This first appeared on Instead of a Blog, on September 27, 2002, at this address: http://www.insteadofablog.com/2002.09.27.shtml

Ayn Rand: An Unsympathetic Introduction

Wirkman Virkkala

I am no great admirer of Ayn Rand. I’ve read only one of her fictions, The Fountainhead. I enjoyed it, but it did not compel me to read her other novels. Though Rand’s prose and dramaturgy evidence a great deal of flair, throughout my reading of The Fountainhead I detected a creepy element, the near-constant suggestion that levity was somehow immoral. This woman, I thought, has a strange sense of life. I decided other writers provided literature more wholesome as well as more entertaining.

Now, I’ve read a fair amount of Rand’s non-fiction — in self-defense. People who are persuaded of a basically liberal (read: libertarian) individualism tend to inundate you with citations of Rand, praises of Rand, arguments cribbed from Rand. As a libertarian, I have been subjected to way too much Randian prostelytizing. But despite my antipathy, because I hold that nearly every argument original in Rand is wrong, and that many of her arguments against other individualist thinkers are mean-spirited, ignorant, and even ludicrous, it has been necessary for me to keep abreast, somewhat, of the Randian literature.

But let me emphasize that word somewhat. I have no intention of mounting an exhaustive survey of her particular brand of error. I make no pretense of understanding every element of her Objectivism. What follows are a few recommended books and articles. A few are online; the rest are available from LFB.com and Amazon.com.

Fables for Our Time

Ayn Rand was first and foremost a screenwriter and a novelist. The best place to begin appreciating her work is in her fictions.

The Fountainhead is quite moving, containing two brilliantly conceived and drawn characters, Peter Keating and Gale Wynand. Howard Roark, the hero, however, is rather wooden and unappealing. This is no great fault, protagonists needn’t be sympathetic. But Rand makes it quite obvious that you are supposed to admire him rather than think him a prick. Dominique, his love-interest, is a bizarre creation, a fleshing out of a philosophically twisted idea. Rand is obviously not a realist, but a Romantic. It struck me as a compelling novel, and I’ve often recommended it, despite the obvious perversity of the story’s main premise, which economist Mark Skousen ably deconstructed.

The film of The Fountainhead is less of a success. It is, I think, a fascinating failure. There’s much to be said for it, as Rex Reed does on the radio at the beginning of Albert Brooks’s Lost in America. The trouble lies chiefly with the choice of the actor to play Howard Roark, Gary Cooper. Cooper correctly saw that Roark was a wooden creation, and he, an actor prone to a ligneous demeanor, solidifies this element. Not a plus.

Of the several films Rand wrote, Love Letters strikes me as the only one worth watching more than once. It features an impressively odd performance by Jennifer Jones. She plays Singleton, an ecstatic amnesiac. I enjoyed this film, but perhaps I shouldn’t confess to this: most viewers regard it as just a bit dumb. A guilty pleasure, then.

I know competent critics who regard We, The Living as her best novel. But, since I haven’t read it, I’m no judge. Goffredo Alessandrini’s Italian-language movie, made in 1942, during the fascist period, is very long and rather good. Alida Valli is always worth watching, at the very least!

Anthem is a little book that, as a result of its odd publishing history, may be in the public domain in America. There are many editions, and I’ve even seen it reprinted in garish science-fiction magazines. The premise — in the collectivist future, the word I has been stricken from the vocabulary! — strikes me as so silly that I’ve refused to read it. The rock group Rush wrote their theme album 2112 as an homage to Rand and to this book, using a similarly silly premise to string together songs for their rock ‘n’ roll drama. Good goofy fun.

Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s biggest book. It is another foray into science fiction, this time set in an alternate modern world where trains, not planes, figure as the main form of long-distance transportation. Friends have been regaling me with the characters and plot for years, but all I’ve read are a few quotations from it and its first page, which did not grab me. But I do know that the book contains many speeches, and one extremely long one. (This is not all that uncommon among Romantics, for some reason. Consider the long speeches in F. Marion Crawford’s novels, such as in the wonderfully weird The Witch of Prague. This is even more clear in the conclusion to An American Politician, alas out of print.) Rand’s die-hard fans often talk of making Atlas into a movie, but a book this big and this odd can’t be filmed very easily. Maybe they can get Peter Jackson to do it.

