The beauty of selfishness

The beauty of selfishness
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First Published: Fri, Apr 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST

Iconic: A painting of Rand by artist Nicolas Gaetano, made for a postal stamp in the US. AFP
Iconic: A painting of Rand by artist Nicolas Gaetano, made for a postal stamp in the US. AFP
Updated: Fri, Apr 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST
That it has taken till 2010 for the biography of a person who has influenced the intellectual agenda of capitalism to come out, is in itself proof of the challenge any biographer of Ayn Rand would face. To document a controversial life that has a cult following at one level and is dismissed as bad writing on the other, and a life of stark public and personal dichotomy, is no easy task. While one may bow to Rand intellectually, her personal life, caught in the rigid grid of her own philosophy, makes her irrationally human.
In her biography Goddess of the Market—Ayn Rand and the American Right, Jennifer Burns manages to do the unthinkable: She keeps her opinion out of the book so that the reader has the liberty to react to facts, to the contradictions and the duality. Burns brings out Rand’s grandeur of thought but poverty of emotion, without overpowering the narrative with her own voice.
Rand came into the world as Alisa Rosenbaum, the eldest child from a wealthy household in tsarist Russia that would transform into a Communist nation in a few years. As a child with a precocious intellect, she was socially isolated; she was “serious and stern, uncomfortable with gossip, games, or the intrigues of popularity”.
Iconic: A painting of Rand by artist Nicolas Gaetano, made for a postal stamp in the US. AFP
High marks ensured respect, but not affection from her peers—she was “abrasive and argumentative”. She would force conversations and had a “violent intensity to her beliefs”.
The magnificent intellect turned this social isolation into a belief system that made her see herself as a victim, being punished by mediocrity. If introspection gave her the beginnings of a thought system, her early journey from extreme wealth to fighting over a dry pea to keep off hunger in Communist Russia gave that belief system a direction.
The transformation of Alisa Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand began when she became a junior Hollywood scriptwriter who struggled to survive as an immigrant who had escaped from Communist Russia. That she would one day be traced back as the root of the global crises of capitalism, influencing the former US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan into believing that unfettered laissez-faire capitalism works, would have been unthinkable to those who knew her as a “crackpot”, after she wrote unpublished romantic short stories such as The Husband I Bought, Good Copy and Escort.
But what began as the Night of January 16th in 1933 and We the Living a year later would carry the seeds of what would become a powerful but rigid ideology variously called libertarianism, conservatism and objectivism. It was an absolute philosophical system that insisted on primacy of reason and the existence of knowable and objective reality implicit with the belief that the moral purpose of man is his pursuit of individual happiness or rational self-interest. Extended into an economic system, it is a textbook of free markets with minimal government control.
Rand’s iron-clad thought system would suffer not the slightest questioning. Members of The Collective, a small group of thought insiders who clustered around Rand, ran the risk of violent expulsion, accompanied by unprovoked rage, if they so much as watched a movie that was not approved of by Rand.
The person and the philosophy were at odds, where a tight rational system had in its core an emotionally unstable person who could suffer no doubt.
Goddess of the Market—Ayn Rand and the American Right: Oxford University Press, 369 pages, $27.95 (around Rs1,260).
The years between her unpublished romantic short stories to achieving a cult status after Atlas Shrugged were a struggle. But if the heroic popularity among students in transition between a post-depression America—that was perilously close to discarding capitalism for communism— gave her a band of followers, Rand never got what she deeply wanted: intellectual acceptance from academics. Dismissed as a novelist by the peer group, her own abrasive and combative stance did little to ease the way.
The intellectual giant had a flaw—she was human. As is the rest of the world. That makes dry logic, rationality and the tautologic fixation of proving that “A is A” for all human thought and action, unequal to the task of explaining the emotion-driven, tumultuous, untidy human world that would keep escaping from the neat orderliness of Randian thought.
As I finished reading Burns’ book, US President Barack Obama had signed the healthcare Bill that will cost America $940 billion (around Rs42.4 trillion) over 10 years and cover 32 million uninsured Americans.
In 2010, Rand would be out of place in the country she adopted and wanted to transform into a working example of the success of her intellectual belief that had no place for altruism, social welfare and service to others. Pure Randian thought now seems based on a premise that was flawed.
IN SIX WORDS
An unbiased examination of Ayn Rand
monika.h@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST