Looking Through a Paradigm Darkly
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Ayn Rand is arguably one of America's most important women novelists, and her heroines are among the strongest and most independent female characters in American literature. Yet modern feminism tends to dismiss Rand's work contemptuously. Some feminists go so far as Susan Brownmiller and accuse Rand of being "a traitor to her own sex" (1976, 350).1 Why?
There are several reasons for feminism's general rejection of Rand's work. One is that her championing of capitalism is seen by many contemporary feminists to be absolutely antagonistic to the interests of women. Another more fundamental reason is simply that Rand's worldview does not fit the psychological or political paradigms that most feminists use to analyze society.2 The difference between Rand and such feminists is particularly pronounced in their analysis of the sex scenes of her two major novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It is not uncommon to hear feminist critics bluntly describe these sex scenes as depictions of rape.
Consider two typical passages from Rand, the first one from The Fountainhead, the second from Atlas Shrugged. The first passage describes the initial sexual encounter between Dominique Francon and Howard Roark, who are the major protagonists of The Fountainhead. Rand ( 1971, 217) writes that Dominique "tried to tear herself away from him ... her fists against his shoulders, against his face ... she tore herself free ... she let her teeth sink into his hand." During the ensuing struggle, "she fought like an animal ... she bit his lips" (218).
In Atlas Shrugged, the first sexual encounter that the ideal woman Dagny Taggart has with the flawed but heroic Hank Rearden is described in the following terms: "It was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash encircling her body: she felt his arms around her, she felt her legs pulled forward against him and her chest bent back under the pressure of his, his mouth on hers" ( 1985, 240).
With these "rough-sex" encounters being so graphically described, it is easy to understand why most feminists, along with many nonfeminists, consider these scenes to be depictions of rape .3 Indeed, my contention that the scenes have no real connection to actual rape is the hypothesis that requires proof.
It is often considered bad form to analyze a novel as though it were the delivered public opinion of the novelist. Such an approach collapses the difference between fiction and nonfiction, between what is imagined and what is real. But Ayn Rand invites such analysis of her fiction by stating that the ultimate goal of her novels is nonliterary: it is moral. Rand's definition of art explicitly states this theme:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. An artist re-creates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man and of existence (1975, 99).
In her introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, Rand ( 1971) refers to the specific goal she pursues in that work:
This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral idea, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself (vii) (emphasis in the original).
Rand's foregoing explanation is likely to antagonize feminists further, for she uses the word "man" to mean "male" and not merely as a generic reference to human being. It is only against her backdrop of the ideal man that Rand proceeds to paint her vision of the ideal woman. This gives the impression that "man" properly precedes "woman" as a subject for consideration.4 Thus, a radical feminist such as Brownmiller is able to conclude that "Roark is Rand's philosophical hero; Dominique is merely an attendant jewel, a prize of prizes" (1976, 350). According to Brownmiller's paradigm of sexuality, this analysis is accurate.
But many feminists often ignore a key aspect of Rand's ideal woman; she is the full intellectual, emotional, moral, and political equal of man. Indeed, Rand's heroine is generally the intellectual and moral superior of every man surrounding her except for that one ultimate man who is the ideal.
In her role as a foil to the ideal man, the heroine's disadvantage is not due to anything that one would normally call inferiority. It derives from what Rand conceives to be the key psychological difference between men and women. The true woman worships the true man. And the purest act of worship for a Randian heroine is when she overcomes her own strength and surrenders on the altar of sex to the appropriate hero. It is this act of worship alone that mitigates an otherwise stable state of equality between the man and the woman.
Before delving into a nonliterary analysis of Rand's fiction, however, it is useful to note certain relevant conditions of her writing. This is not historical relativism. It is giving credit where it is due.
