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

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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.

On 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.

A 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.

The 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