Garbage and Gravitas | The Nation

Garbage and Gravitas

  • Share
  • |
  • |
  • |
  • Recommended by 9
  • |
  • Text Size A | A | A

St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both. Many other people have thought so too. In 1998 readers responding to a Modern Library poll identified Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as the two greatest novels of the twentieth century—surpassing Ulysses, To the Lighthouse and Invisible Man. In 1991 a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club found that with the exception of the Bible, no book has influenced more American readers than Atlas Shrugged.


About the Author

Corey Robin
Corey Robin, a visiting fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY...

Also by The Author

Ayn Rand and the World She Made
By Anne C. Heller.
Buy this book

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
By Jennifer Burns.
Buy this book

One of those readers might well have been Farrah Fawcett. Not long before she died, the actress called Rand a "literary genius" whose refusal to make her art "like everyone else's" inspired Fawcett's experiments in painting and sculpture. The admiration, it seems, was mutual. Rand watched Charlie's Angels each week and, according to Fawcett, "saw something" in the show "that the critics didn't."

She described the show as a "triumph of concept and casting." Ayn said that while Angels was uniquely American, it was also the exception to American television in that it was the only show to capture true "romanticism"—it intentionally depicted the world not as it was, but as it should be. Aaron Spelling was probably the only other person to see Angels that way, although he referred to it as "comfort television."

So taken was Rand with Fawcett that she hoped the actress (or if not her, Raquel Welch) would play the part of Dagny Taggart in a TV version of Atlas Shrugged on NBC. Unfortunately, network head Fred Silverman killed the project in 1978. "I'll always think of 'Dagny Taggart' as the best role I was supposed to play but never did," Fawcett said.

Rand's following in Hollywood has always been strong. Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake fought to play the part of Dominique Francon in the movie version of The Fountainhead. Never to be outdone in that department, Joan Crawford threw a dinner party for Rand in which she dressed as Francon, wearing a streaming white gown dotted with aquamarine gemstones. More recently, the author of The Virtue of Selfishness and the statement "if civilization is to survive, it is the altruist morality that men have to reject" has found an unlikely pair of fans in the Hollywood humanitarian set. Rand "has a very interesting philosophy," says Angelina Jolie. "You re-evaluate your own life and what's important to you." The Fountainhead "is so dense and complex," marvels Brad Pitt, "it would have to be a six-hour movie." (The 1949 film version has a running time of 113 minutes, and it feels long.) Christina Ricci claims that The Fountainhead is her favorite book because it taught her that "you're not a bad person if you don't love everyone." Rob Lowe boasts that Atlas Shrugged is "a stupendous achievement, and I just adore it." And any boyfriend of Eva Mendes, the actress says, "has to be an Ayn Rand fan."

But Rand, at least according to her fiction, shouldn't have attracted any fans at all. The central plot device of her novels is the conflict between the creative individual and the hostile mass. The greater the individual's achievement, the greater the mass's resistance. As Howard Roark, The Fountainhead's architect hero, puts it:

The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid.

Rand clearly thought of herself as one of these creators. In an interview with Mike Wallace she declared herself "the most creative thinker alive." That was in 1957, when Arendt, Quine, Sartre, Camus, Lukács, Adorno, Murdoch, Heidegger, Beauvoir, Rawls, Anscombe and Popper were all at work. It was also the year of the first performance of Endgame and the publication of Pnin, Doctor Zhivago and The Cat in the Hat. Two years later, Rand told Wallace that "the only philosopher who ever influenced me" was Aristotle. Otherwise, everything came "out of my own mind." She boasted to her friends and to her publisher at Random House, Bennet Cerf, that she was "challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years." She saw herself as she saw Roark, who said, "I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one." But tens of thousands of fans were already standing with her. In 1945, just two years after its publication, The Fountainhead sold 100,000 copies. In 1957, the year Atlas Shrugged was published, it sat on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-one weeks.

Rand may have been uneasy about the challenge her popularity posed to her worldview, for she spent much of her later life spinning tales about the chilly response she and her work had received. She falsely claimed that twelve publishers rejected The Fountainhead before it found a home. She styled herself the victim of a terrible but necessary isolation, claiming that "all achievement and progress has been accomplished, not just by men of ability and certainly not by groups of men, but by a struggle between man and mob." But how many lonely writers emerge from their study, having just written "The End" on the last page of their novel, to be greeted by a chorus of congratulations from a waiting circle of fans?

Had she been a more careful reader of her work, Rand might have seen this irony coming. However much she liked to pit the genius against the mass, her fiction always betrayed a secret communion between the two. Each of her two most famous novels gives its estranged hero an opportunity to defend himself in a lengthy speech before the untutored and the unlettered. Roark declaims before a jury of "the hardest faces" that includes "a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener and three factory workers." John Galt takes to the airwaves in Atlas Shrugged, addressing millions of listeners for hours on end. In each instance, the hero is understood, his genius acclaimed, his alienation resolved. And that's because, as Galt explains, there are "no conflicts of interest among rational men"—which is just a Randian way of saying that every story has a happy ending.

The chief conflict in Rand's novels, then, is not between the individual and the masses. It is between the demigod-creator and all those unproductive elements of society—the intellectuals, bureaucrats and middlemen—that stand between him and the masses. Aesthetically, this makes for kitsch; politically, it bends toward fascism. Admittedly, the argument that there is a connection between fascism and kitsch has taken a beating over the years. Yet surely the example of Rand—and the publication of two new Rand biographies, Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market—is suggestive enough to put the question of that connection back on the table.

She was born on February 2, three weeks after the failed revolution of 1905. Her parents were Jewish. They lived in St. Petersburg, a city long governed by hatred of the Jews. By 1914 its register of anti-Semitic restrictions ran to nearly 1,000 pages, including one statute limiting Jews to no more than 2 percent of the population. They named her Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum.

When she was 4 or 5 she asked her mother if she could have a blouse like the one her cousins wore. Her mother said no. She asked for a cup of tea like the one being served to the grown-ups. Again her mother said no. She wondered why she couldn't have what she wanted. Someday, she vowed, she would. In later life, Rand would make much of this experience. Heller does too: "The elaborate and controversial philosophical system she went on to create in her forties and fifties was, at its heart, an answer to this question and a memorialization of this project."

The story, as told, is pure Rand. There's the focus on a single incident as portent or precipitant of dramatic fate. There's the elevation of childhood commonplace to grand philosophy. What child, after all, hasn't bridled at being denied what she wants? Though Rand seems to have taken youthful selfishness to its outermost limits—as a child she disliked Robin Hood; as a teenager she watched her family nearly starve while she treated herself to the theater—her solipsism was neither so rare nor so precious as to warrant more than the usual amount of adolescent self-absorption. There is, finally, the inadvertent revelation that one's worldview constitutes little more than a case of arrested development. "It is not that chewing gum undermines metaphysics," Max Horkheimer once wrote about mass culture, "but that it is metaphysics—this is what must be made clear." Rand made it very, very clear.

But the anecdote suggests something additionally distinctive about Rand. Not her opinions or tastes, which were middlebrow and conventional. Rand claimed Victor Hugo as her primary inspiration in matters of fiction; Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac was another touchstone. She deemed Rachmaninoff superior to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. She was offended by a reviewer's admittedly foolish comparison of The Fountainhead to The Magic Mountain. Mann, Rand thought, was the inferior author, as was Solzhenitsyn.

