Rand, Rand, Rand
When I was sixteen, my humanities teacher assigned me some huge, indigestible novel by Ayn Rand to do a ‘report’ on. I’m pretty sure it was Atlas Shrugged. Now, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was holding in my hands an aesthetic nullity. By then, I had read enough – Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert – to know what it meant for a novel to be an aesthetic success, and this stuff wasn’t even in the horserace. I was a snobbish teen – I now know that the novel is a capacious form, containing multitudes – art, tracts, comic books, etc. However, my dim memory of the novel was that it went from bad to worse quickly, and that reading it was comparable to staring at water going down the drain for hours at a stretch.
Thousands of high school teachers once took it as their task to obliterate the taste for literature from the souls of their charges by assigning either tract novels – Walden Two and Rand’s Fountainhead – or allegories – Brave New World, Animal Farm. There is a simple institutional reason for this – it is supremely easy to devise tests for these novels. What does Emma Bovary represent? Who knows? But there isn’t a single character in a Rand novel who doesn’t represent something Capitalizable.
She was, I recall, that kind of writer.
This season’s Salmagundi publishes a large essay on the writer who Gore Vidal describes as the only writer whom everyone in Congress has actually read: ” Who Was Ayn Rand? by Gene Bell-Villada. It is an unfortunate growth. He flatfoots himself right away, I think, by comparing La Rand to Nabokov, on the thin ground that both were Russian emigrants. Both had two nostrils, too, but the similarities are uninstructive. Surely as a phenomenon of the fifties and sixties, Rand should be seen in the perspective of other pop authors, and in particular those who tend towards the didactic. These writers cluster on the sci fi shelves. Rands capitalist utopia was another form of science fiction. Certainly it was like no economic system in actual existence anywhere on planet earth. While capitalism saved itself in the postwar world by embracing consumerism and creating unprecedented credit markets, Rand was fantasizing a capitalism consisting entirely of captains of industry a la Jay Gould or the union busters of the 1890s. Adam Smith, wisely, knew that self-interest needed the guidance of the invisible hand – the ameliorating society of the market – in order to create a connected system that would actually ‘go of itself.” For Smith, sympathy was the glue in the order of the free market. Rand, who began as a screen-writer and never, as far as I know, ran even a lemonade stand, thought of capitalism as a both a metaphysics and a blood n sand film, starring, inevitably, Gary Cooper.
Bell-Villada is obviously repulsed by Rand’s fantasies, even as he thinks that they do represent some core truth about capitalism:
“But Randianism also exists as a consistent and rather simple set of beliefs, a theology one readily grasps and absorbs after spending some time with its scriptures. "Objectivism" is how the founder dubbed her system. At its core is the idea that selfishness is good, greed is admirable, and altruism is evil. (The Virtue of Selfishness is the pointed title of one of her essay collections.) Unfettered capitalism is the only true moral system in history. The successful businessman is the ideal hero of our time. The sign of the dollar is an icon to be worshiped and flaunted. On the other hand, generosity and compassion have no place in the world according to Rand. In a letter from the 1940s she singles out competence as "the only thing I love or admire in people. I don't give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues." Or, as Dominique Francon, the gorgeous and cold-hearted heroine-cum-bitch of Rand's Fountainhead reflects at one point with lofty sarcasm, "Compassion is a wonderful thing. It's what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar."
What this captures is not how capitalism works – it would immediately collapse if it really embraced such premises – but how the average CEO pumps himself up, in his head, into a captain of industry. This requires such howlingly absurd scenarios as surely as, in the past, knobby kneed Sultans required Spanish fly in the harem. One can imagine that the upper management at Enron inhaled this stuff. Or one of the many execs who’ve been hauled into the dock after that most Randian run-up in the stock market in the late nineties. Of course, all of these “captains of industry” are disasters for the owners of their companies, which consist, contra Randian fiction, of anonymous and dispersed investors. The era of absentee ownership long ago drove out the Jay Gould types, and not creepy crawly liberalism.
