Sunday, June 15, 2014

131. Ayn Rand, High Priestess of Egoism

Half-length monochrome portrait photo of Ayn Rand, seated, holding a cigarette     When I told my friend John that I was going to do a post on Ayn Rand, he immediately denounced her “hideous right-wing ideology” that opposed government intervention and would let corporations do whatever they wanted.  Yes, she is controversial; if you know anything about her, you either love her or hate her.  But you don’t have to love her, or even like her or agree with her, to call her remarkable; the force of her ideas is enough.  In announcing a series of posts on Remarkable Women, I promised some luscious subjects.  But Ayn Rand is not luscious.  “Luscious” suggests ripe fruit, sweet and succulent, with an enticing aroma that makes you want to gobble.  That is not Ayn Rand.  Her personality and her ideas are lean, hard, angular, and dry.  But they have left their mark.


     She was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosebaum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, to Jewish parents.  Her father, a successful pharmacist, was an agnostic, her mother only nominally observant.  She taught herself to read at six, was writing from an early age.  The Russian Revolution occurred when she was twelve, inaugurating what she would later call “the stifling, sordid ugliness of Soviet Russia.”  Already harboring notions of heroism and individualism, she knew that this was no place for her, and when, in the early 1920s, she saw American movies with shots of the city of New York, this alien city with clusters of tall buildings “seemed completely incredible.”  From then on, America beckoned.

     In 1926 she left, ostensibly to visit relatives in Chicago and study the film industry, so she could return and work in that same industry in Russia, but really with no intention of ever returning to the land of Soviet collectivism.  Here in the citadel of capitalism – indeed, in the joyous tumult of the Roaring Twenties – Ayn Rand (such she now christened herself, to protect her family back in Russia) found work in Hollywood as an extra, then a screenwriter and a clerk in wardrobe.  But these Hollywood years were a mere prelude to her glory years in the Empire City, though they saw her marry a handsome actor named Frank O’Connor and, in 1931, become a U.S. citizen.

     In 1934 she and her husband moved to New York City, to which she had always felt drawn.  There she had a play produced on Broadway, and a novel published, only to go soon out of print.  Promising beginnings, but beginnings only.  Then, significantly, she began work on The Fountainhead, the novel that would, in time, bring her recognition and success.

The Fountainhead

TheFountainhead.jpg     Published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1943, after twelve other publishers rejected it, The Fountainhead, which the author would later describe as a mere overture to Atlas Shrugged, is, as overtures go, a pretty hefty bit of work; in my paperback edition it runs to 694 pages, and believe me, those pages have small print.  But if one is going to read her – perhaps, as I did, to learn what all the hullaballoo is about – this is the place to begin.  I will only give a brief, rough sketch of it here, since to do otherwise would swell this post to epic proportions.

     Based in part on Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Roark, the architect hero, has an inner vision of his trade that goes against the mainstream ideas of his time.  Expelled from his architecture school because of his nonconformist attitude, he in time opens a firm of his own in New York and slowly, in spite of slander against him, finds the rare clients who appreciate his talent and hire him for significant projects.  When he finds that the design of one of his buildings has been altered in his absence, he dynamites the building.  At the trial that follows, Roark speaks eloquently of the value of ego and the need to remain true to oneself, and the jury acquits him.  He triumphs in the end, and even gets the girl in the story.  The novel’s title comes from Roark’s statement that “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”

     By way of contrast Peter Keating, another aspiring architect, wins initial success by catering to the wishes of others and conforming to the beliefs of the establishment.  His ruthless ambition causes him to manipulate and abuse others; unlike Roark, he has no true inner vision, no strong, determining self.  In the end he fails, knows himself to be utterly mediocre.

     The Fountainhead pits egoism, guided by mind, against what Rand calls “second-handers,” those who are guided by the opinions of others.  It is the egoists like Roark who do, think, and produce; the world will be far better off if it lets them do their thing.  Roark is her first literary portrait of the ideal man (her heroes are always men), the creative egoist.

