A Critic’s Notebook: On Meeting Ayn Rand’s Editor at Antioch College

July 21, 2011 | 54 11 min read

We met at a writer’s conference at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. At sixty-six, Patrick O’Connor had a roving eye and a drinking problem. A self-professed Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist from the old radical ‘30s left wing of the Democrat party, he was Ayn Rand’s editor at New American Library in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We quickly discovered we had something in common: our aversion to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

I was an insecure young professor of philosophy at a conservative evangelical college, with a troubled marriage and two kids. Cedarville College was four miles from Antioch, but  so distant ideologically from the famously radical Antioch that it might as well have been four light years.

I was prepared to dislike Patrick O’Connor intensely, based upon his association with a writer I considered odious. But he knocked me off balance with his first words. I later learned he was quite practiced at this.

We met in the quad during a cigarette break. Patrick O’Connor nursed a black coffee in a white ceramic mug he’d walked off with from the college cafeteria. I had a deep tan from mowing five acres of grass every week that summer, and lazing with my kids at the pool. A small man with a round face, he had a sly smile and a direct manner. We regarded each other from opposite ends of a picnic table.

Hey kid, have your good looks gotten in the way of you being taken seriously as a writer?

I deflected his question. Feeling misplaced in both a marriage and a job led to fantasies about women, art, and salvation that would later land me in world of trouble; I had already taken one of the women writers at the conference for a late night spin in my convertible, and had plans to see her that night. Somehow I had arrived at two non-original ideas:  that I needed to write fiction, not philosophy, and that my personal aesthetic should be, “I write to get the girl.” I was a hollowed out writing conference cliché, and I was sure Patrick O’Connor saw right through me.

Was I a frivolous person, impersonating a serious one? Talking to her favorite editor, I was certain that Ayn Rand did not see herself this way.

coverOn April 15, 2011, almost twenty years after my encounter with Patrick O’Connor, and almost 30 years after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982, Atlas Shrugged opened in theaters around the country. The movie is based on Rand’s bestselling dystopian novel of the same name, a literary vehicle expressing her trademark worldview: the morality of rational self-interest, or, Objectivism. The film was financed by a wealthy devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, and marketed aggressively to the Tea Party demographic by FreedomWorks, one of the prime movers in the Tea Party movement, which engaged in a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance, and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged — “Who is John Galt?” — has appeared on signs at Tea Party protests across America. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly, and hosted a panel discussion dedicated to asking if Rand’s fiction is finally becoming reality. Once a shadowy cult presence in the margins of American life, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party.

covercoverA few days ago on Twitter someone tweeted, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in philosophy: the search for a moral justification for selfishness.”

Ayn Rand’s books provided that moral justification for my evangelical Christian students. Atlas Shrugged, in particular. They were drawn to the fierce youthful idealism of The Fountainhead, which they found, quote, empowering. I found both novels to be insufferable. Rand was a third rate novelist of turgid prose who saw no reason to pen a sentence without making a speech.

Here is a sample sentence from Atlas Shrugged:

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

As a stylist, she could be dreadful, her prose in service to her philosophy:

It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question.

A drop of rain pain in the shape of a question: “Who is John Galt.” That’s some raindrop.

I don’t remember what I said to deflect Patrick O’Connor’s question — something short and inane. I was already deeply conflicted about my appearance, and felt frequently that my life was a fraud, a series of performances at home and at work. Teaching was a kind of performance art. Although I had chosen a substantive discipline, social and political philosophy, I often wondered whether this was to mask my insecurities. I felt myself to be frivolous and vain. Writing a book on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida had done nothing to dissuade me from this view, as Derrida himself was regarded as a lightweight, a “deconstructionist” more in vogue with language and literature departments than with “serious” philosophy departments in academe.

I steered the conversation to safer topics: Antioch, and Ayn Rand’s books. Antioch was a hotbed of student radicalism and curricular innovation. Two years later, four miles southeast, my “Christian” college would try to fire me for publishing a book on feminism, yet here I was in conversation with the editor of an indomitable woman from Russia, herself among the first women to be admitted to university after the Russian Revolution — an atheist and fierce critic of religion — who was nevertheless the guiding light of some of my evangelical Christian students.

The performative contradictions in that last sentence continue to astonish me.

By the time I met Patrick O’Connor, I was itching for a fight about Ayn Rand. Two students were making my life hellish in class. Both were Econ students, promoting Rand as an apostle of free market capitalism and suspicious of my muddle-headed liberalism which harped about the growing chasm in Reagan’s America between the rich and the poor and the need for distributive justice. John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness? Forget it, Rawls was a wuss. Additionally, they were having difficulty with the concept of Jesus of Nazareth having compassion for the poor, like, say, Mother Teresa. Never mind that Jesus was a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, probably illiterate, with a biting critique of the rich and possessed of peasant humor — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” — my students weren’t buying it. It was not “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) for these students, it was more like, “What would John Galt think.” I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about what John Galt thought. Holly and Mark were becoming royal pains and I wanted to kick Patrick O’Connor in the ass.

So when he told me that he was a Trotskyite, a Communist, and from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, I knew he was as misplaced with Rand as I was at my college.

I asked him directly: What was she like to work with? How had he managed to be that woman’s editor all those years?

Do you want to know why Ayn Rand’s books sell so well? he countered.

Well, yes.

