Sunday 21 January 2018

Goddess of the Right, but Rand was prone to human weakness

While Ayn Rand is a bulwark for some in the age of Obama, Donal Lynch finds she was herself a mass of contradictions

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Ayn Rand And The World She Made

Anne C Heller

Random House, €25

At one of the many "Tea Party" protests across America this past summer a new-old slogan was often seen on placards: "Atlas Shrugs." In the war room-like television studios that covered the marches, right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly invoked a name that had not been heard in a while: Ayn Rand.

If the woman described as "the founder of the libertarian movement" is fashionable again it will come as no surprise to Anne C Heller, author of Ayn Rand And The World She Made. Heller has pointed out that in times of Democratic majorities in the United States Rand's writings generally enjoy a surge in popularity. For many Republicans she represents an intellectual bulwark against Obama's brave new world. In an age where everything is relative, morally speaking, Rand's unabashed moralism and idealism are persuasive for conservatives. Another author, the academic historian Jennifer Burns, has succinctly called her a "Goddess of the Right". During the Clinton years Heller reports a poll in which Americans said that Atlas Shrugged was only narrowly edged out by the Bible as the book that most influenced their lives (and apparently Rand herself indignantly compared the book to the Bible when it was suggested while it was being written, that she cut parts of it).

Heller, a former fiction editor at Esquire and Redbook, apparently didn't read Rand until she was in her 40s. This perhaps gives her a cooler eye of appraisal over the writer's life and influence than the many youthful readers who come away from Rand's writings -- so full of heroes and idealism -- intoxicated with possibility. Certainly the book is unflinching in examining Rand's foibles, even if the biographer admits to being "a strong admirer, albeit one with questions and reservations". In this Heller is already unusual. Rand's writings tend to excite either love or hate among readers. There was generally little nuance; the individual was good, the mob was bad, selfishness was good, altruism was bad.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this book is that it doesn't get drawn into the political polarisation. It instead critically examines the strengths and weaknesses of Rand's writings and contrasts the writer's authoritative philosophy with her rather more human, grey-area existence.

Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum to moderately well-off Jewish parents in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1905. From the very beginning she argued that she had no roots, that her outlook and way of thinking were not rooted in the past (she would only grudgingly concede that Nietzsche had "beaten me to every one of my ideas"). Heller makes a persuasive case that Rand's Jewish-Russian identity shaped her worldview more than she knew.

Her individualism came from her own harsh experiences. Her family had undergone oppression during the Russian Revolution -- which of course came in the name of the "collective good".

When Rand made her way to America in 1926 she was shocked to find people who romanticised the Russian system. She saw herself therefore as a renegade outsider, warning a great nation not to go astray.

She was a mass of contradictions. She derided the masses yet spent much of her life working as a Hollywood scriptwriter. She adored strongman individuals but the man she married was a mild-mannered actor named Frank O'Connor. Rand later took a young lover named Nathan Blumenthal, who changed his surname to Branden (and later became a prominent self-help author). As her influence grew -- her books had begun to sell in the millions -- he and others would form the core of a group of "collectivists" who seemed almost cultish in their devotion to the writer. In yet another contradiction Rand, who championed individualism above all else, took none too kindly to members of her clique showing their individuality; she could freeze people out for so much as disagreeing with her taste in music.

It ended badly, of course, as Branden declined to resume his affair with Rand. She denounced him and her movement collapsed. She did, however, live to see another of her followers, Alan Greenspan, become a chief player in Gerald Ford's administration.

In this scholarly, yet highly readable work Heller has managed to take this towering figure and make her a real live human being, one of perhaps greater complexity than even Rand herself would have admitted. It deftly picks apart the myths of Rand's life and work and gives a new insight into this much read and much misunderstood author.

Sunday Independent

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