Saturday, December 31, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Decisions Make You

Ayn Rand is best known for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, titanic volumes that respectively depict, in totalistic detail, her ideal man of action and her all-encompassing Objectivist philosophy. They were her last fictional works published, though to say this is somewhat misleading; Rand died in 1982, Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and The Fountainhead was published 14 years earlier in 1943. To refer to them as ‘late’ works is to speak of their place in her literary output, not her broader life and career, which consisted after Atlas of mostly non-fiction articles and public speeches. They were written late enough, however, that her ideas, such as they were, had solidified (and in the case of Atlas, perhaps calcified).

We the Living, by contrast, was Rand’s first published book (1936), and as such serves as an overture of sorts for everything to come. Themes that she would later elaborate are here in embryonic form, as are the stylistic hallmarks and tics that would attract readers and repulse critics. Though Rand had been writing stories since she was a child, this was her first published novel and her first in English. She was still young, in thrall to writers she had grown up on, and haunted by the country she had left behind. Without the intellectual and artistic insularity that came with Rand’s later success, there is a freshness to the book that makes it, all told, a decent read, even as it anticipates some of its author’s later, darker developments.

By far the best aspect of the book is its story. Kira Argounova, an ambitious, middle-class Russian, returns to post-revolutionary Petrograd in 1922 with her family from the Crimea, where they had hoped to wait out the Bolsheviks. Kira’s father had owned a business before the Revolution, which the Soviets have confiscated, reducing family to destitution and, as class enemies, official suspicion and contempt. Kira is opposed to the Soviet regime, and enrolls in Petrograd's Technological Institute for an engineering degree she intends to use solely for her own gratification. She meets Leo Kovalensky, the son of a counter-revolutionary fighter, and they become lovers. At the same time she becomes friendly with Andrei Tagenov, an officer in the GPU, the Soviets’ secret police. When Leo falls ill with incipient tuberculosis Kira’s pleas for government aid are spurned, and so she begins an affair with Andrei, using his cash gifts to pay for Leo’s stay in a sanitarium to recover. Leo returns healthy, but with his will to live utterly sapped; he recklessly embarks on a food speculation business scheme that gets him arrested, leading Andre to discover Kira had loved Leo all along. Despondent and disillusioned with the Communist Party, Andrei commits suicide after freeing Leo, who becomes a gigolo for a middle-aged woman. With nothing left for her in Russia Kira attempts to flee, but is shot at the border and dies.

It’s a little melodramatic, sure, but considering Rand’s later works involve a world which has banished the word "I;" an architect blowing up a public housing project; and all the world's creative individuals going on strike because they're not appreciated, this is all told quite grounded. What works especially in the book’s favor is Andrei, Rand’s ideal of a Communist party member, who is a genuinely compelling character. Considering Rand’s antipathy towards anything that smelled of communism (and many things that didn’t), the sympathy with which she paints a portrait of an idealist soured on the system he serves is remarkable.

The writing is straightforward in describing the degrading life in Russia, though the twenty years alone that have passed since the Soviet system collapsed often makes for unintentionally funny reading, especially the propaganda posters. The best is early on, when "COMRADES! WE ARE THE BUILDERS OF A NEW LIFE!" is juxtaposed with "LICE SPREAD DISEASE! CITIZENS, UNITE ON THE ANTI-TYPHUS FRONT!"

The dialogue is generally wooden, while the prose is straightforward and unadorned, nonetheless containing some occasionally excellent passages. An episode describing one of Andre’s battles in the Crimea works as a neat short story, with a twist ending in which the wounded White Russian soldier he’s been carrying ends up being an infamous and wanted captain.

"If you have pity," said Captain Karsavin, "you'll shoot me."

"No," said Andrei, "I can't."

Then they were silent.

"Are you a man?" asked Captain Karsavin.

"What do you want?" asked Andrei.

The captain said: "Your gun."

Andrei looked straight into the dark, calm eyes and extended his hand. The captain shook it. When he took his hand out of the captain's Andrei left his gun in it.