Because she writes the best children’s literature in America, O’Connor said. The Fountainhead is practically a rite of passage for alienated youth. She writes these epic, Wagnerian things. Where the sex takes place on the very highest plane and it speaks to the kids’ highest aspirations, their youthful idealism. It’s all YA stuff.

In that case, I argued, people should grow out of her, like a phase, they should get over her ideas when they become adults.

This is America, he said. There aren’t many ideas. Ayn Rand had a few simple ones which she believed in fiercely and promoted relentlessly.

But surely you don’t agree with her philosophy? The whole Objectivism thing from Atlas Shrugged?

Of course not! But we never talked politics. I knew better.

I wanted to know just how well Ayn Rand sold, really.

She paid the bills. The lights, the gas, the heating bills, the Christmas bonuses. Here’s the thing you gotta know about publishing, kid. The publishing industry itself is basically left, but true publishers publish what they think will sell. There is very little publishing “from belief” and that’s the way it has always been. We’ll publish anything that we know will sell, and everyone — no matter what they may think of her personally — everyone, every one, admires her sales.

I asked about the “didactic nature” of her prose and he laughed.

Didactic, hell, it’s worse than that. She writes to convert!

I thought of my evangelical Christian students. They liked the idea of conversion. They’d like to convert all of godless Russia to Christianity. China, too. And of course, they wanted to “win America for Christ.” The irony of this: these good Christian kids admired an evangelical atheist who believed in conversion. My head swam.

What about Rand’s reputation for being “difficult?”

I did everything she said.

What’s everything? (I had three books in the pipeline. Naively, and un-Rand-like, I said yes to everything Macmillan and Prentice Hall told me.)

Ayn Rand wanted approval of copy, advertising, art, you name it, O’Connor said. Publishers almost never give in to these kinds of demands, but we did. Because of her sales. I told the bosses, look, it’s her bat and ball.

You can get schooled at Twitter if you have the right friends. The other day someone tweeted that Facebook is the people you went to school with, and Twitter the people you wish you went to school with.

So. the other day, Maud Newton tweeted: “Irony of Atlas Shrugged, movie about great people laid low by mediocre jealous people, is that it is wholly mediocre.”

It’s been years since I spoke with Patrick O’Connor. And I’ve had time to think about Rand, about her legacy, about the way she never really went out of fashion among what John Scalzi calls the “nerd revenge porn” crowd. And I agree with O’Connor that Rand wrote children’s literature. The problem is that a lot of these people have grown up, put on colorful colonial uniforms, and are trying to shrink the nation’s budget to the size where it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub. A libertarian whose ideas are as wacky as Rand’s (who in fact is named Rand) is now a United States senator in Kentucky. Former Fed Chairman and economist Alan Greenspan is a devotee of Ayn Rand. And a guy whom no one had heard of until recently, congressman Paul Ryan, (R-WI) Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been making the GOP case for massive budget cuts that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among us, using principles derived from Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” of Objectivism, and requiring his staff to read her work.

Paul Ryan proposes a budget plan would cap non-security discretionary spending at $360 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and freezing it for five years. That’s equal to 2006 spending levels. Over the next decade that means cuts to education, job training, and social services of 25 percent below levels needed to maintain current services. These reductions come on top of the $38.5 billion already cut from this year’s budget.

Two-thirds of the long term budget cuts that Ryan proposes are directed at middle class and low-income people, as well as the poorest of the poor at home and abroad. At the same time, he proposes tax cuts up to 30 percent for the nation’s wealthiest corporations.

Paul Ryan and his followers have solidified the connection between Ayn Rand, the Tea Party, and the Grand Old Party, with nary an outcry from the “religious right,” Karl Rove’s “base” that put George W. Bush in power. No one that I am aware of in the religious right has called attention to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in the Bible:

Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?

Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message translation

In lecture tours around America, Ayn Rand defended “the virtue of selfishness.” She had a long term love affair with Nathaniel Brandon, a young psychologist, who later established the Nathaniel Brandon Institute to promote Rand’s philosophy. Though it was reported that she did so with her husband’s full knowledge, it is generally acknowledged that Frank O’Connor (no relation to Patrick) found the experience to be “difficult.”

I don’t know if Patrick O’Connor got himself laid in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But the affair with the writer I met at that Antioch conference created deep pain in my family, and in hers, and led to the breakup of both marriages. In time, I came to understand the wisdom of that saying, “All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case” — but in my case, it was too late.

I understand the selfishness part of Objectivism. It’s the virtue part that causes me difficulty.

On the day that Atlas Shrugged opened in theatres, someone tweeted, “Republicanism is crumbling of its own avarice, lust for power, excesses, and hypocrisy. It could not be otherwise when their entire “philosophy” is based upon the works of a sociopath.”

Patrick O’Connor did not think that Ayn Rand was a sociopath—to him she was just a loveable little old Jewish lady from Leningrad– although apparently his bosses at New American Library thought otherwise.

“She can’t be Jewish, she’s a fascist!” he reported them saying.

O’Connor challenged their hypocrisy: You’ve been living off this woman for years. She’s been paying all your bills.

The philosopher Jurgen Habermas spoke often of the “legitimation crisis” that plagues late capitalism, as core communication functions in society become disabled or “colonized” by money and power. I’ve often wondered whether Patrick O’Connor believed that publishers decrying Ayn Rand as a fascist while enjoying the benefits of her labor should undergo a legitimation crisis or shut up.

Here are Ayn Rand’s own words, in Atlas Shrugged.

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become tools of other men. Blood, whips, guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.