     I won’t deny that the novel – all 694 pages of it – is a good read, if one has a stomach for long and complicated stories, with characters who are literary abstractions rather than portraits of real flesh-and-blood people.  Rand always portrays ideal types, with all the simplifications required.  Her heroes are rarely stricken with self-doubt, any more than she herself was; they hold true through thick and thin.  But if you want powerful ideas powerfully expressed, and writing that makes you think, then Ayn Rand is the author for you.

     The Fountainhead received mixed reviews.  The New York Times reviewer called it “masterful,” whereas another reviewer declared that “anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper-rationing.”  Offensive to some was a scene where Roark forces himself sexually on the woman he eventually marries, Dominique.  Feminists have called Rand a traitor to her sex in making her women characters subservient to men, though Rand denied that the scene in question involved true rape, insisting that it was “rape by engraved invitation,” since Dominique really wanted it to happen.  Be that as it may, the novel sold well and by 1945 was on the New York Times bestseller list, and it continues to sell well today.  In 1949 the film The Fountainhead was released, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal; inevitably, Rand disliked it.

     And today?  Here is a sampling of reader reviews from Goodreads, the world’s largest website for readers and their book reviews.  These are not the complete reviews, just brief selections from them.

·      Ultimately it's easy to see in novels like this one why Rand is so perfect for late teenagers, but why she elicits eye rolls by one's mid-twenties; because Objectivism [Rand’s philosophy] is all about BEING RIGHT, and DROPPING OUT IF OTHERS CAN'T UNDERSTAND THAT, and LET 'EM ALL GO TO HELL AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED, without ever taking into account the unending amount of compromise and cooperation and sometimes sheer altruism that actually makes the world work. Recommended, but with a caveat; that you read it before you're old enough to know better.
·      I'm far from a Rand worshipper. I can't get onboard with her whole way of life, from the personal to the political level. I will say, though, that I think her attitudes, when applied to the creative arts, are important.
·      As literature, I found the book dry, predictable, and overwrought. As philosophy, I found it circular, wholly unfounded, and completely contradicting reality.
·      This book is a big epiphany-getter in American high school and college students. It presents a theme of pure, fierce dedication to honing yourself into a hard blade of competence and accomplishment, brooking no compromise, ignoring and dismissing the weak, untalented rabble and naysayers as you charge forth to seize your destiny. You are an "Army of One". There is undeniable sophomoric allure to this pitch.

Obviously, the novel is still being read, and taken seriously enough to be praised – within limits – or reviled.  Of how many books published in 1943 can you say that today?

Atlas Shrugged

     Who was the author who was now achieving eminence?  She was only 5 feet 4 in height, but to my eye, judging by the many photos of her, a handsome woman in a mannish sort of way, devoid of frills and flounces.  She kept her brown hair cut short, framing her face, as if long hair down to the shoulders would have been too feminine, too loose and free, too sensual.  She spoke with a Russian accent and had dark, penetrating eyes that lit up whenever conversation turned to philosophy.  Prizing mind and its workings over everything, she gave little attention to clothes, wore ready-to-wear outfits or casual ones thrown quickly together.

     Believing strongly in her own ideas, she was not one to tolerate fools, a category that for her included just about anyone who disagreed with her.  Ideas were to be either passionately embraced or rejected with scorn; there was no middle way.  Which explains why she exhibited extremes of joy and anger, and why even favorable reviews of her work were apt to displease her; few were those who, in her opinion, truly understood what she was trying to say.

     Those who have read The Fountainhead are inclined to feel that they have climbed a mountain.  But in the context of Rand’s oeuvre, The Fountainhead is a hillock; Atlas Shrugged is the Matterhorn.  Or maybe Mount Everest.  And brave are those who venture on its slopes.