Then he straightened his shoulders and walked toward the village. When he heard the shot, he did not turn. He walked steadily, his head high, his eyes on the red flag beating against the sunrise. Little red drops followed the steps in the soft, damp earth--on one side of the road only.
Another outstanding section is a long riff on Petrograd that opens the second part of the novel:

Petrograd was not born; it was created. The will of a man raised it where men did not choose to settle. An implacable emperor commanded into being the city and the ground under the city. Men brought earth to fill as swamp where no living thing existed but mosquitoes. And like mosquitoes, men died and fell into the grunting mire. No willing hands came to build the new capitol. It rose by the labor of soldiers, thousands of soldiers, regiments who took orders and could not refuse to face a deadly foe, a gun or a swamp. They fell, and they earth they brought and their bones made the ground for the city. “Petrograd,” it’s residents say, “stands on skeletons.”

This is impressive work for a writer still learning to grasp a new language (Rand did, it must be said, receive help from her husband Frank O'Connor and his brother Nick), and its readability goes along way toward explaining how her later works became such runaway popular successes.

Beyond the plotting, however, one must deal with Rand's philosophizing. It is easier to deal with here than in the later books, in part because it's working in opposition to an odious system that has the benefit of being real and keenly observed. The problem with Rand's worship of the individual is that it makes as its argument something most people take as a given, expending most of its energy tilting at collectivist windmills. Soviet Russia was a place where individual freedom was given no consideration, and so here, at least, Rand is in the right.

Yet even then her egoism is frequently galling. We the Living was written while Rand was still drunk on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, so much that she removed certain Nietzschean passages in a subsequent 1959 edition of the book:

"I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods."

"I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one's right, one shouldn't wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except that I don't know, however, whether I'd include blood in my methods."

"Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn't it? Admirable. If you're right. But--are you right?"

"Why do you loathe our ideals?"

Elsewhere Kira describes the masses as "mud to be ground underfoot." Rand was wise to delete these passages, but incredibly disingenuous in saying that she "changed only the most awkward or confusing lapses...reworded the sentences and clarified the meaning, without changing their content."

Not that what remains is much better. Kira's individualism, ostensibly a manifestation of a sublime ideal, is anti-social at best:

When Galina Petrovna took her children to see a sad play depicting the sorrow of the serfs whom Czar Alexander II had magnanimously freed, Lydia sobbed over the plight of the humble, kindly peasants cringeing under a whip, while Kira sat tense, erect, eyes dark in ecstsay, watching the whip cracking expertly in the hand of a tall, young overseer.

"How beautiful!" said Lydia, looking at a stage setting. "It's almost real."

"How beautiful!" said Kira, looking at a landscape. "It's almost artificial."

Rand's off-putting fixation with strength and violence figures also into the book's treatment of love. Leo is regularly described as "arrogant" with a positive connotation. A sex scene in which Kira imagines Leo whipping her was excised, while the others were revised so that the man is always the initiator. For chrissakes, Kira and Leo first meet in Petrograd's red light district, where he thinks she is a prostitute!

This last fact is not incidental; Leo later denigrates Kira as a whore for making and faking love with Andrei for cash, a term she repeats when confronting Andrei, and Leo of course ends up the consort of a painted Communist wench. Love here is taken to be an act of rebellion against a state that does not value the individual, but I doubt if even Rand herself, the queen of capitalism, would insist on so literally putting a price on it.

The persistence with which Rand pursues her individualistic obsession all but overwhelms the novel in Kira's climactic confrontation with Andrei, in which she screams, literally screams, at him for four pages about how she never loved him and the Soviet system is dehumanizing . Money quote:

If you taught us that our life is nothing before that of the State--well then, are you really suffering? If I brought you to the last hell of despair--well then, why don't you say that one's own life doesn't really matter?" Her voice was rising, like a whip, lashing him ferociously on both cheeks. "You loved a woman and she threw your love in your face? But the proletarian mines in the Don Basin have produced a hundred tons of coal last month! You had two altars and you saw suddenly that a harlot stood on one of them, and Citizen Morozov on the other? But the Proletarian State has exported ten thousand bushels of wheat last month! You've had every beam knocked from under your life? But the Proletarian Republic is building a new electric plant on the Volga! Why don't you smile and sing hymns to the toil of the Collective? It's still there, your Collective. Go and join it. Did anything really happen to you? It's nothing but a personal problem of a private life, the kind that only the dead old world could worry about, isn't it? Don't you have something greater--greater is the word your comrades use--left to live for? Or do you, Comrade Tagenov?"

