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The Day I Met Ayn

March 11, 2008

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The Day I Met Ayn

Imagine a 15-year-old boy with a pronounced sense of the dramatic and emphatic right-wing political views of a libertarian bent, one who is, furthermore, looking for some comprehensive explanation of the world around him and often wonders why people are such inveterate idiots. He already imagines that the world is divided into two irreconcilable camps: him and his coterie of friends versus what he refers to as “€œthe Marshmallow Conspiracy”€”€”an all-pervasive all-controlling cabal that lives to ensure the complete banality and meaninglessness of everyday existence in modern society, and especially in the public school system, which is run by these martinets for the sole purpose of torturing undiscovered geniuses such as himself.

Add to this already volatile mix the hyper-individualist philosophy known as “€œObjectivism,”€ the invention of novelist Ayn Rand, and the result can be”€”and was”€”explosive.

After all, the hero of Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, is an architect with bright orange hair who blows up his own building”€“which has been altered in its design and turned into a home for handicapped children”€“and rapes the female lead.

Not that I was blowing up buildings, or raping anyone, as a result of imbibing The Fountainhead, but let’s just say that my own sense of diplomacy, and basic human interaction, was somewhat retarded as a result. Certainly my conversion to Randianism unleashed a whole lot of explosive youthful energy, in the form of writing. I started publishing in the nascent libertarian underground press”€”mimeographed journals, and newsletters, by which young libertarians (Rand fans all) kept in touch, argued among ourselves, and generally engaged in building a “€œmovement”€ that, we thought, would one day triumph. Our slogan was “€œFreedom in our time!”€

The key to understanding Rand’s appeal is not in her philosophy but in her fiction. If you want pure Randian drama at its most stylized, it’s best to put aside Atlas Shrugged“€”which is in a class all by itself”€“and look at her early work, particularly We the Living, her first published novel. Set against the backdrop of the early years of the Soviet Union, it’s the story of Kira Argounova, born of a bourgeois family, and born also with the artistocratic gravitas of the archetypal Randian female. Kira is really a younger version of Dagny Taggart, transported to Leningrad sometime in the middle of the 1920s. Instead of running railroads, Kira dreams of building bridges of aluminum over frozen river gorges while studying engineering. She meets Andrei Kovalensky, the son of a White admiral, a real lady-killer who looks like he was “€œborn with a whip in his hands,”€ and all the snows of Holy Mother Russia aren”€™t enough to cool their ardor, even in the shadow of the gulag. Rand’s hatred for the Bolsheviks is apparent throughout the text: but that didn”€™t stop her from making one of her heroes a Communist”€”and a KGB officer to boot. In 1936, the year the novel was published, Rand’s militant anti-communism was verboten: back when the New York Times was reporting that all was well in the workers paradise, it took courage to tell the truth about Soviet Russia. The book sank like a stone, and Rand had to wait until The Fountainhead to really make her breakthrough.

There is a solemn purity in Rand’s early efforts, including her plays, such as The Night of January 16th, that crystallized in The Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, an architect who refuses to compromise his integrity, either personal or artistic, in a world of second-handers. Indeed, the working title of the book had been “€œSecond-hand Lives,”€ and when I read it, at the age of seventeen, sitting on the steps of our local library one summer day, it changed me, forever”€“and, in retrospect, for the better. Without the mental discipline imposed by Objectivism, I doubt whether I would have survived my teenage years without winding up either dead, in jail, or both.

Objectivism gave me what conservatism could not, then, provide: a consistent worldview, a sense of boundaries, in short: what Russell Kirk feared most”€“an ideology.

In short, Objectivism gave ready-made answers to complex questions, and, furthermore, imparted a moral fire the conservative figures of the day that even Barry Goldwater, my personal hero, were lacking. Next to the languid prognostications of a William F. Buckley Jr., the severity and simplicity of the Randian ethos had an inherent appeal, especially to the young. Rand was, you see, first and foremost, a novelist, a dramatist, one who was capable of exerting an almost hypnotic influence on her readers. Her characters are made to order for any adventurous soul with a taste for the dramatic flourish and in search of moral and esthetic guidelines. Their power to teach, and even impose a kind of discipline on the otherwise untamable, remains with me to this day: the predicaments of her heroes and heroines all seemed to mirror life as I perceived it. They were up against what I was up against, in school and out of it: the Marshmallow Conspiracy that worshipped conformity and mediocrity and was determined to stamp out any hint of originality at first sighting. I had found my lodestar.

