The muddied fountainhead

Jonathan Chait reviews two (!) biographies of Ayn Rand, an astoundingly muddled thinker who was, apparently, also an astoundingly unpleasant human being. She’s worth studying, as any pathological phenomenon is worth studying, and her thinking (if it can be called that) still has influence over part of the Right; her very shallowness has a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes.

What’s most astounding is how completely unoriginal it is. A college friend showed me some Randite document just after I’d finished reading Also Sprach Zarathustra for a course.

At once I saw the relationship:

Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people.

 

Update Yes, this is unfair to Nietzsche; it should really have been “stupid sociopaths.”  On the other hand, Nietzsche, for all his undoubted gifts, didn’t come by his sinister reputation entirely by accident; I think he deserves it far more than, e.g., Plato deserves his.

In comments, Doug Merrill of A Fistful of Euros reminds us of the wisdom of the Kung Fu Monkey:

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.

Comments

  1. ShadowFox says

    … a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes

    Nice touch!

    But I wanted to address something else:

    Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people.

    Well, it's not just that. Given the temporal epoch in which Rand operated, this is actually predictable–a similarly stupid re-take of Nietzsche was undertaken in other parts of the world, such as Germany. The Nazi "intellectuals" mistook Nietzsche's mockery of "Superman" as Platonic praise. Like Strauss and the neocons that followed, they actually so themselves in what Nietzsche undoubtedly wrote as a caricature, a parody of what he saw as a ridiculous idea. So, Rand is not just Nietzsche for Idiots–the interpretation is just plain wrong.

  2. says

    I haven't read Rand, really, but from what I know of it, her philosophy seems to justify a certain solipsistic selfishness for people who consider themselves smart and talented and haven't yet really appreciated the pleasures of humility, generosity, and empathy. And that's a big market.

  3. says

    "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." From Kung Fu Monkey.

  4. Rob says

    The difference between Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard is that Hubbard seemed to know the stuff that he was peddling was bullshit.

  5. Miss T says

    I've always thought that anyone who read Ayn Rand past their sophomore year in college was caught in extremely juvenile thinking.

  6. says

    What struck me about Rand, after I finally read Atlas Shrugged, was her odd combination of libertarianism and corporatism. She seemed to believe that there was a class of people who were entitled to rule and that a laissez-faire economy would infallibly permit members of that class and only members of that class to rise to the top. (Thus, for example, Francisco D'Anconia is the heir to a copper-mining fortune and demonstrated his fitness for the job without any help from his family.) The tension between the libertarian and corporatist sides of her thought is reflected in the novel by a tension between the philosophical essays espousing the property rights of every individual, and the portrayal of large classes of humans as not much smarter or more morally deserving than beasts. I suppose that fourteen-year-olds who consider themselves as part of the deserving class are too busy enjoying the praise lavished on them to notice the problem.

  7. Ed Whitney says

    Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged for the National Review in 1957 and he remarked on the Nietzsche connection. This drove Rand crazy and she never forgave Buckley (or anyone else for that matter). "Nietzsche for stupid people" is very apt and I will plagiarize it without hesitation.

  8. David T says

    The Randites have (or had) a very good PR arm. I remember in high school there was some essay contest: Write about Atlas Shrugged, get a chance to win a decent scholarship. I was suckered, and I'm embarrassed to say I didn't hate the book back then. (Alas, I was a budding engineer with no social conscience.) But of course that's the strategy, get 'em young when they crave certainty rather than real insight. I wonder how much of their fanbase they built this way.

  9. J. Joseph Miller says

    Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people.

    I rather thought that Nietzsche was Nietzsche for stupid people.

    I think the distinction that you're really after is that Nietzsche is for stupid people who hang out in coffee shops, wear "ironic" clothes, and drop out after one year in an English graduate program to write bad novels/make incomprehensible movies/form talentless indie bands. Rand is for stupid people who hang out in nightclubs, wear $1000 suits, and run investment banks into the ground.

    The former are mockable, but largely harmless. The latter are also mockable, but less benign.

  10. Alan says

    "…wear $1000 suits, and run investment banks into the ground." You are SO behind the times. To run an investment band into the ground these days takes AT LEAST a $5000 suit.

  11. Matt W says

    Like Strauss and the neocons that followed, they actually so themselves in what Nietzsche undoubtedly wrote as a caricature, a parody of what he saw as a ridiculous idea.

    ShadowFox, I think this is probably unfair to Straussians. I took a class (partly) on Nietzsche from Peter Berkowitz, a prominent Straussian/neocon who went on to be one of Giuliani's foreign policy advisers, and at the end of our discussion of Zarathustra he put forward the view that we were meant to see Zarathustra's world as a nightmare vision; that Z. was basically the bad guy. So he was reading Nitzsche as offering a parody of a ridiculous idea (a reading I found unconvincing, but I'm not a Nietzsche scholar).

  12. Moral Panicker says

    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.

    sic: should be "The other, of course, concerns hobbits."

  13. says

    Why is it that I get the distinct sense that no one here understands the power of the analogy or conceptual thoughts (given that 'reality' is nothing more than a shared agreement)? Rand was able to put edges on the 'squishy'. You don't have to agree with the edges, but it provides a starting point for thought and conversation. Isn't that the point of being human?

  14. Davis X. Machina says

    Isn’t that the point of being human?

    No, the point of being human is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. Or make pots of money. I keep going back and forth.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Mark Kleiman: Jonathan Chait reviews two (!) biographies of Ayn Rand, an astoundingly muddled thinker who was, apparently, also an astoundingly unpleasant human being. She’s worth studying, as any pathological phenomenon is worth studying, and her thinking (if it can be called that) still has influence over part of the Right; her very shallowness has a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes. [...]