Book Review: Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan

I have rarely encountered a more appropriate title on a book. This book is exactly what the title says it is: it is the life and the times of the historical figure of Jesus, who, according to the information provided, was essentially a zealot.

Two immediate points that have to be raised: the man is not the Christ, and though the Bible is the primary source of information along with the other apocrypha, Aslan never tries to talk about the risen Son of God as though that was the actual person. As a historian and religious scholar, Aslan considers the religious version of Jesus to be a matter of faith unrelated to the person who actually lived 2000 years ago in what is now Israel; the Gospels and the New Testament, Aslan explains in great detail, were all written by people who had had no contact at all with the historical figure of Jesus son of Joseph, and most of the New Testament was written by (or at least in the name of) an educated, Roman, Greek-speaking Jew who had no interest in the poor illiterate Jewish preacher from Galilee – St. Paul preferred the perfect embodiment of God that is now so familiar to modern Christians. The second point is that “zealot” is a word that meant something very specific in Jesus’s time, and the term applies quite well to Jesus himself; whether the modern meaning of the word would also apply is a different matter.

The basic idea is this: Jesus son of Mary and Joseph was a Nazarene. Right? Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews? Wasn’t that what the Romans wrote on the plaque over his head when they crucified him? So Nazareth is a tiny village in Galilee in northern Israel, where, like almost all of what came to be called Palestine by the Romans, the people lived in mud huts, with their livestock taking up one of the two rooms, spoke Aramaic, could not read or write, and believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God’s presence existed on Earth, but could only be approached by the High Priest. Jesus was not born in a manger in the barn outside a crowded inn in Bethlehem; his family would have had no reason to travel to Bethlehem, and certainly no Asian kings popped by with gold and frankincense and myrrh to worship at his side. So Jesus was an illiterate dirt-poor laborer – probably not even specifically a carpenter, since wood was an expensive building material that nobody in Nazareth would have been able to afford – whose mother was certainly not a virgin, who had brothers and sisters, and who lived his life under the oppressive control of the Roman empire. That life ended somewhere around 30 C.E. (Because Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, a factoid that emblemizes absolutely all of the doublethink necessary to accept the Church’s version of this: the man was born four years before the first “year of Our Lord.”) when he was crucified for trying to incite a rebellion against the Roman control of Palestine, and against the corrupt high priests of the Temple. That’s the story told in this book.

Aslan says, and he’s right, that the historical Jesus is worth learning about. It’s a much less grandiose story; take away all of the I-am-the-son-of-THE-LORD-YOUR-GOD stuff, and Jesus had very small and comparatively humble intentions: he wanted to free Israel from the Romans, and (probably) rule the Jews as their king on Earth, the descendant (spiritually if not literally – but maybe literally) of King David, the founder of the nation. But that was plenty of ambition to be going on with, considering the fate of every other would-be messiah and king of the Jews under the Roman occupation. That fate is one of the linchpins of Aslan’s understanding of Jesus, because unlike Jesus himself, there is plenty of historical information about the Romans and crucifixion. He discards all of the standard arguments about Jesus’s trial and Crucifixion, and takes it down to what makes the most sense: the plaque over Jesus’s head was the Roman statement of his crime, not sarcastic, not ironic, but exact. The man wanted to be King of the Jews; he made a splash by gathering a large following, parading into Jerusalem exactly in the manner of an Earthly king, and then busting into the Temple and stirring up shit. The man who would later be turned into the “Prince of Peace” actually wanted the Romans, and the corrupt priests of the Temple, killed: he wanted God to smite them with a curse. (That’s the “zealot” part. The Jews believed that, if one had sufficient zeal for the lord, that God would aid them directly in winning their wars and destroying their enemies. Jesus wanted that, too. He wanted to be a warrior for God and Israel.) This is the rabble-rouser who told his disciples to make sure they brought swords to the Garden of Gethsemane, and if they didn’t have one, to sell their coats and buy two swords. He then got caught, and he got executed; that’s the end of the story – apart from what happened to his legend as it got re-created by his followers and adherents. I’d bet that one of the toughest pieces of this book to read, for a devoted believer in the literal Bible, is when Aslan lists the several would-be messiahs who were all trying to overthrow Roman control of Palestine around the same time: in that list, Jesus is one of the smaller and less impressive ones. Though really, if he was exactly what Aslan says he was, then Jesus of Nazareth had far more faith, courage, and conviction than I can imagine; I have more respect for this patriotic Jewish preacher than I do for the Christ. (I am, of course, an atheist and emphatically not Christian.)

