Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Brutal Valentine's Day with Ayn Rand

Examining Ayn Rand’s novels with fresh eyes all these years after reading them in college, I can’t help but be struck by how pervasive and obvious the (at least superficially unlibertarian) ethos of the “bdsm community” (fans of bondage, domination, and sexual sadism and masochism) is in her work. It’s an accusation routinely leveled at the obvious target of the actual sex scenes themselves — such as the quasi-rape by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (usually dismissed by Rand’s fans on the technical grounds that it’s implied he knew she knew he knew she wanted it, etc., which is fair).

What’s more disturbing — and what escaped my notice when I was a naive young reader who hadn’t yet met various New York City-dwelling weirdoes over the course of years of living here — is just how often the bdsm aesthetic crops up in the non-sex scenes. It’s dismissible by those fans who might prefer it weren’t there, unmistakable to those who (whether we like it or not) now know what dark signs to watch for.

Again and again, the message is that instead of fostering mutual kindness, one ought to be proud to take a beating, metaphorical or literal, from someone as exalted and noble — as knowing — as oneself. Take the flashback moment, early in Atlas Shrugged, when a teenage Dagny tells a teenage Francisco that she may just give up and deliberately fail classes at school in order to be more popular, causing Francisco to slap her in the face immediately (not quite the proper non-coercive response):

What she felt was contained in an instant, while the ground rocked under her feet, in a single blast of emotion within her. She knew that she would have killed any other person who struck her; she felt the violent fury which would have given her the strength for it — and as violent a pleasure that Francisco had done it. She felt pleasure from the dull, hot pain in her cheek and from the taste of blood in the corner of her mouth. She felt pleasure in what she suddenly grasped about herself and about his motive.

She braced her feet…looking at him with a mocking smile of triumph.

“Did I hurt you as much as that?” she asked.

He looked astonished; the question and the smile were not those of a child. He answered, “Yes — if it pleases you.”

“It does.”

[When he offered to put cold water on her wounded lip, she] laughed, stepping back. “Oh, no. I want to keep it as it is. I hope it swells terribly. I like it.” [Later, she felt] that the incident was a secret too precious to share.

The description of Dagny’s pain on the tennis court as she forces Francisco to feel pain with her extraordinary playing against him, reveling in the thought that her exertions begin in her aching muscles and end in his, has a similarly violent quality to it.

If Rand were content to depict the characters beating the crap out of each other in merely-private conversation or in the bedroom, that would be one thing — of psychological but no great political interest — but her love of consensual brutality actually ends up affecting her depiction of economics, and in ways that should make libertarians worry about her ability to function as an effective proselytizer for capitalism. Just as the bdsm ethos, in the minds of its more hardcore or pathological practitioners, requires not just some painful-but-pleasant role-playing but a continual escalation in acts of cruelty until the participants are tested to their ostensible limits and then forced to discover new ones (albeit without actually having to, say, join the Marines, climb a mountain, learn the harpsichord, or do something genuinely productive), so too do the Atlas characters repeatedly express their sexually-charged admiration for each other’s willingness to drive such hard bargains that others are driven to the brink of bankruptcy.

Now, I’m not for a moment saying that capitalists shouldn’t be charging the highest prices they can get — that’s the whole idea. But I don’t feel the need — economists don’t feel the need — to justify the practice in part by showing how even the people on the rougher end of the deal can learn to take a sick thrill in being bested. It’s enough to observe that any voluntary exchange is presumably mutually beneficial by definition without turning it into some Germanic tableau of submission and domination. The kind-hearted Amish man selling pricey whoopee pies on the side of the road to beloved neighbors and tourist children with a few kind words of wisdom is as much a capitalist as the gruff tycoon telling a supplier that he’d better cut his prices in half or he’ll never get another large-volume aluminum siding deal in this town again, you little runt-bastard. Indeed, there’s nothing uncapitalist about saying we prefer the Amish guy, so long as we don’t enforce that preference via legal favoritism.

I prefer the Amish guy.