First, Rand's two key novels were written in the 1940s and 1950s, which were notorious for their repressive sexual attitudes toward women. Yet Rand's characters defy such stereotypes. Consider the three unconventional sexual relationships that Dagny Taggart enjoys in Atlas Shrugged:
In light of this, reconsider Dagny's previously described sexual encounter with Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, which appears coercive on its surface. With our godlike perspective, we can eavesdrop on Dagny's psychology as she silently pleads with him, "Yes, Hank, yes — now. Now, like this without words or questions ... because we want it" ([1957) 1985, 240). Our knowledge of Dagny's unspoken desire for sex with Rearden converts what seems to be an act of rape into one of passionate and mutual consent.
Third, Rand explicitly chooses to write in a Romantic style — Romantic with a capital R. She vehemently rejects the predominant style of contemporary novelists: naturalism. She distinguishes between the two by calling naturalism "concrete-bound, journalistic," whereas "Romanticism is the conceptual school of art. It deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless fundamental, universal problems and, values, of human existence. It does not record or photograph; it creates and projects. It is concerned — in [Rand's interpretation of] the words of Aristotle — not with things as they are, but with things as they could be and ought to be" (Rand  1971, v). 5
Rand is not concerned with chronicling the events of actual relationships: Jealousies, adulteries, petty tiffs, and reconciliations. Instead, she selectively re-creates reality so as to present the ideal sexual relationship, which bears no necessary connection to the normal constraints of reality. For example, in the sex scene describing the first encounter between Dominique and Howard Roark, there is a clear presumption that Roark is a man of limited sexual experience.6 How such a sexual novice possesses the skill and confidence to overpower the sophisticated New York socialite Dominique, in a masterful manner, is never explained.7 Nor is an explanation required. The Fountainhead is not naturalism, it is "Romantic Realism."8 Rand does not present facts; she selects from among, them and sculpts those chosen into a vision of what life should be.
Having established a context for analyzing whether Rand's sex scenes are rape, a key question remains: What constitutes rape?
The word "rape" comes from the Latin rapere which means to "take by force." This is the most uncontroversial and widely accepted definition of rape: nonconsensual sex in the presence of force or the threat of force against the victim or a third party. And it is a definition with which Rand would agree. Although the concept of rape is often expanded to include sex with someone who is so intoxicated or drugged that he or she cannot reasonably render consent, this expansion has no bearing on the discussion of Rand. Her ideal characters never abuse substances. Nor are the women blackmailed or otherwise unduly influenced by anything but their own desires.
The issue of rape, therefore, comes down to a pure question of consent. In every one of Rand's sex scenes, a clear indication of consent is present either in the revealed thoughts of the characters or in their behavior.9 Consider a previously described scene of sexual ‘violence' in Atlas Shrugged, between Dagny and Rearden: "She found herself; in terror, twisting her body to resist, and, in exultation, twisting her arms around him" (Rand [19571 1985, 600). Here, Dagny implicitly expresses consent by embracing Rearden's sexual attack. Ironically, the one time that explicit consent occurs between Dagny and Rearden, it is the man who insists upon that point of clarity. Rand writes. "[S]he heard his voice — it was more a statement of contemptuous triumph than a question: 'You want it?' Her answer was more a gasp than a word, her eyes closed, her mouth open: 'Yes'" (241).
Why, then, do most contemporary feminists consider these scenes to constitute rape — to consist of nonconsensual sex? Why are the scenes not considered to be depictions of rough sex, in which the "violence" is simply a form of sexual expression that both' parties desire?
There are several reasons. First and foremost, in Rand's sex scenes, the woman's consent is often implicit, not explicit, and it is briefly given. On the other hand, the "violence" is extensive and real enough to leave lasting bruises on the heroine's flesh.
Dagny's initial sexual encounter with Francisco d'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged is typical of the type of consent the Randian woman renders. "[H]is hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor's intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission. She tried to pull herself away, but she only leaned back against his arms long enough to see his face and his smile, the smile that told her she had given him permission long ago" (107).
If this specific scene is considered in isolation, then the only consent even implied is the smile on his face. Only in the context of the novel and of the long-term affair between Dagny and Francisco does it become clear that Dagny has not only consented to sex with him, but she also is eager for it to continue.
In contrast with the almost hidden consent of the woman, the violence of the man is pronounced and often quite graphic. Consider the scene between Dagny and Rearden, in which she tells him of her long-term, though past, love affair with Francisco. "He seized her shoulders, and she felt prepared to accept that he would now kill her or beat her into unconsciousness, and in the moment when she felt certain that he had thought of it, she felt her body thrown against him and his mouth falling on hers, more brutally than the act of a beating would have permitted" (600).
Implied consent in sexual situations is nothing new. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a first kiss could develop without some form of implied consent. But the consent offered by Randian heroines can be remarkably subtle. As with Dagny's silent plea for Rearden to ravish her, the consent can be almost invisible. This subtlety lends an aura of rape to these scenes, which are in fact depictions of passionate consent and of extreme sexual excitement.
Feminism's discomfort with these depictions may be part of its more general discomfort with the fact that consensual violence (S/M, bondage, mock rape) is a popular way that sex occurs on this planet. Some feminists have been accused of becoming “the new Puritans” of our society, who police the images of graphic sex (e.g. pornography) and the expression of unacceptable sexual choices (e.g. prostitution). Whether or not this accusation is true, much of contemporary feminism definitely draws lines delineating acceptable sexual behavior. And any act with the trappings of violence tends to fall outside those lines.10
As the renegade feminist Camille Paglia (1991, 3) states in her essay "Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art": "Sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted ... Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges." Although Rand would argue that sex is the point of contact through which morality was expressed and not negated, she would fully embrace Paglia's view of the violent passions aroused by sexuality.
Another aspect of Rand's work that lends a false credibility to the view of her sex scenes as rape is the relative dearth of alternate scenes that express a wider range of sexual response. There are next to no passages depicting tenderness or playfulness in sex. The only gentle display in The Fountainhead, for example, is a later scene between Dominique and Roark. Rand ( 1971, 669) describes the interaction briefly: "[He had lifted her in his arms, carried her to a chair and sat down, holding her on his knees; he laughed without sound, as he would have laughed at a child, but the firmness of his hands holding her showed concern and a kind of steadying caution."
Further reasons for the shadow of rape falling across Rand's work are ideological in nature. Feminism, since the 1980s, has tended to expand the definition of ‘rape' to such an extent that our entire current society has been referred to as "the rape culture," in which all men are "rapists" because they benefit from that culture.11 For contemporary feminism, the watershed book on rape is Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller. In this work, Brownmiller (1976, 5) insists: "Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of pre-historic time. ... It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear" (emphasis in the original).
With such a sweeping and general description of rape, it becomes more difficult to perceive precisely what constitutes consent and what constitutes coercion. Consider the definition of sexual violence that Liz Kelly (1988, 41) offers in her book Surviving Sexual Violence: "'Sexual' violence includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact" (emphasis added).
How do Rand's heroines fit this depiction? They render consent, either implicitly or explicitly, but they also relinquish at least some control over the intimate contact. Often, they relinquish it all. This is never more apparent than in the classic scene between Dominique and Roark that is their first sexual: encounter.12 To radical feminists, this relinquishment may well spell rape. The fact that the Randian sexual acts are often described as acts of ownership and conquest by the man makes matters considerably worse.13
A good litmus test by which to determine whether Rand's sex scenes are depictions of rape is probably the initial encounter between Dominique and Roark. In this passage, the heroine is as thoroughly taken, or ravished, as any woman in the Western literary canon. If this encounter can be shown to be merely rough sex between consenting adults, rather than rape, then all the other less violent scenes should be exempted from the charge of rape as well.
Consider the relevant scene from The Fountainhead. After being smitten by the sight of Roark working in a quarry, Dominique arranges to have him come to her bedroom to replace a piece of marble in a fireplace she has purposefully defaced. When Roark arrives to do the repairs, he treats her with an insolent arrogance that belies his social station: "She saw the hint of a smile, more insulting than words. He sustained the insolence of looking straight at her, he would not move, he would not grant the concession of turning away, of acknowledging that he had no right to look at her in such manner. He had not merely taken that right, he was saying silently that she had given it to him" (Rand  1971, 207).
