(Published in the Business Standard, June 3, 2010)

Ayn Rand and The World She Made
Anne C Heller
Tranquebar,
Rs 495, 567 pages

Here is my second-favourite Ayn Rand story. Challenged by a journalist to present her philosophy while standing on one foot, the philosopher, novelist and all-round provocateur stuck her foot in the air and stated her creed: “Metaphysics: Objective Reality. Epistemology: Reason. Ethics: Self-interest. Politics: Capitalism.”

The longer version of these principles is also well-known, and forms, to this day, a Canticle of Rand for true believers: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” “Man is an end in himself.” “Give me liberty or give me death.”

My favourite Ayn Rand story, unlike the first, is not in the canon of twice-told Rand tales. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, to a Russian Jewish family, Alissa/ Alice Rosenbaum chose a new name for herself when she came to New York. She had various explanations for the “Ayn”: it was a Finnish female name, she had made it up. “The real explanation,” writes Anne Heller, “may be more sentimental—and more ethnic—than the creator of a philosophy based on the self-made soul would be likely to admit.”

Perhaps Ayn came from “Ayin”, “an affectionate Jewish diminutive meaning “bright eyes”—her mother called her “Ayinotchka” as a child. The idea that Ayn Rand would step into her new, American life casting off the past while still secretively holding on to a tiny sliver of it is seductive.

It is impossible to explain to Ayn Rand believers why some readers outgrow The Fountainhead and why Atlas Shrugged and Anthem are not taught in universities; it is impossible to explain to Ayn Rand skeptics why millions of readers never outgrow the lure of Rand’s philosophy. GB Shaw at once skewered and (faintly) praised another seductive ideology in his famous aphorism: “A man who is not a communist at the age of twenty is a fool. A man who is still a communist at the age of thirty is an even bigger one.”

But for all that thousands of readers outgrow Ayn Rand by their late twenties, the list of the ones who don’t is illustrious—John Hospers, Alan Greenspan, Robert Mayhew and other venerables have all indicated their deep debt to her ideas. The contemporary reception to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is telling: many critics slammed the books for their didactic, “offensively pedestrian” style, and they were right. Many readers bought the books anyway, drawn to Rand’s almost comically force-of-nature heroes and her perversely suffering, noble heroines.

Heller’s objectivity about Objectivism did not go down well with the Ayn Rand Institute; she was denied access to Rand’s unpublished diaries, letters and other documents. She did have access, though, to 40 hours of taped biographical interviews with Barbara Branden in the early 1960s, Russian archives and privately recorded interviews with Rand’s friends. What she produces is an impartial and often acute account of Rand’s extraordinarily forceful life.

Rand’s childhood was marked by the persecution her Jewish family suffered in the Russia of the early 20th century, and by an early determination to make something of her life—in later years, she would reinvent herself as a writer. In the US, she met and married a young, charismatic actor, Frank O’Connor, but her life would always overshadow his. She struggled to make it in Hollywood as a script writer, but it would be her books and her unparalleled ability to command attention and attract a loyal, sometimes terrified, but always fascinated audience that would make her what she became.

It’s hard to explain what constitutes charisma, so much more powerful and inescapable than beauty, intellect or charm, but what Ayn Rand possessed and honed was in the nature of an undeniable, inscrutable inner force. She was a heavy Benzedrine user, and displayed some of the characteristics of the addict, from a restless, relentless mind to paranoia. In later years, she had an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a much younger acolyte who would become a kind of founder of the American self-help movement. It is characteristic of Rand that it was not enough to have the affair—she had to gain the consent of her husband and Branden’s wife, and when Branden fell in love, years later, with another, younger woman, Rand would deal with it by endless rounds of “therapies” with him before a final, irrevocable break.

As the power of the ideas behind The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged grew, what came up around Rand was a cross between a salon and a cult. Over the years, her admiring circle of bright young student minds and heavyweight intellectuals would become a tightly-knit circle of insiders; loyalty and fidelity to Rand (and Branden) was an absolute, excommunication from the circle was final, and in its later stages, signs that the Rand group had become abusive, corrosive, almost Russian in its purges and denunciations, were acute.

None of this explains the continued force of Rand’s ideas, or the continued power of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in particular, to sway the minds and hearts of readers. Heller’s biography will make Rand skeptics and the faithful uncomfortable in equal measure—but like its subject, this book is impossible to ignore. To steal a phrase from the Simon & Garfunkel song, once you’ve been Ayn Randed, the scar is permanent.