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Altruism Shrugged

The unforgiving morality of Ayn Rand’s forgotten novel

New York Time Co./Getty Images

Ayn Rand had a hard year in 1934. Her debut novel, We the Living, had gone through a string of rejections from various publishers. Night of January 16th, her first play, had not yet found a producer. Her two greatest works, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), had yet to be written; with no literary success to her name, her savings were running out. 

That year she completed, but shelved, another novel. Perhaps chastened by the indifference of the publishing world, she decided to give it some time to marinate. 

She reworked it into a play, Ideal, that went unproduced for roughly 60 years, but finally found a home at the Melrose Theatre in Los Angeles. Its delayed arrival did not precipitate a benevolent welcome. Writing about this 1989 Los Angeles run, the Los Angeles Times’ Ray Loynd knocked the play’s “clunky structure,” and noted that Rand never really did have a flair for dramatic literature. Roughly 20 years later, the play appeared again, this time off-­Broadway, where it was similarly panned. “The show’s clumsy mix of long bursts of theory and a laborious plot would test the endurance of even Alan Greenspan,” wrote The New York Times’ critic, Jason Zinoman. And Greenspan was a “famous Rand admirer and veteran of long, boring meetings.” Frank Scheck at the New York Post was likewise disenchanted, calling it “a stinker that well deserves its obscurity.” 

Now, for the first time, the original novel has been released, thanks to Leonard Peikoff, heir to the Rand estate and founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization aimed at evangelizing for Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. After discovering the novel among the late philosophizer’s papers, Peikoff and a cadre of Rand enthusiasts made the Promethean decision to present it to the world. “It is a common practice,” Peikoff writes in Ideal’s introduction, “to bring out [a deceased author’s] juvenilia, his early, faltering attempts ... if he has become an immortal in his field whose every word, early or late, is avidly consumed by a large body of readers and growing number of scholars.” Rand fits this bill, and it is purely on her devotees’ account that Ideal has been released. 

Indeed, it would be remiss to discuss Rand’s work without providing a brief overview of her fondest admirers, whose perches in the halls of power help explain the outsized influence of perhaps the least lyrical, longest-winded, most humorless writer ever to sell more than 25 million copies. Rand’s devotees include, but are not limited to: Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan (who has now distanced himself from his former enthusiasm); Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; former New Mexico governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Gary Johnson; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another 2016 Republican possibility; and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is also up for the 2016 Republican ticket. For these avowed right-wingers, Rand serves as a touchstone because of her willingness to claim, contrary to centuries of religious teachings and cultural accretions, that nobody owes anyone anything: not kindness, not love, not mercy. This is the diabolical commitment coiled at the heart of the hyperindividualism that dominates today’s far-right politics, and I suspect if Rand had not obscured her true sentiments with so many words, more of the public would be burning her tomes at bonfire block parties. 

For a writer with the kind of cultlike following that Rand maintains, the quality of the prose was never really the issue. Rand’s fan club has always been filled out not by committed literary critics, but by insecure sulkers and powerful people with enough self-awareness to know their prominence is in some sense accidental, but without enough insight to accept that there is some randomness in all life outcomes. Rand’s philosophy splits society into makers and takers, producers and leeches, the fit and the unfit, designating the rich and powerful society’s most virtuous class, and the weak and vulnerable its most wretched—a handy set of dichotomies for anyone looking to abandon the poor and hurting, and it has been used to do that very thing. Whenever there’s a sneer of disgust at the disadvantaged, the ghost of Rand is hovering near. 

Ideal is a partially epistolary noiresque thriller set in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood. Arranged in a series of vignettes, the mercifully slim volume follows movie megastar Kay Gonda through what must be the longest night known to humankind. Gonda, a Garboesque exotic beauty, is an enigmatic blank, the canvas onto which each fan projects his “ideal.” Over the course of her improbably lengthy evening, the actress presents herself to six such adorers. She is a fugitive on the run from police, having been accused of the murder of a former lover, and she needs shelter for the night. Will any of her fans—her most ardent devotees—really live up to their admiration? 

Alas, they do not. The six of them, all men, comprise a crew of ghastly caricatures: a dissatisfied, henpecked suburbanite who sends Gonda packing for the sake of propriety; a seemingly inbred yokel with the fear of God in him who considers turning Gonda in to the police for the reward money—which would, by the way, save him and his elderly wife from homelessness; a sophisticated artiste whose entire career is made on Gonda portraits who, nonetheless, cannot recognize the woman in the flesh; the evangelical pastor of a dying church whose real interest in saving Gonda’s soul springs from a desire to make headlines; a playboy German count beset by deadly ennui who has spent himself into oblivion on women and jet-setting, but can’t handle the idea of a real adventure; and, lastly, a 20-year-old, unemployed shipping clerk whose self-inflicted death Gonda willingly induces. “That was the kindest thing I have ever done,” our heroine remarks Randian-ly, upon hearing news of this near-stranger’s suicide.