AtlasShrugged.jpg     The basic idea of this magnum opus (1,069 pages in my paperback edition) is simple:  What would happen if all the truly creative people went on strike against a collectivist and overregulated society that refuses to recognize their worth?  What if, one by one, they vanished mysteriously into a remote valley in the Rocky Mountains, leaving society to the would-be altruists, to the bureaucrats and bumblers?  The answer, of course, is that the industries they run would collapse, followed by the government.  And so it comes about in this novel.  At the end John Galt, the leader of the strike, announces that he and the other exiles will now reorganize the world. 

     This, of course, is the barest outline of the plot.  When I read it – yes, all the way to the bitter end – I made a list of no less than 29 recurring characters in an attempt to keep them all straight.  Need I add that in my opinion the book is grossly overwritten, stating and restating its ideas time after time.  When, near the end, John Galt delivers a long radio broadcast to expound the author’s theme and philosophy – some 40 pages in this later edition, reduced from the original 70 – I skipped it entirely and didn’t miss a thing.

     The title comes from a passage in the novel when one character asks another what he would say to Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if he saw him with blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling, but still trying to hold up the world, which bears down on him heavier all the time.  When the second character doesn’t know, he asks the questioner what he himself would tell Atlas.  The answer: “To shrug.”  Presumably, the creative people in the novel are the atlases of this world, and by going on strike they shrug off the weight of the world.

     The world that Rand describes in her novel, while set at an unspecified time, may seem quaint today, in that it reflects a society where railroads, industry, and radio are prominent.  I don’t blame her if she didn’t anticipate the growing importance of air travel and television, much less computers and the Internet.  But her story is both anachronistic and timeless.  Once again, but more comprehensively, she expresses through her characters the concept of ethical egoism, of rational selfishness, whereby human reason functions as humanity’s basic tool of survival.  There is much else in the novel as well, but I can't discuss it all here.

     Atlas Shrugged was on the New York Times bestseller list for 22 consecutive weeks, but it was assailed by critics generally.  Catholics and religious conservatives detested its atheism and egoism, while liberals denounced the glorification of laissez-faire capitalism.  “An homage to greed,” “shot through with hatred,” “sophomoric,” and “godless” were among the verdicts pronounced.  And just about every critic dismissed it as blatant propaganda.  But her allies counterattacked, and the book kept right on selling.

     Again, let’s see what recent Goodreads reviews have to say:

·      Ayn Rand makes my eyes hurt. She does this, not by the length of her six hundred thousand word diatribe, but rather by the frequency with which she causes me to roll them.
·      This book really makes you take a good hard look at yourself and your behavior, which is why I think a lot of people don't like this book. It's a lecture and most people don't like to get lectured. I loved it. It gave me a good swift kick in the ass.
·      As Ayn Rand's immortal opus, Atlas Shrugged, stands as a tome to a philosophy that is relevant today as it was in her time. Basically, the major moral theme is that there are two types of people in the world: the Creators and the Leeches.
·      The best way to understand Rand's message in this book is to simply close it, and beat yourself over the head with it as hard as possible. This is essentially what Rand does throughout its ridiculous length.
Obviously, readers continue to either love her work or hate it.

The Cult

     In 1951 Ayn Rand and her husband moved permanently to New York, where they lived for many years at 36 East 36th Street.  New York was the city she had longed for ever since seeing glimpses of it in American movies in the 1920s, yet she never really got to know it.  She never traipsed its sidewalks, talked to its residents, or immersed herself in its diversity.  Her New York was an abstraction, a place where she could vent her ideas, and where her fictional characters could interact and show her philosophy in action.  Her writing and her ideas preoccupied her; the juicy, gritty, real New York did not.

     What did interest her in the 1950s were the enthusiastic letters she received from young people who had read The Fountainhead.  Often she would invite them to come to New York and meet her, and in this way she soon gathered around her a select group of admirers whom she invited to weekly meetings in her apartment to discuss her ideas and hear selections from Atlas Shrugged as she worked on it.  This inner circle she christened, with a touch of irony, “the Collective.”  They were her social life; the vast society outside these confines she ignored, convinced that most of it would be hostile to her ideas. 

