Ayn Rand, Nietzsche and the Purposeless Monster
One of the aspects about Ayn Rand I have learned to really appreciate is how the mere mention of her name unhinges some rather extreme ideologues — both on the Right and the Left. But, I have to admit those on the Left are more entertaining. Blinded by their faith in the omnipotent state, they attack all heretics with a zeal worthy of extreme fundamentalist. And, like Ann “the Screech” Coulter, they often resort to extreme vitriol and dishonesty to accomplish their goal.
The Right is tedious in their explosive dislike of Rand, they can only focus on her atheism, or the “sex” in her novels. Rather boring actually. But, the Left becomes completely unhinged and begin spouting wild distortions of Rand’s ideas. For the most part you will learn nothing about Rand by reading what the Left has to say about her, but you do learn something about the mental stability, or the honesty, of the person “informing” you about the “truth” on Ayn Rand.
Recently someone sent me a question regarding this claim:
One reason why most countries don’t find the time to embrace her thinking is that Ayn Rand is a textbook sociopath. Literally a sociopath: Ayn Rand, in her notebooks, worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of “ideal man” that Rand promoted in her more famous books — ideas which were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America’s most recent economic catastrophe….
So what, and who, was Ayn Rand for and against? The best way to get to the bottom of it is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. Back in the late 1920s, as Ayn Rand was working out her philosophy, she became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation. Rand filled her early notebooks with worshipful praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, Rand was so smitten by Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation — Danny Renahan, the protagonist of her unfinished first novel, The Little Street — on him.
For an indication of how unhinged this writer was, consider the title of this article: ATLAS SHRIEKED: AYN RAND’S FIRST LOVE AND MENTOR WAS A SADISTIC SERIAL KILLER WHO DISMEMBERED LITTLE GIRLS. (The capitals were in the original.)
One of the traits found online, when it comes to ideological fanatics, is they tend to copy their material. They rarely do original investigations, they merely parrot what other ideologues have said. In one debate with fundamentalist Christians it was noticed they were misquoting a book, and had the author’s name wrong. On Christian site, after Christian site, the exact same errors were repeated. The reason was simple: none of them read the book. They were merely repeating what other fundamentalist crazies said, on the assumption their allies were all honest and truthful — which in their case is a particularly egregious error.
The individual I quoted above has made precisely the same error — and probably doesn’t care. His claims are based on an articleat the left-wing site Alternet. The original author, that is the man who originated the deception, is Mark Ames who appears to base his claims entirely on a small section of the Jennifer Burns book. Not only does he exaggerate what Burns said, but since he didn’t actually see Rand’s Journals, he effectively makes claims out of context. His story got picked up by Leftists all over the net, each apparently competing with the rest to exaggerate or falsify the facts even more.
In many ways one sentence in this little tirade is accurate: “The best way to get to the bottom of it is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt.” But, if you do that, what you get is not a Rand who was promoting Hickman as her ideal man, but a repudiation of Hickman. Rand didn’t see Galt as a more perfected form of Hickman at all. Nor did she see Hickman as an ideal man. And, for good measure, the article pretty much distorts what Jennifer Burns said as well.
But, to put this in context, we have to start with Ayn Rand’s ideological journey. Rand was not born a full-fledged Objectivist, saying “A is A” as the first words in her crib. Rand’s ideas developed and morphed, and in some important ways, changed completely. Unfortunately, in her later life, Rand did tend to pretend the views she held then were the views she always held. That is not true. In fact, she changed substantially. But, for whatever reason — pride, ego, embarrassment — she refused to acknowledge the evolution in her ideas and, even worse, actively worked to hide them. That is one legitimate criticism of Rand, and there are more, but accuracy is the not the purpose of these smears.
Let us start by looking at a letter Rand wrote HL Mencken, July 28, 1934, “I hope you will understand my hesitation in writing to one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” What this couldn’t possibly have referred to was Rand’s own philosophy of Objectivism. Mencken could not have been a “representative” of Objectivism since Objectivism didn’t exist. Rand was referring to her first philosophical beliefs — the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Mencken translated some of Nietzsche’s work into English and published them in the United States. Mencken, the atheist, was drawn to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, The Anti-Christ. Mencken wrote an introduction to the work and applauded this critique rather enthusiastically. It was to Mencken’s enthusiasm for Nietzsche that Rand was referring. Her early short stories did not project the ideal Randian man at all, they reflected the ideals of Nietzsche, ideals Rand would come to thoroughly repudiate.
