Thursday, February 2, 2017

Birthday: "To say 'I love you' one must first be able to say the 'I.'"

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Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum O’Connor (1905-1982)
Author, philosopher

Of the influence of Ayn Rand, Thomas Mallon wrote in The New Yorker,

Most readers make their first and last trip to Galt’s Gulch—the hidden-valley paradise of born-again capitalists featured in “Atlas Shrugged,” its solid-gold dollar sign standing like a Maypole—sometime between leaving Middle-earth and packing for college. Only a handful become lifetime followers of Objectivism, Rand’s codified philosophy, which holds that reality exists as something concrete and external, not created by God or by a person’s consciousness; that emotions derive from ideas; and that self-interest rather than altruism is man’s ethical ideal.

Those suffering from that particular form of arrested development have, over the last few decades, grown up to become leaders of the American conservative movement, eagerly grafting her hyper-if pseudo-Calvinist judgmentalism (the world is mostly a free range paradise for looters, moochers and takers) onto their own puritanical, soak-the-poor doctrines.

The American Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan- third in line to the Presidency- says Rand’s work drew him to seek political power and do her will in the name of “democratic capitalism”; for nineteen years, by appointment of President Reagan, her acolyte, Alan Greenspan (she nicknamed him The Undertaker) ran the United States economy, becoming famous for public statements as garbled and incomprehensible as his idol’s philosophy.

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The 1976 Nobel laureate in economics, Milton Friedman, was another of her followers; later converts include the media personality Glenn Beck and the father and son Pauls.

She was born in tsarist Russia, to a St Petersburg pharmacist savvy enough in business to buy the building in which he kept shop and prosperous enough to send his odd daughter- a sort of Dostoevskian Wednesday Addams- to private school where she debated republicanism with Vladimir Nabokov’s sister.

Came the revolution. Tsarists and republicans alike realized they had been played. The Rosenbaums retreated to the Crimea and a heatless, lightless house, their city holdings having gone to The People.

These experiences curdled the life plan of a girl who claimed she was writing movie screenplays at eight and novels at ten (one can but shudder at the thought of “Eloise at The Stock Exchange”).

By thirteen she was an atheist, proclaiming that reason- which, in her place and time, was staying alive, one day to the next- was all.

Back in St Petersburg after things settled down some, Alisa- then sixteen- entered Petrograd State University, home of the Fighting Marxists. Fluent In German, French and Russian, she came to adore Aristotle and loathe Plato, and that was all she needed to know of philosophy.

Decades later, she told CBS’ Mike Wallace,

Out of my own mind, with the sole acknowledgement of a debt to Aristotle, the only philosopher who ever influenced me. I devised the rest of my philosophy myself.

Caught up in a transient purge of the bourgeoisie, she clawed her way back and graduated in 1924. She spent the next seven decades vainly trying to get her revenge on Lenin and reform the earth in her own image.

Thing One was to get the hell out of Russia. She got a visa to visit family in America, weeping tears of ecstasy at the sight of a Manhattan whose buildings- and owners- were so big no government could ever rip them away.

One of her relatives in Chicago owned a movie house. All the free American culture she could watch was a good way to learn English (Victor Borge, a World War II refugee, did the same), and refueled her childhood ambitions to be a star (her first published work, back home, was a short, pamphlet bio of Pola Negri).

Ayn Rand, as she now styled herself, made her way to Hollywood, where she claimed she met Cecille B. DeMille in a parking lot and mesmerized him, in her broken English, with her cinematic visions.

Overawed, he made her a script reader.

An alternative version is that she got a toehold in the business as an extra in DeMille’s King of Kings (1927), where she got noticed while bullying her way up from the plebs to the aristos in the crowd scenes.

Another actor, Frank O’Connor, caught her eye, and to get his attention, she tripped him on the set. They didn’t meet again for nine months, but Rand had found her man:

I took one look at him and, you know, Frank is the physical type of all my heroes. I instantly fell in love.

They married in 1929, just ahead of her visa’s expiry.

The O’Connors bought a ranch in Tarzana, the real estate development of author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Frank put his acting career on hold. Being Ayn’s male Pygmalion was a full-time job for the next fifty years. Frank called her “Cubbyhole.” She called him “Kitten Fluff.”

After a stint as head of costuming at RKO, Rand sold a never-produced screenplay to MGM in 1932. She wrote a play, which on the strength of its novelty (it had no fixed ending and members of the audience played the jury), made it to Broadway in 1934. The play ran for seven months. As with all her works, Rand denounced the production as contrary to her inviolate vision and accused the producer of robbing her.

The Night of January 16th was Rand’s only theatrical success. Her next play found no market, and a 1940 adaptation of her first novel, We the Living, was a flop (after rewriting January 16th in 1968, Rand authorized a 1973 revival, which also flopped).

