“Atlas Shrugged”: Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, arguably the most influential American writer of the last hundred years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand was at once the most reviled public intellectual by any of the actual intellectuals in America. And the only one of them to have had any genuine impact on the American psyche and the public at large.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was a childhood friend of Nabokov’s younger sister Olga. And after becoming one of the first women to graduate from a Russian university, she emigrated to the States, gravitating to Hollywood. There she found work as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and she then spent the next decade or so working as a Hollywood hack and writing minor plays and unremarkable novels.

That all changed with the publication of her two monumentally successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former was published in 1943, and although largely ignored by critics it sold millions and was quickly adapted into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play. 

With the financial security that that afforded her, she moved to New York where she was able to further develop her so say philosophy of Objectivism. This she was going to more fully explore in a non-fiction book called The Moral Basis of Individualism. But she put that to one side to work instead on a follow-up novel to The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was, she explained, “a demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of self-interest”. But to her deep disappointment it was critically panned, not withstanding the fact that it was an even bigger commercial hit than The Fountainhead – between them, they’ve so far sold over 30 million copies.

But she spent the rest of her life largely ignored, producing non-fiction books that nobody read and expounding upon her philosophy of Objectivism to deaf ears. So how is that she came to be so influential?

Her impact came in two waves. In the period in which she was writing Atlas Shrugged, in the 50s, she attracted a small but fiercely loyal group of acolytes. One of whom just happened to be a certain Alan Greenspan

Author Ayn Rand, in August 1957 on Park Avenue.

Three decades later, as Reganomics swept all before it, Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006. And Rand’s hitherto ignored philosophy of Objectivism, with its rabid anti-communism and its purblind deification of individualism, suddenly appeared wondrously prescient.

But it was rise of big tech in the late 90s and early oughts that really saw her come into vogue. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and, apparently, Steve Jobs were and are all fanatical and very vocal fans. And a cursory glance at Atlas Shrugged quickly reveals why. 

Rand’s would-be Great American Novel is essentially an incredibly bloated romance novel. Personally, I love romance novels, the best ones of which are all almost exactly 195 pages long. Atlas Shrugged comes in 50 pages shy of War And Peace

Essentially, its world is populated by a handful of exceptional and blindingly brilliant individuals who are personally and single-handedly responsible for propping up and fuelling the economy. And whose visionary plans society, the government and the great unwashed are perpetually trying to foil. 

Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Free from conventional morality and unfettered by the shackles of organized religion, these sexually promiscuous, physically imposing latter-day Greek gods (they’re all gods interestingly) were likewise chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his The Bonfire of the Vanities, an actual, bona fide Great American Novel. But his Masters of the Universe were unceremoniously felled by the layers of irony he hacked them down with. 

Irony, alas, seems to have eluded  Rand entirely. Instead, what we get are reams and reams of monochrome prose consisting of occasional bursts of romance, which she’s actually pretty good at, amidst pages and pages of her tedious and puerile cod philosophy.

All of which is monumentally dull, not to say wearisome if what you are looking for is interesting, grown-up ideas and a good read. But it’s just what the doctor ordered if you’re a borderline sociopath with a Napoleon complex.

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Ye Vagabonds, Varo, Landless and the new Irish trad bands

Ye Vagabonds.

The current wave of new Irish trad bands can be traced back to the forming of The Gloaming in 2011. Five musicians of different ages and from different musical backgrounds, The Gloaming were determined to look out and around in as many, all encompassing directions as possible. 

They looked back not just to traditional Irish music, but to classical music, both contemporary modernism and the classical canon. And out, to Irish music in America, but also to jazz and the blues, and to all manner of world music, to Africa, the Americas, Asia and beyond. And they did (and do) so with an unabashed and unapologetic seriousness. 

Paving the way, The Gloaming.