Nor was it her sense of self that set Rand apart from others. True, she tended toward the cartoonish and the grandiose. She told Nathaniel Branden, her much younger lover and disciple of many years, that he should desire her even if she were 80 and in a wheelchair. Her essays often quote Galt's speeches as if the character were a real person, a philosopher on the order of Plato or Kant. She claimed to have created herself with the help of no one, even though she was the lifelong beneficiary of social democratic largesse. She got a college education thanks to the Russian Revolution, which opened universities to women and Jews and, once the Bolsheviks had seized power, made tuition free. Subsidizing theater for the masses, the Bolsheviks also made it possible for Rand to see cheesy operettas on a weekly basis. After Rand's first play closed in New York City in April 1936, the Works Progress Administration took it on the road to theaters across the country, giving Rand a handsome income of $10 a performance throughout the late 1930s. Librarians at the New York Public Library assisted her with the research for The Fountainhead. Still, her narcissism was probably no greater—and certainly no less sustaining—than that of your run-of-the-mill struggling author.

No, what truly distinguished Rand was her ability to translate her sense of self into reality, to will her imagined identity into material fact. Not by being great but by persuading others, even shrewd biographers, that she was great. Heller, for example, repeatedly praises Rand's "original, razor sharp mind" and "lightning-quick logic," making one wonder if she's read any of Rand's work. She claims that Rand was able "to write more persuasively from a male point of view than any female writer since George Eliot." Does Heller really believe that Roark or Galt is more credible or persuasive than Lawrence Selden or Newland Archer? Or little James Ramsay, who seems to have acquired more psychic depth in his six years than any of Rand's protagonists, male or female, demonstrate throughout their entire lives?

Burns, an intellectual historian of the American right, is better informed and more judicious than Heller, a journalist who sometimes sounds like a foreign correspondent in need of a good interpreter (she identifies Trotsky as Lenin's "former sidekick" and says that Rand's characters are two-dimensional because they are meant to embody political ideas rather than emotional complexity, as if Dostoyevsky, Stendhal and a host of other writers, including the inferior Mann, hadn't managed to do both). But even Burns is occasionally seduced by Rand. She writes that Rand was "among the first to identify the modern state's often terrifying power and to make it an issue of popular concern," which is true only if one sets aside Montesquieu, Godwin, Constant, Tocqueville, Proudhon, Bakunin, Spencer, Kropotkin, Malatesta and Emma Goldman. She claims that Rand disliked the "messiness of the bohemian student protestors" of the '60s because she was "raised in the high European tradition." And what tradition is that? Operettas and Rachmaninoff? Melodrama and movies? She concludes that "what remains" of enduring value in Rand is her injunction to "be true to yourself," which is a notion I seem to recall figuring in a play about a Danish prince written several centuries before Rand's birth.

To understand how Alissa Rosenbaum created Ayn Rand, we need to trace her itinerary not to pre-revolutionary Russia, which is the mistaken conceit of these biographies, but to her destination upon leaving Soviet Russia in 1926: Hollywood. For where else but in the dream factory could Rand have learned how to make dreams—about America, about capitalism and about herself?

Even before she was in Hollywood, Rand was of Hollywood. In 1925 alone, she saw 117 movies. It was in movies, Burns says, that Rand "glimpsed America"—and, we might add, developed her enduring sense of narrative form. Once there, she became the subject of her very own Hollywood story. She was discovered by Cecil B. DeMille, who saw her mooning about his studio looking for work. Intrigued by her intense gaze, he gave her a ride in his car and a job as an extra, which she quickly turned into a screenwriting gig. Within a few years her scripts were attracting attention from major players, prompting one newspaper to run a story with the headline Russian Girl Finds End of Rainbow in Hollywood.

Rand, of course, was not the only European who came to Hollywood during the interwar years. But unlike Fritz Lang, Hanns Eisler and other exiles among the palm trees and klieg lights, Rand did not escape to Hollywood; she went there willingly, eagerly. Billy Wilder arrived and shrugged his shoulders; Rand came on bended knee. Her mission was to learn, not refine or improve, the art of the dream factory: how to turn a good yarn into a suspenseful plot, an ordinary person into an outsize hero (or villain)—all the tricks of melodramatic narrative designed to persuade millions of viewers that life is really lived at a fever pitch. Most important, she learned how to perform that alchemy upon herself. Ayn Rand was Norma Desmond in reverse: she was small; the pictures got big.

When playing the part of the Philosopher, Rand liked to claim Aristotle as her tutor. "Never have so many"—uncharacteristically, she included herself here—"owed so much to one man." It's not clear how much of Aristotle's work Rand actually read: when she wasn't quoting Galt, she had a habit of attributing to the Greek philosopher statements and ideas that don't appear in any of his writings. One alleged Aristotelianism Rand was fond of citing did appear, complete with false attribution, in the autobiography of Albert Jay Nock, an influential libertarian from the New Deal era. In Rand's copy of Nock's memoir, Burns observes in an endnote, the passage is marked "with six vertical lines."

Rand also liked to cite Aristotle's law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand "A is A"—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state. That particular transport sent Rand's admirers into rapture and drove her critics, even the friendliest, to distraction. Several months before his death in 2002, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the most analytically sophisticated of twentieth-century libertarians, said that "the use that's made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of completely unjustified so far as I can see; it's illegitimate." In 1961 Sidney Hook wrote in the New York Times,

Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth.... Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that "existence exists," which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

Whether or not Rand read Aristotle, it's clear that he made little impression upon her, particularly when it came to ethics. Aristotle had a distinctive approach to morality, quite out of keeping with modern sensibilities; and while Rand had some awareness of its distinctiveness, its substance seems to have been lost on her. Like a set of faux-leather classics on the living room shelf, Aristotle was there to impress the company—and, in Rand's case, distract from the real business at hand.

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self's most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

If Kant is an athlete of the moral life, Aristotle is its virtuoso. Rand, by contrast, is a melodramatist of the moral life. Apprenticed in Hollywood rather than Athens, she has little patience for the quiet habituation in the virtues that Aristotelian ethics entails. She returns instead to her favored image of a heroic individual confronting a difficult path. Difficulty is never the result of confusion or ambiguity; Rand loathed "the cult of moral grayness," insisting that morality is first and always "a code of black and white." What makes the path treacherous—not for the hero, who seems to have been born fully outfitted for it, but for the rest of us—are the obstacles along the way. Doing the right thing brings hardship, penury and exile, while doing the wrong thing brings wealth, status and acclaim. Because he refuses to submit to architectural conventions, Roark winds up splitting rocks in a quarry. Peter Keating, Roark's doppelgänger, betrays everyone, including himself, and is the toast of the town. Ultimately, of course, the distribution of rewards and punishments will reverse: Roark is happy, Keating miserable. But ultimately is always and inevitably a long ways off.

In her essays, Rand seeks to apply to this imagery a superficial Aristotelian gloss. She, too, roots her ethics in human nature and refuses to draw a distinction between self-interest and the good, between ethical conduct and desire or need. But Rand's metric of good and evil, virtue and vice, is not happiness or flourishing. It is the stern and stark exigencies of life and death. As she writes in "The Objectivist Ethics":

I quote from Galt's speech: "There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil."

Rand's defenders like to claim that what Rand has in mind by "life" is not simply biological preservation but the good life of Aristotle's great-souled man, what Rand characterizes as "the survival of man qua man." And it's true that Rand isn't much taken with mere life or life for life's sake. That would be too pedestrian. But Rand's naturalism is far removed from Aristotle's. For him life is a given; for her it is a question, and that very question is what makes life, on its own, such an object and source of reflection.

