I actually like Ayn Rand. I’m a liberal, and not an Objectivist, but I see liberal elements in her that are proper correctives to the extreme ideological directions sometimes taken by those on both the left and the right. And I owe Ayn Rand a debt. As a teenager, I read her book, For the New Intellectual, and it materially assisted me in changing the direction of my life. I was feeling deeply oppressed by the fundamentalist religion of my youth, and that book helped me break from it, and assert my own dignity against my religion’s emotional blackmale and abuse. Her opening essay in that collection, “Atilla and the Witch Doctor”, shocked me in the way that she talked so dismissively about religion. I literally had never heard anyone even so much as dare to speak that strongly against religion before, and it was exhilarating to read—a sinful pleasure—and that book gave me a model for my own expressive confidence. Over the years, I’ve mellowed concerning religion, but in the context within which I encountered Rand, her assertive atheist voice did me good, and I say (without irony, and with Tiny Tim) “God bless it.”
Thus, to set in a nutshell my relationship to Rand’s thought:
- I strongly oppose her theories concerning the emotions and aesthetics.
- I support a mixed economy (something Rand vociferously opposed) even while thinking that her praise of capitalism stands as a corrective to far left demonizations of it.
- I like Rand’s articulate affirmations of atheism (even though I am an agnostic) and I agree with her in her insistence on reason as a greater value than faith, and “selfishness” as a necessary corrective to the excesses of altruistic moral systems.
And what about her contemporary followers and enthusiasts? Do I believe that Ayn Rand spawned a cult?
I do not.
I would agree that there could be groupies who hang around the Objectivist Center in Orange County (in California) who might have a cult-like aura about them, and they might well tow an ideologically conformist line. But since I’ve never visited the center, I can’t say whether it gives off a creepy cult vibe. But it seems to me that a lot of the techniques that really solidify cults (psychologically) are not available to the broader Ayn Rand movement. There are “sacred texts”—I grant you that—but there’s no sleep deprivation, or the selling of all you have to live communally. There is also no collective prayer, singing, or chanting. I suppose you could cut yourself off psychologically from your family, but I doubt that many people who call themselves Objectivists ever do that.
Also, there’s no charismatic leader of the group (with Rand being dead). Rand’s handpicked intellectual successor, Leonard Piekoff, carries himself with confidence, and vulnerable people might be drawn to his confidence in a cultish way, but this is also a characteristic of other fringy secular movements, such as the one that has coalesced around Richard Dawkins. Like when Rand was alive, Dawkins is undeniably charismatic, confident, and crisply articulate about what he believes. People are drawn to that about him. But what Dawkins has generated is a movement, not a cult. And I think that the same is true of Rand.
But in one key sense, I think that Rand was cultic. She had a very cultic view of the emotions, and of a person’s ability to make (or force) emotions into accordance with one’s reason. I think that in this very crucial sense, the forcing of one’s emotions to accord with what you “know” to be true and reasonable, is a very cultic thing to do. Insofar as followers of Rand absorb her theories surrounding the emotions, I would agree that they are engaged in cultic behavior, and self-conditioning themselves (practicing repression and compartmentalizing in an unhealthy way). I think that any time you stop listening to your emotions, or stop reality testing your theories by taking them for a “drive” in the real world, you’re heading for trouble.
And what about her fiction? Do I think it’s valuable?
Actually, I do.
No, she was not particularly good at description or conventionally believable characterization. This is certainly true. And her writing is “pulp” as opposed to “literary.” But in fairness to her, she was not attempting to write, say, Realist fiction, but Romantic fiction (as she understood it). If we were talking about conventional Realism as the standard for judging all fiction, then obviously we would call her characters, in many ways, “flat” (as opposed to “rounded”). And therefore, in this sense, her characters are poorly conceived. But Rand was attempting fiction of a different sort. She was trying to create characters who inhabited philosophical positions essentially. It’s hardly fair to critique her by the terms of one genre when she is clearly trying something wholly different from that genre.
Rand was trying to imagine heroes and anti-heroes who lived out, consistently, philosophical premises to their (what she regarded) logical conclusions. It may be crap fiction by conventional literary standards, but what she did is experimentally interesting, and obviously captures the imagination (her fiction books, I believe, sell, at least in the United States, second only to the Bible). And so, given what she was trying to do, I must say that I like Rand’s character, Howard Roark (for example), and his dogged determination. And I think she is rather good at making Iago-like villains who live completely devoted to forms of malice.
In short, she is not writing Naturalism or Realism in her novels, and she is not appealing to “man on the street” sensibilities about what constitutes the ordinary. This doesn’t mean that Rand’s characters are inhuman or lacking in real passion. To the contrary, passion is something characteristic of her life and her novels—it’s just a passion associated with her understanding of Romanticism (as opposed to 19th and early 20th century Naturalism and Realism). She was trying to get her head around how philosophical positions channel through the passions. Who can fault her for so interesting an experiment in fiction writing?
Here’s Ayn Rand speaking to Mike Wallace in 1959: