Whenever Ayn Rand met someone new—an acolyte who’d traveled cross-country to study at her feet, an editor hoping to publish her next novel—she would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth—the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows—a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.
Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”
No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces. She was proud, grouchy, vindictive, insulting, dismissive, and rash. (One former associate called her “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.”) But she was also idealistic, yearning, candid, worshipful, precise, and improbably charming. She funneled all of these contradictory elements into Objectivism, the home-brewed philosophy that won her thousands of Cold War–era followers and that seems to be making some noise once again in our era of bailouts and tea parties. (Glenn Beck and Ron Paul are Rand fans; Alan Greenspan, once a member of her inner circle, had his faith in the market’s rationality shaken by the crash.)
It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.” And logic, in Rand’s hands, seemed to enjoy superpowers it didn’t possess with anyone else. She claimed, for instance, that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had. “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she once wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” One convert insisted that “she knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.” The only option was to yield or stay away. (I should admit here my own bias: I was a card-carrying Objectivist from roughly age 16 to 19, during which time I did everything short of changing my last name to Randerson—a phase I’m deeply embarrassed by, but also secretly grateful for.)
Rand insisted, over and over, that the details of her life had nothing to do with the tenets of her philosophy. She would cite, on this subject, the fictional architect Howard Roark, hero of her novel The Fountainhead: “Don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought, it turns out, were very much dependent on her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings—or at least on her relative lack of all that.
Anne Heller’s new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, allows us to poke our heads, for the first time, into the Russian-American’s overheated philosophical subbasement. After reading the details of Rand’s early life, I find it hard to think of Objectivism as very objective at all—it looks more like a rational program retrofitted to a lifelong temperament, a fantasy world created to cancel the nightmare of a terrifying childhood. This is the comedy, the tragedy, and the power of Rand: She built a glorious imaginary empire on that nuclear-grade temperament, then devoted every ounce of her will and intelligence to proving it was all pure reason.