What gives life value is the ever present possibility that it might (and one day will) end. Rand never speaks of life as a given or ground. It is a conditional, a choice we must make, not once but again and again. Death casts a pall, lending our days an urgency and weight they otherwise would lack. It demands wakefulness, an alertness to the fatefulness of each and every moment. "One must never act like a zombie," Rand enjoins. Death, in short, makes life dramatic. It makes our choices—not just the big ones but the little ones we make every day, every second—matter. In the Randian universe, it's high noon all the time. Far from being exhausting or enervating, such an existence, at least to Rand and her characters, is enlivening and exciting.

If this idea has any moral resonance, it will be heard not in the writings of Aristotle but in the drill march of fascism. The notion of life as a struggle against and unto death, of every moment laden with destruction, every choice pregnant with destiny, every action weighed upon by annihilation, its lethal pressure generating moral meaning—these are the watchwords of the European night. In his famous Berlin Sportpalast speech of February 1943, Goebbels declared, "Whatever serves it and its struggle for existence is good and must be sustained and nurtured. Whatever is injurious to it and its struggle for existence is evil and must be removed and eliminated." The "it" in question is the German nation, not the Randian individual. But if we strip the pronoun of its antecedent—and listen for the background hum of triumph and will, being and nonbeing, preservation and elimination—the similarities between the moral syntax of Randianism and of fascism become clear. Goodness is measured by life, life is a struggle against death and only our daily vigilance ensures that one does not prevail over the other.

Rand, no doubt, would object to the comparison. There is, after all, a difference between the individual and the collective. Rand thought the former an existential fundament, the latter—whether it took the form of a class, race or nation—a moral monstrosity. And where Goebbels talked of violence and war, Rand spoke of commerce and trade, production and economy. But fascism is hardly hostile to the heroic individual. That individual, moreover, often finds his deepest calling in economic activity. Far from demonstrating a divergence from fascism, Rand's economic writings register its impression indelibly.

Here is Hitler speaking to a group of industrialists in Düsseldorf in 1932:

You maintain, gentlemen, that the German economy must be constructed on the basis of private property. Now such a conception of private property can only be maintained in practice if it in some way appears to have a logical foundation. This conception must derive its ethical justification from the insight that this is what nature dictates.

Rand, too, believes that capitalism is vulnerable to attack because it lacks "a philosophical base." If it is to survive, it must be rationally justified. We must "begin at the beginning," with nature itself. "In order to sustain its life, every living species has to follow a certain course of action required by its nature." Because reason is man's "means of survival," nature dictates that "men prosper or fail, survive or perish in proportion to the degree of their rationality." (Notice the slippage between success and failure and life and death.) Capitalism is the one system that acknowledges and incorporates this dictate of nature. "It is the basic, metaphysical fact of man's nature—the connection between his survival and his use of reason—that capitalism recognizes and protects." Like Hitler, Rand finds in nature, in man's struggle for survival, a "logical foundation" for capitalism.

Far from privileging the collective over the individual or subsuming the latter under the former, Hitler believed that it was the "strength and power of individual personality" that determined the economic (and cultural) fate of the race and nation. Here he is in 1933 addressing another group of industrialists:

Everything positive, good and valuable that has been achieved in the world in the field of economics or culture is solely attributable to the importance of personality.... All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the select few.

And here is Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967):

The exceptional men, the innovators, the intellectual giants....It is the members of this exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements, while rising further and ever further.

If the first half of Hitler's economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize "the outstanding achievements of individuals," Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that "people are not of equal value or of equal importance." Private property "can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men's achievements are different." An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. "The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another."

Rand's appreciation of inequality is equally pungent. I quote from Galt's speech:

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains. Such is the nature of the "competition" between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of "exploitation" for which you have damned the strong.

Rand's path from nature to individualism to inequality also ends in a world divided between "the creative and decomposing forces." In every society, says Roark, there is a "creator" and a parasitic "second-hander," each with its own nature and code. The first "allows man to survive." The second is "incapable of survival." One produces life, the other induces death. In Atlas Shrugged the battle is between the producer and the "looters" and "moochers." It too must end in life or death.

It should come as no surprise to find Rand in such company, for she and the Nazis share a patrimony in the vulgar Nietzscheanism that has stalked the radical right, whether in its libertarian or fascist variants, since the early part of the twentieth century. As Heller and especially Burns show, Nietzsche exerted an early grip on Rand that never really loosened. Her cousin teased Rand that Nietzsche "beat you to all your ideas." When Rand arrived in the United States, Thus Spake Zarathustra was the first book in English she bought. With Nietzsche on her mind, she was inspired to write in her journals that "the secret of life" is, "you must be nothing but will. Know what you want and do it. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it, every minute of the day. All will and all control. Send everything else to hell!" Her entries frequently include phrases like "Nietzsche and I think" and "as Nietzsche said."

Rand was much taken with the idea of the violent criminal as moral hero, a Nietzschean transvaluator of all values; according to Burns, she "found criminality an irresistible metaphor for individualism." A literary Leopold and Loeb, she plotted out a novella based on the actual case of a murderer who strangled a 12-year-old girl. The murderer, said Rand, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness—resulting from the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people." That is not a bad description of Nietzsche's master class in The Genealogy of Morals.

Though Rand's defenders claim she later abandoned her infatuation with Nietzsche, Burns does an excellent job of demonstrating its persistence. There's the figure of Roark himself: "As she jotted down notes on Roark's personality," writes Burns, "she told herself, 'See Nietzsche about laughter.' The book's famous first line indicates the centrality of this connection: 'Howard Roark laughed.'" And then there's Atlas Shrugged, which Ludwig von Mises, one of the presiding eminences of neoclassical economics, praised thus:

You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

But Nietzsche's influence saturated Rand's writing in a deeper way, one emblematic of the overall trajectory of the conservative right since its birth in the crucible of the French Revolution. Rand was a lifelong atheist with a special animus for Christianity, which she called the "best kindergarten of communism possible." Far from representing a heretical tendency within conservatism, Rand's statement channels a tradition of right-wing suspicion about the insidious effects of religion, particularly Christianity, on the modern world. Where many conservatives since 1789 have rallied to Christianity and religion as an antidote to the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the more farsighted among them have seen religion, or at least some aspect of it, as the adjutant of revolution.

Joseph de Maistre, the most visionary of France's early counterrevolutionaries, was one of the first to speak of this. An arch-Catholic, he traced the French Revolution to the acrid solvents of the Reformation. With its celebration of "private interpretation" of the Scriptures, Protestantism paved the way for century upon century of regicide and revolt originating in the lower classes.

It is from the shadow of a cloister that there emerges one of mankind's very greatest scourges. Luther appears; Calvin follows him. The Peasants' Revolt; the Thirty Years' War; the civil war in France...the murders of Henry II, Henry IV, Mary Stuart, and Charles I; and finally, in our day, from the same source, the French Revolution.

Nietzsche, the child of a Lutheran pastor, radicalized this argument, painting all of Christianity—indeed all of Western religion, going back to Judaism—as a slave morality, the psychic revolt of the lower orders against their betters. Before there was religion or even morality, there was the sense and sensibility of the master class. The master looked upon his body—its strength and beauty, its demonstrated excellence and reserves of power—and saw and said that it was good. As an afterthought he looked upon the slave, and saw and said that it was bad. The slave never looked upon himself: he was consumed by envy of and resentment toward his master. Too weak to act upon his rage and take revenge, he launched a quiet but lethal revolt of the mind. He called all the master's attributes—power, indifference to suffering, thoughtless cruelty—evil. He spoke of his own attributes—meekness, humility, forbearance—as good. He devised a religion that made selfishness and self-concern a sin, and compassion and concern for others the path to salvation. He envisioned a universal brotherhood of believers, equal before God, and damned the master's order of unevenly distributed excellence. The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism:

Another Christian concept, no less crazy, has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity: the concept of the "equality of souls before God." This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights: mankind was first taught to stammer the proposition of equality in a religious context, and only later was it made into morality: no wonder that man ended by taking it seriously, taking it practically!—that is to say, politically, democratically, socialistically.