The affair and betrayal actually are an excellent demonstration of the point being made, but--perhaps because of Rand's Nietzschean contempt for the common man--Rand doesn't trust the reader to figure this out for himself and resorts to hammering (and sickleing?) him with pages of shrill exegesis. This four-page climactic harangue is nothing compared to the sixty--sixty!--page John Galt speech that awaits me in Atlas Shrugged, but it's bad enough. Worse, Andrei regurgitates chunks of Kira's logarrhea in the very next scene in a speech to the Party, just to make sure we get the point.

More than any other scene in the book, the speech presages the didacticism Rand would come to be known for. Rather thankfully, though, it is largely the exception. The rest of the book, in spite of its troubling power-worship, remains a solid read more than seventy years on, and a notable document of the early Soviet era, supposedly the first of its kind written by someone who escaped the system.

This wasn't enough to save We the Living in its first iteration. Though it was endorsed by H.L. Mencken and garnered some impressive press coverage, reviews were often mixed or negative due to prevailing leftist opinion that Rand did not properly understand the noble experiment of the Soviet workers paradise. The book was also ill-served by its publisher, Macmillan, who printed only a few thousand copies before destroying the type, and so most readers would not encounter it until after publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It did find an audience overseas, however, large enough that it was adapted without Rand's knowledge into two impeccably shot films in Italy, whose fascist authorities eventually banned it, proof that she had been on to something, for once and once alone.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dostoyevsky's Underground Digs Deep

Concurrent with my ongoing Ayn Rand fixation is an interest in exploring works that bear some relation to her, whether directly (I'm tempted to dig into Les Miserables, her favorite novel and a conscious influence on We the Living, which actually isn't too shabby) or more obliquely, which is the case with Notes from Underground. Rand, having grown up in Russia, was familiar with Dostoyevsky and appreciated his virtually unmatched fusion of psychology and philosophy, but almost certainly was repulsed by his embrace of suffering and redemption. Notes doesn't track to her thought particularly well, in fact it is wildly divergent, but it contains some surprising connecting threads; it is, too, a quick read, and I wanted to revisit it a year-and-a-half after my first draught of its peculiar poison.

For one thing, Notes is much funnier the second time through. The first exposure leaves the reader appalled at the Underground Man's (defense of the) most inscrutable and destructive behavior. Now that one is in on the sick joke, one can better appreciate his sour wit, how much fun he's having at everyone's expense. His crack that the upcoming dinner with his old and mutually loathing schoolmates is "like a piece of bad literature," is good one. Or the several times he, in typical self-defeating fashion, goes on a tear only to limply let the air out at the end of it:

"Ah, why bother! I ought to get up right away, take my hat, and leave without saying a word. And tomorrow, I would challenge any of them to a duel. The miserable pigs! I don't have to stick it out to get my seven rubles' worth of food. They might think, though--damn it all! To hell with the seven rubles; I'm leaving right now!"

It goes without saying that I didn't leave.

Why bother, indeed. And a little further on:

"Let him hit me in the face, and all the rest of them with him. I'll shout for all to hear: 'Look at that pig who's going to seduce Circassian girls with my spit shining on his face!'

"After that, of course, everything will be over. My office will have disappeared from the face of the earth; I'll be arrested, tried, dismissed from my government job, and deported to Siberia. But never mind! In fifteen years, after I've served my time, I'll trace Zverkov to some provincial town. He'll be happily married by then, with a big daughter. I'll tell him: 'Look, you monster--look at these sunken cheeks and tattered clothes! I've lost everything--career, happiness, art, science, the woman I loved--and all through your fault. Here are the pistols. I've come to unload my pistol and... and I forgive you.' Then I'll fire into the air and no one will hear of me again."

This almost brought tears to my eyes, although I realized that I'd taken it all from Pushkin's Pistol Shot or Lermontov's Masquerade.

