Astrogator's Logs

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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Ephemera 2009

Ayn Rand, Cornell Cappa

From time to time items appear in news or social media that remind me I’ve long wanted to discuss Ayn Rand. The latest is the Sad Puppies’ Hugo awards campaign, whose leaders announced that next time the charge of the Lightweight Brigade will be led by women who are not like the rest of us unworthy hysterics. Prominent among the vessels chosen to carry the yellowish fluid of “pure” SF is one who parrots Ayn Rand. In this era of voided social contracts and vanishing safety nets, several of the current Republican presidential candidates name themselves Rand adherents – except that the coin she minted has proved counterfeit not only for societies, but also for the individuals she purported to champion.

Born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Russian-Jewish family, multiply displaced by Soviet policies, possessing immense drive and the type of intelligence that made her a poor fit to any homogeneous group ruled by implicit traditions, Rand managed to emigrate to the US. Once there, she strove – with enormous success – to reinvent herself far beyond the usual name change and veneer assimilation of zero- and first-generation immigrants. She also attempted to reshape, Procrustes-like, all within her reach to fit her fantasy of perfection, including her personal past, her hapless low-key husband and eventually her acolytes.

Countless critics have dissected Rand’s juvenile “philosophy” (who seriously lists Aristotle as a decisive influence?), cartoonish characters and clunky dialogue, humorless didacticism, worship of Aryan-phenotype übermenschen and their Nietzschean prerogatives, cult-leader behavior. Equally countless admirers have cleaved to Rand’s powerful message of purpose and self-esteem, which she eventually distorted into suffocating diktats. Less discussed is a fundamental contradiction: despite her trumpetings that she stood solitary and independent as a sui generis entirely self-made construct, Rand not only had far more help than she acknowledged, but she also abjectly desired to belong to clubs perceived to occupy the top of intellectual and/or political hierarchies. This is common for many with backstories similar to Rand’s: Dinesh D’Souza, Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung), Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Camille Paglia, Marco Rubio, Sarah Hoyt (Alice Maria da Silva Marques de Almeida), Martin Shkreli.

Rand and the others I listed decided that the path to first-class citizenship in their adoptive US culture was to become mouthpieces for its most reactionary substreams. They’re born-again Spencerians, staunch promoters of libertarian bootstrapping myths, and as obsessed with purge-enforced purity as their ideological opponents. However, their intrinsics mean they can never be more than court jesters or spear carriers of the masters they choose; they end up becoming collaborators, cudgels against fellow disadvantaged who are trying different ways of becoming acknowledged as fully human. For the women, it additionally means they invariably become more kyriarchal than MRAs, since they must be be seen as different than the rest of their weak-minded hormone-driven gender. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I regard both extreme identity politics and total isolationism (that is, complete refusal to interact with one’s adoptive culuture) as dysfunctional and sterile as the appeasing mimic mode that I discuss here.

Fountainhead - Cooper, NealAyn Rand is a beguiling beacon for bright, self-motivated social isolates who have no obvious tribe and decide to make a defiant virtue of aloneness. When I was fourteen and a student in one of Greece’s elite exam-entry schools during the junta, one of my teachers handed me The Fountainhead remarking it had been written with me in mind. On the surface, I was the ideal audience for its message: an overachieving loner proud of her otherness, neither feminine nor pretty; a fledgling contrarian who disliked unexamined majority views and was already being treated as “an honorary man”; the member of a family chronically persecuted for its political beliefs and actions; a believer in principles, meritocracy and perfectibility like most adolescents.

For reasons partly mentioned in Snachismo, I left my native culture for the world-dominant US polity. Though I’m not “of color” (unless it becomes convenient to someone’s agenda) as defined by the crudely reductive US criteria, I’m one of the borderline ethnics designated as “sneaky swarthons” across Anglosaxon cultures. If you believe this is no longer applicable, re-read the presentations of the recent Greek economic debacle in European media. I came to the US younger than Rand and without any family whatsoever; she, despite her later disavowals, lived with her first-degree relatives until she went to California using their money. What I had instead was a full scholarship and the buffers a well-endowed university could provide.

As I continued living in the US, I kept piling up all kinds of credentials and accomplishments. Nevertheless, I was still olive-skinned and still had an unpronounceable name and a legacy accent – with the result that I was often treated as mud (or worse) on a shoe. I later found out that I shared all these attributes and equivalent experiences with Rand herself. By all counts, I should have become a fervent lifelong Objectivist.