     Inevitably, perhaps, in 1954 one of the young male acolytes was conscripted to be consort to Genius, the Genius being Ayn Rand.  The chosen one was Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, who, like Rand, was married, but the relationship developed with the knowledge and reluctant consent of their respective spouses.  This was known to the inner circle, but not to her other followers.  With Rand’s editorial assistance, Branden gave a lecture on her philosophy of Objectivism in 1958, and in 1962 established the Nathaniel Branden Institute, Inc. (NBI) to offer courses on Objectivism and related topics taught by members of the Collective. 

     With the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand felt that she had fully expressed herself in fiction and from then on devoted herself to further expounding and promoting Objectivism.  Stated briefly and in the simplest terms possible, Objectivism believes that reality exists independent of the consciousness of those perceiving it.  It is a real and tangible hard fact, and not the projection of our mind.  Beyond what we perceive, reason is our only source of knowledge, our guide to action, and our means of survival.  To survive, we must think.  And our survival depends not on altruism but on rational self-interest.  Objectivism embraces laissez-faire capitalism, insisting that the only justified role of government is to protect our individual rights; beyond that, it should keep hands off.

     Throughout the 1960s Rand promoted her philosophy through public and private speeches, TV and radio appearances (especially on WBAI), and in a series of essays.  Slowly she found a wider audience and was invited to participate in forums and symposiums.  Yet the intellectual establishment never accepted her, calling her philosophy an ideology, her novels “philosophical soapboxes,” her ideas “simplistic,” and her personality “authoritarian.”  But the public kept on buying her books.

     By the late 1960s NBI was a flourishing organization, offering courses in 80 cities that were attended by thousands.  But by now Branden’s sexual interest had evidently (if you’ll pardon the expression) petered out and, separated from his wife, he was in love with a younger woman.  But  disengaging oneself from Ayn Rand was not easy, since her needs were fierce.  Fearing Rand’s explosive anger, Branden and his estranged wife kept his new involvement secret from her, but in time she learned of it.  Intellectual and business issues now compounded their differences as well, and in 1968 their association ended not with a whimper but a bang.  In the May issue of her monthly periodical, The Objectivist, Rand broke publicly with Branden, accusing him of a series of deceptions, including his failure to practice the philosophy – hers, of course – that he was teaching his students, as well as unresolved psychological problems.  He countered with a lengthy letter to the NBI mailing list denying her numerous accusations and attributing her denunciations to his unwillingness to engage further in a romantic relationship with her.  This break, shocking to many of her followers, put an end to NBI, which Branden dissolved.  He and others later denounced the NBI for intellectual conformity and excessive reverence for Rand.

     Rand was still active in the 1970s and was even invited twice to the Ford White House, but in 1974, after decades of heavy smoking, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and surgery to remove part of one lung left her in a weakened condition.  Despite initial objections, this vehement foe of government intervention allowed herself to be enrolled for Social Security and Medicare.  Meanwhile Frank O’Connor also required medical care and her constant attention.  In these last years she listened to music, watched TV, and collected stamps, but her preferred recreation was still discussing philosophy with friends who came to her apartment, now at 120 East 34th Street. 

     In 1979 Frank O’Connor died, ending their fifty-year marriage; for a while she was plunged into the depths of depression.  Invited to address a monetary conference in New Orleans in November 1981, at age 76 she went in a private rail car, assailed businessmen who financed universities advocating the destruction of capitalism, then announced that she was writing a TV adaptation of Atlas Shrugged that she would produce herself.  At this surprise announcement the audience rose in a body and cheered.