I thought it was fascinating. This book is an outstanding piece of popular historical scholarship. Aslan gives extensive notes that show all sides of the issue, including the work of theologians who disagree entirely with the premise of this book; it is easy to read, clearly explained to a modern person like myself with no fundamental grounding at all in the history or the Bible; at the end, I’m pretty well convinced that he’s right, and I feel like I could sit down and explain the whole thing to someone else. I think that’s the best recommendation I can give.


I think I have a solution. To one problem, at least.

I don’t have a solution to most of them. The antifa started violence today in Berkeley, which is only going to increase tensions as it gives more weight to the victimization narrative that drives much of the right-wing/white supremacist movements; “Look at those violent leftists, attacking innocent Trump supporters.” I keep wanting to tone down tensions around Mr. Trump himself: the man will surely go down in history as one of our very worst presidents, but we will survive this, nevertheless; until and unless he commits an actual crime, we should not call for his impeachment, a process that should never be used for partisan purposes. But then Trump himself keeps doing the stupidest shit imaginable, and he keeps driving everyone around the bend. Why the hell is that guy holding campaign rallies? And pardoning Joe Arpaio? Are you kidding me?

So I can’t fix that. I can’t fix the eternal war in Afghanistan – not because I don’t know the solution, I do: it is GET THE HELL OUT OF AFGHANISTAN – but for some reason, that is an untenable answer to the majority of Americans, who seem to believe this bullshit about “not pulling out before we get the job done,” because doing so will leave a power vacuum which will lead to the rise of terrorist groups. Somehow we never take it to the next step in the logic, which is: that means that WE are the power in Afghanistan, and we expect to remain the power in Afghanistan because as long as we are there, nobody else can have power. I heard a former soldier on NPR today saying that he expected we would have a military presence in Afghanistan for decades to come. Decades. Decades that we will be the power in Afghanistan. Which means we are an invading, conquering force, and if you don’t think that that makes more terrorists than any power vacuum ever could, well, you’re just not thinking.

I wish I could solve that one. However, not all hope is lost, because I do have a possible solution to at least one problem: the problem of Confederate monuments.

The inspiration is this.

Can’t take down that ridiculous bull? Build another statue that makes that bull seem pathetic. Or that at least gives people an opportunity to see the bull in a new light.

Now, I realize that both sides in this debate believe they already have the perfect solution: one side thinks we should leave all of the monuments up, and the other side thinks we should tear them all down. And both sides have very simple arguments that they find convincing. I don’t want to say that either side is right or wrong; not because I don’t have an opinion, but because trying to argue that way has gotten us – here. To marches and murder in Charlottesville and fights and arrests in Berkeley; and I don’t want to know where else it will lead. We’re not going to settle this by yelling at each other. We have to find a way to compromise.

So here’s my idea. Leave up the monuments. And build more.

For every statue of Robert E. Lee, add a statue of Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman, or the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. For every Stonewall Jackson, a Nat Turner. For every statue honoring the Confederate soldiers, add another statue honoring the victims of chattel slavery. Match Confederate tombstones with tombstones for the victims of lynchings – and state on the tombstones that the bodies that should be at rest under those tombstones are lost, thrown into unmarked graves or burned to ash or sunk in the swamps. People on the right want to remember our history? Okay, let’s remember every part of our history: let’s commemorate the four hundred years of murder and torture that this country is founded on.

How could anyone complain? I’m not suggesting we do anything to the monuments that already stand; if they have plaques that paint the Confederacy as a legion of honorable men fighting for justice, then fine, that can represent one side of the argument. We can word a plaque that shows the other side of the argument, and put it on a nice twenty-foot-tall bronze Malcolm X. White supremacists can pretend the new statues don’t exist, but they certainly can’t argue that they should be taken down; any person who feels oppressed by the presence of racist memorials can take solace in the simultaneous presence of anti-racist memorials, side by side with the racists.

Why stop there? I keep hearing arguments – mostly straw man arguments, but still – about Washington and Jefferson, who both owned slaves. I think both of those men should be commemorated for what they did for this country, but I can’t disagree that their ownership of slaves makes their legacy troubling. So how about every statue of Thomas Jefferson has a statue of Sally Hemings? Maybe a taller Sally? Looking over Jefferson’s shoulder? Or maybe a full family portrait of all of their children, all six of them lined up right in front of the President. How about we take the portraits of George Washington and add an image of every slave he owned into the background? Imagine that on the dollar bill: George’s sour puss surrounded by tiny, tiny portraits of thousands of African and African-American slaves. Think that would make the point? It would sure make a hell of a watermark, wouldn’t it?

