As Astonishing as Elvis
- Ayn Rand by Jeff Britting
Duckworth, 155 pp, £12.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 7156 3269 8
If you try to find out about the legacy of Ayn Rand, your search engine will probably direct you first to aynrand.org, a website run by the Ayn Rand Institute in California. The ARI was founded in 1985, three years after Rand’s death, by Leonard Peikoff, her friend and heir. It runs a newsletter called Impact and, via the Objectivist Academic Center, undergraduate courses in the Randian world vision.
Objectivism was the name Rand gave to the system of philosophy she developed in a 30,000-word speech that took her two years to write and which forms the centrepiece of her bestselling novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957). It was later elaborated in speeches, lectures and interviews, in the six non-fiction books Rand published in her lifetime, and a further dozen-odd published after her death. Objectivism is also promulgated by the Objectivist Center in Washington DC, until recently run by David Kelley, the author of A Life of One’s Own: Individualism and the Welfare State. Kelley split from the ARI in 1990, ‘dismayed’ by ‘the exploding excesses’ of its ‘official, dogmatic approach’. The Center supports lectures and social events, a journal called the New Individualist (until recently the Navigator), a venture called the Atlas Society and an online Objectivism Store selling T-shirts, bags, hats, badges and inspirational posters such as Morality Made Visible, which features the Manhattan skyline, Twin Towers intact, with a quotation from The Fountainhead, Rand’s bestselling novel of 1943.
Rand is everywhere on the internet: stickers, coasters, car number plates, CDs featuring a Randian ‘Concerto of Deliverance’ at starshipaurora.com. Randians can meet ‘at least’ four thousand others, it is claimed, through the Objectivist dating agency at theatlasphere.com, which last January carried an ad for an Ayn Rand social evening at a New York City restaurant called Porter’s (the evening was to feature ‘gourmet hors d’oeuvres’ served by ‘uniformed strolling waiters’ and ‘an artistically decorated birthday cake’). Professional philosophers can join the Ayn Rand Society at aynrandsociety.org; people in easy reach of Denver can choose between FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group), FROST (Front Range Objectivist Supper Talks) and FROLIC (Front Range Objectivist Laughter Ideas and Chow). Names pop up from website to website, agreeing and disagreeing, welcoming and banning, calling for papers, publishing books. There’s a whole community of Objectivists out there, with its own structure and hierarchy, controversies and disputes, outcasts, fellow-travellers, stars. A peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, was founded in 1999, and continues to run out of New York University; a paper by Slavoj Žižek is among past highlights. In 2001, the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Research established a $300,000 fellowship in the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin. Austin’s current Anthem fellow is the author of, among other things, a paper called ‘Money Can Buy Happiness’. Fellowships have also been established at the University of Pittsburgh and Ashland University in Ohio.
In the US, there’s a 2005 centenary edition of Atlas Shrugged, a 35th-anniversary edition, a school-bound edition, a library-bound edition, but here in Britain, the most recent edition is a mass market paperback published by Signet in 1997. It has the shirking old Titan on the front cover, in a horrible Deco-ish rendition, and Rand herself on the back, cow-eyed and alabaster-browed. The actual text is 1079 tiny-printed pages long.
‘Who is John Galt?’ the novel begins: the question is rhetorical, an expression of despair. The setting is, loosely, America in the 1940s – Washington, Wisconsin, Mexico are mentioned, as are diners, bums, hamburgers, negligees – but film-set-thin and vague and flat. Everything is running down: typewriters break and no one can fix them, mines and smelters lie idle, and out West, in an image experienced as the ultimate horror, a farmer is spotted using a plough. Men of talent, composers, industrialists, financiers, one by one destroy their businesses and disappear. Faceless governments pass progressively more anti-business legislation: the Equalisation of Opportunity Bill; the Anti-Dog Eat Dog Rule.
