By George Molé
The best time to discover the writer Ayn Rand, it’s been said, is when one is an impressionable kid, and that’s how it happened for me. One day, in my high school library, a paperback copy of Rand’s We the Living beckoned seductively from a nearby shelf; I studied the melodramatic cover with fascination (“The powerful novel of Soviet Russia — and of three young people who do not submit to tyranny”), then stepped eagerly into her glittering world of heroes, villains and ideas. It was a step worth taking.
Rand’s distinctive philosophy — expressed through her novels and essays — focuses on personal liberty, and felt like revelation to me and many other restless, individualistic young readers over the years. And though I later saw that it’s not quite the complete guide to living that she thought it was —indeed, her own personal life was somewhat untidy — it still contains much to embrace. Rand advocated for the individual as the center of a just society; saw the unfettered mind as the source of all progress; believed that the purpose of life is for each person to seek happiness through productive work; and feared the growth of government beyond its proper sphere.
And, a New Yorker for much of her life, she loved and worshiped this city, regarding it as the ultimate expression of human genius. In 1943 — 58 years before 9/11—she wrote, “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline … I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.” Meaningful words for the New York cop I am now.
The last few months have brought something of a Rand renaissance, due largely to her emergence as an icon of the “Tea Party” movement, and the publication of two major biographies— Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns. What’s most astonishing is the level of passion that still swirls around an author who died more than a quarter-century ago, and whose most important work appeared more than a half-century ago. And what’s most appalling is the vicious, contemptuous tone used almost routinely (except in the biographies themselves, which are fairly written) in discussing this brilliant and creative woman.
One reviewer of Rand’s biographies, for instance, referred to her rather unremarkable clothing in the cover photos as “Halloween-ready.” Another reviewer called Rand’s writing “vulgar and unbelievable,” “cartoonish and sexed-up,” predictable from “the middling Hollywood screenwriter she once was.” “[T]his strange and rather sinister figure,” an essayist told us, “taught hysteria.”
Examples abound. “I was surprised to learn that she owned a cat,” another writer mused. “I can more easily imagine Rand devouring it than rubbing it behind the ears.” And many seized gleefully on the one tabloidworthy feature of Rand’s life, an extramarital affair with a young protégé that led to sadness for all involved.
It’s not surprising that Rand would be attacked on ideological grounds. She was a fierce opponent of the left, and her books still inspire many conservatives. Tea Partiers, for example, often cite the smarmy politicians and bureaucrats of her novel Atlas Shrugged — braying “I need wider powers” as they collapse the nation around them — as suggestive of America’s current leadership. Yet Rand has always drawn fire from both left and right, the diversity of her antagonists a tribute to the independence of her spirit and complexity of her thought.
Nonetheless, too many attacks on her transcend normal bounds of political debate or literary criticism, reaching a shrill pitch of sneering derision not usually applied to even the most controversial writers. For some, it seems, Rand inspires not just disagreement, but visceral hatred.
This, though, may simply be a tribute to the strength of her arguments.
It would be a mistake for those who have not yet explored Ayn Rand’s work to be deterred by the shallow scorn of her detractors. Whatever the reader’s own philosophic bent, nearly any sentence from Rand’s pen will provide more to contemplate and savor than a full volume by most authors. Her stories are mesmerizing, her language lyrical, her insights piercing. Reading this great New York writer is an intellectual adventure like no other.
George Molé, an NYPD captain and longtime resident of the Mosholu Parkway area, has written about urban issues in The New York Times and other publications.