The Road to Salvation?

 

 

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

There was word this summer [2006] of yet another attempt to bring Atlas Shrugged (1957), the monumental novel by controversial writer–philosopher Ayn Rand (1905–82) to the big screen. This time, hopes to realize the project seem to be centered on the casting of Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart, the railroad executive heroine of the novel.

Skeptics can be excused for holding their breath. James V. Hart, who had written a screenplay for the first part of a projected trilogy, ą la The Lord of the Rings, has already been replaced by Randall Wallace, and the trilogy plan may have been gone by the wayside. Perhaps Hart was no loss; he had scripted turkeys like Hook and Contact. Wallace can claim credit for Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, but most of his films are forgettable – including the clunky Pearl Harbor.

As of Thanksgiving, months after the announcement of the Jolie casting, there still wasn’t a director on board, or any other stars – despite rumors last year that Brad Pitt might play opposite his main squeeze as John Galt, the savior of the world and Dagny, whom he has worshipped from afar without her ever knowing, even as she has had dalliances with two other heroes.

Now Jolie claims to be an admirer of Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy is one of unremitting rationalism, individualism and capitalism. Yet as far as I can tell, Jolie is a typical Hollywood liberal, trotting around the world in support of the usual causes. How does she reconcile this? I don’t know. But even Hillary Clinton has claimed Rand as an influence. I can only conclude that Hollywood celebrities and political celebrities alike are softer-headed than ever.

If I were an Objectivist, I don’t think I’d be jumping for joy over the latest Atlas Shrugged deal. But there have been attempts to bring Rand’s magnum opus to the big screen or even the small screen for decades now, and nothing has ever come of them. So maybe I wouldn’t be worried about what sort of travesty Jolie and company might make of the novel – if I were an Objectivist.

Since I’m not, I can watch the story of an Atlas Shrugged movie unfold with relative detachment. And yet I don’t feel exactly detached from Rand herself. She has had a profound influence on me – just not the kind she would have wanted to. That takes some explaining. But first, a short history of the background.

For those of you who have been living in Tibet for the last six decades, Rand was one of the most admired and most reviled authors of modern times. She was both loved and hated for her creed of rational egoism, the basis of The Fountainhead (1943) as well as Atlas Shrugged), which was later elaborated in non–fiction books like Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

What set her most obviously apart from conventional conservatives was that she was a fervent atheist; her only religion, if one can call it that, was a worship of the heroic in man, as exemplified in the romantic school of literature and art that had inspired her since childhood.

Conventional liberals and conservatives alike loathed her. One of the latter, ex–Communist Whittaker Chambers, famously savaged Atlas Shrugged in the National Review, then as now a mouthpiece of the Religious Right. Few intellectuals took Rand seriously as either a philosopher or a novelist, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that her novels sold in the millions. Her own disdain for those same intellectuals was as great or greater.

Because Rand was a prophet, passionately devoted to her gospel of egoism, capitalism and romanticism, it was inevitable that she would create a movement – notwithstanding her insistence that the joy of creating her heroes and their stories was the only goal of her writing. And she found a disciple in Nathaniel Branden, a young fan who had been turned on by The Fountainhead, the story of an uncompromising architect that had put Rand’s name on the map and been adapted for the screen. Branden was present at the creation of Atlas Shrugged, the epic story of.... Well, Lisa Binkley gave an excellent summary of the novel and its message in a review at SFReader.com:

 

The story is set in the past few decades of an alternate history. The major characters are wealthy industrialists who succeed by dint of their own worth. The world has become a crumbling morass of People’s Nations and the United States has stumbled onto the same path to destruction. The premise of these leeches is that it isn’t fair for the talented and capable to succeed while the mediocre and inept fail. Therefore the successful must be immoral in their methods and it is the government’s responsibility to control the profits these movers and shakers can reap by redistributing the wealth by coercion, threat, and force. The ‘people’s movement’ by sheer weight of numbers forced the productive elements – successful businesses, creative and innovative companies, reliable suppliers and manufacturers – to provide greater and greater sacrifices (such as levies, taxes, and forced hiring of useless and unneeded workers) to support others for ‘the good of the people’ until the whole house of cards came tumbling down when the ‘minds’ went on strike and left the ‘bodies’ to fend for themselves.

