This year marks the centenary of the birth of Ayn Rand, the philosopher and novelist. Although opinion is divided on whether the occasion merits observance, there can be no question that Rand continues to fire her readership with crusading ardor.
Twenty-two million copies of Rand’s books have been sold; in 2002 alone, sales of her behemoth 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, reached 140,000 copies. According to a Library of Congress survey in 1991, Atlas Shrugged was, after the Bible, “the second most influential book in America today.” Among public figures who claim to bear the mark of Rand’s influence are Clarence Thomas, Oliver Stone, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Hillary Clinton. In his youth Alan Greenspan was an acolyte who contributed essays to her collections of Objectivist thought; Vladimir Putin’s chief economic adviser is a big fan. There is an Ayn Rand Society within the American Philosophical Association, a Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and an online dating service for Rand admirers.
But Rand has also moved detractors, both liberal and conservative, to disgust or indifference. Gore Vidal, who knows from depravity, once deemed her philosophy “nearly perfect in its immorality.” William F. Buckley, Jr. proposed the Sermon on the Mount as an antidote of choice to Atlas Shrugged, and Whittaker Chambers, in Buckley’s National Review, wrote a definitive takedown of her ideas. On the television cartoon show The Simpsons, unfortunate young children are held captive in the Ayn Rand School for Tots, which is run like a B-movie penitentiary.
Rand continues to command attention as the heroine or villainess of a passionate libertarian strain in conservatism—although she disdained the label of conservative or libertarian. Instead, she insisted on being called an Objectivist, that is, one who knows that objective reality exists and who sees life as it really is. Whatever you might call her, there has never been a more vehement champion of rugged individualism, laissez-faire economics, the primacy of property rights, or the businessman as cultural hero. In her eyes, America as the founders conceived it was the one moral society in the history of the world, and her appointed task was to save it and the world from the bane of collectivist, altruist, and subjectivist immorality.
Ayn Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia. “I was born Jewish,” she would later say. As one learns from The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), an admiring but clear-eyed biography by her disciple Barbara Branden, her antipathy toward all forms of religion and her philosophical indifference to the accidents of family and ethnicity ensured that in her mind she did not remain Jewish.
The sort of child who does not play well with others, Alice inhabited a mental world of dreamy grandeur. At nine she read a story in a boys’ adventure magazine about a dashing English soldier named Cyrus and decided, “This is what I want out of life.” Three years later she was plastering her bedroom walls with photos of the liberal revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, and knew she could never love an ordinary man. The February 1917 Revolution, with Kerensky playing a leading role, enchanted and aroused her as a magnificent struggle for freedom and individualism, an emotionally charged arena where titanic forces of good and evil stood toe to toe and saber in hand.
When, in due course, October’s Bolshevik Revolution succeeded February’s, the young revolutionary discovered how serious was the combat between freedom and tyranny. Her father’s shop was nationalized—the look on his face ignited her hatred for a regime in which “the illiterate and the poor had to be the rulers of the earth because they were illiterate and poor”—and her family decamped to the Crimea to wait out the Revolution. There, Alice studied American history for two years and came to revere the United States as freedom’s citadel. Her intellectual development was swift and decisive. She adored mathematics and logic, and at age fifteen she wrote in her diary: “Today, I decided to be an atheist.” Being anyone’s inferior was unthinkable to her, so God could not possibly exist.
When the Rosenbaums returned to Petrograd in 1921, she entered the university, joining the anti-Communist camp. Life was generally gray and dank, and sometimes almost unendurable. Aching for the superb, she found in the opera house a refuge from the prevailing moral grime and physical squalor; she had a taste for Verdi, but a mad passion for the flounce and shimmer of operetta. For her this “tiddlywink music” would always embody the irrepressible joy of life.
It was an unexpected letter from emigrant relatives who had settled in Chicago that propelled her westward like destiny’s guiding hand. Having inveigled an invitation to visit for six months, she embarked on English lessons, planning to write screenplays that would make her name and her fortune. In January 1926 she was off, with 50 dollars, a Remington-Rand typewriter, and a new name to go with her new country: Ayn Rosenbaum, soon to be further revised in the typewriter’s honor.
