In June, 1968, as the seismic shocks from Ayn Rand’s break with Nathaniel Branden ripped apart the world he’d lived in since adolescence, Leonard Peikoff made his choice the only way he knew how: he wondered, incredulously, how anyone “could possibly believe the author of Atlas Shrugged had done anything fundamentally wrong.” More than 40 years later, this almost touching belief in his mentor as some kind of infallible guide to ultimate truth, with a work of fiction the only evidence he ever needed, is finally being confronted by reality.
Jennifer Burns’ new biography, Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is a genuine event: the first independent, scholarly biography of one of the 20th century’s most widely read novelists and thinkers, arriving right in the middle of her biggest revival in decades. Goddess has been acclaimed from the mainstream of Time magazine to the margins of Mises.org, and been plugged from the left of The Daily Show to the right of the Economist. But there’s one place where it literally doesn’t seem to exist: over at the organization Leonard Peikoff founded in 1985, three years after Rand’s death, the Ayn Rand Institute. Searching their website turns up only some fine-print references to it in relation to the Ayn Rand Archives; officially the ARI has not even mentioned it, let alone promoted it.
A Convenient Untruth
The reason for this is simple. The Ayn Rand Institute’s mission is not to further intellectual enquiry but instead to perpetuate the jejune cult of personality that surrounded the writer, and that Rand herself endorsed from its earliest beginnings. The Rand personality cult portrays her as the greatest human being who has ever lived, her novel Atlas Shrugged as the greatest human achievement in history, and the adoption of her philosophical system, Objectivism, as essential for mankind’s continued survival on earth. This cult of personality was in part driven by the charisma of Rand and her lover Nathaniel Branden, but also was a logical consequence of her philosophical system which made philosophy the master discipline controlling all intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual life. With philosophy as the ultimate discipline, and Objectivism as the ultimate philosophy, its inventor could only be, therefore, the ultimate philosopher – and with all the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and even sexual qualities that that entails (Not for nothing did Joey Rothbard crack that one of Rand’s main philosophical tenets is that “she is the most sexually desirable person in the world”). While this personality cult had plenty of upside in terms of money, media coverage, and influence – at least for a while - the long term downside is that Rand, as the centre of the edifice*, must be flawless in order for it to hold. Thus a convenient untruth was required: a stylized, fantasized, even flat-out idolatrous version of Rand that not only her followers, but Rand herself believed in and encouraged. It is this convenient untruth which sustains the official Objectivist movement today.
Burns’ terrific, toughminded new book, whilst broadly sympathetic to Rand, nonetheless paints an often unflattering picture of the novelist-philosopher, summarizing her life as “a tragedy of sorts.” Faced with the inconvenient facts, delivered by an independent historian with no pre-existing agenda and whose evenhandedness is evident on every page, the Ayn Rand Institute and their fellow travelling True Believers' response has been to simply pretend it doesn’t exist: a state of denial Rand called a “blank out.”
Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market is not the large-scale biography that Anne Heller’s new Ayn Rand and the World She Made (which I haven’t read yet) apparently aims at. However due to Burns’ masterful control and economical, highly readable style both Rand and the times she lived through leap from the page: Burns’ reach easily outstrips the book’s stated scope.
A Tragedy of Sorts
Goddess of the Market is gripping from the git-go, dropping the reader straight into the drama of post-Revolution Russia, with Red Guard soldiers pounding on the door to seize the Rosenbaum’s chemist shop as the young Alisa (Rand’s real name) watches, outraged. Burns whirls us from this formative misery of early Soviet Russia to the seedy glamour of early Hollywood in a handful of pages, and by the beginning of the second chapter Rand is already in her mid-30s and about to write “The Fountainhead”. Yet the story somehow doesn’t feel rushed, and telling historical and psychological moments are present and correct. From there, Burns deftly exposes the political, intellectual, and personal sinews that held the American laissez-faire movement of the first half of the 20th century together. This is really The Education of Ayn Rand; where the oddball immigrant, simmering with equal parts talent, ambition, and resentment, absorbs the basic political program she was to later do so much to promote. Much of it was a revival of the ideas that had dominated the late 19th century – such as Herbert Spencer - by a cast of equally misfit personalities such as Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, with Paterson in particular becoming an important mentor, tutor, and friend to Rand.