Even when he knows he's stolen it all, he can't even say where exactly from.

The prostitute Eliza becomes an easy mark for this treatment as well:

"You'll die all right, some day, and it'll be exactly like that woman I was telling you about. She was young too, just like you....She died of consumption."

"A dame like that would've died in a hospital."

She knows all about these things, I thought when she used the word "dame."

"She owed money to the madam," I said, enjoying the argument more and more. "And she kept working to the very end, consumption or no consumption. The cabbies around there had spoken to some soldiers, and I heard it from them. They made fun of her. They even intended to have a party in her memory in a tavern."

I had invented much of this.

All of this, the curdled humor, the disregard for sincerity and action, derives from the Underground Man's "tangled logic" of his belief that man, even--especially--when given the deepest knowledge of his world and himself, will inevitably opt for the most irrational and destructive behavior, in order to prove that he has a will of his own, free of rationality and its rigid formulae.

Such a view is not exactly practical; as the book's second half makes explicit, putting a philosophy of inaction, in action, is itself a formula for the most gruesome impotence. It is an extraordinarily pessimistic perspective, but it is not altogether wrong. Indeed it speaks to our own times, almost 150 years on:

Now, let me ask you something: what can one expect from man, considering he's such a strange creature? You can shower upon him all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness so that there'll be nothing to be seen but the bubbles rising to the surface of his bliss, give him such economic security that he won't have anything to do but sleep, nibble at cakes, and worry about keeping world history flowing--and even then, out of sheer spite and ingratitude, man will play a dirty trick on you. He'll even risk his cake for the sake of the most glaring stupidity, for the most economically unsound nonsense, just to inject into all the soundness and sense surrounding him some of his own disastrous, lethal fancies. What he wants to preserve is precisely his noxious fancies and vulgar trivialities, if only to assure himself that men are still men (as if that were so important) and not piano keys simply responding to the laws of nature. Man is somehow averse to the idea of being unable to desire unless this desire happens to figure on his timetable at that moment.

The mid to late 1990s, recall, were for the United States a time of unprecedented material prosperity. The Communism of Dostoyevsky's motherland had breathed its last, liberal democracy and capitalism were sprouting from its ashes, and scholars were openly wondering if history would indeed continue to flow. Then over the course of ten years America threw away a budgetary surplus on an ever-increasing number of disastrous and lethal fancies (tax cuts for the people who needed them least, two wars and a senior citizen drug entitlement plan, all unpaid for), and its financial sector devoured itself in the pursuit of ever higher profits generated from some most unsound economic nonsense. After a few years in victory laps the country didn't know what to with itself. Market headiness and 9/11 worked in tandem to spur the nation's slow process of ripping its skin off its body and laughing about it.

The effect is more pronounced now, in the response to Barack Obama's largely technocratic approach to addressing the nation's ills. There are valid criticisms to be made of his methods, but the Republican party's reaction--"Drill, Baby, Drill," "Death Panels," unwavering support for Israel and unflagging contempt of Muslims--is not among them. It is less a cogent critique than a spiteful retreat to its own worst impulses and a wholesale withdrawal from the "reality-based community." This is of course best manifested in the candidates they have put forward to challenge Obama for the nation's leadership; by turns vacuous, wild-eyed, vicious, vain, and inept, the party's favorites for the presidency are a reified bestiality, a regression in the face of complex problems and the need for complex solutions into imbecility for spite's sake, in the name of individual freedom, no less!

Of course, it is Ayn Rand and her ideas that are the prime movers of so much of the current moment in the Republican party. Her antipathy for any but the most basically functional of government activity was such that she considered President John F. Kennedy and his call for service tantamount to Adolf Hitler's fascism. Such comparisons were beyond the pale in polite society in the 1960s and 70s, but these days an accusation of socialism if not outright totalitarianism against the corporatist-lite Democrats is an easy shortcut to a "non-fiction" bestseller.

