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 https://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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