When I see condemnation of the journalistic standards of “The Times of India” filling my newsfeed, a question posed by Gail Wynand whose media empire spread like bubonic plague comes back to me: “Do you think it took no talent to create the Banner?” Gail Wynand, the publisher of the New York Banner owned twenty-two newspapers, seven magazines, three news services and two newsreels. He burnt prodigious energy and will power to achieve perfection in serving every perverse need of his ultimate boss-the imbecile on the street who consumes news, gossip and lurid stories like drugs. It took spectacular talent for Wynand to achieve extraordinary perfection in the ordinary.
One of the most powerful scenes in “The Fountainhead” is when several newspapers cornered Gail Wynand, the publisher of New York Banner, to censure him for debasing public tastes. Gail Wynand replied, smiling: “You give them what they profess to like in public. I give them what they really like. It is not my function, to help people preserve a self-respect they haven’t got. Honesty is the best policy, gentlemen, though not quite in the sense you were taught to believe.”
In the New York Banner’s first public campaign, they appealed to the charitable sentiments of the public by displaying pictures of a pretty girl waiting for her illegitimate child, and a starving scientist side by side. The campaign raised one thousand and seventy-seven dollars for the unwed mother when the young scientist had to be content with nine dollars and forty-five cents. At the end of the campaign, Gail Wynand had decided how the Banner deserves to be run.
The Banner pandered to the envy and ignorance of the masses. The Banner strained everything from truth and taste to credibility, but not the intelligence of the reader. The pedestrian text of The Banner shot through the brains of readers. The Banner applied a philosophy that rules all newspapers on earth in as ruthlessly consistent and explicit a manner as possible: “When there’s no news, make it. News is that which will create the greatest excitement among the greatest number. The thing that will knock them silly. The sillier the better, provided there’s enough of them.” Gail Wynand once brought a man to his office whose plain face can in no way be differentiated. When Wynand told his staff, “When in doubt about your work, remembers that man’s face. You’re writing for him.” an astonished young editor replied, “But, Mr. Wynand, one can’t remember his face.” “That’s the point,” replied Wynand.
When he was asked to explain his policy, Gail Wynand said: “Men differ in their virtues, if any but they are alike in their vices. I am serving that which exists on this earth in greatest quantity. I am representing the majority–surely an act of virtue?” Gail Wynand could conceptualize and leverage the instinctively shrewd, if often unsophisticated wisdom of newspaper barons: “If you make people perform a noble duty, it bores them. If you make them indulge themselves, it shames them. But combine the two–and you’ve got them. Sex first. Tears second. Make them itch and make them cry—and you’ve got them.”
There was no day in Wynand’s adult life in which he had slept more four hours. He was no different from a slave who worked never taking anything in return save his rent and meals, when his best reporters lived in luxurious hotels. He never needed a second explanation. He never needed to read his brilliant pieces over again. After his first week in school, he walked out saying: “Should I swill everything down ten times? I know all that.” In Hell’s kitchen where he was born, no one read books, but Wynand read everything he could get his hands on. His reading branched out chaotically, in all directions. He wanted to know everything about everything. In every decision that people called crazy, he has always had the final laugh. Gail Wynand could easily grant his fellow men a lot many things they couldn’t have granted him, but respect was not one among them.
Like many of us who are drunk on drugs, whiskey, religion, literature or even philosophy, Gail Wynand was drunk on the desire to power, the only thing he had ever wanted. In the end, when Dominique Wynand says “Gail, what a great journalist you could have been.” after knowing that Gail Wynand had written much of the copy himself, many of us feel sorry for a could-have-been. No real world example illustrates the brutal honesty of Gail Wynand better than the commercial success of Times of India, the English language newspaper with the widest readership on earth, and the failure of the fake intellectuality and compassion of bleeding heart journalism.
Gail Wynand of Wynand Papers has always been my fictional hero, and always will be. The most accurate expression of a worldview I can relate to is evident when Gail speaks his mind: “I’ve never owned anything. I’ve never wanted anything. I’ve never taken much from the world. I haven’t wanted much. I’ve never really wanted anything. I’ve never known how to say ’mine’ about anything. You don’t love me. You wish to grant me nothing. I accept it and I want you to marry me. It is not the object that matters, it’s the desire. Not you, but I. The ability to desire like that.” It is a vague feeling of helplessness, a painful longing deep inside our minds that is rarely articulated in a way it ought to be. It is a complex emotional state only a master of the art can express with as much clarity.
No fiction work has ever had an effect on me that even begins to compare with that of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece, “The Fountainhead”. And one of the most fascinating stories in the history of ideas will always be that of a 21 year old Russian migrant who was yet to achieve mastery of English language later going on to become the most influential thinker in the libertarian movement.
While she evoked more passionate devotion than any libertarian thinker, she also evoked intense hatred. The reasons are not far to seek. Never did I read a writer who was as good at unmasking the ugly face of the Apostle’s of public welfare. Ayn Rand did not hesitate to say that a moral cannibal who rejects freedom should be given an arrowhead and bearskin, not a university chair of economics. In a world where humility and tolerance are considered primary virtues, Ayn Rand was the epitome of arrogance. But, it is hard to deny that hers was a voice that was heard when that of other libertarians were all but lost in the “inarticulate sounds of panic”. The great economist Ludwig Von Mises said to her in a letter praising “Atlas Shrugged”: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you. If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it still is the truth that had to be said in this age of the Welfare State.” Mises called her the “most courageous man in the United States”. When she heard this from Henry Hazlitt, she asked: “Oh, did he say man?”.
February 2nd, 2012 was her 107th Birthday.
I came across Rand’s “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” in a road side book stall in a phase when I was beginning to read Mises, Bastiat and Rothbard. One day, while travelling, I decided to read her work all the way to the end. The book radically changed my perspective on politics and economics. Ayn Rand never doubted whether socialism and slavery are any different. If you think that this is hyperbole, consider the comment of Ralph Weber, a Facebook friend of mine: “Where I live, we used to have free healthcare, free food, free education, free clothing, free shelter and it seemed to work pretty well for a while. It existed prior to 1861. It was called slavery.”
I went on to read her other works too. I loved “The Fountainhead”. Soon, the virtue of selfishness became way too obvious to me. Her philosophy started making near perfect sense. Yet, I had many disagreements in the area of psychology which became clear when I read Nathaniel Branden’s critique of her philosophy a few months after coming across her works. When Nathaniel Branden said in a speech: “Howard Roark gives out an unrealistic picture of human psychology.” he was mildly pointing to that reality.
Still, much of her philosophy sounded very true, very much obvious. How could this be wrong? I did not find clear answers to it till I read Michael Huemer’s essay and Scott Ryan’s “Objectivism and The Corruption of Rationality”. Though I still agree to many of her controversial positions, I have plenty of disagreements. So, where do I disagree?
It is beyond the scope of this article to get into it all my disagreements. Let us take a look at her ethics, which is indicative. I often hear that Rand’s biggest contribution is her ethics. I find a circular argument in her ethical framework which is so glaring that it is surprising that someone can even miss it. She argues that life is the standard of morality. Why? Rand’s answer is that it is because life makes values possible. Why are values good? She answers that the standard of value is life, which is the ultimate end. If life is the ultimate end, why does she have to justify it on the basis that it makes the concept of value possible? Further, she goes on to argue that life should be worth sustaining, which again refutes her notion that life is an end in itself or even an ultimate end. All this is nonsense. I do not think that Selfishness is a virtue, though it often is indeed, a great virtue. Russell Kirk once said that if you are willing to believe that selfishness is a virtue, you will believe anything. Selfishness is hard to sell. It goes against the instincts of the average human being. She accomplished this task by a simply procedure: She defined every act she deemed moral as selfish. Understanding her approach is crucial to understanding her and her philosophy. Her keen mind found rationalizations for her several outlandish positions. She was one of the most brilliant “rationalizers” in the whole of human history. I do not know whether it is a virtue or a vice.
Sadomasochism in Rand
Intelligent objectivists often find it way too obvious that her theory of sex is problematic and runs into obvious difficulties. Yet, sexuality and melodrama in her novels have got the least scholarly attention. We shall look into sexuality and sadomasochism in her fiction in some detail:
The Fountainhead begins with Howard Roark laughing, standing naked at the edge of a cliff. When Dominique looks at Roark’s wet shirt, she thinks about the statues of men she had always loved, and then she wonders how he would look naked. Roark looked at her as if he could read her mind so well. Dominique once told Alvah Scarret that she loves statues of naked men.
In ‘Atlas Shrugged’, when teenaged Dagny asked “Do you suppose I should try to get D’s for a change and become the most popular girl in school?”, Francisco slapped her face hard. “She felt pleasure from the dull, hot pain in her cheek and from the taste of blood in the corner of her mouth. She felt pleasure in what she suddenly grasped about him, about herself and about his motive.” Earlier in the novel when Dagny’s brother Jim asks “You haven’t any pride at all. The way you run when he whistles and wait on him! Why don’t you shine his shoes?” Her answer was: “Because he hasn’t told me to.” She sits at Henry Rearden’s feet, pressing her face to his knees. Rearden holds her hand and kisses her wrist, fingers, and palm. She sobs in his arms, in a way she has never done in her life, burying her face in his knees in final protest.
