Atlas Shrugged VII: Ecce Homo
So last time (oh, so long ago) we looked at Hank Rearden. Today though, I’d like to talk about Philip and Lillian Rearden. The most interesting things about these passages, is that they are the first real glimpse we get of the Randian liberals in their native environment. I remind you again of Ayn Rand’s own opinion of her writing: She believed not that she was creating fiction, or propaganda, or even a parable. She believed she was reflecting real life in her work.
Again, the resemblance to conservative, evangelical Christianity is clear. The fictional works of Tim LaHaye, the pamphlets of Jack Chick, the inane ramblings and obsessive sophistry of Harold Camping all have a common root. These deluded men truly believe, or seem to truly believe, that the fantastic scenarios they concoct are an accurate reflection of real life.
The other thing their works have in common is a strange, almost sociopathic view of human nature. In both Atlas Shrugged and ‘Left Behind,’ characters behave- inhumanly. Many times, the “heroes” of both Rand and LaHaye’s onanistic fantasies casually walk through horror with hardly a backward glance. Rayford Steele, the protagonist of “Left Behind,” walks through burning airports, plagues, and hellfire, thinking only of the inconvenience to himself. In the same vein, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, and even sweet Hank Rearden, will walk past wrecks, disasters, human suffering, with hardly a word or thought.
This common vein is simple- the dollar-sign Christ of Tim LaHaye preaches self-service above all else, as does Rand’s sociopathic Objectivism. This neatly explains why the far right has been able to preserve itself as a solid voting block. On the surface, LaHaye and Rand are fundamentally at odds with each other- on preaching submission to Christ, one the triumph of the new atheist man. (And ‘man’ is the right word- Rand has little room for women in her world.)
And yet these philosophies have at their root, a love of money that transcends all things- Christ or humanity or empathy- all fall before the dollar.
Also before we read this, here’s a piece of advice. If you have to insult your character so we know they’re the bad guys, you aren’t a very good writer. Which is not to say that insulting your characters never works, but we should be able to tell that they’re schmucks based on what THEY do and say, not what YOU do and say.
“Paul Larkin was looking at him with the devoted eyes of an inhibited dog.
“Hello, Paul,” said Rearden. “When did you get in?”
“Oh, I just hopped down on the five thirty-five from New York.” Larkin was smiling in gratitude for the attention.
“Who hasn’t got trouble these days?”
Larkin’s smile became resigned, to indicate that the remark was merely philosophical.
“But no, no special trouble this time. I just thought I’d drop in to see you.””
Charming. You know, this could actually be good- if the point of this scene was to show how Rearden, as a total douchebag, saw the people around him. As an honest reflection of supposedly normal reality, it stinks.
“”Henry, you work too hard,” said Philip.”It’s not good for you.”
Rearden laughed. “I like it.”
“That’s what you tell yourself. It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”
“Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice.””
Oh those silly psychology obsessed liberals with their silly ideas about brains! Everyone knows that Hank Rearden just punches his pain in the face with his big manly fists. Or whatever it is men are supposed to do with their problems.
And of course, Lilian:
“Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”
Ultimately, the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is empathy; the ability to FEEL for their characters. Even the bad ones. I have no objections to a Liberal as a villain, liberals do bad things all the time. I have objections to strawmen, to false and lying creations who are so devoid of sympathy as to be unbelievable.
The example that always springs to mind is nonfiction, actually. Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, is a long, intimate portrayal of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich’s ruling elite. When I first read it many years ago, I was struck by how drawn I was to Hitler. He was portrayed as charming, funny, caring and intelligent. I felt the same sort of draw to him that one might feel reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography. And that feeling frightened me at first. I knew intellectually that Hitler must have been charming, magnetic, and so on, but actually experiencing it was deeply disturbing. I liked this sorta nuts but ultimately sweet man who cared about his employees and loved his dogs.
However, what Speer is doing is good writing- very good writing. To take the ur-villain, the official Worst Person Ever, and make him likeable, requires a great deal of skill. And it is here that Rand’s most fatal flaw is revealed.
She has no Empathy. None at all.
Empathy is a good thing, despite Glenn Beck’s claims. Empathy is what allows us to care for our friends when they suffer. It is what makes the human experience not one of ‘I’ but “we.” More practically, it is impossible to be a writer of any skill without empathy. It may be possible to be a good painter with no empathy- one need not feel for the light to be a Rembrandt. It may be possible to make good music, beautiful sculptures, or strong bridges without caring about people. But writing, the art and craft of writing, is getting inside of someone else’s head. Presenting the inner self of another being with such feeling as to seem real. Fundamentally, as far as Rand is concerned, Philip and Lillian know they’re the bad guys. Which misses a rule of humanity so basic it is often missed- everyone thinks they’re the good guy. The worst people to ever live had a mile long list of justifications, and we are no different- we walk through life spreading small graces and petty cruelties almost unconsciously. Who among us doesn’t know at least one right bastard of a human being- and who among us hasn’t been one, at least once? Even when we acknowledge our wrongdoing, it is rarely through our own observations, and never in the heat of the moment.
Yet Rand’s villains are- cartoonish. The most direct example is not from this book, but from “The Fountainhead.” Ellsworth Toohey often brags about his badness in a false psudeo-villiany. He talks about how he enjoys tearing down better men then he, how much he enjoys destruction for the sake of destruction. He is aware of his badness as if he were his own psychiatrist.
In contrast, look at another villain- Tony Soprano. He spends six years in therapy, and at the end, still justifies his evil, his transgressions as necessary. As excusable. As not so far different from what other people do. Or “Breaking Bad” where chemistry teacher Walt justifies his murderous avarice as being all for his family. Or Scarface, where Tony Montana is just trying to make his way in a hard world.
Everyone has a reason, even the bad guys. Rand does not understand that. She is so subsumed in her own truth that she is incapable of seeing that others hold other truths just as dear. And in her total lack of comprehension, she is incapable of making her characters real. Real people who have real arguments and real reasons for what they do.
Another sign you’re a bad writer is when you are forced to create strawmen to serve your plot. When moving your story forward requires characters to act not only in an unrealistic but an inhuman way, it is time to reconsider your plot. No person has ever talked like this, no person has ever acted like this. The Roman playwright Terence wrote “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” We can recognize in ourselves the love of a Gandhi or the hate of a Hitler- we may not have felt so strongly but we have so felt. . But what Rand creates is nothing human and it is, therefore, something alien to ourselves, and has no power over us.
Rand’s failure of empathy means that she is not moved. And in not being moved, she cannot be moving. No tricks of language, no elegance of composition, can substitute for that.