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A Strangely Important Figure

January 26, 2005 — Ayn Rand by Jeff Britting Published originally in The New York Sun

To call Ayn Rand, the high priestess of the human will, a mere force of nature would to her have been an insult as well as a cliche. But how else to describe this extraordinary, maddening, and indestructible individual? Born a century ago this year into the flourishing bourgeoisie of glittering, doomed St. Petersburg, Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum was to triumph over revolution, civil war, Lenin’s dictatorship, an impoverished immigrant existence, and bad reviews in the New York Times to become a strangely important figure in the history of American ideas.

Even the smaller details of Rand’s life come with the sort of epic implausibility found in – oh, an Ayn Rand novel. On her first day of looking for work in Hollywood, who gives her a lift in his car? Cecil B. DeMille. Of course he does. Frank Lloyd Wright designs a house for her. Years later, when she’s famous, the sage of selfishness, ensconced in her Murray Hill eyrie, a young fellow by the name of Alan Greenspan becomes a member of the slightly creepy set that sits at the great woman’s feet. Apparently he went on to achieve some prominence in later life.

To Rand, none of this would really have mattered (well, the fame was nice). To her, an intensely Russian intellectual despite everything, it was ideas that counted. They were everything. When, after nearly 50 years, her beloved long-lost youngest sister, Nora, made it over from the USSR, they promptly fell out – over politics, naturally. Poor Nora was on her way within six weeks, back to the doubtless more easygoing embrace of Leonid Brezhnev.

Scarred by her Soviet experiences, Rand was a woman on a mission. She couldn’t stop: not for her sister, not for anyone. She had plenty to say, and she said it – again, and again, and again. She wrote, she lectured, she hectored, she harangued. Words flowed, how they flowed, too much sometimes, too insistent often, but infinitely preferable to the silence of the Soviet Union that she had left behind.

And somehow her work has endured in the country she made her own. Her creed of ego and laissez-faire, and the reception it won, was one of the more interesting – and encouraging – cultural phenomena of mid-20th-century America. It has persisted, lasting longer, even, than the vast, daunting paragraphs that mark her prose style. Just over a decade ago, “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) was voted Americans’ most influential novel in a joint poll conducted by the Book-of-the-Month club and the Library of Congress.

Hers is a remarkable story, and I find it curious that one of the only publications being brought out to commemorate the 100th-birthday girl – besides new printings of the novels by Plume – is Jeff Britting’s new, very very brief account (Overlook Duckworth, 144 pages, $19.95). The latest in the series of Overlook Illustrated Lives, it’s too short to do Rand much justice; any reader already familiar with Rand’s life won’t learn much.

Biographies in this series are intended as overviews rather than something more comprehensive. The author is an archivist at the Ayn Rand institute, the associate producer of an Oscar-nominated documentary about Rand, and obviously a keeper of the flame. Thus Mr. Britting has little to say about the romantic entanglements, more Peyton Place than Galt’s Gulch, that devastated Rand’s circle in later years.

Most notably, Rand had an affair with her chosen intellectual heir, Nathaniel Brandon. While both Rand’s husband and the wife of the intellectual heir agreed (sort of) to this arrangement, it added further emotional complications to what was, given Rand’s prominence, a surprisingly hermetic, claustrophobic little world, one best described in “The Passion of Ayn Rand” (Bantam Dell) – the compelling, and sympathetic, biography of Rand written by, yes, the intellectual heir’s ex-wife.

As I said, Peyton Place.

Closed, neurotic environments filled with true believers are the hallmark of a cult, and there’s a good case to be made that that’s exactly what Rand was running. Take a look at the way in which she treated her acolytes: angry excommunications, overbearing diktats, dramatic interventions, and, disappointing in one who preached self-determination, rather too much fuhrer prinzip.

The cult-or-not controversy goes unmentioned in Mr. Britting’s book. What a reader will find, particularly in the excellent selection of illustrations, is a real sense of how Rand’s life related to her novels. One glance at her Hollywood-handsome husband, and the rugged succession of steely supermen who dominate her fiction make more sense (“All my heroes will always be reflections of Frank”).

Rand herself, alas, was no beauty; her glorious heroines, ridiculously gorgeous, impossibly named, remarkably lithe, are less the template for – as some allege – a sinister eugenic agenda than the stuff of Ayn’s randy dreams garnished with a dollop of Art Deco kitsch. The first, extraordinarily violent, coupling in “The Fountainhead” of Howard Roark with Dominique Francon is not a general prescription for the relationship between the sexes but merely Rand’s own erotic fantasy (“wishful thinking,” she once announced, to the cheers of a delighted crowd).

Likewise, her sometimes-overwrought style is no more than – well, judge this sentence from “Atlas Shrugged” for yourself: “She looked at the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building rising in the distance – and then she thought she understood: these people hated Jim because they envied him.” Call Dr. Freud.

If sex in Rand’s fiction can be savage, so is argument. Her sagas deal in moral absolutes, her protagonists are the whitest of knights or the blackest of villains, caricatures of good or evil lacking the shadings of gray that make literature, and life, so interesting. Yet “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” at least, have a wild, lunatic verve that sweeps all before them. Like Busby Berkeley, the Chrysler Building, or a Caddy with fins, they are aesthetic disasters, very American aesthetic disasters, which somehow emerge as something rather grand.

There is plenty in Rand to make a modern reader queasy, though you would not know so from Mr. Britting’s worshipful text. For example, there is something to the claim that like so many of the intellectuals, left or right, of her time she succumbed to the cruder forms of social Darwinism. For a woman who worshiped man, Rand did not always seem that fond of mankind.

But the accusation by Whittaker Chambers in National Review that there was a whiff of the gas chamber about her writings is wrong. Rand lived in an era of stark ideological choices; to argue in muted, reasonable tones was to lose the debate. As a graduate of Lenin’s Russia, she knew that the stakes were high, and how effective good propaganda could be.

Rand’s nonfiction may have a greater claim to intellectual respectability, but it was the lurid, occasionally harsh, simplicities of her novels that would deliver her message to the mass audience she believed was out there. She was right. Her key insight was to realize that there was an appetite among Americans for a moral case for capitalism. In a restless age that believed in the Big Answer, neither historical tradition nor utilitarian notions of efficiency would suffice. Ayn Rand gave Americans that case, perhaps not the best case, but a case, and she knew how to sell it.

The establishment always disapproved. Critics sneered. Academics jeered. The publishers Macmillan turned down “Anthem” (1938), saying that Rand, a refugee from the Soviet Union, “did not understand socialism.” Oh, but she did, and so did those millions of Americans who bought her books, books that played their part in ensuring that the dull orthodoxies of collectivism never prevailed here.

The last image in Mr. Britting’s biography is of an exultant Rand speaking at a conference in New Orleans in 1981, the final public appearance of this magnificent, brilliant oddball. Her hosts tried to lure her there with the promise of payment in gold coins and travel in a private rail car.

Needless to say, she accepted.