"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That first line from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities might serve well to sum up Jennifer Burns' new biography of Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market. The book, apparently by design, is a long series of contradictions — about Rand, her philosophy, and the people she affected.
"The most obvious contradiction," writes Burns in the Introduction, "lies on the surface: Rand was a rationalist philosopher who wrote romantic fiction." She continues on page 6: "The clash between her romantic and rational sides makes this not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts."
Those familiar with Rand's work will know that she would never have accepted a characterization of this kind, about herself or her philosophy. Much of her philosophy was devoted to eliminating invalid dichotomies of just that sort.
Yet, for all the interpretive differences Rand fans will have with Burns, the book does provide a wealth of detail on the novelist's life and thought. Those details provide numerous new historical snippets — courtesy of the substantial amount of archival-related material and other sources she uses — or at least a convenient compilation of them in one spot. Also helpful is that Burns writes with sufficient honesty and clarity that it's rarely difficult to separate what she relates about Rand from how she evaluates it.
That's particularly true of the first few chapters where she chronicles Rand's pre-Fountainhead days. In them, we discover in more detail than other biographies to date what life was like for Alissa Rosenbaum in Russia, and afterward for the young Ayn Rand in America. We get a fuller picture of her struggle to come to America, and the myriad difficulties she faced for the next two decades.
It's this early portrait that will likely be of most interest to hard-core Rand fans, since those years have been only sketchily drawn before. Her education isn't covered in as great a detail here as some might wish, but there is considerable information about her family life. Some of that is painted more prosaically than Rand did herself via We the Living, but there is a feel of authenticity about it nonetheless.
It's also in the chapters covering Rand's life up to about age 40 where Burns is more successful in suppressing her disdain for her subject.
She writes (on page 25 in Chapter 1), discussing Rand in Hollywood circa 1927, "This anger and frustration, born from her professional struggles, was itself the greatest obstacle to Rand's writing career." Not exactly complimentary, but nowhere near the sort of criticism we encounter later, as we'll see.
Commenting on Night of January 16th, Burns says, "Rand intended Bjorn Faulkner to embody heroic individualism, but in the play he comes off as little more than an unscrupulous businessman with a taste for rough sex." (Chapter 1, pg. 28.)
Needless to say, a Rand fan is likely to have a very different take. Still, the material covering the play's production is ample and thorough, a tribute to the many years Burns spent researching the book.
The subtle digs continue, though. Writing about Rand's manner of socializing in New York during the end of 1934/beginning of 1935, Burns says, "At any mention of religion, morality, or ethics she would transform from a silent wallflower into a raging tigress, eager to take on all comers. Neither persona made for pleasant company." (Chapter 1, pg. 30-31.)
That depended, of course, on the company she kept, something the history professor doesn't always detail. What's shown doesn't suggest her listeners were annoyed, however much Burns might be on their behalf.
Her take on Rand's involvement in politics in the 1930s contains similar statements. In Chapter 2 (pg 39), she says of the budding activist's efforts for Willkie during the 1940 presidential campaign, "Rand was suspicious of both democracy and capitalism." And, "Like any small-town booster she touted the glories of American capitalism and individualism."
Errors and contradictions — not to mention subtle insults — of that kind are sprinkled throughout the book. Even so, given the extensive and careful research displayed, most Rand fans will find Goddess a compelling read. The pace is lively, the new information fascinating, and it's rarely hard to separate the wheat from the locust clinging to the stalk.
One example of a mistaken interpretation easily dismissed is the biographer-cum-analyst's statement (on pg. 42) about the development of The Fountainhead. She asserts, "Her ideas also reversed traditional understandings of human behavior by exalting a psychological mindset utterly divorced from anything outside the self."
Solipsism of any variety is the last thing Rand would put forth or defend. But, here again, the material that leads Burns to this conclusion is presented clearly and the reader can make his or her own judgment.
Another example occurs soon after (on page 45) when Burns discusses Rand's attendance at the lecture of socialist intellectual Harold Laski, where the novelist took notes that would inform the characterization of Ellsworth Toohey. "Most of Rand's notes on Laski's lecture, and her resultant description of Toohey, showcased her distaste for all things feminine."