Across this blasted landscape strides the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body ‘slim and nervous’, her planes ‘angular’, her instep ‘arched’ – her only desire to get the trains of Taggart Transcontinental to run on time. In this, Dagny believes John Galt to be her enemy, and she goes on believing this for many hundreds of pages. But Galt is in fact a great scientist and inventor, the greatest the world has ever known: disgusted by its values, he has retreated into a perfect society, deep in the Rocky Mountains, from where he and his collaborators plan a global strike of all great minds. The story ends with Dagny and Galt standing on a mountain-top, their hair blowing and blending together; Galt traces the holy sign of the dollar over the desolate earth.
The conclusion to the novel does not mark the end of the book, however. It is followed, first, by Rand’s own About the Author sketch. ‘My personal life,’ she says, ‘is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: “And I mean it.”’ She concedes that she was born in Europe, and says she came to America because she agreed with its ‘moral premises’. Her only philosophical debt is to Aristotle; her only other acknowledgment is to the ‘values of character’ she finds in her husband, Frank. Then come ten pages of information about Objectivism, with bibliographies and a full-page advertisement –
FIND or start a campus club near you
ENTER essay contests on Ayn Rand’s novels
– and an inside-back-page ad for yet another book. There are more ads and another intro at the front; then in the middle, like one of those rogue outer skins you sometimes find halfway through an onion, a US postage-paid cardboard insert for the reader to tear out and send back to the ARI. These little cards have appeared in most of Rand’s books since the 1960s. ‘As an advocate of reason, egoism and capitalism, I seek to reach the men of intellect everywhere,’ she wrote on the original insert to For the New Intellectual, the first anthology of Objectivist writings, published in 1961. ‘Do you want to fight today’s cultural and political trend?’
The basic principles of Objectivism, as enumerated at the back of Atlas Shrugged, are:
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
Apparently, Rand originally gave these answers while standing on one leg, having been challenged to do so. The relationship with reality, the universe, whatever, is cribbed from Aristotle, and isn’t very interesting. The ethics and politics, on the other hand, are bizarre. Conservative, the Americans call them, except that there are respects in which they aren’t; ‘right-wing’ would be more accurate, except that it sounds so relative and mealy-mouthed. ‘Rational selfishness’ was a phrase Rand used. ‘Egotism’ and ‘egoism’ – not a native speaker of English, for a long time she didn’t know the difference – were others. The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) is a key text in the Objectivist canon. So is 1966’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in St Petersburg, in February 1905. Her father was a well-to-do pharmacist until the Bolsheviks seized control of his business in October 1917. The family fled to the Crimea, returning to Petrograd, frightened and impoverished, in 1921. Alisa studied history and philosophy at the state university, then, briefly, screenwriting at the new state film school in Moscow. ‘Amidst the increasingly grey life, her one great pleasure was Western films and plays,’ according to the official biography at the back of Atlas Shrugged.
In 1926, Rand obtained a visa to visit family in Chicago; one of her first acts on arrival was to change her name to the rootless, implausible, glamorous-sounding Ayn Rand. (There’s a theory that she named herself after her typewriter, but it seems to be baseless.)
After a short stay in Chicago, she borrowed $100 and lit out for Hollywood, where she rented a room at the YWCA and looked for a job. On her way out from an unsuccessful interview, she ran into Cecil B. DeMille, who got her work as an extra in his current production. On the set she met a handsome jobbing actor called Frank O’ Connor, whom she would marry in 1929. Ayn and Frank – Fluff and Cubby-Hole, they called each other – stayed together until Frank’s death fifty years later; Frank never really held down a job again. In the 1940s, when the O’Connors lived in a fabulous glass-and-steel ranch-house in the San Fernando Valley, he grew flowers and alfalfa. Later, when they had moved to New York City, he painted a little, and increasingly turned to drink.
