Monday, September 17, 2012

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Ever since Paul Ryan was announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate, the press has made note of his long time devotion to novelist, screenwriter and philosopher Ayn Rand. In a 2005 speech, Ryan said that he grew up reading Rand’s works “and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and why value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” He added, “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through her writings and works.” He also claimed that he got involved in public service because of her, and that Atlas Shrugged still informs his views on monetary policy. Well he was a disciple of Ayn Rand; he began to backpedal when his name was thrown began to be bandied about as a possible running mate. Now he says that because of her atheism, and no doubt her stance on abortion, he is no longer such a big fan. Which is kind of funny because it’s not like that’s been a big secret, if you know anything about Ayn Rand.

I’ve been meaning to write about Ayn Rand for a long time, but she’s one of those women that were sort of on my bucket list until now. Quite a fascinating and complicated creature is Ayn. According to a recent article in the New York Observer, when Rand was alive she was condemned by intellectuals across the spectrum. “To the left, she was a reactionary, a fascist, a capitalist pig who advocated for a complete separation between government and economics, limitless individualism and the virtue of selfishness. To the right, she was an atheist, to moderates, an absolutist. Her books are often dismissed as over-the-top, Nietzschean (she studied Nietzsche in college) romance novels for alienated adolescents, and her philosophy – which Rand described as ‘the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute,’ is ridiculed to this day.” (New York Observer, 8/21/2012)

Just a few quick facts about Ayn Rand: Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have been in continuous print since they were published. As of 2007, 25 million copies had been sold (Take that E.L. James!), and continue to sell more than 800,000 a year. Not bad for a woman who has been deceased for 30 years. Her novel Atlas Shrugged was voted the second most influential book after the Bible in a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club. In 2009, GQ’s columnist Tom Carson described her books as “capitalism’s version of middlebrow religious novels” in the same vein as Ben-Hur and the Left Behind Series. Another book critic, Leslie Clark, called her novels “romance fiction with a patina of pseudo-philosophy.” I have a confession to make, I have never read either of Rand’s novels The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Frankly they are not my cup of tea; I prefer more story and less philosophizing or moralizing when I read fiction. I have however tried to watch the first 20 minutes of the most recent film of Atlas Shrugged but gave up.

Still one can’t deny the influence that Rand has had over the years. Parents have named their kids after her characters. Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, Billie Jean King, Clarence Thomas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hugh Hefner, Barry Goldwater and Ted Turner are just a few celebrities and politicians who are fans. Jerry Lewis claims that he carries a copy of The Fountainhead wherever he goes, and the band Rush based a concept album on her novel Anthem (one of her lesser known works). Even Hilary Clinton has said that she went through an Ayn Rand phase in college (no doubt when she was supporting Goldwater for President). Alan Greenspan was part of her inner circle during the 1950’s.

Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 2nd, 1905 which makes her an Aquarius, a sign notorious for unique individuals who go against the grain (she called herself “the most creative thinker alive” so she also wasn’t short on ego either). Her parents were largely non-observant Jews. Her father was a successful pharmacist, who eventually owned his own business. Young Alisa was bored by school, not finding it challenging enough for her. Instead, she began writing screenplays at the age of 8 and novels by the age of 10. Life as she knew it was interrupted by the Russian Revolution when she was 12. The pharmacy was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, and the family fled to the Crimea which was under control of the White Army. During this time, Alisa became an atheist. After her high school graduation, the family moved back to what was now known as Petrograd and later Leningrad. But life was difficult for the Rosenbaum family who were living on the edge of poverty.

One of the few benefits of the Russian Revolution as far as Rand was concerned was that women were now allowed to attend universities. She enrolled at the Petrograd State University where she majored in history. While at college, she studied the works of Aristotle and Plato as well as the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. By the time she graduated in 1924, she had changed her name to Ayn Rand. She traveled to the US in 1925 to visit relatives in Chicago, but her intention from the beginning was to stay to become a screenwriter. After a few months, she was on her way to Hollywood. Her first few months were a struggle as she had to take odd jobs to make a living, but she soon met film director Cecil B. DeMille which led to a job as an extra on one of his films. Subsequently she moved up to a position as a junior scriptwriter. The job with DeMille led to her meeting her husband, an actor named Frank O’Connor who she married in 1929. As a sign of her devotion to her new country, she became an American citizen in 1931. She also tried to bring her family to the US but they were unable to get permission to emigrate.

