With the ascent of Paul Ryan, the chain-smoking, Russian-accented, flinty-hearted figure of Ayn Rand has once again elbowed her way into the American conversation. Will her name come up during the debate between the vice-presidential candidates on Thursday?
So far, most of the talk has focused on her 1957 doorstop of a political novel, “Atlas Shrugged.” But it’s sent me back to an earlier book, “The Fountainhead,” which (like most of her work) has never been out of print since it was published in 1943.
Like Ryan, I read Rand as a teenager: I was 13, and my mother, who adored the book, passed it on to me. It was a bizarre introduction to the world of adult fiction.
“The Fountainhead” follows the struggles of a modern architect named Howard Roark. Its theme is the individual versus the collective. In Rand’s world, a few almost godlike individuals walk the earth among the dirty mob.
They recognize one another at once and communicate in gnomic (though by no means brief) utterances. You can spot the inferiors, typified by the ambitious, incompetent architect Peter Keating, by their obtuseness.
“I don’t know what you mean,” they’ll say, even when they’ve just been brutally insulted.
Between them stands a third group: the socialists, represented by the slimy architecture critic Ellsworth M. Toohey. They recognize the genius of Roark and his ilk and do everything they can to thwart them.
“The Fountainhead” was Rand’s response to the New Deal, and it expresses not only her hatred of the left but her conviction that it knew just how evil it was.
Her paranoia was rooted in her background: She was born in St. Petersburg in 1905, saw the Bolsheviks rise to power, and made it out of the Soviet Union only in 1926, when she was 21. Free at last, she headed for Hollywood.
The place nourished her overheated imagination. Though “The Fountainhead” is a novel of ideas, my mother loved it for the same reason she loved “The Carpetbaggers” and “Valley of the Dolls”: Its story of high-rolling architects and a Hearst-like newspaper magnate drips glamour. Every page feels like it’s written in leopard print.
The sexual politics of the book are ghastly even for 1943. The heroine, Dominique Francon, has no interest in sex until Roark rapes her:
“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.”
Even granting that Rand rejected the “concrete-bound, journalistic Naturalism” of her contemporaries, that is terrible writing. And it presents a paradox.
In “The Fountainhead,” bad taste is an ethical failing. Roark’s detractors aren’t just knaves and fools but moral idiots. But Rand had terrible taste in prose.
She had no feeling for motivation, either -- psychology wasn’t her thing. Since the characters have to illustrate concepts, they don’t move freely on the page.
She’s always bullying them around to get her points across, and as a result their behavior ranges from the perverse to the truly weird.
For example, Dominique considers the world too mean a place for Roark’s magnificent buildings, and so, in collusion with the nefarious Toohey, she uses the influence of her newspaper column to stop him from getting commissions -- even though he’s her lover.
When I was 13, the only character I felt any kinship with at all was Peter Keating -- the weasel. That familiarity made me wonder about myself; now I understand. Keating may be envious, conniving, malicious and dim, but all those qualities make him recognizably human.
Roark is a cold ascetic whose confidence in his judgment never wavers, who barely notices the hysterical hatred his work provokes, “a man totally innocent,” as Rand writes, “of fear.” In other words, a monster.
Probably no actor could have played him convincingly. Saddled with Rand’s hectoring lectures in King Vidor’s 1949 film version of the novel, Gary Cooper gave what was even for him a wooden performance, and he was 10 years too old.
Patricia Neal at least looked like Dominique, with her “air of cold serenity” and her “exquisitely vicious mouth.” Rand wrote the screenplay under a contract that stipulated, much like one of Roark’s (“I don’t consult, I don’t cooperate, I don’t collaborate”), that not a single word be changed.
Her control was probably a good thing, since if other writers had been allowed to tone down her batty speeches, the picture would have come down to us as merely terrible, rather than as one of the purest examples of camp in the history of cinema.
There’s irony in its having been made at Warner Bros., the most socially conscious of the old studios. The movie isn’t as confrontational in its disdain for social programs as the book, though. It leaves out the episode containing the worst insult to her hero Rand can think of.
One of Roark’s splendid buildings is remodeled into “The Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children,” whose administrators -- “zealous ladies who were full of kindness” (a word Rand almost always invokes with contempt) -- admit “only the hopeless cases”:
“There was a 15-year-old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called ‘Jackie’ of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly.”
Even if you agree with those conservative Republicans who think a helping hand will only encourage the poor in their lack of initiative ... disabled children?
Absolutely, Rand would argue. Although she hated the Bolsheviks, you can feel in every one of her pulpy sentences the fanaticism she shared with them.
She worshipped no god but reason (a continuing problem for Ryan and other Christians inspired by her ideas) and maintained that the only philosopher she really owed was Aristotle, the apotheosis of reason.
I’m not so sure. A statement like “One can’t love man without hating most of the creatures who pretend to bear his name” sounds more like the world-denying idealism of Plato. One of Roark’s admirers looks from a sketch of the architect’s to the view from his window and protests, “Not this -- and that.” Rand describes the vista:
“There was a poolroom on the corner of the street below; a rooming house with a Corinthian portico; a billboard advertising a Broadway musical; a line of pink-gray underwear fluttering on a roof.”
Her repulsion is clear. But is that laundry line really such a terrible condemnation? To me it seems more like a simple fact of life. Beauty would be meaningless without the everyday banality that sets it off.
It’s easy enough to see how an artist besotted with ideals of perfection might want to reject the ordinary in her work. But politicians ply their trade in the only world we have -- the one that, presumably, they want to improve.
When a novelist who despises the world and the people in it becomes their guiding star, we sneer at our own risk.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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