Consider the somewhat famous passage from We the Living, which Rand removed from later editions. In a scene her main character, Kira, is arguing with the Andrei, a Communist. Andrei says to Kira: “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.” Kira, however says quite the opposite: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except that I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.” Kira goes on to express contempt for the common man.
Yet, later in life, Rand expressed frequent and sincere admiration for the so-called “common man,” something Burns made quite clear in her book, and Ayn was a staunch opponent of the initiation of force. These are not contradictions, they are Rand at two very different times in her life, with two very different philosophical systems. The first does not represent Rand’s system at all, but that of Nietzsche. But, even in this exchange, we see some of Rand’s own ideas starting to emerge, for instance, when she criticizes “the claim that man must live for the state.”
We the Living was Rand’s first novel and it expressed her views at the time she was writing it. By 1959 there was a different Ayn Rand and when the book was republished for the first time, she edited out passages she felt would mislead her readers, bringing the story more in line with her own philosophy.
To find the influence of Nietzsche on Rand one must turn to her unpublished short stories, or to her writings on possible stories. There is one clearly Nietzschean character in her later novels, but he wouldn’t make Rand sound nearly as evil as her detractors wish to do. I will get to him shortly.
We need to look at Rand’s Journals to see what she actually said about Hickman. Did she worship him so profusely, as her attackers pretend? Was he really the model for her ideal character?
The story she was considering writing was tentatively called The Little Street. All this was published by Rand’s estate in her Journals in 1996, long before Jennifer Burns wrote her book. Rand’s estate revealed the information, not Burns. The protagonist in the The Little Street would be Danny Renahan. Remember all the information purported to show Rand’s evil views comes from her own journals. Yet, what they don’t quote is Rand’s own appraisal of the relationship of Renahan to Hickman. She said Renahan is “very far from him [Hickman], of course. The outside of Hickman, but not the inside. Much deeper and much more. A Hickman with a purpose. And without the degeneracy. It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me.”
So, the very source for the accusation against Rand, quite clearly says Hickman is not the model for Renahan, yet the critics say the complete opposite. Not very honest of them, is it?
Rand, in her Nietzschean phase, considered protagonists who were criminals. In the Night of January 16th the main character is fashioned after Ivan Krueger, who apparently was a swindler. (It is interesting to note that the playwright, Terrance Rattigan, whom Rand admired, also used Krueger as the inspiration for his play Man and Boy.) Rand wrote what interested her wasn’t that she thought these criminals were good or admirable. She wrote,
I do not think, nor did I think when I wrote this play, that a swindler is a heroic character or that a respectable banker is a villain. But for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal — a social outcast — can be an eloquent symbol.
This is what she said about, The Night of January 16th. But it is clearly what she also thought of The Little Street. Burns said Rand: “…appeared to be drawing from both her own psychology and her recent readings of Nietzsche as she mused about the case and planned her story. She modeled Renahan along explicitly Nietzschean lines, not that ‘he has the true, innate, psychology of a Superman.” Burns says that Rand’s view was a “popular, if crude, interpretation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.”
This view, Rand’s estate said, showed up in her notes as her “most malevolent story. It provides a sharp contrast to the ‘benevolent universe’ premise” she normally held. “Here she is bitterly denouncing a world that seems to have no place for heroism.” These untypical malevolent premises dominated the story plot. Burns says that “Rand’s bitterness was undoubtedly nurtured by her interest in Nietzsche. Judging from her journals, unemployment precipitated a new round of reading his work. Her notes filled with the phrases ‘Nietzsche and I think” and “as Nietzsche said.’”
In her journals Rand called Hickman “a purposeless monster.” She wasn’t worshipping him, she was looking to explain how he became the way he did. The very idea that Rand thought a “purposeless monster” was the personification of her ideal man is absurd. Yet none of these attacks on Rand mention Rand’s explicit condemnation of Hickman. Why? Because none of them read her Journals, they are ripping comments out of context from the Burn’s book and Burns didn’t mention that repudiation.
In her notes for The Little Street, Rand echoed a theme used by the Left. She wrote:
“Yes, he is a monster — now. But the worse he is, the worst must be the cause that drove him to this. Isn’t it significant that society was not able to fill the life of an exceptional, intelligent boy, to give him anything to out-balance crime in his eyes? If society is horrified at this crime, it should be horrified at the crime’s ultimate cause: itself. The worse the crime — the greater it’s guilt. What would society answer, if that boy were to say: “Yes, I’m a monstrous criminal, but what are you?”
Rand confessed in her notes it sounds as if she is idealizing Hickman and “he probably isn’t” like the Renahan character at all. She said that didn’t matter for her fictional story because she was writing about what could be, not what was. She wasn’t writing about Hickman but about a fictional character the Hickman case “suggested” to her.
