Monday, April 18, 2011

Elder Shrugged

Many otherwise sensible conservatives spent time this past weekend at the local cinema watching the for-some-reason-long-awaited film version (well, at least part one) of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. I was not among them. Yes, I did read Atlas Shrugged along with The Fountainhead and We The Living. And yes, I know that some of the activities of the state and corporate interests to stifle entrepreneurship, achievement, and freedom that Rand described in Atlas Shrugged bear a resemblance to what we’re seeing today. But I’m always amazed at how many of my conservative friends—in particular those of a Christian persuasion—are unwilling or unable to recognize how much is wrong with Rand and her ideas while focusing on the smaller things that she got right.

In the May edition of First Things, David Bentley Hart aptly captures the Trouble With Ayn Rand (sub req):

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. Suddenly she is everywhere. In the stock television footage of Tea Party rallies, there she always is on at least one upraised poster, her grim gray features looming over the crowd like the granitic countenance of some cruel heathen deity glutted on human blood. So it goes. At least it answers one question for me. Civilization is always a fragile accommodation at best, precariously poised between barbarism on one side and decadence on the other, and as a civilization dissolves it begins to oscillate between them, ever more spasmodically, until the final collapse comes. Call it morbid curiosity on my part, but I often wonder where the debris of our civilization will ultimately be heaped; and, if this film portends what I fear, now I may know the answer. Rand was definitely on the side of barbarism.

All right, all right—perhaps I’m being just a little spiteful. I may even be overreacting. The world survived the filming of The Fountainhead (if only by the skin of its teeth), and it may yet survive this. And Ayn Rand always provokes a rather extravagant reaction from me, and probably for purely ideological reasons. 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.

Still, I like to think my detestation of Rand’s novels follows from more than a mere disagreement over differing visions of the universe. What’s a universe here or there, after all? I prefer to think it’s a matter of good taste. For what really puts both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in a class of their own is how sublimely awful they are. I know one shouldn’t expect much from a writer who thought Mickey Spillane a greater artist than Shakespeare. Even so, the cardboard characters, the ludicrous dialogue, the bloated perorations, the predictable plotting, the lunatic repetitiousness and banality, the shockingly syrupy romance—it all goes to create a uniquely nauseating effect: at once mephitic and cloying, at once sulfur and cotton candy.

No matter what you think of Rand’s philosophy, you have to admit that the writing in The Fountainhead and especially Atlas Shrugged is lousy (We the Living is actually quite readable). You have to struggle to get through both books and neither one can in any way be described as entertaining. They have a point of course, a point that gets continuously hammered into your head with all the subtlety of a pile driver. Yes, we get it! Can we just move along now, please?

But even if you can get past Rand’s wretched writing, you can’t get past the fact that her philosophy is at its core completely incompatible with Christianity. It’s one thing to point out that there are merits in Rand’s criticism of collectivism and her defense of capitalism and individual liberty. But the manner of awe that many of my conservative brethren seem to hold her and her work is disturbing.