October 18, 2007

The 50th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is being celebrated by her partisans, and they are many – myself among them. Rand’s novel of what happens when “the men of the mind” go on strike is the second most widely-read text in the US, just below the Bible. To the dismay of her more enthusiastic admirers, this popularity doesn’t indicate total agreement with her “Objectivist” philosophy so much as it is a tribute to the author’s talent for telling a rip-roaring fasten-your-seatbelts story.


Atlas Shrugged is full of so many plot twists and turns, and some really cinematic scenes, that it’s hard to put down: when I read it, at the age of 15 or so, I took off three days from school to lay prone on my bed poring over a $1 paperback edition – wow, I thought, a whole dollar for a paperback: more than double the usual price! The thing was printed in 6-point Eyestrain. I had put off reading it for months, on the grounds that nothing – nothing! – could surpass The Fountainhead, Rand’s 1943 bestseller that told the story of an architect who wanted to build buildings his way. I had also read her earlier works, We the Living – her first novel, a re-telling of Tosca, with some Randian variations, set against the backdrop of Soviet Russia – and Anthem, a novelette set in a future society where the word “I” has been forgotten (along with modern science).


The Fountainhead is novel of gemlike workmanship: Rand really was a dramatist of the first order. The elements of the plot are so deftly integrated into the theme – the primacy of individualism and the evils of the “second-hander,” who exists merely as a reflection in the eyes of others—that the reader barely notices (consciously) what she’s driving at, until the hero’s stirring courtroom speech. What, in lesser hands, could easily have degenerated into an ideological tirade, instead became one of the classics of American literature.


A Russian immigrant, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, she had wrangled an invitation out of relatives in Chicago, and was among the last of those allowed to leave the Soviet hellhole: she got out just in time, as it is unlikely she would have survived the Stalinist purges. In Russia, she had dreamed of one day entering the world depicted in Western movies, and wrote outlines for screenplays, short stories, and novels set in the West. The young Rand lived out her dream of freedom and fame from the very first moment she caught sight of the Statue of Liberty: as her ship sailed into New York harbor, she gazed worshipfully at the soaring skyscrapers of the greatest city on earth and vowed, then and there, that someday she would pen a tribute to those spires and the spirit that built them.


The Fountainhead came almost two decades later: in the meantime, the woman whose name was to become synonymous with individualism as a social and ethical philosophy had to fight her way through what later came to be known as the “Red Decade,” as Eugene Lyons put it in his book on the fashionable “radicalism” of the 1930s. As I pointed out in my TTD essay on Lawrence Dennis, this was a time when the issue wasn’t “Capitalism versus Socialism,” but, rather, what form of socialism would displace a decrepit, discredited, and doomed system based on private ownership.


In this atmosphere, Rand – who had gone to Hollywood, written screen treatments for Cecil B. DeMille, married an actor, Frank O’Connor, and published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936—banded together with the very few intellectual advocates of individualism, and free market economics: the movement we know today as the Old Right. Her latter-day followers like to pretend that she sprang forth, unprecedented, like Minerva from the head of Zeus, but in the beginning she considered herself part of a “movement,” and in her letters dealing with political matters, she offhandedly refers to “our cause.”


This was the cause of the Old Right, where she found kindred spirits such as Isabel Paterson, the literary critic and novelist, with whom she shared more than just what were then considered eccentric political views: both of these rather formidable ladies were cantankerous, and quarrelsome, to a fault, and it was inevitable that they would eventually have a falling out.


Rand’s extraordinary touchiness, coupled with a blazing certainty, is exhibited in her letters, which detail her effort to start a mass membership organization opposing the New Deal and advocating laissez-faire capitalism. Her hectoring missives to would-be supporters are brimming over with details, with lectures from her on everything from the precise intellectual arguments to be made by the group’s spokesmen down to the organizational details:


“Here is the outline of the Organization Plan, which we discussed. … You will notice the precautions which I mention to keep the organization from being kidnapped by the wrong element, in particular the absence of general elections. This is most essential – or the whole thing will be snatched right from under our feet as soon as it shows signs of succeeding.”