So far, Rand’s story seems full of promise – The Fountainhead is a surprise hit, and Ayn and her husband Frank O’Connor are suddenly wealthy and bona-fide celebrities. Yet as Goddess moves on the writing of Atlas Shrugged, and the formation of the Objectivist movement, we see Rand’s latent tendency to hubris come to full flood. She becomes surrounded by young, uncritical groupies, and drifts away from the more pragmatic political and social currents of the preceding years into what was to become her own peculiar brand of American Idolatry. Nemesis in various shades is just upriver. In a fashion entirely typical of such cults, Rand, as the leader, and an ambitious young groupie, the 25-years-younger Nathaniel Branden, enter into a concubine arrangement, with scheduled weekly sexual appointments. As both were already married, they insisted that both her husband Frank and his wife Barbara accede to this “rational” arrangement whilst also keep it secret from the rest of the movement. (Frank, handsome yet bland, already seemed to fulfill a concubine role to the domineering Rand. Burns poignantly records that at one point Rand makes him wear bells on his shoes around the house so she would know his whereabouts). Inevitably this conveniently untruthful relationship ends in tears when more than a decade later and at the height of their fame Branden confesses to the by-then 63 year old Rand that he’s taken up with a luscious young cookie named Patrecia. Rand, in a fit of woman-scorned fury, then dynamites their relationship and their whole, multi-million dollar EST-like Objectivism franchise with it.
From there, Goddess describes the light going out, spark by irreplaceable spark. The movement dwindles. Rand becomes frail and isolated, able to work only sporadically. Frank, who unsurprisingly seems to have been drinking heavily for many years, falls into dementia. And Leonard Peikoff, long considered the runt of the New Intellectual litter, becomes Rand’s “intellectual heir” through unquestioning loyalty and obedience rather than any distinctive philosophical contribution.
Burns spends little time on analyzing Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism itself, although it is clear she has an excellent grasp of the main points. This in itself is quite an achievement, for beneath a superficially clear prose style in fact Rand was a confused and contradictory thinker, who had a garbled misunderstanding of the important philosophical problems she claimed to have solved and depended on her own obscure, pseudo-intellectual jargon – not to mention her sheer chutzpah - to conceal her lack of comprehension from both her followers and herself. (In a deadly accurate bon mot, David Ramsay Steele described Objectivist doctrine as little more than “bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics”). Happily, Burns also provides firm support for some of the main contentions of this blog’s eponymous book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature; for example, that Objectivism was driven by Rand’s idealised romantic feelings of “man worship”, and that Rand’s absurdly rationalistic tabula rasa view of the human mind really does deny the existence of natural talents. She also clearly understands the unpleasant implications of Randian doctrines such as “social metaphysics” and the incitements to cultism her philosophy contains:
"The presence of Rand, a charismatic personality, was enough to tip Objectivism into quasi-religious territory, but Objectivism was also easy to abuse because of its very totalizing structure. There were elements deep within the philosophy that encouraged its dogmatic and coercive tendencies." [Goddess, Chapter 8, pg 237.]
These “totalizing” and “absolutising” elements are of course not unique to Objectivism; we find them to some degree in most belief systems. But in Objectivism they are writ particularly large, with both bizarre and genuinely tragic personal consequences.