What saved me from such a fate? Perhaps that I had an empathy organ, which Rand (like other transmit-only narcissists) notoriously lacked. Or that I never repudiated my heritage, warts and all – even as I selectively chose what to retain from it, and what to adopt from the more cosmopolitan milieus I found myself in. Or that unlike Rand’s proud announcement that she was “a male chauvinist”, I was a feminist even before I knew the term (or movement) existed. Or that I wanted to become a scientist from the moment I could think clearly, and during my training for that vocation it got pressed into me with diamond-tipped drills that theories must fit facts, not the other way around. Or that I could never identify with Rand’s Aryan blonds, modeled on those who had tortured and exterminated my people and other “inferiors” like vermin. Or that the thought of becoming someone’s Joan the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, no matter how remarkable they might be, made me break into hives.

Yet I was still fascinated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect. So after The Fountainhead I went on to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and the Barbara Branden and Ann Heller biographies. And so I found out the desolation and insoluble conflicts behind Rand’s bravado. Like many of that personality type, her strengths gave her a strong sense of entitlement that she assumed should, and would, automatically translate to privilege. People far less intelligent than Rand rose to prominence through membership in a dominant group, so it was not surprising she felt short-changed. Deprived of the desired recognition from the alpha club (loner pretensions notwithstanding), she ended up becoming the “there can only be one” tai-tai of designated lesser beings: like her, all her inner circle were smart, ambitious Jews in a society that still imposed racial and ethnic group segregations and quotas. She considered her followers, and they considered themselves, second-best – especially the women whom she turned into typists and gofers. This resulted in shattered, stunted lives. And like all people in this no-win position, anger and depression stalked Rand throughout her life.

Atlas Rockefeller Ctr Lee LawrieI know this anger only too well. I have to keep a tight rein on it, lest it consume me. I’ve come to realize that the siren call of self-made climbing is meant to keep people like me trying solo for brass rings: box-ticking tokens at best. But unlike Rand, I figured this out early enough to choose a different path. This won’t make me beloved, influential, famous or rich. But neither will it make me mutilate my feet to fit stiletto-heeled glass slippers. For exiled wanderers like me, perhaps the only viable option is to keep our double vision intact and acknowledge the value of uncoerced cooperation and shared visions, even as we recognize that all alliances are fleeting. We will always sail on half-familiar seas, Flying Hollanders with the albatross of loneliness around our necks. Even so, we can try to become links between our natal and adopted cultures, branches tapping on windows, gravity ripples between stars.

Related Essays

And Ain’t I a Human?
Snachismo, or: What Do Women Want?
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Only Kowtowers Need Apply
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Caesars and Caesar Salads
History, Legitimacy and Belonging; or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?
The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Ayn Rand, photo by Cornell Cappa; 2nd, Patricia Neal (as Dominique Francon) shows the proper Randian woman-worship for Gary Cooper (as Howard Roark) in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead; 3rd, Atlas, statue by Lee Lawrie that is often identified with Objectivism and has been used as a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

15 Responses to “Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons”

  1. CWJ says:

    Another incisive essay. I only read one Rand novel, Anthem, when it was assigned in high school to compare and contrast against The Grapes of Wrath*. Although the latter is also not without its didactic elements, he says with understatement, you already pinpointed the fundamental difference between the two: empathy. Since then I’ve heard nothing that made Rand sound the least bit attractive to me.

    (Not without irony, one of the young ladies in that same English class exclaimed about The Grapes of Wrath: “It’s Marxism!” No, it wasn’t Sarah “There are Marxists Under the Bed!” Hoyt.)

  2. Athena says:

    I think that the US definitions of “Marxism” and “Nazism” are way, way different from both the original meanings and the current meanings elsewhere in the world. Some of this has to do with the tilting of US politics to the right of Genghis Khan; some with the general US ignorance of any history beyond the distorted cartoons occasionally made in Hollywood.

