Leaving the Woods: Reading Ayn Rand Too Late
The hardest part was the waiting, because even after the last bell, I’d have to carry my overburdened hiker’s backpack to the roundabout in front of my school and find a corner where no one would notice me. Kids would pour through the front doors, cloaked in dark hoodies and sweatpants and slashed jeans and flannel shirts; they’d cluster around the main entrance and jeer at each other. They’d shove and snarl; they’d call each other faggots and leave their shoes untied; for some reason it always seemed overcast or drizzling. When the bus finally arrived, driven by a red-haired woman with aviator glasses and freckles, the bus’s tires always whooshed over the pavement, splashing through potholes, the brakes groaning wetly as it slowed and stopped.
I’d ride for forty-five minutes, my head rattling against the window as the bus clunked over rugged dirt roads; the naked tree limbs formed tunnels of gray forest, obscuring houses; teenagers leapt from the bus and vanished into the quilt of damp, fallen leaves. The barren hills rolled away into weighty mists; I’d pass out, woken by the scraping of branches on the steel roof. By the time I reached my house, the bus was nearly empty.
No one was ever home—my brother at lacrosse practice, my parents at work—so I’d dump my backpack and walk outside. Behind the house and the wood-stack and the strung-up canoe and over the hill and past the brush piles, I’d find a well-worn path, slick with mud, leading deep into the woods. Familiar landmarks would mean nothing to someone passing through our land—just a rusted oil drum, some strands of barbed wire tacked to trees, cans used for collecting maple sap. But at the end of a long day, hungry and exhausted, I’d wander the hillside for hours. The sun would set. Coyotes howled. I’d shiver in the growing darkness. If no one had expected me, I would have stayed, dreaming, through the long, freezing night.
Alissa Rosenbaum was born in Russia in 1905. She would not become Ayn Rand, one of the most influential authors in world history, for many years. But even as a child, young Alissa was smart and confident; she taught herself to read; she finished high school. When the Bolshevik Revolution tore through Russia, Alissa was only twelve years old, but she knew enough about ideological fury to oppose the rise of Communism. Her father was a chemist and owned a shop in Saint Petersburg. As the Revolution raged, a group of Bolsheviks appeared at his door, claimed the shop for the brand-new State, and reduced the Rosenbaums to abject poverty.
Ayn Rand fans are fond of saying that young Alissa had passionate loves, even as an adolescent—cinema, the works of Victor Hugo, and most important of all, more important than anything, herself. In 1926, she fled the Soviet Union, arriving in New York City with fifty dollars cash and a promise never to return to her homeland.
I remember the first time I ever saw a novel by Ayn Rand—it was lying on its side on a sagging shelf in a mildewy used bookstore. On the cover, a muscular golden man holding his head in suggested agony. His body had the dynamic angular contortions of an Art Deco movie poster—a style that graces every Ayn Rand cover ever printed. The novel was Atlas Shrugged, the second-most influential book in American history, following the Bible. Randians (as they are known) are fond recounting this tidbit ever since the Library of Congress ran a study on important literature.
At seventeen, I was almost the perfect age to read Atlas Shrugged; young, faux-philosophical, obsessed with all the Big Issues, the quiet new college student is just the type to see heroism in Rand’s stubbornly independent characters. If Rand could design her own demographic, her followers would be freshman college students, preferably business students or engineers or computer programmers, or else antisocial sculptors obsessed with the externis of the human body. I had wanted to become a writer since I was eleven—just as Ayn Rand had. And just like Rand, I was the type who would rather shiver in the dark, comforted only by my own thoughts, than interact with another human being. But when I picked up the paperback volume, opening to the middle, I found a beastly 1,075-page novel with unattractive, microscopic print. I read some snippets of dialogue, found it boring, and placed it vertically on the shelf; I now think Rand would have found it insulting to find her book righted, no different from all the other volumes on the shelf.
