If a life can have a ‘theme’ song — and I believe that every worthwhile one has — mine is [best] expressed in one word: Individualism.”
In writing those words, Ayn Rand captured both the essence of her life and its isolation. A song, of course, is an expression in search of connection. It exists to be played for someone other than the performer. Ayn Rand (her first name rhymes with “mine”) tried to enlarge her life by truncating it; inevitably, she failed. Yet her failure has been misinterpreted by the general public as a success. As a consequence, Rand has left the world a rather formidable legacy — one, in fact, that is impossible to ignore.
Nonetheless, Rand is, to many, an enigma.
She had no academic credentials, remained a lifelong outsider, and was generally scorned by established scholars. She regarded criticism as a sign of moral treason, which would precipitate an angry tirade. Yet approximately 20 million copies of her books have been sold. According to U.S. News & World Report, her books sell upward of 300,000 copies a year. And we are now experiencing, as one reporter recently described it, “a Rand boomlet.”
Barbara Branden's biography of Rand, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1987), makes the phenomenal success of her subject even more puzzling.
Rand, from a moral point of view, was a singularly unattractive individual.
Branden informs her readers of how Rand and Barbara's husband, Nathaniel, rationally explained to their shocked spouses how their moral superiority and rational individualism justified the affair they were carrying on with each other. This four-sided arrangement did not set well with the injured spouses. Rand's husband tried to find comfort in the bottle. Barbara suffered severe panic attacks. During one of these attacks, she called to her “friend” of 19 years for help. Rand's response was one of reptilian coldness: “How dare you think about yourself instead of me!”
Yet when her lover, Nathaniel Branden, took a younger woman for his mistress, Rand flew into a rage. Evidently, Rand did not extend the same individual liberties to her lover as she claimed for herself; indeed, she told him that if he had the smallest shred of moral decency left in him that he would, at the very least, remain impotent for the rest of his life.
Barbara tells us of how Rand managed to make the lives of everyone around her miserable and, when her life was over, she had barely a friend in the world. She was contemptuous even of her followers. When Rand was laid to rest, at 77, her coffin bore a 6-foot replica of the dollar sign.
So why the mass adulation? Or, at least, why now?
Her Theme Song
Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum in Petrograd, Russia, in 1905 and left her native country at 21, having been thoroughly horrified by the anti-individualistic mind-set of the Bolshevik collective. After arriving alone in New York City with about $50 in her pocket, she stayed with relatives in Chicago for a while before moving to Hollywood, where she worked at odd jobs — stuffing envelopes, waiting tables and running a studio wardrobe department — until she could financially sustain herself as a writer.
In 1938, she wrote Anthem, a science fiction novella depicting a collectivist world where the word “I” is forbidden. Her real success, however, did not come until the publication in 1943, despite rejections from 12 publishers, of The Fountainhead. This sprawling 754-page work, later made into a movie starring Gary Cooper, is the glorification of an architectural genius who refuses to bend to bureaucratic pressure. It was not well received. “It is,” wrote screenwriter Nora Ephron, rather tersely, “a ridiculous book.”
In 1957, she produced her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, in which she canonizes her code of self-interest. She uses her main character, John Galt, to articulate her own philosophy: “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Rand's philosophy dismisses faith as baseless, altruism as unethical.
God cannot exist; love for neighbor cannot work. This is what has sold 20 million books?
Atlas Shrugged inspired a cult following, particularly among college students in the ‘60s, though the critics seldom had a kind word for it. Many found it too simplistic and didactic, a naive indulgence in black and white polarities. Ruth Chapin Blackman saw it as a “polemic inadequately disguised as a novel.” Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Granville Hicks found it utterly unconvincing: “loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems that the book is written out of hate.”
The book was bound to infuriate conscientious Christians. In one passage, John Galt states that it is wrong to “help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the ground of his suffering as such, to accept faults, his need, as a claim.” John Chamberlain advised that Rand should not have tried “to rewrite the Sermon on the Mount.” Another reviewer found Atlas Shrugged “excruciatingly awful,” while ex-Communist whistle-blower Whittaker Chambers said, less dramatically: “I find it a remarkably silly book.”
Yet sell it did. While negotiating with Random House for the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Bennett Cerf tried to persuade the author to cut John Galt's bombastic 38-page speech. Her retort: “Would you cut the Bible?” Cerf capitulated.
Selfishness as Virtue
After the immense popularity of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned her attention to expressing her philosophy in a more forthright manner, such as in her 1961 book The Virtue of Selfishness. She was once asked if she could present the essence of her philosophy, which she called objectivism, while standing on one foot. She complied, identifying its metaphysics as objective reality, its epistemology as reason, its ethics as self-interest and its politics as capitalism.
What objectivism boils down to is an extraordinarily narrow way of thinking and living in which thought is restricted to reasoning about what I can perceive, and life is reduced to acquiring what I can have. Therefore, while faith is dismissed as baseless, altruism is rejected as unethical. God simply cannot exist. Love for neighbor cannot work. Objectivism is a euphemism for self-indulgence and greed, as is made only too clear by her popular aphorisms: “Wealth is the product of a man's capacity to think.” “Money is the barometer of a society's virtue.” “Altruism is the root of all evil.” “Civilization is the process toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free of men.”
Sociologist Peter Berger has said, “It is difficult to accord an important place to Ayn Rand either as a novelist or as a thinker.” Even Gore Vidal wrote: “Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read.” George Gilder decried the fact that Rand avoided the problem of the family — an institution that cannot possibly survive on the principle of isolated self-interest — by simply ignoring it altogether.
An Ideology for the Idea-less
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan may be a key in helping to understand the recent resurgence of interest in Rand's novels and her not-so-novel philosophy. In the midst of an economic boom, the prospect of becoming privately wealthy takes on a certain attractive possibility. Psychologist Paul Vitz stated back in 1977, when the market was slumping, that “millions of Americans are beginning to learn that it's very hard to actualize one's self at today's prices.” Self-psychology is connected to the stock market, which, in turn, is connected to Greenspan, the most illustrious of all Rand's disciples.
Interest in Rand is also sustained and intensified by the Objectivist Newsletter, The Ayn Rand Letter, books, documentaries, and movies about her life, a 1999 U.S. postage stamp bearing her image, and the Ayn Rand Institute which is the authoritative source on the Internet for her ideas. There, on the Internet, one can find the expected advocacy for abortion (“The embryo is clearly pre-human; only the mystical notions of religious dogma treat this clump of cells as constituting a person”), propaganda for assisted suicide (“rational self-interest”) and diatribes against the Pope (nothing is “more dangerous” than “faith” as a “guide to life”).
The legions of followers of Rand (Randians, and a special breed called Randroids, who believe in the truth of Ayn Rand and only Ayn Rand) is a phenomenon that may be at least partially explained in view of what Time magazine once said of Camille Paglia, who was a cult figure in 1992: “What began as a movement of eccentric individuals has turned into an ideology that attracts weak personalities.”
“My personal life,” wrote Rand in 1957, “is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books — and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters. The concreteness differs, the abstractions are the same.”
The concrete evidence, unfortunately, does not appear to support this claim. Rand tried to be a paper hero and the lightness of her imagination could not support the weight of her reality.
Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.