My encounter with Patrick O’Connor went to the heart of my struggles in those days: Was I a serious person? Was I really a pretty boy, flighty, without substance? Or someone serious enough to write, to take myself seriously as a writer? Ayn Rand took herself seriously and produced dreck—really dangerous stuff. She was a true believer. I no longer knew what I believed. I was carried away by the next breeze, toward the next woman, self absorbed and a wisp of the wind—but she stood as firmly planted as an oak. Rand was like Reagan: wrong but strong. She has endured, despite turgid prose and half baked ideas that were laughed out of the academy by people like me.

coverThe year before I met Patrick O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill published a novel called Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which featured a thinly disguised Rand character, Anna Granite, and her philosophy of “Definitism.” Like the character Justine in her novel, Gaitskill had actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand. I asked Mary Gaitskill: what is it about Ayn Rand, and why is she still here? What inspired her to write about Ayn Rand? Gaitskill wrote back:

I was inspired in part by realizing how important Ayn Rand’s ideas still were, and how deep they got into the American psyche.  I thought then (and I’ve been proved right) that she was much more influential than she was given credit for.  I didn’t have to be that smart to conclude this, I knew that Alan Greenspan had been an early devotee, and that William Buckley had taken her very seriously and that Atlas Shrugged was (according to one poll) one of the five top best-sellers in the history of the world, up there with the Bible.  I found this astonishing. Still do.

Gaitskill went on to say:

Rand appears to be so crazy, and yet she really does speak for an aspect of America, really for an aspect of human experience.  She treats big ideas in a way the common person can understand them; that is one legitimate reason for her popularity.  Something I noticed about the followers, the “cultists” that I met–they tended to be nice people yearning for bigger meaning in their lives. Most of them were not especially selfish.  It’s worth noting that most of them were also NOT people who knew Rand or were part of the early group.  Those people, the few I met, struck me as both crazy and unpleasant.   But the lower-level followers, no.  They were in their own way idealists.

Patrick O’Connor believed that Ayn Rand sold because she knew who she was, she knew what she wanted, and because she spoke to people’s common dreams– the dreams of well meaning, idealistic people who want something more. I wasn’t dreaming of anything that day at Antioch, except maybe Rilke’s earnest childlike plea: Change your life. I knew that I needed to change my life, but didn’t know how. I couldn’t guide anyone reliably, anywhere, except in circles.

Saul Alinsky used to say, when you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.

Meanwhile, The Economist has reported several sharp spikes in sales of Atlas Shrugged since 2007. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of the novel hit an all-time annual record that year, then reached a new record in 2008. USA Today reports that Atlas Shrugged made its debut on the USA Today Best Selling Books List on January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama’s inauguration. On April 20, Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, hit number 65 on the list, propelled by the new movie. Released in 299 theatres, the movie made $1.7 million in its first week.

As Patrick O’Connor insisted to me in 1992, she sells.

Do you remember this joke that was circulating in the 1980s: While deconstructionists were taking over English departments, Republicans were taking over the country.

I never found that joke to be funny.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is Associate Editor at BLIP Magazine (formerly Mississippi Review), and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. His short stories, poems, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published or are forthcoming in Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, Antioch Review, Houston Literary Review, Westchester Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Pank, Bluestem, Bull, Word Riot, Moon Milk Review, Fogged Clarity, Necessary Fiction, Frigg, Twelve Stories, Negative Suck, Pirene’s Fountain, and other places. He is the author of four books in philosophy and an epistolary novel with Susan Tepper, What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock and Dori G, (Cervana Barva Press). He just completed his second novel, Leaving Telluride, set in Telluride, Colorado.


  1. Most of Patrick O’Connor’s comments reported here can also be found in Scott McConnell’s 1997 interview of McConnell published in “100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand” published by New American Library (2010).

    In that interview, page 455, O’Connor also stated “She was an old-fashioned girl, you know. She was an old-fashioned, bourgeois Russian lady. She was from the middle class, and so she always had very good manners and was very warm and loving and sensitive. People think she was other than she was, but I tell you that in my experience she was sweet-natured.”

  2. One reason many intellectuals excoriate Ayn Rand’s prose is this: they are sutured into naturalism and pragmatism, both of which are children of Dada.

    You can’t abide anything from the romantic aesthetic, we get that. No problem. Just bear in mind that your axiomatic belief that romance in the prose yields ispso facto “bad” writing reflects your own parochial elitist view. Another way to put this: you are so embedded in your world view that you are rendered unqualified to judge the quality of a writer of romantic realism.

    A corollary of this: The speeches in Atlas Shrugged are “set pieces.” This is its own form of the novel, the philosophical narrative. It never intends to compete for star power in the post-modern angst/slice of life race to ennui. You are not qualified to detect Rand’s unique form and grant it context.

    Inquiry: when scanning for edit of your first draft did you pause for moment, even just a hesitation, at “turgid prose?” You are are writer, correct? Don’t you worry about signaling thin imagination by throwing hoary clichés? [irony intended on ‘hoary’]

  3. A fascinating read, both for the peek into the conflicted and self depreciating mind of the author, and the examination of Ayn Rand and the cult of ‘Fiscal Dominance’ that runs through the veins of America politically and culturally – Rand’s idea’s have broad appeal for the ‘have’s’ who don’t want to admit simple fortune for good or ill can challenge and change their lives. If you want to see a -successful- movie about Randian philosophy, watch Wall Street. Gordon Gecko is an 80’s era male Ayn Rand, without the idealism.

