Ayn Rand: The Supremacy of Self
Thirty years after Ayn Rand's death, her popularity has reached new heights as political movements look to her books for inspiration. St. John Barned-Smith looks at a recent biography. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
Death often proves the bane of the self-constructed narratives of politicians and celebrities. It provides distance and, over time, a new spin on familiar stories. Posthumous biographies have done much to put in context John F. Kennedy’s Camelot and to flesh out the fable of Ben Franklin. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams transformed him from a lesser president into an illustrious founding father.
Now, the legend of Ayn Rand must withstand Jennifer Burns’s scrutiny in her new biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. During her life, Rand created a shrouded, larger-than-life myth about herself. She credited only Aristotle as an inspiration for her beliefs and insisted that her philosophy, Objectivism – which conceived of man “as a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute” – was a wholly original system. (Never mind that she read Nietzsche along with other philosophers and political theorists.)
Ayn Rand changed her name (Alisa Rosenbaum) and home. The novelist and philosopher had a flair for the dramatic: She wore a black cape fastened with a dollar-sign brooch. When fans didn’t agree completely with her, Rand developed her own group – a legion of fervent acolytes who claimed as their most basic and fundamental premise that Atlas Shrugged was the greatest book or idea ever conceived. To this day, many rightwingers and libertarians, including Rush Limbaugh, Leonard Peikoff, Dick Armey, Bob Barr and Dana Rohrabacher, cite her as an influence.
Rand prized consistency of thought above almost all else. She would strike at the arguments of her intellectual opponents, telling them, “Check your premises.” Yet Burns reveals her subject’s life to be “far more complex and contradictory than her public persona.”
Born in Russia just a decade before the Revolution, Rand watched firsthand the predations of government action in the name of vague ideals when the Red Guard seized her father’s store. In short order, she traveled to America, living with family in New York and Chicago, before arriving in Hollywood in the mid-1920s. After a series of career fits and starts, reading movie scripts and writing plays, she began her two iconic novels – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – using them to refine her theories on philosophy and politics.
Burns, who received unprecedented access to private papers and journals through the Ayn Rand Institute, follows Rand’s development as a playwright to political junkie to novelist to philosopher to cult icon, though one can’t help but feel a little sorry for her – Burns spent eight years wading through Rand’s effects to write Goddess. At times, her teasing apart the contradictions of her subject’s life and personality resembles the dispassionate dissection of a monster.
Take, for example, Rand’s relationship with her character Howard Roark, the pauper protagonist of The Fountainhead who succeeds against all odds because of his ideological purity. Unlike Roark, with whom the author seemed to identify, Rand received all the benefits of an upper middle-class education, mooched off her relatives to set herself up in the United States, and enjoyed the support of a veritable army of influential conservative and libertarian intellectuals and elites who championed her work. And where Roark was pure in his singleminded focus, readers learn of Rand’s unbalanced nature and chronic use of amphetamines.
Likewise, although Rand’s characters succeeded in the Objectivist worlds she created for them in Fountainhead and Atlas, in real life, her philosophy fell apart. When Objectivism failed to win widespread acclaim, Rand began holding Saturday meetings with her most zealous admirers. “The Collective” became Rand’s self-sustaining circle of adulation and reassurance. Rather than debating ideas honestly, “The Collective” took on a cult-like atmosphere, in which anyone who displeased Rand was tried in a kangaroo court before other guests. These purgings culminated most dramatically in her split with her decades-younger lover, Nathaniel Branden, after he fell in love with a younger woman.
“There seemed to be two Objectivisms: one that genuinely supported intellectual exchange, engagement, and one that was as dogmatic, narrow-minded, and stifling as Rand’s harshest critics alleged…” writes Burns. “For all their emphasis on reason, Rand … met intellectual disagreement with invective.”
In one instance, Rand devotee John Hospers (the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party) invited Rand to present a paper before the American Aesthetics Association at Harvard in 1962. According to Burns, after Rand’s presentation, Hospers offered a balanced criticism of her thoughts.
“By criticizing her in public Hospers had committed an unforgivable error,” writes Burns, noting that at the reception that followed, neither Rand nor her acolytes would acknowledge his presence. It’s a view of Rand as dictator, wildly insecure, a fascist presence who answered criticism from her equals not with the strength of her arguments but with vitriol. “The clash between her romantic and rational sides makes this not a tale of triumph,” writes Burns, “but a tragedy of sorts.”
If Rand had been able to overcome her inflexibility and admit the contradictions and nuances in her own life, she might have been the truly transformational force in American politics (however terrifying) her chattering acolytes claim she already is. Nevertheless, Rand has won something in this book. Even as Burns has deconstructed the legacy of a woman whose ruthless exterior hid turbulent debates that Americans now rage over today, she has illuminated Rand’s influence and the place she still holds in those struggles.
Click Here for More from Obit-Mag.com