This article appeared in Full Context 11, no. 4 (March/April 1999):  9-11.

BOOKS FOR RAND STUDIES

By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Book Review:

Ayn Rand, Russian Writings on Hollywood, edited by Michael S. Berliner (Marina del Rey: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1999), 223 pages, $19.95

Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 396 pages, $19.95

The continuing stream of works by and about Ayn Rand constitutes proof of a virtual renaissance in Rand scholarship.1   The publication of two new books provides additional evidence of this growth in Rand studies. Each offers something of importance to Rand scholars.2

Rand’s Russian Writings on Hollywood is the first official release from the Ayn Rand Archives. It features translations of Rand’s work on the American cinema, previously published in her native land, along with priceless period photos taken from these and other sources.

The book opens with a facsimile and translation of Rand’s Pola Negri. Published in 1925 in Leningrad and Moscow under the name "A. Rosenbaum," this monograph was part of a series about movie stars, which included booklets on Mary Pickford and Max Linder. Rand’s examination of the "atypical" Negri, with her "mysterious contemptuous smile"—a trait found in nearly all of Rand’s protagonists—celebrates the actresses’s screen persona as "the strong, powerful woman," the "proud woman-conqueror . . . [who is] powerful even in her suffering" (32). Rand sounds familiar themes in extolling Negri’s concentration of "her whole life . . . in her artistic endeavors" (32). As the embodiment of "power, the eternal, unconquerable power of a woman," Negri "portrays the woman victorious" (35). For the young Rand, the actress seems to have encapsulated a nascent feminist ideal, one that would reappear in Kira Argounova of We the Living and in Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged.

Captivated by the power of the American cinema, Rand also wrote Hollywood: American City of Movies (a title previously translated by ARI associates as Hollywood: American Movie-City). It was published without Rand’s permission in St. Petersburg in 1926, after her American emigration. Editor Michael Berliner tells us that the original publisher, Zlatkin, apparently added some "anti-capitalist" elements to the book’s preface, introducing "occasional Marxist interpretations" into the text (43), which condemns studio businessmen who "squeeze out their million dollar profits" from the real creators of film (78). The monograph was discovered in the St. Petersburg Public Library in 1994, and is reprinted in facsimile and translation.

Rand examines the origins of the Hollywood studios, their intense competition and most prominent producers, directors, and stars. In acknowledging the seductive power of Hollywood, and its worldwide impact, she offers snapshots of the "naturalistic" Griffith, of the "original artistic truth" of DeMille, and of a whole generation of silent film actors — from Chaplin to Keaton to Valentino to Fairbanks. She looks at characters, children, cameramen, designers, musicians, and even animals in the cinema, but remains critical of Hollywood’s scenarists, who are more likely to adapt existing works than to forge original visions.

"Ayn Rand’s Movie Diary" is a compendium of the author’s ratings of various films, with their actors and directors noted. Begun in 1922, the diary was copied by her sister Nora and mailed to Rand approximately one month after her emigration. Rand continued the diary into March of 1929, and provided an almost daily rendering of her film-viewing activities, including notations on the movie houses she visited. She eventually worked with some of her favorite actors, including Joseph Schildkraut, who apparently "flirted with her on the set of The King of Kings," and Walter Pidgeon, who would star in the Broadway production of Night of January 16th (113).

What is striking is the sheer number of films that Rand viewed. While there are many repetitions—since Rand saw some of her favorites two and three times—the entries total 433. These include films viewed in some of the most glorious theaters of the time, in Latvia, Berlin, and Paris, en route to the United States, and in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood, once Rand arrived. One could criticize Rand’s rating of any particular film (for example, her "not even 0" grade for Lon Chaney’s classic Phantom of the Opera), but she certainly recognizes the greatness of some of the most important silent films ever made—including The Indian Tomb, The Isle of Lost Ships, Intolerance, Ben-Hur, The Big Parade and Metropolis. It is interesting that, perhaps for lack of critical distance, the only film that she refuses to rate is the one in which she and her future husband, Frank O’Connor, were cast as extras: The King of Kings. The book concludes with a ranking of Rand’s favorite actors, headed by Conrad Veidt and Gary Cooper (who would eventually portray Howard Roark in the film version of The Fountainhead), and her favorite actresses, headed by Greta Garbo and Pola Negri.

Russian Writings on Hollywood provides some interesting research possibilities for scholars. Indeed, given Rand’s life-long fascination with film, a book-length scholarly examination of the impact of the cinema on her fiction and overall aesthetic seems long overdue. Such a study would deepen immeasurably our understanding of Rand, who was always first and foremost an artist.

