Friday, February 24, 2012

Dismember the Titan

So I'm about 130 pages into Atlas Shrugged. The scene is a party celebrating two characters' wedding anniversary. There's a brief exchange over philosophy and literature--because that's all these people ever talk about, in the blandest terms possible--between a "young girl in a white dress" and a gasbag novelist Balph "not Ralph" Eubank, who responds to the girl's insistence that books should have good plots by saying "Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature."

This a the photo negative snapshot of what's wrong with Atlas Shrugged. There is plenty of plot at work, but little else of substance, enough that for awhile I've been kind of at a loss at how to respond to it. Rand wasn't fooling around when she wrote that immortality means never changing. Fourteen years passed between the publication of The Fountainhead and that of its follow-up, yet everything about it feels like they could have been written in tandem. It's rather dispiriting, and not conducive to insightful, inspired criticism. Atlas Shrugged is repellent, most anyone could have told me this (and did!), but I'd like to figure out why it's so much worse than everything that came before. In the meantime, however, I badly need to vent.

The plot, I should think, does not need much introduction. In a world eerily like our own (cue the ominous violins), civilization is beginning to crumble. Train lines are deteriorating, industry is collapsing, several of the most industrious company heads are mysteriously withdrawing themselves, and people are asking "Who is John Galt?" with shrugs of resignation. Amid this Dagny Taggart, Vice President in Charge of Operations at Taggart Railroad who's GREAT at running a rail company, has to save said company from her INCOMPETENT and ALTRUISTIC brother James, who gives contracts to his INCOMPETENT friends and dines with WORTHLESS INCOMPETENT government bureaucrats. She starts by making a deal with Hank Rearden, who's GREAT at steelworks, to purchase rails made of his new "Rearden Steel" alloy. And and and....

Anyone who's heard of the Tea Party knows what's really going on, that the captains of industry have gone on strike at the behest of superman John Galt because society, with its taxes and regulations, is ungratefully leaching off their greatness. Knowing all this in advance feels like that, along with stopping the engine of the world, John Galt stopped the engine of the story. Maybe this would read better being completely in the dark about what's coming, but probably not.

The conflict basically boils down to, 'the greatest human beings alive are being held back by their helpless, parasitic inferiors--when will they say, 'enough!' and throw off their chains?' The book holds to this theme with a consistency that's almost fractal--the largest and smallest plot lines can be summarized thus, from John Galt vs. the world to Hank Rearden vs. his awful, awful family. And they are awful. My god, are they awful.

A decade ago I saw the first Harry Potter film, having not read any of the books, and was tremendously annoyed by (among many other things) how cartoonishly evil Harry's adoptive family was, so much that it beggared belief. Well Harry's foster folk are Marine 1 helicopter parents next to Rearden's wretched relations. There's brother Phillip, sickly and shiftless but for his membership in various ineffectual charities; their mother, a harpy who he supports and lives with him seemingly out of pure spite; and Rearden's wife Lillian, a castrating bitch who hobnobs with vapid cultural elitists and doesn't care anything of what her husband does.

Here's how they respond to Rearden giving a gift to his wife:
"I brought you a present, Lillian."

He did not know that he stood straight and that the gesture of his arm was that of a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love, when he dropped a small chain of metal into her lap.

Lillian Rearden picked it up, hooked on the tips of two straight fingers, and raised it to the light. The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.

"What's that?" she asked.

"The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal."

"You mean," she said, "it's fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?"

He looked at her blankly.

She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. "Henry, it's perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and--what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?--soup kettles?"

"God, Henry, but you're conceited!" said Philip.

Lillian laughed. "He's a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn't the gift, it's the intention, I know."