Being an activist sort, I could not keep this revelation to myself but instead sought to convert my friends and associates to my new-found faith: soon a small but vociferous cabal was birthed at my high school, acolytes of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the latter a 1000-page-plus tome of remarkable dramatic clumsiness and power that posed the question: what would happen to the world if “€œthe men of the mind”€ went on strike? We soon had our English Literature teacher completely terrorized, and in response she issued an injunction: no one was allowed to so much as mention Ayn Rand’s name in her classroom.

I was sent to the Principal’s office on more than one occasion on account of transgressing this completely unreasonable edict. I was glad to go.

My proselytizing wasn”€™t limited to the local high school, however: I was already writing, mostly pieces for the underground libertarian press of the time. One of my earliest published articles was “€œObjectivism and the Liberty Amendment,”€ which appeared in the newsletter of the Liberty Amendment National Youth Council.

Now, for all you newcomers out there, the Liberty Amendment was the brainchild of Willis E. Stone, whose organization, the Liberty Amendment Committee, proposed to restore constitutional government in America in one fell swoop by means of amending the Constitution. The Liberty Amendment would have forbidden the expenditure of any funds for any government agency not expressly provided for in the Constitution. In short, it would have abolished most of the federal government.

A hopeless cause, but youth is often attracted to these, and I was rapturous at having been appointed a vice-chairman of the Liberty Amendment National Youth Council. At any rate, my first contribution to the Youth Council’s newsletter was a five-page typewritten explication of why “€œstudents of Objectivism”€ (as we called ourselves, per Miss Rand’s admonition) should support and work for the passage of the Liberty Amendment.

Like any writer enamored of his own words, I was a bit miffed that the editor of the newsletter”€“David F. Nolan, who was then a key figure in the Libertarian Caucus of Young Americans for Freedom and the chairman of the National Youth Council “€“ had edited my immortal prose down from five pages to one and a half. Yet I was nevertheless thrilled to see my name in print, but the thrill was gone when I opened a letter, received a few weeks later, from Ayn Rand’s lawyer, one Henry Mark Holzer.

In his missive, which I read with growing disbelief and anger, Senor Holzer declared that my explication of Objectivism was so muddled that it amounted to a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: he furthermore informed me that I was not a “€œspokesman for Objectivism,”€ and I had no right”€“no legal right”€“to speak in its name. Therefore, unless a retraction was printed, or unless I kowtowed in some inexplicable but satisfactory way, Miss Rand was going to … sue me!

My reaction was swift, and very Randian: I grasped the letter in my teenaged paws and carefully ripped it into increasingly tiny pieces, which I then deposited in an envelope and addressed to Mr. Holzer. I included a note”€“”€œThis is what I think of you”€“and your threats!”€”€“and gleefully dropped it in the mailbox. As is often the case with hotheads, I totally forgot the incident after a few hours”€“after all, what is the threat of a lawsuit to a 16-year-old version of Howard Roark?”€“and wouldn”€™t have occasion to be reminded of it until some weeks later …

It was a crisp autumn day, bright sunshine and a cool wind: as we waited for the train in the Harmon station, the four of us were giddy with anticipation. We were going to see Ayn Rand lecture on “€œBasic Principles of Literature,”€ and just being in a train station was, for us, all part of the experience. That’s because trains are an integral part of the fictional landscape of Atlas Shrugged: the heroine, Dagny Taggart, is the Vice President in charge of operations of Taggart Transcontinental, and her daily struggle against the depredations of the “€œlooters,”€ mooches, and “€œsecond-handers”€”€”who spent their days trying to obstruct her”€”are the warp and woof of the novel. As the locomotive appeared in the distance, and sped toward the platform, the four of us were caught up in a gust of excitement: we were going to New York City to see Ayn Rand, and the world, for us, was a bright and promising place. As the train took off, and I looked out the window, I was swept up in the sheer joy of unobstructed motion”€“just like in a Rand novel.

The Objectivist movement was headquartered, in those days, in the Empire State Building, a gesture in perfect accordance not only with the Randian style, but also with the Objectivist esthetic. Soaring skyscrapers of glass and steel signified the spirit of the Randian heroes and heroines, and of Rand herself, who, when she arrived in New York harbor after escaping from Russia, looked up at the New York City skyline and cried real tears of joy.

