The film opening for Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” opened recently. My son, Arthur, said he wanted to see it, so we went. Dozens of people I know had waited for decades for this movie to make it to the theater. As reported, the characters were flat. Attempts to draw parallels between the predictions made by Rand in her book of 1958 to what we face today fail both badly and sadly. I was strongly reminded of a conversation I had, years ago, with my former husband about fantasies that don't work. I would bet Craig was there in the theater on opening night, despite what I am about to tell you.
Craig and I were married and living in Santa Barbara when, one night, Craig asked me in a puzzled voice, “I can't make my fantasy come out the way I want.” I looked up from the book I was reading. “What?”
Fantasies are part of our inner lives and generally it is a good thing when fantasies remain private. From the look on Craig's face it was clear he was sincerely puzzled, unable to understand his failure to marshal his not inconsiderable intellect in this task of pure unreality. But, according to what he told me that evening, this was not for lack of trying. His face was crumpled and red. He looked like a man in the throes of an arduous task or badly constipated.
You could see he was hesitating to tell me the details. I waited, attentive, dispassionate.
As expected, Craig's need for advice overcame any hesitancy to share the details. Others who know Craig have noted his disconnect from what is generally normal. I sensed this would be one such occasion.
“It starts out fine. I'm in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, looking out on New York. Ayn Rand is standing there with me as we gaze out on the city, waiting for the lights to go out.”
If you are not familiar with Rand's work you need to know the final denouement of the book, “Atlas Shrugged” includes the moment when the lights of New York wink out because her Nietzscheian super-heroes have turned their backs on the world, thus canceling all electric power. Craig fancies himself one of the supermen who gather in Galt's Gulch, awaiting the awareness of how essential they are to the world to dawn in those Left Behind.
Craig went on, “I am holding Ayn in my arms. She is saying, “No, no, I cannot be unfaithful to Frank and Nathaniel.”
Frank is Frank O'Connor, Rand's long-suffering husband. Nathaniel is Nathaniel Branden, Rand's lover, 25 years her junior. Rand inflicted her fantasy life liberally on others, many of them very close to her. Rand lived out her fantasies and coerced those nearest and dearest to her to put up with these fantasies, justifying them as the rational, necessary, logic of her ideas and values. Frank had to leave the couple's apartment as Branden was arriving to help Rand with her fantasy life.
By his own report, Craig, the only person who ever stalked Ayn Rand, was obsessed with Rand and jealous of Branden. Craig sent Rand copies of his papers on math, which Rand could not understand and so appreciate. Craig sat for hours in the lobby of her apartment building, dressed in a newly purchased Brooks Brothers suit, his finger nails manicured, hair cut, shoes shined, holding orchids for Ayn for quite some time. He also made himself known to her in ways which resulted in a nasty stay-away letter from her attorney.
Craig's fantasy continued. “I pulled out two documents to show Ayn. That day I had paid Frank and Nathaniel to end their relationships with her. I handed Ayn quit-claim deeds from Frank and Nathaniel, who, I told her, were even then leaving the city.”
What perplexed Craig, because he could not change it to conform with his fantasy, was Ayn decking him with a fast right and left punch, just as he tries to embrace her.
Craig looked to me for understanding.
I pointed out his fantasy was diametrically opposed to the reality he had experienced. Rand loathed him and adamantly refused to have anything to do with him, by his own report. Perhaps this failure was the rational reaction of his mind when asked to distort reality. Craig paused, considering. Clearly, he did not like the answer provided.
I don't know if he ever managed to get a different outcome with this particular fantasy, the subject then being dropped.
Emotionally normal people move beyond the ideas of Ayn Rand by examining them in detail and understanding the source of the attraction. But many retain a fondness, in the same category as enjoyed earlier with fairy tales.
When Rand was first writing Nietzsche's ideas had more traction, as less was known about psychopathy and the neurobiology of the human mind. People in their late teens and early twenties often go through a period of playing with the idea they are 'special' in this way. Most recover.
The assertion some group is superior, possessing a right to live by different standards, expressed itself in two other venues in America during the 20th Century. The first was through the work of Edward Bernays, the father of propaganda, whose work in what he called 'public relations,' also known as propaganda. This became the tool which remade American culture at exactly the time Rand what it meant to be an American. The second came out of the thinking of Leo Strauss, where those 'destined to rule' were empowered to take whatever action needed to take control. This is the explicit tool used by the Neoconservatives.
Ideas, theology and philosophy, are early human tools used to create a common set of values and expectations, allowing humanity to function in a world of human design, beyond the hard-wiring of the human brain. But going beyond that small town took humanity onto dangerous ground.
Humanity originates from a human culture of small groups where it was possible for all individuals to know each other well and so reliably predict the behavior of others. Think of this as visual credit-rating, an assessment of reliability, honesty, and other values, which aid survival and provide community safety-nets. The drama of superpersonhood had not yet reared its head. The problem of psychopathy, those whose neurological make up is distorted and who have no conscience, was not yet understood. Many now believe the recurring presence of this haunting icon, the devil, refers to those we now know as psychopaths who do, routinely, refer to themselves as outside the ordinary rules, as supermen.
Rand, herself, by reports from those who knew her, was inclined to ignore reciprocal social obligations, citing various justifications of ignoring the subject. She asserted different rules for her supermen than for ordinary humanity, therefore rejected the Lockean ideas which underlie the foundations of American culture.
The hero of her first work of fiction, The Little Street, was drawn from the example of the most infamous cold-blooded murderer of 1928. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)
William Hickman, Ayn's chosen model, kidnapped a 12 year old girl, held her for ransom and then murdered her. After chopping her body into parts he extorted money from her frantic father and shoved her body out of the car to be found, the girl's dead eyes sewn open.
Rand was explicitly aware of the circumstances when she chose Hickman.
The network of social obligations is the basis of all human culture, the original and proven-to-work, strategy which allowed humanity to survive and prosper. Robust social networks arise organically, as discussed in Hayek's, The Fatal Conceit. The corporate business-model, profiting in any way possible, had nothing to do with human survival. Instead, it has brought us to the brink of annihilation.
America was founded on the ideas of equality for all people, an affirmation of the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, expressed so eloquently in our Declaration of Independence. This idea worked with the Christian beliefs which brought the Puritans and Quakers to a new world where all people would be equal in law, as they are in the eyes of Christ and in nature.
Three times in the 20th Century ideas have been used to convert us to a view which deifies corporations. This line of reasoning has proven potently valuable to the entire Military Industrial Complex, in recent years, especially the Brothers Koch. The first people who should have noticed what they proposed was not free market were the same people who lined up to support them, framed as they were in the Rand Fairy Tale. This is the reason Alan Greenspan was named Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The corporates knew we would not attack 'one of our own.'
Ideas which consistently create disaster, personal, national and global, should be deleted. End the Fed. Enforce accountability by demanding restitution for profits made through fraud. Accept the truth, no matter how many fantasies have to die.
This article is dedicated to Nathaniel Branden, who recognized Craig Franklin as bizarre while we were in therapy with him, and to Craig himself, who, still trying to achieve his fantasy, illustrated in one story line, how psychopaths impact our world, from the personal to the hidden reaches of corporate profit.
Published in Integrity Commons. First in a series.