An unobjective reading list
Two new biographies of Ayn Rand were published recently, and I have no intention of reading either. But I find I can’t get enough of the reviews and essays they’ve occasioned. I’ve rounded up my favorites below — but first, a little background on my own encounter with Objectivism.
In the latest New Yorker, Thomas Mallon writes: “Most readers make their first and last trip to Galt’s Gulch — the hidden-valley paradise of born-again capitalists featured in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ its solid-gold dollar sign standing like a Maypole — sometime between leaving Middle-earth and packing for college.” That was certainly true for me, except that I never made it to Galt’s Gulch. For me it was The Fountainhead, and I don’t mind saying I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d never heard of Rand when my eleventh-grade English teacher handed me a brochure with information about this essay contest sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute. I’d surprised her earlier that year by winning another, compulsory essay contest (alas, not worth $10,000), so when she got the announcement about this one she passed it along to me. “I don’t usually bother with this,” she said, “but you might be interested.” I have a feeling she didn’t know much about Objectivism either. She just knew that prize money could go a long way.
When I bought The Fountainhead, I remember being impressed by how light — literally lightweight — the book was, despite its tremendous thickness. If I were a character in an Ayn Rand novel, that impression would have been symbolic. But since I’m not, I’m forced to admit that the book sucked me in. I had never read anything like it at that point – no economic or political philosophy, and not much didactic fiction. Animal Farm and Brave New World bewitched me in junior high, and this book appealed to the same eager but underdeveloped parts of my brain. Plus, of course, there was the sheer satisfaction of reading all those pages. Even before you get to its endorsement of untrammeled egotism, The Fountainhead flatters you by being so long and so deadly serious. You must be smart if you can conquer it! The essay contest, I now realize, operates on the same principle – make teenagers feel important and intellectual by offering them truly fantastic amounts of money for absorbing your ideology and regurgitating it in 1,600 words.
A lot of teenagers are taken in by Rand, at least for a few months – many people have admitted it in the course of reviewing these books. Why? I can’t put it better than this comment I read on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, from “tomemos”: “Ayn Rand has the most straightforwardly understandable, didactic philosophy of just about any twentieth-century thinker, which is probably one reason why young people are into it. It has the disadvantages of being obviously false and morally monstrous, but it is clear.” It’s also immensely flattering, as it suggests that feeling misunderstood and underappreciated is a sign that you are, in fact, superior to those around you.
I didn’t know any of that in high school, but I embraced the challenge. I lugged The Fountainhead around, taking notes that I hoped would lead me toward one of the prescribed essay topics. As I read, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that Rand was endorsing selfishness. That can’t be right, I thought. But the comeuppance I expected for her egotistical heroes never came; it was almost as though she wanted me to think the impulse to help others was bad, something to be resisted. In retrospect I think my reaction to the book was similar to what Commonweal film critic Philip T. Hartung wrote about the movie adaptation in July 1949: “The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s humdinger about lust and architecture, has the most pretentious combination of sense and nonsense to appear in a supposedly serious movie in a long time. While it offers a glowing defense of integrity and high standards in art, it also asks us to be impressed by a group of characters whose morals sink to a new low.”
Unfortunately I didn’t have Hartung’s help in working through my confusion. By the time I got to the end of the book I thought I must have missed something important. I took a stab at writing the essay anyway. I haven’t looked at it since – even if I could track it down, I’m too embarrassed to read it. But I’m pretty sure I wrote about how Rand obviously didn’t think altruism was bad, even though it might seem that way; she just wanted to say that, under certain circumstances, self-interest could sometimes be a good thing.
Clearly I was not a promising disciple for the Ayn Rand Institute. I didn’t win anything, of course, and when I read the winning essay I discovered how off-base I had been. (Sample sentence from this year’s winner: “Roark’s life affirms that a collective entity, no matter how hostile to those of ability, is impotent against the primacy of the individual.”) And so I was one of those for whom Objectivism didn’t “take.” Was it my firm grounding in the Gospel that kept me pure, despite all the near occasions of sin? Ayn Rand would say my faulty premises prevented me from comprehending the truth. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t manage to have a proper Ayn-Rand phase. I never even picked up Atlas Shrugged.
Why, then, am I so fascinated by all the ink spilled over the release of these two biographies? It’s not just because I’m grateful that I passed through the valley of the shadow of Objectivism unharmed. It turns out reading about Rand and her cult of personality is also extremely entertaining. Here are a few of my favorite review-essays, each with its own approach and its own collection of outrageous anecdotes.
Thomas Mallon, “Possessed,” The New Yorker, 11/9/09 [subscription required]
This was the last one I read, but I recommend starting with it if you’re a subscriber. It’s the most genuine “book review” in the bunch, and it spends a lot of time discussing the shortcomings of Ayn Rand’s fiction as well as the merits and drawbacks of the new bios. In Mallon’s eyes, Rand is a pathetic figure undeserving of even her very limited reputation for literary greatness. A sample of his criticism, on The Fountainhead: “The thematic repetitions are such that this novel about architecture becomes a kind of Levittown, with chapter after chapter hammered together to establish exactly the same point that was made in the one before. …The novel’s dialogue is never even accidentally plausible.”
Sam Anderson, “Mrs. Logic,” New York, 10/18/09
Sample insight: “After reading the details of Rand’s early life, I find it hard to think of Objectivism as very objective at all—it looks more like a rational program retrofitted to a lifelong temperament, a fantasy world created to cancel the nightmare of a terrifying childhood. This is the comedy, the tragedy, and the power of Rand: She built a glorious imaginary empire on that nuclear-grade temperament, then devoted every ounce of her will and intelligence to proving it was all pure reason.”
Jonathan Chait, “Wealthcare,” The New Republic, 9/14/09
Chait barely mentions the books under review; he takes their publication as a jumping-off point for an analysis of how Rand’s toxic ideas still influence politics and economics. “Rand pioneered this leap of logic–the ideological pity of the rich for the oppression that they suffer as a class.” Alan Greenspan makes the most extended (and disturbing) appearance here. Chait makes Rand out to be a hypocrite and a villain, not to mention a bona fide cult leader.
Andrew Corsello, “The Bitch Is Back,” GQ, 10/27/09
I should warn you, this article is the crudest of the bunch, and the presentation is about as delicate as you probably expect from GQ. But I found the complete lack of decorum refreshing, in the midst of all this semi-serious discussion. At the end of the day, what are Ayn Rand’s novels for if not to be made fun of? Corsello does that; he also focuses on the adolescent experience of getting swept up in Objectivism, and labels those who fail to outgrow this phase “Ayn Rand Assholes.” How can you identify such a person? “If a panhandler asks him for a little money or food, [he] says, ‘I could, but then you might live longer, so you see my dilemma.’”
Commonweal, to its eternal credit, seems to have ignored the publication of The Fountainhead and Rand’s other books completely. But my search of the archives did turn up an “et cetera” item headlined “Charity Fraud Alert,” from February 2000. It’s a reaction to a mail solicitation from the Ayn Rand Institute, which warned Americans not to fall for “the phony idea that you have a moral duty to serve others…. Real morality means pursuing your own happiness and interests.” To spread that gospel, the ARI needed money — money it would use in part to attract “eager young minds” via its essay contests. “Once imbued with Objectivism,” the Commonweal editors noted, “the students will eventually ‘put that philosophy into action as they take control of our country’s institutions of government and the private sector.’” And what happens to students who, despite their best efforts, fall short of Ayn Rand’s ideals? Now you know: they grow up to be Commonweal editors too.