Published in 1936, We the Living, the novel in which Rand began working through her issues with the Soviets, sold poorly and went out of print. Anthem (1938) was published in Britain, but found no publisher in America until she was famous and her backlist was reissued in the 1950s.

Rand and her husband took up the cause of Wendell Willkie, the eccentric Republican candidate for president in 1940. She beavered away, at a glacier’s pace, on a new novel, The Fountainhead, she’d started in 1934. The story of a renegade architect with a taste for sexual assault, the book’s central theme is that some men are so gifted, if you ask them to compromise, they can commit terrorist outrages.

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Rand hoovered up experiences everywhere during the book’s long gestation. Heller House, the revolutionary modernist home commissioned from her hero, Howard Roark, by a visionary businessman, she lifted wholesale from a visit to Hangover House, the 1937 modernist design of architect William Levy for his friend the adventure writer Richard Halliburton and his partner, Paul Mooney. Rand was so impressed by Levy, she reimagined him as Howard Roark, despite the fact all three were gay as May poles.

Rand’s views of sexual orientation were considered odd in much of her lifetime. She argued for laws to protect homosexual people from discrimination by the government, but rejected the right to be protected from discrimination in the private sector, such as in housing, public accommodation, and employment discrimination. The stated basis of this conclusion was that it was a product of her stand on property rights, not related to her feelings about homosexuality. Rand supported the right of a private property owner to discriminate, even on a basis that she condemned as immoral, such as racism, and that any act of the government to change this would be an intrusion on individual rights.

Today her views are the stated views of the US Republican Party, except that most of its leaders consider the law side of Rand’s argument passe’ and want to repeal those, too.

Twelve publishers rejected the outline of The Fountainhead (Macmillan, her last publisher, rejected her demands for way more publicity than they gave We The Living; Knopf dropped it when they heard its deadline go whooshing past and discovered Fountainhead was only a third finished).

A Bobbs-Merrill editor threatened to quit if they didn’t buy it. They did.

Rand filled the first of forty years’ worth of Benzedrine prescriptions to deliver a massive doorstop of a manuscript that, but for wartime paper rationing, would have been a third longer.

The story of a young architect who was going to give his clients- and the public- the designs that were good for them, whether they liked them or not, The Fountainhead was notable for its windy, endless scenes of speechmaking and characters who all but wore placards reading “Good” and “Evil/Weak/Bad in Bed.”

Howard Roark’s flintiness met its match in the society terror, Dominique Francon, whom Rand later conceded was Rand herself in a bad mood. Thomas Mallon wrote of her,

Dominique is not simply...“highly stylized”; she is a kind of couture-clad Tesla coil. A reader doesn’t know whether to light her cigarette or to light his with her.

Francon had the hots for Roark, the Nietzschean architect, but conducted affairs with, and married, men she loathed in order to keep her principles pure.

Her virginity was another matter; her rough sex encounter with Roark was an E.L. James fantasy, “rape on an engraved invitation,” Rand called it.

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“Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she later declared, “and I will tell you his whole philosophy of life” (Rand was the featured interview in the March, 1964 issue of Playboy).

Women, she maintained, were natural hero-worshippers who should give themselves over to the pleasure of great men. “I think I represent the proper integration of the complete human being,” she declared, the model of her own marriage notwithstanding (she once denounced feminism as a conspiracy with lesbians and whores).

The book sold slowly, but word of mouth lifted it to sixth place on The New York Times’ bestseller list in 1945. A thirty-part newspaper cartoon series based on the book ran that year, and Warner Brothers soon optioned the story (the book became a favorite of American architecture students; one, David Rockwell, said a remarkable number of his classmates at Syracuse named their dogs “Roark” in the 1970s). The book also lifted the fame of the renegade Frank Lloyd Wright in his last years.

The Fountainhead appeared in theaters in 1949, with Patricia Neal as the weaponized Dominique, and- in inspired casting choices- Gary Cooper as Roark and Raymond Massey as a publishing magnate. Roark’s establishment critics all wore morning coats and wing collars and spoke with mid-Atlantic accents. Cooper and Massey were as wooden as their characters.

The movie lost money, but boosted book sales, and Rand initially called it the most faithful adaptation Hollywood ever made of a book. But just as she got no pleasure from good reviews of the book (she said the reviewers invariably missed the point), she came to hate the film (even though she wrote the screenplay and the script) and thereafter refused all offers that did not give her complete control of everything.

Famous, she needed groupies. She tried once, with a conservative intellectuals’ club after the Willkie campaign; she tried again with a Hollywood version in the Fifties. It didn’t work, either. The only correct ideas were hers.

