Last Friday, the long-delayed, nearly fabled, movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged was released, to less than rave reviews. Yet, as Roger Ebert noted, the movie got a four star rating from readers on the internet before it had been publicly released. Rand’s epic clearly has a certain power to fascinate. It’s even ensnared me: as left-leaning as I am, I can’t help having a soft spot for Atlas Shrugged, in the way that bad movie buffs think fondly of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I read it several years ago, and felt as if I had discovered a sort of master codex to the dysfunction of American politics. I’m putting my ideological cards on the table so that the reader will be able to gauge what size grain of salt to take this with, in case the title was not warning enough. If I seem overly biased against the author on ideological grounds, let me say that I think Rand was a competent writer of nonfiction. A very bad storyteller, given the odd placement of a detailed and well-written tract explaining her philosophy near the climax of a novel and unconvincingly passed off as character dialog, but the infamous Galt Speech was serviceable at clearly explaining her ideas.
The issue that brings me to the keyboard today concerns a suspicion I have had ever since reading the Galt Speech, the seed of an insight which grew more and more plausible as I thought back over the events of the novel. This blooming suspicion cast its shadow beyond the novel the more I read about Ayn Rand, her life and ideas, the much remarked-upon pseudo-cult that formed around Rand in the 1970s, and her adolescent crush on a child killer. These are often treated as “exceptional” items in Rand’s biography, unfortunate extremist phases or passing fancies. I can’t accept these excuses, though. My suspicion is that these episodes are integral to Rand’s entire worldview, in ways unrecognized by most commentators, and probably by Rand herself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in terms of theme, the only thing separating Atlas Shrugged from The Iron Dream is irony. Ayn Rand was one of the great stifled totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.