Friday, April 28, 2006

Brangelina Shrugged

At 17, being a stubborn atheist and loving to read and generally thinking I was right about everything, I found myself, like so many other teenagers who fit that description, nodding along to the works of Ayn Rand. I even subjected myself to reading every last line of Atlas Shrugged, her mammoth ideological novel. (This was partly a test of discipline, the same way I forced myself to read every footnote of Infinite Jest, something that required flipping to the back of the book each time, often for something that was purposefully difficult or completely unnecessary or both. But at least Wallace is funny and felicitous, two things you can't say about Rand.)

Now, to why I brought you here: Rumor has it that Atlas Shrugged is being turned into a film starring -- wait for it, wait for it; oh, damn, the headline tipped you off -- Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

At first, I found this casting comical and horrifying. Pondering it further, though, I decided it was comical and thrilling. After all, Rand's prose is considerably less than poetic, and without a screenwriter who doubles as a magician, odds are that the actors will have to deliver lines resembling the following, which come from the book's climactic speech (if climactic events can last for hundreds of life-sapping pages that describe a philosophy any bright middle-schooler could be made to understand in a few tidy paragraphs):
A morality that holds need as a claim, holds emptiness -- non-existence -- as its standard of value; it rewards an absence, a defect: weakness, inability, incompetence, suffering, disease, disaster, the lack, the fault, the flaw -- the zero. Who provides the account to pay these claims? Those who are cursed for being non-zeros, each to the extent of his distance from that ideal. Since all values are the product of virtues, the degree of your virtue is used as the measure of your penalty; the degree of your faults is used as the measure of your gain. Your code declares that the rational man must sacrifice himself to the irrational, the independent man to parasites, the honest man to the dishonest, the man of justice to the unjust, the productive man to thieving loafers, the man of integrity to compromising knaves, the man of self-esteem to sniveling neurotics. Do you wonder at the meanness of soul in those you see around you? The man who achieves these virtues will not accept your moral code; the man who accepts your moral code will not achieve these virtues.
Still with me? Hello?

I know, it's hard to believe anyone could withstand 1,168 pages of that, but people do, and only the Bible is held more dear as an influential read. ("Atlas Shrugged ... was rated the 'second most influential book for Americans today,' after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club." That's from a site devoted to the book -- not The Book -- but I've seen it substantiated many times.) At least the Bible, for all the philosophical (and, sadly, political) problems it raises for us doubters, brims with beauty; it's unnerving as a language lover to think that some ideas -- Objectivism, Christianity, etc. -- can survive any vessel, and that the holy tome might have the same pull on people's hearts even if Rand had written it: "Whoever believes in him, and if they accept the moral code in their soul, and if they refuse to sacrifice noble men to sniveling neurotics, will live forever, will never die, will never stop breathing, will never close their eyes in a way that keeps them from ever opening them again, will have the ability to walk around and talk and see things and touch stuff every day even after the less noble men have died and gone into the ground and stopped doing all of those things."


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