08 Dec 2005

Ayn Rand Reviewed

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Ayn Rand

The Establishment has never liked Ayn Rand, but her books continue to sell, and Rand and her ideas enjoy a strong popular following, combined with growing academic attention, as Jenny Turner notes disapprovingly in a London Review of Books article on a new biography by Jeff Britting.

Rand is everywhere on the internet: stickers, coasters, car number plates, CDs featuring a Randian ‘Concerto of Deliverance’ at starshipaurora.com. Randians can meet ‘at least’ four thousand others, it is claimed, through the Objectivist dating agency at theatlasphere.com, which last January carried an ad for an Ayn Rand social evening at a New York City restaurant called Porter’s (the evening was to feature ‘gourmet hors d’oeuvres’ served by ‘uniformed strolling waiters’ and ‘an artistically decorated birthday cake’). Professional philosophers can join the Ayn Rand Society at aynrandsociety.org; people in easy reach of Denver can choose between FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group), FROST (Front Range Objectivist Supper Talks) and FROLIC (Front Range Objectivist Laughter Ideas and Chow). Names pop up from website to website, agreeing and disagreeing, welcoming and banning, calling for papers, publishing books. There’s a whole community of Objectivists out there, with its own structure and hierarchy, controversies and disputes, outcasts, fellow-travellers, stars. A peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, was founded in 1999, and continues to run out of New York University; a paper by Slavoj Zizek is among past highlights. In 2001, the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Research established a $300,000 fellowship in the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin. Austin’s current Anthem fellow is the author of, among other things, a paper called ‘Money Can Buy Happiness’. Fellowships have also been established at the University of Pittsburgh and Ashland University in Ohio.

The astute reader will detect in Turner’s review the suspiciously well-informed Rand reader professionally performing a proper hit job on a once well-loved author in order to establish the reviewer’s credentials as an authentic literateur. A bit of praise for Rand’s storytelling is permitted to creep in:

But really, storytelling was Rand’s talent, and it is in her novels that her vision takes its truest shape. In Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, power, greed, life’s grandeur flow hot and red in thrilling descriptions of urban and industrial landscapes, all ‘girders, cranes and trusses’ and ‘glowing cylinders’ and ‘fountains of sparks’ and ‘black coils of steam’. She’s good at sublimes, in other words, physical and elemental, the awe and terror as great as in any Romantic view of rocks and hills.

But is quickly tempered with condemnation, ringing every chime in the Rand-villain repertoire from 1957’s:

‘From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding — To the gas chambers, go!’ Whittaker Chambers wrote in a notorious 1957 review. It was a crude thing to say, but you can see why he said it.

to today’s:

Slavoj Zizek sees Rand as one in a line of ‘over-conformist authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it’. Rand’s mad adoration of capitalism ‘without its communitarian, collectivist, welfare etc, sugar-coating’, he argues, actually serves only to make the inherent ridiculousness of capitalism ever more plain.

It may be accurate to say that Rand’s novels are examples of “the really good bad book,” but it will take far more integrity and accuracy than this reviewer is able to bring to the task to do justice to their “really good” features and to appraise properly what about them may be bad.

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