The contradiction in Rand's putative objectivism and her extremely distorted subjective view is not the greatest irony at work here, however. That lies in the fact that hers was an understandable overreaction to her traumatizing experience living during the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik revolt was spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin, who was moved to action years before by a book, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?, which presented London's Crystal Palace as a vision of human progress. It was exactly this ideal that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man rails against:

Actually, I'm not advocating suffering any more than well-being. What I'm for is whim, and I want the right to use it whenever I want to.

I know, for instance, that suffering is inadmissible in light stage plays. In the utopian crystal palace, it'd be inconceivable, for suffering means doubt and denial, and what kind of crystal palace would that be, if people had doubts about it? Nevertheless, I'm certain that man will never give up true suffering, that is, chaos and destruction. Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness. And, although I declared at the beginning that consciousness is man's greatest plague, I know that he likes it and won't exchange it for any advantage. Consciousness, for instance, is of a much higher order than twice two [makes four]. After twice two, we'll of course have nothing left either to do or to find out. All that'll be left for us will be to bock off our five senses and plunge into contemplation. With consciousness we have nothing much to do either, but we can at least lacerate ourselves from time to time, which does liven us up a bit. It may go against progress, but it's better than nothing.

Both Rand and Dostoyevsky recoiled viscerally from Chernyshevsky and Lenin's utopian fervor. In some respects their responses are remarkably similar. Both stress the primacy of individual will and its indomitability in the face of external forces of societal organization. Yet they are in fact diametrically opposed. Rand's was a unified system that took rationality as its foundation and sought to repudiate altruism, from which Communism sprung, on grounds of irrationality and mysticism. Yet Dostoyevsky's critique digs far deeper than Rand and in fact damns both her and her Soviet opposites, for Objectivism and Communism both are logical systems of thought (though Rand was never so charitable as to grant her enemies that distinction). Neither could accommodate man's drive for the the irrational, the illogical, the absurd. The repressive nature of both the Soviet state and Rand's cult of personality, and their subsequent collapses, bear this out.

A century and a half later, short of trying not to dwell on the implications too long, there still doesn't seem to be an adequate response to the Underground Man's manic scribblings. The best that can be said is that the idea they describe is so self-defeating and -destructive (in the Underground Man's present-day speech he mentions having, at 40, withdrawn from the world into his mouse hole) that one could hope our current spate of spite will soon burn itself out. Cold comfort, perhaps, but what else could rancid humor provide?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Subject and Object

"The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable." Truer words, the first that appear in The Passion of Ayn Rand, were never spoken. Rand's story--filled with adventure, philosophy, tragedy, lurid sexuality, politics--is absolutely compelling: a ridiculously intelligent social misfit escapes Soviet Russia, works for Cecil B. DeMille while working a first novel and a play (Night of January 16th) that goes to Broadway, giving her enough money to live on, intermittently, to write The Fountainhead; she assembles a cult of personality in the name of rationality and individualism, embarks on a decade-and-a-half affair with a twenty-five years younger protege while writing a book that helps birth the Libertarian movement, and eventually drives nearly all of her friends away and dies alone. I'm at a loss to explain my ongoing fascination with Ayn Rand, but if pressed I would venture her literally incredible life's story.

Barbara Branden, Passion's author, was in a unique place to tell it. She and her husband Nathaniel Branden were for 18 years Rand's closest friends, associates, and Objectivist acolytes, and so knew Rand better than anyone besides her husband Frank. She and Rand shared hopes, fears, and fury (Rand was quite one-sided in this respect), and before their break--precipitated by Nathaniel's excommunication for disclosing that he could not continue his affair with Rand because he had fallen in love with a younger woman--she had conducted hours of biographical interviews with Rand in preparation for an earlier, and much more fawning, autobiographical sketch, Who is Ayn Rand?

The uniqueness of the author's relationship to Rand is itself enough to make the book interesting. What made it vital in its time (1986, only four years after Rand's death) was that it was virtually the only biography of Rand that existed to that point, and was also the first publicizing of Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. Until Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns' volumes, it was essentially the only complete biography of the egoist firebrand.

