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Reflecting on the Ayn Rand Centenary, Conclusion

In Part I of my reflections on the Rand Centenary, I discussed the growth of a veritable industry of Rand scholarship. In Part II of this series, I examined a particularly interesting example of "unintended consequences" in the intellectual history of our time: How Rand's ideas have influenced even those in the "counterculture" whom she would have disowned.

Popular Culture

Today, I'd like to expand on the previous parts by offering additional evidence of Rand's growing impact. The material here is excerpted from an introduction that I wrote to the Fall 2004 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies symposium on Rand's literary and cultural impact. The essay, "The Illustrated Rand," makes its electronic debut today as a PDF here. As I write:

In addition to the encouraging growth of Rand references in scholarly circles, there has been a remarkable growth in such references throughout popular culture. That development is not measured solely by her influence on authors in various genres—from bodybuilder Mike Mentzer to fiction writers Edward Cline, Neil De Rosa, Beth Elliott, James P. Hogan, Erika Holzer, Helen Knode, Victor Koman, Ira Levin, Karen Michalson, Shelly Reuben, Kay Nolte Smith, L. Neil Smith, Alexandra York, and so many others. It is measured also by the number of Rand-like characters or outright references to Rand that have appeared in fictional works of various lengths and quality. Among these are works by: Gene Bell-Villada (The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand); William Buckley (Getting It Right); Don De Grazia (American Skin); Jeffrey Eugenides (author of the 2003 Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex); Mary Gaitskill (Two Girls, Fat and Thin); John Gardner (Mickelsson’s Ghosts); Laci Golos (Sacred Cows Are Black and White); Sky Gilbert (The Emotionalists); Rebecca Gilman (Spinning into Butter); Terry Goodkind (books in the Sword of Truth series, such as Faith of the Fallen and Naked Empire); David Gulbraa (Tales of the Mall Masters; An Elevator to the Future: A Fable of Reason Underground); Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress); Orlando Outland (Death Wore a Fabulous New Fragrance); Robert Rodi (Fag Hag); Matt Ruff (Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy); J. Neil Schulman (The Rainbow Cadenza; Escape from Heaven); Victor Sperandeo (Cra$hmaker: A Federal Affaire); Tobias Wolff (Old School); and, finally, Tony Kushner, whose play Angels in America, adapted for HBO, includes a discussion of the “visible scars” from rough sex, “like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel.”
The Kushner drama is not the first time that Rand’s name has been heard on television, however. Rand has made her way into countless television programs. From questions on game shows, such as “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” to the canceled Fox series “Undeclared,” and such other series as “Columbo” (a 1994 episode with William Shatner, “Butterfly in Shades of Grey”), “Home Improvement,” “The Gilmore Girls” (two episodes: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”), “Frasier,” and “Judging Amy,” the Rand references are plentiful. In Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi series “Andromeda,” there is a colony called the “Ayn Rand Station,” founded by a species of “Nietzscheans.” In Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” a leading character, free-spirit Brian Kinney, is described as “the love-child of James Dean and Ayn Rand.” [Rand has made a measurable impact on "Queer Culture," as I argue in my monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation—ed.] And the WB’s “One Tree Hill” showcased Rand’s work in an episode entitled, “Are You True?” The main character, Lucas, is given Atlas Shrugged by a fellow classmate. Increasingly frustrated by his basketball troubles, Lucas is told “Don’t let ’em take it: Your talent. It’s all yours.” By the end of the episode, we hear Lucas’s voice-over as he walks to the basketball court: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark.” Reading from the John Galt speech, he tells us: “Do not let the hero in your soul perish.”

In the light of the animated motion picture, "The Incredibles," I've discussed here as well Rand's presence in illustrated media: from cartoons to comics. "The Illustrated Rand" examines this impact in much greater detail, paying specific attention to Rand's influence on such comic artists as Steve Ditko and Frank Miller:

No comic artist has been better known for incorporating Randian themes in his work than Steve Ditko, co-creator, with Stan Lee, of “Spider-Man.” Among Ditko’s comic book heroes, one will find Static, The Creeper, The Blue Beetle, and Mr. A (as in “A is A”), as well as the faceless crime fighter known as The Question, whom Lawrence has characterized as the quintessential Ditko character reflecting “the artist’s Objectivist beliefs.”
Ditko emerged from—and shaped—the “Silver Age” of late ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s comic book art. His work is in keeping with that era’s use of the comic genre as a “vehicle for consciousness-raising every bit as much as popular films and television shows” [as Aeon Skoble puts it].

