YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 29, 2010

Ayn Rand’s rational modernism

Russian Jew in her natural habitat

Is it not obvious why Ayn Rand continues to attract readers, followers, and bosom enemies? Her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been read by millions of readers,  despite the antagonism of critics from all colors in the political spectrum. Is it not obvious that major presses (Doubleday, Oxford UP) would publish “tell-all” biographies to discredit her major themes by harping on aspects of her private life that supposedly prove that she was ever the amoral Nietzschean Superman, a veritable Hitler to her finally disillusioned “Collective” of assimilated Jews (including Alan Greenspan!) that she gathered around her during the 1960s and on until her death? Why there is a veritable Ayn Rand industry out there, with a new documentary in the making, to be produced by conservatives, as I write this.

The subject of Ayn Rand and her reported mishegas is too large for a single blog; moreover her cultural significance is too great and my research too fragmentary to do justice to the problem. Consider this blog a first try at an explanation for her continued relevance and fascination.

These are the values she upholds in her two mega-meshugenah novels and in later public appearances: New York City and its heaven-assaulting skyscrapers, American exceptionalism as upward mobility, the gold standard, wealth-creation, laissez-faire capitalism, the puritan work-ethic, the irreplaceable good of heroic rugged individualists performing focused and intelligent labor, reason, empiricism, technology, abortion rights (in the first trimester), and materialist science–all of which are essential and intertwined elements of the modern world, a world of constant innovation and positive change furiously opposed by collectivists, New Dealers, and statists in general, the totalitarians whom she views as the source of incompetence, waste, disintegration, thuggery, and demoralization. Her affinity group includes Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, although their ideas are not interchangeable with hers.

Unlike the irrationalism and tragic vision upheld by competing modernists, Rand’s larger-than-life characters triumph over their reactionary opponents, overcoming obstacles that would intimidate the faint of heart. Impressionistic evidence in addition to remarkable book sales suggest that ordinary readers take courage from these adventures and stand more than a mite taller in the face of arbitrary authority. As I was reading both her novels (I haven’t yet read Anthem) and the recent biographies by Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns,* I was reminded that her critics treated her as a twentieth-century Captain Ahab and distorted her messages in almost identical ways as have the Melville industry, for instance in deeming Herman Melville (another Romantic artist and “individualist” for whom Might did not make Right) as a synecdoche for Amerika, as a moral terrorist, as a lunatic, as personally destructive to his wife and children, and as a fatal influence upon the impressionable young. (And the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner has been treated to similar attacks by organic conservatives, as I have shown elsewhere on this website. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/.)

Above all, Ayn Rand confronted in her most popular works the situation we face today as a Republican Party-controlled House of Representatives prepares to take its seats next week: Will the democratic republic/limited government envisioned by the Founders be at least partly  reinstated either in the next two years or after the election of 2012? Or will “progressives” or, as Rand liked to call them, “looters and moochers,” continue to hold sway?  “Look not to the stars….” but finish the sentence yourselves.

*Someone once said that no one should write a biography until they are in at least late middle age. I would say over 60, and after having gone through at least some psychoanalytically oriented therapy. Rand’s childhood and young adulthood was so filled with trauma, that had she survived it without scars and foibles, it would have been impossible. What I resent about the recent bios (Burns and Heller) is that they limn some of the reasons for trauma but do not draw the necessary conclusions. Hence the hatchet jobs that they may not have consciously intended. Still, they are writing from the p.o.v. of “moderation.”

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5 Comments »

  1. Clare, elsewhere you have characterized Ayn Rand as a Romantic with Nietzschean tendencies. You’ve also pointed out that Ayn Rand’s ideas are a product of her time, defined by her struggles with Soviet ideology, and best understood in that context.

    In her forward to “The Fountainhead” and elsewhere, she specifically repudiates Nietzsche for his mystic view of man, for his “blood” and “will” theories. She rejects standard Romanticist ideas for much the same reason; in her lectures on aesthetics, she condemns overt emotional appeals in art. In her view, art should express the ideal, based on what one values, not wallow in base emotions or irrational ideas. (She is not arguing against emotion or beauty in art, but insists that the artist use his creativity to satisfy and inspire himself.) More than anything, Rand strove to be known as a liberating artist and a great philosopher on the order of Aristotle, not a self-glorifying crank nor an adherent of corrupt philosophies.

    I suggest that the main appeal of Ayn Rand to today’s readers is that she has a view of life so radically different from the progressive view that dominates political and social life, so refreshingly *human*, optimistic and man-loving. She does not bow to the Christian-oriented Conservative movement that continues to futilely attack progressives on a simplistic, “because God said so” basis. Conservatives are right on many social and fiscal issues — and embarrassingly wrong on others — but they cannot justify why “certain rights” and freedoms are “inalienable” and why the progressive “rights” to food, shelter, work, and education are arbitrary, “man-made,” and morally wrong. Ayn Rand can, and *this* is what makes her exciting. Her system of ethics is profound and inspiring.

    I can pick around the edges of her philosophy; I am troubled by aspects of her epistemology and ideas on concept formation; I find her attacks on mysticism and altruism a little too pat and simple; her defiant personality seems to have affected her “rationality” at times. But I can’t find a major flaw or weakness in her system of philosophy that gives me cause to dismiss her statements or her idealism. Each essay and lecture is a serious challenge to my thinking and critical skills. By all accounts, Ayn Rand was a harsh critic, a bitch to be around. Anyone who was in her inner circle had their beliefs constantly challenged, and I doubt I would have lasted long in that group.