In “The Fountainhead”, Dominique often tries to exert her power over Howard Roark. When she extends the back of her hand and says: “Kiss my hand, Roark”, he would kneel down and kiss her feet on her ankles.
Ayn Rand wanted to fulfill her own fantasy, and yet let her fictional hero keep his ego intact. Egomaniacal masochists have a difficult row to hoe. She held that he demonstrated his power by admitting that of hers. She felt owned when lying at her feet, he expresses his need for her, and her ownership over him. We see her sitting on the floor at his feet, pressing her head to his knees. She buries her face against his knees. He asks her to light his cigarette, and in turn she asks him to place his hand on her back, and hold it there for a while. He obeys her.
In the 1936 version of “We the Living”, there was a scene in which Leo whips Kira. Kira wishes that she was lying under a whip in Leo’s hand. When Dominique, a columnist for Wynand Papers tells Alvah Scarret, the editor-in-chief that it would be terrible to have a job she enjoyed and did not want to lose, Alvah asks her why. Dominique replies: “Because I would have to depend on you–you’re a wonderful person, Alvah, but not exactly inspiring and I don’t think it would be beautiful to cringe before a whip in your hand–oh, don’t protest, it would be such a polite little whip.” When Dominique saw Howard Roark working in a granite quarry, she wondered whether they whipped convicts these days and hoped that they did.
Dominique humiliates Peter Keating by submitting to his every need with contemptuous indifference. Peter Keating would burn in humiliation, vowing to never to touch her again, soon to be back on his knees to repeat the process again when the desire comes back. It reminds me of a visual in which a man clasping the bare legs of a lady sitting stone-faced, with weary sadness. When he tries to kiss her ankles, she withdraws her feet contemptuously, and walks away, waking up.
When Peter Keating asks Dominique, Where’s your I?” She asks softly, “Where’s yours, Peter?” In shock and humiliation, he said “It is not true”, his eyes begging her to deny the fact that she had meant just that. She wakes up and stands before him, the erectness of her body judging him, reminding him of the life he had always begged for. Peter Keating gets on his knees, clutching her, his head buried against her legs saying “Dominique, it’s not true–that I never loved you. I love you, I always have, it was not just to show the others–that was not all–I loved you.” Unimpressed by him kissing her backside, she says”It’s said that the worst thing one can do to a man is to kill his self-respect. But that’s not true. Self-respect is something that can’t be killed. The worst thing is to kill a man’s pretense at it.”, Peter says in shock: “Dominique, I…I don’t want to talk.” With pity, she bends down to kiss his forehead, the first kiss she had ever granted to him after marriage.
Peter Keating goes through the worst humiliation in his life when he tried to sell Dominique to the newspaper baron Gail Wynand for the Stoneridge contract. After asking “Have you heard about my descriptive style?” Gail Wynand says, “Your wife has a lovely body, Mr. Keating. Her shoulders are too thin, but admirably in scale with the rest of her. Her legs are too long, but that gives her the elegance of line you’ll find in a good yacht. Her breasts are beautiful, don’t you think?”, and then adds, “I grant you I’m behaving abominably. I’m breaking all the rules of charity. It’s extremely cruel to be honest.” Whispering “I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Wynand,” Peter Keating stared at the soft, shivering tomato aspic on his salad plate that made him sick to the stomach. A man feels most humiliated when his wife’s dignity is being violated. Keating stood like he has lost a manhood he has never had, only to ask helplessly, “Why are you doing this to me?”
In “The Husband I Bought”, Henry Stafford kisses Irene’s arms, from the fingertips to the shoulder. Irene makes Stafford listen to him by begging and imploring. He is tender at times, cold and stern at other, ordering her to leave, turning his backside to her. When she falls on her knees and kisses the back of his hands and cries, “Henry, Henry, I cannot live without you! I just cannot!”, he whispers, “Go now!”, and asks, “Will you not say something to me, for the last time?” When she replies, “I loved you, Henry.”, he tells her, “I shall be happy. But there are moments when I wish I would never have met that woman. There is nothing to do. Life is hard, sometimes, Irene.” She answers in humiliation: “Yes, Henry,” and approaches him to fall at his feet, burying her head in his knees, when he says with cold sternness, “Go home, Irene. And never come again.”, she mutters “You … you don’t love me, Henry?” She smiles when he says “There can be nothing between us, now. Can’t you understand it?” as it was too unbelievable to be true.
