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.

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