Ayn Rand and the World She Made

This book was given to me by a friend due to my affection for Rand’s fictional works:  We the Living, Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead.  I have yet to read Anthem or any of the non-fiction works by the author.  You might wonder at this strange disclosure as I venture into a review of a biography about said author and it is because I do think it’s important that people know I like these works, I admire them for the exceptional mind they were examples of, as well as the explanation for emotional rigidity of same person (please click on the links to check out my reviews for more ready understanding of my potential bias).  And now, dear reader, I offer you a most unusual review:  I don’t usually review non-fiction works and I have never reviewed a work I didn’t finish reading.  Until now.

Anne C. Heller did not write a biography so much as she wrote a hit piece about the controversial philosopher and author.  Below there are many spoilers from within the first 50 pages (that’s how far I got) in the biography as well as a refutation of one of the suppositions from within the text of Atlas Shrugged (that’s your spoiler warning).

The first warning sign for me should have come from the preface in which the Heller states:  “Because I am not an advocate for Rand’s ideas, I was denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, where copies of her unpublished letters and diaries, calendars, photographs, and other documents reside.  Nevertheless, I have been able to add much that is new to the record of her life.”

To be clear – I don’t care if someone is an advocate for her ideals or not.  As a biography I look for substantiated facts, not a fan club member.  But the above statement shows not impartiality but a bias against.  So, if there’s a bias against how then can the author give a fair representation of her subject?  How also can she give a fair and accurate representation if she doesn’t have access to so much material?  It immediately begins to set the tone with”…I was denied access” which seems to try and rally an attitude of righteousness against the Ayn Rand Institute whose absolute right it is to not relinquish said materials.

Still, it was just the preface so I persevered.  The first paragraph of the text begins thus:

When the fierce and extraordinary Ayn Rand was fifty-two years old, about to become world famous, and more than thirty years removed from her birthplace in Russia, she summed up the meaning of her elaborate, invented, cerebral world this way: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”  It was a world in which no dictator, or deity, and no well-meaning sense of duty would ever take away the moral right of the gifted individual – Ayn Rand – to live according to her own high-wattage lights.

Take this portion: “…the meaning of her elaborate, invented, cerebral world…”  then look at this one “My philosophy, in essence…”  Rand was talking about her personal philosophy, not a delusional world.  The phrasing afterword, “… no well-meaning sense of duty would ever take away the moral right of the gifted individual – Ayn Rand …” indicates the author’s intent to shade everything about Rand as narcissistic.  I don’t argue she wasn’t, but I do stand and say the quote by Rand herself does not state it is purely about her freedoms, or her captivity, but what she feels to be good purpose.  We all have our own ideals about these things, Rand was hardly exceptional in this regard, but the author of the bio seems to take exception to this – if not to the premise of having our own thoughts about such matters, or what she felt to be Rand’s arrogance.

And now, I will give you a few simple quotes from the biography:

Intelligent, self-directed, and solitary from an early age, Rand must have been a difficult child to raise in the first decade of the twentieth century. (pg. 4) [emphasis mine]

That above quote is an issue for me due to the supposition itself.  First, I really don’t know that it would have been easy raising any child, particularly a Jewish one in a historically anti-Semitic environment (Russia), during the time of Czar vs Bolsheviks, but this reeks of telling us to dislike Rand from the very beginning of her days with no substantiation beyond the potentially flawed and/or skewed memories of childhood recollected decades later.

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that from the age of four or five onward, Rand developed a keen sense that anything she liked had to be hers, not her mother’s, the family’s, or society’s, an attitude that readers of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead will recognize in the perverse and complicated character of Dominique Francon.  As a corollary, she claimed not to care about being approved of or accepted by her family and peers.  Since she generally wasn’t accepted, the proud, intelligent child appears to have learned early to make a virtue of necessity. (pg.  8 ) [emphasis as seen in the text]

The proprietary nature of Rand could have been linked to the issues her family faced when under the fear and oppression that ran rampant in the streets with the onset of the civil war and when the Bolsheviks confiscated her father’s pharmacy (in Rand’s presence), or even to Rand’s mother’s cruelty the author addresses, but here it is being likened to a “perverse and complicated” character Rand wrote several decades later.

She was self consciously different from others, as if by choice.  But she was painfully lonely. (pg. 11) [emphasis mine]

That bold is all supposition.  Anyone who has experienced the pain of being different whilst in the social pool where conformity was the only means to achieve acceptance is very aware of being different.  Some might even say “self consciously different”.

[About The Mysterious Valley]  As the tale opens, a dashing British infantry captain named Cyrus Paltons and four of his fellow officers have been snatched from the field by trained Bengali tigers and carried to a clique of of blood thirsty Hindu shamans in a hidden valley in the Himalayan Mountains of West Bengal – a beautiful valley with noticeable resemblances to the hiding place of the striking businessmen in Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged.   (pg. 13)

Any fiction writer knows and, I suspect, readers of fiction also know that authors delve deep into their minds, searching out life experiences, and imagining new landscapes/characters to create.  This does not mean they plagiarized other people’s works.  While Heller never asserts such a thing in such a clear and refutable manner, she takes great pains at implying this many times throughout the pages I read.

