The New York Times has published its piece on the Rand centennial ? “Considering the Last Romantic, Ayn Rand, at 100,” written by Edward Rothstein.
Alternately condescending and confused, the article is not flattering, but does contain some intriguing photos from the Ayn Rand Archives.
What 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?
And it ends with this pronouncement about Rand’s heroes:
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.
Leave it to The New York Times to turn a celebration into a highbrow lemonade-fest.
See the full article for more commentary.