None of this “democracy” business for her! The Randian version of the Politboro would lay down the Correct Line – a pattern that was resurrected in the cult-like movement she would spawn years later, whose top leadership was dubbed “the Collective” – an in-joke that eventually took on a sinister meaning. But that was years in the future: Rand the artist was yet to morph into Rand the ranting ideologue.


During this whole time, in which she was struggling to gain recognition as a writer, as well as to preserve the liberty of her adopted country against the depredations of the FDR-socialist –commie grand alliance, she was writing The Fountainhead. She took off to write a few plays, one of which, Penthouse Legend, also known as Night of January 16th, was a success. It is another, almost Nietzschean paean to individualism in the form of a courtroom drama, in which the audience decides the verdict. The hero is based on Ivar Krueger, the Swedish “Match King,” whose career was said to be a parable about the evils of capitalism: Rand, creating a character based loosely on Kruegar, made him into a hero. It was her characteristic talent to make the unlikely seem nearly inevitable.


The success of The Fountainhead gave her the financial freedom she had never enjoyed: she bought a house designed by Richard Neutra, which looked as if it had been built by the hero of The Fountainhead, and started planning her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. A movie version of The Fountainhead was made, directed by King Vidor, with great sets and starring a slightly-over-the-hill Gary Cooper and his then-paramour, Patricia Neal, reappearing on the bestseller list years after its initial publication. (By the way, a movie was also made out of We the Living, during the war, in Fascist Italy: and if you want to see Rand’s dramatic gifts unleashed – they shot the movie, sans a script, directly from the book itself – then get yourself a copy.)


After The Fountainhead was published, in 1943, Rand received a long fan letter from a young admirer, and she replied: the exchange soon turned into a regular correspondence, and eventually Nathaniel Blumenthal, a nineteen-year-old Canadian student, met Rand, and, along with his girlfriend, Barbara, the trio became inseparable. Withdrawing from her contacts on the Old Right, such as Paterson, Leonard Read, California entrepreneur William C. Mullendore, and dropping her political activities, she withdrew into her limited social circle, which consisted largely of the Brandens – the couple had wed, and Nathaniel had changed his name to Branden – and what Rand later called “the class of ’43,” consisting mainly of the Brandens and their relatives. .


Much has been written about the affair between Branden and Rand, which is the main subject of the movie version of Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand – a film that often seems like a Dadaist porno flick, with numerous and quite steamy sex scenes interspersed with “philosophical” mini-speeches and melodrama. Yet the reduction of Rand’s life and fame to this “illicit” liaison – virtually every biographical account over-emphasizes the importance of this incident – is typical of the culture Rand came to despise: that is, typical of American culture, which seems more and more obsessed by sex, the more illicit the better.


Branden, however, was trouble in another sense: he was not only her lover, but also the champion of her new philosophy, which – in a marketing decision of unsurpassed tone-deafness – she called “Objectivism.” The basic precepts of the Randian ethos are encapsulated in a speech by one of the characters in Atlas Shrugged that goes on for some fifty pages. From this, one would perhaps judge the book a failure, a case in which didacticism finally overwhelmed Rand’s sense of the dramatic, and yet it isn’t so: she managed to pull it off. Atlas is full of Rand’s strong suit: a hefty plot-line and colorful characters. While much is made of the alleged “unrealistic” and even “impossible” nature of her heroes and heroines, most of the cast of Atlas is quite believable: Francisco D’Anconia, the playboy industrialist, Dagny Taggart, the leggy head of the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, Hank Rearden, the dutiful husband and brilliant businessman, whose virtues go unappreciated by his family: only John Galt, supposedly the main character, who doesn’t appear until well after halfway through the novel, is not fully realized. Howard Roark, the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, was a bit austere, yet believable: and Dominique Francon is certainly one of the more memorably glamorous females in the fictional pantheon of American literature.


