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!
There are plenty of comments critical of Rand sprinkled into the mix — a bizarre specimen was #16, which dilated on the fact that Rand was Jewish and lamented that The New Criterion “hasn’t the courage to take a critical view of certain aspects of Jewish thought, history, and politics.” Most of the really amusing comments, though, come from Rand’s disciples. “Peter M” returned in #38 to inform us that it is “obvious” that “Daniels has written a cheap and dishonest smear that borders on the infantile” and that “What is even more interesting is that the New Criterion staff had their ‘seminar’ trolls just waiting at their keyboards for any objections to the ‘review.’” I am not quite sure what a “seminar troll” is, but it sounds like something we might want to invest in. Where, I wonder, are they to be found?
Then there is “Wendy” who, in making the 51st comment (and she came back with # 139) tells us that “Daniels knows that he and his kind are losing the war of ideas to Objectivism, and this piece is the pitiful machinations of a sore loser. Too bad, so sad, Daniels. You should have been more intellectually honest in your philosophical development, and then you wouldn’t be in this position now.” This is especially funny for anyone who actually knows Anthony Daniels, one of the most percipient and humane cultural critics now writing. The disparity between what Daniels wrote and what he is accused of trespasses on the surrealistic: Here’s Sylvia Boker, #78:
“Anthony Daniels’ critique of Ayn Rand radiates a depth of viciousness that matches the mendacity and hate mongering of leftists. This is not surprising as there is next to no difference between the leftist and the neoconservative. . . . But there is more to Mr. Daniel’s efforts than an attempt to tar and feather one of the greatest minds the world has known.”
“One of the greatest minds the world has known”?
Our old friend Peter M comes back at #91 to observe that if “Ayn Rand is the ‘Chernyshevsky of individualism’ [as Daniels charged] then The New Criterion has become the National Inquirer of sophisticated public taste.” Gee whiz.
I suspect that those responding feed upon and endeavor to outdo one another because by the time we get to #156 (“Ancap”), our commentators have descended to near hysterical ranting: “A despicable hatchet job, by a clueless non entity, pretentiously posing as a degenerate scum, whilst in reality, is nowhere near that virtuous. Wasted space!” Got that?
Well, it’s all in a day’s work, I suppose. From what I know, Ayn Rand was a pretty unsavory character. But she wasn’t stupid and I have to think she would have been embarrassed by this subliterate invective, much though it has entertained the rest of us.