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Rand National ReviewNational Review’s cover featured a very captivating art-deco style rendering of Ayn Rand. Whether intentional or not (and most likely it is), the portrait divides Rand’s face in manichaen fashion, half light, half dark. Though the article, “Ayn Rand Reconsidered: A Greatness Stunted by Hate,” by Jason Steorts, is relatively short, it packs a serious punch. While praising the best of The Fountainhead, Steorts has nothing but contempt for Atlas Shrugged.

“There is so much to be said against Rand as an artist. There is the inept dialogue—characters begin a great many sentences by shouting each other’s names…the heroes speak, every one of them, in exactly the same voice; the averagely intelligent advance the plot by blurting out their secrets. There is the Girl Scout banality of Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, who seems to have escaped from the young-adult section. There is the preposterous omnicompetence of the heroes, equally at home on the Harvard faculty or in a Vin Diesel movie, and the endless gushing about their exalted feelings, Rand’s attempt to steal with treacle what she has not earned with character development.” (NR, August 30, 2010, pg. 48)

From Steorts’s perspective, Rand, who had accomplished much with The Fountainhead (1943) while looking inward to the potential greatness of man, has begun to look outward at mankind with Atlas Shrugged (1957). Then, she only sees dismal failure.

And, what about Rand’s abilities as a novelist, as an artist, as a creator?

“I don’t care. I don’t require of my artists that they be perfect craftsman; I require that they inspire me. What is sad to me about Rand is that she could, but that the creator of Gail Wynand [a complex and deeply flawed character seeking redemption in The Fountainhead] could create only one; that she could no longer imagine him when she looked out at mankind; that what she showed us instead was her need to reassure herself, in terms frankly delusional, of her superiority to it.” (NR, August 30, 2010, pg. 48)


ayn randSteorts’s article is probably the most sensible and just article I’ve read on Rand. A little over a year ago, John Miller kindly asked me to comment over at NRO on the re-emerging popularity of Atlas Shrugged. Here’s what I wrote at the time, reprinted here with only light editing:

NR has offered a proper view of Ayn Rand for over fifty years: Rand (born in Russia, 1905, as Alisa Rosenbaum) is little more than a right-wing ideologue. The “little more,” though, cannot be completely dismissed. Rand possessed genius in her ability to create plot (Atlas Shrugged), to show the evil of evil (We the Living), and to demonstrate brilliance (The Fountainhead). Overall, though, Rand produced stiff characters, stiff dialogue, and stiff philosophy. Intentionally dismissing any continuity of the western tradition, Rand very selectively took from Aristotle, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Her characters, full of purpose, seek only to denominate those deemed beneath them or to submit to those believed superior. The Ragnarok-ish end of Atlas Shrugged reveals much. The world, through mediocrity, has burned itself out. Those who embrace hierarchy and will, the new gods, return after having hidden in a secret location in the Rockies. As they descend from their Valhalla, presumably to conquer, the new head god “blesses” the world with the “sign of the dollar.” Offensive, ignorant, and devoid of faith, hope, and love, Rand ends her novel. Her philosophy and her reputation should have ended here as well.

This still seems like a generally correct assessment to me.

When I first arrived at Hillsdale in the fall of 1999, I was immediately struck by how many Randians attended the college. Frankly, there were probably very few in relative terms. But, they were many (at least in appearance) in terms of taking a lead in college culture. They wore lots of black, smoked lots of cigarettes, and talked rather forcefully and, I must admit begrudgingly, intelligently. A few years later, I decided this group must have been an anomaly. If they continued to exist into the twenty-first century at Hillsdale, I wasn’t encountering them.

ayn randThen, two years ago, I noticed frequent references to Rand among my freshmen. Last year’s incoming class mentioned her even more frequently. And, the mentions were never done in apology or explanation, but dropped as though every peer and professor was already familiar with the writer, her ideas, her characters, her plots, etc. The black clothing and chain smoking is gone, to be sure, but if our last two incoming classes are any indication, Rand is back. Tellingly, those who read her, take it for granted that everyone else has read her too. Rand seems to have become an accepted and important member of the western tradition.

I first encountered Rand around 1982. I was fourteen, and my mother handed me a copy of Atlas Shrugged, telling me it was time to read something serious. I devoured what I could find of Rand’s—Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, Anthem, her plays, her essays, etc. I never would’ve called myself a “Randian” or an “Objectivist” (As far as I know, no Randian ever refers to himself as a Randian; those who hate Randianism refer to her followers as “Randroids.” I’ll keep it neutral—that is, only use “Randian,” for this essay).

Atlas ShruggedThough I stupidly thought of myself as some sort of atheist/agnostic in the 1980s, Rand’s aversion to religion did little for me. Indeed, her hatred of religion seemed as bizarre to me then as did the incredible violence promoted by her main characters. Her hatred of faith went against my own experience and observations. The best people I knew in the 1980s were religious (my maternal grandparents, a great aunt, a great uncle, for instance) and the people I respected least were either false in their religion or devoid of it. So, Rand’s reasoning on religion simply made no sense to me. As probably any teenager does, I compartmentalized what I didn’t like, and I divorced the personal aspect of Rand from the political, economic, and cultural aspects. Now, of course, I see how tied together they were for her and are for her many current followers.

Still, at the time, I saw her as the best way to convince my friends and relatives of the evils of government and the virtues of the market. Though she was deeply flawed, I believed, no one better promoted free society than did she. As I think back on this, I can feel Screwtape’s breath on the back of my ear and neck.

