Commentary Magazine


The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden

The Goddess That Failed

The Passion of Ayn Rand.
by Barbara Branden.
Doubleday. 421 pp. $19.95.

The history of any ideology is in large part a catalogue of purges, a sour and acrid rule to which the American Right has been no exception. One of the earliest right-wing purges carried out in this country took place in 1957 when the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand was for all intents and purposes read out of the conservative movement. The agent of her demise was National Review, which elected to publish a scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, her new novel, written by none other than Whittaker Chambers.

The juxtaposition of Ayn Rand and Whittaker Chambers was (and is) an intriguing one. Ayn Rand, a Russian émigrée turned screenwriter and novelist, had written in The Fountainhead an impeccably conservative novel of ideas which sold several hundred thousand copies and was subsequently made into a popular movie starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Chambers, a reformed Communist spy turned senior editor of National Review, was widely accepted at the time as a conservative totem, largely because of Witness, his best-selling memoir. Chambers's decision to attack Ayn Rand in the pages of National Review was thus a fateful one, and his review of Atlas Shrugged, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” was couched in terms that left no room for doubt as to the seriousness of her failures of orthodoxy:

The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. . . . Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. . . . From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber—go!”

Ayn Rand's followers promptly inundated National Review with irate correspondence. Ayn Rand herself never again spoke to its editor, William F. Buckley, Jr. (Within a few years, in fact, she was calling National Review “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America.”) But the anathema pronounced by Chambers stuck, and Ayn Rand was subsequently dismissed as a fringe figure by the majority of the American conservative establishment.

This dismissal, however, had no measurable effect on her popularity as an author. Her four novels alone continue to sell at the rate of over 300,000 copies a year. And the half-life of the Chambers anathema proved to be shorter than anyone expected. “It is normally a matter of two decades,” John Chamberlain wrote in 1961 with Ayn Rand in mind, “before the young take over the seats of power in the name of what they have learned to believe twenty years ago.” George Gilder, right on schedule, named Ayn Rand in the preface of his Wealth and Poverty as one of the people who “shaped my early economic ideas.” Alan Greenspan has never made any secret of his youthful association with Ayn Rand. Most of today's younger conservatives readily admit to having read her books closely. Barbara Branden, in the final chapter of her new biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, devotes fifteen pages to a list of public figures who take (or took) her seriously. Nearly three decades after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, it is respectable to have been influenced by Ayn Rand.

Was it a mistake to have rehabilitated Ayn Rand so thoroughly? The publication of this full-scale biography provides an excellent opportunity to reconsider her claims to recognition as a serious novelist and conservative philosopher. Mrs. Branden was closely linked to Ayn Rand, both personally and professionally, for nineteen years. She conducted over forty hours of taped interviews with Ayn Rand in preparation for a biographical sketch published in the 1962 symposium, Who Is Ayn Rand? Although Mrs. Branden's judgments are inevitably colored by the specifics of her troubled relationship with her subject, who had a lengthy affair with the author's first husband, the psychologist Nathaniel Branden, it is hard not to feel on reading this book that she has been at some pains to give us the facts as honestly as emotion permits.

To be sure, Barbara Branden is an excruciatingly bad stylist, trapped in the throes of what Wolcott Gibbs used to call “ladies'-club rhythm,” and her swooning rhapsodies blot every page:

One saw his warmth—the frustrated warmth of a lonely man—especially in his dealings with the animals he loved; he treated the least stray animal with the exquisite gentleness of a parent; a part of Frank always remained the boy who had stolen sick chickens from his neighbors in order to heal them. Bitterness? Contempt? Passion? These were not attributes that had relevance to Frank.

But Mrs. Branden's hopeless style is offset by her intimate knowledge of the details of Ayn Rand's personal life, and these details are undoubtedly central to the question of whether or not Ayn Rand's philosophy was as “wildly grotesque and excessive” as Whittaker Chambers claimed.

“My personal life,” she wrote in 1957, “is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters.” But did it?

