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Reply to an Ant on Behalf of Thunder

According to the New York Times, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead used to be big. Lorine Pruette, in the New York Times Book Review (May 16, 1943), wrote that “it was the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall.” She wrote that the characters “are amazingly literate” and “romanticized, larger-than-life as representations of good and evil”; and she described the villain Ellsworth Toohey as “a brilliant personification of a modern devil.” Ben Brantley, however, in a recent New York Times review (Nov. 29, 2017) of a theatrical adaptation of The Fountainhead — more on the play shortly — describes the book as one of her “fat, hyperventilating novels,” which no sensible adult could take seriously. But to paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (Paramount 1950): The Fountainhead is big. It’s the Times that got small.

And Mr. Brantley is particularly diminutive. In fact, the above-mentioned Toohey — who is (inter alia) an art critic — states succinctly one reason why Brantley and so many others cannot appreciate The Fountainhead: “The sound perception of an ant does not include thunder.”

The play Brantley reviewed, which appeared in a limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was directed by the Tony-award winning Belgian director Ivo van Hove, and performed (in Dutch, with English supertitles) by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. I saw the play on its last night (Dec. 2). Although this is not a review of the play, but a comment on Brantley’s review, I’ll mention that I thought it was a mix of rather bad features, and some excellent ones.

On the negative side, I disliked the “rape” scene and all the other sex scenes, which did not convey what the novel meant them to; there were some unfortunate omissions of important scenes (e.g. the Manhattan Bank commission), which could easily have replaced some of the scenes that were included; there was a bit too much yelling to project emotional intensity, where Roark and Dominique should have been portrayed more calmly (and the relaxed side of Roark was in general missing). And I have a hard time projecting how objective the play was — i.e., I doubt whether it could all have been understood by someone who had not read the novel.

On the positive side: The acting was generally quite good, the set was visually stunning, and I was impressed by how so much of the story was conveyed so economically. A great many speeches and statements, straight from the novel, were delivered accurately and with sufficient grandeur. The performance ended with Roark speaking directly to the audience, deadly serious, delivering a core portion of Roark’s courtroom speech.

It was wonderful to hear Ayn Rand’s words (albeit in Dutch) about egoism and altruism presented earnestly to a packed house of Americans. (I heard one woman say during intermission that she did not understand a particular scene involving Dominique, so she really ought to read the novel. I expect she wasn’t the only one so prompted to read it.) The director deserves credit for choosing to do this, and for taking the novel seriously. He did not understand The Fountainhead fully; but I never had the sense that he was apologizing for Ayn Rand’s convictions, or twisting them, or presenting them tongue in cheek.

I suspect this made reviewing the play difficult for Brantley. On the one hand, he is an admirer of van Hove; on the other, he loathes Ayn Rand. (Or less sympathetically, but I suspect more accurately, he is — in the words of The Fountainhead — a second-hander, who according to today’s fashions is supposed to admire van Hove and loathe Ayn Rand.) His solution is to smear Ayn Rand and her novel, but praise what van Hove has managed to do with it. So he writes that she “has seldom had a better advocate,” and that The Fountainhead “has been given a sweep, heft and hysteria usually associated with productions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle.” He concludes:

 Is it hokum? Oh sure, and hokum with a whole lot of ponderous speeches about the morality of aesthetics and the creed of the Individual (capital I, please). And yet I found myself as hooked by Mr. van Hove’s interpretation as I was by King Vidor’s 1949 movie, which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. . . . Take what’s happening onstage too literally, and you (and it) are in trouble. See it as some sort of “Twilight of the Gods” fantasy that taps into our most shameful primal instincts, and you’re likely to find yourself sky high, breathless and hypnotized.

He also smeared her earlier in the review with the preposterous notion that Donald Trump is a real fan (a man who claims that his favorite books are the Bible and Trump: The Art of the Deal, and who I doubt is capable of reading — let alone understanding — anything of Rand’s).

What is especially ironic is that Brantley has published precisely the kind of review that would have been written by Ellsworth Toohey. In notes that Ayn Rand made, in preparing the novel, she writes about Toohey: “Sarcasm is his pet weapon . . . . He is magnificently, maliciously catty. He does not fight his opponents by straight argument or logical refutation — he disqualifies them from the game, dismisses them by mockery.” That is precisely Brantley’s method.

Like so much else in his review, I’ve heard it all before. This is especially true of his opening line: “It is a continuing astonishment to many a sensible adult that anyone who survived adolescence takes Ayn Rand seriously.” But he shouldn’t be astonished. Rand explained the novel’s appeal in her introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition: “This is one of the cardinal reasons of The Fountainhead’s lasting appeal: it is a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible.”

She discussed this spirit of youth further in an essay she wrote in 1969, which was in effect a commentary on an article she admired: “‘For Three Minutes I Felt Free’” (New York Times, Oct. 13, 1968), Henry Kamm’s serious account of political dissent in the Soviet Union, in the wake of the Prague spring. (I say ‘serious’, to contrast this with Brantley’s snarky reference to the novel’s “proto-Communist demagogues (boo, hiss!)” — an astonishingly callous remark in connection with a woman who suffered under and fled communism.) Rand writes:

There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days — the conviction that ideas matter. . . . That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.

I don’t know whether Brantley failed to acquire this conviction, or had it and lost it, but he clearly can no longer comprehend it. But those of us who manage to hold it to the end of our days tend to love The Fountainhead.

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Robert Mayhew is professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University, specializing in ancient philosophy, and serves on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. His many publications on Ayn Rand and Objectivism include the edited collection Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”