In his exploration of the relationship of aesthetic vision and the power of the cult, James Fernandez insists that the activity of the artist actually "precedes as much as it succeeds" the creation of religious or spiritual meaning among a group of followers. Examining African Fang culture, Fernandez argues that such "aesthetic meanings" are one way in which the artist attempts "to restore order" and "a universe of moral relevance" within a changing world of violent upheaval.3 Inspired by the stark imagery of Rand’s fiction, her veritable mythology of superheroes and superheroines, the Objectivist movement exhibited certain cult-like characteristics that, in the global scope of cultural history, were not all that unusual. While such characteristics have been noted by writers as diverse as Murray Rothbard and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, there have not been any full-length volumes devoted to a study of Objectivism as a cult—until now.

The Ayn Rand Cult, says author Jeff Walker, is not "primarily an attempt to refute Rand’s theories" (ix)—even though the book is chock full of critical commentary on Objectivism—but a study of the movement she inspired. Focusing on Rand’s "institutionalized social network" (7), Walker criticizes Objectivism as a system designed to "replace or revitalize . . . religion" by putting forth a substitute "totalist set of beliefs" (66). With most twentieth century thinkers declaring "God is dead" only to embrace state-worship in its place, Rand championed "the beliefs and values of industrial capitalism and rationalism," forging a cult not unlike Hubbard’s Dianetics or Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (67-68). Throughout the book, Walker tries to document this thesis by discussing much of the ridiculous and the tragic in Objectivist sub-culture—the breaks, the purges, and the hyperbolic claims of Rand’s sycophants that she was a "once in a millennium genius" (76). He argues, at times persuasively, that the organized movement inspired cult-like behavior amongst—and a "reign of intellectual terror" on—many of its adherents, fostering alienation and repression (56). Unfortunately, however, the book stands as a mean-spirited textual analogue to the "politics of personal destruction" about which we’ve heard so much lately. Whatever one might learn from Walker’s insights is undermined by his endless tirades, strung together in a rather disorganized fashion, amounting to a series of vitriolic ad hominems directed toward most of the major figures in Objectivism.

Nevertheless, Walker’s central theoretical points need to be grappled with. He argues that the mentality of the "Randroids"—a term probably coined by the late Roy Childs (38)—emerges from the Objectivist’s apocalyptic dualism of good and evil. For Rand, the victory of the good required a commitment to "ideological totalism" (51), declares Walker, and its concomitant "acts of submission" since one had to accept "all or nothing" of her philosophy (54). Walker argues, like Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin before him, that those who seek such a totalistic vision "contrive a single explanation . . . that they insist covers everything, which they then expect everyone to embrace" (105). Popper had warned that there was an inextricable connection between this methodological emphasis and political totalitarianism. Walker maintains that Rand is no better than Hegel or Marx in this regard. Each of these thinkers rejected the fact-value dichotomy, a dualism that must be retained, Walker emphasizes, if we are to block the totalists from "shoving their pet normative prescriptions down the collective throat of society . . ." (106).

But the Hegelian and Marxian rejection of fact-value dualism often degenerated into spiritualist or materialist monism, respectively. Rand’s system harks toward the rejection of both dualism and monism. While some of Rand’s followers rigidified her "unified world outlook" into an authoritarian weapon that prescribed "a line on everything"—what art to like, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear, what partner to love (108)—Walker is wrong to indict the philosophy simply because of these rationalistic distortions. Objectivism demands that one never drop the context of one’s distinct conditions in the application of its tenets. Those "Randroids" who ignore context in their evaluation of people, events, or ideas do not serve the philosophy of Objectivism—or their own well-being. It is no wonder that so many have achieved alienation even as the philosophy beckons toward liberation.

There is this battle between two "Objectivisms"—a battle between a cult and the legitimate development and application of the philosophy. As I maintain in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Rand provided a model for grasping the "totality" while eschewing totalitarianism. She sought to understand the interconnections among such disparate factors as culture, economics, social psychology, ethics, and epistemology. When so-called Objectivists attempt to infer the moral character of an individual by a cursory glance at that individual’s aesthetic tastes, for example, they are not adhering to what I have termed the "dialectical" or context-sensitive tenets of their own philosophy. What they achieve is the reification of some attributes as if these were the whole, a sure prescription for dogmatism.