When Rand inveighs against Christianity as the forebear of socialism, when she rails against altruism and sacrifice as inversions of the true hierarchy of values, she is cultivating the strain within conservatism that sees religion as not a remedy to but a helpmate of the left. And when she looks, however ineptly, to Aristotle for an alternative morality, she is recapitulating Nietzsche's journey back to antiquity, where he hoped to find a master-class morality untainted by the egalitarian values of the lower orders.

Though Rand's antireligious defense of capitalism might seem out of place in today's political firmament, we would do well to recall the recent revival of interest in her books. More than 800,000 copies of her novels were sold in 2008 alone; as Burns rightly notes, "Rand is a more active presence in American culture now than she was during her lifetime." Indeed, Rand is regularly cited as a formative influence upon an entire new generation of Republican leaders; Burns calls her "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." Whether or not she is invoked by name, Rand's presence is palpable in the concern, heard increasingly on the right, that there is something sinister afoot in the institutions and teachings of Christianity.

I beg you, look for the words "social justice" or "economic justice" on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.

That was Glenn Beck on his March 2 radio show, taking a stand against, well, pretty much every church in the Christian faith: Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist—even his very own Church of Latter-day Saints.

On her own, Rand is of little significance. It is only her resonance in American culture—and the unsavory associations her resonance evokes—that makes her of any interest. She's not unlike the "second-hander" described by Roark: "Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation.... The second-hander acts, but the source of his actions is scattered in every other living person." For once, it seems, he knew whence he spoke.

But after all the Nietzsche is said and Aristotle is done, we're still left with a puzzle about Rand: how could such a mediocrity, not just a second-hander but a second-rater, exert such a continuing influence on the culture at large?

We possess an entire literature, from Melville to Mamet, devoted to the con man and the hustler, and it's tempting to see Rand as one of the many fakes and frauds who periodically light up the American landscape. But that temptation should be resisted. Rand represents something different, more unsettling. The con man is a liar who can ascertain the truth of things, often better than the rest of us. He has to: if he is going to fleece his mark, he has to know who the mark is and who the mark would like to be. Working in that netherworld between fact and fantasy, the con man can gild the lily only if he sees the lily for what it is. But Rand had no desire to gild anything. The gilded lily was reality. What was there to add? She even sported a lapel pin to make the point: made of gold and fashioned in the shape of a dollar sign, it was bling of the most literal sort.

Since the nineteenth century, it has been the task of the left to hold up to liberal civilization a mirror of its highest values and to say, "You do not look like this." You claim to believe in the rights of man, but it is only the rights of property you uphold. You claim to stand for freedom, but it is only the freedom of the strong to dominate the weak. If you wish to live up to your principles, you must give way to their demiurge. Allow the dispossessed to assume power, and the ideal will be made real, the metaphor will be made material.

Rand believed that this meeting of heaven and earth could be arranged by other means. Rather than remake the world in the image of paradise, she looked for paradise in an image of the world. Political transformation wasn't necessary. Transubstantiation was enough. Say a few words, wave your hands and the ideal is real, the metaphor material. An idealist of the most primitive sort, Rand took a century of socialist dichotomies and flattened them. Small wonder so many have accused her of intolerance: when heaven and earth are pressed so closely together, where is there room for dissent?

Far from needing explanation, Rand's success explains itself. Rand worked in that quintessential American proving ground—alongside the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Glenn Beck—where garbage achieves gravitas and bullshit gets blessed. There she learned that dreams don't come true. They are true. Turn your metaphysics into chewing gum, and your chewing gum is metaphysics. A is A.

  • Share
  • |
  • |
  • |
  • Recommended by 9
  • |
  • Text Size A | A | A

If you like this article, consider making a donation.

Reprint this article. Click here for rights and information.


[ Post Your Comment ]
Showing 50 comments of 53 - next 3 ››
Current Sort: last to first
1. posted by: vor at 02/19/2011 @ 10:18pm

Ayn Rand’s philosophy attempts to find a consistent, unifying thread along four axes:

1) Metaphysics: Objective Reality vs. the slippery subjectivity of “there are no absolutes”
2) Epistemology: Reason vs. Faith (whether it is in a deity, or any other form of collective mysticism)
3) Ethics: rational self-interest vs. self-immolation (in the form of glorified altruism)
4) Politics/economics: Capitalism vs. socialism

In contemporary America, conservatives align themselves strongly with #4, superficially with #1 and #3, but they usually abandon #2 completely (and so fail the consistency test). Leftists flunk all four, which (at least) makes them consistent! Most Leftists believe that their secular traditions make them automatic supporters of #2. The reality is that their Faith is just pointed in a different direction.

Corey Robin’s piece ignores most of the four principles listed above. His article is a pedantic hit piece, in keeping with The Nation’s style, that attacks Rand’s Ethics by labeling and oversimplification. A sprinkling of names and labels, used to connote either literary sophistication [Camus, Satre …] or intellectual snobbery [Glenn Beck, Brad Pitt, OMG!!]. Lacking the gravitas to challenge a philosophical position that seeks intellectual consistency, Robin employs the garbage of condescension. Channeling Salieri (Sire, Mozart’s composition is bad because … it has too few notes), and dropping the names of inbred...

2. posted by: Gregory G. Gibbs at 01/06/2011 @ 5:27pm

The excessive vitriol makes Mr. Robin's piece less fun to read than it might be. Rand deserves it. She was not very smart and paraded herself as some genius [which she clearly was not]. However, he's way off on Nietzsche. Look at Nietzsche's positive remarks about the Buddha and the historical person of Jesus. He say their altruism as deriving from the strength of a virtuous character, just as Aristotle suggested should happen. He believed that truly strong people [o.k., he would have said men and not "people" are kind out of strength. Greg Gibbs of Portland

3. posted by: curiousbutwithvalues at 11/28/2010 @ 1:58am

I enjoyed much of the article though wasting so much ink and so much junk (which is what Ayn Rand was) might have been unncessary. Providing such a deep critique of someone who was such a non-intellectual might be an overkill. The segment looking at Aristotle's first principle of logic and Ayn Rand's identity issues in her plays might have been unncessary - as Aristotle's objectivism was not about identity at all. What I am more concerned about is the number of young people in countries like India who are exposed to lightweights like Ayn Rand when most of the local reading they do is nothing more than movie magazines. She is appealing to uneducated insecure men (from poor countries or families) with an ambition to succeed, or to narcisstic men (or their female counterparts) who mistake nihilism for capitalism, capitalism for economics and economics for philosophy. Don't waste so much time with a lightweight (who just happened to get into the movies). I don't care if Ayn Rand is a conservative, libertarian or beyond labels (which she disliked)...she is not that deep, interesting or intelligent. But she was well promoted - unfortunately.

4. posted by: IndigoAves at 06/15/2010 @ 8:21pm

I would like to just clarify a few of the philosophical errors/ambiguities in this article...some of the previous posts have already done a fair job, especially in regards to pointing out the misunderstandings of Nietzsche, but I didn't see anyone discuss the Aristotle problem, which I felt was particularly important given how much it's used in the article.

