Hater: David Bentley Hart in “The Trouble with Ayn Rand”

Dabid Bentley Hart

Idiotic, Barbaric, Oafish, Ridiculous, Shrill, Hideous, and Trashy: These are just a few of the condemnations lauded upon Ayn Rand in David Bentley Hart’s column, The Trouble with Ayn Rand, published in First Things Magazine.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that Hart found so “hideous” about Rand.

The film’s defining moment for me is probably the first meeting between Dominique Francon (Neal) and Howard Roark (Cooper) at the gala opening of a house the latter has designed. “I admire your work, more than anything I’ve ever seen,” Dominique announces without wasting any words on small talk about the weather or the hors d’oeuvres. “You may realize that this is not a tie, but a gulf, between us. . . . I wish I had never seen your building. It’s the things we admire or want that enslave us, and I’m not easy to bring into submission.” (The flirtatious little gamine.) Really, one has to see the scene to appreciate quite how awful it is.

Awful? What exactly is it that Mr. Hart finds so awful about this exchange? The only indication we have is the fact that Dominique doesn't “waste any words on small talk about the weather or the hors d’oeuvres”. Is it awful that Dominique chooses to forego the pretense of feigned conversation? Is it awful that she prefers to bravely say exactly what is on her mind rather than the mindless drivel which people (like Hart) would expect of her? Is it awful that she is honest? Apparently so. But that isn't all that Hart considers awful - he continues:

But, then again, there’s also the conversation between the same two characters later that night: “They hate you for the greatness of your achievement,” Dominique tells Roark ...“They hate you for your integrity. They hate you because they know they can neither corrupt nor ruin you.” (Bloody they—I never could stand those swine.) ...Who can say what the most ridiculous moment really is, though?

Here, in the midst of a profoundly honest and deep moment between the main characters, Hart displays his disdain by cracking, what I’m sure he believed to be, a ‘clever’ joke - but why? In this passage (and through the character of Roark), Rand is portraying the impeccable integrity of the ideal man; an incorruptible man. Such a portrayal is meant to be a glimpse at the greatness which man can achieve; a breath of inspiration, reminding the ‘average joe’ of the glory to be had in opposing corruption and staying true to one’s values. The only type of man who could crack a joke in such a moment is the type of man who regards such virtuous excellence to be nothing more than a joke; a man who equates true and formidable integrity with crass humor - in other words, a man who despises integrity. But who can say whether integrity is the “most ridiculous” of Rand’s ideas? “Perhaps”, he goes on:

Perhaps it’s Roark’s demented address to the jury at his trial: “The creator stands on his own judgment. The parasite follows the opinions of others. The creator thinks. The parasite copies. The creator produces. The parasite loots. The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.” And so on.

Demented? What, exactly, is demented here? Is it not a mark of creativity that a man stands on his own judgment, and a mark of parasitism if he blindly follows the opinions of others? Is it not creative to think, to produce, and to conquer nature -- and parasitic to copy, loot, and attempt to conquer men? One get’s the idea that Hart doesn't like things being so clearly stated; that he’d prefer some vague generalities which avoided any exact descriptions of what is good and what is evil, so that no one would need to ever face the exact nature and extent of their own personal evil. Which is more demented: the clear enunciation of moral principles -- or the attempt, via generalities, to wipe moral principles out of existence? What other end could one have in mind as he squirms away from exact distinctions? But it is not just a few moral principles which Hart wishes to wipe out of existence with his vagueries:

“I came here to say I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life,” Roark continues, “nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine.”

What could Hart have against this, you ask? Keep reading - and as you do, ask yourself what it is he is attempting to wipe out of existence here:

Rand really imagined that there could ever be a man whose best achievements were simply and solely the products of his own unfettered and unaided will. She had no concept of grace, even of the ordinary kind: the grace of an existence we do not give ourselves, of natural powers with which we could never have endowed ourselves, and of all those other persons on whom even the strongest among us are dependent. She lacked any ennobling sense that what lies most deeply within us also comes from impossibly far beyond us, as an unmerited gift.

Even if all of what Hart says about ‘ordinary grace’ here were true (and it isn’t), what is the disagreement with Roark’s statement which Hart wishes to imply? I didn’t bring myself into existence, and therefore my life is up for grabs? I was born with some natural talent, and therefore I owe that talent to everyone and anyone who asks for it? I used the previous achievements of some particular individuals in the process of accomplishing my achievements, and therefore my achievements belong to any number of hoards who wish to take them -- whether they attributed to my achievements or not? What does natural grace have to do with what I (or anyone!) owes to other people?

Do you see Hart’s argument - and the essence of his loathing of Rand? Because there are some things which Roark can’t take credit for, he therefore cannot rightfully take credit for anything. Because Roark profits from some particular men (whom he likely repays through voluntary trade), he therefore owes his profit to all men. In other words, because he has talent and skill, he is the only one in the world who does not have a right to that talent and skill. Because a man is alive, and he can’t claim full credit for it, therefore everyone in the world is allowed to lay a claim on his life -- except for him.

What would drive a man to such loathing of achievement that he feels the need to deny the very fruit of that achievement to the ones who wrought it? What would cause a man to detest moral distinctions; to mock integrity, and to despise honesty? What would cause a man to hate so many good things so much that he would spew forth such a scathing critique of a woman who loved those good things? One word: Envy. Not petty jealousy, but the type of envy Ayn Rand described as ‘hatred of the good because it is good’. She elaborates:

The primary factor and distinguishing characteristic [of this sort of envy] is an emotional mechanism set in reverse: a response of hatred, not toward human vices, but toward human virtues. To be exact, the emotional mechanism is not set in reverse, but is set one way: its exponents do not experience love for evil men; their emotional range is limited to hatred or indifference. It is impossible to experience love, which is a response to values, when one’s automatized response to values is hatred.

And that seems to be exactly what we see here with Mr. Hart; a seething hatred for those very attributes (honesty, integrity, moral absolutes, and productivity) which he, himself, would regard as virtuous.

And now we have come to see that it is not Ayn Rand whom Mr. Hart has the "trouble with" -- it is himself; specifically his own values. He only pretends to hates Ayn Rand in order to evade the contempt that he has for the image which she portrays of what he knows he could be and should be. 

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