"If you actually believe what you write, then you are unalterably evil," a reader wrote to me a couple of years ago. "If you only write it because you are specifically paid to write it, you are immoral. . . ." There's something comic in the implacable phrasing of those alternatives (do I get a third choice?), but the comedy was unconscious. My correspondent could not have seen the humour, since he was writing as a passionate defender of Ayn Rand (1905-82), author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. He therefore belongs to the grimmest mob of quasi-intellectuals that any writer of the last half-century has called into being.
He won't enjoy The Rand Cult (Open Court, 396 pages, $31.25), by Jeff Walker, an account of the chaotic, angry school that swims in Rand's wake. While Walker's book is often clumsily written, it provides an absorbing portrait of the still-thriving Rand movement. He reports that books by and about her sell half a million copies a year, and Randian organizations keep attracting new members.
Walker is a Toronto freelance journalist who did a series on Rand for CBC Radio's Ideas in 1992. It's appropriate that a Canadian should dissect the Rand organization. After all, Canadians founded it. In 1951 two New York University students, Nathan Blumenthal of Toronto and his wife-to-be, Barbara Weidman of Winnipeg, were enthralled by Rand's vision of world-conquering heroes, unfettered by government, freed of religious restraints on their triumphant egos. Soon Blumenthal became Nathaniel Branden (he chose the surname because it contains "rand") and signed on, with Barbara at his side, as Rand's chief disciple, building the Objectivist movement.
In 1955 he also became Rand's lover, when she was 50 and he was 24. This led eventually to the scandal that shook Objectivism. In 1968 he told Rand (who was wondering why their affair had lost its magic) that he was in love with a gorgeous model who happened to be 35 years younger than Rand. Predictably, Rand threw him out of the movement and blacklisted anyone who associated with him. Nevertheless, he kept spouting Randisms. He still thinks Atlas Shrugged the greatest novel ever written.
Walker classifies Objectivism as a cult, and certainly it has cultish qualities: It insists on conformity, judges members by loyalty rather than merit, shames and excommunicates dissenters, interferes in the private lives of members and claims to have an answer for everything. But it doesn't entirely fit the cult pattern: no street solicitation, no begging, no barracks or dorms, no techniques of sleep deprivation, etc. It more closely resembles an old-fashioned political movement, always splitting into smaller parts, like the Trotskyites.
Walker provides some striking glimpses of the Randians. He quotes one man, still an adherent, who says Objectivists are exceptionally prone to bitter quarrels and violently broken friendships. They tend to be lonely and timid, quite unlike the heroic figures in Rand's fiction. Walker mentions that, at least in the old days, Rand and her followers smoked so much that anyone who didn't smoke was considered weird. One member was asked why he didn't smoke. He said he was allergic to tobacco. "Oh, that's okay, then," somebody said. We're talking about seriously strange people here.
The name, Objectivist, is especially odd. If objective means even-handed and lacking in bias, then Ayn Rand seems seldom to have had an objective thought in her head. This grotesque, bitter woman, with her angry belief that only she understood the nature of human society, allowed personal rancour to govern her actions and was so insecure that she couldn't tolerate a whiff of disagreement. Walker says her "philosophy" merely reflected her own emotional needs. A careful reading of the literature (especially her letters, and most especially her lumpy, embarrassing novels) confirms that judgment.
Since Rand began writing, the world has grown more conservative, and more suspicious of government. She lived long enough to claim some credit, but the claim was dubious. If one intellectual guided the turn to the right, it was economist Friedrich Hayek -- and Rand was so obtuse that she despised him, as "an example of our most pernicious enemy."
In the eyes of Randians, the greatest crime -- so great it can't even be mentioned or thought about -- is a sense of humour. "Rand herself was highly suspicious of humour," Walker notes. Brutal sneering at the unenlightened was permissible, but a normal sense of humour was threatening. Come to think of it, I never met two more solemn fools than the Brandens, whom I had lunch with when they were still leading the Objectivists in the 1960s. Randians take themselves so seriously that they will never be in danger of understanding how amusing the rest of the world finds them.