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 1950s, 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. 

So when, three decades lat­er, Greenspan became Chair­man of the Fed­er­al Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006, Rand’s hith­er­to ignored phi­los­o­phy of Objec­tivism sud­den­ly seemed won­drous­ly pre­scient. Its rabid anti-com­mu­nism and pur­blind deifi­ca­tion of the indi­vid­ual went hand in glove with the Rega­nomics that is seemed to have so impres­sive­ly anticipated.

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 is just 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 almost 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 instead you’re a bor­der­line sociopath with a Napoleon com­plex. Hence her vogue in the oh so male world of big tech.

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