Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America's most popular, most mocked and most enduring writers, Ayn Rand, author of novels such as "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" and of countless nonfiction works that hail "the virtue of selfishness" and her idiosyncratic philosophy of "objectivism," which prizes reason above all else.
A century after her birth and more than two decades after her death, Rand, whose works have sold more than 20 million copies, endures as both an inspiration and punch line in popular culture and politics.
Honored on a U.S. stamp a few years back, Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) is one of the most influential books around.
Her admirers range from filmmaker Oliver Stone to Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko to a young Alan Greenspan, now Federal Reserve Board chairman, who spent time in Rand's inner circle and fired off an angry letter to the New York Times protesting its review trashing "Atlas Shrugged." Just what was wrong with a novel, huffed Greenspan, in which "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should?"
Jibes at Rand run through pop culture touchstones ranging from films such as "Dirty Dancing," in which a callow character justifies leaving a pregnant woman by citing "The Fountainhead"; plays such as "Angels in America," in which two lovers beat each other "like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel"; and TV shows such as "The Simpsons," in which the infant Maggie is remanded to the prison-camp-like Ayn Rand School for Tots; and "South Park," in which an adult illiterate hilariously swears off reading thus: "I was happy to be learning to how to read....but then I read this: 'Atlas Shrugged'....Because of this, I am never reading again".
Even such stinging references suggest a staying power that is exceptionally rare. What is it about Rand that keeps her work alive, if sometimes kicked at?
During the Cold War, when she dominated the best-seller lists, the Russian-born Rand's appeal was twofold. First, she made a stirring moral defense of free-market capitalism at a time when planned economies, whether in the communist East or the liberal West, were almost universally seen not simply as more efficient, but more just.
In celebrating "the virtue of selfishness," Rand argued that individuals pursuing their own vision of the good life were not simply a precondition for a richer world. They were morally superior because they refused to subjugate themselves to collectivist goals.
As important, by creating memorable fictional supermen such as the Howard Roarke, the bizarrely orange-haired architect-hero of "The Fountainhead" who blows up his own building rather see its design compromised, and John Galt, the protagonist of "Atlas Shrugged" who touches off a global strike of the scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors responsible for the world's bounty, Rand celebrated individualism in a mass age, when the organization-man mentality and fear of the bureaucratization and routinization of American life was at its highest.
Yet in the wake of the Cold War and the general triumph of liberal individualism and market economics in the West, the meaning of Rand's work and life has taken on a different, more personal meaning, one that helps make her an object of ridicule as well as respect.
As has become clear from memoirs of those in her inner circle, despite being an arch individualist, Rand demanded total subservience from her acolytes, eventually, for instance, banishing her protege, therapist and author Nathaniel Branden, because he had ended a long-running affair with her. Rand reportedly exclaimed, "If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health, you'll be impotent for the next 20 years."
Despite being an arch rationalist, Rand invented and enforced strident, if dubious, philosophical justifications for her personal tastes in everything from classical music (Beethoven beat Mozart on moral as well as aesthetic grounds) to photography (which she asserted could never be a true art form) to women in politics (she insisted a real woman would never want to be president).
It is now the great gulf between her soaring fictional ideals and the often tawdry, disheartening details of her own biography that are worth dwelling on. Rand serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
A century after her birth and two decades after her death, Rand doesn't merely still demand our attention; she commands it. No cultural figure over the past 60 years did more to defend capitalism and romanticize individualism than she did.
That she acted so monstrously in her personal life only adds to her allure. In the gap between Rand's books, which continue to sell and influence, and her life, we see in particularly strong relief both the creative power of individual desire and its vast capacity for intolerance and delusion.
Nick Gillespie is editor of reason. This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and can be viewed in that format here.