When you look for a summary of Ayn Rand’s life, you often find an accompanying glamour shot—the same glamour shot every time. It’s a black-and-white photo of a slim, masculine face; her jaw is distinctly shaded and her eyes are steely. Her hair wraps oddly around her head, like a Flapper-cut with skateboarder bangs. Her skin is paper-smooth, and her cheeks are rouged but texture-less. Rand fans are fond of saying many things, but a favorite story is her coming-to-America spiel; Rand was a fearless workingwoman, an ardent consumer, and capitalist. She worked many meager clerical jobs, until she landed a gig as a voiceover artist. I feel bad suggesting that she had a face for radio—it’s unfair to say from one photograph—but I think Rand preferred a more abstract kind of glamour. What her picture can’t show off, her biography makes up for; if you can’t be stunningly attractive to other people, start a philosophy that makes other people’s opinions obsolete.
My editor has sent me several press releases from the Ayn Rand Institute, which is the whole reason I’ve started digging through her life. My editor has never called the Ayn Rand Institute, or ordered books from it, or written them a letter; the way she talks, I suspect my editor has never said the words “Ayn Rand Institute” aloud, much less enrolled as a member. She doesn’t know why the Institute sends the magazine press releases, but she thought I’d find them amusing.
The headings are quite bold: “THE OBSCENE ACT,” “OUTSOURCING—IN DEFENSE OF FREE TRADE,” “LEARN AND EARN,” “SLAVERY AND CORPORATE ANCESTORS,” “CORPORATE CEO’S: MVP’S IN THE BUSINESS WORLD.” Their subjects are diverse and their perspectives aggressively unique. These are not Randians, and the Institute is not the Ayn Rand Fan Club. Rather, it’s an informal, apolitical think-tank in Irvine, Calif.; they host lectures by experts and businessmen. They don’t just enjoy reading Ayn Rand’s novels; they literally live her novels, embodying the traits of Rand’s heroes. In Rand’s world, these people are called Objectivists, a term she coined in Atlas Shrugged. In Irvine, Objectivists get together and make sweeping arguments about the way the world should be. The Institute is like a book club for revolutionary libertarians.
As I flip through the releases—ten pages in toto—I find long paragraphs of unrelenting, sometimes hostile argument. Objectivists oppose the FCC and virtually any media regulation, citing freedom of speech and expression; they find Reparations for slavery absurd and offensive; they worship CEOs as charismatic leaders of the free world, brilliant warriors hoping to organize the barbaric blue-collar masses. But they also oppose any plans to build space stations on the moon or send a manned probe to planet Mars. The Institute was founded in 1985, three years after Ayn Rand died alone in her New York City apartment. They support an annual essay contest, awarding high school and college students with thousands of dollars every year. The winner may use the money as he wishes; I imagine the Institute people pray that winners one day become CEO’s, warring to organize the barbaric blue-collar masses.
The releases invite readers to see these lectures in Irvine, if you happen to be cruising through town. One lector, Robert Tracinski, was planning an oration on Martha Stewart. This statement particularly stands out:
“These ugly and vicious attacks against Martha Stewart, Tracinski notes, are not isolated events, but part of a large and dangerous trend in America: the culturally-sanctioned envy and hatred of successful people.”
All I wanted was an intelligent conversation. This was a common desire among high school students in the 1990s. If you believed the movies of the time, every high school kid just wanted an intelligent conversation; they wanted to escape the glut of skater punks and thick-jawed bullies and rich, ditzy blondes and smirking football players and wiry, manipulative nerds and annoying potheads with too much greasy hair and ragged tie-dies. Every antisocial girl with glasses and a sarcastic mouth wanted a skinny white boy with a good soul and a love for the acoustic guitar, and vice versa.
