OF THE MANY, many thousands — even millions — of Ayn Rand disciples, there are those who came to her books for the sex and those who came to them for the ideas. The sex in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead — an epically-scaled, architecture-themed potboiler — is quite hot by midcentury standards, though today it’s rather queasy-making:
He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.
She fought like an animal. But she made no sound. She did not call for help. She heard the echoes of her blows in a gasp of his breath, and she knew that it was a gasp of pleasure. She reached for the lamp on the dressing table. He knocked the lamp out of her hand. The crystal burst to pieces in the darkness.
He had thrown her down on the bed and she felt the blood beating in her throat, in her eyes, the hatred, the helpless terror in her blood. She felt the hatred and his hands; his hands moving over her body, the hands that broke granite. She fought in a last convulsion. Then the sudden pain shot up, through her body, to her throat, and she screamed. Then she lay still.
This vicious rape inaugurates the Wagnerian love affair between Howard Roark, an architect, and Dominique Francon, an architecture critic. Upping the novel’s perversity quotient, Francon exemplifies, in all her other relationships, the S/M stereotype of the bossy bottom. As one of her lovers tells her:
You’ve chosen me as the symbol of your contempt for men. You don’t love me. You wish to grant me nothing. I’m only your tool of self-destruction. I know all that, I accept it and I want you to marry me. If you wish to commit an unspeakable act as your revenge against the world, such an act is not to sell yourself to your enemy, but to marry him. Not to match your worst against his worst, but your worst against his best.
You can see why some readers — especially younger ones — might find Rand’s work exciting.
As for her ideas: Rand is one of the few popular writers (L. Ron Hubbard is another) to have developed her own school of philosophy. She called this intellectual movement “Objectivism,” and it came complete with an articulated metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. Her fiction, which contained this philosophy in embryo, enshrined the lonely nobility of the individual, the value of selfishness, the fraudulence of altruism, and the depravity of collectivism:
Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then man must wish to see others suffer — in order that he may be virtuous. Such is the nature of altruism. The creator is not concerned with disease, but with life. Yet the work of the creators has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man’s body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive.
I haven’t read a lot of Rand, so I have to trust my companion’s word that Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s four-and-a-half hour theatrical adaptation of The Fountainhead, which recently finished a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2017 Next Wave Festival, is faithful to its source, even bizarrely so. Most responses to Rand are split between reverence and ridicule; the extremity of her beliefs and her rhetoric demand more than mere agreement. While her ideas have been taken dead seriously by several titans of industry, a chairman of the Fed, and a sizable contingent of the United States Congress, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at a story that presents its intellectual content in long, vehement monologues delivered variously by a stern, idealistic architect to the vacuous hustler who’s his professional and romantic rival or by a Mephistophelian architecture critic to his niece as he explains why he’s plotting to destroy the stern idealist, who is also the man she loves. This sinister critic’s speeches are so reminiscent of ones delivered by comic book supervillains as they prepare to do away with immobilized victims that you’re half-consciously waiting for Spider-Man to burst onto the scene (Steve Ditko, the great, eccentric comics artist who co-created Spider-Man, is an Objectivist).
Rand’s characters, in short, are cartoons. In a naturalistic universe, an architect isn’t put on trial for designing a building, even if it is, as the Mephistophelian critic opines, “a monument to a profound hatred of humanity” (the building was supposed to be a temple). Of course, Rand was emphatically not a naturalist. “Certain writers, of whom I am one, do not live, think or write on the range of the moment,” she declares in the preface to The Fountainhead’s 25th-anniversary edition:
Novels, in the proper sense of the word, are not written to vanish in a month or a year. That most of them do, today, that they are written and published as if they were magazines, to fade as rapidly, is one of the sorriest aspects of today’s literature, and one of the clearest indictments of its dominant esthetic philosophy: concrete-bound, journalistic Naturalism which has now reached its dead end.
This Fountainhead — which, like other Toneelgroep productions, was conceived by Flemish director Ivo van Hove — is set in a cavernous, minimally furnished open space that functions at different times as an architect’s office, a newspaper bullpen, a magnate’s penthouse, and a marble quarry. The action ranges — races — upstage and down, much of it projected on a video screen that allows the audience to see Roark sketching his visionary structures (actually copies of the designs for such iconic buildings as Louis Kahn’s Trenton Bath House and Renzo Piano’s Shard).
The artfully deployed multimedia is much of what gives this very long play the momentum of a basketball game: something is always happening, not just onstage but on a screen mounted above it. The doubling of images — including a sex act that culminates with the heroine writhing in a pool of her own blood — creates spectacle and also a whiff of the specular, a sense that even in their intimate moments the characters are conscious of being on display. They argue and intrigue and hector and confess and screw as if at every moment they knew somebody was watching, if not a theater audience, then God or — given Rand’s atheism — history.
