From the December 2009 issue
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Discussed in this essay:
Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller. Nan A. Talese. 567 pages. $35.
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns. Oxford University Press. 369 pages. $27.95.
Ayn Rand never made modest claims for the importance of her work. As she told Mike Wallace in 1957, she believed that she was “the most creative thinker alive,” and that her ideas about the virtues of selfishness and the evils of altruism owed nothing to any previous writer, expect maybe Aristotle. She was an unforgettable figure on college campuses in the 1960s, wearing a black cape cinched by her trademark gold brooch in the shape of a dollar sign. Her books are perennial favorites, topping the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels Reader’s List, and they seem to be enjoying yet another revival. One might think that strange during a year of recession—which compelled even onetime fan Alan Greenspan to question his faith in the market’s “rationality”—but Rand’s supporters would argue that unpopular bailouts of the financial sector and the auto industry provide more than enough reason for her works, and her example, to come into the spotlight once again.
Rand’s appeal transcends mere political partisanship. She called herself not a conservative but a “radical for capitalism,” and until her death in 1982 she showered such lions of the right as William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan with gleeful vitriol. An atheist who held that Christianity had taught people to sacrifice themselves in the name of a false ideal, she devised a code of ethics according to which acting in one’s own self-interest—what she called “rational selfishness”—was an affirmation of human life, and hence the only reasonable moral stance. Because altruism meant denying the primacy of the self, it was for her an embrace of death; it was the philosophical root cause of Nazism and Stalinism. Her defense of capitalism borrowed much from older libertarian and social Darwinist ideas, but in certain respects it was quite novel. Thinkers such as Adam Smith had argued in favor of capitalism on utilitarian grounds, as a social system that provided the best life for the greatest number. Rand, by contrast, believed that once the principle of utilitarianism was conceded, the case was lost. The only arguments she could tolerate were those that began with fundamental rights arising from human nature, and her harshly judgmental stance toward anyone who disagreed with her meant that by the end of her life she had virtually no allies. Today, most political scientists, philosophers, and literary critics tend to view her with derision.
Rand would have insisted that she needed no biographer: anyone who wanted to understand her life should simply look at her ideas. As she wrote in the Author’s Note to Atlas Shrugged,
My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence, “And I mean it.” I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—and it has worked for me, as it worked for my characters.
But what does it mean to live according to Rand’s philosophy? Two new biographies of Rand—journalist Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made and historian Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right—attempt to answer that question, and to explore its very premise. Because of Rand’s low standing in the academy, most books about her to this point have been either memoirs, journalistic exposés, or exegeses by devotees of Objectivism, the intellectual movement she helped to build. Both Heller and Burns have instead written works of historical scholarship that seek to illuminate Rand’s complexities rather than simply to support or condemn her. Rand celebrated the rational and independent individual, but she herself was often deeply depressed, powerfully sensitive to negative reviews of her work, and likely addicted to amphetamines. She praised originality, but the subculture she created to promote her ideas was inhospitable to debate. She aspired to high seriousness, but her writing was firmly grounded in Hollywood kitsch.
It is understandable, then, that neither book seems entirely sure how to treat Rand. Is she a great political philosopher and transcendent novelist whose work has been unfairly maligned and dismissed—a “brilliant” woman, as “accomplished as her heroes,” who put forward “meticulous arguments for individual liberty,” as Heller suggests? Is she an influential voice on the American right whose books have provided a “gateway drug” to conservatism, as Burns puts it? Or is she a tragic figure who sought, with disastrous consequences, to script her life the way she did the plots of her novels? Rand insisted that contradictions did not exist if reality was perceived accurately. As her biographers at least will show, the reality of her own life was replete with such tensions.