The scary thing is how easy I found the parallel between the author’s world and our own. Do we not do this very thing? Will not the result mirror her conclusions? Are we not creating a society in which our wishes are tantamount and our responsibilities forgotten? When we excuse antisocial behavior because of a ‘bad home life’ or poverty, aren’t we setting the stage for further corruption? Haven’t we begun a campaign of penalizing success and rewarding mediocrity? If you disagree visit a public school. So much of the curriculum is geared to the slowest and has no allowances for the bright to excel because that sort of competition might hurt someone’s feelings. We are teaching our children that wanting to do well should be the same as actually doing a good job. How can we expect people to achieve, to rise and innovate, to strive to create new technologies and processes, if we then castigate and malign their efforts and let the profit of the power of the mind be looted by those who merely want but are not willing or able to achieve? Although we are, or should be, considered equal in the eyes of justice, we are far from equal in abilities, intelligence, and talent. (Yes, Mom, the world needs ditch–diggers too, but I, for one, don’t want one doing my heart surgery.)

I am me and will strive to continually test my innate boundaries and redefine that of which I am capable – but not by infringing on the boundaries of others. My rights end where his begin – and vice–versa. I’d like to be rich but I never will be. I do not blame the wealthy, gifted, or successful for my failure. I simply don’t have the talent, determination, and will power to be a Bill Gates or an Anne Rice or a Tiger Woods. I do know our world will be a poorer one if the stars are tarnished and prevented from shining – depriving those rare few, born capable of greatness, of an example to follow a similar but very personal road to Olympus.

I cannot be an Olympian but, please, let us allow them to exist. I fear for our own existence if they do not.

 

As anyone who has read it knows, Atlas Shrugged is full of high drama and suspense. The plot centers on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to keep her family’s transcontinental railroad going in face of a growing breakdown in the economy, aggravated by bureaucratic edicts. Behind the surface events is the mystery of why the country’s best minds are disappearing. Dagny Taggart, who has been searching for an imagined Destroyer of America, is the last to learn about the Strike of the Mind before Galt takes to the airwaves to pronounce the epitaph of a dying civilization

As anyone who has read the novel also knows, it is full of very long speeches by the heroes – Galt’s climactic manifesto runs 30,000 words-plus, and even the sex scenes turn into seemingly interminable talk. Apart from the heroes, most of the major characters constitute a rogue’s gallery of statist-altruist nasties who all talk alike and convict themselves out of their own mouths like Chinese opera villains. Still, Rand plays fair with a number of ordinary supporting characters.

With Rand’s blessing, Branden founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute to spread her philosophy, now called Objectivism. There was an Objectivist Newsletter and later a journal called The Objectivist – essays from which were collected in sundry polemical books. Rand and others taught courses and held seminars. Objectivist study groups sprang up around the country, and Rand was a popular speaker at the Ford Hall Forum and even at some colleges.

Then came the Break of 1968. Rand excommunicated Branden, accusing him of moral betrayal. What had actually happened was that she and Branden had had an affair back in the 1950’s, which she had broken off because she was in a fit of depression. When she wanted to resume it, Branden balked – by this time, he had taken up with a younger woman, but he was afraid to admit it, so he kept putting Rand off with vague excuses. When she finally found out the truth – well, Hell hath no fury like....

As far as the world had known, Rand was happily married to the man she had met in Hollywood decades earlier – Frank O’Connor, an actor and later a promising painter. Branden himself was married to Barbara Weidman, a fellow Fountainhead fan, in a match encouraged by Rand.

There are conflicting accounts of how Frank and Barbara viewed the affair; in The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), Barbara Branden relates that both were angered by but later resigned to it. An angry rejoinder, James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (2006) insists that Barbara’s book is a tissue of lies, and argues that Frank, at least, must have been tickled pink that Rand could attract a younger man.