Mr. Robin states "Rand also liked to cite Aristotle's law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand "A is A"—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state." The law of identity and the law of noncontradiction are not synonymous, and indeed, are of great historical significance (philosophically speaking) in their own rights. The definition Mr. Robin gives (A is A) is the definition for the law of identity. The law of noncontradiction essentially says that A and ~A (that is, the negation of A) cannot both be true simultaneously. So, it cannot be true that it is both raining and not raining.

The law of noncontradiction IS what Aristotle worked with, and he considered it the "first principle" of logic so to speak. Aristotle did not work with the law of identity, mentioning it only once in Metaphysics. Interestingly, many people have attributed the law of identity to Aristotle despite his having practically nothing to do with the law, and this is a mistake that many Objectivists make, following in the folly-...

5. posted by: mtnrunner2 at 06/12/2010 @ 11:25am

Mr. Robin,

Your readers would be better served if you used words to clarify an understanding of reality, rather than to talk about semantics and vague styles. You even seem to understand Rand's ideas on a superficial level of reportage, but your analytical method prevents you from drawing proper conclusions about them.

Your linking of Objectivism with fascism is based on nothing other than a perceived similarity of style. Never mind that fascism brutally subjugates individual to the state, whereas Rand's capitalism refuses to do so, and protects us all. They are polar opposites.

Your poetic approach to ideas attempts to use emotional terms to paint Objectivism as suspect without actually analyzing any ideas. Yet the primary principles of Rand's politics are not so alien; they are the exact same principles we currently use for our criminal justice system: leave citizens free to act until they violate someone else's rights, then mete out proper punishment. Our society already operates by these principles in part. She simply strove to apply it consistently to all areas of society, including economics.

Fascism's principle is: if the Fuhrer says so, you die. Somehow I fail to see the similarity. But then, I'm looking at, and talking about reality, not some vague philosophical style.

This piece illuminates nothing.

6. posted by: tacomawhite at 06/10/2010 @ 4:04pm

this is a thoughtfull and insightful analysis of rand. her popularity today represents the dumming down of our society in that she is considered a "serious" thinker. I agree that she was an interesting novalist but not a true philosophyer. what she should be famous for is being the first "POSER". instead emma goldman is someone who deserves looking into and is also someon one would find provacative and relavent today; a woman who lectured and demostrated and was arrested numerous times and eventurally deported to russia in the 20's. for decades she challenged america by demanding her right to speak freely against the established order of corporate control of our political system and the over-reach of local policy authority. she stood for and spoke up for the common laborer and against capitalism. she was never formally educated but was a natural intellectual who studied with the leading progressives and liberal intellectuals from the 1890s-1930s. here is a link to a good representation of her views on social anarchism: she deserves much more attention then the psudo-intellectual rand.

7. posted by: 80sguy at 06/10/2010 @ 11:16am

The point of this article: the author is smarter than everyone else. Rand wasn't perfect, and is even silly in some respects, but the fact that her biographers ignored (supposedly obvious) forebears like "Godwin" and other leading lights like "Malatesta" is rich! I grade papers like this all the time from undergrads who like to throw around names for no reason other than self-glorification.

8. posted by: DP in TC at 06/03/2010 @ 1:31pm

1776Party: mutuality and solidarity aren't irrationality of sacrifice. Rand is the nihilist.

posterboy: Rand, not a pro philosopher? Maybe, but she'd beg to differ. As for her success, well Daphne du Maurier did well too, for the same reason: purple prose sells, especially when it says you have a natural right to eat all the candy your little heart desires.

9. posted by: abbess at 05/31/2010 @ 2:15pm

Atlas Shrugged is ponderous and overwritten, with cardboard characters and polemic upon polemic. Kind of like the worst of wordy dense Russian translations into English. (yes, I know she
was originally Russian). I found ONE gripping sentence in all the 1000+ pages:
"[of the bartender in a men's club] His job was that of a servant to
mens' relaxation but his manner was that of an embittered quack
ministering to some guilty disease."

"Atlas is so much a product of its time -- sprung full-blown
from the skull of McCarthyism, written by a refugee from the
Bolshevik Revolution. What I find ironic is that it seems to me to be the written equivalent of the visuals of Socialist/Soviet Realism
-- flat, idealised therefore de-humanised depictions of people(both heroes and villains), a MESSAGE on every page, crude colouring and flat planes.

There are several places where one or another of the hero characters talks(and talks and talks) about returning America to its roots
which were that production belonged to the producer, property rights, etc, which is what Made America Great and produced its wealth. Ahem. I am probably a bad person because i'm not someone who wallows in
guilt over American slavery.
But given her polemical POV, diction, etc, I find her *complete* non-recognition/mention of the fact that, in truth, for the first 150-200 years of what was to become the
United States of America much much...

10. posted by: 1776Party at 05/27/2010 @ 4:12pm

Robin is a nihilist, just like Hitler and Marx, lusting for the irrationality of sacrifice. There is no intellectual opposition to Rand.

11. posted by: posterboy at 05/27/2010 @ 8:28am

At first I thought of this review as a well-informed intelligent hatchet job. But now I think its problem is that it isn't written by a specialist in literature.

Ayn Rand remains a popular author, whose books are read because they entertain people, for more than half a century. Popular fiction especially is hard to discuss and requires a kind of expertise that's very hard to find.

George Orwell said Jack London understood the Fascist mentality because he had a strain of Fascism himself -- and he said this in a FAVORABLE review of London.

That kind of nuance is not present here. The author essentially starts out by blaming Rand for being a hit Broadway playwright and best selling author, then whips her philosophy, though her philosophy is much milder than Hobbes's, and she is not a professional philosopher at all.

She turned herself into a cult figure, and discussing cults requires the kind of expertise this reviewer doesn't have either. The biggest question -- was she a cynical manipulator or not? -- doesn't get enough attention either.

12. posted by: Shakesphere at 05/27/2010 @ 2:02am

The only think I don't like about this article is its treatment of Nietzsche,the forerunner of both Existentialism and Postmodernism. No Nietzsche, no Camus, Sartre, Foucault or hooks. He has much more in common with those left wing thinkers than the likes of Glenn Beck. There's no way Beck would ever say God is Dead, or that justice is the will of the stronger. Glenn Beck and the Tea party are the epitome of ressentiment and slave morality which Nietzsche hated. He also wasn't a fan of master morality or the German Bourgeoisie if his time, as the article implies. Rather, he wanted a new morality which combined aspects of both slave and master and a return to true heroism like that of Napoleon.

13. posted by: elwin9 at 05/27/2010 @ 12:37am

I have always used peoples' opinion re Ayn Rand to judge their minds, rather than her mind.

14. posted by: Ariel A. at 05/26/2010 @ 10:58pm

posterboy wrote:

"Collectivism in China seems to be evolving into capitalism just as we are evolving into socialism [...]"

Nearly every country in the world has a mixed economy. The question is: what accounts for prosperity, the capitalist or socialist element? Given the utter failure of pure socialism in the last century, and the corrolation between capitalism and prosperity, it would seem that the burden of proof is on "progressives" to show that state economic intervention brings anything positive to the equation.

"-- what if America and China meet in the middle and BOTH last? We've lasted since social security, and they've lasted since 1948. Ain't life wonderful?"

