Thursday, March 3, 2011

Was Ayn Rand a Drug Addict?

In addition to her indisputable addiction to nicotine (she was a chain smoker) there’s no question that Ayn Rand was a habitual consumer of amphetamines starting in 1942, when she was prescribed Benzedrine for weight loss (a common medical practice in that era) and discovered that it gave her the energy to put in the long hours needed to finish the first of her two major novels, The Fountainhead. Rand liked the boost that “speed” gave her, and from that time until at least 1972 – a period of 30 years – she continued to use amphetamines, moving on to Dexedrine and Dexamyl.

Rand’s admirers have always insisted that their hero and intellectual mentor was not a drug addict. In the first place, they say, the drugs she took were prescribed. True enough – but prescription drugs can be as addictive as anything sold in back alleys.

Second, they claim her use of amphetamines was very limited. A biographical FAQ published by the Objectivism Reference Center states: “She took two pills per day until the early 1970s, when another doctor told her to stop taking them. If you refer to any and all amphetamines as ‘speed,’ then she did take ‘speed,’ although it is probably not accurate to say she was addicted to it. She certainly did not take the street drugs to which the term ‘speed’ is more commonly applied.”

Evidence from more impartial sources, however, indicates that at times Rand used amphetamines heavily – at least heavily enough to cause her friends to be deeply concerned. One of them, the journalist Isabel Patterson, wrote to her: “Stop taking that Benzedrine, you idiot. I don't care what excuse you have – stop it.”

Certainly symptoms of amphetamine addiction – irritability, mood swings, paranoia – showed up in Rand’s personal relationships, especially later in her life. The members of the cult-like inner circle she assembled around her in New York were terrified of the fierce, bitingly cruel attacks she would unleash against any of them who disagreed with her. Even her devoted husband Frank O’Connor would sometimes be the target of her scorn.

Rand claimed to value rationality above all else, and to live by the principles laid down in her novels. “I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books — and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters,” she wrote in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged. And she violently denounced drug use by others, writing in one essay that “it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity.”

It’s profoundly ironic that someone with Rand’s (claimed) principles would herself become a drug addict. But self-delusion was one of Rand’s defining traits. As Charles Murray wrote in 2010 in the Claremont Review of Books: “Rand … faked reality throughout her life, beginning in small ways and ending with the construction of a delusional alternative reality that took over her life.”

Was Ayn Rand a drug addict? I believe the evidence shows conclusively that the answer is yes. Does that, in itself, invalidate her philosophy? Of course not. But it does make it legitimate to ask whether her philosophy – or Rand herself – was as purely rational as her followers believe.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Do Kids Love Ayn Rand Novels?

There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.Kung Fu Monkey

When I was a sophomore in college, it seemed that everybody I knew was reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. To find out what the excitement was about I picked up a copy of The Fountainhead and read it … or tried to.

Goddamn, what a POS. Two-dimensional, unbelievable cardboard characters. Stilted, wooden dialogue. Long, turgid, barely coherent descriptive passages.

As an English major I had read some great literature. This crap most emphatically was not great literature. Even calling it “literature” was a stretch.

I slogged my way through The Fountainhead and then embarked on Atlas Shrugged. I couldn’t take that much torture – I had to put it aside after about 50 pages. A thousand pages of this dreck? Fuhgeddaboudit. (Years later, I returned to Atlas and managed to stick it out to the end. It hadn't improved with age.)

Of course it wasn’t the way Rand wrote that was – and is – so powerfully appealing to all these bright (but sorely lacking in worldly experience) young readers; it was what she wrote.

All clever but na├»ve young people believe they are destined to become Masters of the Universe – if not tomorrow, then the day after. In Fountainhead and Atlas they find characters who are actually living that fantasy. They build skyscrapers, they run railroads. They compel other people, society, and even the natural world to do their bidding by the sheer force of their indomitable will. When the world doesn’t like what they do, they tell it to go fuck itself. Metaphorically speaking.

And best of all, these Randian supermen and superwomen are very much like the young readers themselves – intelligent, but socially maladroit, solitary, alienated, misunderstood. Here’s a description of young Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas:

“She felt a bored indifference toward the immediate world around her, toward other children and adults alike. She took it as a regrettable accident, to be borne patiently for a while, that she happened to be imprisoned among people who were dull. … ‘You’re unbearably conceited,’ was one of the two sentences she heard throughout her childhood, even though she never spoke of her own ability. The other sentence was: ‘You’re selfish.’”

Most of the young people who are sucked into the fantasy world of Rand’s novels get over it eventually, the way one gets over a childhood case of measles or the mumps. When they go out into the real world they discover it bears little or no resemblance to the world Rand describes.

Others, strangely, never seem to discover this – and they are capable of doing a lot of damage. But that’s a topic for another post.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome to The Rand Watch

Ayn Rand, a Russian emigre with little formal education, no academic credentials in philosophy or economics and (at best) only mediocre talent as a writer, somehow became one of the most influential novelists, philosophers and economic thinkers in post-20th Century America. How did that happen, and what are the consequences? Why do Rand's novels and ideas continue to be popular, and how does her toxic philosophy continue to shape American politics and government? This blog is dedicated to exploring those questions.
Ayn Rand fans are not going to like much of what I write here. However, they are welcome to contribute to the discussion as long as they behave reasonably and courteously -- because this blog, unlike Rand and her hard-core followers, welcomes honest dissent and debate.