It was kind of a disappointment, however, to discover that, upon arriving at the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), their offices were in … the basement.

Ah, but no matter: a trivial detail like that wasn”€™t going to ruin my pilgrimage to this Temple of Reason. The walls of NBI were painted in what I was led to understand was Rand’s favorite color: an aqueous shade of blue-green, just like the cover of her magazine, The Objectivist. Other movements don”€™t go much in for color coordination, but the Objectivists took their esthetics quite seriously: indeed, it was an integral part of their ideological outlook and psychology. After all, these people had been recruited on the basis of a work of fiction, and spent much of their time talking about the characters in Rand’s novels as if they were living breathing human beings. Rand herself did constantly this, quoting John Galt”€“the hero of Atlas Shrugged“€“as if he were standing there right next to her.

The NBI auditorium was bustling and filled to the rafters as the Objectivist faithful gathered to hear their heroine’s disquisition on the nature and purpose of art, and specifically literature. My readers can see for themselves what she had to say that day: the lecture has been published in her anthology of articles on esthetics, a volume aptly titled The Romantic Manifesto. Her printed lectures, however, don”€™t begin to give the reader an idea of the kind of power she exerted over her audience.

When she appeared at the blue-green podium, peering intently at us through reading glasses that seemed too big for her face, I thought, for a moment, that there must be some mistake. The woman who stood before us was short, with her dark hair swept impatiently back from her forehead in a page-boy haircut. She was wearing a severe suit that may have been fashionable at some point in the distant past, and looked to be in her late fifties. A wave of disappointment swept over me: where were Dagny Taggart’s “€œshow-girl legs”€? And where was Dagny Taggart? The woman standing on the stage resembled a Russian babushka who had somehow been diverted on her way to the Moscow market to pick up a sack of potatoes and instead had wandered, improbably, into the NBI auditorium.

That visual impression, however, lasted only as long as it took her to begin speaking. She began slowly, but without any hesitancy, her voice deep, deliberate, and resonant with certainty. Although thickly accented with the tones of her native Russia, her diction was precise and her meaning unmistakable. And what she was saying was that man was meant to be a god: that fiction focused on neurosis and evil was evil “€“ and that art in celebration of man the hero was fuel for the noble soul. The modern schools of naturalism, symbolism, and the rest were intellectually bankrupt. Romanticism”€“which, in the Randian sense of the term, depicts the primacy of and struggle for values”€“was the wave of the future, if there was to be one for literature.

An odd thing happened: as she spoke: standing straight as an old oak, she seemed to physically grow in stature, and, before long, the Russian babushka had taken on the proportions of a Titan. I noticed she was wearing a cape, although the famous tri-cornered hat was nowhere to be seen. Sitting about five rows from the front”€”we had gotten in quite early, and secured the best possible seats”€”I could see the flash of her dollar-sign brooch glinting in the spotlight.

There was absolute silence from the audience during the lecture: everyone, including myself, was utterly rapt as Rand explained the basic mechanics of fiction writing, the elements of drama, and the philosophical and psychological significance of one’s artistic choices and preferences.

In the audience sat young, well-dressed, painfully earnest stockbrokers and their dollar-sign brooch-wearing girlfriends, a lot of students, and a few older types but not many: about three-fourths of the packed auditorium were under 30, and they all had this air of expectation about them as they leaned forward in their seats. In this clean-cut crowd we were significantly scruffier and, how shall I put this, more Woodstock Nation than Galt’s Gulch. The four of us”€”two guys and two girls, the former with the requisite long hair and blue jeans, the latter in mini-skirts and hippie beads”€”stood out in this crowd of premature yuppies. The ensuing culture clash was all too predictable, although I remember more than a few of the men giving my date”€”the beauteous Susan Beaudry, definitely the Dominique Francon type”€”a not-quite-surreptitious glance or two, much to the visible annoyance of their rather plain girlfriends.

The lecture ended, and I went over to the book table to buy a copy of one of Rand’s books: it was autograph time, and my dream of getting close to my idol was about to be fulfilled, albeit not in the way I imagined.

