“They are playing it straight!“
That was the first comment on the live stream as my interview with Ayn Rand went live, conducted 35 years after her death.
Maybe people figured it was going to be satirical, but this would be impossible, at least for me. Jennifer Grossman of the Atlas Society made an excellent Rand, in her ideas, costume, and even accent. In order for me honestly to interview her, I had to suspend disbelief.
As soon as Ms. Grossman proposed this, I saw the merit in the idea. Rand died in 1982 and too few today know her work. Instead they accept the caricatured reputation. This is the sad fate of fame. Even the greatest thinkers have their great works reduced to slogans and phrases. It’s happened to Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Darwin, Freud, Hayek, and thousands of others, and it’s happening to Rand too.
Death ends the life of the mind, so it is no longer allowed to evolve with changes in evidence. What if we brought the person back to life and had him or her present a biographical story and passing observations on our times in contemporary vernacular? I’ve seen this done with Benjamin Franklin, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain. Why not Ayn Rand?
Yes, it is a risk. It bothers me when the living purport with certainty to speak for the dead. Death ends the life of the mind, so it is no longer allowed to evolve with changes in evidence. When people ask me, as they often do, “what would Murray Rothbard say about x?” my response is always “I do not know because he is not here to speak.”
How do you overcome the risk of misrepresentation or the appearance of outright impiety? You need a certain humility. You need to approach the task not with the purpose of fully capturing the mind of a great thinker but rather with a deferential desire to represent a habit of thought and a personality with the aim of intriguing others enough to inspire further investigation.
I had the easy part: just asking questions. She had the impossible part: answering them.So Ms. Grossman had a very difficult job to do. In fact, I suspect if she had known ahead of time the challenge she faced, she never would have taken it on. I had the easy part: just asking questions. She had the impossible part: answering them. And yet she did a splendid job.
I did choose a certain emphasis in my line of questioning. I’ve had the sense that even among those who appreciate Rand’s work, the heroism of her life itself is underappreciated and even disparaged. I wanted Rand to explain how she overcame enormous obstacles to rise from a doomed child of a bourgeois family ruined by the Bolsheviks to become one of the most successful American novelists of the 20th century. I was pretty sure that much of this would be new to people.
I always wanted Rand to rebut some common misperceptions about her work.
She did both very well.
This was an experiment, and the results are far from perfect. But it is my hope that we have a chance for a repeat performance. There is so much more I want to ask her, and there are so many more who need to see and hear her in our times, if only to inspire people to visit her actual writings, or revisit them again.
Rand has so much to teach the world, right now. Every bit of creativity is necessary to keep those lessons alive.