In “Red Pawn”, when Kareyev falls at Joan’s feet, as if all strength had gone out of him, and whisper: “You won’t go alone. You won’t go alone.” she strokes his head, smiling, kissing his hair. He buries his face in the folds of her dress, clasping her legs, holding her, in a desperate panic of fear that she would vanish from his fingers to disappear forever. He says that he will buy her little satin slippers lined with soft pink feathers and slip them himself on her bare feet.
Humiliation and Submission
As in “Red Pawn” and “The Husband I Bought”, the earlier writing of Rand tells tales of humiliation and submission. In many stories, as it later happened in her own life, women held financial power over their husband, and humiliated him further by extramarital affairs. Humiliation forms an integral part of her writings.
It reminds me of an interesting story of revenge and humiliation I had read as a child in a travelogue. The author narrates the story of a gypsy who made a spicy dish for his girlfriend. He asked her whether she enjoyed the dish. She said “Yes”. His retort leaved her shocked speechless: “I am not surprised. The dish was prepared with your boyfriend’s liver.” She was cheating on him. The humiliation was perfect when she was served a dish made at his expense. The story must be true. Gypsies are that vengeful. I think one of the most ingenious ways to humiliate ones ex-lover is to present a gift at his expense to your new target. “
In “We The Living”, Kira tells Andrei that his bills went to her lover Leo, her voice rising like a whip, lashing him on both sides: “All you were to me, you and your great love, and your kisses, and your body, all they meant was only a pack of crisp, white, square, ten-ruble bills with a sickle and hammer printed in the corner! Do you know where those bills went? To a tubercular sanatorium in the Crimea. Do you know what they paid for? For the life of a man I loved long before I ever saw you, for the life of a body that had possessed mine before you ever touched it.”
A similar story of humiliation is in Pierre Louÿs’ 1896 novella “Woman and Puppet.” Don Mateo Díaz falls in love with Conchita Pérez, a low class sixteen year old girl when she promised to sing a little song if he would give her a penny. He tossed a small coin and listened to her song. She said that she was a pure virgin. After he slipped her old mother a few coins, she sat on his lap and kissed him putting her arms around his neck. When he tried to return her kiss, her temper flared up. He felt guilty, and greased the palms of both the mother and daughter. She would take off her clothes and stand naked in his presence. When Don Mateo Díaz promised her mother everything they wanted, Conchita left the place after sending him a note: “You shall never see me again”.
Months later, on a spring day, she appeared in front of him and said that she was willing to be his mistress. One night, when lying on her bed, she tried to take off her innerwear, but she wanted to remain a mozita. Don Mateo Díaz saw her with many other men and felt that she was into this for money. He said that she should give him what he wants or she will never see him again. She said that she will be his lifelong mistress once he sets her up a home. He bought an expensive villa. She was supposed to receive him in the night. When she went there, she said through the bars: “Kiss my hands.” He kissed. “Now kiss the hem of my skirt and the tip of my foot in its slipper.” He did as she requested. “That is good,” she said. “Now you may go.” When she saw the shocked expression on his face, she laughed in a humiliating manner and went on to make love with another young man in his presence in the villa Don Mateo bought for her. She ridiculed him saying that she will stay in the villa with her new lover. The next day, Conchita went to Don Mateo’s house to see whether he had committed suicide. He hadn’t. He slapped her hard again and again till she screamed. After the punishment, she expressed a desire to be his soul mate.
Sexuality in her novels is quite subtle. The symbolism is elegant, exquisite and allusive. It evokes deep emotions only when we read more into it.
Consider the following passage: “She threw the jacket down on the floor. She put her bag down on a table and stood removing her gloves, slowly, as if she wished to prolong the intimacy of performing a routine gesture. She slapped her gloves softly against her palm, a small gesture of finality, like a period at the end of a sentence. She undressed indifferently, as if she were alone in her own bedroom.” The symbolism is all the more evident in a woman throwing her jacket on the floor, removing her gloves slowly, slapping them softly against her palm as a gesture of finality.
Such routine gestures are seen in unsuspecting situations. Once when my status update read, “The best thing about winters will always be women taking off their jackets! One of my prized possessions is Nabokov’s Lolita. I love it not so much for the literary merit, as for its beautiful cover with a young girl’s legs in tiny socks and saddle shoes. Winters remind me of Lolita.” many were convinced that I am worthy of suspicion, and that they would better be careful!
There are very few fiction works that are as dedicated to the self esteem and independence of women as that of Rand’s. But, in ‘The Fountainhead’, Dominique falls in love with Roark, the man who raped her. It was of course, a rape by invitation, a symbol of humiliation and conquest. While she was an ardent supporter of careerism in women, she insisted that no woman should be greater than the highest man. Her fiction works play with this glaring contradiction throughout.