Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged saw a fitting spike in mindshare with the shift in our political landscape and the subsequent emergence of the Tea Party. Now with the release of the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part I, there is an even bigger spike in interest. So of course the knives are really coming out — not just from the Left, who see Rand’s rejection of collectivism as a signal she is on the Right, but from the Right who see Rand’s rejection of religion and altruism as odious as well.
And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmführer drilling his commandoes.
Since there weren’t that many comments yet, I chimed in with what is becoming almost a stock analysis:
There is a clear pattern in criticism of Ayn Rand, her novel Atlas Shrugged, and the philosophy of Objectivism: (1) Most critics opt for the ad-hominem route, calling Rand nasty names while trying to attack her character and painting those who do find merit in her philosophy as simpletons and sociopaths. A little investigation into the matter reveals that (2) the overwhelming majority of Rand’s critics haven’t bothered to acquaint themselves with what she actually advocated, much less why — and their level of vitriol often betrays their degree of ignorance. Finally, and most unfortunate of all, (3) on those rare occasions that Rand’s critics appear to take up her ideas, closer inspection invariably reveals that they are only knocking around a strawman and not genuinely addressing anything from her philosophy.
The present article only confirms this pattern. The ad-hominem flows as if a dam burst. And dire charges arrive in a barrage of assertions so consistently groundless that it would make any decent editor blush to have allowed it. Assertions about Rand’s supposedly atrociously horrible writings (which somehow endure as blockbusting bestsellers); about Rand having “no concept of” the existence and powers we do not give ourselves (when in fact this distinction between what she would call “the metaphysically-given” and “the man-made” is so fundamental to her thought that it plays a critical role throughout her philosophical system); about what Rand supposedly thinks “virtue” consists primarily in (when in fact the author is not merely mistaken, but categorically wrong about what Rand understood virtue to be); about what the “only important question” was to Rand (which anyone with a passing knowledge of her ethics would recognize as so wrong as to constitute an outright reversal of a cardinal virtue in her morality); her being “eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems in ontology, epistemology, or logic” (when ever-growing serious academic attention to her work in such areas doubly belies the author’s belligerent ignorance). On and on, you get the idea.
Last night, I saw the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. While I’d really hoped to be able to like it, my assessment is highly mixed: I’d give it a C+. If you’d like to hear my reasons why and chat with other movie-goers, join my Rationally Selfish Webcast tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET at philosophyinaction.com.
The first question that I’ll be answering is “What did you think of the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part 1?” I plan to discuss that at some length, so some of the other scheduled questions might need to be deferred until next week.
As a teaser, here are the notes that I made last night, immediately after the movie. (A Wells Fargo deposit envelope was the only paper that I had on hand! Silly me!) The good is on the left, and the bad and ugly is on the right. Click them to enlarge to actual size or thereabouts.
Sweet Jesus. Govindini Murty (GM) of Libertas Film Magazine interviews the director of the new Atlas Shrugged movie, Paul Johansson (PJ):
GM: To return to the themes of the novel. Do you think the characters are beyond good and evil, beyond morality in a Nietzschean sense?
PJ: I really believe that. I really believe that.
GM: That they’re these Promethean, Titanic figures who are above such things?
PJ: I really believe that. Rand uses a lot of things like good and evil in her text but I don’t think she really believed those ideas. It’s like what Oscar Wilde said … I don’t know the exact quote – he said that a book can either be poorly written or well written, but it can’t be evil.
GM: But the novel has that Nietzschean overtone to it.
Ayn Rand didn’t write about good and evil for mere decoration. As she said in the postscript to Atlas Shrugged: “And I mean it.” Seriously, go read her essay “The Objectivist Ethics” if you’re unsure about her ethics. Don’t attempt to make a movie on the assumption that she was just kidding.
Addendum: A friend of mine said:
Watch the video version. He is just eager to please and won’t disagree with any of the leading questions the interviewer feeds him. My impression is that he has no ideas at all and is desperate to sound like he does. This is what you would expect from someone with no directing experience, desperate to sound like he has some. One way or the other this movie is going to be particularly bad.
I’ve not watched the video, as I’ve had more important work on my plate, but that sounds plausible to me.
(Via John Day.)
Much to my dismay, the movie of Atlas Shrugged has begun filming. Otherwise John Aglialoro would have lost his rights on Saturday.
The long-brewing feature version of author Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” has begun shooting in Los Angeles as a $5 million indie produced by John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow.
Cameras began rolling over the weekend on a five-week shoot for “Atlas Shrugged Part One” with Paul Johansson directing from Brian Patrick O’Toole’s script. Aglialoro would have lost the feature rights if the film wasn’t in production by Saturday.
A spokesman for Aglialoro — the CEO of exercise equipment producer Cybex — said there will be at least one more “Atlas Shrugged” shot after the current film’s completed. Rand’s massive novel is divided into three parts, each consisting of 10 chapters. …
Johansson (“One Tree Hill”) portrays Galt. The lead role of railroad executive Dagny Taggart has gone to Taylor Schilling (“Mercy) and the part of Henry Reardon is being played by Grant Bowler (“Ugly Betty”).
Michael Lerner (“A Serious Man”) portrays lobbyist Wesley Mouch and director Nick Cassavetes has signed on for the Richard McNamara role. Other key cast include Matthew Marsdan as James Taggart and Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt.
“Atlas” also stars Edi Gathegi, Jsu Garcia, Rebecca Wisocky, Ethan Cohn, Patrick Fischer, Neill Barry, Christina Pickles and Nikki Klecha.
From what I’ve read, the movie seems to be a low-budget, haphazard rush. That means that it’s sure to suck worse than I’d imagined. But perhaps, unlike a Hollywood blockbuster, they’ll stick closer to the novel. I’m not hopeful, and I fear the movie could do more harm than good in terms of spreading Ayn Rand’s ideas in the culture.
Some harm — potentially substantial — could come from the fact that John Aglialoro is a supporter of and associated with David Kelley and his pseudo-Objectivist Atlas Society. Just imagine David Kelley interviewed about Objectivism in the DVD extras, fumbling and stumbling through basic ideas in Objectivism, as in this interview, then advocating his frankenstein notion of “open Objectivism.” (See my two essays on that: Ayn Rand on David Kelley and The Open System, One More Time.)
Kelley’s IOS/TOC/TAS has been dying since its peak around 2003, when I cut ties. Lately, it’s been on life support, courtesy of a few remaining donors. However, the organization has done nothing of note for years, except employ people. In 2009, they didn’t have a summer conference because they were going to focus on upgrading their web presence. Guess what? They still have the same crappy web site!
I fear that IOS/TOC/TAS will rise from the grave with this movie. I suspect they’ve been desperately waiting for it as their last hope. That’s just pathetic: it’s clear that their core idea of “open Objectivism” has been an abject failure in practice, particularly compared to the flowering of new and innovative work under the supposedly dogmatic Ayn Rand Institute. Yet, true dogmatists that they are, they’re not willing to check their premises.
Ultimately, the fact that the movie seems likely to be a low-budget, haphazard mess might be the silver lining in the black cloud. In all likelihood, the fewer people that see it the better.