"The intention's plain selfishness, if you ask me," said Rearden's mother. "Another man would bring a diamond bracelet, if he wanted to give his wife a  present, because it's her pleasure he'd think of, not his own. But Henry thinks that just because he's made a new kind of tin, why, it's got to be more precious than diamonds to everybody, just because it's he that's made it. That's the way he's been since he was five years old--the most conceited brat you ever saw--and I knew he'd grow up to be the most selfish creature on God's earth."
Now Rearden's family's badness isn't in itself damaging to the book; hissable villains can make for terrific melodrama, but they need an actual heroic foil. The thing is, a lot of the nasty things his wife and mother says are true. He really doesn't care about them:
He had never had a desire to hurt them, but he had always felt their defensive, reproachful expectation; they seemed wounded by anything he said, it was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost... almost as if they were wounded by the mere fact of his being. Don't start imagining the insane--he told himself severely, struggling to face the riddle with the strictest of his ruthless sense of justice. He could not condemn them without understanding; and he coudl not understand. 
Did he like them? No, he thought; he had wanted to like them, which was not the same. he had wanted it in the name of some unstated potentiality which he had once expected to see in any human being. He felt nothing for them now, nothing but the merciless zero of indifference, not even the regret of a loss. Did he need any person as part of his life? Did he miss the feeling he had wanted to feel? No, he thought. Had he ever missed it? Yes, he thought, in his youth; not any longer.
So here's the problem, stated plain: Rand, in true cart-before-horse fashion, fundamentally mistakes plot as the driver of great literature, and modernism's abandonment of it as a literary heresy. She never understood that style and especially characters are what make a book, and that a good yarn will unspool itself thereof. Great literature forces its characters, or at least its readers, to grapple not just with external conflict, but conflicts within themselves. Its most memorable figures--Oedipus, Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Gatsby--are all deeply flawed. Their greatness is not in their virtuousness, which is often greatly lacking or else turned toward self-destructive ends, but in the dignity they maintain in trying to transcend their vices (or, barring that, the way they illuminate them).

Atlas Shrugged, in its scope and ambition, wants to be great literature. It is categorically not. Fourteen years after her last novel, Rand's has not matured in the least; her prose, once tolerably plain, now seems merely parched. Her dialogue remains atrocious, with people talking in ways no one actually speaks about ideas no one actually holds. Her jaundiced, barren view of humanity holds that great people are so because they really are better than everyone else, and their only problem is that they put up with their inferiors instead of just walking away and letting them starve. It's a rancid, shallow, petty worldview that amounts to a lot of preening peacocks waving their tail-feathers in everyone's faces. It's a temper tantrum dressed up as an argument, a scream for a song. It is, in Rand's own words, "primitive vulgarity."

Friday, February 17, 2012

We Are All Individuals

Before I get into the weeds of Atlas Shrugged I want to consider further the out-of-the-box popularity of The Fountainhead. Rare enough is the standalone 700 page novel of quasi-Nietzschean ethics, violent sex, and architecture,  by an unknown author; rarer still is it for such a novel to become a publishing sensation. How does such a book go on to sell hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of copies?

The answer is hinted at in the responses of some of its most fervent readers. Along with the growing sales in the years after publication came an avalanche of fan mail, often from teenagers, who had been deeply affected by The Fountainhead. Some representative samples:
But now, when I reach the point—and I reach it often these days—where the pain can go down no further; I read part, any part, of The Fountainhead

…I was profoundly challenged and frightened. The challenge has outlived the fright…. Thank you….

…It is like being awake for the first time…
It’s easy for (liberal) readers to sneer at these reactions and to write them off as youthful indiscretion. This isn’t entirely wrong, but nor is it the whole truth. Many encounter Rand’s work in their rebellious teenage years, yes, but the books can exert an influence long after. Modern Library in 1998 petitioned readers for what they thought was the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century, and Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were numbers one and two on the list. (It should be mentioned the mechanics of the survey make it more of a reflection of intensity of a given book’s followers than an absolute measure of popular taste.) There are plenty of adults who aren't even hardcore Randians that would consider the book an influence.

The key is Rand's seriousness. A look at the sordid details of her life makes it hard to take much of what she says seriously, but the monumental fact of a 700 page manifesto to individuality reflects an intensity of purpose that (even in skeptics) is hypnotic. Moreover, as rancid as a lot of Rand’s ideas are, they come from a strange  but relatable innocence, an outsized idealism, which often takes the form of a frustrated longing for greatness (this is the character Dominique Francon in a nutshell). Here is the most open and straightforward expression of this sentiment, in the setup to Roark’s courtroom speech:
The people had come to witness a sensational case, to see celebrities, to get material for conversation, to be seen, to kill time. They would return to unwanted jobs, unloved families, unchosen friends, to drawing rooms, evening clothes, cocktail glasses and movies, to unadmitted pain, murdered hope, desire left untaken, to days of effort not to think, not to say, to forget and give in and give up. But each of them had known some unforgotten moment—a morning when nothing had happened, a piece of music heard suddenly and never heard in the same way again, a stranger’s face seen in a bus—a moment when each had known a different sense of living. And each remembered other moments, on a sleepless night, on an afternoon of steady rain, in a church, in an empty street at sunset, when each had wondered why there was so much suffering and ugliness in the world. They had not tried to find the answer and they had gone on living as if no answer necessary. But each had known a moment when, in lonely, naked honesty, he had felt the need of an answer.
Amid Rand’s savage social Darwinism and rape fantasies is a desire for a person to be able to follow his heart and do what he wants to do without having to make all the mundane concessions to the world as it is: networking, doing a job you hate to pay the bills, working up the ladder, sacrificing integrity for the sake of the safe and profitable. Rand resented the time she spent in the trenches, feeling that all it did was keep her from being able to write. It’s easy to understand why teenagers and young adults, now having to begin providing for themselves and instead of having fun and being creative all day, would be drawn to the idea that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s arguably even more appealing to adults who have already had to make those sacrifices and settle for a career that is merely satisfactory rather than satisfying.

