Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review - Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns

I just finished reading Jennifer Burns' book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, and I enjoyed it very much.

I say this as someone who has done a lot of cringing over years due to thoughtless criticisms of Rand and Objectivism. Goddess of the Market was therefore a breath of fresh air, since Burns obviously took pains to try to produce an objective and comprehensive biography of an author whose history is still the subject of controversy and public conflict. As an Objectivist, I may find details on which to differ with her, but overall I found it to be an authoritative and engrossing biography.

Unexpected Details

The book is also an intellectual/political history of the movements that Ayn Rand created and/or influenced. The latter is a topic about which I knew something, but her activism was far more extensive than I realized.

For example, she was actively involved in various conservative political organizations starting in her Hollywood years, developing extensive relationships with conservative advocacy organizations, the Willkie and Goldwater campaigns, businessmen and business advocacy organizations, and sundry capitalist-friendly political groups. She was a sought-after speaker and writer well before her mature political ideas were formed and before she began writing the non-fiction that most of us know today, such as the essays in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I found this fascinating.

Also interesting was the discussion of her friendships with people who were to become major influences on her, such as Isabel Paterson. In this case, both women had strong personalities and the relationship was rocky at times, finally breaking under the stresses of conflict. However, the mutual respect was clear, and the influence of Paterson on Rand's thinking is evident.

Something Burns did very well in general is to show the progression of Rand's thought throughout her life. Some people may give short shrift to the early stages of her thinking, but it is actually a very interesting window into her mind and psychology.

Before her mature ideas had developed, she found inspiration in the poetic individualism of Friedrich Nietzsche and even in the defiant antisocial attitude of a murderer: William Hickman, a fact that will no doubt be cherished by her enemies. These things speak more to the fact that she was an artist looking for material, than to the content of her mature thought. She found these sources at a time when she was just beginning to define how she was different, and what subjects she wanted to write about. She later repudiated Nietzsche, and her student Leonard Peikoff wrote The Ominous Parallels, which implicated him as one of the intellectual influences on the Third Reich. As Rand matured, she gradually recognized that reason was the bedrock of her system, and rejected Nietzsche's subjectivism.

Burns details how Ayn Rand's life and ideas appears to have affected the stylistic content of her fiction. For example, the relatively sunny optimism of Roark at the quarries gave way to the embattled struggles of Atlas Shrugged, which takes place in an eleventh-hour world of economic entropy only occasionally shot through with the bracing strength and optimism of its heroes and heroines. Galt's Gulch and other select scenes are some of the few unrestrained bright spots in the novel. In the interim between those novels, Rand had faced significant setbacks in the area of intellectual and political activism, and this may have influenced her outlook and her work.

Burns also makes an interesting case for the issue of elitism having such an impact. For example, she contends that Nietzsche's superman is much more like the earlier hero Howard Roark than the later self-imprisoned Hank Rearden or the noble everymen who worked modest jobs on the railroad. As Rand's philosophy matured, she seems to have shifted away from a more isolated individualism to one that at least provided room for common values at different levels of ability and intelligence. This mix of egalitarianism (moral, not economic) with hero-worship is another thing critics seem to ignore in their quest to tar and feather the writer.

I also enjoyed reading the last few sections of the book starting with "Acknowledgments", including a discussion of source material for the book, in the section titled "Essay on Sources". Although this has been noticed before, I found it very disturbing that Burns found published material on Rand where the author's original words had been altered without notice, such as The Journals of Ayn Rand. When dealing with matters of historical record, I can see no justification for this, and in my opinion, the books should be re-issued either with notes indicating the changes, or with the complete original text.

Negatives About Rand

Unfortunately, history has not always been as kind to Ayn Rand as I would like, and these negative topics enter the picture in any comprehensive portrayal of the author. However, it speaks to my trust of Burns' work and the believability of the historical accounts presented, that I include them here as worthy of consideration.

Some people may take issue with the veracity of this or that person's account, but during the unfolding of the book a solid overview of her life emerged, and with regard to the putative negative aspects, here are some of my thoughts:
  • Although Ayn Rand had good relationships with many people over the years, she does seem to have had difficulty maintaining relationships when her ideas were concerned. I think this goes beyond defense of the ideas themselves and speaks to a difficulty negotiating the pros and cons of personal and business connections. Even before the Branden years, she burned quite a few bridges.
  • She also seems to have been naive about dealings with the professional intellectual establishment. Again, this goes beyond the obvious cases where academia mindlessly and unjustly rejected her meritorious ideas without consideration, to a simple lack of familiarity with protocol and the benefits of maintaining long-term relations. Her relationship with John Hospers, who was very much in her corner and could have been an important ally, is a good example of this. I fear that there were many opportunities lost as a result.
  • Rand seems to have used amphetamines for years, initially as a way to keep up her work pace under publisher deadlines. Even a cursory look at the psychological effects of this drug is eye-opening, because it reads like a laundry list of behaviors for which she has been criticized (even by former supporters).
  • When I look at the full sweep of her life in terms of people, the main negative influence is apparent: Nathaniel Branden. The high-altitude picture is that on balance Ayn Rand was at her worst while Branden was in her life, and in my opinion, his negativity stuck with her. His effect at the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) was chilling and dictatorial, and I suspect it was his psychological ideas combined with his personality that were the cause. There are enough first-hand accounts to support the idea that Rand also adopted negative attitudes and practices, but any latent negativity seems to have been amplified by Branden. Positive contributions made by his Institute were rendered moot by his negative influence on her and others associated with NBI.
  • I am still at a loss as to how to make sense of her romantic relationship with Branden. The way it was handled seems odd and cruel to the spouses. I hope that someday someone can enlighten me on what to make of this whole episode.
It should be noted that the focus of Goddess of the Market is Ayn Rand's intellectual development and therefore the book centers only on certain aspects of her social and public life. This may leave one with a more negative impression of Rand as a person than is warranted. An example of an alternative, and more sanguine, account of her personality can be found in other sources such as the excellent and engaging Facets of Ayn Rand by Charles and Mary Ann Sures. I do not think the purpose of Burn's book was merely to provide a portrayal of Rand as a person, so I would not take it as such. Read it for what it is: a biography with a focus on intellectual history.

And now for happier subjects.

The Good

Burns' history of Ayn Rand's ideas and their influence is accurate, measured, and without the negative connotations and judgments to which her thought is often subjected. She does not condescend by using the oft-heard "shallow but popular" defense of Rand. She gives credit where credit is due, and that credit is the portrayal of a deep, lasting influence based on significant intellectual contributions. Other than the enjoyment of reading about a heroine's life, hearing confirmation of Ayn Rand's importance as a thinker is my favorite aspect of the book.

With the exception of a few issues (noted below), I would say Burns delivers an unusually accurate and engaging picture of Ayn Rand's intellectual influence both in terms of substance and in terms of degree. It has been common for pundits, going back to the time of Whittaker Chambers, to dismiss Rand as an unimportant crank with nothing to say. This is far from the truth, and Burns was successful in recording the extent of Rand's true philosophical legacy.

For example, the libertarian movement itself owes much to Rand, and even though she was a constant critic of libertarians, they count her as an important intellectual influence. I was surprised to hear about the synthesis of hippie culture and libertarianism in the 60s. This topic dovetails perfectly with my own experience at what was billed as an "Objectivist" meeting in college. The meeting was monopolized by a verbose, hirsute anarchist who certainly seemed to have far more in common with Woodstock hippies than the Apollo Program, Rand's example of man's rational best. It was my last Objectivist meeting for years, and I can certainly understand Rand's reaction to the same sort of people.

Where I Differ

The main differences I had with Burns' account were in certain subtleties of analysis. I am not privy to the historical archive materials so I take any information gleaned from them at face value. However, there are certain things that are available to anyone who can read Rand's public work, and therein lie some of my disagreements.

For instance, I had the opposite reaction to Burns regarding Rand's treatment of so-called ordinary men and women in Atlas Shrugged vs. The Fountainhead. Burns suggests on page 173 that a certain elitism is evident in Atlas Shrugged and that
...Rand entirely drops the populism and egalitarianism that characterized her earlier work...

I find Rand's portrayal of the railroad workers and similar people throughout Atlas Shrugged to be just the opposite. Take the crew that accompanied Hank and Dagny on the inaugural trip of the John Galt Line, which is a celebratory high point and an example of the essence of what people should aspire to. She could have ignored the engineer, brakemen and other lesser characters, but instead she chose to celebrate them by having them share in the event, each contributing to the best of their own ability. In fact, this type of treatment is one of the things that I took special note of while reading the novel.

Another area is Rand's view of emotion. The following passage is on page 225, where Burns is discussing Nathaniel Branden:
Nathan's problems were compounded by his development of Objectivist psychology, which denied the autonomy and importance of emotions... In For the New Intellectual [Rand] declared, "Emotions are not tools of cognition," a statement that would resurface repeatedly in all Objectivist writing. To Rand an emotion "tells you nothing about reality" and could never be "proof" of anything.

The only problem is, Rand's statement is correct: emotions are not tools of cognition, they are subconscious responses, rather than a form of awareness. This is not to say they should be suppressed or ignored, in fact Rand regarded emotion as a vital check on one's beliefs, and on our success or failure in choosing the right courses of action and values. They are not the standard by which to judge those actions, but are powerful indicators to reinforce the validity of rational ideas, or suggest avenues for possible introspection, if the emotional responses are inappropriate.

Yet another issue is that of social activity. On page 209 Burns says:
Her vision of society was atomistic, not organic. Rand's ideal society was made up of traders, offering value for value, whose relationships spanned only the length of any given transaction.

I don't want to read too much into this passage, but it seems to imply the common misconception that Rand condemns social activity and cooperation. There is nothing in Rand's view of society or capitalism -- rightly understood -- that specifies a limit on the extent or duration of social relations. The reason is that Rand's position was that most political philosophers' notion of social interaction is not social at all, but coercive barbarism. To claim that social life consists of chaining individuals together towards some unchosen societal end (which is what many collectivist plans amount to) is a tragically ironic and subversive use of the term, and it is this factual and moral distortion that Rand was opposing. In the end, it is actually the alleged advocates of "community" who are antisocial, and Rand who encourages social activity, because only free citizens can engage in non-sacrificial, mutually beneficial relationships.

Although such philosophical points are important, they also constitute some of the main subtleties of Objectivism, and are a common source of difficulty for those studying Rand's work. I found them to be relatively minor deviations from the overall accuracy and insightfulness of Burns' book from an Objectivist point of view. They are also counterbalanced by the many cases in which Burns gets Rand right where others have failed, and she deserves a great deal of credit for having maintained such an impressive level of accuracy throughout the book. Ayn Rand is a complex subject, so that is no small feat.

Conclusion

In the end, Goddess of the Market is a valuable contribution to the personal and intellectual history of Ayn Rand. Burns' account belies the widespread view that Rand was without deep significance, and replaces that belief with solid research and details concerning her passion, originality, and her extensive and growing impact. The book was informative, enjoyable, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the life and ideas of this important American thinker.

Edits after posting: Changed "apparent" to "available". Added 1 paragraph at the end of the section "Negatives About Rand" starting with "It should be noted...".

6 comments:

  1. Sounds like the book is going to be a worthwhile read. Thanks for the review.

    I was more impressed with your objective view of Rand though. It's not often you come across a discussion of Rand that is not made up entirely of one-sided, emotional opinions of the author and her philosophy.

    I read everything @aynrandfan posts on Twitter, both good and bad, and this was a particularly refreshing read due to your seemingly objective view on the subject.

    Do you write much on the topics covered by Rand's philosophy?

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  2. Thanks. I try to be equitable, yet stand firm when necessary.

    I post on Objectivism here on my blog, in addition to the posts about outdoor stuff, etc.

    If you find there is too much inflamed talk on the site(s) you currently follow, I recommend the bloggers in the OBloggers list on the right side of my blog (the same list appears on many of those blogs). They are a good bunch of people, the posts are interesting and varied, and they are knowledgeable on the subject of Objectivism.

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  3. I invite you to read my review at Shaving Leviathan, where I take a somewhat dimmer view of Burns' book, while still recognizing some of its virtues.

    Respectfully,
    Jeff Perren

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  4. Jeff,

    (I am cross-posting this comment because it's about both of our reviews)

    Nice review. You did a better job than I did of detailing some of the worst instances of her mistakes.

    My positive overall judgment is due primarily to the fact that I am glad to see a non-Objectivist such as Burns take a crack at a serious history of Rand's life. She makes mistakes, but frankly, I've seen would-be Objectivists make the same mistakes while learning Objectivism. I'm not sure how much of that I attribute to her dislike, and how much to her simply getting the ideas wrong. You probably guessed that my inclination is towards the latter, although the quotes you found are pretty damning.

    One thing that is clear to me is that the story of Rand's mature career years is not yet fully told. You said something that caught my eye: "This, for the first time in the book, borders on sheer distortion of Rand's beliefs. Sadly, that theme continues with greater force in the second half of the book." I noticed the exact same thing: the last half of the book is significantly more negative. However, I wonder: is it simply that Burns' distortions are arbitrarily greater in the second half, or is she accurately reporting things that are less likeable about the older Rand, or are those traits triggering a more negative response to the author, or are the reports about Rand simply lies, or some combination of these things?

    My tentative hypothesis is that we are seeing Branden's negative influence, but I cannot properly integrate all the facts of that time period, so I'll abstain from any sort of significant judgment. It's a subject for more thinking and other posts, and I want to see what other Objectivists have to say. I've already decided to revisit the book at some point in the future.

    Regardless, history's decision on Rand is of crucial importance. My own view is positive, but there are negative things that I cannot makes sense of -- if in fact they are true. If her philosophy was right, then it should produce good results in practice. If Rand could not practice her own philosophy, then am I kidding myself to think it's working for me (not something that keeps me up at night, mind you)? Are the negatives about Rand correct? If so, how do they square with Objectivism? If not, how do we explain the negative impression many had of the milieu at NBI? Are the various personal rejections all justified? Did Rand make mistakes and if so, what are they? I have tentative hypotheses about some of these things, but I am not yet satisfied that they comprise a valid picture of that period of Rand's life.

    Jeff Montgomery
    http://funwithgravity.blogspot.com

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  5. I think it's important to separate Burn's understanding of Rand's thought from her interpretation of it. I think Burns does a reasonably good job of making it clear when she is describing what Rand said on one hand and interpreting it on the other. Much of the criticism I've read of the book doesn't make this distinction.

    Take this quote from the book:

    "The presence of Rand, a charismatic personality, was enough to tip Objectivism into quasi-religious territory, but Objectivism was also easy to abuse because of its very totalizing structure. There were elements deep within the philosophy that encouraged its dogmatic and coercive tendencies."

    While an Objectivist might not agree with this, I doubt the reader would come to the conclusion that Rand thought Objectivism promoted conformity.

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