      Returning from New Orleans, she fell sick and continued ailing throughout December.  In January 1982 she was hospitalized with pulmonary problems, then returned to her apartment and died there on March 6, 1982.  Eight hundred people waited in line to enter the funeral home where she lay in state, with a six-foot floral dollar sign by the coffin.  She was buried beside her husband in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

File:Ayn Rand Marker.jpg


     The Passion of Ayn Rand, the first full-length biography of Ayn Rand, was written by Barbara Branden, the former wife of Nathaniel Branden; published in 1986, it revealed Rand’s affair with Branden.  It received positive reviews and was made into a film of the same name in 1999.

Ayn Rand Institute.jpg     Rand’s books have continued to be widely sold and read both in the U.S. and abroad.  In 1991 a Book of the Month Club survey asked club members to name the most influential book in their life; no. 1 was the Bible, and no. 2 Atlas Shrugged.  It doesn’t hurt that the Ayn Rand Institute, founded in 1985 to promote her philosophy and works, donates 400,000 copies every year to Advanced Placement high school programs.  The Institute is the keeper of the flame, and in those hallowed precincts the flame burns bright.

     Several prominent businessmen have told how Rand’s ideas had a positive influence on them in their early years, and one of the first Collective members, Alan Greenspan, served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006; in a 2010 interview he reaffirmed his faith in laissez-faire capitalism.  In 2009 her name and John Galt’s appeared on signs at Tea Party protests.  To this day she is controversial, provoking much praise and blame.  Chances are she always will be, and that would no doubt suit her fine.

A 2009 Tea Party demonstration in Chicago.  The face of the
man holding the sign has been effaced to protect his identity.


     I have known only one person who proclaimed herself a follower of Ayn Rand, a lesbian librarian of my partner Bob’s acquaintance who was surely not typical of Rand’s followers.  Evelyn was so taken with her mentor that she donated generously from her modest salary to the Ayn Rand Institute.  Like Rand, she was a secular Jew, hard, lean, angular, and dry, and very intelligent.  Unlike Rand, who had little time for the arts, she was a great appreciator of Rubinstein playing Chopin, and had a collection of Austrian bronzes, figurines of animals delicately wrought.  But if Rand was capable of explosive anger, Evelyn showed no feelings whatsoever; she was all mind.  She pushed this to the point that she never, to my knowledge, uttered the words “please,” “thank you,” or “excuse me”; such amenities would have been a surrender, a needless betrayal of … of what?  Of mind?  Of self-possession?  Of integrity?  A strange woman, fascinating in her way, combining keen intellect with a total lack of warmth.  A tight fist that refused to open.

     Ayn Rand appeals especially to people who are adrift and in need of guidance.  For them, it is vastly reassuring to encounter a guide so confident, so possessed of ideas and principles that she pronounces with vigor and clarity, an authority who speaks without hesitation or doubt.  Which is why she appeals to young people … for a while.

     I admire Ayn Rand from a distance, for she knew who she was and what she believed in, expressed herself clearly, and left her mark.  If I have never been tempted even momentarily to fall under her spell, I attribute it to certain aspects of her personality:

·      Total self-assurance, not a smidgen of self-doubt.
·      No ambiguity, no irony, without which I couldn’t begin to cope with the world I live in.
·      No sense of humor, none.
·      The delicious fact that, ardent foe of government intervention though she was, in the end she let herself be enrolled for Social Security and Medicare.

     High Priestess of Enlightened Egoism, flayer of altruism, Atlas of the Mind who never shrugged off the world but stayed to lecture, chastise, and correct it, may she rest in peace.

This is New York

File:New York City Fashion (7371028976).jpg
Rod Waddington

         Coming soon:  Famous New York Deaths: Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Rudolph Valentino.  (Did Brynner really have Mongol and gypsy blood?  Did  Elizabeth Taylor save Clift's life?  Was Valentino gay?  Who was the Woman in Black who every year put a red rose on his grave?  All shall be made clear.)  In the offing: How Great Cities and Great Nations Decline.  And two more Remarkable Women: Ree Dragonette and Anais Nin.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


  1. A few corrections:
    * She was a fan of the arts. In fact she has a well developed esthetic philosophy presented in a series of essays titled The Romantic Manifesto

  2. * Not everyone gets her sense of humor - but it doesn't mean she didn't have one. For the lighter side of her personality I recommend the book 100 voices. This book also refutes another suggestion of your post - that she had no social life or care for those not in agreement with her and not in the collective. That is simply not the case.

