Posts Tagged Ayn Rand sucks

Objectivist Disorder

At Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore has a post in which he suggests:

I’d have to say my nominee for Most Redundant Headline of the Year is for Jonas Blank’s ruminative TNR essay: “I Was a Teenage Objectivist.” Of course he was. So was I, and so were God knows how many other people, particular nerdy boys seeking ego-reinforcement against the discipline and disdain of parents, the idiocy of teachers, and most of all the contempt of classmates.

I’m fortunate – I escaped any hint of Randian worship that I saw in a few peers. 

. . . the average nerdy adolescent boy hasn’t really had to do much of anything to test his theoretically vast potential in the marketplace of life: you know, things like falling in (non-heroic) love, performing a difficult job, dealing with entirely irrational and unindividuated economic forces like recessions, or for that matter “checking your premises” via debates with intellectual equals or superiors who come up with arguments that Rand and her “Collective” didn’t already savage in the totalitarian atmosphere of her smoky Manhattan salon.

In my experience, Rand’s biggest fans were not teenage boy but teenage girls.  Hugo’s take on Rand in many ways reflects my own:

 . . . A friend of mine finished “The Fountainhead”, and came to me one morning before class: “This book has changed my life, Hugo, and it will change yours. Read it!”  . . . I took it home, and showed my mother, a philosophy professor. She took one look at the book, grimaced, and then said “Darling, I won’t say anything. Make up your own mind.”

It wasn’t until I read “American Psycho”, many years later, that I had a comparable experience of near-instant loathing of a text, an author, a prose style, and a worldview.  . . . Rand was ideologically and stylistically abhorrent to me at 16, and though it’s been years since I’ve picked up any of her work (I finished “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” through sheer acts of will in my youth), my general feeling of disdain on every imaginable ground remains.

Rand’s objectivist philosophy advocates for a kind of reckless heroic individualism, where what she calls the “second-handers” (those who lack the substance or courage to be great) can be ignored or used by the heroes who can and do anything they like to accomplish their dreams. It’s not just contempt for mediocrity, it’s contempt for mundanity, domesticity, and the lives that most people actually lead. Not to mention that Rand famously justifies rape (Howard and Dominique’s first sexual encounter in the book). It’s an ugly vision of women needing to be fucked hard by a strong and powerful hero in order to find herself.


But I’ve met many young people, more often women than men, who — like my friend Lisa in high school — find great inspiration in Ayn Rand. Generally, there’s a specific type of teen who falls in love with either “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged”. She’s usually very bright, raised to one degree or another with the “pleasing woman discourse” (what I call “the Martha Complex.“) She often finds her classes dull and her teachers pedestrian. She suspects she’s destined for something extraordinary, that she’s somehow different from everyone else — but unlike the immensely talented dancer or athlete or actor, she doesn’t have one specific skill that stands out as a ticket to stardom. She vacillates between feelings of intense superiority — and feelings of equally intense guilt for the way in which she looks down on so many of those around her.

She picks up Rand, and suddenly it all makes sense.

I struggled through Rand but couldn’t finish either The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.  I found both deadly dull.  Her first novel, We the Living, is less arduous and even has some interesting parts but is largely forgettable – it was an ordinary individual living in a totalitarian society novel.  Anthem – her shortest work – is a pretentious fairy tale without any literary grace or charm.  I finished it in a single read and tossed it aside to never be touched again.

Rand’s ideas appeal to adolescents because of her certainty, her tendency to ignore complexities and offer maxims.  Her prescriptions for society make sense when you consider she emerged from the crucible of Czarist, Leninist and Stalinist Russia.  A liberal, pluralistic democracy was beyond her ken.  She interpreted all opposition to her ideas as authoritarian yet she was as authoritarian as Stalin, banishing people from her circle, ascribing to her beliefs objective truth.  In elevating her ideas to the level of objective truth, she ignored nuance and complexity.  She built a cult of personality around herself and pretended it wasn’t what it was.  She exiled supporters who disagreed with her, engaged in hypocritical behaviors and ultimately died a bitter and lonely person.  She’s hardly a template of success.

Seeing 40 something Paul Ryan tout her ideas strikes me as slightly embarrassing.  Usually contact with the real world with adult responsibilities dissuade people from embracing her ideas.  That Ryan has lived such a coddled adult live that he’s managed to miss that experience seems like a disorder – objectivist disorder.

No Comments

%d bloggers like this: