Reading “Atlas Shrugged” was a rite of passage when I was in college. It was rebellion
against conformity-for those who also intended to inherit their daddy’s business. The book was, and is-ponderous, simple-minded moralizing and quite frankly, boring. Thank God, my high school required us to read vast quantities of great literature, so at least we knew the difference between compelling and crappy.
Yet Rand struck a nerve among a certain group of businessmen who wanted to be seen, naturally enough, not as greedy war profiteers, but as heroes. The heroic Producers, the Innovators, or in the more recent incarnation: The Job Creators. They wanted to not only do well financially, they wanted to be glorified. Ayn Rand offered them this, along with a vision of Libertarian Utopia in Galt Gulch.
Besides her published work, Rand kept journals from which Jennifer Burns wrote a biography (available online.) I suggest that we should let people speak for themselves; if you want to understand Marx, read Capital. If you want to understand Hitler, read Mein Kampf. Personal journals reveal even more and the details of their own lives and times also matter. Marx, Hitler and Rand were influenced by their historical time and place, just like we all are.
Rand was born in Russia to wealthy Jewish parents and was a child when the revolution hit. Her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by soldiers claiming to represent the common good. Their alleged motives were altruistic and altruism was a concept Rand despised and fought bitterly all her life. She was an intelligent misfit who couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect with her peers or her own family-the lonely but heroic non-conformist, rejected by, but superior to, the lesser beings who surrounded her. Her disdain for humanity is revealed in her “note-to-self”: “Show that humanity is petty. That it’s small. That it’s dumb, with the heavy, hopeless stupidity of a man born feeble-minded.” This theme figures prominently in her writing.
Some claim she must have been a sociopath since she wrote admiringly of William Hickman. Hickman was a murderer and mutilator of a teenage girl, and Rand mused that he was “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.”
Sociopaths/psychopaths (once called “moral imbeciles”) are now diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder, which has criteria-lack of conscience being one defining characteristic. They literally, absolutely do not care what anyone else thinks of them, except to the extent that it can be manipulated to achieve their goals.
However, the totality of Rand’s life and writings show that she cared very much what others thought of her, while denying it vehemently. She merely envied Hickman for not caring. Anyone with a mental health background will recognize that Rand was a classic narcissist -sort of half of a sociopath, because narcissists suffer intensely from their isolation and lack of admiration by others, while sociopaths feel nothing at all. In the end, Ayn Rand died alone, having driven all lesser mortals away. “Poor woman,” I can’t help thinking, for which sentiment she would have angrily spit in my eye.
An exaggerated sense of self-importance Ayn Rand actually did achieve many of her goals. She worked obsessively (even before becoming a habitual user of amphetamines) and actively sought out important sponsors and mentors to further her career (whom she later ditched when they didn’t agree with everything she said.) How important was she? In her own words:
“I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible, namely a morality not based on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason…”
“I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.”
Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. These are fleshed out in her books: handsome men, beautiful women, wealth, power, mastery…and sex every bit as tender as two cats yowling in the backyard. “It wasn’t rape,” she says of a scene in one of her novels, it was “rape with an engraved invitation.”
In her personal life, she was married to the same man for 50 years but carried on an affair with one of her younger disciples for many years. She managed to convince her lover, his wife and her husband that this was perfectly moral, since it was in line with her philosophy. When her lover broke up with her, she slapped him, berated him and did everything possible to destroy his life for the rest of her time on earth.
Believes she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people. Rand believed that democracy was only for the elite. It’s “primary “fault” was “giving full rights to quantity.” Instead, she wrote, there should be “democracy of superiors only.”
Having been largely rejected by intellectuals, she denigrated them. Only a chosen few could comprehend her genius. “Intellectuals were second-raters with a lust for power, she alleged. It was they who had helped Stalin, while the millionaires helped Hitler, aided by “the lowest elements” in both cases.”
“…conservatives as such are not my side, that I might be interested in individuals or have something in common on particular occasions, but that I have no side at all, that I’m standing totally alone and have to create my own side.”
Lacks empathy-Rand would be the first to admit that she lacked empathy. In fact, for her, lack of empathy was a virtue, the sign of a superior individual.
“A true egoist, in Rand’s sense of the term, would put “his own ‘I,’ his standard of values, above all things, and [conquer] to live as he pleases, as he chooses and as he believes.”
“She called participants in her classes “weaklings” and denied, predictably, that she should have any concern for their interests.”
Shows arrogance and contempt for others-Besides contempt for her students, intellectuals, and the dirty masses, her scorn reached to those with whom she had a personal relationship. Having lost touch with her Russian sister for thirty years, she was glad to learn that she was still living and brought her to America. But her sister did not agree with her about Russia and was not interested in her books. They argued non-stop and her sister returned to Russia.
“After being diagnosed with lung cancer, the Blumenthals, who had nursed her so tenderly through her cancer surgery, broke with Rand after she harangued them endlessly about their artistic tastes. Next to go were the Kalbermans, unable to tolerate Rand’s diatribes against the now despised Blumenthals.”
It is absolutely mind-blowing to me that anyone (beyond the age of seventeen) considers this poor woman some kind of heroic champion of freedom. She couldn’t even get free of her own alienation and bitterness. This is not a flourishing human being-this is not a role model. This is a sick, simplistic, skapegoating black and white thinker who desperately wanted to make a mark on the world but only left a stain.
“What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” from her novel “We, the Living”