In Vermont, everyone has an Objectivist streak, even if they’ve never heard of Ayn Rand. Everybody drives a car; they all live in their own separate houses. If I wanted to see my best friend, I’d have to bike ten miles through a swamp. The majority of Vermonters own firearms. They have no patience for complaints; they insist that you get over your problem, pronto. They have skill-based jobs, like carpentry and dairy farming and short order cooking and auto repair. If you can’t slate your own roof, you’re useless. Even the state’s past is suffocated with independence—the first settlers were trappers and loggers, friendless men who lived and died alone. Its most famous poet, Robert Frost, insisted that good fences make good neighbors, and according to legend, he once chased trespassers from his property with a shotgun. The state’s motto reads: “Freedom and Unity.” It’s not as intense as New Hampshire’s epigram (“Live Free or Die”), but it’s clear that freedom—naked, self-assured—comes first.
New England is jammed with people who show off their art or houses or souped-up snowmobiles with dispassionate pride. They don’t care what you think; they’re impervious to criticism. They just want you to accept their rugged individualism. You can’t complement their handiwork, because they’ll brush off your nice work. They want confirmation that what they’re doing is real, but they refuse approval. If a brick or a tree could confirm their existence, so many would never talk with another human being again.
In a region where it’s cold eight months of the year and silence is golden, it never occurred to me what this intelligent conversation would be about; I imagined talking with someone erudite, someone who smoked a pipe and chuckled blandly. We’d discuss Nietzsche—because no one I knew had ever heard of Nietzsche, whose books I’d read with a flashlight long into the night. I wanted to show off my memorized Latin phrases, referring to things as in situ and ad hominem. I’d try to bring up esoterica with my friends—holistic psychology, medieval history, cabala —but the biggest crime in high school in the ’90s was to show interest in things. I’d say something like, “So I was reading about the Thirty Years’ War, about the massacre of Magdeburg.”
Someone would look up from an inspired game of Tekken 3 and scowl: “Why?”
And a silence would descend, because my topic had no point, and his question had no answer. Hundreds of hours were filled with silence—only the twang of guitars on the radio, the bleeping of a SEGA game. Even among close friends, the intelligent conversation was a guarded affair; if I had discovered Ayn Rand as a teenager, I might have relished this isolation. Instead, I’d fall asleep—on couches, in the back seat of my friends’ cars—waiting for the boredom of teenagehood to finally end.
Ayn Rand’s principle hero is Howard Roark, an architect so obsessed with his own style that he’s deaf to criticism. He designs building that others would see as ugly and strange; if the final product doesn’t suit his vision, he’ll have it demolished and construct a new one. He will fight anyone who disagrees with him, unashamedly interested in personal profit and authenticity. If it isn’t Roarkian, Roark doesn’t care about it. This is the thrust of The Fountainhead, the novel that made Ayn Rand an international success.
I’ve never read The Fountainhead, or Atlas Shrugged, or The Romantic Manifesto, or Ayn Rand’s massive collections of letters and diary entries. My editor is interested in my thoughts on Ayn Rand, an inquiry that has given me much to consider. These days, I’m an ardent progressive; I’m a bitter environmentalist; I have a history of attending union rallies in college, however lame; most of my girlfriends have been either bisexual, or feminist, or both. I have a couple copies of Adbusters, and I go to Wal-Mart to keep friends company, but never on my own. I would sooner swallow marbles than drive a car for no reason.
But none of these are permanent, lifelong traits; progressive causes and non-profits are a recent development, a product of college and well-informed friends. In the past, my attitude was isolationist, even misanthropic. One of my Dad’s favorite stories—which he proudly tells, since it reflects his personality as well—is about me and a sandwich. It goes something like this:
THE BOY WHO SAID NO TO HOTDOGS
Dad likes to add that I never play team sports, preferring the fencing foil to cleats. I can’t stand captivity, or jobs or studies that don’t interest me. I’ve never worked in a corporate setting for a more than a few months, and if I were ever drafted, I’d probably drown myself before boot camp even started. I refused to even consider Boy Scouts, and summer camp was out of the question. When I can, I like to sing solo, but my choir days are long gone. As a writer, I work alone, in my room, where no one can watch me type. When I went into the woods—well what did I do out there? Even my Dad wasn’t sure of that one.
