Strangely enough, I first discovered the existence of this film while browsing through a video rental store in the Solomon Islands. There was no way in hell that any of my colleagues would be the least interested in it so I didn’t manage to watch it then but I do wonder sometimes at whoever thought to bring it into that country. Since my wife recently procured a Chinese version of Atlas Shrugged from Taiwan and read it, I thought it would be a good idea to finally get around and watch this film.
First of all, there’s nothing that’s really new to me in this film as I’ve long known how much of a mess Ayn Rand’s life was. Michael Shermer’s article The Unlikeliest Cult in History is a pretty good summary. The main thing about this account that particularly stood out for me is how sympathetically it portrays Barbara Branden’s role in the events. This is hardly surprising as the film was based on the book by Barbara Branden but it’s notable how manipulative and cynical both Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand are shown to be while Frank O’ Connor is a doddering hanger on who’s too stupid to understand anything. Barbara Branden by contrast is shown as an intelligent woman who simply makes the mistake of allowing herself to be dragged along by the odd ideas of her husband and Rand.
Another thing is how astonishingly different Helen Mirren looks in this film compared to say, her performance that is probably best known today as the title character in The Queen. Everything about her including her demeanor, her accent and the way her hair curls at one side, combine perfectly to make her a believable Ayn Rand. In fact, all of the actors do a great job and names like Peter Fonda and Julie Delpy are hardly run of the mill television fare. It’s a made for tv movie but its production values are high enough that it could almost pass as film made for theatrical release.
Still, the subject matter is so esoteric that I can’t really imagine it being the least interesting to anyone who doesn’t already know about Ayn Rand and her work. The film makes no attempt to explain Rand’s philosophy so I would imagine that the motivations and rationale of the different characters must have been mystifying to those unfamiliar with it. Where it does succeed is in communicating that Ayn Rand was indeed a woman and a fiercely passionate one at that. It also shows how difficult it was for her to finish writing Atlas Shrugged and implies that her relationship with Nathaniel Branden was instrumental towards that end.
Overall, this film probably isn’t worth watching unless, like me, you’re one of those whose lives have been greatly impacted by reading her work. Even so, I think I would have preferred to watch a film of her early life, detailing her flight from the Soviet Union to her early success with The Fountainhead. The Passion of Ayn Rand begins with her as a writer who is already established and successful and focuses exclusively on the unconventional relationship between the four main characters. As an author whose work continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year even today, I think her life deserves a more complete and complex film than this one.
My view of the Roman Polanski case is the conventional one: he has admitted to having sex with a girl who was under-aged at the time, plying her with drugs and alcohol to do so, and is a fugitive from justice. Nothing else matters to me including the amount of time that has passed, how much he has suffered before and after the event and how great a talent he is as a film director. Incredibly, despite what seems to me to be a fairly clear cut case, the man still has defenders, even on QT3. I am also absolutely flabbergasted by the French government’s response to the arrest.
The reason for this post however pertains not with the case directly. I’ve been thinking about Ayn Rand’s books again recently, prompted by my wife’s discovery that Chinese translations of her books now exist. Her parents are currently on an extended trip to China and she’s asked them to buy copies of those books if they can find them. I’m very curious what they would be like in Chinese.
Anyway, the connection here is that Ayn Rand has always believed that values and virtues are absolute, hence the name of her philosophy “Objectivism”. This extends to aesthetics as well. According to her worldview, only a person of virtuous character could create or even admire a great work of art and conversely, all works of art that are great must by definition have been created by someone of unimpeachable virtue. Naturally, this leads to amusing consequences. For example, Rand believed that homosexuality is morally wrong and therefore every thing that a homosexual does or creates is tainted. This means that anyone who professes to admire a work created by a homosexual must be flawed in some way as well.
I don’t pretend to be enough of a film buff to be able to competently judge Polanski’s work but I see no reason to doubt the overwhelming consensus that he’s a great director. This, of course, contrasts rather spectacularly with his moral failures as a human being. I’m sure everyone can find many other examples of great talent, especially in entertainment, that have a less than perfect character. So this serves as one example, amongst many others, why Rand’s philosophy isn’t a particularly robust one. I do note that the ancient Chinese shared similar views in this regard. They believed for example that a person’s virtue could be demonstrated through his calligraphy or his paintings. This just goes to show how seductive the idea is that skilled people should also be moral people and how shallow it is to hold up someone as a general role model just because of high achievement is a narrow field.
I meant to post this earlier but my net connection, along with it seems that of a large number of other Malaysians, was down for the better part of Friday and Saturday. Here’s a link to an amusing article that I read on The Economist. Apparently one unexpected side effect of the current financial crisis has been a boom in the sales of books by Ayn Rand. The publication finds that there is a correlation between announcements of government intervention in the markets and spikes in the sales of Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
The apparent cause is that current news seems to be echoing events in the novel, with Alan Greenspan’s admission of a flaw in the financial system being particularly seen by Randites as a cowardly capitulation reminiscent of a character’s rejection of reason in favour of faith in the book. More significantly, there seems to be a phenomenon called “Going Galt” going around in the U.S., named after John Galt, a major character in the novel. The idea is that taxpayers should stop subsidizing the government’s wasteful bailout policies and opt out of the financial system by simply choosing to produce less wealth than they could or even choosing not to work at all or closing down their businesses.
