12 June 2005

Ayn again: celebrating 100 years

“An organism’s life is its standard of value. Whatever furthers its life is good and that which threatens it is evil… The nature of a living entity determines what it ought to do.” This is Dr Edward Younkins’ understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, as expressed in his article in “The Individual” in 1999. Dr Younkins may be right – for the concept of “the individual” is in the forefront of every Ayn Rand novel and writing.

I had no clear vision of this when I read Ayn Rand. To me Rand stood for personal freedom, selfishness and capitalism, and these seemed almost Olympian in size in my teenage mind. Impressionable and with an imagination which needed curbing, I remember reading Night of January 16th, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in my high-school days, wallowing in lofty ideals like, “The man with a purpose is a man in control of his life.” Or, “Work and achievement are the highest goals in life.” Or, even better, “Sex is an expression of a man’s self-esteem, of his own self-value.”

Rand’s books had their own attraction, giving impressionable egos like mine a fillip they badly needed; and I’m sure, if I had come across a Playboy magazine then, it would have stirred things up just as much. So, imagine my surprise, when, more than 25 years later, on the internet, I discover an Ayn Rand interview by Playboy magazine dating back to 1964, discussing the very ideals I had to find after ransacking books and magazines at the British Council Library.

But, is there a male bias in all this? Did Rand write only for men, taking their egos to lofty heights? According to influential feminist writer Susan Brownmiller, Rand is “a traitor to her own sex.” And to Camille Paglia, Rand is “an intellectual prototype of her own bad self.” Yet, Rand had thousands of women students among her followers, and to this day, we find Nora Ephron (novelist and screenwriter) and Hillary Rodham Clinton as supporters of her philosophy.

What about the women in Rand’s novels? They defy conventions and are fiercely independent. And unapologetically sexual. Yet Rand also wrote that the nature of female desire was to seek worshipful domination by a heroic male. I couldn’t figure this one out. Was this a joke? Was Rand suggesting some sort of a sadomasochistic role for her women in preference to her male heroes? Controversies abound.

Who was Ayn Rand? What was her vision? When, like me, millions of high-school students enter her world with enthusiasm, are they entering an intellectual adventure of a fictional hero? Or, are they discovering a world much more potent than what we have ever dreamt of? While we celebrate the Ayn Rand Centenniel Year, maybe we’ll find some answers.

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