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21 October 2004


While dusting the bookshelves yesterday, I stumbled across my copy of With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy, in which longtime National Review columnist Florence King anthologizes her mini-biographies of curmudgeons throughout history.

Before I had even pulled it off the shelf, I recalled that King's chapter on literary misanthropes includes some really delicious dish on laissez-faire novelist and "Objectivist philosopher" Ayn Rand, who was my intellectual hero for a few years in college. Florence King had also gone through a Rand phase in her younger years -- but like me and like many other one-time disciples, she eventually recognized Ayn Rand's rabidly neurotic side and preferred to admire Objectivism skeptically, and from a safe distance.

For those unacquainted with Ayn Rand, it is key to this essay to note that she was born Alissa Rosenbaum in pre-revolutionary Sankt-Petrburg; and that while Rand made no secret of her heritage as a Russian Jew, she always downplayed the Jewish part. Anyway, King's biographical sketch of Rand's life begins:

Another life-loving misanthrope fled Soviet Russia for America in 1926. Twenty-one-year-old Alice [sic] Rosenbaum arrived in New York lugging a Remington-Rand typewriter and some books by a Finnish writer whose surname was Ayn.

Pardon me while I interrupt King for a little trivia that may be relevant: "A Finnish writer named Ayn" was Rand's own official explanation for her adopted first name, but her biographers have pointed out that (a) no such Finnish writer has ever been tracked down, and (b) ayn -- which rhymes with "mine" -- is a Yiddish term of endearment meaning something like "bright eyes."

Although she was born in Czarist Russia in 1905 and raised in St. Petersburg, [Rand] told her biographer Barbara Branden that she had never met with the slightest manifestation of anti-Semitism, nor heard any discussion of it at home.
In The Passion of Ayn Rand, Branden posits that since anti-Semitism was ubiquitous in Russia during Rand's childhood, she had to have encountered it, but probably blocked it out of her mind "because the memory would have carried with it an unacceptable feeling of humiliation." She never denied that she was a Jew, but "it had no significance to her." Jewishness conflicted with Rand's belief that "man is a being of self-made soul," so she chose to be un-Chosen. [Emphasis added -- Th. M.]
Barbara Branden finds in Atlas Shrugged "a blistering contempt for the world," and speculates: "On a more subtle level, her hatred seemed to be rooted in a deep, terrible fear -- as if the outside world was not merely an arena where wrong ideas were held and wrong actions taken: it was an arena fraught with danger."
What was it? Studying this passage, I detect something that Barbara Branden missed in this otherwise superb biography: Ayn Rand's whole schtick was a gargantuan displacement of her never-admitted fear of anti-Semitism.
Her... philosophy based on individualism, reason, logic, objective thinking, and rejection of emotionalism would, if universally adopted, bring about an immediate end to anti-Semitism, which is a product of the Gentile id. [She] spent her entire career as a novelist crusading against anti-Semitism while taking care not to write a word about Jews.
There is not a single Jewish character in all of her work; not even... in The Fountainhead, which is set entirely in Manhattan. [...] Moreover, [all her characters, good or bad, look WASP]. Toohey is the drip with the bookbag, but everyone else is long and lanky, blond or carrot-top, blue- or gray-eyed. [...] By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand recognizes the need for a little ethnic variety, but what did she name the heroic pirate who hijacks ships carrying humanitarian aid? Ragnar Danneskjold -- just what the copy editor needed.
Despite their overwhelming Gentileness, Randian heroes come off as metaphors for Jews because they are beset by irrational forces that try to bar them from the professions and use their virtues against them to bring about their destruction. [Emphasis added -- Th. M.]
A minor hero of The Fountainhead gives it away. New York WASP sculptor Stephen Mallory's definition of terror echoes the age-old keening Why? of the persecuted Jew:
"To me, [terror is] being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a... maniac who's had some disease that's eaten his brain out... You'd scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you'd have the most eloquent words... you'd become the vessel of absolute truth. And you'd... know that the thing can't hear you, that it can't be reached... yet it's breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of its own."
In Atlas Shrugged, the Wyoming mountain sanctuary "Galt's Gulch," into which the rational creators and captains of industry disappear and start their own community, is Ayn Rand's Israel. The [WASP] inhabitants are [Rand's] Chosen People, exiles who actually do what the Jews have always been accused of doing: running the world.

P.S. Apologies to Florence King in case the selected passages exceed fair-use lengths. She's a brilliant writer, and With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy is available from Amazon, along with her other works. Go and buy!

posted by Throbert | 10/21/2004 07:43:00 PM |
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