Having seen the trailer for the Atlas Shrugged film, I immediately lost interest in watching the thing. This is not, alas, due to the fact that I have, after twenty years, finally shaken off the (Rearden-metal-wrought) chains of fascination. Although I have. But still, I was prepared to wallow for one last time in the illicit charms of passionate scenes atop slag heaps or in railway tunnels, with tall gaunt industrialists or tall gaunt inventors or tall gaunt Latin Lovers (too bad Dagny missed out on the Philosophical Pirate – you can’t have every man, even if you do happen to be Madame Uebermensch). Oh, and the explosions. Rand likes explosions, apparently, as a literary device, and since I am hopelessly juvenile I might have enjoyed them on screen.
The thing is, this movie looks incredibly dull. A few years back there were rumors that Angelina Jolie was working on this project, and would be playing Dagny (not the best casting choice, since Dagny is supposed to look austere and not in-your-face sultry, but still, it might have been amusing). This is a cast of actors I have never heard of, all of whom look like business people. It appears to be a film about business people. Suddenly it dawns on me that actually, that IS what the damned novel is about. How tedious.
Demythologized, stripped of its romantic trappings, Objectivism suddenly reveals itself as idolizing the sort of people who are just begging to be kicked in the arse – the people who always wear suits and go to committee meetings and live to make a buck and think that because they are rich they have a right to bed anyone, anywhere, anytime – the people who never laugh, who never read novels, who never have mud fights, who never tell amusing stories about embarrassing things that happened to them, who never wake up naked with a hangover between two total strangers in a seedy hotel in Mexico, who never want to battle all the evils of the world, who never have children, who never have existential crises, who never search for God.
Let’s not forget the fact that Rand has recently become popular. She’s become an icon for people who join groups, who wave signs in groups, who protest in groups. When I read The Fountainhead back in 1990 (my mother gave it to me with some hesitation, I believe saying something to the effect that “I think you are ready to read this.” Ha) one of the things that thrilled me to my teenage core was Howard Roark’s non-joining-ness.
I think her novels appeal to a lot of young folks for this reason – we are just dying to make a stand for individualism, but fetching about desperately for something to feel individualistic about. And then along comes Rand, suggesting “feel individualistic about feeling individualistic.” Easy as pie! No longer does one have to discover a set of coherent principles, or search for the Meaning of Life, or find the Ultimate Truth…but one can ACT as though one has. If one stand straight and scornful, and looks impassive enough, people may just think that you are on to something.
(Actually, people will just think that you are a royal bitch).
Anyway, back then, it seemed, almost no one read Ayn Rand. I’d recently given up on Socialism because I thought it was boring (actually, I knew nothing about it – but I had dipped into the Communist Manifesto and found it sadly lacking in SA and explosiveness; I guess I’d expected fevered rhetoric suggestive of brawny mustachioed revolutionaries waving rifles and leading charges….you see where this is going?). Also, being a Commie was sort of hip. I wanted to be, not hip, but unique.
Rand offered something to feel individualistic about (myself!) and also a lot of sex and a touch of violence. I was hooked.
The spectacle of a mildly pretentious and endearingly confused, and neither tall nor gaunt, teenager transformed into an insufferable snot after a dip into Rand’s world is not, it seems, unusual. The columnist Florence King (she writes for National Review, but I still sort of love her) wrote, in her memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, a description of this unfortunate phenomenon:
“I stopped walking and started striding, taking care to turn my flat feet inward so I would look like an egoist instead of a duck. I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, causing myself a number of collisions and falls. I forced my jaw into a rational clamp, which broke the rubber bands on my braces and made me dribble down my front. In the name of individualism I quit Le Cercle Français. I longed to quit organizations right and left, but unfortunately, French Club was the only one I had ever joined. I gave some thought to ending my friendships, but having only two, it did not seem worthwhile. The architect who had designed Central was dead, so I could not help him blow up the school, and there was no way to locate the mad bomber, who in any case was probably not an idealist in the Howard Roark mold…”
When I read this description I immediately thought: “thank God, I wasn’t the only one!”
I was under the mistaken impression that the elegant boniness of Dominique Francon and Dagny Taggart could be achieved simply be spending a lot of time standing atop cliffs, or haylofts, or manure piles (anything sort of high up will do), gazing off into the distance looking intense (Rand’s characters never exercise. Nor do they shop for clothes. But miraculously their clothes always fit them beautifully). I was on the lookout for the requisite tall gaunt arrogant man to duly ravish me, preferably in an old mine or something. A measure of how brainwashed I was: the word “arrogant” was, to my ears, clearly complimentary.