You make a blend of totalitarianism and freedom sound like a good thing. And indeed, using "longevity" as the standard is damning by faint praise. The real question is: how much more prosperous would everyone have been had Social Security not been enacted? The estimates I've seen are that the average person could have had a million bucks socked away, if allowed to save for their own retirement by investing in a passive index fund. Instead we have the looming fiscal and demographic calamity of Social Security and Medicare going bankrupt, and/or sticking non-Baby Boomers with the debt and impoverished retirements of their own. Wages of altruism indeed.

15. posted by: Jack Hill at 05/26/2010 @ 2:23pm

It's worth noting that virtually all of the advertising art work for the film version of The Fountainhead featured the "hot" scene. Which says all we need to know about the author, who demanded that her screenplay be filmed exactly as she wrote it.

16. posted by: cleopete at 05/26/2010 @ 12:32pm

Freelancelot surprises me: I can't imagine anyone that illiterate made it through the whole article. I've never understood how 'Objectivism' managed to get itself pronounced a 'philosophy'. It's nothing more than an after-the-fact, half-assed attempt to rationalize whatever you've already decided to do. It can't even stand on it's own principals. If the peasant has the strength to overthrow their master, then by the very arguments Rand tries to make, the master must be weak, corrupt and standing in the way of the peasant's self-determination. Everything is fair, so whatever happens is always right. Not surprising it has, like Scientology, provided a handy pseudo-intellectual tonic for wealthy, narcissists who don't actually do anything useful (looking at you Branjolina!)

17. posted by: sfgmpm at 05/25/2010 @ 9:57pm

As a supposedly "compassionate" liberal, it might seem strange that I have found Ayn Rand's Objectivism rather appealing. It bothers me to see the company that she is keeping among media personalities on the right and she is no longer here to defend herself from them. Still, she was a champion of individual rights and freedom and held that the state's primary duty is to preserve those rights. Certainly there are problems with the Objectivist philosophy but it should be taken seriously and not merely disregarded on the basis of one's ideologic persuasions.

18. posted by: pongacat at 05/25/2010 @ 7:34pm

Thank you, thank you for this well argued and long overdue attack on America's most over-rated figure of the 20th century. It's a matter of grave concern that such a shallow and icy figure can continue to command such ill-informed awe.
Her appeal to the more feather-brained factions of Hollywood should come as no surprise. Scientology enjoys the same appeal..and there's a considerable connection between the two that no one seems to have noticed. Essentially they share a loathing of everything collective; anything compassionate. Hubbard's writings are striking similar; his devotees similarly blinkered.Indeed, a number of lapsed Scientologists report that people in that movement disproportionatedly support the Libertarian Party and its Randoid associations.

Rand's fan club is distributing her "philosophy" Gideon-like to schools. The absurd notion that greed and self-interest represent the noblest of human virtues ensures the continuing appeal of the mediocre mind of Rand -
at least among the greedy and self-interested.

19. posted by: Openworld at 05/25/2010 @ 6:57pm

Coming from the left (and having been active in Harvard's left-right libertarian group in the early 1970s) I’ve admired Rand's works over the years because of her respect for free institutions and formal equality in political relationships.

Although the article makes scant notice of the fact, Rand’s respect for the inviolability of individual rights is in accord with (freely-chosen) acts of generosity. Indeed, actions seen from mainstream perspectives as sacrificial or altruistic can be fully consistent with Objectivism. Consider this quote from Rand:

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline…. I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”

Whether one sees such acts as emanating from altruism or extended self-interest, they arise in cases when an individual opts to widen his or her realm of caring to include those whose way of living points to shared, cherished qualities of spirit.

Dawkins’ insights on how “selfish genes” (and “selfish memes”) can prompt unselfish action suggests a path for understanding why Rand - and other individualists with a sense of an extended self - can and do take risks to ensure the flourishing of others with shared qualities of spirit.

In acts of apparent altruism - such as Rand’s declared willingness to put herself in harm’s way to save a city that embodied the...

20. posted by: dhdunlap at 05/25/2010 @ 2:50pm

This is quite simply the best piece ever written on Rand -- and I have read them all.

21. posted by: posterboy at 05/25/2010 @ 2:42pm

Pontificus, I agree with you about Ayn Rand, at least in the first paragraph of your latest posting.

I don't think your argument in favor of capitalism holds much water, though. It's worked for a few hundred years. Monarchy worked for thousands, and Hobbes (not so easy to attack for his philosophical skills as Rand) thought monarchy was the only possible form of government (just like you, because it had lasted) and that citizens had no right, including property rights, where the monarch was concerned.

Longevity is not a good argument in favor of any governmental system. Collectivism in China seems to be evolving into capitalism just as we are evolving into socialism -- what if America and China meet in the middle and BOTH last? We've lasted since social security, and they've lasted since 1948. Ain't life wonderful?

22. posted by: pontificus at 05/25/2010 @ 9:22am

Corey Robin wrote:

"Since the nineteenth century, it has been the task of the left to hold up to liberal civilization a mirror of its highest values and to say, "You do not look like this.""

Anybody with a mouth can critique society and point out all the ways in which we have not achieved each person's vision of utopia. There's little or nothing of value in making such a claim to fame, it's nothing more than infantile whining.

"You claim to believe in the rights of man, but it is only the rights of property you uphold."

No-one knows what the "rights of man" are. We don't have the luxury of a master blueprint, any more than man was given the operating instructions for the universe. We have to figure them out on our own. Man does not have a natural "right to health care" or anything else for that matter. Such things are nothing but constructs of man. In contrast, Locke posited that the right to property is a natural right of man, and that abridgment thereof would lead to a failed society. Judging by the uniform failure of collectivist societies that abridge the right to property, it appears he was right.

This is the state of man in nature, and you folks on the left should deal with it.

23. posted by: posterboy at 05/25/2010 @ 8:05am

The GODDESS book that is putatively being reviewed here goes into great detail about Rand's libertarian contemporaries and how she and they influenced one another.

Meanwhile, while of course some people can't read her books, they continue to sell in part because OTHER people find them very exciting -- not necessarily because of their message, but because of their melodrama.

The reviewer her attacks her for BEING a melodramatist, though she never denied being one, and though her melodramatic skills are obviously powerful and long-lasting. Her philosophy, like Darwin's or Hobbes's or any other thinkers, is in flux and in part incorrect.

Even if it's mostly incorrect, she's an amazing cultural phenomenon.

24. posted by: pontificus at 05/25/2010 @ 6:37am

PS. One book of Ayn Rand's, Anthem, has stuck with me since High School, and I think of it often. Definitely very readable and understandable. It should be required reading in all high schools, along with Animal Farm.

25. posted by: pontificus at 05/25/2010 @ 6:33am

I found Rand's books impenetrable, largely unreadable, and not wholly believable. I have also read many leftist critiques of Rand's work, all of which, even at their best as above, seem to focus mostly on character assassination as a means of dealing with her philosophical contentions. Of course, how could it be otherwise?

The main point I always remember is that we know from experience two things: capitalism is a successful system, and collectivism always fails, time after time. Ayn Rand's value, to me, is in helping to explain why this is so. Leftist critiques always seem to focus on ways to deny the obvious by focusing on the trivial.

26. posted by: pyramidia at 05/25/2010 @ 1:44am

I read Ayn Rand's books way, way back in the 70's and really, really enjoyed them. I am not an intellectual, a philosopher, a literary expert, nor do I have any type of financial sense. I never heard a word about her or her books since then, until this recent financial crisis. I am totally surprised, and mostly disgusted, that the perpetrators of this financial crisis have used her writings as a reason for their greed! My impression of the main characters in her books were that they were individuals who were strong, stuck to their core values, and what they were good at, no matter what! Especially, the characters were absolutely not corruptible! So, to equate these current super-corrupt financial people with Ayn Rand's characters appears to be a real perversion and extraordinary manipulation of the principles I thought, and still do, she was deeply conveying to demonstrate.

