So why did I invest a large part of my free time over the past few weeks in these 2/3 of a million words? I had read some Rand before and was pretty confident that I wouldn't like this one or learn much from it. I blame Bobby Fisher.
I have been fascinated by his peculiar tragedy for nearly half a century. What caused this brilliant individual to launch into a succession of progressively more self-destrustive acts even as he reached a peak of success? Frank Brady's excellent book, Endgame: Bobby Fisher's Remarkable Rise and Fall, gave me a theory, a theory that started with a couple of other books, Michael Lewis's The Big Short and Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man. The most intriguing character in Lewis's book is super smart neurosurgeon turned stock-picker Michael Burry, while Farmelo's subject is the great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Burry has Asperger's syndrome, and attributes some of his success to the characteristics of the syndrome. Dirac was almost certainly a high function autistic himself.
It occurred to me that Fisher exhibited many of the Asperger's characteristics, and so did several other prominent eccentric geniuses. Was it possible that for some Asperger's was double-edged, allowing them additional intellectual development at the cost of some other limitations?
Ayn Rand became more fascinating for me as soon as I began to suspect that she fitted the pattern. Her characters are all caricatures, shaped with an axe not a chisel. The infuriating thing their relatives always throw up to her hero characters is that they lack normal or "human feelings." The streak of paranoia ehibited by Rand and her characters is another strong marker. You might say that I approached Atlas Shrugged looking more for a diagnosis than an entertaining read.
The dominant emotion and motive of the book appears to be resentment. It might even be a new sort of the ressentiment of Kirkegard and Nietzsche - in this case the resentment of the privileged for the less so. I have the peculiar theory that Rand's raging sense of aggrievement originated in her personal emotional damage.
I will guess that one of the sources of her appeal to youth is her profound alienation from conventional society. Youth is a time of alienation, and an author who taps into that probably has some built in appeal.
(To be continued?)