Rand Via Kafka
There's no doubt Rand's life and times are one hell of a story, and its truthful telling is of major importance to American intellectual history. But of course the truth is anathema to the cult-wing of Objectivism. Following Rand as in all things, Peikoff’s official Objectivism has dutifully continued her practice of falsifying of her personal history to erase her influences and present herself as a millennial, sui generis genius. For example, Goddess gives us good cause to believe that Rand’s emphasis on the paramount importance reason is due to Isabel Paterson’s teachings, whereas Rand would have us believe the fundamentals of her philosophy were formed when she was two and a half years old. Burns’ research has also revealed a burgeoning scandal at the Ayn Rand Archives, where swathes of Rand’s unpublished writing and speeches have been stealthily rewritten to banish all uncertainties and contradictory thoughts, and keep the convenient untruth of Rand's immaculate conceptions alive.
Already the difference between the reaction of the wider literary and intellectual world and Objecti-World is telling. Where Burns’ book has been widely anticipated and gathered enthusiastic reviews, within Objecti-World (and particularly among the orthodox) the reaction has been muted at best. Not a whisper of the book’s existence can officially be heard from the Ayn Rand Institute, despite it being the first independent biography of their heroine. ARI true-believer Ari Armstrong, seemingly holding Goddess with tongs, got only as far as reviewing the introduction of Goddess before crossing himself with a few catechistic criticisms and averting his eyes. Blogger Diana Hsieh, caught between her loyalty to Official Objectivism and her academic credibility simply republished Armstrong’s review and disingenuously fluttered about ever finding time to fit Goddess into her busy reading schedule. Best of all, the Ayn Rand Institute’s Ed Cline, a T-1000 version Randroid, declared that he was in “total agreement” with Armstrong’s negative remarks, despite the slight problem that he had not even read the introduction that Armstrong had not made it past. Intellectual standards at the ARI clearly owe as much to Franz Kafka as Ayn Rand.
Indeed True Believer Objectivist writing has an institutionalized, Kafkaesque quality to it, particularly in response to non-Objectivist criticism. The template is worth examining. First, they begin with the pro forma objection that the critic is "biased" against Rand, and “doesn’t understand Objectivism”, despite the fact that it is far from clear who, if anyone, actually does understand Rand’s rambling and ramshackle construction. (For example, Leonard Peikoff himself once announced that any Objectivist who votes Republican “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism”, instantly wrong-footing a legion of followers who’d spent years loyally forking out for ARI conferences and 26-hour tape lectures and the like only to find out they were not really part of the cognoscenti after all).
Second, True Believer Objectivists invoke what I’ve dubbed the Objectivist Double Standard. This means that when Rand makes a wild, evidence-free claim or uses the most malicious, unsympathetic interpretation possible of another thinker’s work - where she had even bothered to acquaint herself with it - this is ok because with her millennial genius she is in fact grasping the “essentials” of her opponents’ arguments. On the other hand, anyone who criticizes Rand must have read everything she ever wrote or said about anything, and allow her any concession and sympathetic interpretation demanded, no matter how obscure or unlikely.
The final True Believer tactic is to simply limn the piece in question for various Thought Crimes such as “determinism”, “pragmatism” or “subjectivism” - terms so conveniently vague that it’s possible to convict just about anyone. For example, The Objective Standard’s Robert Mayhew and Shaving Leviathan’s Jeff Perren lead the New Intellectual pack by at least making it all the way to the end of Goddess before issuing their ritual denunciations. Just how trivial Mayhew and Perren must get in order disparage Burns says it all. Mayhew rails against Goddess’ entirely ordinary suggestion that Rand’s background or the people she met influenced her intellectual development, claiming this means Burns is supposedly a "determinist". Meanwhile Perren's review consists of flailing efforts to reveal Burns' subjectivist and pragmatist "tinges." In a closely fought match, the prize for pompous inanity goes to Perren, who informs us that “people, not philosophies, have tendencies”, regardless of the fact that dogs tend to chase thrown sticks, Harley Davidsons tend to leak oil, and that Objectivist essays tend to contain amusingly pseudo–intellectual pronouncements designed to imply the author’s superiority with quite the reverse effect. Watching Mayhew and Perren trying to fisk Burns is like watching two ducks trying to nibble someone to death.
