Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Ayn Rand was neither adorable nor trivial, but here goes:

When I was a senior in high school, I would ditch at least one class almost every day. In true nerd-rebel fashion, I would spend most days holed up in the library, trying to look like a casual stopper-by from one of the many local colleges, reading whatever I could get my hands on -- Madame Bovary, The Color Purple, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Lolita, etc. Other days, I would escape to the special secret hiding place I had found on campus and read Ayn Rand. Of her four novels, The Fountainhead was my favorite. I must have read it at least six or seven times in my teenage years. We the Living, Ayn's fulfillment of a promise to tell the world of the Russian "graveyard" she had fled in the 1920's, came in a close second; Anthem, her novelette of a futuristic dystopian vision, a distant third. Amazingly, I never took to Atlas Shrugged, her own self-proclaimed adventure-sci-fi-philosophical literary masterpiece. I think I've only read that one, at most, two times; although, I would return again and again to the Twentieth Century Motors story in the middle, relishing its perfect encapsulation of what living out the communistic creed of "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" might mean in reality rather than abstraction. Of course, I read most of her non-fiction as well. My favorite of those was Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Over the years of my young adulthood, I bought every Ayn Rand book available -- from her published journals and letters to her previously unpublished fiction to the Barbara Branden biography to the Nathaniel Branden memoir to supplementary works like The Ideas of Ayn Rand by Ronald Merrill. While never a committed Objectivist (the philosophy derived from Rand's fiction and exposited in her non-fiction), I certainly had a deep admiration and appreciation for this fascinating and original author. Though not raised in a religious household, I had always believed in God -- until Ayn's avowal of atheism convinced me that that was foolish. I fell into hero-worship -- her highest ideal -- and composed poems to my boyfriend with lines like:

They asked me to bow to mediocrity/To the peasant on the street/
They said that I should kneel down/And kiss his diseased feet/
They called him a beacon of the human race/And I fear that must be true
For the masses breed in the gutter/But the gods created you

I smile now to read those lines -- so obviously written under the spell of Ayn Rand's Weltanschauung.

I became a Christian in 1995, at the age of 21. How in the world did this happen to such a fan of Ayn Rand? Well, it's a long story and not really pertinent here. Suffice to say that, although I continued reading Ayn Rand's work -- especially The Fountainhead -- with pleasure, I started questioning in my mind whether her ideas could mesh with the truth I had found in Christianity. Whenever her philosophical assertions collided directly with my burgeoning faith, I had to check my premises -- and Ayn Rand came up short. I read her less and less often -- not so much from a conscious decision, but because my mind and reading times were now engaged in a different direction.

In 2005, in the centennial month of Ayn Rand's birth, I decided to honor her by re-reading my favorite book, The Fountainhead. It had been several years since I had read her at all. I tried and tried to get through it, but I simply could not relate anymore to the characters or even, really, the plot. The resonance was gone. I chuckle to think that Ayn Rand would see this rejection as a grave moral, epistemological and metaphysical failure and denounce me forthwith as a hopeless mystic and probably throw in a second-hander, a mooch, and a nothing to boot. I knew then that it was over; I sold off most of my Ayn Rand collection of books to make way for a prolific philosophical theologian, novelist, essayist, and all-around nice guy with whom I had recently fallen in love -- G.K. Chesterton.

This long introduction to a review of the new biography of Ayn Rand is meant to show that, while I am quite familiar, though rusty, in my knowledge of her work, I am by no means still a follower or ardent admirer. Which may, in true Objectivist fashion, lead many to dismiss what I have to say. And that's OK. This review is for the rest of us -- people who may or may not agree with some or much of what she had to say, but still find her a thoroughly interesting and singular thinker.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made
Anne C. Heller
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 567 pages -- 150 of those are notes (2009)

Who is Ayn Rand? was a biographical booklet published in 1962. Written by Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, it offered curious readers of the best-selling books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, a glimpse into the life of their author. This "official" version of Ayn Rand's life followed the tightly controlled public persona she was so good and creating and maintaining. She was presented as "a unique creative force compelled to struggle against a crass, corrupt, unthinking, and indifferent world in order to write and guide her masterpieces into print" (p. 328). This tantalizing, though extremely fractional biographical sketch would be the only view into the life of one of the 20th Century's most powerful, original, insightful, divisive, startling and captivating thinkers until 1986, when Barbara Branden wrote The Passion of Ayn Rand.

The Passion of Ayn Rand was a revelation to many. For the first time, details of Ayn's childhood were discussed, her early struggles in America were delineated, and her 14-year affair with a man twenty-five years her junior, Ms. Branden's husband, Nathaniel, was exposed. The book is beautifully written, strikingly sympathetic, and a far more complete picture of both the woman and creative genius than had ever been presented before. And yet, written through the filter of Ms. Branden's own experience and without much of the information that had yet to come to light from Rand's childhood in revolutionary Russia, The Passion of Ayn Rand was still subjective and incomplete.