Thus, "Ditko’s appearance, like Rand’s, was of a unique historical moment." He expressed in his comics a willingness "to go to the root of social problems. In attacking government corruption, he focused on its roots in philosophic pragmatism. In attacking war, he focused on the illegitimacy of initiating the use of force." And in doing so, "Ditko’s prose is indisputably Randian ..." I provide concrete examples in the essay.

I then turn briefly to the contributions of Frank Miller, who "credits Rand’s Romantic Manifesto as having helped him to define the nature of the literary hero and the legitimacy of heroic fiction." Miller states in his introduction to Martha Washington Goes to War:

We all borrow from the classics from time to time, and my story for this chapter in the life of Martha Washington is no exception. Faced with the questions of how to present Martha’s rite of passage and how to describe the fundamental changes in Martha’s world, I was drawn again and again to the ideas presented by Ayn Rand in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Eschewing the easy and much-used totalitarian menace made popular by George Orwell, Rand focused instead on issues of competence and incompetence, courage and cowardice, and took the fate of humanity out of the hands of a convenient “Big Brother” and placed it in the hands of individuals with individual strengths and individual choices made for good or evil. I gratefully and humbly acknowledge the creative debt.

It is a "creative debt,” as I say in the article, that "is widely owed by many scholars, writers, and artists."

Concluding Thoughts

Today, on the occasion of the Rand Centenary, when every publication from Reason to the NY Times has something to say about Ayn Rand, I'd like to offer a few concluding thoughts.

As one who focuses on social theory and the prospects for social change, I believe that the most important of Rand's contributions has been her methodological radicalism: her emphasis not only on going to the root—on understanding fundamentals—but also on tracing the fundamental relationships at work within the full context of any given society. As I write in a newly published essay, "Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation," which appears today in The Freeman (it's actually derived from a much more comprehensive essay that will appear in a forthcoming anthology, Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand's Philosophical and Literary Masterpiece, edited by Edward W. Younkins):

Rand’s radical legacy, as presented in Atlas Shrugged, led her, in later years, to question the fundamentals at work in virtually every social problem she analyzed. She viewed each problem through multidimensional lenses, rejecting all one-sided resolutions as partial and incomplete. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Rand’s birth, it is important to remember that her conception of human freedom depended upon a grand vision of the psychological, moral, and cultural factors necessary to its achievement. Hers was a comprehensive revolution that encompassed all levels of social relations: “Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.”

To say that this has been Rand's most important contribution, from the perspective of social theory, is not to minimize her other contributions. Among these is Rand's ability to convey radical ideas through a literary medium. Through the years, there have been many passages in Rand's writings that have inspired me. Even in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, I am still moved by her eerily prophetic words in The Fountainhead. She, who worshiped the skyscrapers of Manhattan as "the will of man made visible," wrote:

Is it beauty and genius people want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window ... I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.

But till this day, there is one passage I always return to—also from The Fountainhead—one passage that summarizes for me the human authenticity and human benevolence that stand at the roots of Rand's vision. It is a vision of integrity, a vision of independence, a vision of social conditions without masters or slaves, fully transformative in its implications.

Howard Roark is on trial for having blown up a public housing project he created because the project's architectural design had been distorted beyond all recognition. As he stands before a jury of his peers, he prepares to defend himself. I'll give Ayn Rand the last word:

He stood by the steps of the witness stand. The audience looked at him. They felt he had no chance. They could drop the nameless resentment, the sense of insecurity which he aroused in most people. And so, for the first time, they could see him as he was: a man totally innocent of fear. The fear of which they thought was not the normal kind, not a response to a tangible danger, but the chronic, unconfessed fear in which they all lived. They remembered the misery of the moments when, in loneliness, a man thinks of the bright words he could have said, but had not found, and hates those who robbed him of his courage. The misery of knowing how strong and able one is in one's own mind, the radiant picture never to be made real. Dreams? Self-delusion? Or a murdered reality, unborn, killed by that corroding emotion without name —fear—need—dependence—hatred? Roark stood before them as each man stands in the innocence of his own mind. But Roark stood like that before a hostile crowd—and they knew suddenly that no hatred was possible to him. For the flash of an instant, they grasped the manner of his consciousness. Each asked himself: do I need anyone's approval? —does it matter? —am I tied? And for that instant, each man was free—free enough to feel benevolence for every other man in the room.

Cross-posted to Liberty & Power Group Blog here. See follow-up discussion here.