Reading Rand
Still hot, still cool

The Russian-born émigré, who chose America for her home and who passionately believed in the American ideals of freedom and individualism, continues to hold sway over young minds with her brilliant novels of ideas, writes Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Rand. Ayn Rand. Something similar to: Bond. James Bond. The sound is easy on the tongue and on the ears. She has been an iconic figure for generations of post-World War II adolescents across the world. Reading her famous heavy tomes of fiction—Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged— was a rites of passage for thousands of teenagers. Rand uncannily combined the success of the popular fiction of Robert Ludlum with the high-brow intellectual engagement that one associates with the novels of Aldous Huxley. Huxley did not ever enjoy the adulation of the young that Rand did. Rand novels sold millions of copies. She was in the league of the big-bucks-best-seller authors.

Rand caught them young. Every one of Rand readers—most of them girls— recall that they read her when they were 15, 16, 17. One of them, Qurratul-Ain Hyder, a media person, who read her at 18 felt that she came to Rand rather late. And she was one of the rare few who was not bowled over by the Rand fusillade. Many of them who have read her nearly 30 years ago, cannot remember the details of plot or the arguments of her novels. Yet, Howard Roark, the architect-hero of Fountainhead remains vividly sketched in their memories.

Says Sudha Chandran, a senior public relations firm director in Dubai who studied journalism at the Panjab University campus and who grew up in the mill town of Dhariwal: "At that time, she really seemed to offer an idealistic solution. What I enjoyed most I think was the inspirational aspect of the main protagonists—specially their strong sense of belief in themselves and their ideals. Rand inspired the reader to feel strengthened to follow one’s own ideas—you know the kind of confidence injection you get which makes you feel ready to take on the world no matter what."

Leela Samson, classical danseuse and director of the famous Kalakshetra institute in Chennai, who has again read her when she was in her late teens, says: "Rand’s characters were larger than life."

What is it about these novels that captivates the young reader? Malati Mathur, who teaches English at Alwar, recalls Howard Roark: "I must have been 15 when I read Fountainhead. I identified with Howard Roark. He was not cold blooded. There was something at the centre of him which remained detached. I felt, my God, I am just like him!"

Mumbai-based novelist Kalpana Swaminathan is not very kind about Roark or his creator, Rand. She admits that she first read Fountainhead when she was 25, and she was a resident doctor by then. She had seen the tumult and battle of life directly. She thought Rand was un-thinking. "She had all the answers. But she had no questions. For me, life is full of questions, and no answers." Swaminathan says that Roark is the hero of young girls. "My niece, who is 18 and who has just read Fountainhead; was moaning the other day: ‘Aunty, why are all the boys stupid? Why are they not like Howard Roark?’ Swaminathan says that many women judge men in their lives by the yardstick of Roark! "Not me," says Proteeti Bamrejee, an Editor with a publishing house in Delhi. "I hated her when I first read her at the age of 15. I must have been a freak because everyone else liked her. They still do. She is still hot and happening. Young boys look to Howard Roark as a role model. But I don’t. I cannot identify with a hero who looks down upon the rest of humanity as mediocre." Is she a commie or a bleeding heart liberal? "Do I have to be labeled?," she retorts. "No, my heart does not bleed for poor people. But I am concerned about what is happening around me, the materialism, the consumerism." She is not surprised that Rand continues to be the rage because she fits in with the spirit of the times so well.

Filmmaker and critic Khaled Mohamed has his own take on Rand. He says that he read her at school because it was the done thing. But when he read her a few years later, he found her to be Right wing in her views. But he has his own Rand tale as well: "Six years ago, Ramgopal Verma came with a copy of Fountainhead and wanted me to do a screenplay based on the book. He wanted to cast Amitabh Bachchan as Howard Roark. He was saying that Roark’s role can have much of Amitabh Bachchan and of himself. But I was not game for it."

Sociologist Ashis Nandy says that he never read Rand. The nearest he came to Rand was through a Bangla film whose name he could not remember, based on Fountainhead. "I saw the film because Uttam Kumar played the hero, and Uttam was my favourite actor."

Intellectual gladiator

The intellectuals, with the exception of Alan Greenspan, former US Fed chairman, who was her acolyte, and who wrote the article in the collection Capitalism, along with Rand and Nathaniel Brenden, another lifelong associate, do not seem to have taken kindly to her. They looked upon her as an upstart, an intruder. Greenspan’s piece was on "Gold And Economic Freedom." He was defending the gold standard, a conservative view in the problem days of 1970.

Rand too never seemed to have liked the intellectual class in America. In the opening essay of For The New Intellectual, published in 1963, at the dawn of the counter-culture revolution that symbolised the swinging 1960s in America, she castigated the American intellectual in the most asinine terms. It is an indictment that deserves to be quoted in full:

"What are the intellectual values or resources offered to us by the present guardians of our culture? In philosophy we are taught that man’s mind is impotent, that reality is unknowable, that knowledge is an illusion, and reason a superstition. In psychology, we are told that man is a helpless automaton, determined by forces beyond his control, motivated by innate depravity. In literature, we are shown a line-up of murderers, dipsomaniacs, drug-addicts, neurotics and psychotics as representatives of man’s soul— and are invited to identify our won among them— with the belligerent assertion that life is a sewer, a fox-hole or a rat-race, with the whining injunction that we must love everything, except virtue, and forgive everything, except greatness.

