AYN RAND was responsible for my first book review some two decades ago. A classmate in college asked if I had heard of Atlas Shrugged and took my no as invitation to shove a new excerpt under my nose every day. Each excerpt was some long unreadable harangue that caused my eyes to glaze over but he mistook this for ecstasy. One day he pointed out some pithy saying on excellence or money, or both, and the note his father had scribbled in the margins— “read this now, and through the years”. I drew a pair of testicles below that line because I felt under pressure to offer some gesture of further benediction. He never spoke to me again. Rand has enjoyed for years an unacknowledged second life in India. She is for the unfortunate above a life-changing instructor in how to be modern. Her works, with their overt agenda of creating “a morality of rational self-interest to defend capitalism”, also provide a vocabulary for upper-class darlings unable to articulate their own discomfort with a changing world beyond mantric intonations of the word ‘merit’. This book allows us to see how the experiences of the impoverished Jewish student Alisa Rosenbaum in post-revolution Russia shaped her enthusiasm for America and provided the motor for the best-selling author that she became.
HELLER SURVEYS the limited reading life from which came Ayn Rand’s beginnings as author — primary inspirations seem to have been Victor Hugo and The Mysterious Valley, a serialised adventure for boys whose hero, Cyrus, meets his foes with defiant laughter, thus providing the template for all her heroes. She does not flinch from showing us Rand’s peptalks to herself (“You must be nothing but will, all will and all control”) nor from admitting the ‘gauzy sadomasochism’ of her love scenes (“His embrace”, Rand once wrote, “was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash”). The Rand who described the content of her novels as ‘metaphysics, morality, politics, economics, sex’ is also discovered to have an overly “rhetorical pitch and a tin ear for American diction”. Documented with equal scrupulousness is ‘The Collective’, an Ayn Rand cult of ideal readers which decents into “a pallid kind of Stalinisation, marked by tantrums and purges.”
My quarrels with Heller arise from the fact that all this truthtelling is in aid of setting up its subject as a model of intellectual sexiness, albeit with faults. Ayn Rand is thus somebody who was conservative yet pro-abortion and anti-Vietnam, somebody who brought rigour and dazzle to the simple business of being right-wing, conservative and paranoid. Heller thus ducks all questions about Rand’s intellectual laziness and the small irony revealed in the fact that the cult of heroism Rand propounded needed millions of ordinary people swallowing such a fairy-tale without asking too many questions is also ignored.
The book’s saving grace is that it strikes a far less triumphal note than suggested by title and precedent. On the whole, I see no reason to revise the opinion of Ayn Rand I expressed in succinct hieroglyphics all those years ago.