From her shiny, modernist Richard Neutra house in LA, she emerged for appearances as a “helpful witness” to the House Un American Activities Committee’s blacklisting efforts.

“Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged was widely reviewed,” Mallon writes,

and many of the reviews were strongly negative. In the National Review, conservative author Whittaker Chambers called the book "sophomoric" and "remarkably silly". He described the tone of the book as "shrillness without reprieve" and accused Rand of supporting a godless system (which he related to that of the Soviets), claiming "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'" Atlas Shrugged received positive reviews from a few publications, including praise from the noted book reviewer John Chamberlain,but Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein later wrote that "reviewers seemed to vie with each other in a contest to devise the cleverest put-downs", calling it "execrable claptrap" and "a nightmare"; they said it was "written out of hate" and showed "remorseless hectoring and prolixity". Author Flannery O'Connor wrote in a letter to a friend that "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail."

A more recent critic has called Atlas the capitalist version of the Left Behind books; many have praised Rand’s ability to portray the wealthy, beautiful and creative as society’s victims.

Atlas was written as Rand's revenge on Franklin Roosevelt. She cast her first vote for him in 1932 after he promised smaller government and an end to Prohibition, and never got over how he betrayed her faith. Its plot revolves around another ice queen, Dagny Taggart, and the decay of American industry at the hands of bureaucrats and centralized planning.

There’s the rugged Hank Rearden, inventor of a metal that can revive the railways (another Christian Grey type, he tells Dagny, after one bruising romp, “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”); another man with an almost magical energy machine;  half-forgotten composer, Richard Halley, and God and Nietzsche and Donald Trump all rolled together as John Galt, who lures all the really creative people to a remote, unknown valley to create a utopian civilization they won’t let anyone else enjoy unless they knuckle under to the group’s demands, mind-numbingly detailed in a sixty page address, beginning at page 1000 of the 1168-page book, that takes three hours to read out loud.

According to Galt, the government should exist only to uphold people’s right to do whatever they want, and protect them from enemies, foreign and domestic, who get in the way.

When she says “minimal government”, Rand means it. One character in Atlas Shrugged is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving it to the rich. Another, a builder, chortles over the housing project he unloaded on the Mexicans:

Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …

Rand, having shot her bolt with Atlas Shrugged, moved to New York City and became a philosopher-queen, whose favorite pickup line was, “Tell me your premises.” She collected a drawing room clique who listened to her upper-fueled lectures night after night. So compelling was her weirdness that she picked one follower, Nathaniel Branden (a moody Toronto fourteen-year-old whose life was changed by The Fountainhead), as her lover.

Once he was of age and married, the Brandens and the O’Connors held a conference and at which the lovers explained, in the spirit of reason, this was a fine idea. "We're not Platonists," Rand reminded them, in Branden's account. "We don't hold our values in some other realm, unrelated to the realm in which we live our lives. If Nathan and I are who we are, if we see what we see in each other, if we mean the values we profess — how can we not be in love?"

For his twice a week services (there were some awkward meetings in the hall until Frank got the timing of his departures down), Branden became Rand’s interpreter to the world, hawking her lectures and books, and trying to cobble her harum-scarum theories into what became known as Objectivism.

Branden’s wife began suffering panic attacks; Frank took to drinking and developed a new career as an artist to get out of the house more (Rand used his work for some of her book covers).

In New York Magazine, another follower, Sam Anderson, wrote of how Rand was incapable of losing an argument, “a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted all doubters, left, right and center,” even with “a personality that could neuter an ox at forty paces.”

Rand said the only real authors were Dostoevsky, Edmund Rostand, Victor Hugo and Schiller. Well, and herself, in a sort of Donald Trumpish, second only to the Bible way, though Rand would have felt no shame in claiming top billing.

One associate dubbed her “Mrs. Logic”; another, “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.” She supported abortion rights but not women’s rights, and declared the Indians deserved to lose the land to white people because they had, after so long a stewardship, failed to develop a real civilization.

Her disciples dressed as she did, and bought the same sort of furniture as furnished her Murray Hill flat. One said after an evening with Rand, she knew more of him than his analyst did after five years.

When she pronounced homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting,” her gay fanboys started digging storm cellars in their closets. Brahms was bad; Rachmaninoff, good. One of her heirs thought her views hormonal: Harry Binswanger of the Ayn Rand Institute writes that while Rand generally condemned homosexuality, she would adopt a somewhat modified view of it "when she was in an especially good mood."

Another of her intellectual heirs, Leonard Peikoff, hewed to the “some of her best friends were gay"line: she let them close to her aura, knowing full well that they were homosexual" and that "she certainly regarded some of them as Objectivists."

For his part, Branden tried- much later- to have it both ways:

Branden wrote that Rand was "absolutely and totally ignorant” about homosexuality. Branden added that he saw her perspective "as calamitous, as wrong, as reckless, as irresponsible, and as cruel, and as one which I know has hurt too many people who ... looked up to her and assumed that if she would make that strong a statement she must have awfully good reasons."

At the time, however, the sex was apparently too good to hazard with cavils. Ayn put the “Rand” in “randy.”

The arrangement lasted fifteen years. Branden played her bouncer, physically and intellectually (in the case of one young woman who had offended a Rand ally, "I became an avenging angel, laying before her the wrong she had done with the cold, quiet earnestness of an inquisitor out of the Middle Ages," Branden wrote in his memoir. 'This is one of the aspects of you I love most,' Ayn told me afterward, 'the purity of your moral ruthlessness.')

Then Branden, turning forty, started seeing a younger woman on the side (an actress whose stage surname was Wynant, after one of the characters in The Fountainhead). Rand, 65, read him out of her life, accusing him of robbing her, and- in the movement’s ultimate cut- removed him as dedicatee of Atlas Shrugged.

Rand declared herself the most creative thinker alive, and left the American conservative movement baffled. She told William F. Buckley, Jr. he seemed too smart to be such a devout Catholic; and blew up friendships with economic icons like Hayek and von Mises.

Sidney Hook said she wrote philosophy like a Soviet academic. Finding no equal, she took to quoting John Galt to support her positions.

One of her few Establishment nods came in 1963, when Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College gave her an honorary degree.

A two-pack-a-day smoker for decades, Rand underwent lung cancer surgery in 1974. Though quite wealthy, she unleashed Pure Reason to kick Hypocrisy to the curb as she signed up for Medicare and Social Security as “Ann O’Connor” (an atheist who said her ethnicity meant nothing, she also started sending money to Israel in the 1970s).

Late in life, she watched TV at lot. She loved game shows and “Charlie’s Angel’s”, and thought Farrah Fawcett-Majors would be the ideal Dagny Taggart) She played solitaire, of course. Frank died in 1979.

She lived to see the election of Ronald Reagan as president. In her last speech, late in 1981, she said, “I don’t think of him. And the more I see, the less I think of him.”

For Rand, “the appalling part of his administration was his connection with the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ and sundry other TV religionists, who are struggling, apparently with his approval, to take us back to the Middle Ages via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.”

Rand’s primary concern, it seems, is that this “unconstitutional union” represented a “threat to capitalism.” While she admired Reagan’s appeal to an “inspirational element” in American politics, “he will not find it,” remarked Rand, “in the God, family, tradition swamp.” Instead, she proclaimed, we should be inspired by “the most typical American group… the businessmen.”

Ayn Rand died in 1982. Her $800,000 estate was kept, almost entirely, in a passbook account at the savings and loan across the street from her apartment building.

She has been a bestseller ever since. Her titles sell about half a million copies a year. With the businessmen’s economic collapse of 2008 and election of President Obama, Atlas Shrugged became a favorite of Tea Party enthusiasts and far-right members of Congress who- with a good deal of judicious cherry-picking- have managed to meld her crackpot theories into the platform of the Republican Party.

Her books remain eminently mockable in popular culture. In the TV series Frasier, Kelsey Grammer’s character explained to his academic mentor that his interest in psychiatry was launched when, as a teen, he saw an older boy throw a copy of The Fountainhead under a bus.

Rand’s  followers have split into two camps, the originalists and the “living Constitution” apostates.  Leonard Peikoff, a Canadian Ph.D in philosophy whose cousin was Nathaniel Branden’s first wife, brought him to the inner circle.

After Branden was expelled, Rand left her estate to Peikoff. He lives in California and runs the Ayn Rand Institute.

Nathaniel Branden knew how to ride out a scandal, and became a successful self-help media shrink. He died, his fourth wife at his side, in 2014.

Atlas Shrugged was made into a low budget, unsuccessful movie in three parts between 2010 and 2014. Train enthusiasts loved it. One of the apostasies of modern day Randians is their loathing of mass transit. Odd, that.

In 2016 an 85-year old movie producer, Albert Ruddy, bought the rights- after a 44-year struggle- and announced plans to remake it as an online miniseries, and to do it right.

A 2013 Galt’s Gulch development in Chile took in $10.5 million in investment money from fantasy-minded libertarian millionaires before collapsing two years later in a welter of lawsuits and disappeared money and principals.

The Atlasphere is an online dating site for randy Rand fans.

Rand’s most ironic monument is hard to select, but surely in the top three was the stylish, art deco stamp the US Postal Service issued in 1999.

A keen philatelist, Rand maintained government had no business delivering mail.


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