Rand did not praise Hickman, but imagined a fictional story about an exceptional young man destroyed by the society around him. But Rand’s story, and her theory about the cause of the crime, is not uniquely Rand’s. There are eerie similarities to another crime, one in which a leading light of the American Left, stood up in a courtroom and made the same arguments Rand made above. He, however, is lionized by the Left, while Rand is derided.
That case was the trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, 18 and 19-years of age respectively. Leopold and Loeb were highly intelligent young men who lived in the Kenwood area of Chicago. Together they plotted the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, believing they could create the perfect murder.
Their defender in court was the famous Clarence Darrow, whose ideals were quite different from Rand’s. Darrow blamed the crime on outside influences: “this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor… Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that he was taught at the university.” Darrow argued the boys were created by the forces around them — a very Marxian premise. He says they were turned into killers by forces over which they had no control. Darrow said: “They killed [Franks] because they were made that way.” Time magazine said: “For twelve hours Clarence Darrow argued that the crime had been one of compulsion, that Nathan Leopold and Dickie Loeb could not have helped themselves. When he finished, tears were streaming down Judge Caverly’s cheeks.” (Darrow’s summation can be read here.)
Odd Rand is viciously castigated for merely considering a fictional story using this defense but Darrow, who actually used the defense for two young men who murdered a 14-year-old boy, is praised by the American Left. Rand’s consideration of a fictional story is enough to brand her as “scarier than the Manson family” while Darrow is endowed with sainthood. Consistency? Not, when Ayn Rand is the target.
As Rand prepared to write The Fountainhead she spent a great deal of time writing out her ideas and debating ideas with herself. The Fountainhead started out as a Nietzschean novel but ended a Randian one. The character who best represents Nietzsche in the book is Gail Wynand, while Howard Roark is the Randian man.
Wynand believes he held power over the masses, through his newspapers. When he decides to defend Roark he tells his workers: “We have always made public opinion, so let’s make it.” As philosopher Lester Hunt wrote:
The result is a complete disaster for Wynand. Instead of justifying his life, it reveals that his has been based in a mistake. When he violates the contract of an employee who refuses to cooperate in his campaign, by firing him, the union goes on strike. His campaign does nothing to help Roark’s reputation. It simply adds another to the long list of popular objections to Roark: that he has for some inscrutable reason become “Wynand’s pet.” The circulation of the Banner goes into steep decline. Truckloads of copies come back unsold and unread. No sooner does Wynand turn sharply against public opinion than his power over it evaporates as if it had never existed. Finally, there is a meeting of the board of directors at which its members demand that he reverse his position to save the paper from complete ruin. Realizing that the campaign is impossible in principle, he authorizes Scarret to write an editorial denouncing Roark. In an internal monologue as he wanders aimlessly down the city streets, he reflects on the illusory appearance of his power. “You were a ruler of men,” he says to himself. “You held a leash. A leash is only a rope with a noose at both ends.” (716.) What he thought was power on his part was built on pandering to popular prejudices. Insofar as he had any power at all, it was wielded according to a certain strict condition: it had to be used to express those prejudices. As soon as this condition was violated, the appearance of power disappeared, and the reality became visible: it was his would-be subjects who had power over him.
“I made every one of those who destroyed me. There is a beast on earth, dammed safely by its own impotence. I broke the dam. … I gave them the weapon. I gave them my strength, my energy, my living power.” (719–20.)
Hunt recognizes the failure of Wynand, the Nietzschean, and the success of Roark, the Randian man, was a direct challenge by Rand to the ideas of Nietzsche. He says Rand “unearths” issue that are “decisive ones for anyone who wants to apply Nietzschean ideas in the world we now live in, for anyone who wants to develop a usable Nietzsche.” Rand’s flirtation with Nietzsche was over by the time she finished The Fountainhead. She contrasted her ideal, Howard Roark, with the Nietzschean Wynand. And it is Wynand who fails. In her screenplay for the film version of the novel she makes Wynand’s failure even more explicit as he commits suicide in despair. Roark, however, builds the world’s tallest skyscraper, one Wynand had commissioned before his death.
By the time Rand started working on Atlas Shrugged, and the final view of her ideal man, John Galt, she had repudiated most the elements of Nietzsche from her own philosophy and her characters. The mature Rand was hardly Nietzschean at all. Prof. Stephen Hicks listed 68 areas of philosophical thought and contrasted the views of Nietzsche to those of Rand. He finds 51 areas of major disagreement and only 17 of agreement.
