Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ayn Rand: Love Means 'No' Means 'Yes'

A female fan once asked Ayn Rand if the "wonderful" love scenes between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon were based on life experience. Rand's response would seem a rare instance of humor on her part: "Wishful thinking." It's a useful summary of her fiction more generally, "the world not as it is, but as it ought to be," but a look at just what these love scenes entail, however, reveals an ideal appalling, amusing, and at least a little pitiable.

Dominique Francon, columnist for the New York Banner and daughter of Peter Keating's boss, Guy Francon, is The Fountainhead's love interest and also its most baffling creation. Rand wrote the character as “myself on a bad day,” which is to say cold, spiteful, possessive, catty; when Dominique's editor tells her that he didn't think she was "just an irresponsible bitch," she replies, "You were wrong." Given that nearly everything she says to almost everyone is contemptuously insincere, this is, one supposes, supposed to be ironic, which--ironically?--is even bitchier.

She's supposed to be something of a cynic, a romantic so despondent of the world's underserving of the great and the beautiful, that she will destroy beauty--for its own sake.
“You know, I love statues of naked men. Don’t look so silly. I said statues. I had one in particular. It was supposed to be Helios. I got it out of a museum in Europe. I had a terrible time getting it—it wasn’t for sale, of course. I think I was in love with it, Alvah. I brought it home with me.”

“Where is it? I’d like to see something you like, for a change.”

“It’s broken.”

“Broken? A museum piece? How did that happen?”

“I broke it.”


“I threw it down the air shaft. There’s a concrete floor below.”

“Are you totally crazy? Why?”

“So that no one else would ever see it.”
This approach, obnoxiously contrarian and attention-hoarding, continues through her relationship with Roark, her highest ideal made manifest, so that their nearly every reaction is marked by hostility and violence.

It's love at first slight:
She stood very still, because her first perception was not of sight, but of touch: the consciousness, not of a visual presence, but of a slap in the face.

...She was thinking of those statues of men she had always sought; she was wondering what he would look like naked. She saw him looking at her as if he knew that. She thought she had found an aim in life--a sudden, sweeping hatred for that man.
The extension of contempt and hatred beyond one's inferiors to encompass one's mate is consummated in the infamous “rape scene,” in which Roark lets himself into Dominique's bedroom, and has his way with her. There's rough material to follow in the rest of the pose, so sensitive readers should consider this a TRIGGER WARNING:
She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast. She tore herself free...
...It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted....
There was some outcry about this scene when The Fountainhead was first published, that the novel's hero is basically raping a woman. Rand disputed this, saying that “if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Dominique wanted it.

This is true so far as it goes. Dominique and Roark are generally oblivious and aloof to other people, while their attraction to each other is studded with words like “contempt” and “cruelty.” The rape is preceded by a scene in which Dominique, on horseback, whips Roark across the face with a tree branch in response to an insolent remark. Their subsequent relationship is a succession of sexual encounters between which Dominique does everything in her professional powers to destroy Roark, which she does for the same reason she destroys Greek statues and marries human waste like Peter Keating: because the only right response to a world that corrupts and squanders greatness is deliberate, sado-masochistic destruction.

Thus aggression is not incidental to Rand's view of sex, but rather necessary and intrinsic:
When they lay in bed together it was--as it had to be, as the nature of the act demanded--an act of violence. It was surrender, made the more complete by the force of their resistance. It was an act of tension, as the great things on earth are things of tension....It was an act of clenched teeth and hatred, it was the unendurable, the agony, an act of passion--the word born to mean suffering--it was the moment made of hatred, tension, pain--the moment that broke its own elements, inverted them, triumphed, swept into a denial of all suffering, into its antithesis, into ecstasy.
The most charitable reading of this possible--and since I am not a Randian, I will be charitable--is that love, like any other act of will, can be glorious and triumphant only by conquering the most ferocious struggle and resistance ("passion--that word born to mean suffering"). As put towards the end of the novel, when Dominique finally and fully submits herself to Roark, "she could not have reached this white serenity except as the sum of all the colors, of all the violence she had known." In the meantime, the hatefuck is a consummation of Roark and Dominique's negging each other on.

So it’s a rape, Dominique even calls it that, but it's still not rape rape, which makes it a lot worse, because this is supposed to be an idealized love, where "man was the life force and woman could respond to nothing else."

This notion of sex as conquest, the inferiority of women--Rand thought the idea of a woman president was an absurdity--it all would be incredibly off-putting, offensive, and so forth, and it is, but Rand's commitment to the juxtaposition of affection and affliction, much like her ideas more generally, is so complete and over-the-top that after a time it stops being offensive and starts provoking giggles:
She came in and found a copy of the Banner spread out on his table, open at the page bearing “Your House” by Dominique Francon. Her column contained the line: “Howard Roark is the Marquis de Sade of architecture. He’s in love with his buildings--and look at them.” She knew that he disliked the Banner, that he put it there only for her sake, that he watched her noticing it, with the half-smile she dreaded on his face. She was angry; she wanted him to read everything she wrote, yet she would have preferred to think it hurt him enough to make him avoid it. Later, lying across the bed, with his mouth on her breast, she looked past the orange tangle of his head, at that sheet of newspaper on the table, and he felt her trembling with pleasure.
A reader would be hard-pressed to imagine a woman looking at a bloody newspaper and getting a rush by how much it pisses off the man currently suckling her dug without, pardon the phrase, getting all atitter.

More than anything, however, Rand's ideas on love become rather sad, when seen in the light of her own love life. Short, somewhat frumpy, and with "a stare that could wilt a cactus," she was not a sculpted beauty, unlike the characters of her fiction. Her first girlhood crushes were on, typically, impossible heroic figures: a French adventure serial hero, Cyrus, and--I'm not making this up--Enjolras, the leader of the Paris student rebellion in Les Miserables. Her first real love was a fellow St. Petersburg student, Lev Bekkerman, who pointedly ignored and avoided her after a few dates.

Her husband Frank O'Connor looked the part of hero, but he was overwhelmed by Rand's domineering personality and his acting career had, by the time of The Fountainhead's creation, petered out completely. Though she depended on him as an emotional outlet, the tension in their pairing created a friction that doubtless contributed to her eventual seduction of an acolyte twenty-five years her junior. Her ideal of love as vicious struggle, like much else in her worldview, may well have been a conflation of 'is' and 'ought' born of a lifetime of disappointment. "Wishful thinking," indeed.

1 comment:

  1. sooo,will paul ryan ever become president?
    even if it takes a coup d' etat,to punish all for not being nice to his vicepresidential pretenses?