Better yet, however, at least in my estimation, are the villains: Ellsworth Toohey, the archetypal power-mad manipulator-of-men, whose methods and motives seem very neoconnish before the term “neocon” was even invented; James Taggart, brother of Dagny, the sort of businessman who always rises to the top in a quasi-socialist economy, i.e. the sort with big political connections and a “social conscience” – and who can forget Lois Cook, the avant-garde novelist who lived in a house with tiled walls and whose stream-of-consciousness novel, Clouds and Shrouds, was the sort of “poetry” that neither rhymed nor scanned? Lorine Pruette of the New York Times said of The Fountainhead that Rand could write “beautifully, bitterly,” and certainly she is at her bitterest when detailing her villains, instantly recognizable as types yet three-dimensional and uniquely Randian.


Rand’s friendship with the Brandens led to all sorts of trouble, and not just of the romantic variety: for Branden and his wife, Barbara, saw in their mentor not only an intellectual inspiration, but a meal ticket. The organization they set up, initially called Nathaniel Branden Lectures, and then the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), devoted to spreading her philosophy, was fantastically successful. Although the reviewers had not been kind to Atlas Shrugged, the book became an immediate best-seller, and it remains so to this day: while the liberal-left reviewers (and the boys over at National Review) were tearing their hair out over her popularity, Rand’s philosophy of self-interest, reason, and “self-esteem” was enormously popular with precisely the sort of middlebrow Americans who didn’t listen to the gate-keepers in the first place. Soon NBI had lecture courses in every major American city, and started expanding internationally. The Randian leadership “collective” – as the “class of ’43,” expanded beyond its original small numbers, jokingly called itself – was expanding like the Borg, but it was only a matter of time before the whole enterprise blew up ….


The worm at the center of the apple was Branden’s ongoing affair with Rand, and when that came to an end – when the age difference between the two lovers, some 26 years, became too much for Branden to bear – so did the “Objectivist” empire. Rand discovered that her erstwhile lover was being unfaithful – not with his wife (the two had long since officially separated), but with a 20-something woman on the outer rungs of the Randian “collective” – and that was the spark that set off a conflagration that is, incredibly, still burning after all these years.


Rand denounced the Brandens, excommunicated them from the “collective,” shut down NBI, and surrounded herself with the sort of devotees who never question and never contradict: and yet her inner circle of followers kept getting smaller, as purge followed purge, and someone was cast into the outer darkness for their sins (either real, or imagined), even while her readership increased. Eventually, she shut down her magazine, The Objectivist, and began issuing an irregular newsletter The Ayn Rand Letter, which also succumbed to her growing disinterest in the world outside her apartment. The death of her husband added to her depression, and, when she died, of lung cancer, she left her estate to the last of her remaining disciples: Leonard Peikoff, Barbara Branden’s cousin, who started out as the low man on “the collective” totem pole and wound up with everything by managing to be the most servile of her courtiers.


Although Rand fought any attempt to market her philosphy via an official “school,” or lecture course, after the break with the Brandens, Peikoff set up the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) after her death, and created an exceeding weird cult that just gets weirder as time goes on. Peikoff presides over the group as a kind of éminence grise, with an Israeli, Yaron Brook, as the new man in charge. Born and raised in Israel, Brook was an officer in Israeli military intelligence, and came to the U.S. to teach at Santa Clara University, where he started an equity management firm and became involved in the “Objectivist” movement.


Whereas the defense and valorization of Israel had been a preoccupation of the Peikoff regime – an entire page of the group’s web site was devoted to the topic “In Moral Defense of Israel” – Brook took this to new heights … or, perhaps, depths is a more descriptive word. In any case, Brook’s application of the principles of “Objectivism” to the foreign policy and military realms is unique in the annals of individualist thought: that is, uniquely bloodthirsty. According to Brook, America must devote itself to a totalistic war against Islam, and all Islamic countries everywhere. He was way ahead of his time in advocating an attack on Iran, and complains that we are “holding back” in Iraq because we (supposedly) have too much regard for the lives of innocents. According to Brook, there are no Arab or Muslim innocents: they all have to be killed if they get in the way of our total “victory.” The “Objectivists” throw away the old Randian formula of non-coercive relations between human beings, which holds that force may be used “only in self-defense,” and only “against those who initiate its use.” Here is the new “Objectivist” dispensation as enunciated by Senor Brook:


“What specific military actions would have been required post-9/11 to end state support of Islamic Totalitarianism is a question for specialists in military strategy, but even a cursory look at history can tell us one thing for sure: It would have required the willingness to take devastating military action against enemy regimes—to oust their leaders and prominent supporters, to make examples of certain regimes or cities in order to win the surrender of others, and to inflict suffering on complicit civilian populations, who enable terrorist-supporting regimes to remain in power.”


