In Defense of Ayn Rand, Monster Under the Progressive Bed
The posthumous release of a new novel by Ayn Rand has sparked familiar—and tired—liberal criticisms of Objectivism's grande dame.
Photo via The Atlas Society
Liberals are constantly begging for more female authors and female lead characters in literature, but one woman author and philosopher remains stubbornly absent from progressive reading lists. Her name is Ayn Rand, and she is responsible for a theory called Objectivism, which holds that reality exists independently of consciousness and that rational self-interest is the proper moral purpose of life.
Of all the tiresomely self-satisfied rituals played out regularly in the liberal blogosphere, competitive Rand-hating is among the most fatuous and infuriating. But why do the chattering classes hate her so much? I sense that the reasons given—her alleged psychopathy, selfishness, lack of literary talent, and hypocrisy, among others—are much less compelling than the real motivations driving their criticisms.
Last week, the previously lost novel version of Rand's play Ideal was published. It is short, little more than a novella really, sparing readers passages like the infamous 100-page radio-hack exposition at the end of Atlas Shrugged. It's a thriller, set in Los Angeles about 80 years ago, in which golden-era heroine Kay Gonda, on the run from the police, attempts to find sanctuary with six of her most devoted fans.
To her horror, the men don't live up to their professed admiration by providing her a berth, which, as the story unfolds, becomes ever more depressing as we realize that most of us would probably behave the same way. The nature of celebrity has changed dramatically since the classic Hollywood period in which the novel's action takes place, but if Rihanna showed up at my front door, I'm not entirely sure I'd behave any better to her than the fans in Ideal do to Gonda.
This partially epistolary novel provides a secular account of a question more often posed by faith: If God showed up in disguise, would the faithful live up to their professed values, or would the encounter reveal a baser nature? Unlike Rand's later works, in which reason and faith are irreconcilable, these waters are muddied in Ideal, which describes its heroine in Virgin Mary–like terms. Even the final revelation has, as one reviewer for the New Republic noted, a distinctively Christian virtuosic flourish to it.
According to Michael Paxton, who directed the world premiere of the play in 1989, Ideal gives readers an insight into Rand's state of mind in the early 1930s: Her first novel, We The Living, had been rejected by publishers for being "too intellectual," and the writer was struggling with odd jobs, having recently moved to the United States.
"It examines the artist's process," Paxton told me from his hotel room in North Carolina, where he was set to give a talk at the Ayn Rand Institute's Objectivist Summer Conference. "How do you be an artist and live in the world at the same time? It's amazing how, once you've lived a little in the world, you can really understand these characters and the issues they're dealing with—not being understood, thinking the world doesn't care whether you live or die."
His assessment is not universal. Perhaps predictably, the New York Times hated the play when it premiered off-Broadway in 2010, concluding that, "the show's clumsy mix of long bursts of theory and a laborious plot would test the endurance of even Alan Greenspan, a famous Rand admirer and veteran of long, boring meetings."
As a play, Ideal went unperformed for 60 years after its writing, and was never seen on stage in Rand's lifetime, though Paxton says that may have something to do with its practical demands: The play has 37 characters and tons of set changes. But he thinks it's worth the effort: "What's surprising about the play is that it has a lot of humour, and a lot of satire in how it makes fun of organized religion. It's subtle, and very funny."
The good news is the new edition also includes the entire play script. So you can gather 37 of your closest right-wing nutcase allies—or lefty culture jammers, as you prefer—and stage it yourself to find out.
Ideal the novel, which Rand herself set aside as unsatisfactory, is less polished than the stage version, and, despite flashes of Randian flair, there is evidence that the author was still struggling to find her voice. Readers familiar with the Fountainhead will recognize the seeds of that work in this early effort. Thankfully, though, Ideal is not one of those works of juvenilia that ought to have remained lost.
Rand's critics, often humourless literalists, will find plenty in Ideal to gnaw on: There's the classically Randian was-it-rape-or-wasn't-it sex scene and a blisteringly heartless remark after a death that will have fans sniggering and detractors drumming up all the manufactured fury they can muster. And, yes, Rand's writing can be a bit... much.
But profound, existential loneliness, coupled with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer–esque sense of ordained personal greatness is why so many cheerleaders for capitalism relate to Rand's lead characters, from Gonda to the Fountainhead's Dominique Francon.
Shoshana Milgram Knapp, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, said that these two characters are "to some extent reflections of Ayn Rand herself... Ayn Rand said that Dominique was herself in a bad mood." This is perhaps why Rand's literary agent, Alan Collins, said Ideal was a novel that only she could have written: In 1946, he wrote to Rand, "Had I come on a copy of this play in the midst of the Fiji Islands I would have had no doubt as to the authorship, as the writing, theme, and conception of the characters are uniquely yours."