In politics, we are told that America, the greatest, noblest, freest country on earth is politically and morally inferior to Soviet Russia, the bloodiest dictatorship in history—and that our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven’t."

This is the kind of stuff that will make the socialists and liberals go red in the face, but Rand was anything but apologetic about her fierce convictions. She ardently believed that the professional intellectual and the professional businessman were the products of the industrial age. She lamented the fact that the businessman distrusts the intellectual and the intellectual fears the businessman. After the end of the Cold War, she would have been, perhaps, quite happy to see that intellectuals and businessmen in America are not at loggerheads with each other, and that there is a convergence of their resources and talents. Leftist critics of capitalist America would argue that Rand was an ignoramus, that the intellectuals were always serving the interest of the capitalists.

Is Rand a romantic? It might appear as an incongruous question. But she believed that she was, and that indeed was the burden of her writings in her collection, Romantic Manifesto, which was published in 1971. She believed that French novelist Victor Hugo and Russian Fyodor Dostoevski were romantics. One of the essays was an introduction to an American edition of Hugo’s novel on the French Revolution, Ninety-Three. She believes that both Hugo and Dostoevski understood the forces of life at work, and that they portrayed the play of these forces in their life. She does not like the fact that Hugo sympathises with French aristocrats in the novel, but she says that Hugo gives a full picture of life. She feels that Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas were romantics in the shallow sense of the term because they portrayed action and adventure, but failed to discern the deeper meaning of the forces at work. It can be seen that Rand aspired to be in the league of Hugo and Dostoevski. John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, where he declares the strike of the intellectuals and the creative souls is an abstract, ideological argument set in a concrete situation. It compares with the famous Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, where the truth of Jesus Christ and its betrayal by the Church is vividly pictured. Galt’s oracular speech pictures the truth and betrayal of capitalism.

Two émigrés

There cannot have been two radically different Russian expatriates than Vladimir Nabokov (1899) and Ayn Rand. Nabokov, who was six years older to her but died five years earlier (1977) fled Russia, like Rand, after the Bolshevik Revolution. While Rand went straight to the United States in 1925, Nabokov lingered for years in Berlin and Paris and survived as a Russian writer and translator, before moving to the United States in the 1930s. Nabokov began writing in English only in the 1940s. Rand never wrote in Russian, and interestingly none of her works has been translated into Russian, though it has been into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hebrew apart from other European languages.

Lolita, the big novel by which Nabokov had won literary fame among the 20th century Western connoisseurs, is antipodal in nature to Rand’s Fountainhead. While Fountainhead won popular success, Lolita remained the prized possession of literary aesthetes. Both the novels were made into films, and the two authors wrote the screenplays for the film version of their respective novels. While the legendary Gary Cooper played Howard Roark in the film version of Fountainhead, British actor James Mason played Humbert Humbert, the old man who seduces teenager Lolita.

Though Nabokov moved to Switzerland in his later years, he was keen to be known as an American writer rather than a Russian writer. Rand won literary credentials as an American woman of letters without much ado. While Nabokov retained the aura of the old Russian aristocrat, Rand was the energetic middle class intellectual who was ready to take up cudgels for her cause in the public arena. Nabokov remained a naturalised American, and an exotic Russian till the last. Rand was a natural American, the public intellectual, the fierce priestess of middle class individualism and endeavour, the restless modern soul reaching out to greater achievements. In the process, she repelled many people, but she attracted many more.


Rand facts

Her real name was Alisa Rosenbaum. Ayn was derived from Finnish. For a long time, it was believed that she borrowed Rand from the Remington Rand typewriter she worked on. It was later found that Remington Rand came into the market much later after she adopted the name.

Six months after she reached the US in 1925, she went to Hollywood to find work.

She had studied screenwriting at the State Institute Cinema Arts in Petrograd in 1924 after she did her graduation from Petrograd University where she read and history and philosophy. On the second when she was waiting at the gates of the studio, Cecil B Demille, the movie mogul, picked her up and took her to the sets of King of Kings. She was offered the role of an extra, and later she became a script reader. The following week she met Frank O’Connor, an actor, who she married three later. They remained married until O’Connor’s death 50 years later.

She wrote her first screenplay, Red Pawn for Universal Studios in 1932. Her first stage play Night of January 16th was produced first in Hollywood and then on Broadway. Her first novel, We The Living, was published in 1936. It is the most autobiographical of her novels, and it is set in Soviet Russia She began writing The Fountainhead in 1935. It was rejected by 12 publishers before it was published in 1943. It became a bestseller in 1945 by word-of-mouth. She returned to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film version of the novel. But due to war restrictions, the film, starring Gary Cooper in the role of Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, could be completed only in 1948.

Her next big and last novel, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957. During the 1960s and 1970s, she published anthologies of her essays from the philosophical journal, The Objectivist. They include: For the New Intellectual (1963)
The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), Capitalism (1967), which includes an essay by former Fed Reserve Chairman Allan Greenspan and The Romantic Manifesto (1971)