27. posted by: BigPasture at 05/25/2010 @ 1:05am

What a waste of thread to write so much and say so little utilizing such a small mind. Was this the Obamanations research paper at Havard or something?

28. posted by: bornfree at 05/24/2010 @ 10:20pm

The article's fundamental flaw and that of most leftists is to assume that Libertarian beliefs spring from Ayn Rand. That is of course nonsense.

Libertarian beliefs have their root in Burke, Locke, and the Founders. It is the essence of the founders vision of limiting the reach and power of the govt that they believed would given mankind it's right to pursue their true potential as God gifted each of us with.

29. posted by: logonos at 05/24/2010 @ 3:50pm

Rand has had absolutely no impact on philosophy. She is a joke.

jdauriemma: what exactly do you find problematic in the article's arguments for making the comparison in question?

"that human beings should merit rewards based on their utility, not simply by the fact that they are breathing homo sapiens."

All major political philosophies rely on notions of individual responsibility and desert: marxism, socialism, anarchism, social democracy, liberalism, communitarianism, conservatism, yes even some restrained forms of libertarianism does.

Second, Rand's ideology is at root not about merit or desert, it is just unrestrained egoism. If beating and robbing someone would really further your goals (let's say you'd get away with it and with the cash) Rand's view says: go for it! But to assault someone is of course not to respect the merit of the victim to say the least.

Rand's gets propped up for one simple reason. She gives the most powerful and most oppressive forces in society a supposed free card for most of the injustice and rights violations they engage in and feed off. Such ideas will always find ample backing and funding.

Hearing that the world ought and does revolve around you is also a mentally masturbatory experience for many. But like with all masturbation a sense of proportion is key. Problem is the randroids jank their ego 24/7.

30. posted by: ganga at 05/24/2010 @ 1:08am

I can't make it through a Rand novel. For me, her shtick is reverse Marxism, only difference her pom-poms wave for the "ruling class."

The State has a tendency to subvert the individual. That is "selfishness" also, but selfishness cloaked in altruism. Zarathustra, whose ubermensch was not the hater that Hitler, Stalin, or Rand were, warned of the altruist whose true motive is "revenge."
Rand's radicalism is encoding this tendency of the modern State into the DNA of history. A junior dialectic.

Unreadable though she was, wrong as she was, profanity in defense of capitalism (if effective) shows up limp at the kill-orgy relative to collectivist poesy.

31. posted by: Diemso at 05/23/2010 @ 5:51pm

Hi. I think you are right on the money re A. Rand. Whoa Nellie to the past 30 years of mba/biz school/"shareholder value" acolytes who bought what she was selling. Ah, I think that you might misunderstand Nietzsche a bit, and would suggest Kaufmann's "Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre" or his intro. to "The Portable Nietzsche" or even Simon Blackburn's chapter on Fred N. from his book "Truth" for more of what FN was actually up to. No "philosopher" -- not to mention author of literature and social/cultural commentator as well -- has been more misunderstood and misrepresented that Nietzsche. He was no Nazi ally, that's for certain, and likewise was no fascist. Not suggesting that you think he was, but A. Rand like some many others likely mis-read him. Kaufmann is the scholar to turn to, should you be interested.... thanks.

32. posted by: posterboy at 05/23/2010 @ 2:48pm

Just read the first chapter of GODDESS OF THE MARKET. It's easily worth this entire snarky review.

The young Ayn Rand lived through the Soviet revolution, and saw idealistic talk about helping the people covering tyrannous abuses. When she wrote WE THE LIVING about the kind of thing that really happened in Soviet Russia, she was told by pro-Soviet reviewers that she didn't know what she was talking about. Having lived there didn't count.

No wonder her later novels lost touch with reality. She had been trained to leave reality behind by her earlier reviewers.

Burns understands that Ayn Rand is a cultural phenomenon, a fascinating historical event. This reviewer is just trying to make Rand look bad -- and Rand is dead! She should care how she looks.

33. posted by: jdauriemma at 05/23/2010 @ 1:46pm

Check that: Godwin's Law!

34. posted by: jdauriemma at 05/23/2010 @ 1:44pm

Sure, there are crackpots who actually believe Rand is a legitimate philosopher, but her true influence was projected by her interesting characters and direct prose. The political elements in Rand's novels ring true for many fans: that human beings should merit rewards based on their utility, not simply by the fact that they are breathing homo sapiens.

By the way, this article is a perfect demonstration of Gordon's Law.

35. posted by: posterboy at 05/22/2010 @ 9:28pm

Lots of American best sellers, some of which make their way into literature, are about hard driving successful capitalists. Dreiser's THE GENIUS and THE FINANCIER are in this genre; THE GREAT GATSBY looks at its tragic side; and Lewis's DODSWORTH is much more respectful of its rich businessman than Lewis was of the middling Babbitt.

Ayn Rand had a broader cultural background than most popular pro-capitalist writers, and the ability to work hard -- an ability the pro-capitalist best seller always ranks high.

She was so successful she fell in love with herself. Too bad, but something in the same line only sadder happened to Fitzgerald, and no one goes around blaming him for not being as smart as Nietzsche.

The founder of Scientology was also a hard working writer, with a little bit more cynicism about himself than Rand had, but much the same approach to marketing his intellectual product. I guess it's too bad such people found cults, but the people themselves don't need whipping, especially after they're dead. They're interesting.

36. posted by: Carouselambra at 05/22/2010 @ 9:16pm

"Jeezus, the "progressive" clique here is so....intellectually lax. All they can do is sneer, and resent."

Hmmmm....Speaking of "speak for yourself"...

Let's change tack a bit shant we. I'll assume that you, Ariel A., are very bright and in reciprocation, you in turn shall do the same for moi.

1) If Ayn Rand is so friggin' brilliant why are there not any intellectuals with heft defending her ideas with vigor and traction?

2) Does it not seem strange that the cult of Ayn Rand followers spends far more time in hero worship than in vigorous debate over the validity of various Rand propositions?

3) Back to point 1), an Occam's Razor conclusion for the lack of broad and general respect for Rand in higher intellectual circles suggests only two possible explanations:

A) Ayn Rand is not in reality "cooking with gas".

B) The intellectual community is not "cooking with gas".

Finally, in light of the well established fact that humans have a strong propensity for self-delusion, I would encourage any thoughtful Rand aficionado to perhaps rethink their attachment. In any case, the entire enterprise of "philosophy" is founded on the principle that we will undoubtedly find ourselves making schema adjustments throughout our lives.

Anything less would be rather "second hand" if you ask me.

Best regards, Ariel A., and may you continue to seek the truth.

37. posted by: steveweing at 05/22/2010 @ 7:28pm

I loved the article. Thanks Corey. You are one the only writer I've added to my browser favorites list.

Ayn Rand is like a 1940's version of a MTV Gangster Rap stars. Narcissism, gold bling, success, and images of people adoring the rap hero.

I loved how Ayn was compared and contrasted to Nazis, Doestoevsy, Nietzche, and Aristotle all in a totally sensible, fair manner.

38. posted by: Ariel A. at 05/22/2010 @ 5:37pm

"That [...] is a testament to the commoness of human frailty."

Speak for yourself. Is the possibility that some people are strong inconceivable to you?

"Hey, Greenspan admitted that his economic model--and by implication, his understanding of human motivation(s)--was incorrect. Would that more possessed similar honesty."

