Sidebar article to: "Why Was Ayn Rand?"
Fall 2009 issue -- I am an advocate of Objectivism, but I never met Ayn Rand. I regret that, as by all accounts she was fascinating and incisive. But sometimes I think it is just as well.
I loved Ayn Rand’s novels. They inspired me intellectually and spiritually. However, it took some years after reading them for me to learn her philosophy and come to conclude that it was basically correct. I’ve never thought Rand’s life or personality was much evidence of the truth of her ideas. To think otherwise would be to either ignore the laws of statistical inference—Rand was just one among many who have tried to put her ideas into practice— or to commit the logical fallacy of ad hominem—how a speaker lives has no direct bearing on whether his statements are true or false— or to imply that Objectivism is inscrutable—so that only swami Rand could understand how to live by it.
From my love of her novels, however, I’m inclined to defend Rand against detractors. But Anne Heller’s appreciative, balanced account has wormed its way through those defenses. It has reminded me of some disagreeable truths: how domineering and insensitive Rand could be, how she allowed a “cult” of yes-men to grow up around her in the 1950s and ’60s. Heller’s account suggests to me that Rand was an acid-test for people who met her: could they open their minds enough to hear her radical message, yet stay on their own two feet, continuing to think for themselves?
I wonder how Rand would have reacted had I told her I loved reading The Lord of the Rings? When I was first learning about Rand’s ideas, orthodox Objectivist philosopher Darryl Wright once dressed me down—à la Rand—for asserting that mathematics was a logical language with which one could model reality (my assertion reflected a common view among physicists and economists). What would Rand herself have said?
From reading Heller’s sensitive, engrossing biography, I imagine it would have been a crap shoot: I could have encountered the Rand that the producer Al Ramrus met, who showed “infinite patience” to an intelligent stranger of the liberal persuasion. (p. 295) Rand could have taught me a thing or two about the nature of concepts and language, I imagine. Or I could have met the angry, dismissive Rand of 1960s Q&A, who might have raked me over the coals for making such a categorical error.
Rand challenged the culture, one mind at a time, daring us to reconsider our every premise, every decision, and every feeling in a radical new light. But as Heller shows, the practice of Objectivism that she and Nathaniel Branden built up, and with which Barbara Branden and Leonard Peikoff, inter alia, collaborated, made a fetish of two potentially dangerous principles: that that there can be a unity of reason and emotion; and that abstract principles cash out in the concrete. It stretched Objectivism beyond the universal claims of a philosophy and intruded it forcefully into realm of individual taste and style, where it had no business to be. Therapy played a big role in the Objectivist movement of the 1960s. Many “students of Objectivism” earnestly wrenched at their souls, struggling to develop pure feelings in the style of Dagny or Galt. Those scenes remind me eerily of the Maoist thought-correction “struggle sessions” taking place during China’s cultural revolution around the same time.
People who discover Objectivism today are better off, I think, to not have to deal with all that. A philosophy of objectivity must be careful that its principles come to ground in fact. It must distinguish between classes of values we all have in common, and the particular values and feelings that we don’t share. In person, Ayn Rand could be enlightening, and also hypnotic. I’d like to have experienced the former, but am rather glad to have missed out on the latter.