Several nights' later, Roark enters her bedroom in the middle of the night through a French window, like a common rapist. Rand describes Roark's subsequent treatment of Dominique: He "took her two wrists, pinned them behind her ... wrenching her shoulder blades," and "forced her mouth open against his" (217). "He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement" (218). Then, after mutual orgasm, he leaves with-out a word. Yet as long as a week later, Dominique still thinks of the act in exalted terms: "I've been raped .... I've been raped by some redheaded hoodlum from a stone quarry .... Through the fierce sense of humiliation, the words gave her the same kind of pleasure she had felt in his arms" (220).
This passage is a clear indication that Dominique not only consented to, but also reveled in, the rather brutal affections of Howard Roark. Indeed; as Rand later explains, it was an act Dominique could have ended at any moment: "She had not given him the one answer that would have saved her: an answer of simple revulsion — she had found joy in her revulsion, in her terror and in his strength. That was the degradation she had wanted" (220).
But Dominique's musings present the reader with a dilemma. She wants the violent sex with Roark and basks in its memory, yet she herself refers to the act as "rape." Clearly, a tension exists between these two reactions. Perhaps the answer lies in the context in which Dominique joyfully repeats to herself, "I've been raped ... I've been raped." The words come in reaction to a letter from a coworker, Alvah Scarret, who implores her to come back to her job: “It will be like the homecoming of an Empress" (220). Dominique revels in how shocked people who hold her in awe would be to hear the words "I've been raped." Rand describes her fantasizing about throwing the incident in the faces of such people: "She wanted to scream it to the hearing of all" (221). To achieve this contemptuous flaunting, Dominique would be compelled to use hyperbole. After all, saying "I've had rough sex ... I've had rough sex" would not produce the same reaction.
In Against Our Will, Brownmiller (1976, 349) dwells on such musings of Dominique as evidence of "Ayn Rand's philosophy of rape," rather than as evidence of precisely the opposite — Dominique's clear consent to rough sex. Indeed, for Brownmiller, the very fact that the sex was rough seems to negate the possibility of healthy, informed consent on the part of the woman. Dominique's pleasure at being taken automatically converts her from a sexually liberated, consenting woman whose choices should be respected by feminists into what Brownmiller sarcastically calls "a superior woman" with "a masochistic wish ... for humiliation at the hands of a superior man" (349-50).
Interestingly, Rand (1995, 282) addressed the very issue of Dominique's "rape" in a 5 June 1946 letter to a reader, Waldo Coleman, who, "misunderstood" her intentions and who "thought that the lesson to be derived from [the scene] is that a man should force himself on a woman, and that she would like him for that. But the fact is that Roark did not actually rape Dominique; she had asked for it, and he knew that she wanted it. A man who would force himself on a woman against her wishes would be committing a dreadful crime .... The lesson in the Roark-Dominique romance is one of spiritual strength and self-confidence, not of physical violence."
Rand amplifies these points in a letter to Paul Smith dated 13 March 1965: "It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. Needless to say an actual rape of an unwilling victim would be a vicious action and a violation of, a woman's rights; in moral meaning, it would be the exact opposite of the scene in The Fountainhead" (631).
Thus both Rand and Brownmiller view the same sex act. For one, it is not rape — it is an ecstatic surrender to the ultimate value in life. For the other, it is a symptom of pathology. This difference is the end result of the antagonistic paradigms with which Rand and most contemporary feminists approach sexuality.
But even women who shun the label "feminist" are led to question Rand's sex scenes: Why must sexual ecstasy arise only from angst and struggle? Why not from tenderness and cuddling? The answer lies in the wording of the question. Rand attempts to capture "ecstasy," not merely pleasure. She deals with ultimate expressions, not with common experiences. In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand (1975, 153) defends Victor Hugo in terms that could be applied equally to her: "To criticize Hugo for the fact that his novels do not deal with the daily commonplaces of average lives, is like criticizing a surgeon for the fact that he does not spend his time peeling potatoes."