A number of religions hand down parables resembling Ideal: Devotees are met with gods or prophets or angels in disguise, and their conduct with these strangers reveals their true character. These parables are exhortations to integrity, to lives of consistent virtue. People claim to live by particular principles, Rand demonstrates at length in Ideal, but oftentimes fail to really carry them out. Dissecting this matter was, according to Peikoff’s reading of Rand’s diaries from around the time the novel was written, the author’s purpose. “I believe,” Rand wrote in a journal entry dated April 9, 1934, “that the worst curse on mankind is the ability to consider ideals as something quite abstract and detached from one’s everyday life.” One can grant her, at least, that she very rarely hesitated to evangelize for her certainties. 

But it is a boring purpose, and a highly procedural one. As usual with Rand, the point she sets out to make is at once tedious and bizarre; very few would argue that it’s a generally good thing people’s lives sometimes diverge from their values, but this surreal episode strains under the limits of Rand’s own attempt to capture and reify this lesson. The night my Hollywood crush shows up at my house would hardly be a representative sample of my daily life. Quite the opposite, in fact. The most compelling component of this book is not the moral it imparts, nor its odd philosophical gestures (akin to those that typify her mature writings), but the recessed forces that shape her exhortations. Ideal is, curiously for Rand, a Christ-haunted fiction. This fixation on Christianity—­especially its aesthetics—is perhaps the most interesting element of the otherwise less-than-ideal book. 

Rand was a staunch atheist before it was en vogue to wear one’s atheism as a badge of intellectualism. William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative raconteur extraordinaire and founder of National Review once recalled Rand telling him, in the stylized drawl that he always used to summarize her speech: “You aahr too intelligent to believe in Gott.” Disenchanted with her pugnacious style of godlessness, Buckley generated, along with fellow conservative Whittaker Chambers, the first major wave of resistance to Rand’s influence in the American conservative movement. Successive generations of conservatives have each had to deal with Rand’s virulently anti-religion mindset in their own ways, with the going strategy being heavy downplaying. (Or, in Paul Ryan’s case, hearty praise followed by regretful disavowal.) Nonetheless, it is possible to trace a stream of atheist public intelligentsia that now flourishes in the work of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens back to Rand’s pontifications on atheist humanism. (The moral conclusions of today’s atheist thought leaders are, thankfully, typically distant from Rand’s.)

But Ideal came before all that. And unlike her sharp dismissals of religion later in her career—“it has to be either reason or faith,” she said—Rand grapples in Ideal with Christian ethics and aesthetics whether she meant to or not. Indeed, one of Ideal’s central anxieties seems to be that religion, with all its beauty and mystery and what Rand would surely dismiss as charlatan’s puffery, is nonetheless better at imparting meaning and ethics than Rand’s own overwrought didactics.

Throughout the novel, Gonda’s beauty is rendered beatific and her mystery mystical through frequent comparisons to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “What you mak me think of is a statoo of the Saint Mother of God,” writes one barely literate admirer in his letter to Gonda; the pastor imagines “suddenly, crazily, that a statue of the Madonna stood there, at his altar, in the rays of the cross.” Like the Virgin, Gonda is not an object of worship herself, but directs her devotees to apprehend a greater truth. “It is something without name,” writes one besotted fan of the wonder Gonda’s image reveals, “something ... for which one could go out into a last, sacred battle—if sacred battles were still possible in the world of today.” (“Do whatever [Jesus] tells you,” Mary says, in her final words in the Gospel.) In Gonda, Rand realizes the potency of such emissaries of the truth, especially those who provide onlookers with an experience of beauty. 

But perhaps Rand would say that those who are moved by beauty to seek the holy are merely fools—and that this is the real lesson of her novel. Peikoff notes that in her journals from that era, “Rand singles out religion as the main cause of men’s lack of integrity.” Rand may have condemned religion, but her attacks are specifically directed at Christianity—most pointedly at the level of altruism it demands of its adherents. Her campaign against Christian altruism lasted a lifetime, and fed directly into her ardently pro-capitalist politics. Some decades later, she wrote a thorough, venomous screed against Populorum Progressio, an encyclical published by Pope Paul VI in 1967 on the problems faced by the losers of a developing global economy. For Rand, the encyclical was a travesty precisely because it placed such a heavy emphasis on sacrifice for the good of developing nations. “The history of capitalism,” as Rand put it, is “of its swaying, tottering attempt to stand erect on the foundation of the altruist morality.” In other words, capitalism has survived in spite of the altruists who would happily see it crumble.