_____________

Alice Rosenbaum was born into the Russian Jewish bourgeoisie in St. Petersburg in 1905. With the onset of revolution the Rosenbaums moved to Odessa, where they lived in extreme poverty until 1921, when the final defeat of the White Army led Fronz Rosenbaum to return to what was now Petrograd. Alice began writing short stories at the age of nine, deciding at sixteen to earn her living as a novelist and philosopher. (“If all philosophers,” she later said, “were required to present their ideas in novels, to dramatize the exact meaning and consequences of their philosophies in human life, there would be far fewer philosophers—and far better ones.”) Even as a schoolgirl, she knew precisely what she despised most about the Soviet system:

My concept of good and evil, already in the process of being formed, saw its vindication everywhere. . . . I realized they were saying that the illiterate and the poor had to be the rulers of the earth because they were illiterate and poor. . . . It was the demand for the sacrifice of the best among men, and for the enshrinement of the commonplace, that I saw as the unspeakable evil of Communism.

Alice's opportunity to leave the USSR came in 1925 when an aunt who had moved to Chicago prior to the revolution got in touch with the Rosenbaum family. Alice resolved to learn English, move to the United States, and become a Hollywood screenwriter. (“I began to go to movies every night,” she would recall. “My real enthusiasm for America, apart from its political principles, was formed then. I saw the essence of what Americans could be and ought to be.”) She emigrated to America in 1926, changing her name to Ayn Rand and moving to Hollywood within a year.

A chance meeting with Cecil B. DeMille on her first day in Hollywood led to a series of jobs ranging from junior writer at DeMille's studio to head of the RKO wardrobe department, with serious writing relegated to evenings and weekends. Her play, Night of January 16, a courtroom drama which makes use of a jury composed of audience members, was produced on Broadway in 1935; We the Living, an autobiographical novel, appeared in 1936 to poor sales and negative reviews. The failures of these early efforts had no visible effect on Ayn Rand, who remained serenely confident of her own importance as an artist and thinker.

In 1943 Bobbs-Merrill published The Fountainhead, a 754-page novel about a fiercely individualistic architect “who does not exist for others” named Howard Roark. Diana Trilling's curt review of The Fountainhead in the Nation was typical of critical reaction to the novel:

Ayn Rand's Howard Roark is . . . a giant among men, ten feet tall and with flaming hair, Genius on a scale that makes the good old Broadway version of art-in-a-beret look like Fra Angelico. And surrounding Howard Roark there is a whole galaxy of lesser monsters—Gail Wynand who is Power, and Peter Keating who is Success, and Dominique who is Woman. . . . Surely The Fountainhead is the curiosity of the year, and anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing.

The irony in Mrs. Trilling's last sentence was greater than she could possibly have known. Until 1944, frightened by bad reviews and stymied by the wartime paper shortage, Bobbs-Merrill was unable to publish editions of The Fountain-head larger than 5,000. But by 1948 over 400,000 copies of the novel had been sold, largely by word of mouth, and Ayn Rand subsequently sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers for $50,000. King Vidor directed the film version of The Fountain-head, for which Ayn Rand supplied an original screen adaptation that was shot virtually intact. She later claimed, in a form letter sent to inquiring readers, that the success of The Fountainhead

has demonstrated its own thesis. It was rejected by twelve publishers who declared that it had no commercial possibilities, it would not sell, it was “too intellectual,” it was “too unconventional,” it went against every alleged popular trend. Yet the success of The Fountainhead was made by the public, . . . single, individual readers who discovered it of their own choice, who read it on their own initiative and recommended it on their own judgment.

The story repeated itself when Ayn Rand first began showing Atlas Shrugged to publishers in 1956. Most were put off by the novel's thousand-page length and explictly right-wing political stance. (“Would you cut the Bible?” she asked Bennett Cerf when he suggested shortening a chapter.) When Random House brought the book out the following year, the prestige reviewers were universally hostile. Granville Hicks, writing in the New York Times, dismissed Atlas Shrugged as “not in any literary sense a serious novel,” while Gore Vidal announced that “Ayn Rand's philosophy is nearly perfect in its immorality.” But the public ignored the critics again, so totally that Atlas Shrugged, nearly three decades after its initial publication, continues to sell a minimum of fifty thousand copies in paperback every year.