It’s this atmosphere of self-conscious display, along with the canny, supple performances, that makes Van Hove’s production so involving. All the characters — Roark, Francon, the vacuous hustler, the Mephistophelian critic, the newspaper magnate who befriends Roark only to betray him and then kill himself — are as deeply sincere as believers confessing in church. They’re like Dostoyevsky’s people, larger than life and fond of making long speeches at inopportune moments. (Rand was a fan of Dostoyevsky, though his speeches are better and his characters more interestingly perverse: Grushenka makes Dominique Francon look like a Tinder profile.) Van Hove has clearly urged his actors to play their parts straight and deliver Rand’s bludgeoning manifestos with absolute conviction, making it plausible that smart people could actually believe this stuff. That in itself is an accomplishment.
In its immoderacy, its self-pity, its worship of winners and contempt for losers, Rand’s brand of libertarianism (a term I prefer to Objectivism) is deeply adolescent. I don’t mean that entirely pejoratively: her work is adolescent in the manner of a brainy teenager, the kind who knows she’s smarter than her peers and pissed off that none of them recognize it, who’s revolted by their social gamesmanship but hurt that she’s unpopular, who sees through their pandering niceness while justifying her own rudeness as honesty. We’ve all known teenagers like that — some of us were that teenager.
Adolescence is when people first become aware of themselves as individuals, possessing traits and perceptions that are different from those of the teenagers around them. Some kids try to hide that lonely, inconvenient self, some try to deny it even exists. Others, though, are obsessed with this strange, fierce creature that dwells inside them, so achingly alive and so very unappreciated. Which of those kids wouldn’t identify with a character like Howard Roark, envied for his talent and persecuted for his integrity, a man willing to blow up his masterpiece rather than see it ruined by other people’s compromises? How many of them included a haughty quote from his courtroom speech under their yearbook photo?
There is nothing adolescent, however, about Ramsey Nasr’s performance as Roark. He plays the part quietly, with catlike poise and the concentration of someone engaged in a completely absorbing task. Beside him the other characters, except for Francon (a witty, sexy, luminous Halina Reijn) and the doomed press magnate, seem childish and ineffectual. Nasr delivers Rand’s speeches matter-of-factly, not really trying to convert anybody; rather, he’s marking the ground he stands on. As a result, Van Hove’s production transcends its source — which, like Rand’s later novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), is essentially a boy’s adventure story for middle-aged men. The play isn’t an argument for Objectivism — it’s more of a dramatic essay that asks us to examine the ideas that move Roark to risk poverty, ostracism, and ruin, not to mention come close to killing his mistress.
Of course, what’s perplexing is that anyone would be shocked by what Roark has to say — though they might be taken aback by his blowing up a housing project geared for the poor and built with other people’s money. Yes, artists are often selfish, or at least self-centered (though usually not selfish enough to commit rape). Rand’s core philosophy is not so very different from what many of us believed at 16. As a code of personal conduct, it may be irritating, but it’s hardly reprehensible, and most people who live by it — unless they’re very talented or very rich — suffer the consequences.
What’s missing from both Rand’s novel and Van Hove’s adaptation are the lowly people for whom that housing project was ostensibly designed. We see them only through proxies: the embittered social worker (she was the hustler’s fiancée until he ditched her for Dominique) who confesses to loathing her clients; the press baron whose paper “attack[s] monopolies — in the name of the downtrodden” and “mock[s] the rich and the successful — in the manner of those who could never be either.” Later, after his readers desert him for championing Roark, he walks through the streets, noting specimens of his paper’s favored demographic with overt distaste:
That woman sitting on the stoop of an old brownstone house, her fat white knees spread apart […] — the little man sipping root beer at a drugstore counter — the woman leaning over a stained mattress on the sill of a tenement window — the taxi driver parked on a corner — the lady with orchids, drunk at the table of a sidewalk café — the toothless woman selling chewing gum — the man in shirt sleeves, leaning against the door of a poolroom — they are my masters.
These huddled masses might be what Iowa Senator Charles Grassley had in mind when he explained his vote in favor of legislation that eliminates taxes on the wealthy while covertly raising them on the poor and middle class: “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” The GOP’s “tax reform” bill — which also eliminates deductions for mortgage interest, catastrophic medical expenses, and charitable giving — was passed in the Senate, on a strict party-line vote, while my companion and I were watching The Fountainhead.