Writing for Reason Magazine, Cathy Young offers a frankly critical tribute to Ayn Rand’s legacy in her article “Ayn Rand at 100.” The article is sure to be controversial among admirers of Rand’s work.
A hundred years after her birth and nearly 25 years after her death, Ayn Rand remains a fascinating and enigmatic presence. She has been ?mainstreamed? enough to have been honored by a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 1999 and to have been featured on C-SPAN?s American Writers series in 2002. Her novels figure prominently in readers? lists of the 20th century?s greatest books. Notably, in a 1991 survey of more than 2,000 Book-of-the-Month Club members about books that made a difference in their lives, Rand?s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, came in second?albeit a very distant second?to the Bible. Rand, a devout atheist, might have seen that as an insult rather than an honor.
Yet in many ways Rand remains an outlier and an oddity on the cultural scene, a cult figure with plenty of worshippers and plenty of desecrators. No other modern author has had such extravagant claims of greatness made on her behalf: Followers of her philosophy, Objectivism, regard her as the greatest thinker to have graced this earth since Aristotle and the greatest writer of all time. Mainstream intellectuals tend to dismiss her as a writer of glorified pulp fiction and a pseudo-philosophical quack with an appeal for impressionable teens. Politically, too, Rand is an outsider: Liberals shrink from her defiant pro-capitalist stance, conservatives from her militant atheism, and conservatives and liberals alike from her individualism. Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand?s ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild. In her insistence that political philosophy must be based on a proper epistemology, she rejected the libertarian movement, which embraced a wide variety of reasons for advocating free markets and free minds, as among her enemies.
In recent years, at last, some analysis of Rand has appeared that is neither uncritical adulation nor unrelenting bashing. Some of it has come from unorthodox neo-Objectivists, such as the feminist scholar Mimi Gladstein or the political philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra. (The two edited the 1999 book Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and Sciabarra wrote 1996?s controversial Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.) The five-year-old Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, co-founded by Sciabarra, often features essays by mainstream intellectuals that treat Rand?s legacy in a non-hagiographic way. Two controversial books about Rand the person remain a good place to start for an understanding, but not adulatory, look at her life and work: The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986) by Barbara Branden, no doubt the first-ever sympathetic biography whose subject slept with the biographer?s husband, and Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand (1989) by Nathaniel Branden, the husband in question.
In 1962, when they were still among the faithful, the Brandens co-wrote a book called Who Is Ayn Rand? More than 40 years later, the question still stands.
And it ends:
Rand herself was a creature of paradox. She was a prophet of freedom and individualism who tolerated no disobedience or independent thought in her acolytes, a rationalist who refused to debate her views. She was an atheist whose worship of Man led her to see the human mind as a godlike entity, impervious to the failings of the body or to environmental influences. (Nathaniel Branden reports that she even disliked the idea of evolution.) She was a strong woman who created independent heroines yet saw sexual submission as the essence of femininity and argued that no healthy woman would want to be president of the United States because it would put her above all men.
This is perhaps how Rand is best appreciated: as a figure of great achievement and great contradictions, a visionary whose vision is one among many, whose truths are important but by no means exclusive. Rand, it is safe to say, would have regarded such appreciation as far worse than outright rejection. But that?s just another paradox of life.
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