Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ayn Rand: Enduring allure and enigma

This month could easily be called the Ayn Rand month. Two biographies, critically acclaimed, and a Harvard symposium all had Ayn Rand as theme. Ayn Rand is now the most cited author by those wary of Obama administrations policies. Her name now echoes across vital issues that are whipsawing the country. From bank bailouts to taxing millionaires to including a government run public option in health care it is Ayn Rand who is evoked consistently. Harvard university organised a seminar titled "From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg", the speaker was, very curiously, Elliot Spitzer who had quit his governorship for having frequented "escort girls". [Ken Feinberg is the 'pay czar' who now decides on the pay and more importantly bonus structure in banks like Citi and Bank of America, two of the biggest recipients of US aid to stay afloat].

Ayn Rand is principally known for "Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957). "Fountainhead" is probably read more than "Atlas". "Atlas" is a tome at 1000+ pages, one speech alone runs for 50+ pages, of course it is a tedious novel and made more tedious with philosophical expositions on 'meaning of money', 'meaning of sex', a parody on 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need' and more. 'Atlas' was Rand's last fiction. Both novels were panned by critics, then and now, her ideologies were ridiculed, her writing style was mocked, she was mocked as a person, none of her books garnered ANY prize major or minor. Yet Ayn Rand remains a phenomenon.

Rand's biographer Anne Heller reports "in a poll in the early ’90s, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, “Americans named ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the book that had most influenced their lives,” second only to the Bible." Both novels continue to sell by the thousands, almost 50 years after publication. No adoloscent who fashioned himself/herself as a discerning intellectual has passed through the academic portals without reading Rand, this despite the fact that Rand's book are rarely included in academic curriculum across the world.

Rand's books have been assailed by critics for a certain lack of 'greyness' in the way she portrays her characters. Everything is black and white. In fact the villains in her novels are mostly crucibles of everything that is undesirable in her eyes, she would not even bestow physical attractiveness to them. Her heroes and heroines are perfect, a Nietzche-an super human. Well what can one expect from a novelist who titles her chapters as "A is A: Non-Contradiction". If one looks for Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in her then its not her fault, her chief pride is that she is NOT a Tolstoy.

Also curiously most readers fall in love with Ayn Rand in their 20's and mellow their ardour by the time they reach 40's. When you are 20 and when you are subjected to standard academic diet of preaching it is inevitable to find inspiration in Hank Rearden who finds a new metal. Who can deny the rush of adrenaline when Dagny Taggart's train crosses a vital bridge built with Rearden steel. Any 20 year old would be conjuring images of their own "revolutionary crossing", complete with a comely Dagny or Hank Reareden at their side, depending on the gender. It is expected of teenagers (and adoloscents) to be intoxicated with having unlocked the puzzle of the philosophy of sex reading Francisco's speech (who cares if the author's own personal life was a self destructive). Every teeming capitalist out to shape the world thinks they have understood Adam Smith reading the speech on "meaning of money". Also it is helpful that Alan Greenspan, the much adored Fed Reserve chairman, was part of the Ayn Rand circle. Above all Ayn Rand bestows on her readers a sense of 'elitism' overlooking the fact that the reader is part of a multi-million commune of Ayn Rand worshippers.

It is a pride for Ayn Rand lovers that she was not honored by the literary establishment. Its a badge of honor for her readers. That literary critics despise her books is a stamp of approval in a perverse manner.

What is it with so called lovers of "rationalism" that they act in the most craven manner of idol-worshippers. Here is what is common between lovers of Ayn Rand and EVR, both have legions of worshippers who sing praises of rationalism and reason as long as that mirror is not held up to question their own idols. When Ayn Rand and her paramour Nathaniel Branden fell out, the members of Ayn Rand's collective debated whether it would be a rational response to kill Nathaniel Branden who refused to be enthralled by an aging Ayn Rand and instead opted for a nubile woman. The Ayn Rand insitute today more jealously guards any portrayal of Ayn Rand in any light that is less than flattering.

I love her books. Anyday when I need to buck myself up I do continue to pick up Atlas Shrugged. However I'd never rate her anywhere close to Orwell in opposing totalitarianism. What Orwell achieved in less than 100 pages in Animal Farm Ayn Rand could only remotely achieve in 1000+ pages. Thats why 'Animal Farm' remains a classic and 'Atlas Shrugged' remains a bestseller. In English the word "Orwellian" connotes fear of totalitarianism but Ayn Rand has not entered the lexicon.

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