Importance Of Being Selfish

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.

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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.

FiveBooks.com: Anne Heller on Libertarianism

My interview with FiveBooks.com was recently published on their website. I discuss five books on Libertarianism. The beginning of the interview here:

Can you define libertarianism?

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?

Twenty-one.

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 FountainheadAnthem and We the Living) sold one million copies in 2009.

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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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