While working on Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand told an inquiring reporter that “it will combine metaphysics, morality, economics, politics, and sex—and it will show the tie between metaphysics and economics.” She pitched the book to Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer of Random House as “an extreme, uncompromising, moral defense of capitalism [which presents] a new philosophy.” The nature of this philosophy is succinctly explained in the novel's afterword:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Ayn Rand's followers have tended to accept these assertions without cracking a smile. But the way in which she chose to dramatize her “new philosophy” is revealing: her magnum opus, it turns out, is cast in the unlikely form of a thousand-page detective story.

As strange as it seems that a conte philosophique should be written in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a casual examination of Atlas Shrugged reveals even more extraordinary oddities. All the heroes are violently colored caricatures with jutjawed names like Ellis Wyatt and Ken Danagger, all the villains spineless cretins with slimy names like Wesley Mouch and Floyd Ferris. (Nora Ephron once advanced the intriguing thesis that an Ayn Rand hero could be spotted solely by calculating the vowel-consonant ratio in his name.) As a satire on the follies and dangers of collectivism, Atlas Shrugged has genuine merit. But as a work of imaginative literature it is unsatisfactory in the extreme. The plot is preposterous, the treatment deadly serious in its romantic utopianism. The mixture, a familiar one, has been dominating the world's best-seller lists for decades. Atlas Shrugged carries this particular strain of popular literature to its furthest limits: it is a book which permits the reader to wallow shamelessly in extravagant romance while simultaneously feeling like a real intellectual. The results, which suggest a bizarre fusion of Gone With the Wind and F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, are irresistibly appealing to the adolescent mind, and it is hardly surprising that Atlas Shrugged has proved to be such a durable seller. But one inevitably wonders how anyone beyond the age of sixteen or so ever found it to be, as its author so resolutely claimed, an artistically serious exposition of serious ideas.

_____________

Ayn Rand's stylistic peculiarities begin to make a kind of sense when seen in the context supplied by Barbara Branden's biography. None of Rand's acquaintances dared to challenge her on intellectual or aesthetic grounds: friends who dared to differ with her obiter dicta promptly ceased to be friends. But the sheer narrowness of her pronouncements was startling. Kipling's “If” was her favorite poem, Rachmaninoff her favorite composer, Victor Hugo and Mickey Spillane her favorite novelists. Ayn Rand's “lack of information,” Mrs. Branden recounts,

seemed to some of her friends appallingly evident. . . . Over the years we were to hear Ayn excoriate the “grim, unfocused malevolence” of Rembrandt—to a painter; Beethoven's “tragic sense of doom”—to a musician. . . . She would dismiss much of the history of literature as anti-romantic and unstylized, and the history of philosophy, with the sole significant exceptions of Aristotle and aspects of Thomas Aquinas, as mystical, dishonest, and irrational.

This intellectual narrowness, accompanied by a starchily old-fashioned atheism of the very worst kind, inevitably led her to espouse a militantly positivistic philosophy of life. “In my novels,” she wrote, “and in actual life, the alleged victories of evil are made possible only by the flaws or the errors of those who are essentially good. Evil, left to its own devices, is impotent and self-defeating.” And she was as firm in her optimism as she was convinced of her personal genius. “Her proudest boast about the philosophical system she would later devise,” Mrs. Branden observes, “was that if one accepted any part of it, consistency required that one accept the total of it.”

Such comprehensive philosophies rarely bring peace of mind to those who develop them, and after the publication of Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand began to despair of the ultimate conversion of the world to her way of thinking. “I had no more inspiration for fiction,” she told a friend at the time:

Fiction, to me, is Atlas Shrugged. My mission was done. . . . I no longer know where are the intelligences to which I've always addressed myself. I feel paralyzed by disgust and contempt. . . . And if I feel contempt for the whole culture—if it feels like I'm living in the last days of the Roman empire—then what sense does it make to continue writing?

