Object of Affection
What's the big deal about Ayn Rand?
By Ashley Fantz
NOVEMBER 15, 1999: My second year in college, a friend handed me a copy of Ayn Rand's We the Living. With wide-eyed seriousness, she said that it was a novel that "changed her life" and took her to "another level of understanding." I shrugged my shoulders and promised I'd read it. Just the novelty of one of my comrades giving me something with the same ringing endorsement that they normally reserved for pharmaceuticals was enough to make me crack the binding.
The novel's sweeping love story caught me off guard a bit. I knew that Ayn Rand was a political philosopher, but was not privy to the author's long paragraphs about the rippling chests of protagonists. And while the heroine was gorgeous and humble, Rand's usual theme of person against state was always sticking up from the cushioning, picturesque backdrop of the Russian Revolution like a pea underneath a mattress.
"There are a lot of Ayn Rand followers who are young people, and I don't think that's a coincidence," says Andrew Bernstein, a professor at New York's Ayn Rand Institute, a philosophy epicenter that fields questions about the novelist's theory of objectivism, an atheistic school of thought based on man's ability to rely on rational thought over spiritual or religious faith.
"They are young and searching for answers," he continues. "Too many people start off idealistically and become cynical but they still hold that human beings are capable of making a better world and that confidence is attributed to the young usually."
As an adjunct professor at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, and the State University of New York at Purchase, Bernstein has taught Ayn Rand's novels -- including classics The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged -- for 20 years and is known for giving his philosophy classes a updated spin. Incorporating current events -- particularly the surge of employee mass killings -- and contemporary music, Bernstein makes connections between objectivism and modern culture. He's currently teaching a class called "Moral Problems," which deals with both traditional moral quagmires and concentrates on the topic of indiscriminate violence.
"The idea that people are willing today more than ever to shoot total strangers -- that represents deep hostility toward society," he says. "Objectivism dictates that people are better off by not acting on emotions. We have in the last part of the century been told that we should act on our feelings, that every rageful person can get vindication from going by their emotions rather than rationality. It's a world now where victimization is a way to escape and excuse your life."
Bernstein alludes to a Smashing Pumpkins' hit with the refrain, "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage."
"We can still feel rage about something, but accept that we have certain social constraints," he says. "I see a lot of my students struggle with that."
Because Rand's philosophy rejects faith to explain reality, Bernstein says his students who were raised in religiously devout households have difficulty accepting objectivism. Many Marymount students are pre-seminary. Rand's ideas, for some, go beyond their religious convictions as they embrace her idea of a person as a hero figure and independent thinker. Others reject the same idea because its theory of human omniscience seems blasphemous.
"They read Atlas Shrugged, and they are so taken with the story and the characters that they admire Ayn Rand for her writing style," Bernstein says. "There was one student who was in sincere agony because he could accept objectivism on a logical level but had so many problems with it because he was also a committed Christian."
The professor, raised in a strict Jewish household, had similar questions when he was introduced to Atlas Shrugged in high school. It was 1968 and he was 16 years old.
"It seemed to make more sense than what I was hearing from politicians and other teachers at the time," he recalls. "I was always a little scared of religion because it seemed so entrenched in fantasy. It makes the world inexplicable, and I think that made me very uneasy."
Ironically, despite Rand's rally for individualism, her works have drawn a cult-like following. A quick search on the Web reveals more than a thousand sites dedicated to the author.
"She has drawn a lot of people in, but I think that's a good thing," says Bernstein. "Ultimately, it's a philosophy that you can mold into your lifestyle -- take parts that make you feel comfortable and forget about the other aspects. I can't think of a more modern, flexible idea of living."
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