Rand as Philosopher

Though Atlas Shrugged contains a lot of argument, Rand made her reputation as a pop philosopher and contender for serious intellectual consideration in her essays, chiefly.  But as philosopher John Hospers noted in his fascinating Conversations with Ayn Rand, she never bothered to write a peer-reviewed presentation of her ideas. She always wrote for her acolytes. Anyone accustomed to academic philosophy will no doubt find her articles high on rhetoric and low on rigor. Leaps in logic abound. But the rhetoric is strong, and persuasive if you are already half-persuaded of her positions.

The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, is a slender collection of essays on moral philosophy, containing several written by her one-time disciple Nathaniel Branden. The introduction explains the title and her leading notions. The Objectivist Ethicselaborates these ideas at greater length, if not with the coherence she intended. Nathaniel Branden’s essays include one that touches briefly on the goofy notion of psychological egoism: Isn’t Everyone Selfish? His answer is a resounding no. But it’s a very short essay, and by no means covers all the bases. Perhaps this is one reason why Rand-influenced egoists often lurch into the error of psychological egoism: the warning hadn’t been pounded into their heads strong enough.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is another brilliantly titled essay collection, this time including work by retired Hoover Institution scholar Robert Hessen and current Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan — but written when these two were young. Rand’s contributions include essays that show her argumentative spirit in full flower, such as America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business. Greenspan’s essays should be read by anyone interested in the intellectual development of the world’s most powerful office-holder.

The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution is a good example of Rand’s fast-and-loose ways of interpreting those with whom she disagrees with. Still, Apollo vs. Dionysis is not only well written, it’s almost convincing; The Comprachicos shows her rhetorical skills at full power. I was uncomfortable with her anti-rebellion arguments in The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’ when I first read it years ago, but now it seems on-target, though humorless (Mencken would have taken the same stance but made a great deal of fun of the New Left nonsense; Rand comes off like the dourest of Hebrew prophets). The Age of Envy, on the other hand, has to be one of the most unreliable and wrong-headed discussions of its subject matter I’ve ever come across. In this book Rand is at her very best and her very worst.

The Romantic Manifesto is a series of essays elucidating her aesthetic program. It presents a most unconvincing attempt to shanghai Aristotle’s idea of mimesis into service for hero-worship, but it does reveal some key elements in Rand’s psyche.

An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is just that, an introduction, not a treatise. I’ve skimmed this only, and may someday read the whole thing. After Whewell and Spencer and Peirce and Popper and Santayana and Husserl, I can’t say this book strikes me as necessary reading, but it looks like it will provide a good grounding to Rand’s thought. Leonard Peikoff contributes an essay in the appendix to the edition I own. It treats of the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, and is the reason I haven’t read the book — yes, it was that bad. Other philosophers had given me interesting reasons to question the validity of the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, but this essay reinforced the need for the dichotomy. (I should note that most followers of Rand deem Peikoff a genius for this advance on Rand’s epistemology, and regard the essay as brilliant. Go figure.)

More Than Enough About Rand’s Ideas

Stephen Cox has penned some valuable discussions of Rand’s approach to aesthetics, especially his essay Ayn Rand: Theory vs. Creative Life. Other writers have assayed her novels, too, but I’ve read little in this cottage industry. For the secondary literature, I will only recommend what I’ve had the opportunity (and inclination) to review, and these focus on her philosophy:

Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand — this book is apparently so good it is worth stealing. The copy I read can be found in a prominent libertarian’s library. Its de facto owner had secreted it out of a public library for his own private use and, when I read it, hadn’t yet bothered to rip off the library matter — he was one of those libertarians who conveniently believed that public property is no one’s property or somesuch nonsense. But however you obtain it, the book is worth reading. Several of the essays are of very high quality.

In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Chris Sciabarra looks at Ayn Rand as if she were a sophisticated dialectical thinker. Like most such hermeneutic exercises, this probably tells more about the hermeneutician than it does the subject, but it is fascinating. There’s also quite a bit about Rand’s education in Russia, and about Russia’s Silver Age of philosophy.

Robert Nozick, prior to writing his famous Anarchy, State, and Utopia, took on Ayn Rand in a much-discussed essay, On the Randian Argument. I read that essay and several critiques of it in Reading Nozick, which no longer appears to be in print. I’ve been told you can still find the essay in Socratic Puzzles — but obviously without the critiques by other philosophers (which were at least as interesting, if not more so). I’d suggest finding a copy of Reading Nozick: It’s an indispensable little collection.

