Wednesday October 21st, 2009

Ayn’s World

ayn_randBelow are excerpts from two recent reviews of a new biography of Ayn Rand, both of which are well worth reading in full. The book is Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.

In New York, Sam Anderson deals — entertainingly — more with Rand’s psychology than with Heller’s book:

Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.

Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned . . . What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces.

At the Barnes & Noble Review, A.C. Grayling offers more about the biography in question. (His approving blurb: “deeply absorbing . . . uncompromising, lucid, excoriating.”) He also gets in plenty of his own commentary about Rand’s cult of personality:

A biography of Rand therefore has to consist largely in an exposition of her philosophy and an exploration of its effects on her personal life and those around her. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made reports both with unblinking thoroughness. She confirms what one surmises from the novels and essays themselves: that Rand was a brilliant but repulsive person, who inveighed against tyranny but was a tyrant, and who demanded loyalty from the disciples of her philosophy of individualism and independence, oblivious to the stark paradox involved. The members of her inner circle called themselves ‘the Collective’ as a joke; some of them came to realise too late just how ironic the label was, for Rand in effect organised her devotees into a cult from whose teachings any deviation — least of all into the individual independence she vaunted — was regarded as an unforgivable crime.

Grayling also fires off a candidate for Best Four-Word Sentence of the year: “Life is Rand’s refutation.”