In 1932 Rand sold a screenplay, ‘Red Pawn’, to Universal. Von Sternberg later considered it for Dietrich, but Russian scenarios were out of favour and it was ditched. A Broadway play, Night of January 16th, followed, and in 1936, her first novel, the slushy, stridently anti-Soviet We the Living. It did not do well, and a second novel, Anthem, remained unpublished in the US until 1946. She struggled to find a publisher for her third novel, The Fountainhead, and the book was nearly dumped from the schedules owing to wartime paper shortages. When it appeared, in 1943, like all her books it received almost unanimously terrible reviews, but then it picked up a readership by word of mouth, and became a bestseller. Much the same thing happened on a bigger scale, 13 years later, with Atlas Shrugged.
The Fountainhead concerns an idealistic young architect called Howard Roark, a strict Modernist (although Rand does not use the word) for whom any structurally unnecessary ornament anywhere on a building is, as Adolf Loos once had it, a crime. (People often say Roark was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, but there are no significant similarities. Rand and Wright did meet, though: she visited Taliesin and commissioned designs for a house, never to be built.) The thesis is an extreme version of the Modernist morality-and-architecture trope, that, as Roark puts it, ‘a house can have integrity, just like a person.’ The novel contains a great many articulations of this position, as well as much soaring writing about great tower blocks: all naked frames and glass and masonry and ‘long streaks slashed through space’.
Against Roark are pitched a great many mediocrities, milquetoasts and ‘second-handers’, as well as what Rand saw as the ‘cultural and political trend’ of the early 1940s, ‘collectivism … the ancient monster … broken loose and … running amuck … in an orgy of self-sacrificing’. Keynote enemies include Gail Wynand, a newspaper mogul who likes to buy up writers and corrupt them; Peter Keating, a charming rival damned by too-easy success; Ellis Toohey, an indescribably evil left-wing journalist and intellectual, based, it is said, on Harold Laski and Lewis Mumford. Another antagonist is Dominique Francon, the beautiful, rich, super-intelligent heiress who loves him, and thus, for reasons too baroque to go into, spends hundreds of pages marrying his enemies and doing all she can to destroy him. The tale culminates when Roark blows up a social housing project because its execution messes with his drawings, and then gives an eight-page courtroom speech explaining his actions. ‘The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself,’ he says. ‘I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man’s creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavour. Those of you who do not understand this are destroying the world.’
So The Fountainhead is trash, but trash of the most bewitchingly odd lines and angles. Concrete and steel, housing projects and department stores, left-wing intellectuals and Irish construction workers, Citizen Kane-like newspaper headlines – all these are forced between the blades of a gigantic shredder, flying out kaleidoscopically in odd new configurations. Characters move in and out of each other’s airspace, ranting and declaiming. It’s a mad and maddening farrago of sex and Modernism; it’s like Tamara de Lempicka’s compellingly horrible Art Deco paintings, but because it’s done in words, not brushstrokes, it leaves you with a feeling that it must somehow be amenable to sense.
The Fountainhead was made into a Hollywood movie in 1949, with King Vidor directing, Gary Cooper as Roark (Rand was delighted: Cooper was famously right-wing) and Patricia Neal as Dominique. Jonathan Romney, reviewing a 1998 re-release, admired the ‘monumentalist oppressiveness’ of the art direction, then remarked on how strange it was to see the noble Gary Cooper professing not the usual love-of-the-little-fellow tosh, but the joys of the untrammelled ego: the film, Romney said, is ‘unique in classic Hollywood cinema in demanding that its audience accept terms of reference completely alien to the conventional codes’. The combination of sex, melodrama and architecture too is utterly un-Hollywood: it’s European, and not necessarily in a good way. Romney suggests the film could easily have been called ‘Triumph of the Will’.
It took Rand 14 years to write Atlas Shrugged, and she did not find the process easy, but then she seems to have been overtaken with what Martin Amis (apropos of Brideshead Revisited) has called the ‘great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and … deep conviction’ one needs in order to construct ‘the really good bad book’. The achievement left her exhausted, creatively beached. In John Galt she had at last articulated the ideal man; in Galt’s revolution, Galt’s great speech, she had at last had her vision. Something else was going on in the ideal man department too. As well as being a happily married woman, Rand was unhappily in love.