  4. Just as a side note…that $1.7 million is less than mediocre, it’s horrendous. Within 9 weeks the film was on 9 screens nationwide, having generated roughly $4.7 million…only $15.3 million less than it cost to make.

  5. Dear John Donohue: if syllables per word were a batting average, you’d be Ted Williams. Just a basicalogical observification about your propensitology towards sesquipedalianism.

    Atlas Shrugged Part 1 cost $20M to make and has, in a little over three months, grossed $4.6M at the box office (http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=atlasshrugged.htm). Not what you’d call taking America by storm.

    Conservatives have always been more interested in mottoes than ideas. That’s why they come across so well on television.

  6. Let’s see how long it takes for the Randians (Randites?) to take over this comment stream.

  7. I really liked parts of this essay, but it’s pretty uneven. The framing narrative about meeting O’Connor was quite good, but the author attributes a John Kenneth Galbraith quote to “someone on Twitter.” I thought this was a joke about the frivolous/serious duality he writes about, especially when I saw the accurate sourcing of quotes to John Scalzi, Mary Gaitskill, Saul Alisnky, etc. But then he poaches Grover Norquist’s line about “drowning gov’t in a bathtub,” and uses Atlas Shurgged’s box office numbers to support his argument — when a casual Googling reveals that the film’s performance undermines his argument.

  8. Love the “nerd revenge porn” phrase. I can think of many many people who fit that assessment.

    I don’t understand the draw to Atlas Shrugged or any of Rand’s novels. AS is tiresome, didactic to the extreme, poorly written with flat characters, and the sex is rampantly misogynistic.

  9. I understand his dilemma (to an extent). I’m an editor and have been working closely with an author who lists his religion as “Constitutionalist” and I’m a liberal (and a devout atheist).

    Fortunately, we are working on a book about Hollywood and not something that would require us to be like-minded. I find it fascinating, however, that he feels the government should continue to support the arts.

    It’s difficult for me to listen to his bible-thumping but he is a good guy (except for the Tea Party selfishness).

    I have to give Mr. O’Connor a lot of credit for being able to deal with so many people who are so committed to their conservatism and not go off and slug them!

  10. I notice the embedded images of Ayn Rand’s books are links to Amazon with affiliate code in them. Don’t worry, I am not offended. We are used to it. Many’s the poor Rand-o-phobe making money on the back of Ayn Rand.

    It just adds to the readership, because when fellow-travelers of the author of this essay purchase it to hate it, they just throw it against the wall, right? Then…an actual unspoiled mind invariably picks it up and goes for the thrill ride.

    We derive great irony over the haters of capitalism as in this blog pushing money into Atlas Shrugged while many Objectivist organizations give thousands — thousands — of copies away for free every year. That is just so deliciously chewable!

    [awaiting actual response from the author to my ‘you are not qualified’ post. Blubber and truly pitifully written mockery equals zero.]

  11. Apparently, to the progressive left the only good movie is on that makes hundreds of millions of dollars. Lo, how far the left has fallen! It used to be they praised indie films mad on a shoestring. (The *shooting* budget for “Atlas” was $10M or under. And just wait for DVD and VOD sales – they got distribution through 20th C. Fox.)

  12. Donohue: Labelling Rand’s repetitive, unsubtle monologues “set pieces” does nothing to justify them. Nor does your credulous passing along of her pet aesthetic tag(“romantic realism”) give credence to her form. I’m a great admirer of the genuine “romantic realists,” the Tolstoys and Hugos and Dostoevskys; but Rand is no romantic realist. Her stories have none of the psychological depth that made those authors so penetrating, nor any of the ambiguity that gave them vitality.

    When, say, Dostoevsky writes speeches (as he often does), he creates speeches which come from his characters and reflect their character and situation. The best of these “speeches” are great texts in their own right (think of The Grand Inquisitor, for example), and even the worst of them are quite memorable. (This isn’t only in the late Dostoevsky, incidentally: even his first work, Poor Folk, is an epistolary novel, a form that lays great emphasis on subtleties of voice.) Rand’s speeches, on the other hand, do little more that blandly echo her (already abundantly clear) philosophy: rather than accentuating drama, they disarm it.

    Likewise her prose. The triply-mixed metaphor Rand births in the excerpt is hackneyed; lobbing the catchphrases “parochial” and “elitist” does nothing to change this. If you want to argue that bad prose and good work are compatible (they are), go ahead; why pretend such a beast of a sentence is only ugly in some vaguely-defined “worldview”?

    As an aside, your claim that “naturalism and pragmatism…are children of Dada” is so silly (I mean, funny enough that I start to wonder if your whole post is a careful joke) and off-base that it undermines your whole line of argument. Naturalism and pragmatism are the twin enemies Dadaism rose to combat. Ever read Breton? Really, the only response to your “you are not qualified to post” blabber is to point out how thoroughly unqualified you’ve revealed yourself to be.

  13. @ Michael

    Respectfully, you’re arguing a strawman. Stefan, KA Bloom and I are saying that Atlas Shrugged performed poorly at the box office. That’s beyond dispute. I’m also saying that the essay’s author undermines his “Ayn Rand sells well” thesis by pointing to this box office performance as his closing proof point.

  14. Just a note that your Twitter quote, ““The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in philosophy: the search for a moral justification for selfishness,” originated with the redoubtable John Kenneth Galbraith. He also said “Given the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”

  15. You’ll have to point out the excerpt you think contains a triple mixed metaphor. There were several excerpts. Do you mean the raindrop as a spot of pain paragraph?

