Friday, September 21, 2007

Atlas Shrugged Is Fifty Years Old

Two weeks ago, I did a post on the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

We're rapidly approaching the fiftieth anniversary of another of the very influential books from last century, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Before we continue, I have a confession to make. There are two books that I have started to read more than a dozen times without success: one is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and the other is Atlas Shrugged.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, Dunces just aggravates me, but Atlas Shrugged disturbs me.

The interesting thing about this is that Rand's earlier book, The Fountainhead, is one of my all-time favorites. Its independent-minded hero, architect Howard Roark, struck a chord with me.

In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark designs and builds projects according to his own vision, refusing to compromise. Critics condemn his buildings for not including traditional values and styles. Other architects recognize his brilliance, but feel threatened by his independent thinking.

When the Cortland public housing project comes up for bid, Peter Keating, another architect, asks Roark for help in designing a competitive bid. Roark agrees with the caveat that the project will be built exactly according to his specifications and that he will remain anonymous.

Keating accepts Roark's terms and, with Roark's blueprints, wins the contract. Roark leaves town and the desperate Keating caves in to demands that he change the design. When Roark returns and sees the bastardized Cortland, he dynamites it and then turns himself in to the police. He is arrested and put on trial for destroying a housing project that would have benefited many.

I'm attaching a video clip from the 1949 film with Gary Cooper playing Roark, defending himself at his trial (and Patricia Neal playing the woman he loves, who is married to Peter Keating). The scene is almost six minutes long--written by Rand herself who demanded that it be filmed exactly as she'd written it. The director, King Vidor, agreed to do so, but then shortened it in the filming. True to her values, Rand went to the studio head and demanded the scene be filmed exactly as written. She won. Here's the speech.

By the way, Angelina Jolie has signed on to film Atlas Shrugged in 2008. The rest of the cast has not yet been named according to although rumor has it that Brad Pitt will play opposite her. The two are supposed to think very highly of the novel.

I WANTED to read and love Atlas Shrugged. However, the independence that appealed to me in The Fountainhead (released in 1943) turned into something else in Atlas Shrugged (released in 1957). By then, Rand had named her philosophy "Objectivism" and Atlas Shrugged fully embodies that belief system.

If you visit the Ayn Rand Institute website here, you'll find the four pillars of her Objectivism philosophy:

Metaphysics: Objective Reality--Things are what they are. The only role of perception is that man must learn to see things for what they are and not try to interpret or create a new reality. Rand rejects any form of supernatural belief, including religion.

Epistemology: Reason--Reason is man's only means to knowledge. "Objectivism rejects any form of determinism, the belief that man is a victim of forces beyond his control (such as God, fate, upbringing, genes, or economic conditions)."

Ethics: Self-interest--"Man...must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism..."

Politics: Capitalism--"Capitalism is a system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which the only function of the government is to protect individual rights"...Thus Objectivism rejects any form of collectivism, such as fascism or socialism. It also rejects the current "mixed economy" notion that the government should regulate the economy and redistribute wealth.

I'm drawn to Rand's arguments--to a point. I agree that man should take responsibility for his own actions--and his own happiness. I have very little patience for those who blame others for their actions. However, I do believe forces outside of man can shape who he is. I also believe that we can rise above those forces if we have the will to do so.

While I believe religion can be twisted in terrible ways, I believe in God.

I also object to Rand's rejection of all forms of altruism--individual or governmental. Every time I try to read Atlas Shrugged, her emphasis on individual self-interest loses me.

Saturday's New York Times had a lengthy article on Atlas Shrugged and its debut fifty years ago:

The book was released to terrible reviews. Critics faulted its length, its philosophy and its literary ambitions. Both conservatives and liberals were unstinting in disparaging the book; the right saw promotion of godlessness, and the left saw a message of “greed is good.” Rand is said to have cried every day as the reviews came out.

The author of the article interviewed Jeff Britting, the archivist of Ayn Rand’s papers, and concluded:

Rand had a reputation for living for her own interest. She is said to have seduced her most serious reader, Nathaniel Branden, when he was 24 or 25 and she was at least 50. Each was married to someone else. In fact, Mr. Britting confirmed, they called their spouses to a meeting at which the pair announced their intention to make the mentor-protégé relationship a sexual one. “She wasn’t a nice person,” said Darla Moore, vice president of the private investment firm Rainwater Inc. “But what a gift she’s given us.”

It's my failure to recognize her philosophy as a gift that prevents me from reading Atlas Shrugged all the way to the end. I'll leave it to you to decide how much of a gift Objectivism is.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Rand is a fascinating character, a philosophical monomaniac whose hatred of collectivist political systems stemmed from the vicissitudes her family suffered during the Russian revolution. If your interested in more about Rand, I highly recommend Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand. It's a terrific read.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: Thanks for the suggestion. I'm always looking for a good book to read.

I will say that I suspect that, fascinating or not, I would not have cared for Rand on a personal level.

It's been interesting to read recently about how Alan Greenspan was an acolyte at one time.