Nathan Blumenthal was a 19-year-old psychology student at UCLA when he and his philosophy student friend Barbara Weidman started to visit the O’Connors in 1950: both had read The Fountainhead at high school, and both were besotted by it. Quickly, very quickly, these star-struck, good-looking youngsters became Rand’s best friends, surrogate children, protégés and heirs. In 1953, Nathan and Barbara married; in 1954, Nathan changed his name to Nathaniel Branden. Early in 1955, according to The Passion of Ayn Rand, the biography that Barbara Branden would later go on to write, Nathaniel and Rand started an affair, with Barbara and Frank’s consent. ‘Man will always be attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself,’ as Rand herself had put it, ‘whose surrender permits him to experience … a sense of self-esteem.’ In 1958, the year after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, the Nathaniel Branden Institute launched the first module of Objectivist studies, with lectures by Nathaniel and Barbara. Rand was 53, Branden was 27.
Rand had first got involved with organised politics during the presidential election of 1940, when she campaigned hard for the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, against Roosevelt. The campaign left her with a taste for influence, and with the great success of Atlas Shrugged and the founding of the NBI, she at last had her platform. There was now a group of friends and admirers around Rand and Branden, among them Rand’s eventual heir, Leonard Peikoff, and a young clarinet-playing economist called Alan Greenspan. The NBI started out giving lecture courses in hired hotel rooms, but by 1963, according to Barbara Branden, NBI classes were being offered in 54 US cities; two years later the number had risen to 80, and there were plans to take the institute to GIs in Vietnam. In 1967 it moved into swanky offices in the Empire State Building, with a large auditorium and its own production department.
Rand herself, in the meantime, was enjoying her heyday as a celebrity speaker. She gave talks at Yale, Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins. She wrote a column in the LA Times until the launch of her own paper, the Objectivist, in 1966; Alvin Toffler interviewed her, at enormous length, for Playboy; three times in 1967 and 1968 she appeared on the Johnny Carson Show. She wore a ‘flowing black cape, her dress ornamented with a gold dollar sign’ (the dollar was ‘the colophon of the philosophy’, she said), and puffed on a cigarette in a long holder. ‘What are your premises?’ she would bark at challengers; to Rand, ‘bad premises’ were the root cause of all trouble in the world. Sometimes, she wore a mink coat to deliver her speeches, paid for with compensation received from the Italian wartime government (the Fascisti had liked We the Living so much they had filmed it, without Rand’s say-so).
In theory, the NBI and Rand were separate. But in practice, they were bound and tangled together by politics, by friendship, by loans of money and equipment, and by the secret sex. For its inner circle, Objectivism in its early days was a university, a political movement, a religion, a social life. There were dinner-dances, a film club, baseball matches, an art-historical tour of Europe.
Branden began practising as a psychotherapist, and offered free sessions of ‘Objectivist therapy’ to NBI volunteers. According to Jeff Walker, the author of a book called The Ayn Rand Cult (1998), Barbara Branden – herself in therapy with her husband – remembered the experience as a ‘moral flaying’. ‘On everything, absolutely everything, one was constantly being judged … It was a perfect breeding ground for insecurity, fear and paranoia,’ another former Objectivist said. Silly, vulnerable young people were humiliated for having ‘erroneous premises’, for showing signs of ‘social metaphysics’, for giving in to the ‘ethics of altruism’.
In 1958, according to Barbara Branden, Rand became depressed by Atlas Shrugged’s critical reception and broke off the sexual side of her relationship with Nathaniel. By 1964, when she was ready to resume it, he was secretly seeing someone else. According to Barbara Branden, Rand tended to idealise the people around her. ‘Once she was asked whether heroic characters such as she wrote of could really exist; in reply, she pointed to herself, then Frank, then Barbara and Nathan.’ Her idealisation of Branden was extreme. She allowed him to answer letters for her and declared at a meeting that he had ‘a blank cheque to speak for her in all matters’.