Reading it in quick succession after the other two is like looking at someone's baby photos; the defining characteristics are easily recognizable, but not nearly so developed. Many of the quotations and subjects in the other two books--such as Heller's detailing of Rand's childhood crush, the hero of a French adventure story--were used here first, though without as thorough an investigation of the given subjects. Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson, an early libertarian writer who tutored Rand in American history and politics, features much more prominently in Burns' account for the considerable impact it had on Rand as a thinker, but here it is given limited treatment. Some figures are scarcely mentioned at all. Murray Rothbard, an anarcho-capitalist and disgruntled Randian who wrote damningly (and quite humorously) of the Rand cult, is only mentioned in an afterward as one of the people Rand influenced.

What most distinguishes Branden's account is its style, a sometimes breathless romanticism that details the state of the person it describes. For instance, "[Frank] spent many hours each day in his studio, but seemed to be producing less and less; he was not painting, he was drinking, drowning his grief and his failed life in liquor." Repitition is a repeated (heh) rhetorical device used throughout to emphasize certain moments. They are scattershot in their effectiveness. A less successful example:

And I had loved Ayn for too long, she had meant too much to me and had done too much for me--ever to be able, even had I wished to do so, to tear that love out of me. I had seen too often her unique, heart-wrenching charm, and the enchanting young girl who still dwelt somehwhere within her, I had witnessed too often, with a sense of wonder, the power and the passion of her intelligence. I had seen....

And so forth. This tool is most ill-used in the final chapter, which endlessly describes figures influenced by Rand, with each entry ending in "The fountainhead is Ayn Rand." In some of the more climactic moments, however, it can be quite appropriate, if still overdone:

"You dared to reject me?" She was no longer screaming, her voice was guttural, choked, and all at once her accent was startlingly heavy--and it seemed for a moment, that she no longer knew it was Nathaniel she was denouncing, she was in Russia, she was a girl again, she was damning those who had inflicted upon her a lifetime of rejection--damning her mother who had required as the price of love that she be glamorous and social and pretty, damning her father who had never touched her hand in affection, damning her schoolmates who had profited by her intelligence and excluded her from their lives and activities, damning all the men through all the years who had feared the power of her brain and so had been blind to the woman's body it inhabited--and damning Leo most of all, damning the man to whom she had offered her heart and her should and who had been indifferent to them. Leo had been born again, more than forty years later, when she had become everything she had wanted to become and achieved everything she had wanted to achieve--and once more he had done to her the unthinkable, the unendurable, once more he had tried to destroy her life, once more she had offered him her heart and her soul and he had thrown them in her face.

On the whole, however, the book reads incredibly well and provides a narrative sweep befitting its epic subject matter. Such an, ahem, impassioned and occasionally judgmental (Frank's "failed life") approach, given the nature of Branden's history with Rand, raises the question of, erm, objectivity. Strangely enough, her treatment is if anything too fair. Burns notes that Branden is too credulous of Rand's account of her early history, and may well have overplayed Frank's use of alcohol. When it comes to analyzing the Rand herself, Branden is remarkably sympathetic in describing a woman whose demand of an unceasing rationality led her to repress every feeling of weakness or inadequacy she ever felt. Her lingering affection for the person who she says gave her life direction and made her feel for the first time that ideas mattered, is palpable.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Ayn Rand's American historical counterpart, contra Johann Hari, is not L. Ron Hubbard, but Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Both figures were of dubious character who led movements that have been wildly more influential than anyone could have imagined. More pertinently, they were charismatic figures whose personal magnetism was such that even after the original group splintered (in both cases due to gross sexual impropriety on the cult-leaders' part), the apostates did not repent their earlier opinions. The "witnesses" of the Book of Mormon's infamous plates, as any good Latter-Day Saint will tell you, never recanted their testimony. Likewise Branden's grace, including the astonishing restraint she and her ex-husband showed, following their break with Rand, in not revealing the affair that would have humiliated and publicly destroyed her, until after her death.

Branden, in a footnote, disputes that their experience ever qualified as a cult, on the grounds that their belief was grounded in rationalism and individuality and not religious worship. One is reminded of the Cult of Reason of the revolutionary French, or the cults of personality that developed around 20th century authoritarians, which did not abolish religion so much as replace it. There is no better illustration of this similarity than the response of Leonard Peikoff, Rand's intellectual standard-bearer and executor of her estate, who insisted without ever reading it that any follower of Rand's who spoke well of the book be cut off and shunned. Peikoff, it must needs be noted, is Barbara Branden's cousin.