The one thing that was going for me was that I had access to a lot of horses, so I could gallop fiercely over the fields, like Dominique right before she meets Howard Roark (disguised as a dirty granite worker) and he undresses her with a glance, but I never saw any coal miners or construction workers or lurking about who quite fit the bill.
Fortunately I got a couple of philosophy degrees, eventually – so I couldn’t take Objectivism seriously anymore, not in contrast with Plato and Descartes and Kant and Scheler. But I still cherished a lurking fascination. Maybe it’s partially that fatal nostalgia for anything that fueled one’s youthful fires.
Or it could be that Objectivism gives one a moral justification to be selfish, pig-headed, and grasping.
Or it could be the men. I never did like sappy men. And I have always found slag-heaps and disaster scenes and mud and mire more romantic than roses and candlelight. But in reality, Rand’s men would be no fun at all to hang out with. They hardly ever drink, for one thing.
Or it could be that there is actually one worthwhile, and that is that one ought not back down, ought not be ashamed of one’s own splendor. There is a breed of false religion and false humility which is – as Nietzsche pointed out far more effectively than Rand – at depth wholly nihilistic. “I am nothing, I deserve nothing.” I was and still am appalled at Lillian Rearden’s idea that one should love the other NOT for any value in the other, but simply…out of a sense of duty.
The problem is, for Rand, only a few people have value…the industrialists, etc. Being an Objectivist means celebrating not only one’s individual intrinsic value, but one’s innate superiority to pretty much everyone else.
I remember being told “God loves you,” and thinking “well, yeah, big deal, he loves everyone.” It’s funny how long it took for me to realize that Rand’s philosophy is totally incompatible with Christianity. What I don’t get is how so many Christians, who couldn’t possibly advocate the”fun stuff” in Rand’s novels, are still touting her – since all you’re left with, once you’ve G-rated it, is a right-wing variety of materialism…snore.
As the years have passed, I’m not sure I’ve gotten wiser, really – but I at least have my moral fabric more neatly ironed out. I know, for instance, that making money isn’t everything, and that not everyone who has made a heap necessarily deserves it. I know that while self-respect is good, selfishness is not. I also know that while one is free to find any of the known proofs for the existence of God inadequate, you can’t prove a negative – atheism like Rand’s is a personal choice, not a rationalist inevitability. And unlike Rand’s characters, I was blessed enough to make a series of outrageous mistakes throughout my life, so I know also that I am not infallible.
I know a few other practical things, too, that discredit Rand’s vision. For instance:
1) Modern architecture is for the most part nothing to get all dewy-eyed about. Some of it is pretty awesome, but I have a feeling that Roark’s swoon-inducing buildings looked more like Mies van der Rohe:
Than like Gaudi:
2) A woman who is always having (apparently) unprotected sex with sundry gaunt industrialists is eventually going to get either an STD, or pregnant, or both.
3) If you make a speech of one hundred pages in length, the common people will not, afterwards, erupt in feverish applause, shouting “save us, save us!” They will have either left, or gone to sleep, or shot you. And the ones listening via radio will have simply shut it off after about three minutes.
4) There is no scheming nihilistic mastermind trying to destroy the human race by attacking the supermen. We are quite adequate to try to destroy ourselves, especially by means of hysterical ideologies and selfish greed.
5) Neither industrialists nor financiers are usually, necessarily, sexy. Or lean. Or smart. Or interesting (to me. I suppose God loves them. He has to…he loves everyone).
6) The people who collect welfare or need medicaid are not necessarily leeches.
7) If you want to make a point about the purity of (quasi)rationalism, romanticizing (quasi)rationalism is hardly the proper way to go about it.
The fact is, though, Rand’s new-sprung popularity would probably be enough to disenchant me, if I hadn’t already seen the light. I’m still a libertarian, but I suppose you could call me a bleeding heart libertarian – I’m more interested in the inviolacy of personal privacy than in the inviolacy of money-making. But that’s a whole different topic.
Anyway, I’ve broken up with John Galt. My husband (who, incidentally, was a granite worker at the time we got engaged) would not really approve of our shenanigans. Plus, I really would prefer to have something, still, to be individualistic about.