This — as an evaluation of the creator of Kira Argounova, Dominique Francon, and Dagny Taggart — is dumbfounding at minimum. (Readers would have to go all the way back to Jinx's "[W]omen are the bunk" in ‘Good Copy’ to find anything to support that view. Even in that story, unpublished during her lifetime, the message — taken in context — is clearly not misogynistic.)
Yet, right after, Burns writes, "Rand was repelled by the women in the New School audience, whom she characterized as sexless, unfashionable, and unfeminine. Apparently, in Burns' view, this is "misogyny," a criticism she levels more than once in Goddess.
There are similar mischaracterizations of Rand's literary output in Chapter 3. Writing about The Fountainhead, she asserts, "As Rand struggled to make concrete what she intended by the heroic, she described characters with icy emotional lives and distant, destructive relationships."
One can't help but wonder if Dr. Burns has ever heard phrases such as "creating drama through character conflict," "inner tension," and the like. Even with Roark, perhaps Rand's most 'icy' character, we see that at work. Think of his pained reaction when Dominique reveals her plan to leave him and marry Peter Keating. "I don't know how I'm going to live through tonight." Or, the scene where he sweeps Mallory's tiny cherubs onto the floor in outrage.
Burns soon goes on to contradict herself, anyway, by saying: "Although their passions for each other are all-consuming, in another sense the novel's characters never truly relate to each other." Apparently explicating just what comprises "another sense," she writes, "Lovers don't hold hands, they hold wrists. And then there is the infamous rape scene."
[She recognizes a little later, simultaneously subtly dismissing it, Rand's explanation that "If this is rape, it's rape by engraved invitation."]
Burns' dislike for Rand's ethical and political views comes in for the same dismissive treatment. In Chapter 3 (pg. 89) she says, "Rand was not the first thinker to criticize altruism or to suggest that noble sentiments often cloak base motives."
True enough. But she might have been the first to question whether or not those sentiments themselves were, in fact, noble. In one scene in We The Living, an argument between Andrei and Kira, the Communist says, "You're going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods." To which Kira responds, "I loathe your ideals." Burns even quotes the line, yet she doesn't seem to have absorbed its meaning.
Her interpretations of Rand's views are even more askew when she writes in Chapter 4 about The Moral Basis of Individualism. "Rand tried to resist the implications of this conclusion [that collectivism is based on exploitation of the more productive] and return to the egalitarianism of The Fountainhead." [Pg. 113]
How anyone could believe that Rand ever embraced egalitarianism in any form is something of a mystery. It's solved only, and only to a degree, by her view that Rand alternated between what she calls "elitism" and respect for the common man. This is yet one more of the false alternatives Rand rejected during this period of her development. Unfortunately, Burns' narrative clings to it far longer.
One possible explanation for why she does can be gleaned from a quote on page 122: "[Rose Wilder] Lane also rejected Rand's atomistic view of the world." To Burns, to advocate individualism is, apparently, to have an "atomistic view" of human relations. But by this time in her life Rand had largely discarded those elements of Nietzsche that influenced her earlier work.
The biographer is no fairer to Rand's approach to personal relations during this period of her life. In reviewing conflict-laden letters passed between Isabel Paterson and Rand, Burns writes, "No doubt her tone was partially inspired by her [Paterson's] mood swings, but Rand's failure to carefully tend the relationship had also drawn forth this dyspeptic and angry response." [Pg. 127]
In short, Rand — the much younger acolyte and, even by Burns' estimate, much less inclined to dyspepsia — bears at least equal if not more responsibility for difficulty getting along with her mentor. She mentions more than once how "tactless" Rand was to write her then-friend about her criteria of success: 100,000 copies of The Fountainhead sold, and her later joy in approaching it.
She makes the charge all the while quoting Wm. F. Buckley's assessment of Paterson (pg. 132): "intolerably impolite, impossibly arrogant, obstinately vindictive." Still, according to Burns, "the friendship's end speaks to Rand's weaknesses as well."