Her response to this dilemma took the form of a systematic attempt to disseminate the philosophy outlined in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She began lecturing around the country, drawing large crowds and evoking surprisingly enthusiastic responses. Together with Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, she founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a New York based organization which conducted classes and supplied taped lectures in “Objectivism,” the Randian philosophy, as well as publishing a monthly magazine called The Objectivist.

By 1967 the Nathaniel Branden Institute had grown sufficiently to move to a suite of offices in the Empire State Building. “It seemed time,” Mrs. Branden writes, “to offer the students what they appeared to want: a social life that was integrated to their philosophical interests.” What they got instead was a quasi-cult which revolved around the adoration of Ayn Rand and her fictional heroes. The psychological effects of this worship on its practitioners, as one of Ayn Rand's acquaintances recalls, were dire:

Because they had learned the philosophy predominantly from fiction, the students of Objectivism thought they had to be like Ayn Rand heroes: they were not to be confused, not to be unhappy, and not to lack confidence. And because they could not meet these self-expectations, they bore the added burden of moral failure.

The Rand cult disintegrated in 1968 when Nathaniel Branden, who had been her lover since 1955, confessed that he was in love with a younger woman. Ayn Rand immediately broke with both Brandens and disbanded the Institute. Her later years were largely devoted to a series of futile attempts to bring Atlas Shrugged to the screen, first as a movie and later as a nine-hour television miniseries. “If all those concerned do their best,” she said in reference to the first of these attempts, “the cultural consequences will be incalculable.” She died of lung cancer in 1982.

_____________

“I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters.” Judging by the lavish evidence of emotional instability provided by Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand, to take this claim at face value would require one to reject the philosophy so painstakingly set forth in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But there are better grounds than this for rejecting the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a system of thought which is as intellectually jejune as it is internally consistent.

Conservatism has always viewed itself as an essentially tragic philosophy of compromise between competing impulses and even competing goods. The Randian world, by contrast, is elegantly self-correcting, an earthly paradise where truth is obvious, man perfectible, compromise the only deadly sin. To take such an idealistic vision seriously is necessarily to part company with conservatism as it has been construed from Burke onward. It is no accident that Ayn Rand consistently rejected the “conservative” label, preferring to call herself a “radical for capitalism.” Indeed, she knew a diverse assortment of genuine conservatives ranging from Albert Jay Nock to Henry Hazlitt, and she despised the lot of them:

I didn't conclude then that conservatives were actually hopeless traitors. Just that a lot of them were weak and cowardly. I still thought that it was an issue of ignorance. It took years for me to gradually discover that it was an amoral, anti-moral attitude. . . . they didn't believe capitalism could be saved.

One should note, however, that Ayn Rand's utopian vision is in certain respects strikingly congruent with the political attitudes now espoused by some younger conservatives, many of them born after the baby boom. In the world of Atlas Shrugged capitalism is an absolute good, morality a distillate of hedonism, philosophy a utilitarian means to a short-term end. These premises mesh neatly with the amalgam of low taxes, isolationism, and moral libertarianism that is the “conservatism” of a new generation of congressional aides, think-tank habitués, and political activists, and Ayn Rand's current respectability may be in some measure a product of the enthusiasm of these people, who read her in high school and have continued to take her seriously ever since. (“If there is a novelist with unusual appeal among the Reagan organization,” the New York Times correctly observed in 1981, “it is Ayn Rand, proponent of enlightened self-interest.”)

This group by no means makes up the entire younger generation of conservatives, and it has yet to be seen whether its members will exercise any lasting influence on the conservative movement as a whole. But because of them we can safely assume that Ayn Rand, Mrs. Branden's sensational revelations notwithstanding, will be with us for some time to come. The thought is not a comforting one.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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