Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 2


In my previous post, I described Erich Fromm’s notion of the necrophilous character, as both an individual and a cultural pathology. I noted that, reading Adam Lee’s series about Atlas Shrugged, I started to see Ayn Rand as a clear embodiment – a word she would likely cringe to hear applied to herself - of this character. This surprised me because Lee’s posts, for the most part, didn’t primarily concern this aspect of Rand’s psychology. Nor did I have the book available to search for more examples, which undoubtedly exist. I didn’t need it, since even the small sample of quotations presented by Lee in these assorted contexts just scream “Necrophile!”*

Rand’s necrophilous tendencies are apparent from her physical descriptions of her characters, particularly in comparison to her paeans to nonliving substances and technical processes. They can also be seen in her disregard for the natural world and celebration of ecological destruction. At times, Rand’s descriptions of nonliving objects even reveal a fascination with violence toward living beings.

In showing that “in Randworld, moral worth is linked to physical attractiveness, and heroes and villains can be recognized and distinguished from each other by sight,” Lee offers Rand’s physical descriptions of her protagonists, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice – then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair – then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five. [p.34]
A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body. [p.20]
Most significant for my purposes is that what makes these characters attractive in Rand’s view is the extent to which they resemble nonliving things: icy eyes, sharp and angular features that know no age, precise and inflexible movements.** Taggart’s posture is explicitly contrasted with “womanly” or “feminine” embodiedness.

Even more telling, Lee provides, “[i]n the name of being fair to Rand” as a writer since he judges it “pretty good,” her vivid, breathless description of the pouring of molten steel at one of Rearden’s mills:
The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violet red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame… But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it, it fell through twenty feet of space, down into a ladle that held two hundred tons. [p.34]
While the human characters are praised for their resemblance to nonliving things, steel is imbued with the qualities of a living being, even the “friendly radiance of a smile”!

Rand’s disdain for the living world encompasses natural landscapes as well. Lee provides a quotation in which she describes a road trip taken by her heroes:
The earth went flowing under the hood of the car. Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.

…”What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.” [p.262]
The presence of the natural world in human affairs is portrayed as illegitimate: “It was preposterous, he thought, this growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men…” In fact, the most tenderly described element of a vista turns out to be…a mass of coal smoke:
Mr. Mowen looked at the skyline, at the belts, the wheels, the smoke – the smoke that settled heavily, peacefully across the evening air, stretching in a long haze all the way to the city of New York somewhere beyond the sunset – and he felt reassured by the thought of New York in its ring of sacred fires, the ring of smokestacks, gas tanks, cranes and high tension lines. [p.255]
The passion “to destroy for the sake of destruction” and utter disregard for the natural consequences of destructive acts are evident in Rand’s apparent approval of a character’s setting fire to the oil wells he’s abandoning: “Later, when they told her that Ellis Wyatt had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a board he had nailed to a post at the foot of the hill, when she looked at his handwriting on the board, she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words: ‘I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours’.” Lee points out that it’s doubtful Wyatt had found the wells on fire when he arrived, but the point is that “Rand sees this as a grand gesture of defiance, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the looters.”

One of Lee’s recent posts is maybe the most interesting. The quotations he provides describe scenes in which Rearden has given Taggart various gifts. Lee uses these scenes to illustrate Rand’s attitude toward selfishness and giving, even in romantic relationships. She can’t allow Rearden to give a gift without driving home that no acts should ever be performed for the purpose of making another person happy. But the descriptions of the gifts are themselves interesting:
On the evening of a blizzard, she came home to find an enormous spread of tropical flowers standing in her living room against the dark glass of windows battered by snowflakes. They were stems of Hawaiian Torch Ginger, three feet tall; their large heads were cones of petals that had the sensual texture of soft leather and the color of blood.
She opened it and stared in incredulous bewilderment at a pendant made of a single pear-shaped ruby that spurted a violent fire on the white satin of the jeweler’s box….
She stood naked, the stone between her breasts, like a sparkling drop of blood.
Here, as in the description of molten steel above, a gem – a hard, nonliving substance - is granted life-like qualities. Even more suggestive of the linkage Fromm suggests between the two forms of necrophilism, living flowers call pleasingly to Rand’s mind injury (“the color of blood”) and eroticized death (“the sensual texture of leather”).

Described in Gary Weiss’s 2012 Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, Rand’s personality was atrocious in many ways. In her life as in her art, she would probably provide an excellent case study for a Frommian (or Horneyan, for that matter) analysis, not just of Rand as an individual but of the culture that creates and sustains these pathological tendencies. As Fromm suggests, understanding the necrophilous character, especially in relation to capitalism, has important implications for psychological and ecological health.

* I believe Fromm was correct in his contention that such tendencies could be revealed in “marginal, unintended ‘insignificant’ actions, the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’” (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 374). While he at times took this observation to silly hyper-Freudian extremes – a person’s necrophilousness could be detected in “a particular kind of lifelessness in his conversation” (377), “a predilection for dark, light-absorbing colors” (377), an “incapacity to laugh” (378), and “a special affinity for bad odors” which can give necrophiles “the appearance of being ‘sniffers’” (378) – I do think it’s fair to look for evidence in a person’s literary or artistic works.

** I’m not suggesting that people with similar physical features to Rand’s heroes look less “human” or natural in my view. My argument concerns Rand’s attribution of nonliving/nonhuman qualities to these features and her disgust at what she considered fleshy, human bodies, which reveals an open contempt for the living human form. More generally, as I discussed in the previous post, an interest in the nonliving and mechanical is not in itself indicative of necrophilous tendencies; it has to be analyzed in terms of a person’s (or a culture’s) attitude toward living beings and the connotations living beings and nonliving artifacts have for them.

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