Ayn Rand, Trauma Survivor?

Second only to Jesus for today’s Republican politicians, the libertarian novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand is their favorite author they’ve never actually read. If pressed, they’d mumble something about cutting welfare and returning to the gold standard. But that’s where the overlap begins and ends. Rand–an atheist, intellectual elitist, pro-choicer, celebrator of the sexual life force, and opponent of all state-sponsored coercion and pork-barrel politics–would shudder to be associated with the militarism, corporate welfare, and religious fundamentalism of our GOP.

However, most liberals viciously reject her, too. Some of it is guilt by association. Anyone Glenn Beck admires must be an evil kook, right? Another problem is that feminists have never known how to react to right-wing women. Rand frustrates feminist categorization because of her hyper-masculinity combined with sexual masochism. She brazened her way into the male-dominated field of philosophy, sang the praises of career women during the “Leave It to Beaver” era, and became a bestselling author and lecturer, but despised traditionally feminine characteristics (emotion, softness, intuition, “weakness”, altruism) and wrote sex scenes that anticipated 50 Shades of Gray.

More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, Rand’s novels continue to be wildly successful 31 years after her death, but you’ll never see them on those highbrow male-dominated lists of the Greatest 100. One could say that The Fountainhead was the Twilight of its day. It’s not only that Howard Roark and Edward the vampire (oh, I’d love to read that slash fanfiction!) display a similar icy-hard beauty and ruthlessly self-controlled masculine energy. It’s also that their audience is that much-despised breed, the lonely teenage girl.

The sensitive girl. The girl who reads. The girl whose feelings are so strong she needs an 800-page-book to hold them down. The victim who would be more than a victim, who would fling her masculine shadow-self against the universe and dream of him returning to her as a glittering protector.

The trauma survivor.

Tragically, for someone whose watchword was integrity, Rand’s work is shot through with the faultlines of unhealed psychological splitting.

On one side, all the parts of the self that could make a person prone to trauma (or to remembering it): The subconscious. The unknowable. The need for connection to others. Empathy. Emotion. The female body. On the other side, all the traits of her fantasy protector: Reason. Control. Independence. The macho machine. One must identify completely with the “strong” traits and wipe out the “weak” ones.

Rand’s detractors have pointed to this obsession with strength as a sign of fascist sympathies. In this case, though, the personal isn’t political. Rand’s politics were always closer to free-market anarchism than fascism. The war is not against the untermenschen but within the self.

I began to understand her this way after reading some essays in the excellent anthology Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Revisiting Rand’s quoted sex scenes, which I hadn’t ever read very closely, I was struck by her fascination with the near-invisible line between rape and rough play. Each of her heroines tests how close she can get without going over the edge. Rand had a homeopathic approach to consent; one molecule of it, apparently, could transform a sordid violation into a grappling of titans. The omniscient narrator always assures us that the heroine signaled her desire (without anything so pedestrian and vulnerable as talking about feelings, naturally), and that the hero would stop if she indicated otherwise.
Several essays in the anthology predictably debated whether Rand was anti-feminist because she glorified rape, or feminist because she wrote unashamedly about the complexity of women’s desires. Coming from a trauma-theory perspective, it seemed to me they made the mistake of assuming that Rand said exactly what she meant. Certainly that was the claim she always made for her fiction–all conscious planning, no subconscious counter-currents. As if any writer could do that.

I think, instead, that these scenes represent an imaginative rescripting of a powerless experience into a powerful one. The raw material is so raw that it can’t be acknowledged directly. It has to be hedged around with flowery abstractions so that any possibility of a real, un-enjoyable rape disappears from view, becoming simply inconceivable in the novel’s universe.

Do I have any evidence that Rand herself was repressing a sexual assault memory? No. The trauma of her family’s persecution by the Bolsheviks may be enough to explain her lifelong quest to expunge or reinterpret any symptoms of powerlessness in her writing. In this she reminds me of Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett and Rhett’s legendary rape-seduction scene in Gone With the Wind can be understood as a reaction to the perceived emasculation of Southern white society after the Civil War. Like Dominique and Dagny, Scarlett is an unwilling feminist icon. Her dominance is actually a sign that the men around her have failed to lead, until Rhett restores the proper order of things. But that’s a subject for another post.

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