I’ve been reading Gene Bell-Villada’s excellent book On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) in an attempt to better understand the outsized impact impact that Ayn Rand’s two novels have had on the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, to the detriment of the country as a whole. Why do politicians like Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan go out of their way to sing the praises of Atlas Shrugged? (It sounds like a game: Ayn Rand—Rand Paul—Paul Ryan.)
I’ve always been puzzled by the hold of these novels on people given that Rand’s writing style is, as we used to say, nothing to write home about. Here’s Bell-Villada describing Fountainhead:
This is not one of those complex cases in which you reject an artist’s repugnant world view yet can admire their artistry—as progressives at times do with, say, T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, D. W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl. Fountainhead in this regard qualifies as a competent, commercial middlebrow novel, neither better nor worse than dozens of such titles cranked out by trade houses year after year. A suspenseful page-turner with a serviceable if not stunning prose style, it has able plotting and an impressive command of snappy, wise-guy sorts of American dialogue and street corner speech (skills Rand learned in Hollywood), along with high charged eroticism, albeit of a particular type.
Bell-Villada does acknowledge that the story and doctrine are ably integrated (unlike in Atlas Shrugged) but notes that, as in the later book, every character falls into “an ideological or moral type, a mouthpiece for this philosophical position or that.”
Atlas Shrugged is even worse:
This is a narrative inordinately made up of relentless speechifying and counter-sermonizing, the contents of which are thoroughly predictable and lacking in subtlety of any sort. The big brown book of Chairman Rand’s thought is, quite simply, a very bad long novel that nonetheless has moved and inspired countless true believers out there, and still does.
So why do these novels draw devoted followers? Bell-Villada believes it’s because they plug into a central American narrative:
Self-help. The self-made man. These are among the most treasured folk ideas in the American civil religion. They predate Rand and would have remained as a force with or without her, but she brought to them the combined allure of “science,” theory, and sexual intrigue.
Bell-Villada notes that it takes a certain kind of reader to thrill to such fiction:
[M]any of Rand’s youthful admirers have been science-and-math wonks, whiz kids with a considerable gift for abstract cerebral schemes but whose knowledge of emotions and understanding of human ties is at best slight.
And further on:
Whatever quotable passages exist in Rand are so because of the shock value of the outrageous arguments therein trumpeted (as well as the subjacent values and hatreds therein implied)—and naught else. Quite simply, there is little of beauty in Ayn Rand, save for the seductive beauty of the system itself, so alluring to the young, the susceptible, the incompletely educated, and the unhappy.
This preference for abstract system over human beings is worth noting given the economic pronouncements coming out of today’s GOP rightwing–such as that long-term unemployment insurance is doing a “disservice” to the unemployed (Sen. Rand Paul); that those receiving food stamps are “unwilling to work” (Rep. Stephen Fincher); and that social entitlement programs are “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives” (Paul Ryan). These politicians don’t see real people. They see abstractions.
They are are also blind to how they themselves have been helped, just as Ayn Rand was. Bell-Villada takes particular pleasure in showing the disconnect between Rand’s pronouncements and her actual life. He sets this up first by setting forth her philosophy of self-sufficiency:
Hand in hand with Ayn Rand’s absolute anti-determinism goes her personal cult of the free-standing individual who allegedly depends on no one. The motto of John Galt and the concluding words in his seventy-page manifesto readily sum up his position. Citing again: “I swear—by my life and my life of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The declaration would become the proud motto of many a would-be John Galt around U.S. college and corporate corridors.
Similarly, in Rand’s epilogue to the novel, she briefly describes her development as a writer, and in her second paragraph she proudly proclaims, “No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”
Only that’s never the way it happens. Bell-Villada details the help that Rand did in fact receive on her way to wealth and fame, from her mother’s jewels that financed her trip to the United States; to the free room and board, money and reference letter she received from her American relatives; to the subsidized housing she got at the Hollywood Studio Club; to… The list goes on and on, all the way to the cancer surgery that would have bankrupted her had it not been for Medicare.
Read Bell-Villada’s book, which proves once and for all that Ayn Rand’s novels are fantasies. Unfortunately, they are fantasies that have infected the minds of people with the power to make your life miserable.