There was once a young boy who went to a birthday party. All his friends were there, too. They all decided to make hotdogs and eat them with ketchup. But the boy didn’t want hotdogs. So he asked the birthday girl’s parents if she could make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The mother was very impressed, because the boy knew what he wanted and didn’t care what other people thought. The End.
But I never met Howard Roark. To me, the architect designed in secret, and his buildings never graced the skyline of my imagination. If we had been properly introduced, I might have become a different adolescent; I might have chosen a different college, or no college at all. My friends would all be fellow Randians, if I even bothered with making friends. As I walk into Barnes & Noble and search for Rand in the Fiction & Literature section, I wonder how close I came to pursuing Objectivism, an ideal now so contrary to my own. It’s like imagining so many other alternate paths; could another Robert Isenberg, growing up in an Alabaman foster family, have become an ardent Baptist minister? Could another Robert Isenberg, whose family died in a car wreck, have shot up a post office, or become a gigolo for lonely housewives? Suppose someone had met me by my high school locker, held out a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged, and said, “Dude, you have to read this”—would I now write letters to Howard Roark, thanking him for our imaginary friendship?
It’s humbling: At nine years old—the age that Ayn Rand allegedly founded her philosophy—I wanted more than anything to be an architect.
I’ve picked up the novel Anthem, one of Ayn Rand’s earliest—and shortest—books. Indeed, this paperback copy of Anthem, published by Penguin Putnam, has an eleven-page introduction, though the novel is only eighty-eight pages long. The novel is so short that this fiftieth anniversary edition has two copies of the manuscript—one is the modern edition, and the second is a facsimile of the original copy. In the middle of the book, there’s a postcard that you can send to the Ayn Rand Institute, “the authoritative source for information about Ayn Rand and her ideas.”
Anthem takes place in the far future, after civilization has crumbled and technology has vanished. The collectivist future humans have erased names and personal identity; there is no word for “I” or “me.” The main character, Equality 7-2521, is writing his memoirs in a dark tunnel, which he claims is the most heinous crime in his society. This isn’t his only misdemeanor—he has become disenfranchised with his state-assigned vocation (street sweeper), and he has failed to report the existence of the tunnel. Oh, and he’s fallen in love with a woman (Liberty 5-3000), which Equality 7-2521 has decided is a good thing. Throughout the story, Equality 7-2521 keeps referring to the Forbidden Word; he who utters the Forbidden Word is burned to death on a pyre. At the end, we learn that the Forbidden Word is “EGO” (Latin for “I”).
I haven’t finished Anthem yet—I broke my own sacred rule and skipped to the end, nodded at the Forbidden Word, and started watching a French movie about a man on a train (entitled Man on a Train). I’ve committed myself to several hundred other activities in the past few days, only reading Anthem two pages per sitting. As I struggle through page forty-four, my interest in Anthem is fading. It’s so similar to Brave New World and 1984, the way Rand contrives an entire universe just to prove her point—in this case, that self-interest is the only reasonable way to live. Characters named Equality and Liberty are so obvious—like Napoleon in Animal Farm and Soma in 1984, except Equality isn’t nearly as fun as hallucinogenic orgies and talking Fascist pigs.
When people ask me how my Ayn Rand foray is going, I compare her to Lloyd Alexander and C. S. Lewis—authors who intrigue adults, but are only magical to children. A younger Robert Isenberg would have fallen in love with Equality’s lust for freedom; I would have wanted my own metaphorical tunnel, just like my parents’ woods, where my thoughts could be private and all-engrossing. But Equality looks kind of simple, now. Ayn Rand’s world is so extreme, so paranoid, that I can’t manage to find it scary. A world order where people transcribe books by hand? Where sex takes place once a year in a remote building, and no one discusses what happens there? Come on.