Peikoff recently midwifed The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a much belated (2005!) response to both The Passion of Ayn Rand as well as Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand, an account of the affair written by Nathaniel Branden. I will in good time take it in, along with Judgment Day. But for now I'm going to break from the biography beat and actually start digging into Rand's actual writing, beginning her first novel, We the Living. Critics were and have been quite vicious in their estimation of Rand's fiction, and often unfairly; perhaps the best possible jumping-off point into it, then, is Barbara Branden's telling of Rand's tale: respectful without outright fawning, and with a touch of the romantic.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Little More on the Life of Rand

I suppose it would have behooved me to have read and commented on Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and The World She Made before Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns' book states right in its subtitle it's focus on Rand's influence in the conservative movement and its libertarian offshoots. Heller keeps her eye on Rand's life and so paints a more detailed portrait of the ego queen. The details on Rand's early years in Russia--like how the hero of a French adventure story developed over her life from the subject of a girlhood crush to the prototype for the larger-than-life protagonists in her fiction, or the trivia bit that she was childhood friends with the sister of Vladamir Nabokov(!)--are particularly welcome, as are the details of some of her unpublished or unproduced works.

Perhaps the most interesting difference between the two books is the portrait of Rand's husband Frank O'Connor that emerges. He is still ultimately, acquiescent in her monomania, but he does not always remain silent. Mention is made of times when Frank would lose his temper with Rand, after which she would apologize profusely, so afraid was she of losing him. So troubled in fact was there marriage, that Rand had considered divorcing him during the long stretch of Atlas Shrugged's composition but did not want to upset her life while she was working on the novel (the virtue of selfishness made manifest). She was not the only one who considered it:

Once, during a vicious quarrel between the O'Connors in the presence of the Brandens, Frank walked out of the living room, into the bedroom. Barbara followed. She found him half sitting, half lying on the bed in an attitude of sorrow and defeat. "I want to leave her," he told Barbara, clutching her arm. "But where would I go?" Rand was the center of his life.

I'll have more to say about Rand's politics later.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Human, All Too Human

Few have driven the Tea Party drama of late so much as the nearly thirty years dead Ayn Rand. With the jump in sales in her work following Obama's election, the "Going Galt" posturing, and the anti-government rhetoric of the past three years that, due to Occupy Wall Street, only now is beginning to wane--this has been an explicitly Randian era. Her beliefs and their consequences are a natural target for liberal scorn, no exceptions here. But after reading Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, it's hard not to feel sorry for the extraordinarily damaged woman behind them. Ayn Rand's life, as told by Burns, shows a startling juxtaposition between sympathetic misfit and cold and alienating tyrant.

The trauma of Rand's early youth is the key to understanding her persona and philosophy of hyper-individualism and anti-statism. Growing up during the Russian Revolution, she became an early enemy of the Soviet union when government officials claimed her father's business in the name of the people. The resulting tumult left her family in increasingly dire conditions, living in miserable housing subsisting on "millet, acorns, and mush." Her response was a near-pathological aversion to "collectivism" which held that altruism of any kind was an infringement on the best and most productive members of society and crushed the individual and creative spirit.

Hers was such a one. She grew up bookish, awkward in social situations, and spent much of her youth writing stories of knights and princesses that she would tell her family. Solace from the drudgery of life in the Soviet system she found in the films of Hollywood, which she devoured--through film school--with impressive zeal. In 1925 alone she saw, graded, and cataloged the stars of 117 movies. In another time and place she would have been known as nerd; the bookish appeal of Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings is real enough. The later Rand's conversation-starter, "What are your premises?" is an extension of this: both amusingly, precociously pretentious and appealingly dorky.

Some of Rand's most sympathetic episodes occurred in the early years after she came to America. After a characteristically awkward stay with relatives in Chicago (her typing all night made them nuts) she decamped to Hollywood, where she worked for no less than Cecil B. De Mille, who was struck by her powerful gaze and impressed with her life story. The man who would become her husband, Frank O'Conner, was drawn to her for similar reasons.