While my friends waited, I got on line with a cheap paperback edition of We the Living clutched in my hot little hands. We were told that we were not to talk to Miss Rand, unless, of course, she spoke to us first. “€œWrite your name in the upper right-hand corner of the page you want signed,”€ said the NBI usher, “€œand hand it to her. She”€™ll look at your name, sign your book, and you”€™ll get the heck out of there.”€

As Rand sat at a table covered in blue-green felt, and smiled tentatively at her worshipful fans, I craned my neck to get a good look at her, but my view was obstructed by her Praetorian Guard”€“her retinue. This consisted of members of the Inner Circle, what was referred to in Objectivist circles as “€œthe class of “€™43,”€ referring to the year of The Fountainhead‘s publication: Nathaniel Branden, deemed her “€œintellectual heir”€ on the dedication page of early editions of Atlas, was her principal disciple. And there he was, standing next to her: tall, with wavy swept-back hair and his nose stuck in the air, as if looking out over a great distance at some object visible only to himself. He had a sonorous, singsong way of talking that had just the faintest echo of a Russian accent.  I didn”€™t see Barbara Branden”€”his wife, estranged by that time, as the Brandens”€™ autobiographical tell-all memoirs reveal”€”with her blonde bouffant and Ice Goddress persona, wielding a long cigarette holder as if it were a scepter. She was vice-president of NBI, and, we were told, was an aspiring novelist, whose magnum opus was even then in progress. The rest of the Inner Circle”€”which they actually called “€œthe Senior Collective,”€ supposedly as a joke”€”consisted mostly of the Branden’s relatives but for Alan Greenspan. In any case, she was literally surrounded by concentric circles of sycophants“€”the Inner and the Outer”€”a situation that, in retrospect, seems to underscore the nature of her predicament.

As I approached her, she glanced up at me, and the first thing I noticed was her eyes: they were like that portrait by Illona, large, piercing, and luminous. She looked down at my name, looked back up at me, looked at my name again”€”and seemed taken aback as she said: “€œI can”€™t sign this. Wait until I”€™m through signing books, and I”€™ll tell you why.”€

I was thrilled. Obviously, Rand had decided that I was a genius, and a far more likely candidate for the title of “€œintellectual heir”€ than that pompadoured phony standing next to her, who was looking distinctly annoyed. At last, I had been discovered! Of course, there was something slightly ominous about the way she had said it: “€œI can”€™t sign this.”€ Why not?

The line of autograph-seekers took a long time to shrink, and during the interim my friends and I speculated as to the reason for this extra attention being paid to met: as for them, they wanted to know what I had done this time, and what trouble I was in. I blithely assured them that I was about to be inducted into the Inner Circle.

My friends, it turned out, were a lot closer to the truth than I was. When Miss Rand motioned me over, she looked me straight in the eye and asked me about that little missive I had sent to Henry Mark Holzer”€”who was standing directly behind her, looking thoroughly embarrassed and trying not to realize that he had threatened to sue some goofy teenager.

For my part, I had completely forgotten about the letter from Holzer, and my reaction to it, but it all came back to me in a rush: I felt my collar getting rather hot, and then, composing myself, I said I had written the letter”€””€œbut they cut my article, Miss Rand.”€ I explained to Rand, who was looking at me rather intently”€”and, I thought, not angrily”€”that my article, in its original form, had run to five and a half typewritten pages. The editor, however, had cut it down to a mere one and a half pages: the result, of course, was a muddle.

Those eyes, that seem to take in”€”and judge”€”everything in sight, seemed to bore into my very soul: in that moment, I knew, she was deciding if I was one of the Good Guys or part of the Marshmallow Conspiracy. Remember that Howard Roark, the architect hero of The Fountainhead, blew up one of his own buildings because the design had been changed. Would she take the editor’s side or mine? Rand was testing me, in that moment”€”and I was testing her.

When she smiled at me, it was like the sun breaking through clouds: “€œSo,”€ she said, “€œyou want to be a writer!”€

As a nearly visible wave of embarrassment wafted through the ranks of her followers, who were buzzing around us like a cloud of flies, Ayn and I talked about writing for a good fifteen minutes. She regaled me with all sorts of advice, and one bit stayed with me for years. In order to avoid future misunderstandings, she told me, I was to attach a cover letter to all future editorial submissions, instructing the editor that not one word was to be changed, altered, or otherwise messed with, without my written permission.

I followed Rand’s advice for years”€”no wonder I didn”€™t sell anything!

She did sign my book but with the admonition to “€œDo better next time”€”€”and I like to think that I have.

  Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com and is a frequent contributor to Taki’s Magazine.

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