“The Fountainhead”, Muggledom, and a road to feminism: why I both loathe and appreciate Ayn Rand

In my reprint of a post about young conservative students, I made a crack about Ayn Rand. Since Rand has been the subject of a pair of recent biographies, and has been much discussed on the right as a kind of ideological mother figure of the so-called Tea Party Insurrection against the Obama Administration, I think it’s time to say a bit more about her work.

I discovered Ayn Rand at 16. A friend of mine finished “The Fountainhead”, and came to me one morning before class: “This book has changed my life, Hugo, and it will change yours. Read it!” I liked and respected Lisa, and accepted the thick and battered paperback she proffered. I took it home, and showed my mother, a philosophy professor. She took one look at the book, grimaced, and then said “Darling, I won’t say anything. Make up your own mind.”

It wasn’t until I read “American Psycho”, many years later, that I had a comparable experience of near-instant loathing of a text, an author, a prose style, and a worldview. I was a young lefty at 16, struggling through John Rawls and Herbert Marcuse. My favorite novel that year was Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” one of the most polemical works that the great local writer (I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula) wrote. Rand was ideologically and stylistically abhorrent to me at 16, and though it’s been years since I’ve picked up any of her work (I finished “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” through sheer acts of will in my youth), my general feeling of disdain on every imaginable ground remains.

But I’ve met many young people, more often women than men, who — like my friend Lisa in high school — find great inspiration in Ayn Rand. Generally, there’s a specific type of teen who falls in love with either “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged”. She’s usually very bright, raised to one degree or another with the “pleasing woman discourse” (what I call “the Martha Complex.“) She often finds her classes dull and her teachers pedestrian. She suspects she’s destined for something extraordinary, that she’s somehow different from everyone else — but unlike the immensely talented dancer or athlete or actor, she doesn’t have one specific skill that stands out as a ticket to stardom. She vacillates between feelings of intense superiority — and feelings of equally intense guilt for the way in which she looks down on so many of those around her.

She picks up Rand, and suddenly it all makes sense. She is superior, one of the elect. She isn’t what a far more interesting and talented writer would call a “Muggle”. She has an exalted destiny, just as she had suspected. Rand inspires her; telling her that it’s time to throw off the chains of obligation and guilt which have left her confined and miserable. In an odd way, Rand — who would be exceedingly difficult to classify as a feminist — is often a gateway into feminism for some young women. It’s through reading Rand that not-insignificant percentages of young women begin to think seriously about what they want for themselves rather than what others want for them. Young women who have the false impression that feminism is about collective victimization find temporary inspiration in “The Fountainhead” — and in due course, when they encounter real sexism in the real world, they reluctantly concede that perhaps those nasty old feminists had a point after all. I’ve met a hell of a lot of strong young progressive feminists in their twenties and early thirties who were enchanted by Randian philosophy in their teens.

So yes, I think an infatuation with Ayn Rand is developmentally appropriate for adolescents. She flatters and inspires the bright and the isolated and the uncertain; she’s useful for helping some young people, girls in particular, break the deadly people-pleasing habit. So if reading “Atlas” or “Fountainhead” is what it takes to inspire the lonely, the introverted, and the insecure — then may the God that she rejected bestow blessings upon that poor unhappy soul that was Ayn Rand.

This post has been altered from the way it originally appeared earlier today, ill-considered references to comic books, Star Trek, and New Kids on the Block were deleted.