  16. Dada was a rejection of the romantic in art, literature, politics. Those are bourgeois values. If the Dadaists had the war as their justification for their hatred of these values, well their causal analysis was wrong.

    Let’s say for the moment that the target was “everything,” which would no doubt fit. Andre Breton would say ‘everything is not enough, we reject everything to start.’ If in their anarchic nihilism they also soiled Naturalism and pragmatism along with the real target, that was an ‘unavoidable consequence” only.

    Here’s a thought experiment to highlight the essential here: in the mind of Duchamp or Breton et al, having believed they destroyed art, politics, nationalism and “more”, if in a moment of weakness they relented…perhaps drink was involved…and gave a small token nod to that which might be allowed to arise: do you think they would favor socialism/naturalism or freedom/capitalism/romantic realism?

  17. So Dadaists picking naturalism and pragmatism as lesser evils than capitalism… in a forced choice… is equivalent to saying that naturalism and pragmatism are “children of Dada”?

    Backtracking can be a useful algorithm, but not when your previous assertions are just a flick of the scroll wheel away.

  18. Donohue: Yes. The raindrop as drop of pain as follower of “the shape of a question.” The one that would seem horribly muddled even if it were in translation, let alone written like that originally.

    Your analysis of Dada is, again, thoroughly laughable. Dismissing Dada as an attack on “everything” is intellectual laziness; its attacks may have been wide-ranging, but they were hardly all-encompassing. Naturalism and pragmatism weren’t “soiled…along with the real target”; they WERE the main target. The “bourgeois values” you admit they opposed are precisely those of practicality/”pragmatism”, realism/”naturalism.” Your false dichotomy between “socialism/naturalism” and “freedom/capitalism/romantic realism” transparently begs the question.

    In brief summary, your errors are the result of fitting data into arbitrary, two-camp categories that distort everything you consider. The world does not consist of two camps, the romantic realists and their opponents.

    Interesting that you haven’t so much as responded to my main point, incidentally, about the inferiority of Rand compared to the genuine “romantic realists.” Interesting, but not at all surprising.

  19. @John Donohue

    Dada was a romantic art movement, it celebrated the power of the individual imagination over stultifying academic formality. It was the father of surrealism, which is pretty much the opposite of naturalism. Naturalism itself is not a movement, rather a stylistic choice, and of itself has no connection with any political world view, let alone socialism, and so you can forget that false dichotomy too. We can all enjoy good work in many different styles.

    The more you argue, the less sense you make. As they say when you’re in a hole…

  20. From the article: I was carried away by the next breeze, toward the next woman, self absorbed and a wisp of the wind—but she stood as firmly planted as an oak. Rand was like Reagan: wrong but strong. She has endured, despite turgid prose and half baked ideas that were laughed out of the academy by people like me.


    Being laughed at by self-absorbed folks who can be “carried away by the next breeze” is probably better than being admired by them.

  21. will c:

    “It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question.” Ayn Rand.

    There is nothing wrong with this. You keep claiming it is either “horribly muddled” or a triple mixed metaphor. Instead this is a clear, simple device. The interior world of the sensation of that pain compared with the sad path of a small drop of water.

    I believe I know why you dislike this paragraph. I won’t speculate, however. Should you wish to actually explain why this is bad prose, maybe I will comment. In the meantime all you have done is assert … and this is a beautiful sentence.

  22. No one has responded, including the author of this essay, to MY salient point: that these variations on Rand having written “turgid prose” are refusals to step out of paradigm. It is grave weakness to be unable to stipulate your target’s world view and argue with respect for its essence, as opposed to its style or form.

    [example: I know that the Bible is looking out from a certain world view. The voice of those writing with it in their heart is recognizable. From an intellectual, philosophical point, the Bible turns my stomach. However, I would never attack that which I hate about it with stylistic claims from my aesthetic.]

    The response to the difference between Rand and your list of Tolstoy, Hugo and Dostoevsky is not the dichotomy that you assert, namely that they are romantic realists and that Rand was such a shallow and bad writer, while they were great, that she does not even make the category. It is instead the dichotomy that Atlas Shrugged, in particular, is a completely different literary form, and that she rates the category from a philosophical perspective while they don’t. Atlas Shrugged is the exposition of a philosophical system ‘with pictures.’ The plot and characters illustrate the spirit and thought embodied in the ideas. Certainly it is not an issue if you disdain this form, but to force the analytical tools forged in your world upon that which you either do not understand or which you despise, is an error.

    You may or may not know: Ayn Rand admired Hugo and to a lesser extent Dostoevsky. Should you wish to ever educated yourself on why she felt they fell short philosophically (and thus why their admirable sense of life and the style of their writing was not enough), you can find her writings on it.

  23. Here is how Atlas Shrugged works. And by ‘works’ I mean why it has changed the lives of millions for the better and remains honored and loved. The reader encounters the ideas. Yes, they are following along with the odd story. However, the core idea is jelling in their mind. This philosophical, psychological and political idea is so fresh, so thrilling, it resonates at the core so profoundly, the reader gets that the book is about this idea. They then “get” the literary device. It is delightful. They have no qualms about rooting for the good guys and hissing at the bad.

    The libraries of the world are filled with nuanced characters, ambiguous motivation and morals, slice of life, desultory rebellion, purposeless downward spirals … all described with ‘beautiful artistic prose.’ Have at it. Miss Rand made sure that with at least one book The West would have a long, powerful fun romp on the other side. And oh by the way filled with beautiful sentences.