Many years later, writing (with some irony) in his memoirs, Nathaniel Branden characterised the credo of the NBI thus: ‘Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man’s life on earth.’ And, because Branden was designated her ‘intellectual heir’, he was to be accorded ‘only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself’. But when he finally confessed in 1968 that he was in love with a young NBI student called Patrecia and no longer wanted to sleep with his mentor, he was immediately anathematised, his books banned, his contributions to audiotapes dubbed over.
Branden went on to become a successful psychologist, psychoanalyst and psychological consultant; his extensive stall can be browsed at nathanielbranden.net. He is the author of, among other books, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969), The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (1994), Self-Esteem Every Day (1998), Self-Esteem at Work (1998), A Woman’s Self-Esteem (1998) and My Years with Ayn Rand (1999). He and Barbara separated in 1965 and subsequently divorced. She continues to market The Principles of Efficient Thinking, an audiocassette course originally developed for the NBI, and in 1986 published her self-exculpatory and sentimental but nonetheless useful biography-cum-memoir. Details of these can be found on barbarabranden.com.
In the early 1970s Rand’s health began to give way. An enthusiastic smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. For Rand, smoking was a Promethean symbol of creativity, inventiveness, profit-making, all she most admired: ‘When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,’ one of the goodies explains in Atlas Shrugged. She could not understand why she had cancer, Barbara Branden reports, because she had no ‘bad premises’; her illness was kept secret from all but her closest friends. Frank, meanwhile, was beginning to show signs of dementia, and died in 1979. Rand followed three years later. A six-foot-high floral dollar sign was erected by her open coffin in the funeral home.
The great thing about Objectivism, according to its fans, is that it offers ‘a moral defence of capitalism’. Objectivism proves that capitalism is good and necessary, and more, a moral inspiration. It does away with the need for nationalism, war, religious fundamentalism. It does away, too, with bourgeois sentimentality, that tiresome mime-act of having to pretend that one cares deeply about the little people. It’s a third way for conservatism, essentially, an alternative and infinitely renewable source of moral energy, and it comes from greed. Greed is not merely good, as Gordon Gecko had it; greed is not merely a matter for Nigel-and-Nigella runny honey on goat’s cheese. Greed is a huge force, savage and glorious and demiurgic. Greed is the very motor of the world.
Objectivism is at least modern, with no harking back to thatched cottages or yeoman militias; and it does claim a horror of political violence, and nationalism and racism, the last denounced as ‘collectivism of the very lowest sort’. You can see, in a way, how it might offer a sense of life’s grandeur, coupled with a thrilling disdain for guilt, duty, service and so on. One can just about see how such ideas might have struck small-town 1950s teenagers – as astonishing as Elvis, in their way.
But really, storytelling was Rand’s talent, and it is in her novels that her vision takes its truest shape. In Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, power, greed, life’s grandeur flow hot and red in thrilling descriptions of urban and industrial landscapes, all ‘girders, cranes and trusses’ and ‘glowing cylinders’ and ‘fountains of sparks’ and ‘black coils of steam’. She’s good at sublimes, in other words, physical and elemental, the awe and terror as great as in any Romantic view of rocks and hills. But Rand is not interested in natural beauty, or even in the industrialised and modern sort of sublimity Marshall Berman found in Marx. It’s overpowering that really excites her, depredation and destruction and nature being despoiled.
Power, greed, grandeur, beautiful, insatiable people: all this can lead to only one thing. And the sex in Rand’s novels is extraordinarily violent and fetishistic. In The Fountainhead, the first coupling of the heroes, heralded by whips and rock drills and horseback riding and cracks in marble, is ‘an act of scorn … not as love, but as defilement’ – in other words, a rape. (‘The act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.’ In Atlas Shrugged, erotic tension is cleverly increased by having one heroine bound into a plot with lots of spectacularly cruel and handsome men.)