During the 1930’s, Rand worked not just as a screenwriter, but at one point she was also the head of the costume department at RKO! She sold one screenplay Red Pawn but it was never produced. She had more success as a playwright with the courtroom drama Night of January 16th which ran on Broadway in 1935. Each night the ‘jury’ was chose from members of the audience who voted whether or not the defendant was guilty or innocent. She also wrote an autobiographical novel set in Soviet Russia called We the Living which was published in 1936.

It was during the 1940’s that Rand became politically active and started to develop her philosophy of objectivism. She supported candidate Wendell Wilkie who ran against FDR in 1940. She began to meet other intellectuals who were sympathetic to free-market capitalism, and who had opposed the government programs that FDR had put into place during the Great Depression. She also became friends with libertarian writer Isabel Patterson. Vehemently anti-Communist, Rand testified as a ‘friendly witness’ before the House Un-American Activities committee, testifying to her experiences in the Soviet Union. Her novel The Fountainhead, after being rejected by 12 publishers, was finally published in 1943. It also led to her dependence on the amphetamine Benzedrine which she started taking to fight fatigue.

Rand moved to New York from LA in 1951, where she gathered a group of acolytes around her including the future head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. Her last novel Atlas Shrugged (which clocks in at over 1,000 pages) was published in 1957. At the heart of the novel are Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and her concept of human achievement. Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge, rejecting all forms of faith and religion. She also didn’t believe in ethical altruism. No doubt, she was alive today and riding the subways in New York, she’d spend her time lecturing the panhandlers instead of giving them change! Or perhaps she’d consider them a part of free market capitalism? The reviews this time were savage, even the New York Times which had praised her previous work The Fountainhead had nothing good to say about the book. After it was published, Rand fell into a deep depression. She never published another work of fiction, but it marked the beginning of a new career as a popular philosopher.

She became friendly with a young psychology student named Nathaniel Branden and his wife Barbara. She and Branden began an affair which was depicted in the Showtime film The Passion of Ayn Rand starring Helen Mirren as Rand and Eric Stoltz as Branden (if you can rent this, it is totally worth it, especially for Mirren’s performance as Rand). This affair was apparently with the consent of their spouses, but apparently it was like Branden and Rand told them they were having an affair and their spouses just had to deal with it. Rand’s professional relationship with Branden ended when she discovered that he was having an affair with another woman.

Ayn Rand often took controversial or contradictory stands on hot button issues during the 1960’s and 1970’s. She thought homosexuality was ‘immoral’ and ‘disgusting’ yet she also advocated repealing laws against it (one wonders what she would make of gay-marriage!), she opposed the Vietnam War and the military draft but condemned draft dodgers. However she supported Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. She also believed that Europeans had the right to take land from the Native Americans.

Rand died at the age of 80 from heart failure in 1982. Her funeral was attended by many of her prominent followers. A six-foot flower arrangement of a dollar sign was placed near her casket, a fitting memorial for the woman who promoted free-market capitalism. Since her death, the Ayn Rand Institute was founded in 1985 to promote her works and philosophy. Interest in her work has only increased not decreased, especially after the economy went into the toilet in 2008, although few colleges or universities include Rand or Objectivism as a part of literature courses or philosophy. She’s considered to be more of a pop cultural phenomenon. The political figures who cite Rand most often are of course members of both The Republican Party and the Libertarian Party (she’s also a favorite of the Tea Party).

I’ve included the above video from YouTube, so that you can see the woman in action and draw your own conclusions.


Female Force - Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand for Beginners
Ayn Rand Institute -



Michael Brown said...

Thanks for a fairminded look at the ever-fascinating Rand!

Evangeline Holland said...

I'm not a Rand fangirl, but I do love The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged a lot. The sheer force of Rand's individuality is so compelling, and her views on sex, female sexuality, and romance are surprisingly progressive. But don't watch the film adaptations--they only make sense if you've read the books, LOL.