Middle America goes for this kind of story all the time. ‘Everyman breaks out of straightjacket of modern (middle-class/suburban) society’ is a riff on the American Dream that’s gone through countless iterations, from Revolutionary Road to Little Children to American Beauty and a bunch of the great movies that came out of 1999 (The MatrixFight Club, even to an extent Being John Malkovich). One of one of the vicious ironies of Rand’s putative radicalism is in fact how conventional it is. Her “be yourself” message is what she hated most of all, a bromide. “The creator is the man who goes against the current,” says Howard Roark in his courtroom speech, as if this were the most profound observation ever, and not the stuff of virtually every self-help and motivational poster ever made.

Righteous philistinism I suspect plays a similar role in The Fountainhead’s popularity. There’s a narrative substrata—it never quite becomes a subplot—involving demonic collectivist Ellsworth Toohey’s relationship with the New York avant garde. This includes Gertrude Stein caricature Lois Cook, as well as sundry pretentious artistes who make and promote crappy “abstract” art in order to debase actual greatness by association. Rand makes a hash of the satire, of course, essentially by mistaking effect for intent—there’s a lot of bad and overrated art, but Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists notwithstanding, the bulk of them don’t set out to be deliberately awful. But dismissal is an easy response to challenging art and ideas, and for someone not inclined to engage them on their own terms, full-out demonization as that on display here is quite appealing.

Essentially, Rand’s snobbery cuts both ways: it is contemptuous of easy entertainment while also suspicious of willfully difficult art and literature, leaving its own stubborn earnestness as a virtue. It aspires to intellectual deepness and becomes so by definition, after dismissing any dissenters for obscurantist sophistication. One might call it extremely middle-brow. Most readers’ tastes are, obviously, in popular fiction, and most believe themselves to be quite smart; who would describe himself as an idiot? Thus those who didn't come to regard Rand's every utterance as gospel could still glom on to what are trite if inspiring entreaties to follow one's dreams. Rand’s achievement was appealing to this sweet spot of aspirational inertia in an audience she scorned, and—if the Modern Library survey is to be believed—convincing a majority of readers that they are above average.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ayn Kampf

As I was just about to start The Fountainhead a month-and-a-half ago, I referred to it as an act of self-prophecy. What I meant is that, whatever its literary concerns and conceits, it functions as a veiled account of Ayn Rand’s struggles as a writer and predictor of her eventual fame, as well as the vehicle of same.(For a contemporary analogue, consider Lady Gaga and how The Fame Monster is predicated entirely on its creator’s own suddensuperstardom.) It tells a (highly romanticized) story of struggling to success,and was the catalyst for its author’s own stratospheric sales and public profile after years of obscurity and toil. There’s a worn-out maxim that says talent is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and never was that more true than with Rand, whose literary skills were average at best (and, perversely, worsened the further she went into her career, and her own recursive mind), but who was hell bent on becoming a successful author nonetheless and refused to let anything stop her.

In her early Hollywood days Rand worked anumber of odd jobs, including a waitressing gig from which she was fired on her first day, and a sales job in which she made only one actual sale. In keeping with her austere standards of self-presentation and in stark contrast to Roark’seasy-going asceticism, she made sure her jobs were out in the suburbs, where her future husband and professional contacts would not see her menial laboring.It was in these days, starting in 1935, that she began planning her second novel.

The genesis of the book was, as mentioned before, disgusted response to a casual acquaintance whose only goal in life was to one-up everybody else, living life “second-handedly,” by being defined by others and not oneself. Thus was born Second-Hand Lives. For the story proper Rand drew heavily from the biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a popular hack, Thomas Hastings. (The irony that “practically the entire story” of a novel which exalted originality and scorned borrowed fortune should be drawn so heavily from two figures, seems to escaped her.)

In a way, however, the book is autobiography: details fromRand’s life—such as an episode in which a school assignment to write an essay on the wonders of childhood prompted Rand to turn in a denunciation of childhood as a gross and irrational phase of one’s intellectual development—showup, often with little disguising. More interesting is the way certain obstacles of her career are inverted: at one point Howard Roark pointedly turns down offers from a client to heavily advertise one of his creations. This is presented by Rand as heroic individualism. Yet it was precisely a lack of promotion and support that sunk Rand’s first novel We the Living; the publisher destroyed the type after the book’s initial run of 3,000, to the author’s great chagrin.