There are many online resources for Objectivism, many Usenet groups, many Rand-lovers and Rand-haters. One place well worth checking out is the Objectivism Reference Center’s Criticisms of Objectivism page.

Ayn Rand’s Followers

Criticizing Rand is a sure way to elicit hate mail. After I wrote a review of books by two of her followers — which included an introductory section on the errors in Rand’s egoism — I received many, many letters lambasting me. Amusingly, not one of them addressed my central contention! My favorite of these letters suggested that I consult the dictionary before I write on the definitions of egoism and altruism — you guessed it, I had indeed quoted from the dictionary early on in my piece, and in fact quoted the very same definition my criticaster had emphasized. (Understandably, this letter never saw print.)

Yes, Rand’s readers can be a pretty touchy lot. And their devotion to Rand easily unhinges their minds. When, in a review of a book by Mary Gaitskill, I confessed to being the ideal reader for send-ups of Ayn Rand and her followers, philosopher Tibor Machan wrote saying that the only reason I could have for this was envy! Yes, folks, I envied her for her successes and her novels and her arguments while pretending merely to despise them. It apparently never entered the philosopher’s head to ask himself why I did not express my hatred and envy for Spencer, Mises, and Hayek (to name but three successful, impressive libertarian writers I favored over Rand).

But then, Rand herself was utterly unhinged on the subject of envy, and preferred to impute to her disputants the most disreputable of motives.

But one does not need to impute much to Rand; many of her actions were so disreputable that her motives are fairly easy to judge. And even the most most extremely negative judgments against her character have some merit to them. Consider this: Libertarians enjoy going into high dudgeon when talking about Whittaker Chambers’s infamous review of Atlas Shrugged (National Review). He noted the book’s dictatorial tone,

which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. . . . From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding, To a gas chamber — go!

Having read The Fountainhead, and numerous essays, and having listened to the recitals of her ideas by her besotted admirers, I can understand where Chambers was coming from. Rand’s rhetoric is that of a dogmatist, Chris Sciabarra’s portrait of her as a dialectician notwithstanding. And in her private life she proved what Chambers merely intuited from her fiction: she was a tyrant.

How Bitterly Comic It All Is

Libertarians who engage in tyranny can’t help but raise eyebrows — and justify chortles of laughter. Rand is surely the grand case. Professing to love liberty, dedicated to defending the individual, she nevertheless found ways of trampling on real individuals over and over again.

The stories of her enormities are well preserved in the literature about her. The best (and most generous to Rand) of this tell-all literature is, once again, John Hospers’s fascinating Conversations With Ayn Rand (Port Townsend: Liberty, July and Sept., 1990). Alas, it has not hit book form, yet, and a Google search indicates that it is not online, either.

Nathaniel Branden wrote a peculiar and self-destructing confession of his affair with her, entitled Judgment Day. I read the opening chapter only, but learned enough to know that, for all the corrupting influence that he may have had on her (and surely he did; sycophants can corrupt even noble souls, if those souls aren’t careful), she initiated the cycle of corruption. From the very beginning she twisted his mind away from reasonable interpretation toward her own dogmatic bent. Read that first chapter.

Nathan’s first wife, Barbara, came out with her memoir first, and her effort, The Passion of Ayn Rand, is probably the better book. Unfortunately, like Nathan, Barbara Branden obviously has not progressed much beyond Rand’s own ideas, despite having suffered a painful excommunication from the cult. Still, her book is elegantly written and filled with great stories.

However, Ms. Branden’s basic take on Rand’s life story has it all wrong. Rand’s life was not a passion; it was a comedy, a cruel comedy of bad manners.

It is a pity that the 20th century’s greatest female philosopher-novelist, Iris Murdochnot Ayn Rand! — did not attempt to rewrite Barbara Branden’s biography. For yes, Murdoch would have made it a true masterpiece. Many of the great Murdoch themes are there in the life of Rand, not least of which is the tyrannical egoist abusing less-powerful individuals. Iris Murdoch’s violent tragi-comedies hold up well, and provide the best counter-balance to Rand’s twisted romances. It is a pity that Murdoch did not adopt the politics that Rand espoused, grounding individual liberty on an understanding not of egoism but of sociability. If she had done so, perhaps by some cosmic poetic justice Rand could have taken on a philosophy more natural to her illiberal, dogmatic bent; some form of fascism, perhaps. With her as Fuehrer, of course.

Am I too cruel?

Wrong question: does not a pattern of extravagant, repeated cruelty justify some cruelty in return?

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