, a compelling entity whose advocacy of rebellion and individualism held a mesmeric quality over those around her, even detractors who rejected her idea of wealth. Heller includes interesting details of how Rand would wear dollar pins on her dress to advocate her support for capitalism, though she did not attach much importance to wealth when she gave up her royalties. Heller points out that for Rand, the wealth of ideas amounted to the intellectual capital she so cherished in her own life. Alan Greenspan might find her ideas appealing, but at heart Rand’s philosophy owed more to Nietzsche, hints Heller.

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Politics & Culture: Reconstructing Ayn Rand

by Maureen Minard

This article is from Edition 2010 Issue 2.

Review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller, Nan A. Talese, 2009.

In the shadows of American conservative politics sits the memory of a stalwart intellectual, who molded the concept of capitalist individualism to mythical proportions. Most often recognized for the most famous son of her Collective, Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand’s imprint on politics can be seen in the recent rantings of conservative commentators about institutionalized socialism in the United States. The fear represented by these politicos reflects the footprints of a bygone era in American politics, where communism appeared to threaten the foundation of society, and Rand fed that anxiety. Long supported by enthusiastic young neoliberals, Rand’s books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead create a cult following, where her archetypes present a version of economic Objectivist truths. Rand sculpted a theory, which moved away from, in her view, the flawed altruism and toward a celebration of the individual. In this approach, the capitalist economy will reward innovation and advancement, which can only be produced by the competitive individual. Rand’s personal experience growing up in Czarist Russia, living through the Bolshevik Revolution, and working in Hollywood informed her philosophical viewpoint of the free market. Although Rand became famous for finding flaws in the arguments of others, she guarded her personal convictions closely, which mystified her presence in the American public.

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New Book Review: Randed for Life

Originally published in The Business Standard, June 3, 2010:

Here is my second-favourite Ayn Rand story. Challenged by a journalist to present her philosophy while standing on one foot, the philosopher, novelist and all-round provocateur stuck her foot in the air and stated her creed: “Metaphysics: Objective Reality. Epistemology: Reason. Ethics: Self-interest. Politics: Capitalism.”

The longer version of these principles is also well-known, and forms, to this day, a Canticle of Rand for true believers: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” “Man is an end in himself.” “Give me liberty or give me death.”

My favourite Ayn Rand story, unlike the first, is not in the canon of twice-told Rand tales. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, to a Russian Jewish family, Alissa/Alice Rosenbaum chose a new name for herself when she came to New York. She had various explanations for the “Ayn”: it was a Finnish female name, she had made it up. “The real explanation,” writes Anne Heller, “may be more sentimental — and more ethnic — than the creator of a philosophy based on the self-made soul would be likely to admit.” Perhaps Ayn came from “Ayin”, an affectionate Jewish diminutive meaning “bright eyes” — her mother called her “Ayinotchka” as a child. The idea that Ayn Rand would step into her new, American life casting off the past while still secretively holding on to a tiny sliver of it is seductive.

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Charles Murray: Who is Ayn Rand?

A new review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Charles Murray in the Claremont Institute Review of Books:

In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were Atlas Shrugged(1957) and The Fountainhead (1943). The two novels have had six-figure annual sales for decades, running at a combined 300,000 copies annually during the past ten years. In 2009, Atlas Shrugged alone sold a record 500,000 copies and Rand’s four novels combined (the lesser two are We the Living [1936] and Anthem [1938]) sold more than 1,000,000 copies.

And yet for 27 years after her death in 1982, we haven’t had a single scholarly biography of Ayn Rand. Who was this woman? How did she come to write such phenomenally influential novels? What are we to make of her legacy? These are the questions that finally have been asked and answered splendidly, with somewhat different emphases, in two new biographies published within weeks of each other: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications.

They are both big books, well written, exhaustively researched, and—remarkably, given their subject—judicious and disinterested. Both authors strike just the right tone in describing Rand’s complicated life and personality, betraying neither animus nor infatuation. Choosing between them is a matter of tastes and interests. Burns’s book offers more analysis of Rand’s political activities and influence and less detail about Rand’s personal life than Heller’s. As someone who has known some of the principals in the drama and has been curious to learn the details from a detached perspective, I was drawn to Heller’s lavishly detailed portrait of Rand the person, but that’s a matter of my own tastes and interests.

In both Burns’s and Heller’s accounts, the vibrant, brilliant woman of ideas shines through. Hour after hour the talk would continue in her New York apartment during the 1950s, sometimes all night, with Rand surrounded by her acolytes. Everyone seems to agree that this was Rand at her best. They also agree that she was spectacularly good at making her case. This was the Ayn Rand I once saw at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum in the early 1960s: confident, incisive, fielding all questions, taking no prisoners. Charismatic is an overused word, but with Rand, it fits.

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