I suppose no such thing as a "complete" life story can ever be written -- certainly not as a biography, nor probably even as an autobiography. Seemingly little, inconsequential things can have a big impact or hold a key to a trait or belief, but never get recorded because of their presumed triviality. And even those among us who try to be most honest in our self-assessments will always encounter blind-spots and hidden places onto which we are unable or unwilling to shed light. Keeping these ideas in mind, Anne C. Heller has probably written the most complete portrait of the woman and thinker Ayn Rand that we are likely ever to have until that day when all is revealed. Ayn Rand and the World She Made is an exquisite, highly readable, fast-paced biography that I could not put down without great effort and a wounded feeling of self-abnegation. Even with interruptions, I finished this book in two days' time.

Ms. Heller's interest in her subject came, not as a youthful reader seduced by Rand's remarkably heroic and romantic view of man, but as a woman in her forties who was given Francisco D'Anconia's monologue on the value of money (Atlas Shrugged) when editing an article for a financial magazine. Impressed and surprised by the logical constructs of the speech and its moral implications, Ms. Heller decided to investigate the rest Ms. Rand's work. To her amazement, she discovered that no one had written a biography of this influential thinker since The Passion of Ayn Rand. She began researching for her own contribution to Randology about five years ago.

Ms. Heller benefited in her writing about Ayn in two particular ways. First, she is not a "follower" of Rand's, not an advocate of her philosophy, not a groveling toady to the keepers of the flame -- Leonard Peikoff and his ilk. Yet, she is also not one of those who hates and denounces every idea or premise of Ayn's, either. Thus, there is a remarkable even-handedness to this portrayal of an historically divisive personality. Secondly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, records in Russia have been opened to the public that were not available when Ms. Branden was writing her biography in the 1980's. So, the story of Ayn's early years and her family's history is far more fleshed out and far less subjective than what Ayn Rand was willing to share as an adult.

Ms. Heller's premise is a simple and elegant one: Alissa Rosenbaum, a precocious, independent, arrogant, homely, brilliant and outcast Jewish child who grew up in the precariously anti-Semitic bosom of Russian Orthodoxy during the tumultuous early years of twentieth century St. Petersburg, became Ayn Rand, the famous and infamous American author of unmitigated individualism and unapologetic selfishness, by creating from earliest childhood her own world, populated with her own kind of people, and sharing that vision through the medium of literature. However, Ayn Rand's comfort with and eventual over-reliance upon this created world appears to have left her ill-equipped her for the vagaries and complexities of this real one. While it was useful during her early years of struggle and rejection professionally -- that is, holding onto and escaping into the world of her heroes bolstered her resolve to write her own story as triumphantly as theirs -- it was, in the end, a tragic detriment to her personal relationships and self-knowledge.

While reading this book, two different thoughts kept recurring. The first was that "I really do not like this person," which I don't think would have bothered Ayn Rand in the least. The second was that "I feel terribly sorry for this person," about which I think she would have had much indignation, indeed. Ms. Heller's premise -- that Ayn Rand was trapped in the perpetual childhood of Alissa Rosenbaum -- is borne out by Rand's seeming inability to sustain any sort of mutually reciprocated relationship with people of her own age and intellectual stature with whom she differentiated in an opinion to two, but with whom she was essentially in agreement. Friendship after friendship, associate after associate, follower after follower falls away from her life. And she just seems so lonely in the end. But justifiably so. And if you couldn't hang onto Isabel Paterson -- who just might be the coolest writer/thinker of the 20th century -- as a friend, then what's the matter with you, anyway?

The most gratifying part of Ayn Rand and the World She Made is Ms. Heller's description of Rand's eventual heir, Leonard Peikoff. My father and I have always suspected that he is a weaselly little toady of a fellow, and our suspicions are beautifully confirmed in Ms. Heller's wry take on the one follower who was obsequious enough to remain in her good graces until the end. You have to imagine that Ayn Rand was more than a little disappointed that the end result of all her hero-worshipping ways was that oleaginous sycophant, Peikoff.

This book is so interesting on every level. Every aspect of Ms. Rand's life is given equal weight: her childhood, her escape from revolutionary Russia, her young adulthood in America, her fiction, her philosophy, her affair, her cult, her legacy. Ms. Heller rightly admires and captures the scintillating clarity of Ayn Rand's arguments for her beliefs. Nathaniel Branden, after meeting Ayn Rand for the first time, called her "Mrs. Logic" and Ms. Heller does an excellent job of showing why that was so. Ayn Rand dared to make moral arguments for economic freedom at a time when most advocates of capitalism were resigned to preaching it as merely practical; these arguments are still powerful (and mostly ignored) half a century later.

One last point of particular interest to me is that Ms. Heller goes more into depth about Ayn Rand's antagonism to religion, and Christianity in particular, than either the Branden biography or Branden memoir did. For instance, while I knew that she was an avowed atheist from her early adolescence, I did not realize until reading this biography how much she really saw Christian faith as a force of evil in the world. Much of this can be traced to the deeply anti-Semitic nature of the Russian Orthodox church at the turn of the century -- which often used hateful rhetoric to rile up the peasants against the far more economically successful Jewish enclaves. This is a sad legacy of Christianity, but one that I think the Church has done much to redress.

Anyone -- whether friend or foe or somewhere in between -- would do well to pick of this biography and give it a read. It is a simply splendid account of an amazing life.

No comments: