The Financial Seminary
Civilization teeters on the brink: they’ve made a movie of Atlas Shrugged.
David Bentley Hart May, 2011
It is one of the most indelibly memorable scenes, and certainly the best twist ending, to have come out of the cinema of the 1960s: Charlton Heston riding his horse along the beach, Linda Harrison mounted behind him with her arms wrapped around his waist, both quite fetching in their late Pleistocene dishabille, until they come upon some gigantic object, visible to the viewer at first only from behind, and just fragmentarily familiar from the ruinous silhouette of its torch and spiked coronal. Heston dismounts, an expression of dawning understanding on his face. The surf breaks about his feet. “Oh, my God!” he exclaims and falls to his knees. “They finally, really did it!” Beating the sand with his fist, he cries out, “You maniacs! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The white foam swirls about him again. Only then does the camera draw back, now from the opposite angle, to reveal the shattered remains of the Statue of Liberty. The screen goes dark, but the sound of waves can still be heard.
I don’t really want to talk about The Planet of the Apes just now. I mention the scene only because, quite unintentionally, I found myself reenacting it only a few days ago, uttering the same lines almost verbatim, sinking to the earth under the same burden of world-darkening despair. Oh, there was no bleak, blinding prospect of the gray and silver sea stretching out toward an impossibly distant horizon, there were no waves breaking with a desolate sigh on the barren strand, there was no horse, no fallen copper colossus, and certainly no beautiful, scantily clad woman nearby. There was, however, the same frantic look of terrible recognition in my eyes, the same pitch of hopeless horror in my voice, the same sense of doom. I had just discovered that some malevolent wretch had done it at last: had made a film of Atlas Shrugged.
No, worse: the first of what will ultimately be three films, one for each of the novel’s three parts. The trailer had been unveiled, someone told me, at this year’s CPAC convention, and it had all the laissez-faire faithful standing in their pews. It took only a moment to find it on the web. Then I knew, just as Charlton Heston knew on that beach, that Western civilization was at its end. For decades, this monstrous project had haunted the boardrooms of Hollywood studios and the lofts of emotionally arrested screenwriters; the possibility had been dangled like the sword of Damocles over the head of a defenseless world. But, until now, some merciful power had kept the tragic dénouement in abeyance.
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.
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. The result is hypnotically ghastly. Dialogue that had been merely stilted on the page became almost surreal in its lousiness when spoken aloud. The only way the actors could deliver the lines was with a cold mechanical exactitude and at a bizarrely cantering pace, as if trying to get them out before they could do any permanent damage to the mouth. 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.” Rand really imagined that there could ever be a man whose best achievements were simply and solely the products of his own unfettered and unaided will. She had no concept of grace, even of the ordinary kind: the grace of an existence we do not give ourselves, of natural powers with which we could never have endowed ourselves, and of all those other persons on whom even the strongest among us are dependent. She lacked any ennobling sense that what lies most deeply within us also comes from impossibly far beyond us, as an unmerited gift. She liked to talk about “virtue” a great deal—meaning primarily strength of will and the value that one creates out of one’s own native resources—but for her the only important question regarding the relation between the individual and society was who has a right to what. That is, admittedly, a question that must be asked at various times, but it is never the question that true virtue—true strength—asks of itself.
But I suppose I have circled back on myself. Where Rand’s fiction is concerned, I suppose aesthetic and ideological revulsion are not really separable. What made her novels not just risibly clumsy, but truly shrill and hideous, was the exorbitantly trashy philosophy behind them. Taken solely as a storyteller, she had many of the skills of the proficient pulp writer. Her overwrought plots, her comically patent villains, her panting, fiery, fierce yet quiescent heroines—all of that would be quite at home in lushly bad romance fiction. Had she not mistaken herself for a deep thinker, she might have done well enough, producing books that filled out that vital niche between Forever Amber and Valley of the Dolls. Sadly, though, her ambitions would not let her rest there.
And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmführer drilling his commandoes.
Anyway, I have wandered far from the beach where I began. Let me end with a heartfelt supplication.
Not long after seeing the trailer for Atlas Shrugged, I came across the trailer for quite a different kind of film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick is the world’s greatest living filmmaker, and this project has been with him for years. The two minutes or so of clips that have been released are far more beautiful, moving, and profound than anything associated with the name of Ayn Rand could ever be. “There are two ways through life,” a woman’s voice announces as the trailer opens: “the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one to follow.” That is arguably the great theme of all of Malick’s finest work; and I suspect that the deeper question the film poses is whether these two ways can become one. If what little I have heard about the film is right, moreover, the answer will have something to do with a love capable of embracing all things, and of both granting and receiving forgiveness. But we shall see.
Whatever the case, this is my plea: Do not go to see Atlas Shrugged. Do not encourage those people. Go instead to The Tree of Life, which—whether it should prove a triumph or a failure—will be the work of a remarkable artist who really does have something to tell us about both nature and grace (two things about which Rand knew absolutely nothing). So make the wise cinematic choice here, for the good of your own soul, but also for the sake of a rapidly foundering civilization.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things.