According to the “Objectivists” of today, every citizen of a totalitarian or otherwise un-free enemy state is “complicit” in their own subjugation and the depredations of their rulers because they haven’t overthrown the regime. And even if they had so acted, albeit without success, the “self-interest” of the West would dictate their annihilation. Here is what one such theoretician of mass murder, Onkar Ghate, has to say:


“Morally, the responsibility of the U.S. government is to destroy our aggressors and minimize U.S. casualties. If our military decides that in this war, as in WWII, it needs nuclear weapons, so be it.


“But what of the "innocent" civilians in enemy states that could be killed in the process?


“Many civilians in those states hate us and actively support, materially and spiritually, their tyrannical regimes. They are not innocents. As we drop our bombs, should we worry about the lives of Palestinians who celebrated by dancing in the streets on September 11?”


Hey, wait a minute – we’re bombing Palestinians? How did they come into it? I never heard anyone blame them for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or impute to them any desire or ability to attack America or Americans – Israel is their enemy, not the U.S.—but, to the fanatically pro-Israel “Objectivists,” all Arabs are the same and the only good one is a dead one, as Senor Ghate makes all to clear:


“Other civilians in enemy states are passive, unthinking followers. Their work and economic production, however meager, supports their terrorist governments and so they are in part responsible for the continued power of our aggressors. They too are not innocent—and their deaths may be unavoidable in order for America to defend itself.”


They are not innocent—because they live, breathe, and work. Therefore, we must kill them all. That isn’t just wrong: it’s crazy, a toxic blend of ideology and psychopathology. The most fanatic Zionist ultra-nationalist could hardly have put it any better than that, and it’s worthy of note that, in spite of the “Objectivist” hostility to all religion, one never hears denunciations of Judaism, but only vicious attacks on Christianity as the main danger to reason and human freedom.


These people do not shy away from spilling blood, indeed they seem to glory in it, and if the following isn’t sheer bloodlust then I don’t know what else to make of it, and I quote Mr. Ghate:


“The civilians in enemy territory who actually oppose their dictatorial regimes are usually the regimes’ first innocent victims. Any such individuals who remain alive and outside of prison camps should try to flee their country or rebel. Destroying innocents qua innocents should not be our goal—and true innocents should welcome American attack on their country. They know that they might be killed in the process, and even that they are legitimate targets insofar as they are forced to support their dictatorial regimes, but they will also know that it is their only chance at freedom.”


Under Brooks, the Institute has taken a line of unconditional and unflinching support for Israel: Brook even compared Israel to the hero of The Fountainhead, and declared that it was fighting to defends its “integrity” — an awfully strange perspective for an avowed atheist, since what Israel is seeking above all to preserve is its integrity as a self-proclaimed Jewish state. Here is one David Holcberg, another ARI blood-luster:


“Israel should declare and wage war not only against the Palestinian leadership but also against the Palestinian people. The inevitable deaths of a few truly innocent Palestinians should not stop Israel from doing whatever it takes to eliminate its enemies.”


While the appeal of “Objectivism” in Israel itself is minuscule, and, as the Jerusalem Post commented, “Those familiar with Rand’s disdain for religion and socialism might find her sympathy for Israel surprising,” Brook unhesitatingly declares:


“We view what happens in Israel as an indicator of what will happen in the rest of the world. To the extent America abandons Israel, it abandons itself. Israel is a beacon of civilization in a barbaric, backward area. Israel represents, despite its flaws, the values of the West: individual rights, free speech, freedom of the press, equality before the law and the rule of law.”


