February 2, 2005
Considering the Last Romantic, Ayn Rand, at 100
hat did Ayn Rand want?
Today is the centennial of her birth, and while newsletters and Web sites devoted to her continue to proliferate, and while little about her private life or public influence remains unplumbed, it is still easier to understand what she didn't want than what she did. Her scorn was unmistakable in her two novel-manifestos, "The Fountainhead" (1943), about a brilliant architect who stands proud against collective tastes and egalitarian sentimentality, and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957), about brilliant industrialists who stand proud against government bureaucrats and socialized mediocrity. It is still possible, more than 20 years after her death, to find readers choosing sides: those who see her as a subtle philosopher pitted against those who see her as a pulp novelist with pretensions.
She divided her world - and her characters - in similarly stark fashion into what she wanted and what she didn't want. Here is what she didn't want: Ellsworth M. Toohey, "second-handers," Wesley Mouch, looters, relativists, collectivists, altruists. Here is what she did want: Howard Roark, John Galt, individualism, selfishness, capitalism, creation.
But her villains have the best names, the most memorable quirks, the whiniest or most insinuating voices. At times, Rand even grants them a bit of compassion. Toohey, the Mephistophelean architecture critic in "The Fountainhead," could be her finest creation. And when she argued against collectivism, her cynicism had some foundation in experience: she was born in czarist Russia in 1905, witnessed the revolutions of 1917 from her St. Petersburg apartment and managed to get to the United States in 1926. Her sharpest satire can be found in some of her caricatures of collectivity.
But the good guys are another story. Are "Fountainhead's" Roark and "Atlas's" Galt really plausible heroes, with their stolid ritualistic proclamations and their unwavering self-regard? Did Rand really believe that the world should be run by such creators while second-handers (ordinary workers like most of us) humbly deferred?
These are not abstract questions. Fifteen million copies of her books have been sold. "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" still sell 130,000 to 150,000 copies a year. In 1999, Rand even made it onto a United States postage stamp. Her moral justifications of capitalism shaped the thinking of the young Alan Greenspan (now Federal Reserve Chairman) and other conservative acolytes. She declared it permissible to proclaim "I want" and to act to fulfill that demand. But the question remains, what did she really want?
Certainly not what we have now. Many of the battles she engaged in rage on today. There are still debates about the free market, movements lobbying for collectivism and state power, and confrontations between doctrines of self-reliance and doctrines of self-sacrifice. But the world Rand actually wanted her heroes to build now seems far from revolutionary; it can even seem somewhat quaint, an almost retro fantasy. It was a Romantic utopia, in which the tensions of democratic life are not resolved but avoided.
Consider, for example, works of art created by her heroes: Roark's Stoddard Temple in "The Fountainhead" or Richard Halley's Fifth Concerto in "Atlas Shrugged."
Rand reportedly had Frank Lloyd Wright in mind when creating Roark; Warner Brothers tried negotiating with Wright (who admired "The Fountainhead") to create the designs that Gary Cooper's Roark would build in the film version. But Rand's descriptions of the temple hardly bring Wright to mind. She describes it as a small building of gray limestone "scaled to human height." It is a "joyous place," open to the world of nature and the city's skyscrapers in the distance. At its far end stands a statue of a naked woman, the novel's heroine, whom Roark loves. The temple, Rand makes clear, is a kind of anti-cathedral, devoted not to a god but to the spirit of man. It may even be a temple that Roark dedicated to himself, or perhaps, to his Self.
The same spirit is heard in Halley's Fifth Concerto in "Atlas Shrugged." It too is a joyous celebration, a "symphony of triumph" whose sounds embody the essence of "upward motion," creating a "sunburst of sound," promising the "freedom of release." It is "the song of an immense deliverance," with a "clear, clear, complex melody at a time when no one wrote melody any more."
If you love these joyous works, the novels unconvincingly assure us, your worth is certified. If you are left cold by them, then you belong with the looters who try to bring down Roark and drive Halley into exile. The two works are depicted as revolutionary in their threats and promise. The two creators reject their social surroundings and are rejected in turn. Rand's novels have similar aspirations. They too are meant to be monuments to man's spirit, promising his deliverance. They too suffered from rejection (12 publishers turned down "The Fountainhead" before it was published). And for Rand, their reception divided the world into acolytes (her inner circle had a cultic aura) and enemies.
But these novels and the art described in them are actually far from revolutionary. They draw on the Romantic myth of the misunderstood artist and derive more properly from the mid-19th century than from the mid-20th. The statue in the Stoddard Temple can seem like a relic of kitschy Romanticism; Halley's waves of climaxing melody sound as if they are a throwback to Wagner; and Rand's novels can read like Romantic melodramas (one of her favorite novelists was Victor Hugo).
This is Rand's utopian art: programmatic neo-Romanticism. Rand was not looking forward, but backward; in this, she shares certain tastes with Socialist Realism. Of course, the Romantic style fits Rand's theme, for mid-19th century Romanticism often celebrated the human spirit, dramatizing conflicts between the striving individual and the surrounding world. But those works were revolutionary because they challenged remnants of an aristocratic world; their notes of triumph ushered in a democratic age. Rand wanted instead the restoration of a pre-democratic age.
Or more accurately, she was torn about it, and her novels and ideas reflect that ambivalence, a position that is far from unique in contemplating art in a democratic culture. Democracy, for Rand, always seems to verge on being Soviet: a culture of collectivity dominated by a supposed doctrine of equality. It stifles her heroes and motivates her villains. She referred to Toohey as "the genius of modern democracy in its worst meaning."
She might have wanted to be the "genius of modern democracy" in its best meaning, leading humanity into a brave new world. In a new brief biography, "Ayn Rand" (Overlook Press), Jeff Britting, an archivist at the Ayn Rand Institute with access to her papers, shows how deeply she was attached to popular tastes. As a precocious child in Russia, she wrote action adventures and was enraptured by silent-film melodrama. She came to the United States to begin a career in the film business. Late in life she was an avid viewer of television's "Perry Mason" and "Charlie's Angels."
But she could never convincingly reconcile elite achievement with democratic culture, which is why she so often seems antidemocratic. She wanted heroes who could straddle that divide. And she created heroes who could presumably be celebrated for their elite achievements within democratic society: the entrepreneur heroes like the industrialists of "Atlas Shrugged," or the artist hero in "The Fountainhead" cut from American folklore, as self-reliant as Paul Bunyan. Rand famously said: "This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man."
But ultimately, these men find their ideals only in isolated rejection of democratic society, as cardboard reincarnations of the Romantic hero. Perhaps Rand really believed democracy was hopeless and wanted a government ruled by such men. Perhaps she never really cared about working any of this out. Or perhaps, in the end, she really didn't know what she wanted. At any rate, the failure to reconcile democratic culture and high achievement has not been hers alone: it is one reason readers are still choosing sides.