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Reconstructing Ayn Rand

Review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller, Nan A. Talese, 2009.

In the shadows of American conservative politics sits the memory of a stalwart intellectual, who molded the concept of capitalist individualism to mythical proportions. Most often recognized for the most famous son of her Collective, Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand’s imprint on politics can be seen in the recent rantings of conservative commentators about institutionalized socialism in the United States. The fear represented by these politicos reflects the footprints of a bygone era in American politics, where communism appeared to threaten the foundation of society, and Rand fed that anxiety. Long supported by enthusiastic young neoliberals, Rand’s books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead create a cult following, where her archetypes present a version of economic Objectivist truths. Rand sculpted a theory, which moved away from, in her view, the flawed altruism and toward a celebration of the individual. In this approach, the capitalist economy will reward innovation and advancement, which can only be produced by the competitive individual. Rand’s personal experience growing up in Czarist Russia, living through the Bolshevik Revolution, and working in Hollywood informed her philosophical viewpoint of the free market. Although Rand became famous for finding flaws in the arguments of others, she guarded her personal convictions closely, which mystified her presence in the American public.

In her encompassing biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Anne Heller explores the contradictory nature of the famous author. Using Rand’s writings, various archives, and interviews, Heller reconstructs a conflicted and obstinate philosopher.  In her preface, Heller delivers an upfront account of her relationship with Rand’s work. For a long time, Heller avoided the famous books, as she found the “eerie effect” the books had on her acquaintances akin to propagandists. Heller’s skepticism towards Rand and her Objectivist philosophy lead the Ayn Rand Institute to deny Heller access to her official papers, an event that fits quite perfectly with Ayn Rand’s constant obsession with controlling her image, which continues beyond the grave. Despite this research setback, Heller’s biography recreates a detailed exploration of Rand’s life. Heller oscillates between treating Rand with a cool objective distance to a playfully critical biographer. Heller clearly enjoys pointing out Rand’s shortcomings and hypocrisies. The Rand of Heller’s biography lived for the future through her own past, which constructed an insecure, childlike intellectual.

Using the background of a pre-revolutionary Russia, Heller paints Rand’s early childhood as comfortable, but pained. Born Alissa Rosenbaum, Rand struggled to win her mother’s approval, as well as acceptance by her bourgeois peers. Rand asserted her intellectual ability at a young age, and constantly evaluated the inferiority of the people who circled her. This early disassociation with the people surrounding her, allowed for a later developmental flaw, which Heller catalogues as a quick rejection of dissenters. She often recounted how she valorized a fellow classmate, but when Rand the girl, she inquired about who the girl valued most. The child responded with her mother. Rand explains that this she never spoke to her again because of the banal response. In her flippant rebuff, Rand simultaneously preserves her own ego, and perpetuates her understanding of the world around her. Heller notes that Rand spent her life overestimating some people and underestimating others, and “she rarely reconsidered.” What Rand interprets as a strength in future objectivist pursuits, Heller highlights as a connection to Rand’s method of camouflaging insecurities. A compelling example of Rand’s continual re-interpretation of her childhood, Heller retells a story of Rand’s mother, Anna, cleaning out the nursery. Telling the young Alissa to sort out and de-clutter her toy room, Anna promised her daughter’s toys would be returned in a year’s time. Alissa, thinking she was outsmarting her mother, picked her favorites to put in storage. When the time elapsed, and Alissa requested her toys returned, Anna explained she gave them away to charity because she knew that Alissa did not need the toys. An adult Rand referred to this story as the moment when she understood that altruism was truly selfish, she understood her mother’s actions as spiteful. However, Rand’s adult analysis exemplifies her childlike understanding of human relationship to materials. Heller’s detailed storytelling reveals how frequently Rand misunderstood interactions with others, and perhaps, how her understanding of success evolved.