Perhaps most endearing about her in this time, captured vividly by Burns, is the struggle of the aspiring writer, which Rand felt acutely after De Mille's studio closed with the advent of the "talkies" in film:

Unskilled and anonymous, she had to settle for a series of odd jobs and temporary positions. She fell behind on her rent and started skipping meals. This was not the fate she had expected when she disembarked in New York years earlier. Though she accepted small loans from her family, she was unwilling to ask Frank for help, or even to reveal the extent of her problems to him. On their dates she kept up appearances, never letting him see the depair that was beginning to suffuse her life.

What writer hasn't felt this way?

Also most humanizing is the affection she had for her husband, the way they called each other "Cubbyhole" and "Fluff," how "[s]erious and focused in her professional life, Rand could be silly and girlish with Frank." 'Girlish' is the last word one would use to describe Rand, but the inclusion of such a detail throws the less savory aspects of her character into starker relief.

It is in these same early days that the flaws of Rand's personality and character that would become all-consuming first began to bloom. She became fascinated with the case of William Hickman, who remorselessly murdered and dismembered a twelve-year-old and whose trial became a national sensation, planning (but never starting) a novel with a protagonist based on his Nietzschean superman qualities. Her description of the the character inspired by Hickman, Danny Renahan, skirts sociopathy (emphasis original):

He is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness--resulting from the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people.

It's like Crime and Punishment, without the moral redemption. Indeed, without wanting it in in the first place.

Rand's formulation of Objectivism, which true to its name posited that there were universal, objective, truths about the world that the individual could learn by commanding complete rationality in his thinking and behavior, was a long elaboration on and exercise of the Renehan idealization. Rand took this idea to its outermost extremes: she attracted a handful of close acolytes, including Alan Greenspan, who called themselves The Collective and came to adopt her and her characters' views and even fashion sense. Those who questioned or deviated were castigated in front of the others in a manner not unlike the Soviet show trials she lampooned in her fiction. A unified theory of everything left no room for interpretation or variation.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of her "Virtue of Selfishness" was her husband Frank. Once an up-and-coming actor, his career stalled out, making Rand early on the household's breadwinner. He stumbled on a second career as a gardener during their second extended stay in Hollywood, but it fell apart when Rand insisted they move back to New York. He later displayed a latent talent for painting which gave him some personal satisfaction.

Rand, who did love her husband after her own fashion and needed him to offer balance in her life, nonetheless craved the kind of towering, heroic individuals she created in her fiction and found it in Nathaniel Blumenthal (whom she rechristened Nathaniel Branden), her greatest devotee and twenty-four years her junior. She embarked on an affair with him that lasted a decade and a half and was conducted--rationally, you see--with the knowledge and 'permission' of both Nathaniel's wife Barbara, and Frank. Barbara became increasingly prone to panic attacks, which Rand dismissed as weak mere Emotionalism. Frank, whose abiding stoicism neatly complemented Rand's dominating egotism, was twice a week turned out of his own apartment so Nathaniel and Rand could consummate their tryst. He spent much time at a local bar and may well have become an alcoholic.

Towards the end of his life Frank descended into senility, and Rand--having furiously excommunicated Nathaniel when he eventually confessed that he had been having an affair with a younger woman--dutifully cared for him, albeit it through the filter of her unwavering belief in willpower; she initially hoped he could overcome his condition by rational explanation and training. Her approach to her own mortality following his death is surprisingly poignant: "She did not believe in life after death, she told [Phil] Donahue, otherwise she would have committed suicide by now in order to join Frank." Rand died of lung cancer in her apartment, alone but for a hired nurse.

It's not hard to understand the appeal of Rand's basic notion of individualism to today's conservatives, nor the reflexive repulsion of liberals. But it is a simplified image of Rand that both camps respond to; frankly, given the specifics of godless Calvinism, it would make better sense for both camps to disavow it, as indeed was the case during her lifetime. A closer study of Rand, as provided by Jennifer Burns, would allow her to be appreciated for her place in history, and in history alone remain.