As I looked through this new book on an ever-more controversial cultural figure, I found myself thinking of Karl Marx — and ghosts. To explain, let us look to the beginning of The Communist Manifesto.
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A ghost is haunting not just American politics, but American literature — and for the same reason. And not only America: the ghost has begun to make appearances in roadside stalls and celebrity interviews in hundreds of cities and towns in India; an admirer in Germany has invested his life-savings to make it possible for the ghost to appear there. Now there are documentaries about the ghost, and the ghost has a movie trilogy — with the third part just freshly green-lit — and the ghost is heatedly discussed on every medium of American cultural life. Europe begins to look on curiously to the ghost’s stomping-ground, America, and perhaps fears a migration. Appearances begin to be reported in China and Russia, and the ghost-hunters in America — those who love and those who hate the ghost — suspect the ghost may go global — to their delight or their horror, depending on their love or hate.
The old powers have entered into an unconscious alliance to dissipate this ghost: the religious right summons service on earth and faith in God, while the secular left summons service on earth and faith in the community.
Where is the party that has not been decried as a ghost-ally by its opponents? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the same curse?
Two things result from this fact:
I. The ghost is acknowledged by all as a power, even when it is denied.
II. It is high time that the hunters who love the ghost should openly, in the face of the world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet these various nursery ghost tales with a factual examination of just what the ghost was and what meaning the ghost now has for our individual lives, families, and culture.
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Ayn Rand is that ghost. The increase in her influence has been so steady, helped by many but coordinated by none, that if one were not able to stand at her grave — as I have — one would expect her to necessarily still be at her desk, continuing to raise the glass-and-steel definiteness of her thought ever higher above the ground.
At first glance she would seem to have been an unlikely figure. She stood on no barricades. She disliked being photographed in public. She had a number of famous acquaintances and admirers — some of them friends — but one would never know it from her writing or the newspapers. One would not know, too, that she had been a sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood — with Joan Crawford and Veronica Lake vying to play one of her characters. She was, as one late-life biographical article put it, a homebody. She spent most of her time at her desk in a succession of home offices — her anchoress’ cells — and thought.
Another ghost has haunted my own thought about Ayn Rand — a man I never met, named Ronald E. Merrill, a scientist and entrepreneur. In researching Ayn Rand on the Internet it was easy to run across his name, and to see he too had provoked an unusual reaction among his admirers: dead of cancer before his time, his emails had been preserved and posted, and I was curiously drawn to them. His letters about Rand’s thought had the same mild, thoughtful tone as those about his cancer treatments. This was not a lightning-infused ghost like Rand the Unconquered; this was a friendly ghost who, too, seemed almost to have lasted, this time because of an even steadiness of intent. I read one of this ghost’s books — The Ideas of Ayn Rand (1991) — and it had that same quality. And there the one ghost seemed to have done the earlier one a service, no matter what one thought of this or that conclusion: to have approached her thought in a thoughtful way, without the explosions of rage and fury that have marked the critics’ work for decades. And so the book stayed on my bookshelf as a friendly ghost, too, without strident proclamation or effect.