Ayn Rand and the World She Made

By Anne C. Heller

We all know that literature, even the capital L variety, is as faddish as any other part of our culture. One’s stock in the great canon climbs and falls. T. S. Eliot, for example, essentially made the reputation of John Donne, a poet who had crept into a deep oblivion before being rediscovered in the twentieth century. But what makes the game of who’s in and who’s out so much fun, at least in hindsight, is looking back at the enthusiasm with which some valuations have been popularly held. I have a favourite related anecdote from Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island. It comes just after Kenner has finished quoting from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill” and takes the form of the following parenthetical note:

(The library copy from which I take those lines is battered and thumbed as most books of poetry aren’t, and someone has written across the top of the page, “Go ahead, find a better poem, go ahead. Impossible.” That testifies to passions now quelled. For a dozen years the book has seldom been wanted.)

We smile at this today, I think not so much because Thomas is out of fashion (people do still read him, after all, which is more than can be said for most of his contemporaries) but for the absoluteness with which the annotator expressed his belief. That sort of enthusiasm seems to belong to another time.

“Fern Hill” came out in 1946. Three years earlier Ayn Rand had achieved breakout success with the publication of The Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged followed in 1957. When the second shoe dropped the leader of a group of young intellectuals at a graduate-level seminar sent a letter to the author saying that they were all “convinced . . . that Atlas Shrugged is the greatest novel ever written.” A Brooklyn College professor of philosophy professed himself “bowled over” and “wiped out” by the book. An attendee at one of Rand’s appearances opined that “Her books are so good that most people should not be allowed to read them.” Yes, today we can still get enthusiastic over certain books. But who, even among their most manic fans, thinks that J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown are the best writers ever?

All of which most emphatically does not merely testify to passions now quelled. Rand’s two big books still sell in excess of 300,000 copies a year. In a 1998 public poll naming the twentieth century’s one hundred greatest books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were numbers one and two. Anthem and We the Living (!) were numbers seven and eight. The Rand cult, now officially an Institute headquartered in California, obviously still has some life in it yet.

How can this be explained? There are the books themselves, but these are not very good. Not as bad as they are sometimes made out to be by Rand’s political and philosophical opponents, but only efficient hack work at best. They are crude vehicles, obvious in their effects and repetitive in the extreme, for expressing what is, at bottom, an even cruder philosophy. In many ways, Rand as a literary figure most closely resembles the Marquis de Sade. As with Sade, a very little goes a long way. One can read Justine and rest assured there is no need to plow through the The 120 Days of Sodom or Juliette (unless, of course, you’re really into that kind of thing). And so with Rand. The philosophy is all there in the mercifully brief parable Anthem. Bricks like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are just explorations and elaborations of the same basic theme. That theme, in turn, as in the novels of Sade, takes the form of a simple principle pushed to a logical if ultimately crazy extreme (in Rand’s case individualism or the virtue of selfishness, and for Sade . . . well, something very similar). Both authors are absolutists when it comes to their bleak worldviews. To argue against any of their core principles, and all their principles were core, is to be illogical, irrational, unnatural, and even immoral. Their work is a kind of secular scripture, a passing down of the law. “Would you cut the Bible?” Rand famously responded to a sensible suggestion from her editor that Atlas Shrugged lose some weight.

It’s not easy writing the biography of a prophet. Access to sources, for one thing, becomes an issue, as these are considered by the guardians of the flame to be sacred texts. Because Anne Heller is not an advocate of Rand’s ideas she was, her preface tells us, denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers (they are even capitalized) housed at the Ayn Rand Institute. In addition to not being able to consult this material (including unpublished letters and diaries), she also had to deal with interviewees who, as one would expect when dealing with as polarizing a figure as Rand, can hardly be considered objective. Special thanks in her acknowledgment are reserved for two people at the center of Rand’s world for a number of years: Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. Their story, however, has been told before (individually by both of them), and there is little new that Heller can bring to it. Not that it doesn’t make for some great high comedy, as we get to see all of Nathaniel Branden’s philosophical training and hero worship go sailing out the window at the twitch of a skirt belonging to a willowy glamour model (the name for this timeless crime, in Randspeak, was “social metaphysics”), and the resulting farce of a denouement. But overall there is too much of the Brandens here (the name was even a coinage that apparently was meant to signify his being the “son of Brand”), and not enough of the Great Woman herself.

