A review of ‘Ayn Rand Explained: From Tyranny to Tea Party’

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Ayn Rand Explained: From Tyranny to Tea Party
By Ronald E. Merrill
Revised and Updated by Marsha Familaro Enright
Vol 10. in the Ideas Explained Series
Open Court, Chicago, 2013

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

But now the quiet little book has come alive in a revised and updated edition by Chicago Montessori-grounded educator and Daily Caller author Marsha Familaro Enright, published as part of Open Court’s Ideas Explained Series — joining such figures as Sartre, Ockham, and Heidegger — and there is no mistaking the reviser-updater for a ghost. Several new chapters pop up before the renewed text of Merrill’s book, bringing the story up to date and adding new light to the enterprise. We learn the now-familiar story of Rand’s three novels, each a vast growth from the last — her birth in Russia to a middle-class family — the horror of the Soviet coup and subsequent terror and starvation — her near-miraculous escape to America, never to leave again — the growth of her thinking, artistry, and career in the five-and-a-half decades to follow — and the unique design of her philosophical system, which she meant to finally fulfill — and forevermore protect — the American Revolution. We learn — too early, before we fully know what the fuss is about — of the inner conflicts and outer dramas of the movement that sprang up from her greatest work, the epic Atlas Shrugged, and her subsequent philosophical and political thought. We learn of some quiet years after her death, when posthumous works and works by others were quietly built up, and then as if some critical mass were passed, the growth began again, on a still wider base.

And then after the colorful enthusiasm of the reviser-updater’s chapters, we enter into the amiable thought of Mr. Merrill, and he makes his cases for an early Nietzschean period to the mature Aristotelian’s thought, nods to the Talmud in Atlas Shrugged, a decline in her writing in the 1970s, and other things — and though I found none of the three ideas convincing, it was all of interest — as was seeing the reviser-updater’s speaking about Merrill’s case for the Talmudic nods and, too, finding it not producing of conviction.

And so, the amiable ghost and the enthused reviser-updater speak throughout, sometimes in harmony and sometimes as if over coffee about the book they’ll do together in the next revision. Looking forward, one imagines other participants being called in, and the whole thing in time going open-source, to a long future.

And looking at it in whole, one sees an importance not in the specific arguments made, but in the tone, of the amiable ghost plus his reviser-reviver. For if Ayn Rand has inspired lightning from the left and hammer-blows from the right, perhaps the storm will be a little calmed by the amiable ghost and the enthusiastic reviver, taking turns on the text.

* * * * *

We end with a return to the borrowed document.

Ayn Rand disdained to conceal her views and aims. She openly declared that the good could only be attained by the overthrow of the inheritances of collectivism and that self-sacrifice of the mind: unreason. Those who have held sway rightly tremble at the prospect of her ascent. The individual has nothing to lose but his chains. He has a life, and, through it, a world to win.

Michael R. Brown is a writer, pianist-composer, and investor. Now completing a biography of early-1900s individualist Mary MacLane, he lives in Northern California. He tweets @fuguewriter.