Neither God nor Devil

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Ayn Rand’s
midcentury novels continue to strike a chord because they read as
though culled from today’s headlines. Here, Rand’s “looters”
raid government coffers to bail out their poorly performing industries;
there, Rand’s “moochers” demand that the “producers”
pay for their health care. More than a quarter-century since her
death, and a half-century since Atlas
’s publication, Random House has moved more
than a quarter-million copies of the 1,168-page tome in 2009 alone.
Rumors abound of Rand’s magnum opus finally reaching the big
screen, with Cherlize Theron and Angelina Jolie discussed as cinematic
Dagny Taggarts. The timing couldn’t be better for reconsiderations
of Rand.

The titles
of two new biographies – Anne C. Heller’s Ayn
Rand and the World She Made
and Jennifer Burns’s Goddess
of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
– imply
a subject more deity than mortal. The books describe a woman driven
to greatness yet paralyzed by fear. Where her acolytes see a god
and her detractors a devil, Rand’s biographers see a flawed
person of massive achievement.

Like those
of her creations Howard Roark and John Galt, Rand’s life was
the story of the inner-directed individual standing up against a
recalcitrant world. The Russian immigrant transcended a language
barrier to become one of the most widely read novelists in the English
language. The outspoken right-winger triumphed in two politicized
industries – publishing and Hollywood – where the deck seemed
most stacked against her. And despite being written out of the conservative
movement, Rand became bigger than the movement popes who excommunicated

Alisa Rosenbaum
didn’t become Ayn Rand without help. Were it not for the rugged
individualism at the heart of her philosophy of Objectivism, that
wouldn’t be noteworthy, let alone controversial. Both Burns
and Heller take pains to highlight the friction between Rand’s
philosophy and her life. Rand’s family sacrificed enormously
to get her out of post-revolutionary Russia; in America, previously
unknown Chicago relatives provided her room, board, and transportation
to Hollywood. Despite Rolls-Royce and mink-coat promises, Rand never
paid her relatives back. Numerous benefactors moved by her sorry
state in 1920s Hollywood, including a donor directing $50 to the
neediest girl in a boarding house for Tinseltown wannabes, aided
her effort to become a studio scriptwriter. Later, after marrying
actor Frank O’Connor but not wanting to bear children, Rand
got her in-laws to pay for an abortion.

The handouts
aiding her climb would seem trivial if not for Rand’s insistence
that she made it from obscurity to fame without assistance. “No
one helped me,” Rand boasted in Atlas Shrugged’s
afterword, “nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help
me.” This contempt for self-sacrifice on behalf of another
– a contempt at the heart of Objectivism – makes any biography
depicting Rand as recipient or practitioner of altruism (she would
play benefactor after playing beneficiary) controversial among her
followers. The inconvenient history serves to indict the practicality
of a philosophy whose paragon couldn’t even practice what she
preached. The Rand who emerges in Goddess of the Market and
Ayn Rand and the World She Made, though, is less hypocrite
than human. Who can be faulted, really, for making life’s journey
without the occasional lift along the way?

More troubling
to Objectivists than the monetary debts Rand incurred is the intellectual
debt she owed Isabel Paterson, the cranky right-wing novelist and
longtime New York Herald-Tribune columnist, who took Rand
under her wing during the 1940s. “The only philosophical debt
I can acknowledge is to Aristotle,” Rand wrote. But Paterson
taught Rand economics, contributed to the timelessness of The
by convincing its author to delete references
to contemporary figures like Hitler and Stalin, used her column
to boost her friend’s literary career, and, in vain, tried
to shake Rand from her addiction to amphetamines. “As she began
to educate herself about philosophy Rand turned to Paterson for
a durable frame of reference,” Burns writes. “In New York
Paterson had ranted against Kant, Hegel, and Marx, quoting instead
Aristotle and the dictum ‘A is A,’” a catchphrase
later used incessantly by her pupil. One wonders about the degree
to which Paterson served as a negative role model, too, as the tempestuous
older woman’s penchant for issuing insults and being insulted
herself perhaps gave Rand comfort as she indulged infamously in
such socially maladaptive behavior.

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14, 2009

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