It comes then as no surprise that Ideal’s most startling act of altruism has distinctly Christian overtones: Johnnie, the mournful, unemployed 20-year-old with whom Gonda spends her last rendezvous of the night, falsely confesses to the murder of which Gonda is accused and then ends his life. He assumes her guilt even unto death, spending a few Gethsemanelike hours alone to settle on the decision. For Rand this is a demonstration of the pitfalls of dreamy abstraction. (“Those who can only dream,” Johnnie declares, are responsible for sapping life of its meaning.) But for the reader with even vaguely functional sympathies, the altruistic suicide of an innocent 20-year-old throws Gonda’s entire project into question, and Rand’s as well. For, as it turns out, the entire premise was a sham—Gonda was never suspected of murder, but concocted the tale presumably to test her fans: Would they live up to their professed devotion? Johnnie’s death, therefore, was in vain, and Gonda didn’t stop him. He died to save a wicked person, in other words, whose perversion was so complete she could no longer recognize it as such. 

The twist opens up more questions than it settles, which is perhaps why Rand felt finally unsatisfied with the book. Are we supposed to disdain Gonda, the liar, and pity her victims? Indeed, having exposed herself as a consummate deceiver within the last several pages of the book, how can we trust anything that she has said, or that has been said about her? And how are we to judge Gonda’s fans for abandoning their “values” when all we know of them comes from short notes written to a scoundrel of an actress? Are all values equally deserving of rigid adherence? Or would it perhaps be a good thing if certain commitments were sometimes violated—for instance, if Gonda had given up her ruse to save Johnnie’s life? 

By ending on this note, Rand concludes her novel with a grim gloss on the classic Christian narrative, though I suspect she did not intend the resemblance: Perhaps the trouble wasn’t that Gonda’s motley crew of admirers couldn’t live up to their respective, shoddily defined values, but rather that nobody in the book save Johnnie seems capable of caring for anyone other than themselves. Johnnie comes off as a martyr for simple, uncynical, sincere human kindness, and Rand, the orchestrator of the whole mess, a philosophizer to whom human life is bothersome and disposable if it is lived outside her eccentric, poorly defined expectations. 

Ideal can be read as a kind of rough-draft reckoning with the conflicts that would calcify into dogmatism later in Rand’s life. The novel shares many of the odd tics that appear in Rand’s “mature” work, as well, including her heavy-handed symbolism and disturbing tendency to pen sex scenes needlessly fraught with dubious consent. Like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Ideal features a scene in which the novel’s heroine is either ravished or raped, a distinction that doesn’t much seem to interest Rand. Without delving too deeply into Rand’s tortured gender politics, it is sufficient to note her repeated inflection of sex with rape in novels concerned with ethics suggests an inability to grasp the moral forest for its trees.

Along with the tedious and disquieting elements of Rand’s prose, Ideal also contains a glimpse of all that redeems her writing, the sum of which is perhaps still scanty. Rand had a keen eye for the everyday eroticism of women: Ideal is a surprisingly sensual novel, rape scene notwithstanding, resplendent with beguiling lips, naked backs, taut breasts, curved necks, soft and supple shoulders. As an accidental documentarian of the flapper era, Rand had a remarkable ability to render tantalizing what would today seem tame—the slant of a bare shoulder, the thrill of a spine dipping beneath a backless dress. Her love of urbia is also tangible, with all due deference to the streetcars, skyscrapers, smoke stacks, taxicabs, noisiness, and promise of Los Angeles almost a century ago. It is curious, in light of these talents, that so much of Rand’s contemporary following considers itself conservative: She certainly had no affection for the traditions and customs of yesteryear, nor their morals, nor their aesthetics. Rand was an extraordinarily modern writer for her day, bordering on a futurist: Ideal makes a suitable showing of all that.

If Rand’s fans miss the modernity of the novelette or, indeed, its central theme, it will be difficult to blame them. Rand’s point about the need for people to live great-souled lives of utter adherence to personal excellence shambles along murkily underneath her clumsy narrative. And yet, Rand’s narrative strength is at a kind of peak at the end of Ideal, where Johnnie’s suicide is powerful and emotionally resonant, with melancholy tones of sacrifice and selfless love. These principles are, unfortunately for Rand, the opposite of those she intended to advance, which should give pause not only to fans of her prose styling (whose numbers, I imagine, must be in the tens or tens of tens) but especially to those who look to her for moral insight. “Mrs. Logic,” as one devotee called her, may have been wed to a kind of reason, but she failed to recognize it as only one kind, and understood all others—the logic of love, the sense of beauty, the intuition of kindness—only in a mirror, very darkly.