. . . and I didn’t even know. On October 27th, GQ’s Andrew Corsell published this article entitled “The Bitch is Back,” about Ayn Rand and a segment of her devoted followers (the author calls them ARAs, or Ayn Rand Assholes, a pretty fair assessment). While the author’s relentless usage of the male pronoun gave me an attack of the feminist vapors, the article as a whole is amazing and worth reading. A sample, since I just yesterday noticed the “quote” function in WordPress:
GODDAMN, the experience of being 19 years old and reading Ayn Rand! The crystal-shivering-at-the-breaking-pitch intensity of it! Not just for that 19-year-old, but for everybody unfortunate enough to be caught in his psychic blast radius. Is “experience” even the right word for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand’s idolization of Mickey Spillane and cigarettes and capitalism—an experience? Her tentacular contempt for Shakespeare and Beethoven and Karl Marx and facial hair and government and “subnormal” children and the poor and the Baby Jesus and the U.N. and homosexuals and “simpering” social workers and French Impressionism and a thousand other things the flesh is heir to: experience?
Lord. It’s only funny because it’s true.
I went through my own “Ayn Rand experience” in high school, not college. For me this looked like being rightfully taunted by my Honors Economics class for insisting that capitalism would save us all, and writing amazing stories about square-jawed dudes with no feelings (one was a fucking cyborg in a futuristic socialist utopia, I kid you not), oppressed by a brainwashed society of losers who didn’t appreciate their artistic or whatever kind of genius. Yes, all of them were (of course) loved by slender women in suits who just couldn’t get enough of modeling for them/doing other stuff (I can’t remember much about the lady-heroine of the cyborg story and that document has been lost to time, unfortunately. I do remember she was maybe a librarian but maybe a rogue librarian who didn’t like all the electric books that had replaced the works of true artistic genius or some such. YES!). Thankfully I grew the fuck out of that nonsense in college, probably after reading Nickle and Dimed or, I dunno, just having enough life experience that disputed the notion that the world was a binary of diametrically opposed groups: moochers and brilliant blue-eyed industrialists-or-artists with an appetite for sexual violence toward slender brilliant women in suits.
So here’s what made me purr with pleasure when I saw this article, right from the get-go:
Rand grabs a reader at a time of maximum vulnerability and malleability, when he’s getting his first accurate sense of how he measures up in the world in terms of intellect and talent. The longing to regard oneself as misunderstood and underrated can be powerful; the temptation to project oneself as such, irresistible. But how? How to stand above and apart?
Enter Howard Roark, the heroic and misunderstood architect, square of jaw and Asperger-ish of mien, who at the end of The Fountainhead blows up his own masterpiece after a bunch of sniveling “parasites” and “second-handers” tinker with the blueprints.
“AS A FICTION WRITER, she’s absurd,” says author and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who is arguably the most opinionated Homo sapiens since Rand herself. “But if you’re young and not particularly wanted and not particularly brilliant, reading Atlas Shrugged provides all the feelings of compensation one might need for any period of terrifying inadequacy.”
I guess what is so funny about the essay, at least to me, is that Corsello clearly gets it. He knows from the crazy. So do I. I am now so distant from my high school self that I feel comfortable writing on the internet about the time that I left a creative writing class in tears because my teacher and my classmates called out a relationship in one of my awful, awful stories for being emotionally abusive and unhealthy. It most certainly was, and the 28 year old me would like nothing more than to explain this slowly and patiently to my 16 year old self, since if I could get through to myself at that age it would probably give me the moxie to punch my high school artist-boyfriend in the face (he was red of hair and square of jaw, just like Mr. Roark, man oh man did I get off on that) instead of just saying “OK!!” when he told me that his “plan for us” was that I would get a college degree and then move to a big city so he could work on his art and I could support him. Romance! But that’s the thing about the Rand-obsessed: her “philosophy” makes any number of completely insane things sound perfectly rational. An excellent summation:
Where, say, undergraduate Marxists share a certain narcoleptic insouciance, freshly afflicted Randians evince a showier disregard for those who can’t or won’t see the light. Showy—but serene, in a way that’s cultish and weird. And unintentionally funny, since the only other young people possessed of such grim serenity are those homeschooled Christian fundamentalists who have the ability to transmit—with nothing more than a silent, pitying look—that they know (1) the Rapture is imminent, (2) they’ll be taken up, and (3) you’ll be spending eternity steeping in a liquid-shit Jacuzzi.
It is 1999 and I am a senior in high school. Over the summer I discovered Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. I believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly; my secret shame is that I never made it through Galt’s speech, I wanted too badly to know how the novel ended. I see this as a moral failure. Even so, I am writing story after story attempting to “explain” to my creative writing class that Objectivist writing is High Fucking Art. I am pretending not to be disappointed by how crappy We the Living is. I am feeling cool carrying around copies of The Virtue of Selfishness or The Romantic Manifesto, even though I don’t understand them. I am asking my boyfriend to be “rougher” with me so I can experience sexual ecstasy akin to Dagny Taggart or Dominique Francon. I am taking a patient, obnoxious tone with my classmates explaining how the free market only punishes the weak and lazy. I am in touch with several objectivists over at the Ayn Rand Institute and feeling oh-so-grown-up as they flatter me by telling me I am more wise and insightful than my colleagues in high school for “getting” Rand’s work. One of them tells me something along the lines of “whenever you wonder how to act in a certain situation, ask yourself what would Ayn Rand say about this?” I see no connection to this and the WWJD bracelets worn by kids at my school. I am also communicating with another Objectivist with an online presence. I use my allowance to send him my senior picture by mail, he tells me I am beautiful in an email and I am delighted. I send him a short story, he loves it, asks me to send more. I send him a story with a non-party-line sentiment, he gets nasty about it and asks if I am into gang-banging and Virginia Woolf. I am profoundly hurt by this. I have no idea that in less than a year’s time I will have abandoned the weird, unpleasant, deluded society that is Objectivism and begun my metamorphosis into the kind of person who can see grey areas and also understand how maybe some people are poor because of circumstances other than their own laziness or ineptitude, or in other words, that worst of heretics, the kind of person who believes America is (gasp!) not a meritocracy.
I have been a member of the cult, and I can smell my own late-high-school self (Bath and Body Works tangerine body-spray, self-righteousness) when I read the comments on Mr. Corsell’s article. This one (author’s moniker: howardroark, of course) reminded me of myself a bit too much:
Mr. Corsello would make Ellsworth Toohey quite proud. You sir, are exactly the type that Ms. Rand so accurately portrays in her books. The irony is not lost on your readers.
I don’t miss my late-high-school self at all.