Isn’t it fun to be selfish, though? I’m thinking this on a Port Authority bus, heading to downtown Pittsburgh, where I’m going to spend my day off. I’m thinking: Isn’t it liberating to look at a lot full of new cars and picture yourself bombing down the highway, the median reflected in your super-cool wraparound sunglasses?
I try an experiment: Even though the bus is pretty full with people, I put my shoulder bag next to me on the seat. I claim this space for myself. I shall share with no one, damn it. I rest an arm on the back of my seat as people walk passed, giving me annoyed looks—most of them are African-American, but to complete the experiment, I must be blind to racial sensitivities as well. They’re just people, part of the herd; if they want to get upset, let them. This bus is first-come, first-served just like everything else.
And Martha Stewart is innocent. Ha!
I put on headphones and press play on my Discman. Now I don’t have to hear the people around me; I close my eyes, and the human herd vanishes altogether. I’m listening to Tori Amos; because Tori Amos went to Julliard, she’s more talented than anyone on this bus at anything, even me. That’s why I can respect her; she’s higher on the ladder of brilliance—better to concentrate on her piano chords than to pay attention to the Port Authority rabble.
When I open my eyes, I see a young woman down the aisle; she’s Asian, wearing a black leather jacket and a turtleneck sweater. She looks quiet and meditative, sitting with her hands clasped together on her lap. So I wonder what Ayn Rand would suggest: Now she’s not a woman anymore, or even a person, but just a humanoid bundle of fetishes. I could screw her and drop her and it wouldn’t matter a lick. I picture myself walking over, telling her the story of my life (as if I’m tired of talking about it, it’s just so hard being this interesting). The woman smiles, her breasts quietly heaving, until I demand we meet tonight. What follows isn’t important, because she isn’t important—just the bare fact that I conquered her, the same way Howard Roark sought to conquer his enemies, even the woman who worshipped him. Then I’ll refuse to call her. Does she look like an intelligent converser? Probably not. Not like me.
When I stand up, I pull the cord before anyone else can—because I’m faster, quicker. As I walk down the center aisle, my footfall is heavy, thumping, because I want everyone to know that my steps bear a profound weight, stage presence. When others walk, they tread lightly, so as not to be noticed. If they’re wise, these Port Authority riders will notice me. Maybe they’ll learn something. If not, fuck ‘em.
Isn’t that fun to say? Fuck ‘em. Fuck them all. Just about everybody is a blunder but me. Me and Tori Amos—we’re people with taste. And I should call Tori up—say, Listen, we need to talk. Did you notice how much better we are than everybody else? If she doesn’t understand, that’s her problem. I don’t need her approval. I don’t need anybody.
It’s a hard attitude to sustain. As I step off the bus, a little shaken by my inner monologue, I feel like I should apologize to somebody, though no one heard it. Not that guy with the big wooly coat. Not that old woman smoking a cigarette and hacking loudly. Not the kid spitting in the gutter, his hands thickly mittened. It’s a big responsibility for a Randian, even for a few seconds—your glory is your own, but so is your guilt.
As I sit down in front of a cup of coffee, my still-unread copy of Anthem lying on the table next to it, I remember the comfort of my parents’ woods. What would I do up there? In the years since, it’s a quieter memory; silence and privacy and personal authenticity have grown louder with the flood of other voices—friends, neighbors, traffic noises. How could you Objectify things every day of your life. Do Objectivists fall in love? Doesn’t love sacrifice too much? You’re not longer an ego, then. Rand is fearful of we and us; when you want to eat masala at your favorite Indian joint but you ask your girlfriend, Where do you want to go?—you’re negotiating. You’re rescinding control. Lovers work in pairs; Rand works alone. The circle exists so you can step out of it, and love is an all-consuming circle.
I count out my change and put Anthem in my shoulder bag. I leave the coffee shop and find a payphone (a true Objectivist would have a cell). Dialing, I wait for my girlfriend to pick up.
“Hello?” she says.
Does Roark know what this is like? To smile like this? Could he?