Whatever the truth about the affair, the events of 1968 fractured the Objectivist movement. There were further purges and defections in what was left of Rand’s inner circle. Leonard Peikoff, who had replaced Nathaniel Branden as her literary and intellectual heir, eventually founded the Ayn Rand Institute as the official voice of Objectivism. But when David Kelley, a rising star at the ARI, was purged by Peikoff for alleged deviationism, he founded a rival group called The Objectivist Center, which took in the Brandens. There is about as much love lost between the two camps as between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy in their celebrated feud.

Both groups have seen their versions of Rand brought to the screen–in the TV movie version of The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999) and the ARI–approved documentary Ayn Rand: a Sense of Life (1997). Yet amid all the acrimony, Rand’s books still sell. And even though she disowned it, she has inspired a libertarian movement that embraces some if not all of her ideas, and is striving to offer an outside–the–box alternative to the religious right and the paternalistic left.

Never having been a member of either Objectivist camp, let alone an insider, I can only state that I find the feud regrettable, and believe that Rand and Branden share the blame. Whether or not their spouses approved or acquiesced, their affair was a stupid idea. Common sense should have told them that it was at best an infatuation between a dowdy middle–aged woman looking for sexual adventure and a young man smitten with heroine worship who could ignore the age difference for a while – but only for a while. Common sense should have told them nothing good would come of it, and in fact nothing did.

It certainly crystallized my decision not to become an Objectivist. But then, I had and still have any number of other objections to what strike me as wrongheaded, simple-minded, dogmatic, irrational and even evil pronouncements by Rand herself and those who speak in the name of her movement, even though I can agree with them on basic premises and general principles.

I first heard about Ayn Rand in 1963, when my mother passed on a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and my initial reaction was very negative. I’d grown up in a liberal household – Cold War liberals, the kind Ann Coulter and her ilk pretend never existed. I hated Joseph McCarthy but hated the Communists, too. I didn’t think much of Big Business, although that wasn’t a major issue for me: the major issue was that conservatives didn’t seem to care about anything but keeping right-wing dictators in power abroad, and women and minorities in their place at home – while railing about absurd conspiracies like fluoridated water.

One odd thing had also ticked me off back then, although it had nothing to do with Rand: Barry Goldwater proclaiming that fraternities were the only thing that kept Communists from taking over all the colleges. I was a GDI (God-Damned Independent) at my university, a member of the central committee of an Independent-led party that overturned a Greek political machine. It amused me to reprint an account in my house paper about a Russian exchange student who stayed in a frat house at the University of Kansas and found a collective existence just like he’d been used to in the Soviet Union.

The climate at my university was generally conservative – the student government there once withdrew from the National Students Association because it was supposedly a Communist front (It later turned out to be a CIA front!). Because I was a GDI rabble rouser, I was once approached by a guy I think must have been trying to recruit me for the Communist Party, but I gave him the bum’s rush. I also remember baiting some Polish press attaché who was visiting the School of Journalism. He kept calling me a “crusader,” which as you all know is now an epithet of the Jihadists rather than the Communists.

It was after barely graduating, because I spent so much time on campus politics and amateur journalism, that I got involved in science fiction fandom, which was then being rocked by a controversy over something called the New Wave – mostly a tired retread of the kind of “experimental” writing that had been done to death in the mainstream for decades.

By that time, I was more sympathetic to Rand, having read her other novels and Who Is Ayn Rand? – an accolade by the Brandens that, naturally, is no longer in print. I still had serious reservations, but one thing I latched onto was her literary theory. I had also come across Colin Wilson, who complained about the dreariness of modern literature in books like The Strength to Dream. I actually met him out on Long Island in 1967, when he was visiting the U.S., and have a signed copy of his sf novel The Mind Parasites from that encounter. He admired Rand as a writer, but couldn’t stand her politics – and when he tried to make that clear to her, he was told off by Nathaniel Branden. This was before the Break, of course.

Anyway, I wrote a polemical position paper on sf and the New Wave cribbing freely from Rand and Wilson in a manner that I suspect neither of them would have particularly appreciated, and even started a fanzine that proclaimed itself as the voice of a movement defending sf against the New Wave. The “movement” was mostly imaginary but gave the New Wave partisans conniption fits – as if they thought I was some all-powerful nemesis who could put them out of business. 