Nasty sex and scenes of wanton cruelty and destruction are not unusual in novels and movies. But Rand’s nastiness has an earnestness to it, a desire to transform naughty frisson into iron principle. And as for sex, so for politics. Popular stories of the 1940s and 1950s are full of people being rapacious and unkind, but for Rand, noir has to become a system of world history. Her ethics are doggedly, insistently supremacist, the line between sheep and goats cut in black marker pen. You’re either a producer or a looter, on the side of ‘greatness’, ‘the individual will’ and so on, or one of the ‘parasites’, the ‘mediocrity’, the ‘second-handers’ who feed off their energy; all the heroes are gaunt, angular, square-jawed, all the looters the opposite. Good guys recognise other good guys immediately: the novels are full of heart-warming chats between a hero and a noble tramp or plumber. Bad guys stammer, and bluster, and let their weak chins wobble as their dull eyes look down at the floor.
‘From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding – To the gas chambers, go!’ Whittaker Chambers wrote in a notorious 1957 review. It was a crude thing to say, but you can see why he said it. The careening bipolar lurches in both novels grow more extreme as they go on – words such as ‘lice’ and ‘maggots’ are used, and there are moments of horrible abjection. Long after their endings have faded, the novels leave the reader trying to shake off their after-images, sometimes comic, sometimes not: the Objectivist tea party, with all the heroes grabbing at the sandwiches; the world’s poor and weak and hungry, in rags on marble steps.
In recent years, the ARI has revived Rand’s practice, pursued through her newsletters and her non-fiction books, of applying supposedly Objectivist principles to big issues in order to produce off-the-peg op-ed articles: ‘The Racism of “Diversity”’; ‘The False Equation of Secularism with Political Correctness’; ‘Israel Has a Moral Right to Its Life’; ‘Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial’. The claim is to reason, rationality, modernity, laissez-faire; there is the repeated dull thud of knee-jerk contrarianism. As is often the case in avowedly non-racist right-wing organisations, the folly of liberal anti-racist policies seems to be pursued more vigorously than racism itself. ‘Fight the Root of Terrorism with Bombs, not Bread’, in its June 2005 version, is a lightly updated reworking of an op-ed previously offered in 2002, under the same title, and is indicative of a general enthusiasm for militarism and war. Environmentalism is attacked frequently, ostensibly because it gets in the way of industry and wealth creation, but also, surely, because it’s a good way to upset the bien-pensants.
No such thing as a proper biography of Ayn Rand exists. Most books about her are written by people with all-too-personal investments. Jeff Britting is not only the producer of a documentary film called Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997), he’s also the ARI’s archivist. Before Britting, the most widely available biography was Barbara Branden’s, which was based on long tape-recorded interviews with Rand herself, but it is not mentioned in Britting’s bibliography. Rand’s affair and subsequent split with Nathaniel is given only eight non-committal lines. No hint is offered that there might ever have been any cultishness or controversy around the NBI.
Britting’s book presents Rand’s life as Rand would have liked, with the heroine as prodigy and changeling, sprung on the world with the basic structure of her thought intact. Unsurprisingly – given her brilliance – Britting reports that Alisa ‘didn’t like being attached to a family’; school too was ‘a disappointment’, and she quickly developed what she would later call a ‘contempt’ for other children (apart from a reported friendship with a sister of Vladimir Nabokov, on which much research by Randians has been done).
There were two great positives in Rand’s early life, according to Branden and Britting. There was the Manhattan skyline, and America in general, as seen in the movies. And there was Cyrus Paltons, the hero of a French strip cartoon, with whom she fell in love at the age of eight and who, Britting reports, ‘crystallised Rand’s vision of her male ideal’; when she first met her future husband, his resemblance to Cyrus was ‘striking’. ‘She was fully aware,’ Branden writes, that ‘the motor moving her in devising her stories was above all, the vision of the heroic she had found in Cyrus.’ Cyrus was joined, for a time, by Alexander Kerensky, with whose image the teenage Alisa plastered her bedroom walls. ‘I decided that I could never be in love with an ordinary man. I said to Mother, I’m in love with Kerensky.’ (She eventually met the exiled premier at a New York cocktail party in the 1940s. ‘He was a real mediocrity,’ she said.)