To everyone’s slight surprise, The Gloaming’s three album and various residencies proved a huge commercial success. Which has opened the door to a number of bands made up of similarly serious if somewhat younger musicians, almost all of whom are in their 20s. And each of whom is as keen to broaden and stretch the scope of ‘trad’ as those 5 stalwarts in The Gloaming.

Lankum were the next to enjoy that sort of relatively high profile success. Their second album, Between the Earth and the Sky won the RTE Folk Album of the Year in 2018, and last year’s The Livelong Day was, if anything, even more lauded.

Landless’ Bleaching Bones.

And they’re now signed to the mighty Rough Trade, who’ve set up River Lea, an imprint aimed specifically at these shores. And the latest addition to that rostrum is Ye Vagabonds.

The Carlow duo who make up Ye Vagabonds had been resident at Walshe’s in Stoneybatter, before the youknowwhat, where they were often joined by Landless. Landless’ debut album, Bleaching Bones, was recorded at Guerrilla Studios, in Dublin, which was set up by John ‘spud’ Murphy. 

And Murphy was also the producer on those Lankum albums, having previously worked with Katie Kim (reviewed by me earlier here and here), who is also on River Lea. And more recently, he worked with Varo on their debut album there. 

So to varying degrees, they all move in similar orbits but their take on trad is very much their own. Lankum for instance, are invariably compared to the Pogues. They provide a similarly punk-infused, in your face assault on the traditional ballads and songs they dive into. While Ye Vagabonds produce a much more measured, studious approach, very much in step with that of The Gloaming. 

Varo.

And all three are hugely invested in drone music, which looks on the one hand to indigenous music from all over the world. And on the other, to the avant-garde of La Monte Young and the Velvet Underground

And both Landless and Varo are, if anything, even more distinctive. Landless are four female singers who perform traditional ballads from the all around the British Isles unaccompanied by any instruments, sculpting their melodies with extraordinary four-part harmonies. While Varo are a female duo, one from France and one from Italy, who filter traditional ballads through the prism of European Baroque music.

You can, and should, listen (for free) and then download their albums from Bandcamp; Varo’s eponymous Varo here,

https://varodublin.bandcamp.com

 Ye Vagabond’s The Hare’s Lament here

https://yevagabonds.bandcamp.com

and Landless’ Bleaching Bones here

https://landless.bandcamp.com

And you can see Landless on Blue of the Night

this Varo video

and Ye Vagabonds below.

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“A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Giornata Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two relatively low-key Italian films, Una Giornata Particolare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, to reach a decision. His verdict proved controversial on two counts. 

Una Giornata Particolare, clumsily translated as A Special Day (though I can’t, I have to confess, think of an improvement), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is particolare for a number of reasons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Germany to pay an official state visit to his good friend and fellow dictator Mussolini.

The drama unfolds over a single day and takes place entirely in a now empty block of flats, as practically all the residents have flocked to pay tribute to the visiting dignitaries. The only two people left are Sophia Loren, the down-trodden, stay at home mother of six, and Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane and secretly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mastroianni as they are more traditionally imagined.

It’s particolare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many other gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sardinia. That being the not quite final solution employed by the perennially inept fascists that Italy laboured under. And it’s particolare for her, in that she ends up spending it almost entirely in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, if in a somewhat less operatic manner, what’s so engaging about Ettore Scola’s film is the way he transforms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink drama and elevates it into something else entirely. Rather than undermine the drama, the presence of Italy’s two most glamorous movie stars, playing gloriously against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so carefully choreographed. The result is not at all what you’d expect given the subject matter. And is all the more moving thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, offers a different kind of grim. Set in what feels like another century but is in fact the remote rural mountains of Sardinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effective imprisonment of the young Gavino, who is bound by the centuries-old tradition that he serve his father on the barren family farm. And his determination to somehow escape, which he does ultimately through the portal of education.

But it too is moulded into a surprising form. It begins and ends as if it were a documentary, which, far from giving you any sense of actuality, merely serves to heighten the sense of artifice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film proper, we are constantly privy to the inner thoughts of the different characters. Including, even, the farm animals that they come into contact with.

One of the great, iconic scenes in Italian cinema, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That regular intrusion of those voice overs, as we eavesdrop on what they are thinking, is used by the Taviani brothers to consciously distance the viewer from what feels otherwise like an intimate portrait of real people living their actual lives. 

You can see what a film maker like Rossellini would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equally obvious how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were dealing with exactly the kinds of topics that he had once been drawn to.

Ultimately, it seems that the presence of two titans like Loren and Mastroianni, and those elaborately orchestrated shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he campaigned vigorously for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The controversy that followed was twofold.

Mastroianni and Scola teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the other members of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appreciated his 12-Angry-Men like determination to convert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actually happened. And on the other, rather more surprisingly, the Festival committee announced that they too were unhappy with the decision. Their reason though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for television “film”, and Cannes was a celebration of cinema with a capital C.

They rang Rossellini up a few weeks later to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the following year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watching them both today, it’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. They are both, in their very different ways, wonderful. But ultimately, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a classicism and balance to Una Giornata Particolare and a universality to its themes which, necessarily, isn’t there for the very particular and specifically local story that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trailer for A Special Day here

And the trailer to Padre Padrone here

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Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very English Scandal.

There’s a wonderfully seductive and darkly comic drama available on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sexual mores and politics in a refreshingly mature manner. A Very English Scandal is a dramatization of the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston, charting the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up variety, and, without giving anything away, it’s the story of the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain at a time when there was a real possibility that they might have ended up in government there. 

Inconveniently though, one of his former male, ahem, friends refuses to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take definitive and decidedly drastic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Norman Scott, right.

I have to confess, the idea of watching a drama revolving around a forgotten leader of a defunct British political party from the 1970s, and starring Hugh Grant, was about as appealing as, well, watching a drama about a forgotten British politician from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m really pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its characters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of reasons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very surprisingly, Grant gives a career-defining performance as the brilliant, driven if flawed Thorpe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pretty much everyone involved seems to have been some class of an eccentric. But instead of playing this for laughs, showrunner Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears play it largely straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the various subplots which complicate the central plot, broaden the story’s horizons and add layers of enveloping irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replacement. His support, as a staunch Liberal, for the bill to have homosexuality decriminalised. And his rise through the Liberal Party and up the greasy pole of British politics, and the politics of party politics that that creates.

Normal People, lovely view.

The contrast with Normal People couldn’t be starker. The latter takes a two hander, bereft of subplots, and tries forlornly to stretch it out over a never-ending six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on familiar and exotic locations.

A Very English Scandal also makes wonderful use of its locations, but they are never anything more than the backdrop to a wonderfully dynamic story that’s constantly building in momentum. And the fact that its events are both true and accurately recounted only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trailer for A Very English Scandal here.

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A Small Present, Just for You

Good news! This blog is moving into phase 2 of its life. Phase 1 was the slow and methodical building up of the blog from scratch. Phase 2 revolves around my book, which I’m going to be self-publishing this November.

Before I can do that though, I need to move the blog to a new email subscription service.

But don’t worry, you’ll still get your monthly missives, plus the occasional extra bonus material and all the exciting news about the soon to be published book. 

All you have to do is to send me your email address so that I can add your name to the new list.

Send your email address to: anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com

That’s all! Just one, incredibly brief email, and you’re done.

And once you do, and the list is up and running, I’ll send you this month’s post PLUS an Exclusive Bonus Chapter from the book.

Your bonus chapter, The Death of Socrates describes how he ended up on trial in the first place, and what the likes of Plato and Nietzsche made of his contrary behaviour over the course of that trial.

The important thing is: send me on your email address!

Otherwise, this could be the last that you hear from me. And just imagine what an unmitigated disaster that would be.

So send your address to anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com and, as ever I shall keep you posted every month, and more!

And thanks for your continued support!

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