Sunday, May 1, 2011

"A tragic shortage of selfishness"

David Bentley Hart is less than pleased that Atlas Shrugged has appeared on the screen: "I suppose I should have seen it coming. It’s the fashion of the moment. Ayn Rand and her idiotic “Objectivism” are enjoying a—well, I won’t call it a renaissance, so let’s say a recrudescence." He disagrees with Rand's "philosophy" ["For instance, I like the Sermon on the Mount. She regarded its prescriptions as among the vilest ever uttered. I suspect that charity really is the only way to avoid wasting one’s life in a desert of sterile egoism. She regarded Christian morality as a poison that had polluted the will of Western man with its ethos of parasitism and orgiastic self-oblation. And, simply said, I cannot find much common ground with someone who believed that the principal source of human woe over the last twenty centuries has been a tragic shortage of selfishness"], but at least as much he finds her aesthetic lacking ["I know one shouldn’t expect much from a writer who thought Mickey Spillane a greater artist than Shakespeare"].

Before Atlas Shrugged was The Fountainhead and it, too, was filmed — a major studio film with well-known actors. From Hart's "The Trouble with Ayn Rand":
.... Remember, the chief reason that The Fountainhead is among the most hilariously bad films ever made is that it is so slavishly faithful to the novel and to Rand’s screenplay. .... For most of the movie, the three leads—Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey—seem to be trying to outdo one another in emotional and facial paralysis. Of course, Cooper never could act; but it is positively painful to watch Neal and Massey struggling to achieve some semblance of dramatic plausibility.

The film’s defining moment for me is probably the first meeting between Dominique Francon (Neal) and Howard Roark (Cooper) at the gala opening of a house the latter has designed. “I admire your work, more than anything I’ve ever seen,” Dominique announces without wasting any words on small talk about the weather or the hors d’oeuvres. “You may realize that this is not a tie, but a gulf, between us. . . . I wish I had never seen your building. It’s the things we admire or want that enslave us, and I’m not easy to bring into submission.” (The flirtatious little gamine.) Really, one has to see the scene to appreciate quite how awful it is.

But, then again, there’s also the conversation between the same two characters later that night: “They hate you for the greatness of your achievement,” Dominique tells Roark in a tone that oddly seems to combine erotic agitation with profound catatonia. “They hate you for your integrity. They hate you because they know they can neither corrupt nor ruin you.” (Bloody they—I never could stand those swine.) By the way, in the context of the film this is actually a kind of foreplay. The whole time she’s speaking, Dominique is gazing at Roark longingly, with an inviting come-hither-and-rape-me look in her eyes (which is just what the gallant Roark does a little later on).

Who can say what the most ridiculous moment really is, though? There’s hardly a scene without a rich vein of unintentional comedy. Perhaps it’s Roark’s demented address to the jury at his trial: “The creator stands on his own judgment. The parasite follows the opinions of others. The creator thinks. The parasite copies. The creator produces. The parasite loots. The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.” And so on.

There, of course, one has the essential oafishness of Rand’s view of reality. For her, the world really was starkly divided between creators and parasites, and the vast majority of humanity belonged to the ranks of the latter. “I came here to say I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life,” Roark continues, “nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine.” .... [more]
"The Trouble with Ayn Rand"