  3. CWJ says:

    Actually, to go off topic a bit, Genghis Khan was quite liberal in many policies. He abolished slavery and torture, having suffered them himself. The subjugated people had free practice of religion, language, and culture; the Mongols had no interest in forcing their culture on others, and in fact quite the opposite; they reserved Mongol language and religion for Mongols. It’s just if you resisted the Mongols military control they absolutely slaughtered you. I don’t think I would want to live under either one, but given a choice between Mongol rulers and Randian ones….. (and the idea that a Randian libertarian state would have no rulers is as much a fairy tale as the Marxist withering away of the State, but you of course recognize that).

    At any rate, I agree with you: in the US to call something either a Nazi or a Marxist connote nothing more deep or insightful than disapproval.

  4. Athena says:

    Agreed about Genghis Khan in the abstract — though the Mongol/Turkic governmental model (let the conquered take care of everything as long as they gave tribute, which in the Ottoman case included children) leaves quite a bit to be desired!

  5. Zarpaulus says:

    I’m pretty certain that Rand based her philosophy on what the Soviet Union’s schools taught her capitalism was.

    And she only caught on because of Cold War hysteria, if she hadn’t infected the Libertarian party back then Objectivism would never catch on these days. But because the people who started the party for minimal government intervention in the economy became fans of her 50 years ago they’ve made her required reading. Instead of say, Adam Smith.

  6. Athena says:

    Rand’s work is really an odd successor to 19th-century sprawling novels. She’s closest to Dickens and Tolstoy in some ways, though in black-n-white.

    I agree that her prominence in the US is partly due to timing. She’s virtually unknown outside the US except as a niche curio.

  7. Deux says:

    I’m progressive in all my viewpoints, but I have a soft spot for Ayn Rand’s books, which I read as a teenager (The Fountainhead, We the Living, Atlas Shrugged, Anthem) and really enjoyed. This was in the UK. At the time, I didn’t know much about the author, or anything about her philosophical movement in the USA. The books by themselves, though, spoke to me in the same way they spoke to you – I was nodding along as you described yourself! Unfortunately her work is so politicized, that my fellow progressive feminist-minded friends tend to use her as a shorthand way to dismiss a certain mindset. I get a bit awkward, because of said soft spot. And a little irritated, because none of them have read anything she’s written! But without the baggage that comes with the author and her destructive politics, I think the books themselves can be quite enjoyable. I almost want to do a find and replace of names in some of her work, and see what my friends think of the stories by themselves.

  8. Athena says:

    Rand knew how to do a page-turner when she forgot to preach. Speechifying aside, her novels are a combination of thriller and soft-BDSM bodice ripper. She would have cleaned up in Romance.

  9. Asakiyume says:

    I didn’t know anything about Rand’s past, and your portrait of her generates all sorts of emotions–pity, trepidation, sense of waste. I appreciate that you’re both empathetic toward her while clear on the barrenness of her philosophy.

  10. Athena says:

    The dilemmas Rand faced are not uncommon. Her solution was extreme, though not entirely surprising if her character and specific circumstances are taken into account. More distressing is that her philosophy blighted many lives directly — and many more indirectly when it became economic gospel to some (one of her disciples was Alan Greenspan, who chaired to US Federal Reserved for two decades).

  11. intrigued_scribe says:

    Highly insightful essay. The empathetic view you’ve described Rand’s background with is just compelling as the emphasis on the destructiveness of her ideas — disturbing as the detrimental effects her philosophy has had on so many are.

  12. Alex Knapp says:

    Really enjoyed this essay, which I also found quite insightful. I think it’s a shame that Rand is mostly known for Atlas Shrugged, which is mostly ridiculous. I find parts of We The Living to be rather compelling and The Fountainhead to have a lot of interesting insights. (Even where I disagree a lot.) I think a lot of your thoughts about where she was coming from are dead on.

    Like many, I discovered Rand at a young age (around 14-15) and had an eager fascination of her. What kept me from going “full Rand”, though, was her ignorance of science and the fact, I think, that I discovered Spider Robinson’s Callahan stories at the same time. Those stories had a huge impact on me and kept me from buying into egoism as a philosophy and more soften Rand’s influence on me to “try not to be a sellout.” 🙂

  13. Athena says:

    Alex, welcome to the blog! I agree that Rand could write gripping passages when she could be distracted from message fic (she worked in the script industry, and learned valuable lessons there).

  14. Athena says:

    Dear Heather, I think Rand’s concepts of purpose and vocation are good — I only wish the rest of her ideas were as constructive!

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