But Roark’s (hero of The Fountainhead) original prototype may well be Peter the Great, the early-eighteenth-century Russian czar who, harnessing his own unbending will and limitless power, built the improbable city of Ayn Rand’s birth. (pg. 22) [emphasis mine]

Supposition.  I truly hate that.  Moving on….

Some of the best-known lines in Russian poetry, memorized by Russian schoolchildren for the last 150 years, were written by Aleksandr Pushkin and describe Peter at the moment of his decision to raise St. Petersburg on a collection of frigid, barren islands on the Baltic seacoast near Finland: “On the shore of empty waves he stood, filled with great thoughts, and stared out.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the opening of The Fountainhead read, “Howard Roark laughed.  He stood naked on the edge of a cliff.  A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight in the sky over motionless water.” (pg. 22-23) [emphasis mine]

See what I’m talking about with the implication of lack of originality?  Many works of dystopian literature, romance, or even sci-fi have very similar themes and I’d even bet on similar scenes, but this does not make the work any less the publishing author’s and more so the ones that came before.

You’ve seen the suppositions and conjecture and now, I know this is hugely long – and I’m sorry for that, I offer you the bio vs the book it references:

For Rand, Robin Hood immediately became a villain, a symbol of the cowardly, destructive idea that “need, not achievement, is the source of all rights,” as she wrote in 1964.  Readers of Atlas Shrugged remember the character of Ragnar Danneskjold, an anti-Robin Hood who takes back from the poor and gives back to the rich. (pg. 29)

Here’s the section in Atlas Shrugged to which Heller is referring:

“…I have never robbed a private ship and never taken any private property.  Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel-because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a goverment.  But I have seized every loot carrier that came within range of my guns, every government relief ship, subsidy ship, loan ship, gift ship, every vessel wth a cargo of goods taken by force from some men for the unpaid, unearned benefits of others.  I seized boats that sailed under the flag of the idea which I am fighting:  the idea that need is a sacred idol requiring human sacrifices-that the need of some men is the knife of a guillotine hanging over others-that all of us must live with our work, our hopes, our plans, our efforts at the mercy of the moment when that knife will descend upon us-and that the extent of our ability is the extent of our danger, so that success will bring our heads down on the block, while failure will give us the right to pull te cord.  This is the horror which Robin Hood immortalized as an ideal of the righteousness.  It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.  He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor.  He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. (pg 576-577) [all emphasis from text]

I am not a person who says “…  my God Ayn Rand”, nor do I think of her as a paragon of virtue from whom all knowledge and wisdom of being a person could be obtained.  I am a person who likes Rand’s work and was interested in reading about more of her life especially knowing what environment her formative years were spent in.  I am a person who wanted to read a compilation of facts, something I thought a biography should be, not conjecture, supposition and blatant misrepresentation of work. This wasn’t a biography so much as a work by an opportunistic woman bent, not on conveying the substantiated truth of Rand and who she was, but who wanted to stand pointing her finger in righteousness touting how horrible a person this subject was, what a terrible human being she had been and what wretched philosophies she had espoused.

I find the publication of such material to be utterly reprehensible when done under the guise of “an objective biography”.  For all intents and purposes it was an ad hominem attack launched on behalf of people(s) who disagreed with the views of the subject.  Nothing more, or less.  While I do think the author probably found some interesting new facts about Rand, I couldn’t relegate myself to finishing the 410 page dessication of character written by a person who so obviously loathed her subject and didn’t even make an attempt at being objective.

Has anyone else read this biography?  What do you think of suppositions being made about any subject of a biography?  Were my expectations not in line with what biographies actually are?

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15 responses to “Ayn Rand and the World She Made

  • kimberlyloomis

    I really don’t like writing negative reviews. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming positive reviews of this book, it seemed prudent and necessary to address the bias under which it was written.

  • Hart

    Kimberly, I’ve LONG been a Rand fan, not because I so much agree with her, but because she writes so well and ALWAYS engages me at such a deep level that I find myself philosophizing long after I’m done reading. I like her self driven right to produce and be all we can. I take issue with the evils of altruism or responsibility to society (meaning I don’t like the every man for himself thing–some people need help). Those mixed feelings for her philosophy though, have not kept both Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead off my list of lifetime favorite reads.

    What you’ve included here looks like a fair criticism of a book that has gone both too far and not far enough. She seems to have put opinions as if they were facts, and interpreted based on partial information.

