Why People Like Ayn Rand

Posted on September 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 18 comments

This excellent Jonathan Chait-penned essay on Ayn Rand has generated a lot of praise and criticism, in addition to some well placed barbs, including this particularly funny one:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I was one of the many, many college students who read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and came away dazzled by Ayn Rand’s prose and ideas. I still cringe at the memory of discussing my admiration for Rand with my horrified relatives at family gatherings.

Now that I think about it though, what I liked about both books were the narratives rather than the philosophy. Rand’s acolytes and defenders-and the author herself- say that the narrative exists merely as a vehicle for her philosophical ideas, which to them represents the real value in her work.

My take is the opposite. I remember zipping through the first 900 pages of Atlas Shrugged until the protagonist John Galt delivers his famous speech, a 60-odd page philosophical manifesto that is essentially a summation of Rand’s own philosophy, titled objectivism. I suspect Rand intended her speech to be a thrilling revelation for her readers, and I suppose for her defenders it was. To me, though, her speech was a naive and silly philosophical argument that distracted me from my interest in the story.

In his post concerning this subject, Richard writes that Rand’s characters are “embarrassingly one-dimensional, right out of a comic book”. I don’t disagree, but this to me accounts for the enduring popularity of Rand’s work. Her ideas gained popularity because of her characters, not in spite of them.

Is Rand a particularly gifted writer? Yes and no. I’m no literary critic, but her writing style- even in a second language- isn’t scintillating. But the very Manichean nature of her characters appeal to something deep in the reader’s psyche, much in the same way that adult men and women can sit and watch 5 James Bond films in succession.

In fact, I think James Bond offers an interesting comparison to Rand’s characters. In a Bond film, the ludicrous plots are secondary to the status of Bond as an ubermenschen; that is, he is perfectly hip, always says the right things, always kills the bad guys, always gets the girl. Bond is popular because he allows us to escape into a fantasy world, not because the stories in and of themselves are that interesting.

Rand’s characters- Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Howard Roark, and of course Mr John Galt- are presented as idealized humans. Rand herself admitted this.  To reference the quote above, her work is every bit a fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Or Goldfinger, I suppose.…