By: John A. McCurdy
One thing the millennium’s passing surely spawned in excess was “Top 100” lists. This was especially true in the United States, where to gauge popular reading tastes, publishers and politicos sponsored dozens of online surveys. Most top positions on these lists were dominated by the works of the Soviet defector Ayn Rand, a woman of Russian birth who was recognized in the initial Cold War years as America’s most dramatic champion of pure capitalism and rugged individualism.
The immense popularity of her works today has its origin in the cult Rand deliberately built up among conservative New York intellectuals in the 1950s and early 1960s around her powerful and domineering personality. In concrete terms she founded a society based around a philosophy called Objectivism: a system of neo-Aristotelian logical axioms covering all the branches of philosophy and arguing that the universe is knowable and that rational self interest is the only moral base on which to found human relationships and the wealth of nations.
In its early years the Objectivist movement boasted a number of influential members, among them Alan Greenspan, director of the U.S. Federal Reserve, as well as the popular psychologist Nathaniel Branden, with whom Rand fell hopelessly in love and whose wife Barbara would publish the definitive study of Rand's life and work, The Passion of Ayn Rand, in the early 1990s. While Rand’s ideas were said to have had an influence on the formative thinking of countless think tank directors in the United States the high regard expressed for her work in the noted “Top 100” lists must also be attributed to aggressive marketing of her books in bookstore chains and on college campuses throughout the English-speaking world in 1970s and 1980s. Her enduring popularity with talk radio pundits and the entrepreneurial middling classes, for whom her work functions an elevated specimen of the self-help and positive thinking genre, are also key factors in her success.
Her bestselling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and popular essay compilations The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and The Romantic Manifesto (1972) indubitably fit the Cold War glove of the postwar period. Rand and her college minions detested the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the counterculture and likely spurned Paris ‘68. Yet, if Rand’s Objectivism could be said to have apologized profusely for American anti-Communism with its ceaseless harping on the evils of “collectivism” her ideas ultimately represent an extremist variation on the Anarcho-Capitalism of Murray Rothbard. Consequently while her works sell in the millions and claim fans from almost every walk of life, they receive scant attention from academia and hardly so much as passing mention in the mainstream liberal press. Her works might thus be regarded as subcultural, spread as they are by word-of-mouth, much as the seminal New Age works of the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, were disseminated - A Course In Miracles (1987), The Celestine Prophecy (1993). Globe & Mail television critic John Doyle dropped Ayn Rand’s name last month more or less out of the blue, pronouncing her a proto-fascist and using the reference merely to denounce an insipid new movie whose protagonist was an architect - just as is Rand’s most famous protagonist Howard Roark, from 1943’s The Fountainhead.
I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead thirteen years ago at the insistence of a new friend I’d made at an evangelical Christian summer camp that the book was a must-read. I took the plunge against my better judgment and indeed was thoroughly infected by the passion and seemingly boundless integrity of Howard Roark, the novel's self-contained protagonist, a genius modeled on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. About the only thing Roark lacked was a bed buddy - not a lover - and he soon procured one in the person of Dominique Francon. A dissolute teen bursting with insights, energy, potential and idealism, I related instantly and intimately with Roark, pictured naked and in repose like a Greek statue in both the opening and closing passages of the novel, his contempt for convention setting fire to the mind.
So committed to his ideals and “intellectual property rights” was Howard Roark - the phallic ‘fountainhead’ of creativity and wealth - that when his “collectivist” foe Ellsworth Tooey threatens to alter the strict functionality of his greatest architectural work for less than pristine purposes, Roark sees fit to blow the building up with dynamite. With the conniving mediocrities and the socialist meddlers of the world, Rand insists, there can be no compromise. Think Conrad Black, withdrawing support in the late 1990s from a Canada supposedly opposed greatness only add Black taking dynamite to his former corporate headquarters and subtract his current legal battles - for Roark recognized the supposedly moral basis of propertied exchange and never in a lifetime would have thought to pull a fast one just to make a buck.
Roark gets his day in court, an opportunity to deliver an eloquent and matchless Hollywood speech so persuasive that even his enemies are deflated and his petty detractors converted. Such was the holding pattern in Rand’s later work, particularly in Atlas Shrugged, where Howard Roark morphs into the equally matchless steel baron Hank Rearden. Roark had refused to compromise, to play the game. Rearden, on the other hand, leads a powerful clique of inventors, investors, and industrialists, on a strike against state bureaucracies, thoughtless consumers, and resentful workers, in an attempt to show the world precisely who Atlas is and how in fact the world is kept from collapsing.
Thinking back the big ideas these novels touted - and perhaps only an outsider to American society and a Soviet defector at that could ever have embraced Yankie capitalism with such single minded naivete - not only utterly fail to impress me today: they also failed to hold my enthusiasm hostage more than month or two at the time. I distinctly recall renouncing Objectivism internally only a short while after announcing my conversion to Objectivism publicly. Any lingering doubt moreover was definitively despatched with a reading of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
My hope in approaching Ayn Rand's work had been deeply personal: to make a clear break with my Baptist roots by taking one big step from the sanctuary of my childhood and youth into the pages of Ayn Rand’s books and the meticulously ordered corridors of her logical axioms. For a moment there was bliss and certainty, but a roving mind, drawn to philosophy, was bound to dig deeper than Rand’s tidy idealism, first to that moment of existential awakening Jean-Paul Sartre evoked so poignantly in Nausea (1938), followed by a period marked by psychological despair and the finite resignation of Wittgenstein, who accepted in his Tratatus Logical Philosophicus, that “the world is all that is the case.”
Ayn Rand’s hero - the author she most aspired to emulate - was nineteenth-century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, and her favourite Hugo work, Les Miserables. While it seems crass to admit to it now, at nineteen years of age a close friend and I went to the musical when it came to Hamilton a little over a decade ago. There we encountered no axiomatic certainties or flawless heroes, but instead a criminal and the lives of the destitute, redeemed as they were through love, compassion and redemption. Deeply moved by the story I cried in public for the first time since childhood. Those tears - and others that would come afterword - meant more to me then and more to me now than any tidy programme purporting to correct the human condition and set the world aright overnight without first traveling the path of the heart.
"A Memoir on Ayn Rand" was first published in the Spring 2004 issue of McMaster University's humanities quarterly Between the Lines.