There's no hint in Goddess that Burns ever considers whether Paterson might simply have been jealous of Rand's growing influence and success.
But there are still larger errors in Burns' understanding of Rand and her philosophy. This whopper, for example: "Rand's theory of natural rights was based on fiat, on her stating it must be so." (Chapter 4, pg. 128.)
It's something of a mystery on what she bases this conclusion. We do get a hint on the prior page when she says, "Though rigorously abstract, Rand's discourse was in many ways aggressively anti-intellectual. She was uninterested in placing herself within the broader community of thinkers..."
That last is most definitely true. Objectivists and others sympathetic to Rand's philosophy may have a rather different evaluation of that fact, however. Rand certainly had little if any interest in being part of a "community," even of thinkers. But to criticize an avowed iconoclast and innovator for not being part of the crowd seems very odd indeed.
Her questionable assertions even extend to issues of basic logic. She writes (in Chapter. 5, on page 148): "Rand's focus on reason led her to declare that paradoxes and contradictions were impossible... a premise and a conclusion could never clash, unless an irrational thought process had been employed."
That view is hardly original with or limited to Rand, since it's employed by anyone who adheres to Aristotelian principles at all, which is to say just about anyone who isn't a blatant mystic, an Hegelian, or a polylogist.
Burns demonstrates a similar misunderstanding of the concept of "social metaphysics." She claims, "Cast as a psychological syndrome, the same idea [Roark's "stoic disregard for the opinions of others"] became dangerous, because it suggested that the abnormal should be normal. Essentially, 'social metaphysics' made everyday human concern with the thoughts and opinions of others problematic and pathological." [Pg. 154]
This, for the first time in the book, borders on sheer distortion of Rand's beliefs. Sadly, that theme continues with greater force in the second half of the book.
That's shown in such statements as: "Rand demonstrated a keen appreciation for capitalism's creative destruction... Ignoring the daily drudgery of economic life, Rand portrayds [sic] capitalism and capitalists as creative, even glamorous." [Chapter. 6, pg 165.]
The temptation to suggest that Dr. Burns speak for herself about daily drudgery is overwhelming. Clearly though, she is here and it remains easy to separate Rand's views from hers, for anyone who has read much Rand.
That last signals the only inherent danger in Goddess of the Market, but it's a minor one. Those wholly unfamiliar with Rand's novels and non-fiction will find a very unattractive Rand by looking through Burns' eyes. But few will approach her through a biography first and there are many counterweights readily available anyway.
So, for example, Burns writes: "Reviewers were right to notice that alongside its reverent depiction of capitalist heroes, Atlas Shrugged had a decidedly misanthropic cast." [Chapter. 6, pg. 172]
If to reverently depict inviolately honest, thinking producers as heroes and malevolent, statist parasites as villains is "misanthropic," this Rand fan can only wish for a great deal more misanthropy in literature, not to say the world.
If to believe that the statist parasites are all too prevalent and influential is "misanthropic," then the world of Atlas Shrugged — widely recognized today as uncomfortably like our current one — did us a service by predicting it, as a warning. As Rand explained not long after (when asked if Atlas Shrugged was prophetic or descriptive), one of her purposes in writing it was to prevent the prophecy from becoming a description.
It's at around this point in Goddess that the author really goes off the rails. As it progresses, we see less and less of Rand and more and more of Burns. She says, for example, (Chapter 6, pg. 172): Rand was "quick to divide humanity into world-shaking creators and helpless idiots."
Even given the essentialized — let's grant stark — view of the world presented in Atlas Shrugged, it's mysterious how the careful historian managed to overlook so many characters. No one would place in either group the bum on the train who talks with Dagny, the mother in Galt's Gulch, or any of dozens more minor characters who populate the novel. Eddie Willers is, if nothing else, the most obvious counter-example.
Outside the novel, considering Rand's frequent and decades-long praise for 'the average American,' Burns' error becomes completely inexplicable.
