Aynal Fixation

America's curious love affair with Ayn Rand

| May-June 1999

“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.)