Bell-Villada is on firmer ground in tracing Rand’s route to greatness. It is rather funny thinking of her as a history student at Leningrad University, but so she became. She got out of the Soviet Union in 1926. One wonders what she would have made of the cult of Stalin. Aesthetically, it would no doubt have exerted a strong appeal. But she didn’t have to wrestle with Stalin. Instead, she met Cecil B. Demille in Hollywood.
Bell-Villada has an unfortunate tendency to get all snipey going over the events in Rand’s life. This is a typical graf:
“ Weeks into her L.A. phase, Rand got involved with a handsome young movie extra, of Ohio working-class origins, named Frank O'Connor. Meanwhile she kept renewing her visa, and just as the extensions were about to run out, she married Frank the same month of her scheduled return to Russia. Without exception friends of the groom--by all accounts a passive, easy-going, nice-guy type--saw Frank as doing his sweetheart the favor of resolving her immigrant status. For the next fifty years Frank put up with Rand's many manias and caprices--with disquieting results. In the 1950s and '60s, when the couple were living in Manhattan, Ayn--now a famous author and cult figure--conducted a lengthy amour with her right-hand man, Nathaniel Branden. The other respective spouses grimly accepted the twice-weekly trysts at Ayn and Frank's apartment as a rational choice between two superior beings. Nathaniel's wife Barbara did live to include this bizarre tale in her authoritative life of the priestess, but the affair contributed to Frank's slow destruction, driving him to drink. He died a broken man in 1979, still married to a Rand he no longer much liked.”
This kind of thing makes even LI, whose views of Rand are much like those of Dominque Francon in re squished caterpillars, leap to Rand’s defense. The lazy victimizing of Frank O’Connor, who apparently had no friend to tell him about this wonderful invention called divorce, and who was living with a woman who was raking in the bucks, is distasteful. One of the healthier effects of acquaintance with Rand is to mitigate the lazy sentimentalism of liberal culture. We do like the notion that Rand’s copulatory energies were so violent that we are to imagine that Barbara Branden, who ‘did live” to record them, suffered some narrow escape from the rank mouth of a tiger. Perhaps it is impossible to write about so melodramatic a writer without falling into the tropes oneself.
Bell-Villada usefully reminds us that Atlas Shrugged revolves around a general strike – albeit of the captains of industry. Still, a general strike is a general strike. Alas, in the fifties, a decade that saw the mamby pamby New Deal ideology replace the hardcore CIO thirties ideology of war to the death against capital (where the Randian hero functioned as the useful villain, Mr. Moneybags, as translators of Marx’s Capital would have it), the general strike idea couldn’t take root. But who knows – perhaps it contributed, in some small way, to the New Left’s tactics in the sixties, particularly the burning of draft cards and the Moratorium of 1967. All good tactics to remember for today’s anti-war movement. In order to stop the war in Iraq, remember John Galt!
Unfortunately, Bell-Villada has no sense of dialectical irony, so he does not bark up this tree, instead pursuing that old canard, Rand’s Nietzsche-ism. Has Max Stirner actually become that dead? Anybody who reads Marx – as, presumably, poor Ayn was forced to in the Leningrad years – eventually comes upon Marx’s most tedious work, the German Ideology. The good thing about this work is that it preserved in the amber of intellectual history those curious species, Feuerbach and Maxie Stirner. Stirner is the man who pretty much invented the philosophy of egoism Rand later made her own.
Anyway, what Bell-Villada’s essay proves is that literary culture still doesn’t get Ayn Rand, partly because literary culture is often populated by people whose sense of capitalism is as screwy as Rand’s. If someday someone wants to understand the Rand effect, the books to read would start with Galbraith’s New Industrial State, which delineated the technostructure that dominated the postwar corporation, and Organizational Man, Whyte’s account of the conformist culture of big business. And do get out of poor Nietzsche. Here’s a link to Max Stirner.
PS -- Funniest fact in Bell-Villada's essay: Michael Millikan supposedly took sixteen copies of Atlas Shrugged with him to prison. I guess, if you divided by four, that would make a nice support for a low table, perfect for learning how to give those Japanese tea ceremonies that can enrich the life of the lonely prisoner, along with other useful and reconstructive activities, in the weary hours in the hoosgow.