Once in Chicago she banged out four screenplays, the choicest featuring a high-minded bandit who parachutes from skyscraper to skyscraper. Then she moved further west, to Hollywood, where a chance encounter with Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as a movie extra and a romance with the aspiring actor she would marry, a man she regarded as the epitome of masculine grace, beauty, and wisdom. She hustled in the time-honored immigrant fashion—as assistant script reader, file clerk, waitress—and after several years her scripts started to sell.
In 1933 she published her first novel, We the Living, about Bolshevik Russia, for which she received a measly advance and $100 in royalties. Her next novel, The Fountainhead, about an architect of genius and preternatural integrity, appeared ten years later, after a dozen editors had rejected it. By 1948 it had sold over 400,000 copies. Rand demanded $50,000 for the movie rights—over $600,000 in today’s money—and got her asking price. Atlas Shrugged, her 1957 novel about a strike by the indispensable brain workers who really make the world run, was another and even bigger blockbuster.
Having realized her ambition as a novelist, Rand turned to philosophical essays detailing her Objectivist philosophy. These, too, sold phenomenally well. Her educational foundation, the Ayn Rand Institute, helped spread the word, as did her weekly column in the Los Angeles Times explaining the news from an Objectivist standpoint. Spillover crowds listened to her on the lecture circuit. Johnny Carson had her on the Tonight show.
She met her public in a black cape and a dress emblazoned with a gold dollar sign—the talisman of her striking capitalists. But she never went on strike herself. Work consumed her, and celebrity nourished her. Possessed of a philosopher’s stone uniquely hers, she turned philosophy itself into gold. When she died in 1982, a six-foot dollar sign kept vigil beside her casket.
The memorial sounds crass, but Rand was no sell-out: her philosophical integrity never warped or cracked, she said exactly what she thought, and she was right when she insisted that her course as a thinker remained essentially unchanged from the time she was eighteen. Her girlish daydreams of high glory and erotic rhapsody, her confinement in the Soviet nightmare, her discovery of America: all conjoined in her “concept 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.”
Rand never tired of expounding these ideas, which found their most complete and most admired expression in her fiction. Thus, in The Fountainhead, the god-like Howard Roark negotiates a world run by “second-handers” precisely by refusing to negotiate with them. A brilliant architecture student who has been thrown out of college for declaring that his teachers have nothing to teach him, Roark pursues his career, or rather his vocation, in New York, determined to design buildings like no others.
This vaulting ambition earns him the scorn, derision, condescension, or hatred of nearly everyone, especially those who recognize his genius. We meet Peter Keating, a rival architect who lives solely for his own reflection in other people’s eyes; Ellsworth M. Toohey, architecture critic, socialist apostle, and grand master of skullduggery, who hates Roark’s perfectionism for requiring more of ordinary humanity than it can readily deliver; and Gail Wynand, baron of the tabloid press, who sees through every virtue and is out to prove there is no such thing as a superior man but eventually finds himself loving, esteeming, and fearing Roark.
And then there is Dominique Francon, journalist and daughter of a prominent architect, wealthy, cynical, forbiddingly luscious, and fiercely virginal until Roark possesses her in what can only be called a consensual rape. Dominique loves Roark and he loves her, but she also hates him for smashing her shell of smug irony and forcing her to acknowledge that moral splendor is possible. So she tries to work his professional and personal destruction, conspiring with Ellsworth Toohey and marrying first Peter Keating and then Gail Wynand as vengeance on all concerned, including herself.
In the end, justice, true love, and architectural innovation prevail. Roark, on trial for blowing up a housing project he designed but bureaucrats had defiled with their alterations, makes so fine a speech in defense of his creation’s inviolable truth that the jury acquits him. Dominique leaves a now-admirable Wynand and takes up with Roark, for keeps. Roark gets the skyscraper commission from Wynand that will make both their names ring down the centuries. “Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.”
