Archives for September 2020

“Atlas Shrugged”: Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, arguably the most influential American writer of the last hundred years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand was at once the most reviled public intellectual by any of the actual intellectuals in America. And the only one of them to have had any genuine impact on the American psyche and the public at large.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was a childhood friend of Nabokov’s younger sister Olga. And after becoming one of the first women to graduate from a Russian university, she emigrated to the States, gravitating to Hollywood. There she found work as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and she then spent the next decade or so working as a Hollywood hack and writing minor plays and unremarkable novels.

That all changed with the publication of her two monumentally successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former was published in 1943, and although largely ignored by critics it sold millions and was quickly adapted into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play. 

With the financial security that that afforded her, she moved to New York where she was able to further develop her so say philosophy of Objectivism. This she was going to more fully explore in a non-fiction book called The Moral Basis of Individualism. But she put that to one side to work instead on a follow-up novel to The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was, she explained, “a demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of self-interest”. But to her deep disappointment it was critically panned, not withstanding the fact that it was an even bigger commercial hit than The Fountainhead – between them, they’ve so far sold over 30 million copies.

But she spent the rest of her life largely ignored, producing non-fiction books that nobody read and expounding upon her philosophy of Objectivism to deaf ears. So how is that she came to be so influential?

Her impact came in two waves. In the period in which she was writing Atlas Shrugged, in the 50s, she attracted a small but fiercely loyal group of acolytes. One of whom just happened to be a certain Alan Greenspan

Author Ayn Rand, in August 1957 on Park Avenue.

Three decades later, as Reganomics swept all before it, Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006. And Rand’s hitherto ignored philosophy of Objectivism, with its rabid anti-communism and its purblind deification of individualism, suddenly appeared wondrously prescient.

But it was rise of big tech in the late 90s and early oughts that really saw her come into vogue. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and, apparently, Steve Jobs were and are all fanatical and very vocal fans. And a cursory glance at Atlas Shrugged quickly reveals why. 

Rand’s would-be Great American Novel is essentially an incredibly bloated romance novel. Personally, I love romance novels, the best ones of which are all almost exactly 195 pages long. Atlas Shrugged comes in 50 pages shy of War And Peace

Essentially, its world is populated by a handful of exceptional and blindingly brilliant individuals who are personally and single-handedly responsible for propping up and fuelling the economy. And whose visionary plans society, the government and the great unwashed are perpetually trying to foil. 

Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Free from conventional morality and unfettered by the shackles of organized religion, these sexually promiscuous, physically imposing latter-day Greek gods (they’re all gods interestingly) were likewise chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his The Bonfire of the Vanities, an actual, bona fide Great American Novel. But his Masters of the Universe were unceremoniously felled by the layers of irony he hacked them down with. 

Irony, alas, seems to have eluded  Rand entirely. Instead, what we get are reams and reams of monochrome prose consisting of occasional bursts of romance, which she’s actually pretty good at, amidst pages and pages of her tedious and puerile cod philosophy.

All of which is monumentally dull, not to say wearisome if what you are looking for is interesting, grown-up ideas and a good read. But it’s just what the doctor ordered if you’re a borderline sociopath with a Napoleon complex.

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