The gestation of The Fountainhead was long and troubled. Outlining, which had begun as early as 1935, stalled out in the search for a climax. It was eventually solved by the architect Jacques Kahn, for whom Rand had gone to work as part of her research: he it was who told her that affordable public housing was the most bedeviling problem architecture. But after writing the first of the book’s four sections, writer’sblock—“the squirms,” as she called it—struck.Money troubles returned. Royalties from Night of January 16th and an advance on the new book eventually dried up, Knopf’s contract for the book was not renewed after she missed an extended deadline, and Rand parted acrimoniously with her agent, who had been unable to sell the book to other publishers (as story Rand tells it is that the book was rejected by twelve houses all told, but this includes Knopf, with whom she parted by mutual agreement). At one point she borrowed money from some friends, which she later paid back but never acknowledged for the hated altruistic act it was. To provide income—her husband’s acting career had sputtered out at this point, and so she was the household’s breadmaker—Rand had to work long hours evaluating potential script stories for Paramount Pictures.

She also busied herself with other projects, including campaigning against Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of Wendell Willkie, writing and publishing(in England) the novella Anthem, and adapting We the Living to the stage, in a production entitled The Unconqueredwhich closed after only five days and ended up costing her more money than she made. At one point she was so discouraged by “things as they are” that she considered giving up working towards “things as they should be” altogether. She would have, had her husband Frank O’Connor not spent hours convincing her not to be beaten by those she despised.

She persevered, and got a contract and an advance from Bobbs-Merrillon December 10, 1941, a fortuitous date; had it been signed but a week later,the contract would have been cancelled due to paper rationing for America’s incipient war effort against Japan and Germany. Her contract gave her a year to complete the manuscript. This deadline she made, by engaging in writing binges of days at a stretch, which allowed her to produce sometimes an entire chapter a week. This she accomplished by way of amphetamines that she had begun to take to concentrate her energies, and would continue to take in the following years and decades, which no doubt contributed to her increasingly stormy behavior later on.

When the book was at last finished, edited (she hacked out a whole character and subplot), and renamed, the critical response was bewilderment if not outright hostility to its cheerful immorality, its “gargoyles”of characters, and its overcooked speeches. One of the rare exceptions was The New York Times(!), which called Rand “a writer of great power.”

The popular response was far more enthusiastic. After a slow start the book sold out its initial run of 10,000, and went into several reprinting.Rand had told one of her few close friends at the time, the conservative columnist and novelist Isabel Paterson, that she would not be satisfied with anything less than a hundred thousand copies sold, an enormous number for any author, much less a relative unknown as herself. The Fountainheadsold 100,000 in 1945 alone, by which time Rand was back in Hollywood, working on the film adaptation directed by King Vidor and directed by Gary Cooper, whose script she wrote, and for whose rights she was paid $50,000.

Rand’s fight to the top was both easier and more difficult than she made it out to be. Her fury with trying circumstances is reflected in how she exaggerated certain aspects and papered over others. And she certainly did not pull it off by herself, though she certainly thought she had; she would later say she neither asked for nor received help before she became famous.The Fountainhead, above everything else, is a curious look into how she saw herself and her years in the trenches. Its closing passages,with Dominique Francon riding a construction elevator to the top of the new Wynand Building, past all other heights and structures until “there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark,” makes a neat parallel with Rand’s own ascendancy.

As far as sheer grit is concerned, Ayn Rand earned her success. Yet there were certainly other writers looking for their big break,and of them many far more deserving, on artistic and literary grounds. The real question is why The Fountainhead became the smash hit that it did, a question worth pursuing, even (especially!) by Rand’s detractors.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Capitalist Realism

Strangely enough, for all of her fiction’s endless speechifying, Ayn Rand considered herself a novelist before a philosopher (she considered herself a great many other things, mostly narcissistic superlatives, but work with me here). It’s a fairly important distinction. Her fiction is much more than mere agitprop, which uses the confines of normal storytelling as a vehicle to preach a given message. For Rand’s whole approach to storytelling is marinated in her ideas on everything else, and so its bent approach makes reading it a decidedly different experience.

The Fountainhead shares the structural elements of a normal story: beginning, middle (more like two, really, the first punctuated, like the second, with a trial), climax, dĂ©nouement. A protagonist with a goal, and obstacles thrown in his path, an antagonist with goals athwart his own. So far so good. But it is the characters, colored by Rand’s singularly odd views on individuality, which drive the action, and give the book its hypnotically strange effect.