As mighty a figure as Roark cuts, he gives up an inch or two of height and ten pounds of muscle to John Galt, the philosopher-inventor-businessman who is the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged and surely the most spectacularly outsized hero in modern literature. In the novel, the catchphrase of the day is “Who is John Galt?” Nobody seems to know the answer, or how the phrase has caught on, and not until some 600 pages into this 1,100-page work does the reader find out. But the heroine is on the track almost from the start, without knowing it, and without knowing that all along John Galt has been tracking her.
She is Dagny Taggart, the brains of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad; the president of the operation, her brother Jim, is resentful of her competence and his improvidence is running the company into the ground. Competence and achievement versus improvidence and parasitism—the virtues are the trademarks of pure capitalism, the vices those of government regulation, the merest grain of which will wreck a perfect economic machine. In Atlas Shrugged, the complicity of unworthy captains of industry with government despoilers is pushing the long-entrenched New Deal inexorably into a form of virtual Stalinism, and all but shutting down the world economy.
John Galt has been deliberately hastening that shutdown, in order to bring on the resurrection of laissez-faire economics. He has invented a motor that converts static electricity from the air into kinetic energy. When the company he has been working for falls into the hands of Marxist imbeciles, he forms an enclave of disillusioned men of genius and talent in a Rocky Mountain valley hidden from common sight by his techno-wizardry. From there he leads a strike of the individuals whose competence and enterprise allow the world to keep running; the masses, beguiled by intellectuals, cannot recognize such men as the benefactors they really are, and Galt is bent on making the truth break forth.
Dagny Taggart is one of Galt’s blue-chip recruits; his drawing her into the fold is the novel’s principal line of action, around which several sharp-cornered intrigues are gathered. As always in Rand, free markets and true hearts, economic and erotic bliss, are intertwined. Like Dominique Francon, Dagny is a masterful beauty who longs to be mastered. She is, first by Francisco d’Anconia, the love of her youth and the owner of the world’s largest copper mining company, and Hank Rearden, inventor of an alloy stronger and lighter than steel. But when she meets Galt, she knows this is the man she has waited for all her life. Although d’Anconia and Rearden still love her, they recognize Galt’s unique claim: in Rand, the best men just are that way—heroically reasonable about love as about everything else.
Reason may be cruel at times, but it is always effective. The strikers’ grand scheme works, the world becomes chaos, and they return in their generous selfishness to create it anew. In the novel’s last sentence, Galt silently performs a godlike action: “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
Clearly, these are novels with a program—ethical, economic, political, metaphysical. Above all, they are celebrations of mind. Rand is a sort of brassy minor poet of intellectual achievement, and of human ratiocination as the supreme moral force in the universe. In her fiction, the highest intelligence shapes character of comparable excellence; her heroes invariably possess extraordinary mental energy stoked by patient devotion, determination never broken by protracted hardship or witless neglect, certainty that they can make a lasting contribution of the utmost significance.
This depiction of extraordinary brainpower, vitality, integrity, and fortitude can be bracing, even exhilarating, if one is willing to dispense with any resemblance to real life for a time. You can soar through the two blockbuster novels powered by turbojets of fantasy, transported to heights where most serious modern fiction would never think of going. In that sense, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are not so much novels as very long fables, romances promoting a new chivalric order.
Rand loves the aspects of modernity that the prevalent strain in American fiction ignores or loathes. In her veneration of the philosopher-businessman, she cuts against the business-hating grain of the American novel. It is only her villains—Peter Keating, James Taggart—who resemble the grasping, morally hollow vulgarians and pashas of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Frank Norris. But in her work they are also merely the foils for moral titans like Galt, Rearden, Dagny Taggart, and the regenerated Gail Wynand.
These great figures are meant to inspire readers to go out and do likewise. When an unnamed young man with sublime but indefinite longings sees a summer resort designed by Howard Roark, he feels a strength that will sustain him in his ambition to realize his vision, whatever that may be: “Don’t work for my happiness, my brothers—show me yours—show me that it is possible—show me your achievement—and the knowledge will give me the courage for mine.” Rand wants to send tremors of possibility through her readership; her fiction combines the hectic rapture of the self-help book as we know it today with the sober regard for unremitting middle-class effort that Samuel Smiles extolled in the original Self-Help (1859).
