09/19/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

The Awesomeness of Awesome People

A succinct description of Ayn Rand's philosophy can be found in the TV show Party Down. This sadly short-lived sitcom followed the travails of a hapless Hollywood catering crew. In one episode, a brainless hunk asks a co-worker, "Who's Ayn Rand?" The co-worker, played by the lovely Lizzy Caplan, doesn't miss a beat: "She wrote about how awesome awesome people are."

This quote sprung to mind after Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate. Ryan's on-again, off-again devotion to the most influential bad novelist in American history has been exhaustively picked apart. I'm well-acquainted with the syndrome. As a teacher, I've encountered several Ryans-in-the-making, bewitched adolescents convinced they've stumbled onto the blueprint for perpetual happiness and success. Never again, they swear, will they doubt themselves, or allow "looters" and "second-handers" (Rand's terms for us poor schlubs) to bring them down.

I should probably just leave them alone. In all likelihood, this too shall pass. As Thomas Mallon noted, "Most readers make their first and last trip to Galt's Gulch [the Rocky Mountain hideaway where fed-up moguls and industrialists in Atlas Shrugged await the breakdown of an ungrateful civilization] sometime between leaving Middle-earth and packing for college." But alas, I'm tasked with imparting a level of discernment. With a non-confrontational smile, then, I urge my fledgling objectivists to delve into the life of Rand, "the greatest person who had lived or ever would live," an astonishing characterization her initial acolytes were expected to accept. I recommend Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market and Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, two durable biographies that go into eyebrow-raising detail about this paragon's drug abuse, lax personal hygiene, bouts with depression, Stalinist-like intolerance of dissent, and pathetic and manipulative sexual behavior. I also discuss a chapter from Tobias Wolff's coming-of-age novel, Old School, which pokes serious fun at Rand's appeal to impressionable teens, like the Muppet-faced Midwesterner who grew up to run for vice president.

Set at an elite prep school in the early 1960s, Wolff's novel is narrated by an unnamed scholarship boy. Three times a year, the school invites a distinguished writer to deliver a lecture. Each time, a literary competition is held; students are encouraged to submit poetry or fiction, depending on the guest of honor, who selects the winner and grants a private audience.

No one objects to the first writer, Robert Frost; but shortly after the great poet's visit Ayn Rand's name is announced. The English teachers howl, but to no avail. Like Mad Men's Bert Cooper, the chairman of the board of trustees is a fan.

His curiosity piqued, the narrator reads The Fountainhead over the Christmas break. He quickly comes to admire the novel's hero, Howard Roark, an architectural genius who refuses to compromise his artistic integrity: "He's a free man among parasites who hate him and punish him with poverty and neglect." Still, Roark triumphs in the end. He designs the world's tallest skyscraper and gets the girl. And what a girl! A bored heiress with a sadomasochistic streak, Dominique Francon is looking for a man -- a real man -- who will put her in her place. "I want to be owned," she declares, "not by a lover, but by an adversary who will destroy my victory over him, not with honorable blows, but with the touch of his body on mine." One night, Roark obliges by breaking into her room and raping her. (Would this constitute forcible rape, Mr. Ryan? Dominique fights back, but wasn't she asking for it? No pregnancy results. Does this mean Dominique's cervix puckered up and expelled Roark's premium sperm?)

The narrator is enlightened. He always thought "routine gallantries and attentions" would turn hearts. But Rand shows him that "a woman's indifference, even her scorn, might be an invitation to go a few rounds." This newfound attitude carries over to his relationship with his family. He is rudely distant toward his grandfather and stepgrandmother, with whom he stays for the holidays. The narrator regards their kindness as a "form of aggression," a sinister attempt to lure him into the crushing embrace of conventional morality. In fact, all around him are slaves, statist drones unburdened with glorious purpose. A mundane scene -- a salesman helping a customer on with a shoe -- infuriates him. "Coward!" he wants to scream. "Fool! Men were born to soar and you have chosen to kneel!"

He returns to school, raring to attack the concept of altruism in a story he hopes will spin Rand's gold dollar sign lapel. But he's obsessed with The Fountainhead; instead of sitting down to write, he reads the novel again and again. His Jewish roommate grows worried. Rand's sham Nietzscheanism -- "All that Ubermensch stuff," the roomie calls it -- ain't chicken soup for the soul. At last, the fever begins to break after the narrator, who has been unwell for a while, collapses from walking pneumonia. His grandfather and stepgrandmother rush to his side. As they tend to his every need, the bedridden superman has doubts about the weakness of compassion.

These doubts solidify when he sees Rand in the disappointing flesh. A drab dictatress catered to by a grim-faced, black-clad entourage, she reveals herself to be an appalling judge of literature. The student story she picked, "The Day the Cows Came Home," is an unintentionally funny travesty about a talking alien bull who pilots a flying saucer around the Earth, checking up on the descendants of a head of super-smart cattle who settled here eons ago. The bull is horrified at how his kind is treated. He tries to persuade his brothers and sisters to return with him to his home planet. No thanks, they tell him, we prefer our cushy (albeit precarious) existence. The bull heads into space, but before breaking orbit he decimates mankind with a death ray.

Rand praises the author's willingness to "challenge the collectivist orthodoxy that tyrannizes intellectual life in this country." To her, the cows represent Americans who've been ensnared in the safety net, a lost generation that rejects the nobility of unrestricted individualism. (Actually, the author is a sci-fi loving vegetarian who was protesting against animal cruelty.)

Ideology is what drew Rand to this story, not style or characterization. She believes fiction should be wholly prescriptive. The job of a novelist is to provide answers, not raise questions. And at all cost the mundane must be ignored, stories about "the folks next door, those frustrated imbeciles" who get by as best they can. Contrary to what Peter Schafer's Mozart said, Hercules should be the subject, not his hairdresser.

Rand dismisses her contemporaries: "What do other writers present as life? Little men and little women with little worries being held hostage by snot-nosed brats...What other writers present as life is nothing more than an alibi for cowardice and treason."

During her talk the still-ailing narrator sneezes, a simple human act that earns a troubling response from Rand, a response that eventually convinces him to drop her:

The problem was that I could no longer read Ayn Rand's sentences without hearing her voice. And hearing her voice, I saw her face; to be exact, the face she'd turned on me when I sneezed. Her disgust had power. This was no girlish shudder, this was spiritual disgust, and it forced on me a vision of the poor specimen under scrutiny... She made me feel that to be sick was contemptible... I became touchily aware that both Roark and Dominique looked great and never had a sick day between them... Her heroes were hearty, happily formed, and didn't have brats. The heroic life apparently left no time for children, or domestic cares, or the exertion of ordinary sympathy. After getting pinned by her look I couldn't imagine Ayn Rand driving eight minutes, let alone eight hours, to nurse a sick relative.

I'm aware this isn't Ayn Rand; it's a novelist's rendering of her. But from everything I've read it's pretty damn accurate. Which is what bothers me about Ryan. I'm sure he'd help a friend or relative. But both he and his running mate are -- on paper, at least -- awesome people. And they seem unwilling to acknowledge that the vast majority of their fellow citizens are not. JFK, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt -- they were all born awesome too. But they also knew suffering: JFK's long list of ailments, FDR's polio, the death of TR's wife and mother (on the same day!). This made them empathetic. What crucible have Romney and Ryan gone through? That Ryan still holds Rand dear shows he is somewhat emotionally stunted. No, he wouldn't scowl at a stranger's pain or discomfort. But I fear he'd ignore it.