All of the book’s principle figures were conceived as symbols, with Howard Roark as “a man who is what he should be,” Peter Keating “a man who never could be [man as he should be] and doesn’t know it,” Gail Wynand “a man who could have been,” and Ellsworth Toohey, “worst of all possible rats. A man who never could be—and knows it.” This schematic view of plotting has the dual effect of making the characters both larger-than-life and two-dimensional, as if they were fixtures on a billboard. They serve the same basic purpose, channeling Rand’s radical individualism. The peculiar effect of her ideas about rationality and will, however, makes the proceedings feel, paradoxically, pre-ordained.

Consider what was perhaps the biggest surprise I encountered, dealing with a secondary character, Catherine, Toohey’s niece and Keating’s sometime fiancĂ©. Such a pitiful, clingy creature is she that I was fairly sure she would kill herself out of sheer helplessness, especially after Keating ditches their wedding to shotgun marry the ice queen Dominique Francon. She instead resurfaces near the end of the book years later, reborn as a Washington bureaucrat with a lack of personality remarkable even for an Ayn Rand character:
”It wouldn’t have worked, Peter. I’m temperamentally unsuited to domesticity. It’s too selfish and narrow. Of course, I understand what you feel just now and I appreciate it. It’s only human that you should feel something like remorse, since you did what is known as jilted me.” He winced. “You see how stupid those things sound. It’s natural for you to be a little contrite—a normal reflex—but we must look at it objectively, we’re grown-up, rational people, nothing is too serious, we can’t really help what we do, we’re conditioned that way, we just charge it off to experience and go on from there.”
I ended up being more right about her fate than I had guessed: rather than merely kill herself, she killed her self.

Catharine’s lack of identity is as much a constant as Roark’s unflappable confidence, Keating’s venality, and Toohey’s super-socialism. Their essential nature is fixed, and there is never any real chance that they will ever change, for better or worse. Their defining traits merely become more pronounced, and grotesque, as the stakes raise ever higher, but the there is no real tension, no possibility of redemption or betrayal or surprise that hasn’t been telegraphed from the start. As busy as The Fountainhead's scenario is, it’s all mellow, no drama.

Yet cardboard characters aren’t derived (only) from general hackishness, rather they proceed directly from Rand’s own ideals of what constitutes a proper human being. As said by Steven Mallory, Roark’s sculptor disciple:
I often think that [Roark]’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he is what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict—and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard—one can imagine him existing forever.
Rand, who claimed her beliefs had remained essentially the same since she was a teenager, is here essentially making a virtue of stubbornness and refusal to grow as a person, under the same usual banner of willpower: the real individual knows he’s right, so why should he change? Her characters are demonstrations of this idea, as are the very many things they do and say.

Along with melodramatic plotting, Rand’s fiction is infamous for its didactic speeches and dialogues that go on for pages and pages at a stretch. My favorite, if it can be called that, involves newspaper magnate Gail Wynand and Roark going on a month-long yacht cruise—without Dominique Francon, who they’re both in love with and to whom Wynand is married. Wynand can’t stop looking at Roark’s half-naked body, “at the threads of water running down the angular planes,” that makes him think “of the yacht’s engine, of skyscrapers, of transatlantic cables, of everything man had made.” The scene’s tone veers between unintentional 300-style homo-erotica and an After School Special with amazing gracelessness:
”What’s left then? Where does decency start? What begins where altruism ends? Do you see what I’m in love with?”

“Yes, Gail.” Wynand had noticed that Roark’s voice had a reluctance that sounded almost like sadness.

“What’s the matter with you? Why do you sound like that?”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. It’s just something I thought. I’ve been thinking of this for a long time. And particularly all these days when you’ve made me lie on deck and loaf.”

“Thinking about me?”

“About you—among many other things.”

“What have you decided?”

“I’m not an altruist, Gail. I can’t decide for others.”
This weird fusion of belief and behavior follows through to the book’s very end, which involves, lest we forget, a manically idealistic dynamiter being found “Innocent” by a jury. Most polemicists would stop with putting speeches in their characters’ mouths, but Rand’s conception of humans being driven by reason and ideals permeates the story’s very blood and marrow.

By traditional—objective?—literary standards, The Fountainhead is a failure: its characters are bold but ultimately dull, its plot bizarre, and its message delivered with all the subtlety of a boot stamping on a human face forever. Yet, my snarky post title notwithstanding, it’s unfair to consider it mere propaganda--that it bears some resemblances to the blandest Soviet pablum is a function of a circular political spectrum in which at a certain point the far left and far right begin to look alike. Nor is it pop fiction, which never aspires to be more than merely mediocre entertainment.