Like Chernyshevsky, like Bakunin, Rand picked up from her Russian education a utopian faith in the power of ideas, and a fascination with the figure of the new, the ideal, man. Like Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer, she was an émigré who brought her own version of the American dream to the new country. Like Simone de Beauvoir or Susan Sontag, she would become famous not for particular books, but for herself in general, as a cipher, a public intellectual. Someone has perhaps already designed the wallpaper on their computer, a repeating pattern of potato-prints: turban, Mallen streak, dollar rampant. With the one thing they really had in common, printed in black in between: the sign of the curling cigarette.
Making that great journey from Leningrad to Hollywood, Rand packaged her fantasies as screenplays; she lived them too, marrying her own tame matinee idol, living in her own glamorous glass-and-steel house. Then she made a further journey, from Hollywood to Manhattan, repackaging the same old dreams into ever newer media, almost as they emerged: the blockbuster novel, the self-improving correspondence course, psychotherapy, self-esteem studies, self-help.
Post-Rand, Objectivism has become more secular and suburban, but as is the way with suburbs, also more widespread. If nothing else, Objectivism might inject romance, victimhood, entertainingly bohemian personal chaos, into the otherwise uneventful right-wing life – a bit of the glamour and moral high ground those left-wing students used to hog at university, with their rebel songs, Che T-shirts, tangled love lives and dirty hair. Websites are scattered with examples of the Objectivist sense of humour: ‘We’re not aiming to make a profit,’ one venture quips. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that!’ And Objectivism makes so much more sense on the internet, with its instant institutions, its serried linkings, its prodigious appetite for information, its appalling ability to absorb an infinity of blogs.
‘There is a fundamental conviction,’ Rand wrote,
which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth and a few hold to the end of their days – the conviction that ideas matter. In one’s youth that conviction is experienced as a self-evident absolute, and one is unable fully to believe that there are people who do not share it. That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.
Its consequence is the inability to believe in the power of the triumph of evil. No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: ‘This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.’ One feels certain that somewhere on earth – even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach – a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters … And if justice matters, then one fights for it: one speaks out – in the unnamed certainty that someone, somewhere will understand.
Slavoj Žižek sees Rand as one in a line of ‘over-conformist authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it’. Rand’s mad adoration of capitalism ‘without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare etc, sugar-coating’, he argues, actually serves only to make the inherent ridiculousness of capitalism ever more plain.
But it’s not just capitalism that Rand makes ridiculous by her worship. It’s also the mystique of Modernism, the idea that ‘good’ taste in aesthetic matters equates, somehow, with ‘good’ morals. And it’s also intellectuals and intellectualism. Especially that model of intellectualism that goes with bohemianism and free love and swirling garments, and cigarettes and cigarette-holders, and making much of one’s personal freedom, and having a position on everything, because that’s what being an intellectual is all about.
‘Those who have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged,’ the Ayn Rand Institute’s website reads, ‘know that the sunlit universe Ayn Rand depicts in her novels is unlike the world they see around them. How can one achieve the clarity of vision and joyous existence that her fictional heroes achieve?’ Rational selfishness and self-reliance, Modernist architecture, a duty to one’s own happiness; chain-smoking; wife-swapping and Rand’s favourite TV series, Charlie’s Angels. You might think that the word ‘fictional’ is a giveaway. Well, it doesn’t seem so to the adherents of the ARI.
‘One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule. One feels certain that somewhere on earth … a proper human way of life is possible to human beings.”’ Thus the voice of utopian idealism, heard most often, during the last century, from the left. But hearing it in Rand’s accent may cause us to apprehend in it a different note: the nag nag nagging of a life lived and squandered in fantasy, never to be satisfied by any happiness on this earth.