Rand’s adult philosophy was built not only on her immature misinterpretations of human interactions, but also on a carefully constructed myth about her childhood. As an adult in America, Rand persistently, and untruthfully, dramatized her childhood as impoverished and neglectful. Despite spending a few months traveling the European continent, and several trips to the Crimean Sea, Rand reportedly told others that she never vacationed in Russia. In explaining her family’s efforts to escape St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik revolution, Rand described walking from her home city to Odessa, a nine hundred mile journey; in reality, Rand’s family took a train. Although the journey was surely difficult due to the mass exodus, as well as mechanical difficulties, Rand needed to exaggerate her loss in order to emphasize her eventual success. In order for Rand to fulfill her capitalist dream, she needed to accentuate her assent. Heller continues to recount Rand’s contradictions once she reached America. Despite her lack of faith in altruism, Rand appeared to achieve success through the generous donations and accommodations of various friends and family. By emphasizing the lack of reliability of the subject’s ability to accurately remember, the author reveals the tensions in Rand’s own reality and her philosophy. Although Heller chides her subject a bit too often for Rand’s failure to pay back her family, she raises a continued irony throughout Rand’s life. Ayn Rand’s achievements were through the generosity of those who surrounded her, unlike the basis of her theories- the characters in her novels.

In order to address real life similarities to Rand’s novels, Heller spends time recounting the stories of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, which creates the weakest portion of Heller’s book. Blurring the characters with Rand’s own life, Heller struggles in retelling too much of the plots, while referring back to the characters within discussion of real people. This confusing writing approach interlocks a frantic blend of fiction with non-fiction. Although this method can be frustrating at times, it reflects the bizarre reality Rand produced, having written the books under the influence of amphetamines and the promise of an immense financial return. Fueled only by editors who inspired her, or complimented her, her mad writing sessions produced extremely long novels, but she did not receive edit suggestions with civility. Additionally, when the books were reviewed, and rejected by the more mainstream media outlets, Heller recounts Rand’s adamant dismissal of the liberal communists and the socialist agenda in America. Through dismissing her biggest critiques as invalid communists, or collectivists as Rand called them, she managed to preserve her ego.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of Ayn Rand’s life, her formation of a group ironically named “The Collective,” reveals itself to be the most tumultuous. Extremely insecure, Rand manipulated those around her to develop an intellectual circle solidified through intimidation and philosophical bullying. Through understanding her novels as the tomes of economic perfection, the world constructed around Rand continued to perpetuate her false sense of humanity and reality. Using the plots of her books, the Collective reinterpreted selfishness into a virtue.  The construction of a “black/white moral universe” began to dissolve Rand’s Collective, which previously existed within her personal distinctions. Those who met Rand often explain that despite her lack of attractiveness, her very nature captivated acquaintances, and established her as the dominant presence in a room. After meeting her Barbara Branden thought, “around her thoughts matter.” At her university, and in her life, Branden had not known a cerebral woman. Rand capitalized on her position as a conservative female intellectual, in order to cultivate a mystical presence. This ability allowed her to create a demanding rigor for the people who surrounded her. She developed a longstanding affair with one protege, arranged marriages, and counseled her followers with damning results for those who did not listen. The years of sexual manipulation, hero adoration, male worship, and philosophical abuse wore down the group members, which thinned Rand’s nerves. Never one to accept rejection as a moment for personal reflection, Rand vilified her former apprentice and lover Nathanial Branden, who in turn accused her of running a cult. Rand’s schisms with followers and friends reveal her stinging repudiation of people who crossed her.  Similar to her response to others as a child, as a mature adult Rand displayed tantrums with these various ruptures to her group.

Through focusing on Ayn Rand’s psychological and emotional reactions, Heller cultivates a damning critique of Rand’s emotional sophistication.  This approach creates an interesting criticism of the philosopher, without critiquing the discourse. Because Heller originally establishes herself as an author who found Rand intriguing, but her theories unconvincing, the reader suspects anti-Rand theoretical bias from the beginning.  As a detached biographer, she needed to limit her criticism of Objectivism, and instead find other methods of evaluating the heroine of modern capitalism. Similar to other forms of historical research, a particularly successful biography avoids hero worship, but also balances critique. However, Heller is not a quiet observer of history in her depiction of Rand.  Heller’s invocation of the child-like Rand creates a scathing review of the intellectual. However, through piecing together the appropriate stories, which bring into question the scaffolding of Rand’s life, Heller asks her readers to make the conclusions. She never debates the logistics of the theories, which allows Rand to maintain her intellectualism. Through examining Rand’s emotional maturity, the reader understands how the woman managed to develop a theoretical paradigm, which took the humanity out of human advancement.

Maureen Minard, a PhD student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, researches women and education in the 20th century United States.

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