I was introduced to Ayn Rand's ideas during the last year of my engineering by a close friend who seemed floored by her philosophy. I read Capitalism – The Unknown Ideal and The New Intellectual – both smaller books explaining her philosophy which she named Objectivism.
These two books kindled my interest to read her two main works of fiction with strong philosophical undercurrent : The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged later. The enduring influence of Rand's philosophy on college-goers can hardly be exaggerated. You get those "What on earth do you read" looks when you betray your ignorance about her. What's it about her that endears her to most college-goers (OK, among the serious type at college)?
Throughout her works she advocates free-market capitalism, individualism, rationalism and decries every strand of socialist thinking. Beginning to write around 1930s, she hails the unbridled capitalism as practised in US in 19th century and opposes the newly introduced welfare-oriented socialist policies (New Deal during the Great Depression).
What shaped her ideas?
Philosophy isn't an abstract entity untouched by human experience. It is born from circumstances and capabilities. Rand owes her spirited defence of Capitalism to her upbringing in communist USSR where her family lost their medical shop to nationalization. She visited US under a pretense of seeing a relative, never to return. She worked as a scriptwriter for Hollywood while simultaneously developing her philosophy (later called Objectivist Philosophy).
A reviewer once mocked Atlas Shrugged as a nightmarish version of Nietzschean Superman. Rand herself concedes that she was heavily inspired by Frederich Nietzsche, something that becomes absolutely clear from her works. From Nietzsche she borrows themes such as individualism, hero-worship, elitism, contempt for lower men (the definition of 'lower' differs slightly though) among others. Where she differs however is her unbashed advocacy of reason as the sole means of judgment whereas Nietzsche's ideas aren't exactly rational.
The Fountainhead is the best way to get acquainted with her philosophy. A fictional novel, she had dovetailed characters so as to make her philosophy clear through them. The portrayal of Howard Roark, an aspiring architect in a world which advocates conformity, rejection of his original works by society and his final triumph based on his own original designs make for an interesting reading often offering fresh perspective. The focus is on the individual as an end by himself, not as a part of society bounded by its rules.
I wouldn't recommend Atlas Shrugged unless you're completed floored by The Fountainhead. Indeed, Atlas Shrugged is one of the lengthiest novel I've ever set my eyes on with frequent "lecture-mode" chapters that strangle your patience. The final speech made by the central character John Galt is 70 pages long (the book being 1168 pages long) ! The focus here is wide : individual, society, relations, sex, money, work,(you name it).
One can note the extreme polarity in her portrayal of characters. Men/women who're strong-minded, intelligent, independent and the real creators – or people who're selfish, talentless, dependents, sentimental etc. The lack of nuance is simultaneously the secret of her enduring admiration among masses while being an outcast among intellectuals. Despite self-claiming that her work is the sum-total (and therefore culmination) of all right philosophies with a complete philosophical treatment of all subjects under sun, she remains largely shunned by academia although her popularity among masses continues unabated.
To paraphrase what's said of Communist : No intelligent person can afford to avoid Rand, but no one intelligent enough can remain a Randian for long.
While my friends felt Atlas Shrugged was one book that all students must read, one wonders when why the same book invites criticism as harsh as this : "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." [ attributed to John Rogers, oft-quoted by Paul Krugman]
With benefit of hindsight I feel that her works must be read notwithstanding the criticism, not necessarily because the criticism is unjustified, but because she offers a fresh evaluation of morals, ethics and relationship between society and individual. The reason why she receives unqualified adulation from teens & graduates is precisely because her works hit us hard and to paraphrase Franz Kafka her books are like "axe for the frozen sea inside us".
But simultaneously one must refrain from getting overwhelmed by radical ideas at an impressionable age. I argued with my friend that although I don't rule out people like Howard Roark may exist in real world, it appears plain irrational & stupid to be as ideal. Rand prides herself (also her fans) on the remarkable consistency of her ideology throughout her literary career – but exactly this consistency is what I find problematic.
Life is too complex to be reduced to a single ideology no matter how sophisticated or all-encompassing it is. Whereas communists err by reducing all things to economic parameters, Rand despite being their staunch critic falls into the same trap. Her earlier novels although simpler & smaller were written when her philosophy was still developing, hence an element of skeptism creeped into her work making them readable by all. The later works, written when she was convinced prophet of her philosophy, leave no space for ambiguity and uncertainty; in her world everything is black or white and anything in between is black too.
Her uncompromising position on all facets of philosophy and the unaccomodating nature of her philosophy which she insists shouldn't be changed one bit (or it loses its philosophical sanctity) makes her an atheist equivalent of dogmatic religious priest.
Ayn Rand had a fascinating and controversial personal life, neatly captured by her disciple in a book which was later made into a movie "The Passion of Ayn Rand". Rand was married to Frank O'Connor, a Hollywood actor whom she met while trying to get a break as a writer in Hollywood. Although marred by allegations that her actions deeply troubled her husband, the relationship stayed on for a solid 50 years broken only by his death.
Riding high on the success of The Fountainhead, Rand came into touch with Nathaniel Branden, an ardent fan with whom she exchanged several mails and phonecalls. Branden finally visited her and her husband in 1950 along with his girl friend Barbara Weidman and soon all of them became close friends. Branden married Barbara shortly; meanwhile Branden contributed to the development of Atlas Shrugged immensely and also successfully publicized Rand's teachings through creation of Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI).
The special philosophic bond shared by the teacher-disciple soon veered towards a more mundane, rather amorous sphere. Rand began a love affair with Branden, 25 years her junior, after both extracted a reluctant approval from their spouses. (Yes ! You read that right !)
However, the relation wasn't smooth. Branden although on friendly terms with his wife Barbara, was sensing acute differences and having sorted that they must eventually break up, began dating another woman. Both decided to conceal these developments from Rand, given her passionate character, but she finally came to know this – she denounced both of them publicly. Branden, until then, the second-in-command and widely seen as Rand's successor in the Objectivist movement became a persona-non-grata within the movement and Rand's works thereafter contained the disclaimer that Branden was no longer a part of Objectivist movement. Barbara was thrown out too for having preserved the secret.
Barbara later went on to write The Passion of Ayn Rand where she reveals the real story behind the breakup (Rand when dissociating herself with both Branden and Barbara gave some incoherent explanations like their "philosophic irrationality" & "unresolved psychological problems".)
Although Rand and Branden never reconciled, Rand corresponded with Barbara later and even met her before her death. Branden although largely still appreciative of his mentor has come to criticize her philosophy which he now feels "encourages emotional repression and moralizing" and laments "her failure to appreciate adequately the importance of kindness in human relationships". Branden later became a pyschotherapist in his own right and has contributed much in that area.
All in all : a colorful life for a person whose philosophy was to a large extent monochromatic.
PS1 : Alan Greenspan who was Ayn Rand's disciple and part of her inner circle, later went on to become the 13th Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
PS 2: Telugu marxist writer Ranganayakamma of Ramayana Vishavruksham fame has some striking similarities with Ayn Rand. Ranganayakamma's writing style is supposed to clear, forceful and radical much like Rand. After divorcing her first husband, she started living with her disciple-turned-lover though they were never formally married.