Here we see a truly odd reversal, the mutation of what was originally an ultra-individualistic philosophy based on the primacy of reason into a dark parody of dispensationalist Christianity. Ostensibly, and formally, the two movements could not be more different, but, as Ayn Rand once said, “Don’t bother to examine a folly: ask yourself only what is accomplishes.” What the dispensationalist and the Objectivists have in common is their unconditional support for the state of Israel, and, not only that, but the centrality of Israel in their ideological computations. To the dispensationalists, of course, Israel is indeed the ultimate “indicator of what will happen,” because their theology sees the gathering of the Jews together in the land of Israel as a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.


In ARI, the church of the latter-day “Objectivists,” we have what might be called Bizarro-individualism: that is, an “individualist” philosophy that justifies and advocates mass murder of innocents, and one that, although officially atheistic, is a fanatic supporter of a state that defines itself in explicitly religious terms. And, of course, the same regard for “individualism” is shown in its treatment of internal dissidents:


Through the years, the “Objectivist” movement has gone through so many splits and fissures—almost always over personal rather than ideological issues, although the real reasons are always given an intellectual gloss—and there are now at least two rival groups: ARI and the Institute for Objectivist Studies, which recently changed its name to the Atlas Society. The former is, stylistically, more “hardcore,” while the latter is for the “softer,” more human sorts. However, the differences between them are microscopic and hard for any outsider to understand, mostly having to do with their varying attitudes toward the Brandens—who wrote tell-all books about their experiences with Rand—and, indeed, toward anyone and anything outside the cultic universe of “Objectivism.”


Bizarro-Objectivism—a sad, even pathetic end for the legacy of Ayn Rand—but, then again, Rand’s big problem was always other people (not unusual for an individualist), and in particular her followers, starting but hardly ending with the Brandens. I learned this early on, at the age of 15, when I met Rand after one of her lectures in New York City. I had gone down with a couple of friends to hear Rand speak on “Basic Principles of Literature,” and after her talk there was an autograph line. I hurriedly bought a paperback copy of We the Living—the cheapest one they had —and patiently waited my turn to stand face to face with my favorite author. We were told that we weren’t going to be allowed to say anything to her, and that we had to print our name in the upper right hand corner of the book, so she would know who to inscribe the book to, and that was supposed to be that. Well, I knew that she would just look at me and know that here is a kindred soul, and we would soon be steeped in conversation—and this turned out to be not all that far from the truth. Because, you see, she looked at my name, looked at me, looked back down at my name, and then—seeming somewhat puzzled—announced: “I can’t sign this. Wait over there and I’ll tell you why after I’ve finished here.”


Wow! I was bowled over, delirious with joy: my heroine had acknowledged my inner nobility, looking past the thick glasses and the somewhat pimply adolescent face, and peered into my very soul—and I had not been found wanting! My friends, who had been watching all this from a safe distance, were less assured that this was what was going on, and wanted to know what trouble I had gotten myself into this time. As it turned out, they were a lot closer to the truth.


It seemed like an eternity before the autograph line shrunk appreciably, but finally the moment arrived when she motioned me over, and I went over to her like a little puppy dog wagging its tail but remembering to maintain a properly stern Randian mien as I got closer. Her eyes were the main thing about her face, and they gazed at me like two searchlights turned on full strength, wide and bright, as she asked if I had written an article entitled “Objectivism and the Liberty Amendment.”


I thought I was seeing stars as it all came back to me, and I remembered why she had a bone to pick with me. I had indeed written just such an article, which had been published in the newsletter of the National Youth Council of the Liberty Amendment Committee, then edited by David Nolan, and as Rand looked at me, with those x-ray eyes of hers, I remembered receiving that letter from her lawyer, Henry Mark Holzer, which threatened to sue me for supposedly posing as “a spokesman for Objectivism.” It was all coming back to me in a rush: I had torn the letter up and mailed the fragments back to Mr. Holzer, along with a note telling him what I thought of him and his threats. No wonder she was pissed! Rand said to me: “You know, it wasn’t a very good article.” “Of course it wasn’t,” I said, “that’s because they cut it, Miss Rand!” I explained that I had submitted a five-page piece, which the editor had cut down to one and a half pages.


