Ayn Rand and the birth of Objectivism


Ayn Rand libri e stampe Zoa Studio

Today, on the anniversary of the death of the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, we will try to answer some questions, one of which Rand herself posed in the Preface to The New Intellectual.

I am often asked whether I am primarily a novelist or a philosopher. The answer is: both. In a certain sense, every novelist is a philosopher, because one cannot present a picture of human existence without a philosophical framework. . . . In order to define, explain and present my concept of man, I had to become a philosopher in the specific meaning of the term.

Ayn Rand’s novels that promoted individualism and free capitalism were very successful among generations of young people in the United States from the mid-20th century and beyond. Let’s explore together the figure of this woman and her thought, called Objectivism.

From Alissa Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand

On February 2, 1905, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum was born in St. Petersburg. The eldest of three children, Alissa was educated at home and then in a progressive school, where she excelled academically but was socially isolated (she looks like the female version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory tbh).

However, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, her father’s shop was confiscated by the Communist authorities, an event that will recur in her production. At Leningrad State University, Alissa studied history and the works of Plato and Aristotle. After graduating in 1924, she enrolled in the State Institute of Cinematography, hoping to become a screenwriter.

Some time later she received a letter that changed her life. Some cousins ​​residing in Chicago gave her the opportunity to leave Russia to go to the United States, under the pretext of acquiring skills that she could apply in the Soviet film industry.

Upon arriving in the US in 1926, Alissa officially changed her name to Ayn ​​Rand. After the first six months in Chicago, Ayn Rand went to the capital of the film industry: Hollywood. This place bodes well because a chance encounter with producer Cecil B. DeMille led to Ayn ​​working as a film extra and eventually getting a job as a screenwriter.

In 1929 she married actor Frank O’Connor, very famous for having starred in numerous silent films as well as other films, including  Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. Two years later, in 1931, she took American citizenship. One of Ayn Rand’s first jobs in America was as an archivist at RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., of which she became department head within a year. And, meanwhile, Rand wrote stories, plays and sets in her spare time, which soon turned into successful plays.

The works of Ayn Rand

In 1932 Ayn Rand sold her screenplay Red Pawn, a Soviet romantic thriller, to Universal Studios. Shortly thereafter, she completed a court-set work called Penthouse Legend, which featured the gimmick of audience members as a jury. In late 1934, Rand and her husband moved to New York City for his production, now renamed Night of January 16th, so that they could oversee the production of the show on Broadway.

That year she also wrote Ideal, about a self-centered movie star on the run from the law, first as a novel and then as a play. However, both versions were shelved. The play wasn’t produced until 1989, and the novel wasn’t published until 2015.

Her first published novel, We the Living (1936), is a kind of romantic tragedy in which Soviet totalitarianism embodied the inherent evils of collectivism, which Rand understood as the subordination of individual interests to those of the state. A subsequent novel, Anthem (Antiphon, 1938), portrays a future collectivist dystopia in which the concept of self and even the word “I” have been lost.

The Fountainhead

In 1937, Ayn Rand began researching a new novel working for New York architect Ely Jacques Kahn. The result, after nearly seven years of writing, was The Fountainhead. In the book the protagonist, the architect Howard Roark, refuses to adhere to the conventions, going so far as to blow up one of his own creations, a public housing project he had designed, after receiving changes against his will by the bureaucrats of the government.

Despite the generally negative reviews, the book attracted readers through word of mouth and eventually became a best seller. Rand sold it to the Warner Bros studios and wrote the screenplay for the film, released in 1949, with Gary Cooper in the role of Roark.

Atlas Shrugged

Returning to Los Angeles with O’Connor to work on the screenplay for The Fountainhead, Rand signed a contract to work six months a year as a screenwriter. In 1945 she began to write down her next novel, Atlas Shrugged, generally regarded as her masterpiece.

The book describes a hypothetical United States on the verge of economic collapse after years of collectivist misrule, whereby productive and creative citizens are exploited to benefit an undeserving and incompetent population.

The book’s hero, John Galt, a charming and extremely selfish physicist and inventor (is that  you Sheldon?), leads a gang of entrepreneurs and creators on a “strike” designed to force the government to respect their economic freedom. Atlas Shrugged stood out for making explicit the philosophical assumptions behind The Fountainhead. In an appendix to this volume, Rand described her systematic philosophy, which she called objectivism, as:

“in essence … the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive realization as his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute”.

Although the book was attacked by various critics for its perceived immorality and misanthropy and blatant hostility to religion, it quickly became a best seller.

The book was particularly well received by entrepreneurs, many of whom were struck by its moral justification of capitalism and pleased to think of their occupations as noble and virtuous. Like The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged soon took hold of young people through its accessible and comprehensive philosophy, its rejection of traditional authority and convention, and its  implicit invitation to the reader to join this elite by taking the hero of the story as an example.

The Collective and the Nathaniel Branden Institute

After receiving numerous letters from a young admirer, Nathan Blumenthal, Ayn Rand agreed to meet him in 1950. They quickly established a good relationship, both with Blumenthal and with his girlfriend, Barbara Weidman.

The following year the couple moved to New York, and Rand and her husband soon followed. There the Branden, as Nathan and Barbara called themselves after their marriage in 1953 (yes, they are the forerunners of the Brangelina!), introduced Rand to their friends and family. Some of them later attended regular meetings in the apartment with Rand to discuss and to read the newly written chapters of Atlas Shrugged.