Instead it is a frantically ambitious product of its creator’s very idiosyncratic sensibility, the kind that thinks turning thought experiments into hundreds-of-pages-long plots on which to hang philosophical dialogues is the pinnacle of storytelling. As a result the book is, like a Tyler Perry movie, freakishly compelling and almost always interesting. The normal standards cease to apply. It’s beyond good and awful.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Beautiful and the Damned

If it hasn’t been made clear yet, Rand was an idealist of sorts, albeit an extreme one. She almost certainly had a personality disorder—clinical narcissism, and likely a strain of Asperger’s—that wired her brain such that she insisted her logic, and everyone else’s, be consistent and constant, to a pathological degree that leaves room for neither emotion nor accident. Thus what she considered an ideal is different from most; rather than a guideline or example to be striven for, if never fully achievable, she saw ideals as standards that must be adhered to without deviation.

Consider Christ, the most common model of moral guidance. Even if humanity could collectively agree on exactly what he stood for, we could never live in a world where every single person followed his example of ascetic, chaste, material poverty, (nor is it even certain we would want to). In any case, there is an implicit understanding when speaking of human behavior that one will always short of perfection, whatever that is (and Christ is above all a symbol of forgiveness).

 Rand likely would have called bullshit and said that any such caveat essentially betrays an ideal in advance and makes a mockery of ethics, which one could concede is true in an academic and totalitarian sense. This absolutist view of ethics and life is the keystone of her extremely idiosyncratic Objectivism, which is spelled out in explicit detail in the The Fountainhead’s infamous courtroom speech.

 Some context: the pathetic and now hopelessly declining Peter Keating comes to Howard Roark with the problem of designing affordable low-income housing. Roark comes up with a workable design and agrees to let Keating submit it as his own, with the stipulation that nothing is changed. When other architects eventually meddle with it and build it with numerous useless additions, Roark dynamites the structure and lets himself be caught at the scene. With echoes of Rand’s play Night of January 16th, Roark is put on trial not for the property destruction laws he’s broken, but for his society-defying individualism, which he spends seven-and-a-half pages justifying.

The thrust of Roark's speech, which has been touched on previously, is essentially a redefinition of egoism. Essentially, it says, the creative individual has always been responsible for advances in mankind, and has every step of the way been resisted:
Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures—because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer—because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that one paid for his courage.
Creative man is entirely self-sufficient and, whatever benefits to mankind his discoveries and inventions bestow, it is always for his own satisfaction that he works. Anyone who deviates from this standard and looks for satisfaction in others, whether by helping or exploiting them, is a “second-hander.” Invariably, unable to create anything for themselves, they drag the creative class down to their mediocrity, by way of, naturally, making stupid additions to architectural designs and the like. Thus the traditional understanding of egotism is, to coin a phrase, false consciousness:
The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander. This is the basic issue. It rests upon the alternative of life or death. The code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive. The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. 
The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner...
There’s a chimp’s feast of nits one could pick from a screed of such length. To take but one example, its mangling of Greek mythology: Prometheus was chained up and tormented by the gods for stealing their fire in order to help mankind. He was, in fact, the prototypical second-hander. There’s also the absurdity of any philosophy that considers “the beggar, the social worker, and the bandit” as well as dictators to be moral equals. But in fact the whole logical edifice can be demolished like a bad housing project by referring back to Rand’s fundamental absolutist misunderstanding of traditional, altruistic morality:
Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above himself…. 
Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then one must wish to see others suffer--in order that he may be virtuous.
Rand critically mistakes altruism, the consideration of others’ welfare over one’s own, as an imperative, an ironclad and all-consuming law, rather than a gentle corrective to man’s tendency toward self-enrichment which often comes at the expense of others. It’s the confusion, once again, of ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ Part of the altruistic ideal is the understanding that in the world as it is, there will always be suffering, vice, and folly, and so it is necessary to ameliorate it as best as possible. To accuse altruists of thinking there ought to be suffering, because it gives them a purpose, is like accusing doctors of enjoying the sickness of their patients. Roark's logic that “but for me the destitute could not have had this particular home,” suggests that a doctor would be justified in withdrawing a treatment at his own discretion, prior oaths and agreements be damned.

