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.
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 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
I was first introduced to Ayn Rand at the age of 15, when I read The Fountainhead and, like most young Rand readers, was influenced to the point of being thunderstruck by her philosophy. This led to a flurry of reading Ayn Rand books: We The Living, The Night of January 16th, Atlas Shrugged. These were novels of ideas, in which Rand, in her own words, aimed for “the portrayal of a moral ideal”. Rand espoused a noble individualism, a “selfishness” and “egotism” that lead to the good of society as a whole. She believed man to be heroic, armed with reason and capable of great things when pursuing his own happiness.
In all her writings, Rand’s authorial voice was clear and unmistakable. She shone out of the pages of her works. Very soon after the publication of The Fountainhead in 1943, Rand had become a cult figure, with a dedicated group of followers and an equally vehement group of detractors. She was regarded a genius by some (or, in the case of her disciples, “the greatest human being who has ever lived”), and a “reactionary crackpot” by others.
It is a matter of some surprise then, that Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, published 28 years after Rand’s death, is the first objective and investigative biography of this fascinating woman. The only previous biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, published in 1986, was written partly in the form of a memoir by Barbara Branden, Rand’s friend and disciple, and the wife of Rand’s young lover, Nathaniel Branden.
Ayn Rand and the world she made, Anne C. Heller, Tranquebar Press, Chennai, 2010,567 pages, Rs 495, ISBN 978 93 80658 01 8.
It is not easy to connect a writer’s life with her ideology. Most biographers assume that there is an obvious and intimate connection and get on breezily with the job. Too often the connection turns out forced and the reader feels that she has been taken for a ride. Anne Heller’s excellent biography of the Ayn Rand is an exception. Her great achievement is to have connected Rand’s extraordinary legend and individualistic philosophy of unbridled capitalism to her life as a youngster, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, an awkward and wilful Russian Jewish prodigy, who had written four novels by the age of eleven. Heller makes you believe that that Rand’s excessive self-absorption and vehement protest against any form of collectivism are rooted in her family’s suffering in early-twentieth-century Russia, where Jews were violently persecuted and personal freedom died when the communists came to power.
‘Call it fate or irony, but I was born, of all countries on earth, in the one least suitable for a fanatic of individualism, Russia,” wrote Ayn Rand. Her father owned a prosperous pharmacy in St Petersburg and she and her two sisters grew up in an upper middle class home with a cook, a maid, a nurse, and a Belgian governess. Rand made good use of her advantages but disapproved of her mother’s social climbing ways.
It was always dangerous to be a Jew in Russia, however, and as the economy deteriorated during World War I, the Czar grew more repressive and the brunt of popular anger fell upon Russia’s five million Jews. Anti-Semitic bloodshed rose. Czarist gangs groups roamed the countryside, spreading rumours that Jewish profiteering was responsible for war losses and shortages. As the Russian army retreated from the advancing Germans, Russian troops were ordered to round up residents of Jewish villages in the Pale and herd them east to Siberia.
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.
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.
My interview with FiveBooks.com was recently published on their website. I discuss five books on Libertarianism. The beginning of the interview here:
I will give a quote. This is what H L Mencken said in 1926: ‘It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.’
Your first book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
If you read only one book about libertarianism, read this legendary 1957 novel, a 1,100-page deconstruction of the Marxian proposition, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ It took her 14 years to write Atlas Shrugged and that wasn’t working on it part-time. That was working very, very hard and at one point she stayed inside her house or on her property in California for a month. She was very intense. This is her magnum opus. Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenburg in St Petersburg, Russia, and was 12 when the Russian Revolution took place and all her family’s property was snatched.
How old was she when she left Russia?
So she was properly Russian.
Oh, she was Russian. You should have heard her voice! So, Atlas Shrugged is the mature, the fullest expression of her rejection of any kind of collectivism. It’s probably the only novel of ideas that was written in the form of a detective story. It’s a real page-turner. The heroes of the novel are the entrepreneurs in America in the mid-20th century – the steelmakers, the coal miners, the productive people have all been disappearing from public view and nobody knows where they’ve gone. This happens over the course of ten years, and the heroine, Dagny Taggart, who owns a railroad, which is the controlling metaphor for the novel, tries to find out where they’ve gone, because she’s not able to run her business without all these wonderful suppliers. The ones who are left are all dolts taking government handouts. What she finds out is that a man, the hero, John Galt, who later becomes her lover, has been recruiting the best people everywhere to go on strike. Nothing in the economy can be done without these people, and they stay on strike until the nation comes to its senses and stops becoming a socialist economy. It’s basically about the Roosevelt administration and what it did to the economy. It’s a fantastical rebuttal.
There aren’t many people who would think of America as a socialist society.
Well, she did. And there were lots of people who did in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Before Roosevelt, before the Depression, you can’t imagine how much less government regulation there was in the United States. And that’s the America that Ayn Rand and H L Mencken loved. It’s a whole kind of old-school libertarianism. It’s isolationism, free markets, free minds and not letting the state get too powerful. Individual rather than state power.
It is the only page-turning critique of the welfare state, the bureaucratisation of the ‘altruistic’ impulse, and the transformation of America from a culture of self-reliance to one of self-entitlement by an author whose four mid-century novels (with The Fountainhead, Anthem and We the Living) sold one million copies in 2009.