Ironically, Walker dismisses this mantra of "holding the full context"—but it is precisely such "Randianisms" that separate Objectivism, properly understood, from the religious and communist theodicies it opposes. Walker seems to admit as much; he tells us of "a core . . . within Objectivism which could be stripped free of unfounded dogma, but what would be left would be neither vibrant nor original" (73). He dismisses Rand’s work because "[n]o one outside Objectivism regards" it as having made "any important contribution" (78). While intellectual consensus is proof of nothing, Walker ignores the growth of serious scholarship on Rand in journals, articles, and books, in disciplines as diverse as political science, aesthetics, psychology, and gender studies.

Walker’s discussions of the "Nietzschean" and "Judaic" roots of Objectivism are sometimes provocative, as is his assertion that Rand was influenced by the pro-business literature of the 1920's.4   It is regrettable that he does not develop these points, though his examination of the analogies between Objectivism and Judaism is lengthier (277-87) than previous discussions in such works as Ronald Merrill’s Ideas of Ayn Rand or Florence King’s With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy.

For all his valuable insights on the dangers of cults or of Rand’s intellectual roots, Walker’s book ultimately disappoints. Though he criticizes Rand for her psychologistic dissection of opponents (32), he engages in his own psychologizing of the "negative [anti-social] origins" of her philosophy (265). And instead of analyzing the complex relationship between Rand’s fiction and her followers, he exhibits the characteristics of a tabloid journalist.

Most of the details of the Rand-Branden affair are retold here, for the umpteenth time, as are several horror stories about the principals involved. Walker is a master of pettiness and the innuendo. He repeats sordid, unsubstantiated charges, made originally by Virginia Hamel, that Nathaniel Branden was negligent in the death of his second wife (154). And he suggests that Leonard Peikoff may be lacking in the kind of "masculine" and "virile" qualities that Rand sought in her ideal heterosexual men (185).

How does Walker know any of this? Actually he doesn’t. None of these charges are made by him directly. They are simply statements taken from other sources that are reported without comment. And because he quotes from so many individuals, he often leaves evaluation of the issues to the cited sources—however poorly documented these might be. He uses arguments from Bidinotto, Torres and Kamhi, even Sciabarra, when the points seem to coincide with his own. But he rarely grapples with the interpretations of these individuals when they diverge from his own. His strategy of argument-by-quotation fails since it relies on the views of individuals who are used as foils to one another. Peikoff, the Brandens, Kelley, Childs, Kay Nolte Smith, the Blumenthals, and so many others become missiles of mutually assured destruction. And since Walker questions the integrity of many of these individuals, his MAD strategy leaves one wondering: Why on earth should one believe anyone’s assessments? If Objectivists and ex-Objectivists are such vermin, why accept the validity of any of their evaluations of the Rand "cult"—or of each other? One cannot consistently impugn the characters of people whose testimony is required in order to make one’s case. Such an approach does not work well in a court of law—or in the court of public opinion, which is Walker’s ultimate target.

In that court, Objectivism will prevail only if it transcends those cult-like elements with which it has been associated and which Walker criticizes appropriately. In the battle of the two "Objectivisms," victory belongs to those who seek neither dominance nor submission, but only a better understanding of the status quo in their valiant efforts to change it.

Jeff Walker responded to Sciabarra's review of The Ayn Rand Cult in Full Context  11, no. 6 (July/August 1999)

Walker appreciated Sciabarra's praise of certain aspects of his book, but objected to his characterization of the book as "mean-spirited."   He engages in a point-by-point consideration of Sciabarra's review, focusing on the Rand/Branden affair, and "Peikoff's apparent effeminacy," as "relevant to a movement whose originator and whose leading figure since the originator's death have so deplored homosexual behavior and so extolled rugged heterosexuality . . ."   Finally, he objects to Sciabarra's use of the word "vermin," for he "portrayed no one in The Ayn Rand Cult as vermin and [is] offended at the very suggestion that [he] did so."

In the same issue, Chris Matthew Sciabarra replies to Jeff Walker:

I believe it was Nietzsche who once said that a philosopher must be forgiven their first disciples. As I suggested in my review, Walker's book does perform a service: it brings into one place all the dirt on the Objectivist movement. And to the extent that the movement's follies are recognized, we may begin the process of separating the personal life of the philosopher from the philosophy.

