ADSactly Literature: For the Love of Cult Authors: Ayn Rand
What exactly is a “cult author”? Not someone who writes about cults, certainly, but rather a writer who had (either during his lifetime or posthumously) gathered a cult following – squadrons of rabid fans re-reading his or her books over and over and quoting them to anyone who’s willing to listen.
It’s tricky to define exactly what makes a cult book, but chances are you’ll know when you read one. It’s often something obscure, because our society is obsessed with the strange and quirky. A cult author often comes at ya from the fringes of society, they write about the subcultures, about the downtrodden, about the underground. They represent that world you’d kinda like to inhabit, but are often too scared to do so. And often enough, they become the fascination of a lifetime.
In this new @adsactly series, we’ll be taking a look at several “cult authors” who mesmerize audiences well after their deaths. And in this particular installment, we will actually be looking at a real, bona-fide cult, which we haven’t really done before. Sure, this is a series about authors who’ve inspired readers so much to receive their passionate devotion, more than other “regular” writers. But Kerouac, Bukowski or Thompson – none of this was actually the head of a cult. Well, the person we’re looking at today was the head of an actual cult, a cult that lives on well after her demise.
Yes, today we’re talking about Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand.
Reading through Ayn Rand’s life is a rather fascinating experience, she seems to have been one of those people who only elicit strong emotions in people – be that passionate love and devotion (as was the case with her followers) or rabid hatred.
She was born in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire, in 1905, the daughter of a Jewish pharmacist. Christened Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, she took an early interest in politics, often engaging in debates at school with the other children, among which Vladimir Nabokov’s sister, Olga.
Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian Revolution and even though she herself supported the revolution and admired leading revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, her family was badly affected by the Bolshevik rule established under Lenin. Their family’s business was confiscated and the family were forced to flee to the Crimean Peninsula.
Interestingly, after the Russian Revolution, universities began taking on women students also and Rand was among the first to eventually graduate. In 1925, at the tender age of 20, she was able to get a visa to the US to visit relatives, but she liked it so much, she never left. After spending months with her family, she moved to Hollywood, California with dreams of being a screenwriter. And, after working various jobs around the film sets, she achieved this dream in 1932 when she sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn.
She then wrote several books criticizing communism and denouncing the harsh life to be lived under Soviet rule.
A young Ayn Rand src
But her first truly big break came in 1943, with the publication of her novel, The Fountainhead, which quickly garnered critical acclaim and acted as the first stone in what was to become the Randian cult. The novel told the story of architect Howard Roark, who opposes the (architectural) establishment and refuses to compromise or become some sort of sell out. In it, Rand paints her vision of the ideal man and underlines the superiority of individualism over collectivism.
After the publication of Fountainhead, Rand began receiving fan mail, which told of how greatly the book had influenced readers. She amassed a small following, which was known, probably jokingly, as The Collective, who would meet with Rand once a week and have philosophical debates. As time wore on, Rand allowed The Collective to read drafts of her next novel, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
With the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, Ayn Rand truly established herself as a philosopher and mother of the Objectivist movement. Now, I could try to sum Objectivism up for you, but I’d much rather suggest you watch the short video below in which Rand herself gives a brief explanation on what Objectivism actually is.
There we go. Now that we have a bit of an idea what this philosophy entails, maybe we should take a look at the Randian cult itself. Ironically, I’ve seen it compared with religious cults, and given that Rand (and Randians in general) was an atheist and impassioned critic of organized religion, I can’t help but find it slightly amusing.
Like with any cult, it’s a bit difficult to find objective (if you’ll excuse the pun) sources of documentation – you either stumble across an almost fanatic explanation of what Objectivism is and just how great Ayn Rand was, or you find yourself in a rant that denounces the cult and its dangers. As with anything, I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between.
Randians accepted Ayn Rand as a model to be followed and regarded the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, as an example and an ideal. It’s said Rand’s followers often took to dressing like her and behaving in just such a way that they knew she’d approve of them. According to some accounts, Rand became a sort of ‘queen’ of her cult and many members lived in fear of displeasing her. She was apparently strict with those who opposed or defied her, even going as far as to excommunicate those who didn’t agree with her philosophy and argued with her.
In one famous instance, she threw out one of her most famous and passionate followers (also her ex-lover), Nathaniel Branden, after he became involved with a young model, whom he subsequently married. Apparently, Rand accused Branden of “philosophic irrationality and unresolved psychological problems”, which he denied, and now it seems to be commonly accepted that the split happened due to romantic reasons rather than philosophical ones. Keep in mind this is a man who changed his own original Jewish name to mimic Rand and even founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute, whose main purpose was to host lectures of and about Ayn Rand.
There are many admiring accounts of Rand and the Objectivist movement, as there are critiques, of which I encourage you to read (should you be interested in exploring the matter further) ‘The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult’, written by Murray N. Rothbard. It’s a truly fascinating read and paints an interesting picture of the apparently tyrannical Randian cult. Bear in mind though that Rothbard was a former member of The collective, as well as a fellow libertarian philosopher who frequently opposed and attacked Rand. The truth, again, is probably somewhere in the middle, but I shall leave you with this quote of Rothbard’s:
Shortly after Atlas was published, one high-ranking cult leader chided me for only having read Atlas once. “It's about time for you to start reading it again,” he admonished. “I have already read Atlas thirty-five times.”
The rereading of Atlas was also important to the cult because the wooden, posturing, and one-dimensional heroes and heroines were explicitly supposed to serve as role models for every Randian. Just as every Christian is supposed to aim at the imitation of Christ in his own daily life, so every Randian was supposed to aim at the imitation of John Galt (Rand's hero of heroes in Atlas). He was always supposed to ask himself in every situation "What would John Galt have done?"
Regardless what the truth of this is, we can honestly attest that Ayn Rand has left a mark on students of philosophy and on the way we think in general. Several theories and movements have grown and developed out of her Objectivism and she lives on through her legacy, both on writers as well as philosophers and psychologists. Ayn Rand died on heart failure in 1982, at the age of 77, in New York.
So, are you an Ayn Rand devotee? If so, why? Also, are you radically opposed to her philosophy? Why?
Authored by @honeydue
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