She was looking at me now quite intensely, but I wasn’t afraid of that merciless spotlight, because I was telling the truth, and, what’s more, I knew she would be sympathetic. After all, hadn’t Howard Roark, the hero of the Fountainhad, blown up a building of his that had been altered in construction? Well, then, surely the author of that book would be sympathetic to my plight, and, of course, she was. She broke into a smile, perhaps at the vehemence with which I lamented the cuts made to my piece, and we started talking: “So,” she exclaimed, “you want to be a writer!”


We talked for a good twenty minutes, about writing, and my ambition to become a novelist: she gave me all kinds of advice. “Don’t let them get away with it!” she declared on the topic of meddling, cut-happy editors. She advised me to attach a cover letter to each editorial submission stating that no cuts may be made without the author’s written permission. I followed this perfectly awful advice well into my twenties, and, while my literary sins may account for most if not all of the years of rejection I faced at that point in my career, certainly these notes didn’t help.


In any case, while we were talking the lawyer, Senor Holzer, was lurking somewhere in the background, and I recall Nathaniel Branden standing around, looking somewhat embarrassed, along with several other of her disciples: doubtless the complete absurdity of threatening to sue a 15-year-old boy dawned on a few of them, and, although no one said anything, perhaps this underscored, in turn, the tragi-comic aspects of their little cult.


This demonstrates, for me, the problem that any writer encounters when he or she acquires “followers,” fans, or what have you. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and this would seem to be self-evident to anyone who holds to any philosophy of individualism, yet Rand allowed herself to become the object of a cult, and it’s telling that she never wrote another novel after that. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and she had two more decades to live, and yet all she did was churn out articles for her newsletters and putz around with her followers. In spite of this turn to didacticism, she never bothered to write her long-promised nonfiction exposition of “Objectivism”: only some short pieces, and a slim monograph on “Objectivist epistemology.” And that’s it. All in all, a very thin reed on which to base a philosophical system, the construction of which was her life’s ambition.


In the end, Rand betrayed her vocation as an author—a novelist, a dramatist, a writer of fiction—to take up the reins of a cult leader. No wonder the wellsprings of her creative genius dried up.


I hear that they’re trying, once again, to make the movie version of Atlas Shrugged: Angelina Jolie is reportedly interested in playing the part of Dagny Taggart. While this project has been in the works for years, and been repeatedly abandoned by various owners of the movie rights—Atlas, after all, would be terribly difficult to translate into a film because of all the lengthy speeches, not to mention the characters’ internal monologues—it isn’t an impossible task, and perhaps the release of such a movie will reawaken interest in Rand the fiction writer, rather than Rand the ideologue. This, after all, is her true legacy: not the distortions promulgated by Peikoff, Brooks & Co., but the unforgettable characters and stories she created, enriching my life and giving the world her unique vision of man as a heroic being.


There are too many people who say that Rand was an aberration of their youth, that they’ve “grown up,” and forgotten their dreams— hopelessly compromising themselves in the process — and they now claim to “know better.” When I was fifteen, I vowed never to become one of these people—whom I often met in bookshops—and I haven’t, and I won’t. Rand, to me, is an inspiration: she imparted to me a certain toughness without which I couldn’t have survived as a writer, or, indeed, as much of anything, and she continues to influence me in my work and my life. The grotesque Bizarro World version of her philosophy pushed by ARI and its imitators has little if anything to do with her or her novels: indeed, as I have pointed out in this essay, they are in many ways the complete opposite of what she preached and practiced.


No, I don’t agree with her on some topics, especially those subjects she knew little about, such as foreign policy, although her own views on World War II— she was an “isolationist” — are overlooked by her alleged followers as they take up their chosen role as the genocidal wing of the War Party. (Chris Sciabarra has done yeomen’s work in uncovering the foreign policy implications of her thought.)


Rand will, I think— I hope— eventually overcome the embarrassment of her “followers.” The true legacy of Ayn Rand, the artist, will live on, even as the “philosophy” she hoped would usher in a second renaissance fades into irrelevance.


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