Critics never pass up the opportunity to be cruel about Rand fans. "Rand's fan club has always been filled out not by committed literary critics but by insecure sulkers," the New Republic wrote. Given how many books Rand has sold, though, that's an awful lot of sulky people.
Let's be honest, though, Randroids are idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. In fact, and I say this with love, Objectivists are the most thin-skinned fandom in existence. The vaguest hint of implied criticism of their grande dame is enough to trigger endless tweetstorms, crossly worded blog posts, and YouTube commentary. Seriously: Bitcoin-obsessed cryptoanalysts, Directioners and even the Beyhive have nothing on these guys.
There's just one problem with all the preening and posturing this author is subjected to: In order to sneer at Rand, you have to read her. That's why you'll sometimes see ridiculous social media spectacles of angsty liberal bloggers and overwrought students burning copies of the Fountainhead. And just how many Vox bloggers have made it all the way through Atlas Shrugged ? The next time someone is rude about that novel in your earshot, ask him to name a single character besides John Galt and you'll see what I mean.
In a sense, Ayn Rand is a victim of her own totemic success. By appealing to such atavistic human drives, she has become shorthand for a whole range of gauche, aspirational working-class anxieties about other people that the liberal left likes to sneer at. Mock Ayn Rand and you are mocking the entire value system of the right-wing media, the Koch brothers, Wall Street, the Tea Party, and whomever else you don't like—in a manner every bit as mean-spirited as anything Rand ever wrote.
Which is not to say that Ayn Rand was a particularly nice person in print. She is ruthlessly unforgiving in her mocking portraits of spoiled middle-class train wrecks. And if there's one thing earnest socialists hate, it's being mocked. Rand skewers the preoccupations and hypocrisies of metropolitan liberals with such ferocity that their only response is slack-jawed horror and social ostracism.
Another reason people get upset about Rand and sex is that her ideal intimate encounters always seem to be pseudo-rapes. Naturally, the sex-negative, authoritarian modern feminist movement gasps in shock at the suggestion that consensually ambiguous encounters might be thrilling for both parties. But I'm biased, because, reading between the lines, I think I have the same fantasies Rand does about arrogant, overbearing masculine men. And nothing quite gets me off like a Goldman Sachs quarterly earnings report.
History can be unkind to progressives, so their impotent fury is understandable. It has a habit of reminding us that, regardless of noble intentions, progressivism tends to make the world a worse place to live and further impoverish the poor. Rand predicted almost everything that ordinary people loathe about state-sponsored late capitalism, in particular the rampant corruption and bailout cronyism of an overweening government. Far from being pleased at the power Wall Street wields, if Rand were alive today she'd pull her hair out over the state of the state. Atlas Shrugged is no longer fanciful; if anything, it was a conservative prediction.
Rand's critics might argue that she appeals to the worst of human nature—that her writing plays on our jealousies, our insecurities, our most antagonistic impulses. Ayn Rand is right-wing porn: capitalism, self-reliance and self-interest at their most outrageously unapologetic. But that, of course, is what makes her so fabulously readable.
And she is readable, for all her well-advertised faults as a prose stylist. I don't mean to say that her prose shines with glistering metaphor—obviously, it doesn't—but her books do have that unputdownable quality of all great popular fiction. Even her critics admit that there's something about Rand's books you just can't turn away from, however clunky her writing. It's what she shares with Dan Brown and E. L. James, though, no doubt, both would hate the comparison.
Of course, the fact that Rand is so enduringly and phenomenally popular is what annoys people most about her (apart from her supposedly odious philosophies and thunderous rage, of course). She has sold more than 25 million copies of fiction works alone.
Rand was a woman who went "off script," so the left punished her with precisely the tactics it reserves the ultimate horror for when victims are political allies. Much hay was made during the GamerGate controversy about the criticism feminist Anita Sarkeesian received, and the undue attention given to game developer Zoe Quinn's relationships. But you do not need to look hard to find censorious snickering and some surprisingly detailed discussions of Ayn Rand's sex life.
Not that the woman herself would care. Rand never worried about critics because she simply didn't need them: Like the heroes in her books, she was anti-fragile, free to believe, say, and do what she pleased because she created something of value that those around her wished to trade for capital. And like Jon Stewart, she dresses up her fact as fiction, and so can get away with saying far more fiendishly wicked stuff than her ideological associates.
To put it another way, Rand recognized that politics is downstream from culture. So she went for the jugular as an author and philosopher, rather than fannying about treating the symptoms as a journalist or political commentator. Ideal is a fascinating early glimpse into how that realization began to take root in her mind.
Ayn Rand's great achievement, from a conservative point of view, present in embryonic form in Ideal, was to recognize that the battle for man's soul would be fought in the studios of Hollywood, the newsrooms of New York, and the lecture halls of Massachusetts, not in the stultifying round tables of Washington, DC. It's a lesson the GOP has yet to learn.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a British journalist and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter.