May 1, 2011
This new Ayn Rand biography didn't have anything really new or surprising in it. I'm a big fan of biographies, particularly those of larger than life personalities- whether they are obnoxious or admirable (or both) - whether I ag ree with their ideas, politics, etc., or not. Ayn Rand has always fascinated me. I remember reading "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged"- two huge books, in only a few days. The books consciously repelled me, and yet strangely they drew me into their convoluted plots, with pages and pages of boring, unrealistic dialog and speeches, which served to espouse Rand's philosophy of "Objectivism." I remember laughing at how contrived the characters were, and how preachy the books were, yet I was not able to put them down. I guess they are consistently listed in the top 100 books ever written (based on number of sales per year, I think, but also on other "top" type lists)...so I guess I am not alone.
Rand's writing, although better than that of John Grisham or that Stephanie chick who writes the hugely popular Twilight Vampire tripe, is no great literature, in form or function.
But I admit her ideas were (and still are) radical, and somewhat original, and she tried to live by them. Mainly, Objectivism is individualism, with a morality of acting within one's "rational" self-interest, anti-altruistic, pro- "morality" (of the black and white sort), for an objective reality that exists outside our minds and that we can comprehend and understand with our senses. That man "has no instincts" like the animals do; he has to learn, use his senses and reason, and that the world is real. Her basic axiom was the tautology "existence exists," and I cannot understand her reasoning for that one.
Although Rand claimed, and I believe, she really did think she "invented" this totally original philosophy, it seems to me that borrowed a lot of Nietzsche- she outright believed that survival of the individual, and not the species or common humanity, was the aim of her morality. That man was an end in itself, not a means to some other value (especially NOT for the purpose of procreation-and she had no children). She seemed like she identified with Nietzsche's "Overman"- she despised the "herd" mentality of the majority and she turned traditional morality on its head. She upheld selfishness, greed, and any values that helped one preserve and maintain the individual at the expense of anyone else. She differed from Nietzsche in that she was, somewhat paradoxically to most of us, a moral absolutist. She just made traditional vices into virtues, and vice versa. She despised compassion, altruism, helping the weak, etc., just as much as Nietzsche did. But aside from the fact that Nietzsche was a great genius of a thinker, with a much more systematic, prophetic philosophy, not to mention, how his ideas have been justified, somewhat, by modern science, he did not believe that morality existed. That `'morality" was just a cognitive explanation of reality, not a cause of anything, and nothing but an illusion, to simplify it. He thought that nature was amoral, and therefore so is humanity, etc. etc...anyway, I am running on too long here- my main point is that although she adopted much of his thought, she radically veered away from him by claiming an absolutist, black and white morality, applicable to all people at all times, achievable by all people through reason and ability. That absolutist morality is inverted from what religions teach, and from what most people espouse, but it is a morality none the less. For Rand, her atheism did not seem to pose any type of problem with or contradiction with her absolutist morality system. Indeed, she does have many good arguments about how one does not need to be a theist in order to believe in, and act within, moral absolutes, or to have a grounding for that morality.
She also espoused a radical, unfettered capitalism as the only moral economic philosophy. That was (and is) not much outside mainstream Republicanism. An interesting aside is how Alan Greenspan was one of her "protégés" who attended her meetings and discussions at her house and was completely influenced by her- and he put those ideas into practice at the Fed, as much as he could.
(Rand did, however, collect Social Security benefits, but only because she paid into the system, she said.)
There was something about Rand that impacted history greatly. Even though many think that she wasn't really all that intelligent, and had studied little philosophy (she seemed to know practically nothing about Kant yet she criticized him relentlessly, blaming him for everything from Communism to relativism to the glorification of the weak- and that his philosophy alone has been responsible for the near downfall of society).
Well, perhaps she wasn't that bright, but she possessed an intelligence that allowed her to create her own cult of personality - there's no denying that. And a cult it was.
This biography describes her minions and lapdogs- mostly well-off college students in the `50s and `60s, who treated her like a rock star, read her books incessantly and obsessively. Another of her protégés, Nathaniel Branden, who is currently a psychologist in California, having been excommunicated from Objectivism by Rand herself, had read "Atlas Shrugged," with like 800 pages, over forty times as a teenager, and had memorized the whole thing.
For being such a hardcore atheist, Rand sure liked being a god herself to these people. They'd sit around her apartment several nights per week, sometimes literally all night, discussing her book characters as though they were real people. (Anyone remember "Who is John Galt?"?) Galt, of course, being the objectivist prototype- the perfect specimen, the embodiment, of Rand's philosophy, even though he was just a book character. These people tried to actually copy the characters, in belief, in actions and in petty things such as taste in music,etc. To become one of her perfect characters was an actual goal. And those perfect characters lived only for themselves- as John stated in his pages long manifesto radio speech in "Atlas Shrugged" - "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." (or something like that!)
Basically, her "groupies" were obsessively concerned with this fantastical philosophy and this highly charismatic woman. But her charisma was often more like that of a tyrant, with her yelling at people, bossing them around, dictating the only acceptable beliefs and actions they could have and still be one of "hers," even projecting her morality onto things of strictly personal taste. For example, she dropped a supposedly good friend like a hot potato for the "sin" of liking Monet's art. And that was her big thing. Not only would she stop being friendly to a person who had offended her in some manner, that person would be outcast from the "cult." And if anyone else happened to talk to that outcast, or even to just try to remain neutral, he or she too was ousted as a traitor to Rand. Simply disagreeing with her, on practically any matter, or of course, challenging her at all, was grounds for becoming a persona non grata. Objectivism was HER philosophy, like she had a copyright on it, and she could ban people from writing about it or giving speeches about it, or presenting it, if she wanted to. To this day some of her still existing band of worshipers, on internet sites, debate whether it is possible to disagree with Rand on ANYTHING and still label oneself an objectivist.
What's interesting is she wasn't always like that. Early on she enjoyed debate and cordial argument, as long as the disagreement was supportable by logic, etc. She seemed to relish great conversation about ideas, and to tolerate others' ideas, even though she was never shy about her own beliefs and never one to step away from an argument until she had convinced the other person she was right, if only because she exhausted the person into caving in!
As she got older she seemed to have become more and more paranoid (perhaps not unlike Nietzsche towards his end), and believing that she alone was the genius, the one who must suffer betrayal and ostracization from the others, because she was "too much for them,'' too rational, too consistent, too threatening with her grandiose belief in her own intelligence.
Anyway, the book is interesting but shed no new light on anything. No special or shocking revelations, nothing that hasn't already been written about Rand and her group, both her personal life and her philosophy. If you're a fan of hers you already know everything in the book. But then again, as a fan you probably want to read everything about her. And I can recommend the book as interesting, etc., but it just doesn't add anything to what's already out there.
The worst (or best, depending on your belief) parts in the book are when the author attributes much of Rand's dictatorial personality and impossibly high standards in friendships to the insecurity she suffered as a child growing up in Communist Russia. Rand admitted she always felt like an outsider, but she attributed that to the bad behavior of others. People were always disappointing her, failing her in some way, not being good enough for her.
As is well known, there was a scandal in the group wherein Rand had an affair with Branden, one of her earliest worshipers, who was something like 30 years younger than Rand. He, like Rand, was married to someone else, but the two of them, consistent with their morality, told their spouses in a group meeting that the they intended to start an affair. They justified it that it was only rational, logical, and inevitable that two people so consistent with Objectivism and devoted to it religiously, would HAVE to be together for at least part of the time. It was rare for two people (Rand and Branden) to find each other, therefore, the affair was practically mandated by reason. And then they laid it on thick by saying that if anyone could handle this arrangement, it was the four of them, since they were all so rational, mature, unemotional, acting according to the dictates of their philosophy, purely logical- what a joke!
(Another odd thing is her marriage which lasted for several decades- to a man who pretty much a milk-toast- just the opposite of the "John Galt" god that Rand so much idolized. It seems they did really love each other, but he was completely controlled by her, and inasmuch as he was usually an unemployed actor, florist, or artist/painter, she did bring in the money and controlled everything. He seemed ok with it, but again, who knows? It seems pretty preposterous that he was ok with the affair- I'm sure he was bullied into agreeing to it, because he knew, with Ayn, there was no choice- it was her way or the highway.)
When Branden then started cheating on Rand with a young woman in her early 20's,(he was still married too) it took months for Rand to realize his lies and she then kicked him out of the group and out of the philosophy altogether. Her journals from this time seem to show her being IRRATIONAL, by rationalizing Branden's hurtful behavior through conducting arduous over analysis of his philosophy, etc.
The author portrays Rand as the old woman scorned, who then sought to make Branden's life hell- not out of any adherence to logical philosophy but out of pure egotism, humiliation, and insecurity. Not to mention revenge. She tried to stop the publishing of some of his work, insinuated to others that the reason she had to kick him out of the Nathaniel Branden Institute (they were business partners in it) was because he was stealing funds, and the whole thing was settled only through lawsuit threats and basically, a payoff to Branden to get the heck out of her life and give up his partnership rights in the business, and give up all rights to some of his own copyrighted material, as well as being prohibited from even mentioning that he EVER was associated with Objectivism. She justified this based on her conclusion that Branden was a total faker, a manipulator who never really was "John Galt" after all, but rather one of the spineless, useless parasite characters in her books instead, and he had been living a lie, pretending to be an Objectivist when he really never was one. (That seems very odd to me.) She said she pitied him- that he could not handle her.
Indeed, few people could handle her, that was true, but probably because she was a bitch!
Was she let down by people because they were so defective and unworthy poseurs, or was it that she was impossible to please- unforgiving and downright mean sometimes? Who used her supposed rationalism as a defense mechanism? She was too smart, too logical, etc., she either believed or tried to believe, and that was the reason for her many failed relationships with many varied people, men and women both. Was it just easier to believe that than to face the fact that perhaps she WAS actually the wrong one, - was it easier to cut people out of her life immediately rather than wait for them to cut her out- and was she too insecure to handle rejection, that she had to reject someone at the slightest hint of their possible disloyalty?
When the writer, as many biographers do, attempts to psychoanalyze their subjects, I quickly lose interest. Not in the subject, it is intriguing. But in those authors who think they know one's REAL motives, reasons, etc., behind the actions. That there is always some insecurity, some defense mechanism, some childhood trauma being relived or something, that explains the questionable behavior. Of course, Rand could have been insecure (although aren't most people to some extent?). She could have been using a defense mechanism, but maybe she really did believe in her own intellectual superiority, and found it hard to get and keep intellectual companionship, so finally she just gave up and decided to be her own hardcore self, take her or leave her. Who knows. Is every jerk really just an insecure little child inside, misunderstood, unloved, etc., or are there just some people who are just outright jerks and secure about it, and don't care what people think?
She was a force to be reckoned with, if nothing else, love her or hate her. And her story is one of hard work and success- she came from nothing. Even if her philosophy was maybe unoriginal and simplistic, it never went away, as evidenced to this day by this biography so many years later. And the existence of the Ayn Rand Institute- still going strong, still with a lot of obsessed fans debating on the internet.
Her books, of course, will keep her alive forever. She made an impact- she was a woman who never once complained of discrimination, and strangely, she did not seem to be discriminated against. It was not an issue, as far as I can tell. She was loved or hated for her ideas and/or personality, not for her gender.
That about wraps it up!