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.

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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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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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