A Randian heroine is simply not the cuddling type whom you kiss upon the cheek Instead, she seeks and demands the ideal, against which she tests herself. And as Rand comments further: "[T]he higher the values, the harder the struggle" (48). For Rand, greatness requires immense struggle and suffering.
The ideal man is not exempt from this process. Howard Roark — the ideal man of The Fountainhead — is forced by his own moral code to destroy the building complex that is his greatest creation, and he is put on trial for that act. John Galt — the ideal man of Atlas Shrugged — lives apart from the one woman he must love in secret, in order to create a world that will destroy the railroad that is her passion. In the end, he is literally tortured by those who seek him as salvation. The price of heroism is high.
There is a sense in which the ideal woman and the ideal man are each other's greatest test as well as their greatest reward. On the battlefield of Randian sex it is a foregone conclusion that the ideal woman will be overcome by the ideal man. Yet, paradoxically, the woman's surrender resembles nothing so much as a victory: namely, that the ideal man needs to conquer her. He needs her to desire him in order to fulfill his destiny as a sexual conqueror. That is why one gesture or expression of disgust from Dominique would have immediately caused Roark to cease ravishing her. It is in terms of victory in defeat that Rand ( 1985) paints a key love scene between Dagny and Rearden in Atlas Shrugged:
She felt him trembling and she thought that this was the kind of cry she had wanted to tear from him — this surrender through the shreds of his tortured resistance. Yet she knew, at the same time, that the triumph was his, that her laughter was her tribute to him, that her defiance was submission, that the purpose of all of her violent strength was only to make his victory the greater — he was holding her body against his, as if stressing his wish to let her know that she was now only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire —and his victory, she knew, was her wish to let him reduce her to that. (240)
Through scenes of sex that resemble rape, Rand presents us with the culmination of the ideal male/female relationship. For the woman, this apex can be called ‘enraptured surrender'. It is not the breathless, almost passive surrender portrayed by romance novels in which a woman is overwhelmed by a dark mysterious stranger whose kiss bends her backward, both in body and in will. The surrenders of Dominique and of Dagny are a violent, joyful answer to the age-old paradox of what occurs when an immovable object meets an irresistible force. If the immovable object happens to have free will — if she happens to be one of Rand's heroines — then she may choose to move the scant inch it takes to resolve the paradox of which force will prevail.
In The Fountainhead, Rand herself provides the perfect metaphor for the emotional sense of what her sex scenes are meant to portray. It occurs in a passage dealing with Steve Mallory's sculpture of Dominique in the nude, which has been commissioned by Roark. Mallory is unable to capture a certain elusive spark that he has tried unsuccessfully to draw from Dominique. Howard Roark enters the room unannounced. Roark is the one man to whom Dominique has surrendered, the one ideal she has not abandoned in a self-destructive plunge through life. She cannot convince Roark to betray his ideals, and, as yet, she cannot embrace them fully herself. She has repeatedly attempted to end her inner conflict by turning away from Roark, only to be driven back each time by her own undeniable need for him. Dominique's sole weapon against Roark is the knowledge that he wants her passionately.
Upon entering Steve Mallory's studio, Roark asks him how the sculpture is proceeding. Dominique's response is to throw off her robe and walk naked to the stand on which she had been posing moments before. In the presence of the man whom she wishes to torment with both the sight of her body and the memory of possessing it, Dominique easily captures the spark. It is a glint of both rebellion and surrender, two of the fundamental emotions Roark inspires in her. Rand ( 1971) describes what Mallory sees:
[N]ow her body was alive, so still that it seemed to tremble, saying what he had wanted to hear: a proud, reverent enraptured surrender to a vision of her own, the right moment, the moment before the figure would sway and break, the moment touched by the reflection of what she saw (336).
Like Steve Mallory, Rand captures and freezes the peak of her heroines' sexual passion: the instant before they surrender. Sculpting words rather than stone, she creates an ideal woman whose true fulfillment depends on being ravished by an ideal man. Is it any wonder that those feminists who insist upon independent women react with dismay at such raw dependence upon a man?