Still, I characterized Walker's book as "mean-spirited" in tone. Walker is correct; orthodox Objectivists tend to dismiss many instances of spirited dialogue as vitriol. And while orthodox followers can certainly dish it out, they can't take it when it is served to them on a silver platter. But I reject mean-spiritedness from either Rand's fans or her critics. And I do believe that it is, at times, mean-spirited, and potentially self-contradictory, to indict people's characters based on the testimonies of those who themselves are indicted by the individuals under attack. It is true that one might be able to weed through the various accounts of a story in an effort to distinguish credible aspects. But Walker has not engaged in this kind of thorough, investigative journalism. In most cases, he simply reports what the various sources say.

While personal testimonies are important in the reconstruction of history, they do not alone enable us to grasp the facts. Take Virginia Hamel's comments on Branden's alleged negligence in the death of his second wife. In a court of law, we'd have an opportunity to cross examine Hamel and the toxicologist, and the various principals involved. We'd have an opportunity to examine the evidence, to bring in various experts who may or may not confirm the details in question. To repeat the words of Hamel, who bears Branden no great love, without attempting to discover the facts independently, is unacceptable.

Let us look too at Walker's defense of his comment about Peikoff's alleged "effeminacy."  He states here that "this is relevant to a movement whose originator and whose leading figure . . . have so deplored homosexual behavior . . ."  True. And a documentation of such flagrant hypocrisy would have been a genuine journalistic bombshell. Instead, in his book, Walker lets his innuendos speak for themselves: "Rand's ideal man would have to be an overtly masculine and virile heterosexual, something of a stretch for intellectual heir [Leonard Peikoff]," who "sprinkles his lectures with cooking similes and references to ballet," and who would be devastated if someone "ripped out all the roses in her gorgeous rose garden" and smashed her "Tiffany dishes . . . in a fit of rage" (The Ayn Rand Cult, 185-86).  I think it's the height of absurdity to equate "effeminacy" with gay sexuality or gay sexuality with love of ballet, and to make implicit claims about something as complex as sexual orientation based on that person's love of roses and Tiffany dishes.

Finally, I apologize to Jeff Walker if he was offended by any suggestion on my part that he views Objectivists as literal "vermin."  But in my dictionary, "vermin" means "a vile person." And Walker's book presents chilling portraits of many individuals who seem repulsive in their cult-like devotion to Ayn Rand.

Nevertheless, the Walker book remains important for those of us who seek to move Objectivism into the 21st century. We can appreciate more fully that our intellectual strength cannot derive from an idealization of Rand, or her inner circle, or even her fictional heroes. Intellectual strength derives from one's ability to apply valid principles to the context of one's own life. This is not a means of "sidestepping" what appear to be "absolute Randian dicta."  It is a means of crafting Objectivism into a philosophy for living. It is a means of transcending the practices of those who use Objectivism as a rationalistic ideological bludgeon. Today, we can be encouraged that genuine scholarly application proceeds in spite of the millions of dollars that some have spent in their attempts to dictate the terms of Rand's legacy.

NOTES - BOOKS FOR RAND STUDIES

1. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "A Renaissance in Rand Scholarship," Reason Papers 23 (Fall 1998): 132-59.  Back.

2. Also see Why Businessmen Need Philosophy, published by ARI Press (1999). Edited by Richard E. Ralston, it features essays on subjects ranging from business ethics to immigration to health care, and reprints of two of Rand’s articles: "The Money-Making Personality" and "An Answer for Businessmen." Most of the articles are reprints, while some are published versions of Peikoff’s radio commentaries.  Back.

3. "Artistic Expression in Fang Culture," in The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. Warren d’Azevedo (Indiana University Press, 1989), 216-17. Thanks to Michelle Kamhi for bringing this to my attention.  Back.

4. Some of Walker’s insights are original, including, for example, a unique, though improbable, thesis about the origins of Rand’s chosen name (278). However, Walker too often reiterates points made by others: First, he mentions John Gall of the National Association of Manufacturers, with whom Rand corresponded, as a possible model for John Galt. Then he repeats Justin Raimondo’s unsupported claims that Rand plagiarized Garet Garrett’s The Driver. Neither Walker nor Raimondo suggest any similarity between the hero of Atlas Shrugged and the real-life John Galt, an "unusual type" of nineteenth-century "entrepreneur with talents in poetry and writing," who was involved in North American railroad investments. See Thomas E. Appleton’s Ravenscrag: The Allan Royal Mail Line (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974), 63-64. Rand, of course, may not have even been aware of her character’s real-life namesake. Thanks to Larry Sechrest for bringing this to my attention.  Back.


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