    One last thing: Rand Fans sometimes read only the speeches. Other times we read through and skip the speeches. That seems common. It is cool. So much for your “kills the drama” thing.

  24. This author seems to be avoiding explaining why Ayn Rand is bad and instead appears to be hoping the reader, biased in their opinion, will fill in the blanks and pretend the author actually said; “Ayn Rand said something about selfishness…well we all know what selfishness leads to…right?” It’s that kind of (paraphrased) writing style that gives substance to vacuous journalism. Why not say what Rand really stood for and refute that? She stood for individualism over collectivism, self-respect over humility, small-government over big government, happiness over misery. Why not take those points and discuss them, instead of childish insinuations…

  25. I think most people’s distaste for Ayn Rand’s literature is based on how awful a read each book is. That said, her philosophy is profound and very valuable.

    I think if a competant author were to re-write Atlas Shrugged, a lot of her critics would be silenced.

  26. Dear John Donohue,

    Please write in normal language, it appears that you are trying to be smart and clever but you actually come across as an ass.



  27. Dear Capitlaist Phil,

    Most intelligent readers understand the points that the author makes, and one who understands how horrible of a writer Rand was fully get the point.

    She was also a speed addict so it makes sense who everything is jumbled together.


  28. The first time I read ATLAS SHRUGGED, I read every word. I re-read the story about 3 times since, skipping all the speeches. I think it’s an interesting fictional, parallel world, with interesting characters. I speculate sometimes about this fictional world. For example, I wonder if Jesus Christ had never been born in that world. I never considered it an accurate representation of the real United States, and therefore never felt that the beliefs and goals of the characters in that world should be adopted by me in this world.
    “Bad writing” – I wouldn’t consider it bad compared to, say, the writing in TWILIGHT- any random page of which makes me cringe. The paragraph cited above as an example of dreadful prose never bothered me – I got the analogy and moved on. Just as musicians may note flaws that aren’t perceived by an average listener, a writer may detect “flaws” that aren’t considered by an average reader.

  29. I was subjected to The Fountainhead in 9th Grade. I read it, earnestly, from cover to cover, and drew a simple conclusion at the end.

    “Wow. This would have worked better as a pamphlet.”

    Being a relatively alienated, awkward, bookish kid did not draw me to the message. It was a platform to proselytize with one dimensional characters. I actually found myself rooting for the “villains” in the novel, which is not something I find myself doing. I usually get wrapped up in the story, approach the protagonist from a standpoint of empathy. I hated Roarke. Hated.

    I have read novels I did not care for. But there was something oily and abhorrent about Roarke. I knew it as a young teen, completely unaware of the future debates that would occur. It was an assignment. Just another book and paper to follow. Yet, it had me scribbling down a counter-philosophy for LD debate, just to purge my mind of the experience.

    There is no such thing as altruism. Every conscious behavior is motivated by some selfish desire, even if that desire is to reconcile that action to how you want others (or yourself) to perceive you. Selfishness is basic. Selfishness is easy. A philosophy like this caters to the lowest denominator of humanity. It’s a justification of gluttony, an opportunity to revel in your successes while others suffer. It lets someone look in the mirror, and feel okay, because they now have a heroic archetype of their very own.

    In the news, I read a piece about a man that had a yacht built for 4.5 billion dollars. The hull is covered in gold. The railings and trim are gold and platinum. There is a statue built from the bones of a T-Rex, a liquor bottle with an 18.5 ct diamond embedded on it, meteoric stone on the walls of the bedroom. It’s the most expensive yacht ever built by leaps and bounds.

    Children across the world are dying. Starving. In pain and suffering. Boats sink, companies go under, skyscrapers tumble. In the end, those people should spend less time asking, “Who is John Galt?” They should be asking themselves, “Who am I?”

    Who are you?

  30. It’s peculiar that the author tells how objectivism is for ‘alienated youth’ but describes, in rather intimate detail, feelings of alienation in his personal life.

    Concerning Rand’s ideas, I think the author’s objections are based on psychological factors: Most people today seek a particular comfort, the reassurance that there are no fundamental answers, principles, or definitions, and the author regards objectivists as no exception; so they should be guilty of self-contradiction by embracing a philosophy which claims that actually there are fundamental answers, principles, and definitions. No doubt the author would regard anybody as naive for crediting such a claim, as he does objectivists downright idiotic and ‘childish’ for embracing it.

    I really doubt that the author has explored all the psychological implications of seeking, or taking, the aforementioned comfort–if it could even be called that. I also doubt he has considered its philosophical roots, why wanting reassurance of the mind’s impotence has risen to such prominence in academia and the culture in general. (Not to leave anyone in suspense, the cause is Immanuel Kant.)

  31. Hiding behind vaguely-conceived “worldview” is a lazy approach to criticism. You say “It is grave weakness to be unable to stipulate your target’s world view,” but your own half-assed critique of Dadaism revealed precisely such an inability on your part. Style and form are every bit as integral to works of art as the “world view” the author espouses, moreover.

    As for that excerpt: it’s a bad sentence because it incompetently mixes metaphors in a nonsensical way. The first two terms–the bit of pain and the raindrop on the glass of a window–are reasonably good, but the third term, the “course in the shape of a question” muddles the entire thing. Questions don’t have shapes, and even if they did, raindrops on windows fall in straight lines, not in complicated courses. The sentence can’t be visualized or conceptualized; it becomes meaningless.