    Thank you for this!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Hart, Thank you so much for sharing your views. I could go on ad nauseum about Rand and her works, although I suspect I differ with your views in some places, and see some issues with where she went with some of her postulations but even more so with the things she didn’t delve into. 😉 One thing, however, one can never say about her is how ambiguous she was with her ideologies! (hehe)

      I appreciate your words about my review very much – and you’re welcome. 😀 Ultimately, I had to stop reading when I realized it was only feeding my righteous indignation and pulling me in not unlike watching a train wreck. Life is too short for that! Especially when there are just so many darned good books out there I would rather be putting my attention into.

  • Julie Dao

    I’ve read an excerpt of a Rand novel before, but I’ve never been able to get into her work. It’s not my cup of tea, but I know many big fans of her work and her philosophy. However she sounds like a fascinating woman and that biography looks very detailed and interesting.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Julie – A friend of mine told me the whole bio had some interesting stuff in it, but you had to skim past paragraphs of conjecture and suppositions. Rand polarized a great many people so I imagine it’s difficult to find a true bio from a somewhat objective stand point. I’ve also heard many things Rand had refuted during her lifetime were included in this tome EXCEPT her actual refutations. Probably best to not recommend this one to people who have some admiration for her or her ideologies. 🙂

  • Ed

    I commend you for this and thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I am particularly touched, because, while you are a fan of Ayn Rand’s fiction, you are not an Objectivist. You strike me as an impartial truth-seeker. Reading your piece is a refreshing experience, especially after all the hostile, axe-grinding venom that has been spewn by ill-informed critics of Rand.

    The Jennifer Burns biography is bad also, but Heller sets the standard for trash. A highly intellectual review of Burns, which is the only one I can cite offhand, sets the tone for Heller. See here:

    http://www.TinyURL.com/TOSBurns

    • kimberlyloomis

      Ed – Thank you for your kind words! You’re absolutely dead on with what I had started reading the biography for – truth about a person. Per the review of Burns’ it sounds like Heller read it and decided it wasn’t filled with enough unsubstantiated assertions. Ugh. I do have some issues with Objectivism, but I hold no one accountable to my views upon the subject, and that includes Rand. I think you said it very well with: “…all the hostile, axe-grinding venom that has been spewn by ill-informed critics of Rand.”

      I dislike being forced into the position where to respond intellectually about such matters has resulted in the sneering contempt of “you’re a Rand disciple/follower”. In truth, it lacks the understanding of thought and the force of one’s own mind. Before I go on a tangent I’ll just say, thank you for seeing this for what it was. 🙂

  • Helen Ginger

    I’ve never read the book, but it does sound as if she went in it with her biases in place.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

    • kimberlyloomis

      Helen- Indeed. Rand was a polarizing person for many individuals. Would be nice to read something about her that didn’t deify or demonize.

  • Patience

    I feel that if the author of a biography can not be objective they should not be writing it. I feel this way not just about authors who appear to loathe their subject but also about people who idolize their subject.
    If I am going to take the time to read a biography I want to trust that it is an accurate depiction.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Patience – I’m in complete agreement with you on this. Balance is necessary and it would be nice if those endeavoring to write such things had the same principles we do. 🙂

  • lola sharp

    What Hart said (so well).

    Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are two books on my top 20 of all time most intriguing books. I’ve read them multiple times and have a real appreciation for her writing style and master of craft. Most of all, reading them never fail to start an inner debate inside my head. Which is what I happen to enjoy most about Ayn. Clearly she stirs up strong feelings in all of us, which is what fascinates some of us while others spew vitriol. But either way, all these years later, Ayn is still being discussed with passion. She was ahead of her time.

    I agree also with what Patience said.

    I enjoyed your post.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Lola – Thank you very much. What I find remarkable is so many people, who even take issue with some of her ideas, can still have some admiration for Rand’s ability to spin a tale and to foster thought in the reader. Many people can’t get past the contempt of her ideals to see some of the true gifts she possessed. I guess I fall into the admiration part of things with Rand, while still acknowledging some places where her thoughts diverge from mine. Very nice to see other people out there who do the same. 🙂

  • jessicabookworm

    I don’t have much insight here I’m afraid I’ve never read anything of Ayn Rand but I felt that I needed to back you up a bit. As for me a biography should be unbiased either way. The biographer first and foremost should be telling us the facts not their argument for or against the person they’re writing about. A really interesting post though Kimberly.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jessica – Thanks a bunch! I totally agree. Some people can have opinions (like/dislike) and still go beyond them to report facts, not suppositions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though this biographer had even the thought of doing so. What astounded me most was reading reviews on Amazon about this book and seeing so many people regaling this as a tremendous and objective work all while stating if you didn’t like it you were a “follower”. The tactic of marginalizing opposition right out of the gate is, of course, something that grates on my nerves but the unwillingness to see and evaluate for bias… Oye! I can’t recall what detective said it, nor what movie in which it was said, but the phrase “just the facts, ma’am” comes to mind. 😉

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