Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Denial is the First Symptom

The landscape of desolation in Atlas is difficult to locate in place or time (which heightens its allegorical feel), but at any rate clearly for Rand the world is a physical place: "productive" people build edifices, or mine for gold, or run train companies across the rocks and hills of a solid continent.

In other words the Randians are materialists in the literal, even (cough) Marxist sense of the word, despite their protests to the contrary. Even reason, so exalted by Rand, requires the justification of material benefit as tangible evidence of its existence. This is no world of services (there is no "productivity" if there is nothing to point to) or art for art's sake. It is a concrete world.

One might even call it a Soviet Socialist-Realist world, without the socialism of course, and clearly without the fertility. It is no accident that publishers slap covers on her books that are inspired by socialist realism, like Nick Gaetano's covers, for example: didactic, idealized, static, and ultimately chilling works in the tradition of public art established by Socialist Realism in eastern Europe, a movement that brought us architecture like this never-constructed Zaryadye Administration Building that would have dotted the sky in Moscow:

Now tell me that couldn't be a Gaetano cover - just toss in a hyperproportioned, grotesquely-muscled android figure with gold leaf for skin, suck the life out of the sky, and clutter up the composition a little.

An allied, though at its best much more refined, human, and effective aesthetic strain is to be found in many WPA buildings in the United States in the 1930s and early 40s like the Alameda County Courthouse, which doesn't let the proportions get out of hand and has a warmth. It still looks great, exuding a sense of the importance of its function while avoiding undemocratic pomposity:

The opening scene of Atlas that we looked at in the last post is also hauntingly Russian, in its own way, even if this is not immediately obvious: Instead of a cardboard facade of perfection for the visiting Catherine II, or an inspecting Party Secretary and world press to marvel at, Rand gives us an equally cardboard dystopia of simplified character types, without children, indeed devoid of any sense of humanity. We can only conclude that there is no back story here either.

In other words, an inverted Potemkin village. And the Reader is Catherine the Great. (Insert horse joke here.) (No pun intended with "insert.") You can take Ayn out of Russia, but you can't take the Russia out of Ayn.

She wanted so hard to leave her family and native land -- but in a real sense, she brought it with her; she just added a few radical twists to the landscape. Ultimately though, denial remains her theme: denial of the humanistic tradition, denial of the intellectual (as opposed to the "rational"), and denial, paradoxically, of a certain freedom of thought.