    Your claim that Rand’s work is a “completely different literary form” is baseless. As you know, Rand admired the works of Hugo and Dostoevsky (what, do you think I picked the names without reason?); her works continue in their tradition. Her form is that of the realistic novel, dense with philosophical themes and peopled by characters who embody particular philosophical principles. There are clear formal differences between what she’s doing and what Hugo is doing, sure, but to claim that her work is in a different literary form is an eccentric claim–the burden for establishing it lies on you. As it is, most of the flaws in Atlas Shrugged are tied not to its form but its execution.

    Her speeches are terribly written. I’ve laid out why: they don’t come from characters, they come directly from the author, they are overlong, they are repetitive, and their formal interest is reduced to heavy-handed, archaic rhetorical moves. That you and others “like” them does nothing to change this. Claiming they are of “a different form” than the great philosophical speeches in, say, Dostoevsky, is only an evasion of the obvious.

    Her characters are caricatures and her plots are thoroughly predictable. You would argue this is tied to her “different form”; I would maintain that all you have shown is Rand’s emaciation of the form. She has taken the philosophical-novel form from the great realists and subtracted from it the depth of characterization, the unpredictable plot moves, the subtleties of character and meaning, and even the barest relation to reality. This is not “creating a new form,” this is bastardizing a once-magnificent old one.

  32. Also, unrelated, but what kind of drug do you have to take to come to the conclusion that the universe’s “lack of fundamental answers” is “comforting”? And could I have some?

  33. @anonymous

    Very fine. I know what you mean about many people being comforted by the notion that there is a lack of fundamental answers.

    That Will C is in the dark on this is illuminating.

  34. I wish to thank readers of this essay for this lively and entertaining discussion. Thanks to Anon and to Marc who correctly source the K. Galbraith and G. Norquist quotations,oversights on my part. I stand by the” turgid prose” observation. It’s an unoriginal observation, and that is my point: I am not alone in this judgment, and it seems pointless to try to defend Rand as a prose stylist when clearly she sought to be a novelist of ideas. I wish more attention were paid to Mary Gaitskill’s observation that many of Rand’s followers are genuinely idealistic and well intentioned; they, too, seek a better world. I share Mary’s belief. Surely, progressives can make common cause with them. Others, of course, can be testy & argumentative,even boorish, but one needn’t be a Rand disciple to have these characteristics. Anyone interested in reading more on this subject are invited to read my interview with Mary at TNB, which you may find here: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/gpercesepe/2011/06/ayn-rand-and-the-american-psyche-an-interview-with-mary-gaitskill/

  35. @jeremy . . . no thanks.

    More naked assertion with no details topped off with insult.

    I am not the only one pointing this out here: certainly the ‘regulars’ at this blog don’t need to explain themselves to each other; you have an established “choir” situation. However, this hit piece is indexed on Google and you have visitors. When you just assert and insult, even if your buddies “get it,” the rest of the world just sees you as a lout. [inside Rand joke intended on ‘lout.’ If you explain what normal means I’ll explain ‘lout’ in this context]

    Thank you,
    John Donohue

  36. Special thanks to Mary Gaitskill, for permission to use her comments to me,comments made in a series of emails, and to Pari Chang, who served as first reader of this essay.

  37. Read it.

    Mary does not understand the sequence I described above; she thinks people want to “base their lives” on Rand’s characters. Were that true, 1) she would be correct in despising the phenomenon; 2) there is no way such an inauthentic path would have legs; and 3) Ayn Rand expressly stomps on this in both her novels and essays. Her name for people who live that way: “Second-Handers.”

    No, what actually causes the power surge is that Ayn Rand ‘calls out’ and ‘paints a picture of’ the interior life of a free soul with no claims on it, no unsolicited guilt or burden, no shame of fully acting to esteem and seek self-chosen values. Contrary to Mary’s claim that this is just MOM giving the child permission to be selfish, sorry she does not get it: the individual is born with the life-drive to self actuate. Deep down the young soul knows it is good. How could it not; to hold that ones most thrilling impulse to live free and achieve is ‘bad’ (sinful? fascist?) one would have to actually hate oneself.

    No, all Ayn Rand does is “show.” After that, the soul loves what the soul loves.

  38. I think Progressives can make common cause with Objectivists. We overlap (I will not call it ‘agree’) on a woman’s right to own and control her body, that the state should not conscript citizens, that the citizen is in charge of what he puts in his body, that cartels of combined quasi-private/government-embedded entities are evil, that religious-based law is just as evil. I could go on.

    So what to do about the non-overlap?

  39. If I were interviewing Mary Gaitskill, my thread would be “do you agree with what was done to your story for the film “Secretary,” especially the ending. And also the very last 10 seconds of the film; doe she agree with that?

    Does anyone know if she has written about that anywhere?

  40. It seems that everytime I read an article that even tangentially mentions Ayn Rand, scrolling down reveals a commenter-disciple who very loudly, makes a number of strange and muddled points in her name. I hope that John Donohue is merely an expert troll.

  41. “It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question.” Ayn Rand.

    Will C: “… it’s a bad sentence because it incompetently mixes metaphors in a nonsensical way. The first two terms–the bit of pain and the raindrop on the glass of a window–are reasonably good, but the third term, the “course in the shape of a question” muddles the entire thing. Questions don’t have shapes, and even if they did, raindrops on windows fall in straight lines, not in complicated courses. The sentence can’t be visualized or conceptualized; it becomes meaningless.”