Would that you possessed enough honesty to admit that Greenspan long ago betrayed Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, to say nothing of economics.

BTW a general observation: many months after every other outlet in town had reviewed the new Rand bios, The Nation finally decides to get into the act, with the same hackneyed pronouncements. Why, at this late date? Oh, I know: because the Tea Party's a political tsunami on the horizon, and is turning to Rand for intellectual ammunition in a big way. Tea Partyers philosophically conflicted? Quite often. Are they Objectivists? Hardly. Lots of decent, normal, hardworking folks that earn their own way, and are trying to figure out why the hell things are getting worse as they're being sucked into the gaping maw of statism? Check. So The Nation says: "Dudes, we gotta take this down!"

Jeezus, the "progressive" clique here is so....intellectually lax. All they can do is sneer, and resent.

39. posted by: posterboy at 05/22/2010 @ 4:08pm

It does seem strange that the author should say Rand is inferior to Heidegger, then blame her philosophy for having elements of Fascism -- when Heidegger was a Fascist and a philosopher and, by many modern accounts, a Fascist philosopher -- none of which has particularly damaged his reputation as a capable thinker.

Then, the attack on movie writing is boilerplate and irrelevant: the worse Rand's philosophy is, the greater the "Hollywood" writing skill must be that makes it popular. William Faulkner was one of many Hollywood writers who could construct a popular plot and yet had literary merit.

If I liked Ayn Rand at all I'm sure I could find more shallowness and error in this essay. As an opponent of Ayn Rand, I just resent how lightweight and ineffective this attack is.

Is the guy saying Nietzsche and Rand are both wrong together, or that Rand isn't Nietzsche? I think he's saying both things at once, and neither of them very well.

40. posted by: ImmanentUniversal at 05/22/2010 @ 3:15pm

Excellent article, especially the biographical expose of Rand's hypocrisy. If anything, it was far too gentle with its subject - this woman was clearly a psychopath.

Which makes it all the more disturbing that so many people essentially worship her today. This is why I find so many libertarians personally disagreeable, to a much larger extent than conservatives. That is, I find that frequently the libertarian is a spoiled, emotionally stunted arriviste who believes that his skills as a philosopher are equal to his skills as a software designer because he spent 20 minutes tooling around on an Objectivist Web site.

Not only is Rand's 'philosophy' a nauseating caricature of anything that could conceivably be termed ethics, her 'literature' is some of the most hilariously awful tripe ever written in the English language. And an entire cult of personality has grown up in Silicon Valley around this demented troll and her scrawlings. Unbelievable.

41. posted by: Metteyya at 05/21/2010 @ 7:30pm

>>>Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death.<<<

This is where Ayn Rand veers off course - ALL life is indestructible and merely changes form, ALL life is interconnected, and it is this ILLUSION of separateness of parts of life or between sentient beings or between human beings that allows one to glorify the individual, imagine a superior and an inferior, and idolize selfishness and greed.

Ayn Rand is an ILLUSIONIST, and the victim is the United States of America and the social and spiritual progress of humankind.

42. posted by: Metteyya at 05/21/2010 @ 7:17pm

Excellent, excellent article!

One of the best ever here at The Nation!

With a bow and palms together, COREY Robin!

43. posted by: Carouselambra at 05/21/2010 @ 3:13pm

"I encourage readers unfamiliar with Ayn Rand to read her own works, and decide for themselves what she's all about." ~Ariel A.

I have. My conclusion: Rand was a highly intelligent self-deluder and a narcissist of the first rank. That Rand and her atrociously poor "scholarship" have managed to hold sway over so many (otherwise reasonably bright) others is a testament to the commoness of human frailty.

Hey, Greenspan admitted that his economic model--and by implication, his understanding of human motivation(s)--was incorrect. Would that more possessed similar honesty.

44. posted by: Ariel A. at 05/21/2010 @ 2:52pm

"Far from needing explanation, Rand's success explains itself." So why does the author, thru five pages of sneering vitriol, feel the need to "explain" her to us then? This is trying too hard, which makes one wonder what he's trying to hide from us or himself.

I'll pass over the patently silly insinuations of a connection between Rand and fascism; that kind of smear was perfected by Whittaker Chambers (and discredited) long ago. Instead, on to the real issues:

Rand's philosophical significance? Notwithstanding the cluelessness of Sidney Hook and Robert Nozick, her importance there sure seems evident to the Ayn Rand Society, which has been meeting as an affiliated group of the American Philosophical Association for some 27 years.

Rand's grasp of Aristotle (she read his collected works,) or her place in the Aristotelian tradition? With Aristotle, Rand holds that:

1. There's a knowable, objective reality
2. Life is sustained by constant, internally generated action (which necessity the author seems to resent)
3. It is possible to live, flourish, and be happy by discovering a moral code of rationally selfish values

Where she improves on Aristotle is by explicitly validating an objective standard of value, "man's life qua man," whereas Aristotle begged the question by looking at qualities displayed in his prior-designated "great-souled" men. Thereupon Rand discusses why the primary virtues are: rationality, honesty,...

45. posted by: Carouselambra at 05/21/2010 @ 2:32pm

“'s tempting to see Rand as one of the many fakes and frauds who periodically light up the American landscape..... Rand represents something different, more unsettling...”

Succinctly said, Mr. Robin.

I recently found myself reading the Anne Heller bio of Ayn Rand, in spite of my better half’s resistance. The experience was akin to being on the scene of an epic train wreck, and yet transfixed, unable to avert my eyes--funny, Rand herself harbored a fear of riding in planes and trains.

Alissa Rosenbaum’s story and the beyond bizarre fact of the cult that still hovers over her legacy represents, I think, a pretty powerful fable of contemporary humanity. Personally, I was driven to read some refreshing Dostoyevsky as a palate cleanser. At least there I could find solace in the thought that actual human self-examination may yet survive, even as the current era of self-worship is (successfully, thus far) succeeding in piling us onto a collective funeral pyre.

Dog help us.


46. posted by: TPDforthewin at 05/21/2010 @ 1:59pm

wow great article. check this out

47. posted by: Athelstane at 05/21/2010 @ 1:42pm

There is little doubt that Ms. Rand was as looney as a rat caught in a tin outhouse in July. Having said that, is it not true that "Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

(I made that up myself and put it in a pome I done writ!!!)

And, having said THAT, if she were so far off beam, then why does it seem as though I am living through the last five chapters of Atlas Shrugged?

You Looters of the Left and your attendant Moochers have destroyed everything good and decent about this once Great Nation. Shame on you all.

No sweat. We'll pick up the pieces and start over without you. Your Cities will not fare well when the lights go out. You can all then go to North Korea and remain in the Darkness.

We in the hinterlands, on the other hand, will do quite well. Thank you for asking.

God, Guns, and Gold! And damn you all for bringing us here.


48. posted by: jmonroe6400 at 05/21/2010 @ 1:16pm

Narcissism needs an outlet in this country. Scientology costs too much time and money, and so we have Randism (I am pleased to report that I cannot remember the official brand name for her 'philosophy').

49. posted by: Andor Noman at 05/21/2010 @ 11:51am

"I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something
about me, and as long as you spell my name right."
[attrib. George M. Cohan, 1912]

Thanks, Nation!

50. posted by: Sosostris at 05/21/2010 @ 11:42am

Surely the Horkheimer quotation is Adorno's? Or am I confused?

And the more I read about Rand and Americans, the more sad and distressed I become about the latter. Sigh.

Showing 50 comments of 53 - next 3 ››
Current Sort: last to first

Post Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment