The Siren of Selfishness

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand; drawing by John Cuneo

As a teenager, I fell for Ayn Rand.

More precisely, I fell for her novels. Reading The Fountainhead at the age of fourteen, I was overwhelmed by the intensity and passion of Rand’s heroic characters. Who could forget the indomitable Howard Roark?

His face was like a law of nature—a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.

Roark was defined by his fierce independence: “I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life,” he says in the novel. “Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.” Like countless teenage boys, I aspired to be like Roark. And I found Rand’s heroine, Dominique Francon, irresistible. She was not only preternaturally beautiful—“she looked like a stylized drawing of a woman and made the correct proportions of a normal being appear heavy and awkward beside her”—but also brilliant, elegant, imperious, and cruel.

Enraptured by The Fountainhead, I turned immediately to Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s thousand-page morality tale about the titans of industry and other champions of capitalism, punctuated and propelled by love affairs. In her author’s note to that book, Rand explained, “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.” Man as a heroic being! Reason as the only absolute! My adolescent self, frequently unreasonable and unsteady, was intrigued by those words.

In Rand’s operatic tales, the world is divided into two kinds of people: the creators and the parasites. The creator is “self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated.” He lives for himself. By contrast, the parasite “lives second-hand” and depends on other people. The parasite “preaches altruism”—a degrading thing—and “demands that man live for others.” Rand shows insidious parasites trying desperately to domesticate or enfeeble creators, who ultimately find a way to triumph by carving out their own path.

Rand’s narratives seemed to me to reveal secrets. She turned the world upside down. But after about six weeks of enchantment, her books started to make me sick. Contemptuous toward most of humanity, merciless about human frailty, and constantly hammering on the moral evils of redistribution, they produced a sense of claustrophobia. They were unremitting. They had too little humor or play. It wasn’t as though I detected a logical flaw in Rand’s writing and decided to embrace altruism, or that I began to like the New Deal and the welfare state. It was more visceral than that. Reading and thinking about Rand’s novels felt like being trapped in…

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