Poor Rand, I fear, was basically making the all too common mistake of embracing one’s enemies’ description of oneself. Just as a child who is told without reason by an abusive parent that he is no good may sometimes decide “Fine, then, I’m a bad seed!” and become worse — or gays decide that it is their role to mock all conventional ethics because they have (wrongly) been told repeatedly that the greatest sources of joy in their lives are unethical — so, too, does Rand seem, like some of the very characters she upbraids for this self-hating mental maneuver, to have thought, “If the Soviets of my childhood insist that only a cruel-hearted, cold person can be a capitalist — then I shall be cruel and cold! If only mercilessness works in business, then I will eroticize mercilessness!” This does capitalists an inadvertent disservice. They needn’t be sadists. Those who admire them needn’t be masochists.


Sadists are the lowest form of human life, by definition, as I’ve said before — arguably the lowest form of life, period, given that non-human animals merely act on self-preserving instinct, not conscious malevolence. Just as one doesn’t need complex philosophy or psychological analysis to see that an avalanche that shatters one’s leg is, all else being equal, a worse outcome than a warm breeze on a sunny day — and marauding jackals keen to eat you a worse set of companions than a playful batch of puppies — so too is the world a worse place for having in it people who enjoy — or admire — the gratuitous infliction of suffering on others instead of the upward spiral of increasing mutual benefit possible from generous and compassionate cooperation.

The damage done by specifically-sexual sadists, of course, can be contained to some degree by their ritualistic dyadic relationships with willing partners, but (as Aristotle knew) we are creatures of habit, and unless cruelty can somehow be performed with cold, scientific detachment (itself arguably dehumanizing) it is likely to foster deformed characters whose ill-will will surface in places other than the bedroom (or boardroom). A friend of mine was rightly alarmed, I think, to read of Penn Jillette, who was casually making a freedom-of-thought point, saying that while rape is wrong, fantasizing about rape all day is harmless. If our fantasies affect our emotional makeup and in subtle ways our behavior, it’s not entirely clear Penn is correct on that point.

For the most devoted of Rand fans, it is crucial to take her at her word that all of her work is joyous and life-affirming, so they’ll likely hasten to deny the significance of this dark streak in her aesthetics and psyche — just as some to whom I’ve talked are (or in the old days often were) keen to deny the non-libertarian, more blatantly Nietzschean tone of her early works, such as the play The Night of January Sixteenth, in which the absent hero-capitalist is likened not to a peaceful trader but to a brutal master who gladly wields “a whip over the world” and would walk indifferent across victims’ corpses to reach his goal, hardly the libertarian ideal (yet the descriptor has its echo in more politically-neutral descriptions of Roark in The Fountainhead and a fainter, more tamed and scrupulously libertarian echo in the sadomasochistic interactions of the main Atlas characters). Rand began by liking a certain type of noble brute, I’d contend, then sublimated that into a (commendable) admiration for capitalists but without fully jettisoning her old, more savage aesthetics (and turn-ons, presumably).

(Highly devoted Rand fans will always insist she was very happy, too, of course, though we can legitimately question whether such a censorious, intolerant hardass seems happy. They’ll sometimes note that she danced around her office listening to ragtime music, but raise your hand if you think that would have been anything other than a terrifying spectacle.)

It’s worth noting that one is playing with fire if pushing an ethos and aesthetic that may be readily absorbed without the crucial accompanying economic qualifiers and side constraints that render it safe. Certainly, with an early work such as January Sixteenth, one could reasonably come away, not with a newfound love of tolerance and individualism, but with the contrary idea that predators are cool. And predators may well be “cool” — I think there are real, hard-wired reasons most of us would rather look like hawks and wolves than like cows despite ironically often approximating such predatory-hunter looks by wearing leather. But predators are not good. And thus neither are people habituated to think like them. And Rand of all people should not be valorizing them. It’s almost as absurd as, say, a meekness-promoting Christian doing so.

There is no stupider or more destructive attitude — common though it certainly is — than the belief that being bad is an accomplishment. A Nietzschean who is indifferent to others’ suffering or to moral rules — the cad who prides himself on being a cad, for instance — is as much a dangerous yet pitiable fool as the gang member who proudly says, “Some old lady tried to teach me to read — so I took her wallet! I’m awesome!” I think we’ve all seen those moments in movies where some naive villain, soon to be defeated, mocks the heroes for being made “weak” by compassion and morals — not realizing these things flow from strength, not weakness. Well, I fear there are a lot of people out there as stupid as that villain — priding themselves on being nasty, gratuitously sarcastic, self-destructive, sadistic, callous, or just resolutely “unimpressed.” These are not our best and brightest, though some of them may move among our best and brightest and imagine themselves superior, like predators among prey.

Likewise, priding oneself on avoiding altruism or kindness or gentleness is misguided — perhaps in a neurological sense even “miswired.” Surely pain and pleasure evolved for the very purpose of guiding us away from things associated with the former and toward things associated with the latter, survival-enhancing signaling devices at the most basic level of our emotional makeup that also function as the foundations of socialization, via the empathy that leads us (all else being equal) to be made happy by the sight of happiness and distressed by the sight of others in pain.

People who don’t feel these things — or even have the polarities reversed (preferring suffering to happiness, etc.) — can be said prima facie to have something wrong with them (though they needn’t necessarily end up bad people), as surely as does a cat that gnaws off its own foot instead of eating its food. We obviously weren’t meant to function via constant conflict or suffering. We are (most of us) humans, not ghouls (and rationalizations about athlete-like testing of limits does little to diminish the fundamental ghoulishness of the bdsm ethos).


Not surprisingly, from what I’ve seen — though I do not pretend to have made a scientific survey — the people you encounter who admit to a Rand-like streak of sexual cruelty tend to be creepy little toads with facial ticks and other obvious problems, possibly people drawn to the bdsm world in part by their social failure (or at least fear of social failure) in other circles: nerds who as children liked to pick wings off flies, impotent but violent men, sociopathic females, fat people of both genders. That’s not to say you don’t meet seemingly-nice people in New York-area intellectual circles who are “into that sort of thing,” though they often still have the facial ticks and other warning signs — or at least very odd aesthetics, such as one chubby computer programmer who I once saw enthuse to a room of mixed company, in all seriousness, about his desire to engage in a tableau of flagellation and then be served some really good waffles from the restaurant next door to his favorite downtown “dungeon.”

A big part of it all, I’m sure, is people wanting the superficial badges of accomplishment — injury, weariness — without actually accomplishing anything, like someone who has no hope of winning a boxing match and so decides instead to just prove he can lie there and take a lot of punches (even though good boxers are of course motivated by the desire to avoid taking punches, which is why their managers tell them “Great job, champ, he didn’t lay a glove on you,” not “I was hoping you’d bleed more, kid, but at least you won”).

Given the statistical rareness of such practices, why have I encountered several avowed practitioners in New York intellectual circles? My explanation — as usual — is another ringing endorsement of culturally-moderate libertarian bourgeois thinking: I suspect that the left and right intellectuals have so thoroughly convinced themselves that mainstream sex is evil and stupid (it being oppressive or depraved, depending on which side of the spectrum they’re approaching it from) that bdsm seems — in classic “hellfire club” fashion — to be an inviting snooty-elite escape from it all, and one they can always claim is marked by irony and detachment and thus not as dopey as the straightforward sex of the bourgeois — though the bourgeois do seem to manage the impressive hat-trick of mixing love, kindness, gentleness, emotional bonding, athletic achievement, and a fundamentally moral heightening of concern for the other person’s wishes that to some might seem a good deal more extraordinary than, say, enduring a punch in the face.

Camille Paglia (herself something of a Rand fan in her youth, and bi and tough) warned twenty years ago that there might be an increase in bdsm in our cultural future — that just as the Enlightenment unleashed not merely Rousseau but de Sade, so too might rising generations’ detachment from traditional morals reveal at first optimism (as with the Boomers), then apathy (Gen X), then perhaps a descent into cruelty (are the millennials statistically more vicious, I wonder?). The cult of victimology of the past few decades could so easily mutate into a cult of creating victims (“I didn’t suffer before, but now I suffer, so I’m special”), a mix of impulses derived in part from Romantic poets, Fight Club/Jackass, and years of valorizing the marginalized — none of it the ruggedness Rand is primarily interested in promoting.

One small film note for those reading this (perhaps with resentment) and themselves dreaming of a lifelong relationship of mutually-inflicted cruelty: I’ve been lamenting needless remakes and reboots lately, and the quickest turnaround ever in that department may now be upon us. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which featured Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a couple trying to kill each other — and which was in theatres a mere five years ago — will reportedly be remade as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, with younger actors depicting the initial romance and wedding of an essentially identical couple. If your date seems to enjoy it a bit too much, keep in mind you may have a difficult romantic road ahead, possibly leading to a hospital or police station.

P.S. And despite all the implicit criticism and concerns above, I will read Ayn Rand’s essay “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” this Wednesday (Feb. 17) at 6pm at Yale’s Harkness Hall, 100 Wall Street (the New Haven, CT one!), Room 119, thanks to the Party of the Right (POR) and the Objectivist Study Group at Yale (OSGaY). More about that essay in tomorrow’s President’s Day “Book Selection of the Month” blog entry.

P.P.S. We might also benefit from discussing some of these issues at Tuesday night’s 6:30pm Manhattan Project gathering of political folk at Merchants NY East or even at the March 3 (8pm) Debate at Lolita Bar, which will pit Richard Spencer against Helen Rittelmeyer on the vaguely-related question “Is Christianity for Wimps?” Wusses will not be driven from the audience or beaten with sticks.


Andy George said...

In The Fountainhead, Dominique’s “torture”, so to speak, of herself and her denial of Roark do seem baffling. Dominique’s initial “malevolent universe” sense of life is what Rand once described as “herself (Rand) in a bad mood”. Rand said that if you’re of this state of mind, you’d better get yourself out of it, fast. The stroy’s central romantic relationship shows how Roark’s rational courage and integrity win out over Dominique’s irrational self destructive type of “selfishness”. In Rand’s world, the heroes win for rational reasons and without violence.

“but her love of consensual brutality actually ends up affecting her depiction of economics, and in ways that should make libertarians worry about her ability to function as an effective proselytizer for capitalism.”

Rand explicitly detested the initiation of violence. Several of the examples you’ve sighted are actually acts of self defense. What Rand is portraying are capitalists fighting even among themselves for their very right to exist. Not some hedonistic BDSM party after the fact. That slap on the face is a wake up call to Dagny’s real values. Her pleasure is taken more form moral gratification and less from physical stimulation. Rand is bringing order to chaos where it has been thought to be lost.

“Proselytizer” is a very poor and revealing choice of words, since Rand did not. Rand sold her arguments for capitalism by free choice. She never forced anyone to believe her ideas since she understood that the mind can not be forced. It’s more like Objectivist should worry about Libertarians ability to defend capitalism by rational arguments, not the other way around.

“Poor Rand, I fear, was basically making the all too common mistake of embracing one’s enemies’ description of oneself.”

This “all to common mistake” is exactly what Rand didn’t make. Just the opposite. This’ what Rand meant by not granting “the saction of the victim”. What Rand is doing is using the facts of reality in her own defense. Given nothing but negative values to work with by one’s enemies, Rand is showing is how those negative values must be reversed by a rational argument in order to survive.

“It’s worth noting that one is playing with fire if pushing an ethos and aesthetic that may be readily absorbed without the crucial accompanying economic qualifiers and side constraints that render it safe.”

Agreed that Rand was working with fire, but she wasn’t “playing”, hence her famous quote by Marx, “…and I meant it”. Rand wasn’t pushing her arguments on anyone. We’re all free to take or leave them. This quote sounds very odd for a Libertarian since it smacks of security and more regulations. Isn’t the whole point of free market capitalism that the market provides the constraints?

Meredtih said...

Nice post. I think you nail the Rand stuff, though I disagree with the allegation of BDSM theme in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. While I can see where you might get that, I don’t think the characters are getting off on causing each other pain. I just think its more of a farce on the traditional battle of the sexes theme. A “love/hate” relationship is one that is full of great passion, not necessarily perverse sadism. However, I do think that the Mr./Mrs. Jones idea might be a sadistic joke on the moviegoing public.

Todd Seavey said...

Actually, I agree the movie does not have a real bdsm vibe — more of a blatant _War of the Roses_ or _Prizzi’s Honor_ vibe — but it might still be greatly enjoyed by a subset of the people seeking that sort of thing.

Gerard said...

I, alas, am only familiar with the film through the classic Simpsons parody.