Saturday, October 31, 2009

Again Ayn Again

The great thing about reviewing a biography is that you get your chance to take your shots not only at the biography but the subject as well. Adam Kirsch makes good use of the latter opportunity in his New York Times review of Anne Heller's new biography of Ayn Rand. Like Heller (and unlike YHC) he is no mad dog Rand hater. He starts with a few notes about her continuing appeal to a certain strain of conservatives:

A specter is haunting the Republican Party — the specter of John Galt. In Ayn Rand’s libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping American collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a retributive strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it,” Galt lectures the “looters” and “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”

“Atlas Shrugged” was published 52 years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before.

Kirsch seems to have a sneaking admiration for her passionate idealism, but he also knows how the totalitarian impulse infects a cult of personality. A fan letter from a nineteen year old college freshman led to her seduction of him (both were married to others) and the formation of group of followers.

Heller shows how the Brandens formed the nucleus of a growing group of young Rand followers, a herd of individualists who nicknamed themselves “the Collective” — ironically, but not ironically enough, for they began to display the frightening group-think of a true cult. One journalist Heller refers to wondered how Rand “charmed so many young people into quoting John Galt as religiously as ‘clergymen quote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.’ ”

Inevitably, it all ended in tears, when Branden fell in love with a young actress and was expelled from Rand’s circle forever. That he went on to write several best-­selling books of popular psychology “and earned the appellation ‘father of the self-esteem movement’ ” is the kind of finishing touch that makes truth stranger than fiction. For if there is one thing Rand’s life shows, it is the power, and peril, of unjustified self-esteem.

I can't help thinking that Rand would be a good match for our old inspiration and occasional nemesis, Lubos the Motl. There is the same confused worship of an idealized capitalism, and the same toltalitarian impulse brandished in the name of freedom. I wonder if he has read her stuff.