I had a delusion that the Objectivists might come on board, and sent examples of romantic sf to the NBI – even stopped by there once or twice to buy their books. As it turned out, they didn’t have the slightest interest in science fiction – Rand herself, I learned much later, thought that most of it was “junk,” and that was apparently enough for her followers. Nothing came of my misbegotten missionary efforts. Indeed, the only Objectivist sf fan I ever ran into was a booster of Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, about which and other matters he wrote in a slavish imitation of Rand’s polemical style. Spinrad was a writer I loathed, and whose novel I had ridiculed in a review of my own.

The only time I ever saw Rand in person was during an infamous debate between Nathaniel Branden and Albert Ellis over their psychological theories (I’d gotten onto the NBI mailing list, and thus received a flyer for it.). I can’t say that I was impressed by anything that happened there; the debate turned ugly, with Rand herself shouting imprecations from the floor after Ellis had sneered at her novels. And then came the Break, which turned me off completely. I’d read enough about H.G. Wells and other prophets to know this had to be a personal rather than a philosophical matter, even if it was only years later that I found out about the affair.

But through sf fandom, I’d begun making the acquaintance of libertarian fans, who seemed to me considerably more level-headed than the orthodox Objectivists. I came to share their views in general. My fanzine was combined with one of theirs for a while, before both faded away – from the press of Real Life, among other things. I didn’t have much contact with most of them after they moved to the other end of the country. I did keep up with Reason magazine, then as now the voice of libertarian thought, and even contributed a column on sf for a few issues. By that time, I was also working on a history of science fiction.

Although I had come to define myself as a sort of revisionist Wellsian cum pluralistic libertarian, I wasn’t active in anything political – my focus was on literary theory. The only “serious” criticism of science fiction at that time came from the Marxists, post–modernists and the like, who jammed the square peg of the genre into the round holes of their theories.

I had some theories of my own about biological and dialectical analogies to literary evolution that seemed particularly appropriate to sf as a play of ideas as well as an exercise in storytelling. I was thinking about fundamentals in a new way, and while I drew in part on Rand’s ideas about literature, my other models ranged from genre historians Mark Hillegas and I.F. Clarke to C.S. Lewis and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Yet their ideas were simply the foundation stones; the edifice was my own.

I still have mixed feelings about Rand and Objectivism. Rand’s epistemology makes sense to me; in fact, her theory of concepts is so common sensical that I’m surprised she didn’t simply call them “generalizations,” and that she made such a fuss about “metaphysics” – a term that has become so abused lately that most take it to mean New Age mysticism, as witness the Metaphysical Studies sections in book stores. I can agree with Rand in general on issues of the primacy of reason and the values of individualism, capitalism and romanticism – but I part company with her and her followers on any number of specific issues.

To cite just one instance, Rand considered environmentalism to be motivated entirely by hatred of capitalism, and partisans of both the ARI and TOC take the same line today. Now there are plenty of environmentalists who indeed hate capitalism, but there are also others that are willing to work with business to solve environmental problems. The Marine Stewardship Council, for example, advises the fishing industry on sustainable resource management, and certifies suppliers and retailers of seafood sourced from properly managed fisheries. Environmental Defense has also worked with business on similar issues. But even in Rand’s time, Greenpeace was as tough on Soviet overfishing as on any capitalist enterprises, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko campaigned against pollution of Lake Baikal by a Soviet paper mill.

Anyone who has ever read Rand’s fiction or non–fiction is familiar with her polemical tone – a tone often so belligerent as to alienate those who might otherwise be open to her arguments. That would be regrettable enough, but in many of her public pronouncements she was off–the–mark, wrongheaded, and even vicious. James Valliant would have it that all the negative reactions to Rand and Objectivism can be laid at the door of the Brandens, but the fact of the matter is that Rand could be her own worst enemy. This was evident in her notorious argument that a woman should never be president because she wouldn’t have a man to look up to, but it is even more apparent in a collection of her off-the-cuff remarks called Ayn Rand Answers (2005).