One would like to hear more telling details and anecdotes. Like finding out that Rand, for example, in addition to popping amphetamines to keep her fiction engine running, wore a needle wrapped around her thumb with the point sticking up and out. When asked about it she responded that when she was writing she would occasionally prick herself to “keep [her] thoughts alive.” Or that her “lifelong favorite novel” was something called Calumet “K” (described by Heller, with I don’t know how much of her tongue in her cheek, as a “charming turn-of-the-century novel of engineering prowess and conventional anti-unionism”). Or how she would call on her long-suffering husband Frank to come service her when she was in heat (he never, we are told, initiated sexual contact but seemed always ready to oblige). Or finally this depressing glimpse of the lioness in winter: “Mostly, she preferred to stay in bed, watching TV game shows during the daytime and prime-time dramas in the evening and reading mysteries. She worked with her secretary to answer accumulated fan mail and sometimes played solitaire.” Is this how Harold Roark or John Galt would have grown old? Ah, but they were only myths, you see . . .

This is all by the way. But more substantial biographical matters remain unresolved. Take the question of why Rand, who all the evidence suggests was sexually active a good part of her life, never had any children. Was she infertile? Did she use contraceptives? Did she have abortions? One’s interest is not merely prurient. Family was very unimportant to Rand. Her biological family, to all intents and purposes, she cut dead as soon as she left the Soviet Union. Indeed, her reluctance to disclose any facts about her family of origin “was so extreme that not a single one of her close friends or followers knew her real name [Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum] when she died.” Blood meant less than nothing to her. She was proud of having adopted her identity as an American instead of merely being born to it. Such an attitude mirrors that of the romantic hero Francisco d’Anconia, who explains to Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged “The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.” Dagny and her brother Jim are, by the same accounting, not real siblings at all but merely share the same DNA. D’Anconia refuses to see the two as even being related, and it’s clear as soon as they are introduced that Dagny has morally and intellectually disowned Jim.

Why did Rand despise family so much? Because it was only a part of what she dismissed as the “world of chance”? Did she see it as an antiquated social structure incompatible with a meritocracy and the true consanguinity of a race of supermen? As a thoroughly self-centered individual could she not bear the thought of being supplanted by a mini-Ayn, choosing instead to create a creepy surrogate family – complete with ersatz Oedipal storyline – known as the Collective? Questions like these go to the heart not only of her writing but her life. And yet the question of why Rand never had children, anointing instead a series of “intellectual heirs,” is one Heller never so much as addresses, choosing instead to track down false leads like the role anti-Semitism played in Rand’s life (short answer: none at all).

It’s hard to warm to Ayn Rand. Her political philosophy is nonsense. Her fiction is preachy tub-thumping, filled with stiff characters who only exist to illustrate philosophical principles. Selfish, self-centered, and self-absorbed, she had “no hobbies . . . few friends” and did “not like to go out.” She was both a slob and afraid of germs. She pursued success with a single-minded drive that alienated all but the most committed of her Objectivist clan. Still, the sales keep right on rolling. Which, by her own lights, really means something. Part post-War Thoreau, part proto-Oprah Winfrey, her paeans to the heroic individual fighting against the soul-destroying forces of mass man obviously strike a mystic chord in American lives. That there is a paradox to this popularity is obvious. Critics might see in her success the revenge of the herds, and then want to quickly get out of the way.

Review first published online December 7, 2009.

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