The group, which was called Class of ’43 or (ironically) The Collective, also included Alan Greenspan, an economic consultant. Greenspan would become very important in the life of the future company.

In the late 1950s, with Rand’s permission,  Branden set up a business. Its  purpose was to teach the basic principles of objectivism to readers of Rand’s novels.

The Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), as it was later called, offered objectivism courses in New York. It also distributed Branden-recorded lectures to “objectivist centers” in various other cities. In 1962 Branden and Rand launched the monthly Objectivist newsletter (renamed The Objectivist in 1966).

Meanwhile, Rand’s fame grew rapidly with the sales of her novels, leading her to speak in numerous colleges, universities and television talk shows. In 1961, as her role as a public intellectual grew, Ayn Rand published her first non-fiction work, For the New Intellectual, largely a collection of philosophical passages from her fiction.

What is Objectivism?

Ayn Rand calls her philosophy “objectivism” because at its core is a new conception of objectivity. Traditionally, objectivity has meant the attempt to erase the “knower” from existence, so that consciousness can mirror or copy reality, uncontaminated by any elaboration.

Skeptics therefore complain about the possibility that man knows reality, since any attempt to do so must make use of their senses and / or their rational faculty, both of which engage in elaboration.

Rand challenges the whole approach. The “satisfaction of every need of a living organism”, she wrote, “requires an act of elaboration on the part of that organism, be it the need for air, food or knowledge”. Objectivity consists of a mind that grasps the facts through the correct mental processes.

Leonard Peikoff, who concretized Rand’s philosophy, formulates his point of view: “Being objective in one’s conceptual activities means voluntarily adhering to reality following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to the form of cognition of man “.

In the end, Rand’s hero is the man with lively intelligence, independent in style and life choices, who tenaciously cultivates their own rationality in search of happiness through work and love life, pursuing a common moral goal. .This hero will come into conflict with narrow-minded men, those who limit the flourishing of independent minds in the name of a rigid defense of collectivism.

The last years

In 1968 Ayn Rand learned that Blumenthal was involved in a romantic relationship with a younger woman. Accusing him of betraying objectivist principles, and not just the friendship (and relationship) that bound her to him and her friend Barbara, she deprived him of her collaboration in The Objectivist and asked him to hand over control of NBI.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal’s status as Rand’s favorite disciple was assumed by the nicknamed philosopher Leonard Peikoff, an original member of the Collective. Rand would later designate him as her intellectual and legal heir.

In 1971 Rand ceased publication of The Objectivist and replaced it with Ayn Rand’s fortnightly letter, which appeared until 1976. A few years later, in 1974, Rand had health problems and underwent surgery for lung cancer.

Although she recovered after the surgery, she no longer had the strength to pursue new large-scale writing projects. When she died on March 6, 1982, she was working on an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged for a television miniseries that ultimately never got made.

Ayn Rand: legacy and influences

In 1986 Barbara Branden published a memoir, The Passion of Ayn Rand (from which a film in 1999), which revealed Rand’s relationship with Nathan and exposed unflattering details of her relationships with members of the Collective.

Despite the consequent damage to her reputation, her novels continued to enjoy great sales. They also maintained a loyal following among conservatives and libertarians, including some high-ranking members of the Ronald Reagan administration. In the 1990s and 2000s her works undoubtedly contributed to the growing popularity of libertarianism in the United States, and since 2009 she has been an iconic figure in the Tea Party anti-government movement.

Speaking of the United States, the American writer, musician and esoteric Anton Lavey, founder of the Church of Satan, declared that his doctrine was greatly influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. Even he even went so far as to affirm that his philosophy is the same as that of Ayn Rand but with Magical rituals.

Speaking of music, Canadian group Rush drew inspiration from Ayn Rand’s works for some of their songs, such as Anthem and 2112. In addition, 30 Seconds to Mars created an album based on Rand’s trilogy, because the frontman Jared Leto was fascinated by the philosophy of today’s protagonist. Leto explains it directly in this tweet.

It will be strange, but also this week, like last week (when we talked about Keats) we conclude today’s article talking … about The Simpsons!

Ayn Rand and The Simpsons, a strong connection

In fact in the episode Four Great Women and Manicurists, Lisa Simpson defines the book The Fountainhead as “the Bible of the nutters”. Her mother Marge tells the parody of the story of the novel with Maggie as Maggie Roark (ie Howard Roark), voiced by Jodie Foster. A portrait of Ayn Rand is also seen in the episode on the back cover.

And there’s another one about The Simpsons, who prove to be an unparalleled source of curiosity! The protagonist is once again Maggie who, in one episode, is enrolled in a nursery named after Ayn Rand. There she is encouraged to create the independence of children, ending up leading a revolt to regain the pacifiers stolen from the teachers.

And, since three is a magic number, let’s mention The Simpsons again! In the episode The Elective Incompatibilities the novel Atlas Shrugged is named as the favorite book of young conservatives. The episode states that young conservatives read a chapter every year and thus become more and more conservative.

In my opinion the Simpsons are to be commended for what they do. They have the ability to popularize undeniably niche concepts and even manage to make them accessible to those who are blockheads like Homer! Chapeau!



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