Rand’s misunderstanding comes into the sharpest relief when one examines an earlier and similarly long-winded speech by villain Ellsworth Toohey, delivered after Peter Keating has surrendered to him the written agreement he had made with Roark about the housing development, as well as what little remained of his dignity. In what amounts to a philosophical version of the scene in Men in Black when Vincent d’Onofrio rips off his skin to reveal a giant cockroach underneath, Toohey is shown to be not merely a gross liberal intellectual caricature, but a veritable secular Satan:
“...I said I intended to rule. Like all my spiritual predecessors. But I’m luckier than they were. I inherited the fruit of their efforts and I shall be the one who’ll see the great dream made real. I see it all around me today. I recognize it. I don’t like it. I didn’t expect to like it. Enjoyment is not my destiny. I shall find such satisfaction as my capacity permits. I shall rule.”  
“You. The world. It’s only a matter of discovering the lever. If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind....” 
It’s hard to describe the effect of five pages of this. The scene, such as it is, plays a similar narrative function as O’Brien’s breaking of Winston Smith in 1984. But Toohey is constructed as less a human being than a symbol, the exact, demonic opposite of Roark in every way, so his anti-creed recalls the inverted morality of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape, without the wit:
Here’s another [way to break a man’s soul]. Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You’ve destroyed architecture. Build up Lois Cook and you’ve destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you’ve destroyed the theater. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you’ve destroyed the press. Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed.
Toohey is constructed such that, with a little adjustment of pronouns, most of what he says could just as easily be uttered by one of Rand’s heroic individualists. The only difference is he thinks these things are good rather than evil:
Yet the test should be so simple: just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice—run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. The man intends to be the master....
....I want nothing for myself. I use people only for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose. I want power. I want my world of the future. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to salvery. A great circle—and a total equality. The world of the future.”
In her introduction to The Fountainhead Rand wrote that her “man-worship” should not be confused for the secular religions, like Communism and Fascism, that substituted God with “the people” or “the master race” or some other nebulous collective. Yet she has in fact done just that. The heroes and villains of her cosmology are just two ends of an hourglass that share the selfsame sand.

In actual philosophical differences in the world, the opposing sides can’t even agree on the terms of debate. This is the case with the hostility between Rand-inspired conservatives and liberals. The one side sees the other as celebrating misery, while the liberal perspective has the exact opposite issue. It’s not that Rand wants the suffering that results, if unintendedly, from her idealized selfishness, it’s that such accidents are categorically excluded from her worldview. One side considers circumstances in how people are shaped, and attempts to mitigate its effect. The other considers one’s fortunes to be entirely self-determined and accordingly views any attempts to make things easier as, if anything, part of the problem.

They’re fundamentally irreconcilable views, which is why the past three years in Congress have been such an arduous slog. As we’ll see next they're also, because this difference was so fundamental to Rand’s character, the reason The Fountainhead and Rand’s ouvre as a whole is so utterly alien to most other fiction.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Love Means 'No' Means 'Yes'

A female fan once asked Ayn Rand if the "wonderful" love scenes between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon were based on life experience. Rand's response would seem a rare instance of humor on her part: "Wishful thinking." It's a useful summary of her fiction more generally, "the world not as it is, but as it ought to be," but a look at just what these love scenes entail, however, reveals an ideal appalling, amusing, and at least a little pitiable.

Dominique Francon, columnist for the New York Banner and daughter of Peter Keating's boss, Guy Francon, is The Fountainhead's love interest and also its most baffling creation. Rand wrote the character as “myself on a bad day,” which is to say cold, spiteful, possessive, catty; when Dominique's editor tells her that he didn't think she was "just an irresponsible bitch," she replies, "You were wrong." Given that nearly everything she says to almost everyone is contemptuously insincere, this is, one supposes, supposed to be ironic, which--ironically?--is even bitchier.

She's supposed to be something of a cynic, a romantic so despondent of the world's underserving of the great and the beautiful, that she will destroy beauty--for its own sake.
“You know, I love statues of naked men. Don’t look so silly. I said statues. I had one in particular. It was supposed to be Helios. I got it out of a museum in Europe. I had a terrible time getting it—it wasn’t for sale, of course. I think I was in love with it, Alvah. I brought it home with me.”

“Where is it? I’d like to see something you like, for a change.”

“It’s broken.”

“Broken? A museum piece? How did that happen?”

“I broke it.”


“I threw it down the air shaft. There’s a concrete floor below.”

“Are you totally crazy? Why?”

“So that no one else would ever see it.”
This approach, obnoxiously contrarian and attention-hoarding, continues through her relationship with Roark, her highest ideal made manifest, so that their nearly every reaction is marked by hostility and violence.

It's love at first slight:
She stood very still, because her first perception was not of sight, but of touch: the consciousness, not of a visual presence, but of a slap in the face.