Those errors deepen as the book moves into its final chapters. In Chapter 8, the author makes a common claim. "Rand trumpeted her distrust of emotion in almost all her writing." [Pg. 225]
Setting aside that Dr. Burns seems not to have caught on to the method Rand used to create dramatic tension, it's curious how she reaches this conclusion. Rand had a definite view about the proper relationship — one could even say hierarchy — between reason and emotion. But to say she advocated repression — even inadvertently — is selective reading at best.
The closest examples that come to mind are a description of Rearden's "asceticism," or Dagny's thoughts during an early train ride when she could "just let herself feel." But this is a valid artistic tool — and contrasts brilliantly with their later sensuality during the affair.
That assessment certainly doesn't apply to Rand's philosophy, either, which is about as far from Puritanism as any could be. As is so often the case, Burns' reading seems to be a conventional one, and therefore misses Rand's take on the subject entirely.
A less generous reading of Goddess leads to the conclusion that, at least in later years, according to Burns, Rand was a sheer dogmatist. She says as much a little further on in Chapter 8: "There seemed to be two Objectivisms: one that genuinely supported intellectual exchange, engagement, and discourse, and one that was as dogmatic, narrow-minded, and stifling as Rand's harshest critic's alleged." [Pg. 235]
There are several examples throughout the book with this subjectivist tinge, of writing as if someone's view constituted reality. Fortunately, they're concentrated more near the end and even there don't burden the biography much.
Her view of Rand comes out clearly again when she says, "Rand could turn her charisma on and off at will, charming those who paid her proper homage while freezing out those that did not." [Pg. 235] Someone more inclined to admire Rand might translate this as "When she liked someone she was pleasant and friendly. When she didn't, she was indifferent."
In that form, Rand's attitude looks considerably more benign and it's hard to see the actual wording as a mere difference in style. That's revealed starkly in what is perhaps Dr. Burns' most illuminating statement. Talking about the period of the NBI lectures, she writes:
"The presence of Rand, a charismatic personality, was enough to tip Objectivism into quasi-religious territory, but Objectivism was also easy to abuse because of its very totalizing structure. There were elements deep within the philosophy that encouraged its dogmatic and coercive tendencies." [Chapter 8, pg 237.]
Putting it in the past tense doesn't let the author off the hook.
Let pass as just a matter of style that people, not philosophies, have tendencies. Here, Dr. Burns shows her tendency to the pragmatist philosophy clearer than anywhere else. We also see here — much more than with earlier hints in the book — with just what contempt the biographer views her subject and Objectivism.
Why she does is a little harder to divine, but it likely has much to do with this belief: "Although Rand celebrated independence, the content of her thought became subsumed by its structure, which demanded consistency and excluded any contradictory data derived from experience or emotion." [Chapter. 8, pg. 235]
How experience can include "contradictory data," Dr. Burns does not explain. Perhaps she's suggesting that data from reality (and emotions?) contradicted Rand's thought, which the philosopher — dogmatist that she was according to Burns — refused to consider. But that is just a guess. Vague, quasi-academic writing of that sort makes it impossible to be sure.
The interpretation of Rand's character she settles on is summed up in the Epilogue. Those who attended NBI lectures, she claims, would not be shocked by Rand's failings, apparently having seen them first hand. Yet, "to the outside world Rand emerged a deeply unsavory figure, manipulative, controlling, self-deceived, and wildly emotional despite her professed rationality." [Pg. 280]
If Dr. Burns disagrees with this view in the slightest she never says so, and most of the evidence points the other way. Regrettably, that point of view colors the entire biography. That, above all, is what nettles most — not the presence of criticism, which is here and there justified, but the near absence of high praise, which in the case of Ayn Rand and her work is wholly justified.
Nevertheless, whatever one thinks of Jennifer Burns' personal philosophy, or her evaluation of Rand as a person and thinker, her book offers a fairly comprehensive and detailed look at the life and work of Ayn Rand. It may not be the biography Rand fans could wish for, but it’s the best one so far, by far.
That, if anything, is what makes Rand's life — or at least its chronicling — "not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts."
[Note: The preceding review is pre-printed here by kind permission of Peter Cresswell, Editor/Publisher of Free Radical. It's scheduled to appear in the next issue.]