It’s hard to believe that Rand had listened to much of Beethoven when she declared that his “message is malevolent universe.”  (What, even the Ode to Joy?)  But there is worse: although she was sympathetic to African Americans, she thought American Indians were nothing but savages who got exactly what they deserved from white men. She argued that in a just war with a totalitarian country, “I hope that the ‘innocent’ are destroyed with the guilty” because they somehow bear responsibility for the acts of their oppressors. I can only contrast her attitude with that of Kurd Lasswitz in Two Planets (1897), in which Mars conquers Earth. Lasswitz was a Kantian, and Rand hated Kant, but that’s irrelevant here. What is relevant is that Lasswitz’ Martians were utopian by his own lights – far advanced over Earth in its civilization and, yes, its respect for human rights. But the whole point of the novel was that their superior civilization still didn’t give them the right to conquer and oppress their “inferiors,” and that they were inevitably corrupted by violating their principles – just as Rand corrupted her own principles by arguing, in effect, for collective guilt and collective retribution.

To be fair, Rand could be far more benevolent and broad-minded than such extracts make her appear. In a letter to Dashiell Hammett, who was trying to hit her up for some left-wing cause, she wrote that The Maltese Falcon was one of her favorite mysteries – notwithstanding that Hammett was a Communist. She had a good working relationship with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, hardly a disciple, in the first attempt to translate Atlas Shrugged to film, and got along famously with naturalist writers like Sinclair Lewis and John O’Hara. She could show extraordinary insight into such matters as the true worth of Alex Haley’s Roots, in offering African-Americans a new mythology to replace the history that had been torn from them. She could also be very witty, as when she pronounced free verse even worse than a free lunch.

At her best, Rand could be a close friend and mentor; such was the case with Erika Holzer, author of the Cold War thriller Double Crossing (1983) and the urban crime nightmare Eye for an Eye (1993), who paid tribute to her in Ayn Rand: My Fiction Writing Teacher (2005). Holzer is still in awe of Rand, and her gratitude knows no bounds. And yet, like a number of others who were once part of Rand’s inner circle, she was later purged over some sort of personal difference – save that Rand was still cordial to her and her husband, “even telling us that, unlike everyone else she had ‘excommunicated,’ her ‘door was always open to us . . . ‘ [For various personal reasons, my husband and I chose not to re-enter that door.].” Rand’s relationship with Holzer may exemplify both her virtues and her faults.

Now, the point has to be made that the validity of ideas doesn’t depend on the personal characters of those who express them. Ayn Rand could, like Catherine the Great, have had a whole string of lovers, but that wouldn’t have made her a bad writer or a bad thinker. Neither would temper tantrums ten times worse than those she was actually known for. She had some great ideas; and she may even have produced a great philosophy. But the devil is in the details, and Rand’s knowledge in a number of areas was vague and superficial. “Check your premises” was her watchword in Atlas Shrugged, but too often she failed to check her inferences, leading her to make judgments that were oversimplified – sort of an Occam’s Buzzsaw approach – or plain wrong. The same can be said of some of her disciples.

For example: having grown up with science, I’m extremely irritated by attacks on modern physics by some Objectivist spokesmen like David Harriman. Harriman seems to think that relativity and quantum theory all came out of the corrupt philosophies of Kant and Ernst Mach, whereas in fact they came out of observation and measurement as in the Michelson–Morley Experiment and the Double Slit experiment. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics have been proven again and again experimentally, and the latter in practical applications as familiar as transistors.

True, quantum theory has been hijacked by the New Agers, but real physicists like Victor J. Stenger have denounced that sort of thing. And even in cases where physicists themselves have gone overboard by making dubious claims about the philosophical significance of their work, that doesn’t invalidate their scientific ideas – which must be and are grounded in the self-correcting scientific method. Harriman might as well denounce Kepler’s laws of planetary motion on the ground that Kepler believed in astrology, or Mendelian genetics because Mendel was a Catholic monk. (I should add that Harriman seems to have realized lately that he was skating on thin ice, and withdrawn his support for an alternative to quantum theory that seemed tailor-made for Objectivists – eliminating wave-particle duality and uncertainty – and had won widespread acceptance from them, but which simply didn’t stand up to objective scrutiny.). In any case, the existence of quantum uncertainty on the microcosmic level is no more a challenge to reason or an orderly universe than irrational numbers or the purely statistical half-lives of radioactive elements.