[To those many friends in high school and college who received copies of Atlas Shrugged from me, I apologize profoundly. May your children not be cursed with such friends.]

This is the first part in a two-part essay; the second part may be found hereBooks mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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8 replies to this post
  1. Brad, I can well recollect my six weeks as a Randian. (It does seem as though everyone on the right has gone through this rite of passage). I had just finished a two-month summer program studying in the Soviet Union (1980), was in Paris and while browsing for something to read for the plane ride home, I found an English language copy of The Fountainhead. By the time I arrived back in the states, I was hooked – I was rational, egoistic, and convinced I had found the philosophers' stone. I was also a completely unpleasant person for the next few months, committed as I was to the "virtues of selfishness."

    Why are young people attracted to Rand? I think it is largely the pull of ideology to immature minds. For me Rand's writings are the capitalist equivalent of Soviet Socialist Realism (shall we name them "Capitalist Realism"?)- highly formulaic, easy to grasp, full of all the right answers, a blueprint for a movement. Like much of libertarianism, Randian "objectivism" is initially attractive because it offers something more exciting than the stultifying rewards of mass society (whether socialist, corporate capitalist, or fascist). As Dr. Kirk presciently noted in his review of Ilya Ehrenburg's 1950's novel, The Thaw, what people commonly suffer from in the New World Order is not fear, but boredom. Rand's heroes are confident, forceful, and filled with purpose and righteousness, qualities that we all seek. But I think W. Chambers was correct: Rand mistakes forcefulness for strength and replaces one form of dictatorship for another. I am more convinced by Nisbet's thesis, that radical individualism and socialism are two sides of the same coin and that our real quest is to form and to belong to the little platoons which humanize and help us fulfill our social nature.

  2. I recall now that in high school a few parents and students pushed our high school administration to include Rand in either junior or senior English. At the time I was calling myself a libertarian, and I thought it was a good idea. Now I am deeply grateful that the administration and English department would have absolutely nothing to do with Rand.

  3. Poor old Ayn Rand, whom the great Hillsdale English professor Robert v.v. Rice once dismissed as ‘a penny-whistle Nietzsche.’ He was right, too. She appeals to the same age groups and psychological types, full of zits and ‘the will to power.’ Most people grow out of it; in Rand’s case when they find her book title praising selfishness and then learn that the poor dear demanded to be laid out under a dollar-sign while mourners sang old campfire songs. Not exactly a Wagnerian exit.

    Ayn was a low-class operation from the git-go. Her novels are bodice-rippers crossed with the longer and more turgid ideological speeches in De Sade’s Jacobin-porno novels. As cult-leaders go, she couldn’t hold a candle to Gurdjieff or Sun Myung Moon. Her dinner conversation was supposed to be as dire as one might expect – Murray Rothbard wrote a funny one-act play about dinner with Rand, available on the Mises Institute website.

    Is Rand to be feared, even if one can stop laughing long enough? I doubt it. Any reader with even a room-temperature IQ will tire of it fast and move on to better things. Anyone stuck there is already in over his head. Some Randians even make the trek to Mecosta, and one I knew years ago is now a nun living under a vow of silence (the whirring sound you hear is Ayn spinning in her grave). Ultimately, Rand makes young people dislike Big Government and if they are incapable of anything more, so be it – if they remain besotted then they weren’t the sort you’d expect to find lugging stacks of CS Lewis and TS Eliot to the bookstore checkout counter now, would they?

    s. masty

  4. Steve makes a wonderful point. Why are we even talking about her? Conservatives should be talking about Louis Auchincloss, Booth Tarkington, Robert Frost, Willa Cather–serious writers who had something to say to us that is beyond stupid slogans and teenage ideology. I hereby move that whatshername should never again be mentioned on this site. Amen.

  5. Whatshername Shrugged
    (A Poem for John Willson)

    I wanna be an Ubermench
    And selfish by default,
    So people point and ask who’s me
    And not John Galt.
    She wants to find an architect
    To get a house off,
    Wherein the muscled Untermench
    Can rip her blouse off.
    We want to rage in reason,
    Not be meek or bland,
    We want to both be titans
    Like the great Ayn Whatshername.

  6. It is fair to critize Rand as an artist, but the article and comments miss some of Rand's important philosophical contributions that presented in detail in her non-fiction. This omission is not uncommon. It is easy to miss Rand's subtlety of thought in her prose, and the drama of her books and the drama of her personal life.

    I will just give a brief overview and encourage further study.

    -Rand's revolutionary theory of concept formation. ("Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.")

    -Rand's ethical theory. Life as the only possible standard of value. The derivation of "ought" from "is."

    -The nature of "force." Why is it literally impossible to think under statism? The justification for government.

    -Nietzsche-What did she take from Nieztsche? What did she leave behind.

    -Aristotle-what she learned from him, how she enhanced his system.

    One does not have to agree with any of these points by Rand, but I think they are worthy of attention.

    Excellent Rand scholars to read are: Leonard Peikoff, Tara Smith and Tibor Machan. The latter two are very distinguished academics.

  7. I would suggest that Rand was the other side of the coin to the reductionist "social realism" promoted by both the various communist regimes, and the nazis too.

    Have you also noticed that there is even a kind of sympathy for what she had to say in various supposedly religious circles- the Acton Institute for instance. She is also popular with key ideologues over at the American Enterprise Institute, which simultaneously promotes the Christian world-view.

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