  3. * There is no hypocrisy in her accepting social security. She paid far far more in taxes than she ever received back via social security or otherwise. This accusation would imply that anyone opposed to the governments highway program is a hypocrite for driving a car. Ridiculous. We all live in the world as it is, even while advocating for something better.

  4. As blog posts on Ayn Rand go, yours is one of the fairest and most accurate I've come across. So despite my critiques above, I appreciate what you've done here. Thanks!

    1. Dear Unknown: I appreciate your comments, both negative and positive, and will ponder them. Many thanks.

  5. I agree with "Unknown." I knew Ayn Rand well, and her apartment was filled with art. Of course, she was an artist but be aware that her husband was first an actor, then a painter.

    The sense of humor point is really not worth arguing, but for the record, she was very witty and once made me a straight man for a very funny impromptu joke. And what would say about this passage from The Fountainhead?

    "Ralston Holcombe had no visible neck, but his chin took care of that. His chin and jaws formed an unbroken arc, resting on his chest. His cheeks were pink, soft to the touch, with the irresilient softness of age, like the skin of a peach that has been scalded. His rich white hair rose over his forehead and fell to his shoulders in the sweep of a medieval mane. It left dandruff on the back of his collar.

    "He walked through the streets of New York, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a dark business suit, a pale green satin shirt, a vest of white brocade, a huge black bow emerging from under his chin, and he carded a staff, not a cane, but a tall ebony staff surmounted by a bulb of solid gold. It was as if his huge body were resigned to the conventions of a prosaic civilization and to its drab garments, but the oval of his chest and stomach sallied forth, flying the colors of his inner soul.

    "These things were permitted to him, because he was a genius. He was also president of the Architects' Guild of America. Ralston Holcombe did not subscribe to the views of his colleagues in the organization. He was not a grubbing builder nor a businessman. He was, he stated firmly, a man of ideals. He denounced the deplorable state of American architecture and the unprincipled eclecticism of its practitioners. In any period of history, he declared, architects built in the spirit of their own time, and did not pick designs from the past; we could be true to history only in heeding her law, which demanded that we plant the roots of our an firmly in the reality of our own life. He decried the stupidity of erecting buildings that were Greek, Gothic or Romanesque; let us, he begged, be modern and build in the style that belongs to our days. He had found that style. It was Renaissance."

    1. I can't argue your contention that in her private life she had a sense of humor; I know her only through her works. As for the quote from The Fountainhead, you've convinced me: yes, she had a sense of humor, albeit a satiric one. Thanks for the input; I appreciate it.

  6. I met Ayn Rand in the early Sixties, when I managed WBAI. She used to drop by my office when she came in to record her commentary. I can attest to her having had a sense of humor, but I once made the mistake of mentioning her and William Buckley in the same breath—it brought her voice up several decibels as she told me never to liken her to "those people."

    One day, our engineer called downstairs to tell me that Ayn had not shown up in the studio. I had seen her about fifteen minutes earlier, so I knew she was around. I found her standing in the second floor corridor, engaged in serious conversation with our janitor.

    If the script is any indication (and it is), I am about to find out exactly how Ayn felt when she saw The Fountainhead and disliked it.

    I liked Ayn Rand, as a person.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The post on Ayn Rand has found a wide readership and several interesting comments. She's still a hot-wire topic.

  7. There's a story in the book "100 voices" where she tells a visitor to the offices of Playboy that all the bunnies sleep with Hugh Hefner. You have to read it to get the full story but it is sure funny.