Of the agreements “11 of them are negative agreements, i.e., agreements that something is false or wrong — e.g., that God does not exist, that values are not intrinsic, that Plato and Kant are not wonderful human beings.” He contrasts their views on philosophy in several major areas thusly:
If we compare the agreements and disagreements by area of philosophy, then we get the following.
In metaphysics, Nietzsche and Rand agree on nothing except that God is dead and that consciousness is functional. They disagree on the priority of process, about identity, causality, teleology, and on a series of issues involving the extent to which (putting it in Objectivist terms) philosophers can do armchair science.
In epistemology, there is even less agreement between the two. Except for agreeing that philosophy is systematic and that intrinsicism is false, they disagree on everything from whether consciousness is identification, to the validity of sensation, concepts, logic, reason, and the universality of truth.
In human nature, there are no areas of agreement. (Though if we added traditional mind/body dualism to the table, then the two would agree that it’s false.)
In ethics, there is significant agreement on two major issues: that morality should be in the service of life, and that altruism is anti-life. There are also substantial disagreements: about whether conflicts of interest are fundamental, about whether life is the standard of value, about whether power or happiness is the end, about whether sacrifice is good, about whether rationality is the primary virtue or even a virtue at all.
In politics, they agree that contemporary civilization has very significant problems, and that socialism and the welfare state are nauseating; but while Nietzsche has good things to say about aristocracy, slavery, and war and bad things to say about capitalism, Rand says the opposite.
Finally, they share the same exalted, heroic struggle sense of life — although Nietzsche adds to that a strong dose of bloodthirstiness that we do not find in Rand, while Rand regularly adds a strong dose of anger that we do not find in Nietzsche.
Hicks concludes that “differences between Nietzsche and Rand greatly outweigh the similarities.”
Rand herself dismissed Nietzsche, saying he was “a mystic and an irrationalist” preaching a “’malevolent’ universe” with an epistemology that “subordinates reason to ‘will,’ or feeling or instinct or blood or innate virtues of character.” She said he was a poet who “projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling of man’s greatness.” But she condemned him for:
…replacing the sacrifice of oneself to others by the sacrifice of others to oneself. He proclaimed that the ideal man is moved, not by reason, but by his “blood,” by his innate instincts, feelings and will to power — that he is predestined by birth to rule others and sacrifice them to himself, while they are predestined by birth to be his victims and slaves — that reason, logic, principles are futile and debilitating, that morality is useless, that the “superman” is “beyond good and evil,” that he is a “beast of prey” whose ultimate standard is nothing but his own whim. Thus Nietzsche’s rejection of the Witch Doctor consisted of elevating Attila into a moral ideal — which meant: a double surrender of morality to the Witch Doctor.
The article I started with, said: “The best way to get to the bottom of it is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt.” That is absolutely correct. If we get to the bottom of how Rand developed her ideal man, John Galt, it isn’t found in the Nietzschean elements of Renahan, or in the “purposeless monster,” Hickman. When we follow Rand’s development of her main characters, what we see is an evolution away from Renahan. She moves from criminals, who express their individualism through rebellion against society, to men who express their individuality through acts of creation. Instead of individuals who try to subordinate others to their will, her heroes are those who seek to trade value for value. You won’t find the Renahan character in Galt at all. But, in Galt you will find the repudiation of Renanhan.
Sadly for Miss Rand’s critics, on this account they are woefully off base. They misrepresented what Rand did say about Hickman and what she meant for her character in The Little Street. They said she worshiped Hickman, when she actually called him a “purposeless monster,” a monster she knew was nothing like her character in The Little Street — a novel she never wrote, probably because it so violently clashed with her view of a benevolent universe.
Rand’s attackers ignore both the evolution of her ideal man in her stories, and the changes in her own views, in order to smear her. I am the first to say there are areas where Rand deserves criticism, but criticism that is honest. This attack on Rand was not honest, and unfortunately, so few of the criticisms I see directed against her are. Most barely reach above the level of the sneering, sniping hatred that we saw in the article quoted earlier. That is too bad; an honest dialogue about the virtues and problems of Rand is needed, but you won’t get that from the Left (or the Right, I fear).
Note: The first lectures systematizing Rand’s philosophy were The Basic Principles of Objectivism, by Nathaniel Branden. For the first time these lectures have recently been published in book form, as The Vision of Ayn Rand. They are an excellent place to start if one wishes to understand what Rand really said, as opposed to what she is purported to have said. They are available here. (You can order through Amazon if you wish but you will pay more.)