Rand’s stated purpose in her writing is “the projection of an ideal man.” Distinctively modern experiences that most of us take for granted—feeling the rush of wind at the top of a skyscraper, seeing the landscape flow past from a speeding train—Rand’s best and brightest appreciate as the most exquisite refinements for sensual aristocrats. And the most sensual are those who esteem the power of abstract thought to create a uniquely human world appropriate to the age of capitalist democracy.
What is one to make of it all? In Rand, soundness and charlatanry commingle. In the end, charlatanry prevails.
Freedom, individuality, achievement, reason: Rand takes these and other fine ideas and pursues them to the limits of sanity. Rightly understanding Soviet Communism (and German National Socialism, which she considered its mad collectivist kin) as epitomizing the worst in ethical and political thought, she plunges to the conclusion that in its polar opposite will be found nothing less than perfection. Having learned the lessons of socialist dystopia on her own body, she embraces a utopian fantasy of her own: only mingy compromise with collectivism stands in the way of the society without flaw, in which heroic individuals, loosed from Judeo-Christian tyranny with its insufferable God and foul altruism, will create the capitalist paradise.
In her passion to reshape the world in accordance with her idea, Rand begins to sound like the tyrants she hates. Her capitalist revolutionaries speak of their opponents as “subhuman creatures,” “looting lice.” Galt’s radio address to the nation—he has commandeered the airwaves by some electronic magic—is positively Castro-like in its mad zealotry, running to over 50 pages and unfolding every half-truth and alluring lunacy Rand ever entertained.
Everything in Rand’s thought depends on her faith in reason, her conviction that any question has a clear and definitive answer. This unlimited faith in reason damages her as a novelist—there are no mysteries in her world, including no mysteries of human character—and also severely limited her as a moralist and undid her as a woman.
In Rand’s psychology, reason unfailingly determines emotion, never the other way around. But in her own erotic life Rand was at the mercy of a turbulent unreason that pulled her under even as she burbled on about her unimpeachable rationality. As she could only love an extraordinary man, she endowed the man she married, Frank O’Connor, with all the qualities of a hero, even of a god. In fact, in almost everyone’s eyes but hers, O’Connor, a failure as a movie actor, was a raging mediocrity.
At the age of forty-nine, Rand fell for yet another god, Nathaniel Branden, the husband of her biographer and himself a disciple younger than she by 25 years. She expounded the perfect reasonableness of their adultery to each of the injured spouses, whom she expected reasonably to accept their twice-weekly scheduled trysts in the bedroom she shared with her husband. After years of this, the Brandens’ marriage collapsed and Rand’s husband swirled down the alcoholic drain.
When Rand was sixty-one and Branden thirty-six, the sexual fire went out for him and he found a younger lover. Rand nearly went insane in her jealousy. Maintaining that she was entirely reasonable and right, and Branden purely evil, she destroyed his professional reputation and banished him from the Randian kingdom where he had been until then the crown prince. Heroic reason, heroic freedom, heroic love ended, as they began, in folly.
Imagining herself one up on Heraclitus, Rand the thinker holds that a man’s mind is his character is his fate. She appears never to have given a thought to how one actually comes by one’s particular mind and character. She has no sense of human beings as creatures, each endowed with his own particular gifts, whether by chance or design, lacking other qualities he may wish he had, and subject to all the pains of individual and human nature. It is arguable that only from this awareness of incompleteness and contingency does there stem compassion for others, a quality rooted in rational human nature that has achieved its fullest expression in democratic society. But compassion disgusts Rand; John Galt scorns it as love of the unworthy, a triumph of sloppy feeling over lucid reason.
This is no doubt why, for all her continued popularity, Rand is anything but a commanding figure these days. Very few conservatives want any part of her, for she is the conservative bogeyman that liberals invoke to terrify their children: money-worshipping, absorbed in the pursuit of her own happiness, indifferent to the pain of others. Though she will no doubt continue to sell—there are certain effects she brings off as well as anyone, and they have their undeniable appeal—it is hardly a matter for regret that her centenary has gone largely unmarked.