Ayn Rand is one of those writers who divide the world. There are partisans, who are utterly smitten by her message, and then there are the rest of us, who can’t fathom the fuss. The former find it very hard to forgive the latter, about which more in a moment.
I have read some of Rand’s essays on art and philosophy. They struck me, as I said in a review of a book about her philosophy of art (reprinted in my book Art’s Prospect), as pretty thin gruel. I never made it through either of Rand’s two big novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. To enjoy either, I suspect, you had to have encountered Rand in adolescence, when so many of life’s lasting enthusiasms are forged. In recent years, a few friends have urged Rand on me, and I dutifully tried both novels more than once. Each time, I found myself oscillating between fits of the giggles, at the awful prose, and irritation, at the jejune philosophy. Among the many reasons I am thankful to Whittaker Chambers, his having rescued me from making further attempts to scale the Everest of Atlas Shrugged comes high on my list. His review of the book in an early issue of National Review is a masterpiece of literary demolition and moral interment.
Brutal though Chambers is — his review precipitated Rand’s break with National Review — it nonetheless acknowledges a pertinent fact about Rand: that “a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does.” That fact disposes “us” — i.e., us conservatives who share Rand’s belief in self-reliance and who dislike big government and the nanny state just as much as she did — to endorse some of what Rand advocates. Hence, for example, widespread popularity of Rand’s character John Galt and sympathy for “going Galt,” i.e., Just Saying No to the many violations of personal liberty perpetrated by an omnivorous, socialistically inclined state.
But to say that one is wary of statism or that one is a champion of capitalism and limited government is not to say that one is a follower of Ayn Rand. This is a something that some of Rand’s disciples find difficult to acknowledge. I was reminded of this the last few days as I contemplated the large outpouring of calumnious rage directed at Anthony Daniels, who writes about a new biography of Rand in the February issue of the magazine I edit, The New Criterion.
The piece has been available on our website for only a few days, but already it has generated more than 160 comments. The response started modestly enough, but by the time # 4 from “Peter M” rolled in, I knew we were in for substantial hilarity. “Wow,” he writes, “this hit job comes close to matching the most dishonest review probably ever written of any book — Whittaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged.” A nice Bre’r Rabbit moment, that: having someone insult you by comparing you to Whittaker Chambers!