Largely trivial as it is, Perren’s critique is unintentionally instructive in that it gives voice to the underlying sentiments of those who prefer their Convenient Untruth about Rand to the real story as it emerges, warts and all. Most telling is Perren’s wistful suggestion that the basic problem with Burns’ book is that it is “not…the biography Rand fans could wish for” - as if a Rand biography should be like a Star Trek movie, written primarily to please ageing fanboys. Such is his longing for a fans-only biography, he even takes a passage from Burns’ book and rewrites it as “someone more inclined to admire Rand might…” It’s a genuinely pathetic sight.
And that is pretty much the response to a major event like Goddess from the outlying satellites of True Believerdom. From the central darkness of Planet Peikoff itself, only a few, faint, on-the-fritz radio signals have been detected. The first is from Harry Binswanger who has issued his remote-controlled repudiation of Burns from the hermetic safety of his loyalty-oath-requiring e-list but which is now available to the collectivist anti-mind of the general public via samizdat here. The second is from Peikoff himself in a brief comment (transcribed here) on one of his weekly podcasts. I reproduce it in full below:
Q: Do you plan to read either of the new Ayn Rand biographies?
Peikoff:NO! I won’t read any of them, EVER!
Q: Do you have any advice in this regard for others?
Peikoff: Yes, do the same. I have had enough experience in my years of what these people write, uh, I’ve authorized one, um, biography, and its in the works and some day hopefully, uh, will be done, but my experience has been SO HORRENDOUS, with so many people interested in doing a biography that I just stay away from it entirely. Uh, the dishonesty of the people, you know they start with an interview and in the old days I interviewed then I quickly stopped. But now, this is the kind of thing I get, um, somebody wrote with one of these biographies, and we wrote back a form letter saying, hiss hiss, the Estate of Ayn Rand has no, uh you know what, dealings, er, or correspondence with any biographer. That’s it, a form letter, better worded than that. And the book came out, in the acknowledgements, thanked the Estate of Ayn Rand for its correspondence. So, ha ha. Here’s another one, the archives of the institute, I think this is one of the current ones, have, are, are open to anybody in the universe. They’re not restricted to Objectivists, eh, so anybody can get in. So somebody apparently, one of these biographers has in her blog, either thank you or I don’t know, Dr. Peikoff has approved my access to the archives. So, the whole thing is too disgusting to be imagined. That’s my view. This is not even to say, oh I’ll take it back, I don’t even want to start with it.
Such is life on the planet Ayn Rand made. For the rest of us living here on earth, Burns's book is a blessing as until now anyone who’s wanted to know more about Rand's life has had to rely on mostly pap. It’s been either Facets of Ayn Rand, by pliant drones Charles and Mary Sures - a book with all the literary qualities of an infomercial - or The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics by bug-eyed laughingstock James Valliant, which is to a serious intellectual history roughly what Plan 9 From Outer Space is to astrophysics. Even Barbara Branden’s bestselling memoir The Passion of Ayn Rand which was at least prepared to break the silence around the Rand-Branden affair, was too marbled by personal tensions to be fully credible. And of course, despite the fact this was published 20 years ago, Leonard Peikoff still claims to never have read it.
The simultaneous publication of both Burns's and Heller's books is also a sign that Rand is finally entering the serious intellectual mainstream and breaking out of her own peculiar mix of populism and cultism. This is to be celebrated, because it's only by close examination and searching criticism that the long term value of her work will be able to be assessed. The fact that, to date, the energies of her faithful have been entirely devoted to keeping the Convenient Untruth alive rather than undertaking such a critical examination does not bode well.
*In strict Objectivist terms, Ayn Rand is and can be the only true Objectivist, and everyone else is merely a student of Objectivism.