    But that is the nature of a teacher who insists upon arriving at conclusions rationality instead of merely “believing” something because she or someone else said so. Ayn Rand left us the intellectual tools and language necessary to believe in ourselves, to continue to do our own research into matters of truth and reality, and to confront those who would oppress us.

    Ayn Rand is a hero and a true Promethean.

    Comment by Scott G Lloyd — December 21, 2012 @ 12:51 am | Reply

  2. I like this analysis very much. A much-needed antidote to the anti-American, anti-capitalist tone of things these days. Yesterday I saw a headline from Mother Jones magazine in which the word “free-market” was used as an adjective. Expecting a pleasant surprise–I haven’t seen the magazine for a long time, maybe it had changed for the better–I clicked through to the story, and found to my horror that “free-market” was being used as a term of derision. Sigh.

    Bosom enemies is a good term. The anti-Rand crowd is much more organized and vehement than I had realized–I wrote a negative review on Amazon of the book Ayn Rand Nation and I couldn’t believe how much venom was directed toward me. Nobody wanted to engage on the substantive issues, they just applauded the author’s demonization of Rand and set about demonizing me. Then I got a couple of emails from the other side with details about the commenters–one has a whole anti-Rand blog (yet didn’t mention that in the comment, just indulged in name-calling, and trying to get me to take down the review–which made me laugh–I’m going to trash my writing because someone I never heard of says it doesn’t meet his standards?!). Very creepy. Also very creepy is the anti-Jew sentiment in Ayn Rand Nation; one greatly hesitates to use the term self-loathing, but it definitely springs to mind when wading through Weiss’s terrible mean-spirited book.

    For example, here is a passage from my review with some quotes I found ugly:

    Riffing on Jews and capitalism, Weiss tells us “The only capitalists I ever saw were overworked storekeepers, snarling gypsy-cab drivers, and smack dealers on 135th Street. She [Rand] saw a free, unregulated market as the defining institution of a free society. To me, a free, unregulated market was Benny the Goniff selling fruit from a stall in front of a butcher shop on Kingsbridge Road, screaming “Whoaaaa! We got melons here!” in a high-pitched Yiddish accent, sneaking rotten fruit into the bag and counting out ten when a dozen were ordered.”

    Yes, that really is a direct quote from the book (page 14). It gets worse. Weiss continues: “Benny’s spirit drifted downtown to Wall Street. In place of Benny the Goniff as my archetypical capitalist was a new cast of characters. … Instead of red-faced Benny in his stained undershirt there was the esteemed electronic-trading advocate Bernie Madoff in his monogrammed underwear. Both blended together in my perceptions, small-time and big wheel.”

    (the rest is here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2N4DH5IPRRSQX/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0312590733&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag= )

    As you say here, there’s something significant here. An unpleasant part of the zeitgeist….

    Comment by Sarah Rolph — December 8, 2012 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  3. […] http://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/ayn-rands-rational-modernism/. Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

    Pingback by Index to Ayn Rand blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 16, 2011 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  4. [Please read the second comment first.] I briefly took up the matter of the portrayal of sexuality here: http://clarespark.com/2011/01/04/railroading-ayn-randalissa-rosenbaumdagny-taggart/. It is worth adding to that blog as follows. First, Rand denied that there was any rape in any of her books, and publicly pronounced her horror at such a suggestion. She did state her belief in “man-worship” and in one of the introductions to The Fountainhead, said that Howard Roark was a condensation of the heroic male ideal. Her major novels should not be read as realistic or naturalistic, but as fantasies in the Symbolist tradition.
    Having said that, her disapproval of “Women’s Lib” should be contrasted with her insistence on abortion rights (especially in the first trimester, as later abortions were dangerous to the mother, she thought). As to her “man-worship” it is unrealistic to think that a woman of her generation, coming from the family that she did (the mother as both supportive and uncomfortable with motherhood) and the distant father who wished she would be an engineer, and then the horrors she experienced during the Leninist revolution and its aftermath, would not have contributed to her foibles and possibly too, her passion to fight collectivism as she saw it developing in the U.S., especially in the 1930s.
    But more, we don’t know enough about gender differences that are inherited to dismiss as unnatural or incorrect her search for the perfect male. I was raised that way, and would never have had an important relationship with a man whom I did not view (initially) as superior to me. It is possibly an evolutionary thing, and sociobiologists have commented upon it. To my knowledge, AR was not psychoanalyzed, so worked out her Oedipal drama in literature and philosophy. I don’t think that one can understand her happy endings without a sip of Freud.

    Comment by clarespark — January 7, 2011 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  5. Am I the only chick to have read Ayn Rand’s novels for the richnography? Dominique’s necklace, the jewels held together with invisible chains. Dagny’s diamond bracelet, and the ruby pendant which was the only thing she wore while having at it with Hank. (Rand was a jewelry designer as well as a writer, and I think she invented the tennis bracelet in fiction before it existed in fact.) The fur coats, the fancy apartments. Better than Pat Booth’s “Palm Beach”.
    And am I the only chick to notice that Dominique and Dagny are both kinky? Dominique glories in being raped,and she doesn’t mind being the pampered prisoner in the tower. Dagny’s bracelet give her the “most feminine of looks, the look of being chained,” and she thrills at being Galt’s servant girl.
    Has anybody else noticed how the philosophy of the robber queen in Sade’s “Justine” is but a step away from Rand’s?

    Comment by Normie — January 7, 2011 @ 5:17 pm | Reply


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