We tend to think that novels don’t make much of an impact on the world, but every so often one comes along to prove us wrong. Would you like to take a guess as to which book Americans voted most influential in their lives after the Bible? Which book has inspired countless captains of industry? And which has spawned an institute that organizes talks and lectures and distributes 400,000 free copies of the book every year to the most promising high school students? Well, that book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book universally despised by critics but still a bestseller today. Rand’s philosophy of ‘rational selfishness’ underpinned the capitalist agenda and bolstered the belief that governments should never intervene in the market or in the freedom of the individual. One of her most notable followers is Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, who met Rand when he was 25 and joined in her Saturday night gatherings. A devotee of Rand’s works and her ‘moral defence of capitalism’, it was unfortunate that his actions with derivatives (and please don’t ask me to explain – banking is a mystery to me) were influential in paving the way to the current financial crisis. Why did Rand’s ideas prove so attractive, and why are they failing now?
First, a little background on the author. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenblum in 1905 in Soviet Russia, a serious, studious, stocky girl whose face did not match her destiny. She knew from the age of nine that she wanted to write, and when in her early teens the Bolsheviks stormed her father’s pharmacy in the name of the people, she was given a topic that would last her a lifetime. Having studied American history and stuffed herself full of Hollywood movies, she took the chance offered by generous relatives to emigrate to Chicago in 1926. She was carrying a message from the guests at her farewell dinner party: ‘If they ask you in America – tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly.’ Rand stayed in Chicago just long enough to crank out a few screenplays (easier on her English as a second language) and head off to Hollywood. There she was lucky: she bumped into Cecil B. Demille who gave her a job as an extra, then a chance as a junior writer. It was with films that she learned her trade and through them that she met her husband, a handsome, gentle man, who married her before her visa expired and whom she loved with a ferocious idealism of his good looks.
When you look at a writer’s life it’s always intriguing to see how the influences knit together. Rand had a powerful longing for pure meritocracy, and one that would be justly rewarded by fame and fortune. She also had a hugely purple romantic streak, a real Mills and Boon tendency towards worshipping handsome devils. Both of these came together in the notion of the Nietzschean superhero, a highly influential figure in Russian culture in the years before she left, and who took the place of God, quite literally, in her view of the cosmos. And the tapestry she wove out of these elements was in the style of her country’s art – a banner waving at the head of a revolution. In 1944 she wrote rather smugly that she was ‘the chief living writer of propaganda fiction’, and the propaganda part was true. Rand’s most potent literary device was to turn an impossible ideal of heroism into a prescription for living, to bring the gods down to walk on the earth again, embodied in men who knew they had talent, and who would make the world pay and the women weep.
It took a long while for Rand to bring her preoccupations together in commercial form. Seventeen years elapsed between her arrival in America and publication of the novel that made her name, The Fountainhead (she published a novel prior to this that sank without trace). Even then, The Fountainhead was not an instant success, relying on a powerful word-of-mouth campaign to become a bestseller, and its reviews were mixed at best. It’s the only novel of Rand’s that I’ve read and I found it powerful, overlong, flawed and yet better than I feared. Her architect protagonist, Howard Rourke, is one of those characters who sticks in the mind; strong, fearless, a stranger to doubt, Howard designs his unpopular buildings whilst we, on the right side of the narrative, are permitted to understand his genius. Roarke is uncannily free from emotion and so it takes an unusual heroine to attract him. Dominique Francon, thin, neurotic, self-destructive, passionate provides a steely foil to Roarke’s glittering ambition. ‘The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man’, Rand wrote, but the problem was how she had her women respond to him. The feminist Susan Brownmiller declared Rand ‘a traitor to her own sex’ for having Roarke effectively rape Dominique and worse, for Dominique to only like it that way. But in love as in economics, the celebration of domination comes always and inevitably at the cost of someone else’s submission. The greater the dominance of one spectacular individual, the more nameless grunts are cast to the outer margins of the world, or the more masochistic the acts committed in the name of loyalty and devotion.
This sounds plausible, but the disaster that was the movie version of the film shows up the underlying problem with this scenario – it contains no real people. Life does not foster individuals as two-dimensional as Roarke and Francon. For instance, creative people get discouraged when their work meets public disapproval; when Atlas Shrugged received its universally awful reviews, Rand wept for days and days. She was aware that her characters would handle it differently, but her real humanity got in the way of that. Equally when Rand began an affair with one of her disciples, a young man half her age, she did not understand why her husband became an alcoholic. Nor did she cope well when the disciple left her for a fashion model his own age. Those forced into submission do not retain their own kind of strength; instead they crumble and suffer without nobility.
But the messiness of reality has never made the glowing strength of principles any the less attractive. Rand’s novels were curious oxymorons – bestselling blockbusters of ideas. Mostly idea-driven fiction drives readers away like wildebeest crossing the Serengeti, but that’s because it tends to occupy the upper echelons of literary fiction where, on the whole, ambiguity reigns supreme. Rand’s fiction is different, in that it uses ideas to tell people what to think, and how to live. And there’s a reason why propaganda is dangerous: it only tells one side of the story, and one side alone is both seductive and misleading. We need the complexity of the world, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it. The fact, for instance, that disaster can be productive is its saving grace. But generally, ambiguity makes us insecure. It’s comforting to think there might be reliable answers, and even better if they encourage us towards the things we wanted anyway.
And here’s the rub with principles: the ones we bond with are the ones that appease us emotionally. Principles and ideas lure us into the belief that as humans we can apply rational precepts to life, but that mistakes the complex dynamics of existence as well as our own hidden emotional reserves. The principle of domination, applied across The Fountainhead makes for uncomfortable and ludicrous reading in places. Just as those same principles applied to Rand’s life made her very unhappy at times. But letting principles and ideals go can be terrifying and threatening because we’ve invested emotionally in them. The real courage of the individual comes in facing change and in changing with it; that really is reserved for superheroes.