Ayn Rand's paradigm of sexuality occupies a different cultural and psychological universe than that of radical feminists. When they lay their definition of rape, like an ill-fitting grid, over Rand's sex scenes, they miss the point of her writing. This is distinct from disagreeing with the views embodied in Rand's work. It reflects a misunderstanding of the views that, admittedly, fall outside the social norm.14
In broad terms, the contemporary culture generally assumes one of two sexual paradigms: First, there is the traditional Madonna/whore complex, which defines women solely by virtue of their sexual behavior. This perspective is often ascribed to those who are conservative, or religious. But even sexual subcultures, such as the prostitute-activist groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and PONY (Prostitutes of New York) adopt this paradigm when they proudly define themselves as "sluts" or "whores," and usurp the words as defensive badges of honor.15 The other currently popular paradigm comes from political correctness, which, in this context, might be called sexual correctness. This paradigm defines women and sexuality in political terms — specifically in terms of gender politics.
Rand presents a third alternative. Her heroines are radical individualists who define their own sexuality, specifically through embracing their gender role vis-à-vis the ideal man. As such, Dagny and Dominique defy the Madonna/whore analysis of women. They revel in carnal pleasures, yet they cannot be sexually approached except by a man who embodies what is sacred. Equally, Dagny and Dominique defy the politically-correct paradigm. As women, they are role models of strength, intelligence, and independence; yet what is arguably their finest moment lies in the arms of a man. For such a man, Dagny Taggart, who runs the major railroad in America, is even willing to cook and clean in the capacity of housemaid. Consider the psychological surrender embodied in Dagny's reaction to a question posed to her by John Galt. Dagny has just offered to pay for her room and board in his house by becoming his servant.: "Is that what you want to do?" he asks. Rand ( 1985, 707) describes Dagny's response: "'That is what I want to do — ' she answered, and stopped before she uttered the rest of the answer in her mind: more than anything else in the world."
The psychological surrender lies in her overeagerness to serve him. Many feminists would consider this surrender to housework to be more egregious than consenting to rough sex. But whatever emotional reaction Rand inspires, her meticulous ideology deserves to be accepted or rejected for what it is and not on the basis of misinterpretation.
On a personal level, I have moments of deep disagreement with — deep emotional reservations with regard to — Rand's paradigm of sexuality. As a woman who has experienced sexual violence, I have an abiding personal ambivalence toward the brutality portrayed in Rand's sex scenes. I became a runaway at the age of sixteen and, for as short a period of time as I could arrange, I lived on the streets. Anyone who has experienced the streets as a home will never be able to walk down a dark alley again with anything akin to a sense of comfort.
Equally, any woman who has been battered or raped will probably have difficulty with Rand's harshly graphic sex scenes — and understandably so. Although such women may grasp and enjoy the intellectual values being portrayed, the emotional impact of those values will be lost upon them.
Certainly, it is lost upon me. Rand's ideal of surrender is too violent and too literally bruising for me to embrace willingly. As thoroughly as I appreciate the intellectual values being stylized in the initial sex scene between Dominique and Roark, I cannot get past the fact that — in similar circumstances — I would try to maim any man who caused me that sort of physical pain. Even in the alleged pursuit of ultimate values.
And, yet ... what heterosexual woman, hasn't fantasized about being swept into the strong impetuous arms of Rhett Butler and conveyed up a curving staircase to the satin sheets of ravishment? These gentler, less threatening fantasies of "being taken" seem to survive intact through actual violence; perhaps because they express a natural urge within women (and some men) to relinquish control and be conquered by a mutual passion.
This urge within women is deftly captured by Ayn Rand, and captured in a manner that is typical of both her life and her work: the woman goes to extremes. I am left wondering whether the discomfort caused by her extreme presentations might not be a positive thing. In the final analysis, the main purpose of art might be to shake us all up a bit.
|© 1999 Wendy McElroy|
First published in —
for Individualist Feminism
and Individualist Anarchism