America's curious love affair with Ayn Rand
“I felt simultaneously the exhilaration of operating at a very high level and the dreaminess of a somnambulist. Much like an athlete who has been training for years for one event, I knew that this was the event and that there was no longer anything to hesitate about or to doubt.”
The narrator of this breathless peak experience is Nathaniel Branden, who was for a time the lieutenant, lover, and “intellectual heir” of Ayn Rand. The occasion? His first meeting with Rand, in 1950, as retold in My Years with Ayn Rand: The Truth Behind the Myth (Jossey-Bass). Branden was 19, and the philosopher, novelist, and formidable prophetess of “reason, egoism, and capitalism” (her words) was 45.
Rand’s power to turn the heads of bright adolescents, to seduce them with the egocentric ozone of her message of triumphant-self-fulfillment-as-hardheaded-rationality, was perhaps her most formidable gift, in person and in print. Thousands of young people have thrilled to her fictional depictions of atheist ubermenschen who flout family, faith, and the common herd to pursue magnificent dreams. College clubs devoted to objectivism (as Rand and Branden dubbed her philosophy) and youthful websites featuring Rand-abilia abound. Former Rand disciples hold key positions in the libertarian movement—though Rand attacked libertarianism for refusing to accept the more technical aspects of her philosophy. Objectivism itself has spawned a number of offshoots that squabble like leftist sects. Through it all, Rand’s novels—especially The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—and her books of essays still sell about a quarter million copies a year worldwide.
Noting these healthy numbers, the big institutions of American mass culture have caught Rand fever recently. The 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, nominated for an Oscar, was made with the cooperation of the Ayn Rand Institute, the temple of orthodox objectivism. In March, Showtime aired a docudrama called The Passion of Ayn Rand, with Helen Mirren in the title role and sixties survivor Peter Fonda as Rand’s hapless, alcoholic husband, Frank O’Connor.
Nor is the buzz limited to Rand’s cherished private sector; on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, host Ray Suarez recently refereed a spirited debate between Ayn Rand Institute board chairman Peter Schwartz and California conservative diva Arianna Huffington that revealed objectivism’s distance from even a limited, private-sector-based communitarianism. And that great rights-denying behemoth, the United States government, is honoring Rand too, with a postage stamp issued in April, designed by the same artist who does her current book covers.
The Rand boom is made all the livelier by the fact that it includes two books that allege some pretty nasty stuff about Ayn. Branden’s memoir goes out of its way to depict the initial excitement and pleasure of life in the Rand inner circle in mid-’50s New York, a circle that came to be dominated by Branden (born Nathan Blumenthal in Brampton, Ontario), his wife, Barbara, and their relatives. (One non-Blumenthal in the group was a bright young economist named Alan Greenspan.)
“Growing up, I was bewildered by the unhappiness of most people,” Branden writes. “Ayn’s emphasis on joy had a powerful meaning for me. I stood at her desk…with her on one side of me and Barbara on the other. I was at the center of a universe from which pain had entirely disappeared.”
If that moment of exaltation sounds a bit too good to be true, so it proved. Branden’s relationship with Rand swerved into a sexual affair as he became the chief entrepreneur of objectivism, in charge of its lucrative program of live and taped lectures, as well as the chief enforcer of objectivist orthodoxy in the inner circle. It was at a lecture that Branden met Patrecia Gullison, a beautiful model…and the rest is soap opera. Branden called off his affair with Rand—and the godmother of rational selfishness hit the roof. The denunciations that followed suggest Stalin’s purge trials.
No matter how hot things got, however, true believers were expected to keep a lid on their emotions. Rand’s extraordinarily tense brand of rationalism held that emotions are produced by, and thus ought to be controlled by, conscious thought. In practice, the doctrine meant that Rand could explode as often as she wanted; her increasingly dark emotions were “rational” by definition and her extensive bullying was always justified. This and many other weirdnesses in the Rand world led Jeff Walker, in The Ayn Rand Cult (Open Court), to use the c word about objectivism, and—despite occasional lapses of fact, a determination to find Rand wrong about everything, and a juvenile writing style—he makes a case. It’s hard not to see the abject Rand-worship, the intellectual rigidity, the emotional abuse, and the traitor-hunting that have plagued orthodox objectivism in the same light as the excesses of Scientology or the Unification Church.
The Randians’ troubled history also points up a key weakness in their furious disdain for altruism--which they see as the defining principle of collectivism, and thus immoral. Whenever the individual has been brutally crushed in this century, from Nazi Germany to Cambodia, altruism, that blessed desire to care for others, has not been at fault. The real blame lies with the charismatic leaders and ruling elites who perverted any human value, including altruism, that helped them subject others to their will. The Soviet rulers knew how to use bogus solidarity and altruism to cement their rule. At her worst moments, a desperately unhappy Ayn Rand wielded doctrines of individual liberty to hold her true believers hostage.