...She was thinking of those statues of men she had always sought; she was wondering what he would look like naked. She saw him looking at her as if he knew that. She thought she had found an aim in life--a sudden, sweeping hatred for that man.
The extension of contempt and hatred beyond one's inferiors to encompass one's mate is consummated in the infamous “rape scene,” in which Roark lets himself into Dominique's bedroom, and has his way with her. There's rough material to follow in the rest of the pose, so sensitive readers should consider this a TRIGGER WARNING:
She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast. She tore herself free...
...It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted....
There was some outcry about this scene when The Fountainhead was first published, that the novel's hero is basically raping a woman. Rand disputed this, saying that “if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Dominique wanted it.

This is true so far as it goes. Dominique and Roark are generally oblivious and aloof to other people, while their attraction to each other is studded with words like “contempt” and “cruelty.” The rape is preceded by a scene in which Dominique, on horseback, whips Roark across the face with a tree branch in response to an insolent remark. Their subsequent relationship is a succession of sexual encounters between which Dominique does everything in her professional powers to destroy Roark, which she does for the same reason she destroys Greek statues and marries human waste like Peter Keating: because the only right response to a world that corrupts and squanders greatness is deliberate, sado-masochistic destruction.

Thus aggression is not incidental to Rand's view of sex, but rather necessary and intrinsic:
When they lay in bed together it was--as it had to be, as the nature of the act demanded--an act of violence. It was surrender, made the more complete by the force of their resistance. It was an act of tension, as the great things on earth are things of tension....It was an act of clenched teeth and hatred, it was the unendurable, the agony, an act of passion--the word born to mean suffering--it was the moment made of hatred, tension, pain--the moment that broke its own elements, inverted them, triumphed, swept into a denial of all suffering, into its antithesis, into ecstasy.
The most charitable reading of this possible--and since I am not a Randian, I will be charitable--is that love, like any other act of will, can be glorious and triumphant only by conquering the most ferocious struggle and resistance ("passion--that word born to mean suffering"). As put towards the end of the novel, when Dominique finally and fully submits herself to Roark, "she could not have reached this white serenity except as the sum of all the colors, of all the violence she had known." In the meantime, the hatefuck is a consummation of Roark and Dominique's negging each other on.

So it’s a rape, Dominique even calls it that, but it's still not rape rape, which makes it a lot worse, because this is supposed to be an idealized love, where "man was the life force and woman could respond to nothing else."

This notion of sex as conquest, the inferiority of women--Rand thought the idea of a woman president was an absurdity--it all would be incredibly off-putting, offensive, and so forth, and it is, but Rand's commitment to the juxtaposition of affection and affliction, much like her ideas more generally, is so complete and over-the-top that after a time it stops being offensive and starts provoking giggles:
She came in and found a copy of the Banner spread out on his table, open at the page bearing “Your House” by Dominique Francon. Her column contained the line: “Howard Roark is the Marquis de Sade of architecture. He’s in love with his buildings--and look at them.” She knew that he disliked the Banner, that he put it there only for her sake, that he watched her noticing it, with the half-smile she dreaded on his face. She was angry; she wanted him to read everything she wrote, yet she would have preferred to think it hurt him enough to make him avoid it. Later, lying across the bed, with his mouth on her breast, she looked past the orange tangle of his head, at that sheet of newspaper on the table, and he felt her trembling with pleasure.
A reader would be hard-pressed to imagine a woman looking at a bloody newspaper and getting a rush by how much it pisses off the man currently suckling her dug without, pardon the phrase, getting all atitter.

More than anything, however, Rand's ideas on love become rather sad, when seen in the light of her own love life. Short, somewhat frumpy, and with "a stare that could wilt a cactus," she was not a sculpted beauty, unlike the characters of her fiction. Her first girlhood crushes were on, typically, impossible heroic figures: a French adventure serial hero, Cyrus, and--I'm not making this up--Enjolras, the leader of the Paris student rebellion in Les Miserables. Her first real love was a fellow St. Petersburg student, Lev Bekkerman, who pointedly ignored and avoided her after a few dates.

Her husband Frank O'Connor looked the part of hero, but he was overwhelmed by Rand's domineering personality and his acting career had, by the time of The Fountainhead's creation, petered out completely. Though she depended on him as an emotional outlet, the tension in their pairing created a friction that doubtless contributed to her eventual seduction of an acolyte twenty-five years her junior. Her ideal of love as vicious struggle, like much else in her worldview, may well have been a conflation of 'is' and 'ought' born of a lifetime of disappointment. "Wishful thinking," indeed.