For what it’s worth, even though I call myself a libertarian, I don’t identify with this movement at all. Tax increases are to be avoided whenever possible, but in this case are absolutely necessary for the long-term health of the U.S. economy. I’m never happy with bailing out failed businesses or borrowers who took on more liabilities than they could comfortably handle, but I cannot agree that the U.S. government should simply do nothing. I’d have preferred for example, that the U.S. government went ahead and nationalized any banks that are found to be insolvent, but it’s pretty obvious that this is going to entail an extremely large increase in short-term government expenditure that will eventually need to be paid for in the form of higher taxes. I certainly won’t pretend that doing it my way would be any cheaper.
One thing about this movement particularly irks me is that many of them don’t seem to understand the concept of marginal tax rates. There are stories, for example, about people going around finding ways to make sure their income doesn’t exceed US$250,000 because they seem to believe that the higher tax rate for that bracket would be applicable towards the entirety of their income, rather than just the specific amount that exceeds the ceiling. Not very smart for a bunch of folks claiming to espouse rationality and reason.
I thought I’d post a Nolan Chart today to demonstrate what being a libertarian means. This particular version is from The Proceedings of the Friesian School by Kelley L. Ross, one of my favorite sites on philosophy. Other versions exist, for example, the one used on Wikipedia to illustrate its article on the subject. You’d do well to read Ross’ article on the subject, but to summarize, the Nolan Chart appears to have been inspired by Ayn Rand’s observation that the political right and the political left both allow individual freedom in the areas that they think aren’t important but invoke government intervention in areas that they think are important.
To the political right in the U.S. who are often strongly religious, the area that is important is personal morality. After all, to the religious, material wealth isn’t something that you can take with you to the afterlife and anyway, God helps those who help themselves, so it makes perfect sense that those who work hard are materially rewarded. Sin however is seen as a permanent stain on the soul and perhaps even a corrupting influence that can spread unless it is stamped out, and is therefore much too important to be left to the individual.
Continue reading Explaining Libertarianism using the Nolan Chart
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post saying if any public official in the U.S. ought to be blamed for the current mess in the financial markets, it ought to be Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. A couple of days ago, at a Congressional hearing, Greenspan admitted that he had made mistakes, while stopping short of taking full responsibility. He also admitted that he had failed to take action earlier for idealogical reasons, believing that the markets would be self-correcting.
It’s a bad time to believe in capitalism. As a poster on QT3 remarked, Greenspan was “like BFF with Ayn Rand and everything”. Hopefully, I’ll have time to write a spirited defense of capitalism next week.
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected these answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose RAPTURE.
– Andrew Ryan, founder of Rapture
Bioshock has been named by multiple sources as the best PC game of 2007, so it was some trepidation that I picked it up, hoping that all the hype wasn’t totally unfounded. As the much heralded spiritual successor of System Shock 2, also written by Ken Levine, Bioshock has always had a lot to live up to, and judging at least by its unexpected commercial success and the near universal acclaim of game critics, it has largely succeeded at that. To me, there’s no question that Bioshock is a pretty much a unique gem, there’s nothing else quite like it in the market, but at the same time, I’m painfully aware that a lot of the hype is undeserved and the thought of what Bioshock could have been, if the designers had just been a little more ambitious and daring, is positively agonizing.
That Bioshock is a triumph of aesthetic design and storytelling goes without question. The opening FMV of the protagonist sitting in a plane, reading a mysterious handwritten message, segues seamlessly into the first scene as the player takes control of the sole survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Flames rage on the surface of the ocean as you, confused and exhausted, swim through a gap in the burning debris of the plane to the shelter of a lighthouse that stands, incongruously, on a lonely rock in the middle of nowhere. You push through the gilded double doors and suddenly it’s like walking into a different world. A banner proclaims, “No Gods, No Kings. Only Man”. Music wafts in from an unseen source. Plaques on the walls valourize the virtues of “Art”, “Science” and “Industry”. The grand stairs lead down to a roughly spherical pod sitting in a small pool of water, a bathysphere. You step inside, because there’s nowhere else to go. Then you settle in your seat as it takes you to the bottom of the ocean. The year is 1960. Welcome to Rapture.
Continue reading A Game: Bioshock
What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love – he was not man.
– Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged
[This is Part 2 of a planned 3 part series on Ayn Rand and her philosophy and its influence on my life. You can read Part 1 here. This part covers some of Ayn Rand’s early life and details more of her philosophy and how it directly influenced my personal development.]
In many ways, Ayn Rand’s life showed a determination and even an obsession as strong as any of her fictional characters. Born in 1905 to a middle-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia, she witnessed firsthand the horrors of communism when her family’s pharmacy was seized by the Soviets in the revolution of 1917. At the University of Petrograd (the city’s new name given by the Soviets in place of St. Petersburg), she studied history, including American history, and became an admirer of American ideals. In 1925, she finally received permission to travel to America, on the pretext of visiting relatives, but by then she had already decided never to return to Russia.
Continue reading Ayn Rand and Me (Part 2)