I’ve been trying to imagine the late-night discussions in Paul Ryan’s congressional office, to envision what his young aides whispered to each other about the righteous, racy novels of Ayn Rand.
You’ve heard, by now, about Ryan’s unofficial book club: In 2005, the would-be vice president told a group of Rand acolytes that he made his young staffers read “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” (Ryan has since disavowed parts of Rand’s all-encompassing “objectivist” philosophy — such as the part where you’re supposed to be an atheist.)
It’s unclear whether he still assigns the books. But as proselytizing goes, Ryan was onto something. Ayn Rand has found a recent resurgence as a Tea Party favorite, but her original groupies were post-adolescents, said Jennifer Burns, a Stanford professor and the author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.” When “The Fountainhead” was published in 1943, reviews were atrocious and sales were dim, Burns said. But when the book got pulled into the youth conservative movement of the early 1960s, it became a classic cult hit.
If you haven’t read “The Fountainhead,” I highly recommend it. I’m a little ways in (give me time; it’s long) and so far it’s the most unintentionally hilarious novel I’ve ever read. It’s about Howard Roark, a tall and manly architect who knows precisely what he wants, but is surrounded by shorter, heavier men who endeavor to drag him down.
Roark wants to build clean, tall skyscrapers with clean, tall lines. Everyone else wants squat neo-Classical buildings with too many details, curliques, and horizontal lines that diminish their grandeur. The sentences are long, like the fingers on Roark’s hands, like the buildings he wants to build.
Burns calls Rand’s books “the gateway drug to life on the right.” If so, the drug is Viagra.
You can imagine how this all might speak to a young congressional intern: earnest, sheltered, and slightly repressed; locked in a small office in Washington, D.C.; looking for clear, precise views of the world; and also, extremely hormonal. I myself went through a phase, at roughly age 16, when I couldn’t get enough of “Atlas Shrugged,” and while I was struck by Rand’s economic ideals — I had spent a few weeks on an Israeli kibbutz, and seen some limits of pure collectivism — I largely thought it was a book about sex. Rand wrote a lot of sex, mostly undertaken by strong, independent women who wanted to be ravaged by stronger and more independent men. Think “Fifty Shades of Grey,” with long political speeches.
Burns says she continually meets college students who are fascinated with Rand, taken by her unflinching ideals and her breathless prose. At the University of Virginia, where she used to teach, Burns recalls walking through campus and seeing, scrawled on the pavement, the first line of “Atlas Shrugged”: “Who is John Galt?”
Some of her students form Ayn Rand fan societies. Others, like I did, start to question Rand’s views, her disturbing gender dynamics (there’s a famous rape scene in “The Fountainhead,” which Rand later defended as “rape by engraved invitation”), the institutions and relationships that she leaves out of her worldview.
“There are no families in any of her novels that are depicted positively. None,” Burns said. “There are no maternal figures; they’re always negative, always grasping, dependent. There are no father figures. There are no children.”
But there are men, manly men, and ideas, pure ideas, and those ideas about the sanctity of clean, pure markets have taken on lives of their own. Different people have taken different lessons from Rand’s books, Burns says; one ’60s radical read “The Fountainhead” and concluded that it was fine to blow up buildings. But most Rand devotees are conservatively inclined, and find, in her prose, permission, and validation.
“I would say Paul Ryan is akin to the kids who would read her in the ’60s, who would get that pure, clear view of the world,” Burns said.
Rand’s estate, Burns said, has found clever ways to keep the books in front of Ryan types, such as an annual high school essay contest with a lucrative payoff. But Rand herself knew better than anyone how to make her ideas last: Wrap them in a package adolescents can’t resist.
“A political text, a theoretical text,” Burns points out, “is never going to be as interesting as a story with a lot of sex.”
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.