While I generally agree with Rand and the Objectivists on the fundamental nature of romanticism versus naturalism, I think C.S. Lewis is more on point about the true purpose of literature in An Experiment in Criticism. What Lewis says about the literary experience as being as momentous as love or religion, of scenes and characters remaining vivid in our minds and becoming part of our private iconographies, and the illumination that comes of sharing another’s imagination in a manner that "heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individualty," relates to my own experience as a reader, and I believe that theories have to grow out of actual experience rather than floating abstractions. And while I can enjoy much of Rand’s writing, there are any number of writers I enjoy more (in science fiction, these include C.J. Cherryh, Cordwainer Smith and others). That alone would be enough to put me beyond the Objectivist pale, I’m sure.

Too many Objectivists seem to have little interest in literature, music or art beyond what Rand herself wrote or admired. They’ll read Victor Hugo, watch Rostand’s Cyrano de  Bergerac, and listen to Rachmaninoff, and stop. As it happens, I too enjoy Hugo, Rostand and Rachmaninoff. But I also enjoy Conrad, Shaw, Villa Lobos – and many more. I don’t accept Rand’s view that contemporary literature, music and art are all debased. I certainly don’t think that of novelists like Joyce Carol Oates, or composers like Angelo Badalamenti, to give two examples. I own an abstract painting by a local artist nobody ever heard of (It’s used to illustrate the destruction of Domyr in “Throne of the Gods.”). I’m not a big fan of abstract art in general, but when I saw that painting I knew I had to buy it. Art is something very personal to me. To paraphrase Cordwainer Smith, the me I see or hear in the works I love is a true me.

Finally, there’s the sense of life thing. This is a joke, but a meaningful one: if I ever had joined the Objectivists, I’d have been kicked out the moment I told them that my favorite Randian hero was Andrew Undershaft. Yes, I know that Bernard Shaw was a socialist, and had a lot of other cranky ideas. But his capitalist hero in Major Barbara has something that John Galt lacks: the very sense of life that Rand insisted she was trying to project in her ideal hero. Undershaft brims with self-confidence, benevolence and good humor – and his didactic dialogue is witty, but brief and to the point. Rand might have learned something from him.

And yet it was Ayn Rand, in a sense, who led me to Shaw, and to much else. She got my mind off dead center. Without her, I might be a blandly conventional thinker to this day. I’d probably never have written my history of sf, never have written any fiction of my own, never have done anything in particular to distinguish myself. Because Rand was at such odds with most of what I had previously believed, she forced me to think in terms of fundamentals, to  never take anything for granted. She forced me to examine myself, to ask again and again: What do I believe, and why do I believe it? What do I value, and why do I value it? Which is not to say I came up with all the same answers she did – or that anyone else did, for that matter.

But to understand what I’d say to Rand, if I could, you’ve got to see the 1940 screen version of Major Barbara, with an all–star cast including Robert Morley, Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller. It includes several scenes that weren’t in the original play, one of them between Undershaft (Morley) and his daughter Barbara (Hiller). She is crushed because one of her converts, Bill Walker (Robert Newton) – a man seeking to atone for smacking a Salvation Army lass (Deborah Kerr) – has abandoned her after the Army accepted money from her father’s munitions works and a whiskey baron. “Wot price salvation now?” Walker taunted her.

Instead of hanging around the Salvation Army mission, Walker has taken a job at Undershaft’s factory. But when Barbara seems despondent over having “lost” him, her father reproves her: Walker is a new man because of her; he’ll never sink to anything like abusing a woman again. “Can you strike a man to the heart and leave no mark on him?” he asks. “You have set him on the road to his salvation. It may not be your road, but he won’t turn back.”

I'm not turning back either.

 

Dec. 1, 2006