    I was correct in my thinking: it was the question mark.
    This is a classic one/one metaphor, but with a trailer, a third beat.

    1) the classic part is far more than “reasonably good.” It is strong.
    2) there is a prior context heading into this sentence that hurts and, importantly, is deeply bewildering.
    3) your double slippage out of the metaphoric to insist that “questions don’t have shapes” and raindrops fall straight down signals some variety of rigidity or obsessive naturalism. The only way those two criticisms would have traction is if you accuse Ayn Rand of also “going natural.” But, really? Sorry, she is still in the throes, stretching. If pain can be a raindrop, a raindrop can be in the shape of a question.
    4) the ‘question shape’, inside the metaphor, harkens back to the bewilderment; it brings the image full circle.
    5) i suggest you change your phrase “The sentence can’t be visualized or conceptualized…” to “I can only handle the common metaphor, not a three-parter.”

    It’s a beautiful sentence.

  42. @Will C

    I won’t respond at length to your three paragraphs attempting to put Rand under your three mentions….

    But this is the key:

    “Her form is that of the realistic novel, dense with philosophical themes and peopled by characters who embody particular philosophical principles. ”

    Rand is not a realist. She is a romantic realist. If you want the short form: her heroes don’t have superpowers, but although grounded in reality, they are large, and they will triumph. No “realist” would tolerate that. Paraphrasing: ‘Naturalism depicts things as they are, Rand’s version of romantic-realism depicts things as they ought and could be.’

    As for the speeches, I’ve already responded to that above.

  43. I have a brother-in-law who, knowing I harbour a longstanding deep respect for and appreciation of Ayn Rand’s clear articulation of the virtues of selfishness, keeps sending me blog articles like this, without ever engaging in one word of debate. It’s a bit pathetic, but reflects a typically self righteous yet patently rudderless approach to life that results from criticism of ideas without in all the years I have known him, articulating a clearly defined set of ideas to advocate as an alternative to the many things he “quietly” resents. Absent any philisophical or idealogical clear statement of ideas, he remains self righteously embedded in his own blindly adopted “social view”. So it is that I step in to this forum at this point today. I’ve offered to debate him, but he like the vast majority of criticism of Rand here, loves to burrow his way into the “crowd” and attack Rand’s esthetic rather than really engage in a debate about the ideas. If you love her ideas (and particularly that democracy should not be used to rob a person of their individual rights / property and that free rights-respecting individuals advance cultures, not heavy collective goverments or collective groups), you generally love or at least understand and appreciate her characters, story line and prose, to a greater degree, than if you fundamentally reject her ideas or fear ideas being organized into a coherant philosophical moral code. To this day, my greatest reason for continuing to admire Ayn Rand, is that no philosopher or author so simply and precisely put forward the intellectual counter argment to the socialist orthodoxy that crept into North American and global culture during the last hundred years. She is to be admired for stepping out to point a finger at a self satisfied crowd of mediocrities and their ultimate use of force (“democratically” of course) to take what they want. She at least raised the question, what happens if these trends continue? Will Atlas Shrug? I used to think he wouldn’t, but he might. To John Donohue and anonymous, I say keep up the good fight. Idealism and romantacism are necessary ingredients for true human fullfillment and becoming a self actualized human being in the most positive and enlightened sense of that concept, whereas “realism” and tolerance of mediocrity are the happy home of the intellectually lazy, the underachievers like my brother in law, whose children have grown up to believe in nothing – aim low, hit low, but if you don’t aim, you miss the mark altogether. A human needs a moral code like an archer needs a target. I view society as dogs and flees, carcasses and maggots, producers and thieves etc. There are those who take it forward and those that just digest and criticize what is there without adding piss all in the way of progress. It should be no surprise that said brother in law has a facination with b-rated movies, but has never articulated to me what he defined as a “good” movie. Rand did not feed off of anyone or anything, but offered alot for very little more than the cost of a book, but it seems facinating that so many critics even thirty years later, feel a need to take shots at her without taking the human and intellectual initiative to understand and acknowledge the compelling and accurate truth and reason behind a great free independant thinker of our time. She correctly pointed out that it is not about being a Republican or a Democrat, noting the confused and muddled idealogical mess of mixed ideas in each party. It is about collectivism vs individualism and what happens when you blindly charge down the path of the former without understanding the human and cultural tole on individuals and society.

  44. Thank you for your post. As long as people are critiquing the critic, the initial part of your article reads like a screen play, I enjoyed the imagery you conjured…I wanted to know more about where your life went. Ayn Rand: I listened to Atlas Shrugged, a number of years ago, on cassette tapes in my car while commuting, in horrendous traffic, to and from my teaching job at a university. I took the cassette tapes out of the local library and I kept renewing them, with no recalls, not one. Perhaps the conservative who read are purists. I can say that the tome was sometimes as grating as my brakes in the stop and go traffic. But I am glad I listened, not one little bit did, or do, I agree with, but for educational purposes it is always good to have read what comes up in debate. I have wondered if the length of the book, rather than its contents, has likened it to the bible…full of sound and fury, signifying…I’ll let you fill in the blank.

  45. To understand Rand is to believe in yourself. If you little liberals are so perceptive, go ahead and define the motive power behind humanity’s progress. Giving to the poor? It is their responsibility for being poor – An accumulation of life decisions.

  46. Almost every one of the quotes attributed to Rand’s editor is sourced in the “100 Voices” oral history – with the nice things he said about Rand downplayed. Hmm.

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