I understand the argument that we shouldn’t try to forget our erase our country’s history. I understand the argument that remembering our history shouldn’t include commemorating it with statues and monuments and schools named for men who defended chattel slavery. But I think we need to remember that the Civil War was fought by the Union not to free the slaves, not to end slavery – but to keep this country together. This is also, I think, a pretty troubling legacy; it’s actually pretty hard to understand how defending a political entity is worth slaughtering half a million of its citizens. But I do think this country is essentially good, and that it is better if it is united, rather than a house divided against itself.

So let’s unite: the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our history, all together, all immortalized in bronze and marble, for everyone to see, for everyone to be proud of, and also, if not ashamed, then – humbled. This is who we are, after all. We shouldn’t forget it.

Come on, think of it this way: if we do this, then everybody gets a trophy.

Contempt and Hate

I don’t think most of us understand hate.

I know I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever actually felt it.

We use the word often; I use it all the time. I hate voluntary ignorance; I hate violence and war; I hate BBQ potato chips. But we also say “love” more than, I think, we mean it: I love my dog and I love my wife, but I also say I love Ren and Stimpy (Ren more than Stimpy – though I still love Stimpy, the big goof!), and I love Cheez-Its. Obviously, the feelings aren’t the same, aren’t even similar, and I have written before about the absurdity of this language, with its incredible vocabulary and the multiple nuances and shades of meaning available in the specific words and the specific uses we can put them to, having only one or two words for a positive feeling – I “like” this, and I “love” that. Now, that actually isn’t true, we have a ton of words to describe good feelings; and it would make me ecstatic if we could start saying adore and cherish and esteem – I am fond of funny T-shirts! I hold napping in high regard! – but that’s probably not going to happen.

Considering, however, all of the talk that has been flying about regarding hate “lately,” with Charlottesville, and with the alt-right administration currently abandoning the White House like lice fleeing the comb, I think this particular word requires some serious attention. I fear we are misusing it, and therefore making a mistake in how we handle the people, the groups, and the actions to whom we apply it.

Now, as I am unsure that I’ve ever genuinely experienced the feeling of hate (which doubt makes me think that I can actually be sure that I have not, because I think if I had, I would know it), it would seem that I could not write about it; but I can speak from observation, and also from the similar emotions I have felt, as hate is on one end of a spectrum, and all of us have been somewhere on that spectrum. I also have expert testimony to draw from: because I talked to my wife about this subject, and I asked her, “Do you think you’ve ever experienced real hate?” She said “Yes” before I could even finish the question. Without hesitation, without equivocation. I don’t intend to air her dirty laundry here, but suffice to say that one of her parents is one of the best people I’ve ever known, and the other one is very much the opposite of that. (For those reading this who may actually know my wife and her family, be aware that you have never met the shitty parent; you know her step-parent, who is a fine person as well.)

Here is how she describes what she feels for that parent. Every time she thinks of this person, it makes her angry. Angry enough to do harm: to punch, to kick, to attack. Every single time. It follows her around, she said, this anger; it is a part of her, and it never goes away. This is partly due to the fact that the object of her hatred, as one of her biological parents, is also a part of her; she knows this, and she hates that it is so. Everything that she hates about this person, reflects in some way on her, either because of their connection, or because of how it makes her feel. Which just makes her angrier.

That is hate. Hate is anger that lasts, and that never goes away. Violent, intense anger, anger that taints everything around it, including one’s own self: to have something or someone in your life that you hate would make you upset with yourself for feeling this way, particularly in this culture that teaches forgiveness and resolution and closure. My wife cannot force this to heal, cannot close this wound; and so it festers and aches and weeps. This, of course, intensifies her negative feelings, because then she feels saddened that she has to continue dealing with this, that she can’t find a way to get over it or get past it; and then she naturally blames the source of that hate for bringing these other terrible feelings on her, as well, for being so hate-worthy that now she has to carry all the rest of it along with the hate.

(A final note: she is right. That parent is worthy of hate. It’s the closest that I feel to hate, as well, because of what my wife has had to suffer, and continues to suffer. The cultural trope that my wife should forgive and forget is nothing but nonsense. That person does not deserve forgiveness. Those of you who may feel the urge to say that she should turn the other cheek, that her feelings are only hurting her and will go away if she forgives: shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.)

I have felt anger that made me want to do violence. I have felt it several times for a single person or event, so I think I have felt some level of hate; but my hate, my anger, has always faded, and I’ve always been able to feel better afterwards. That fact has enabled me to call myself a pacifist, to say that I oppose violence in all forms at all times. Because I have always been able to escape my desire to do violence, so I have the luxury of thinking that people can always do that, can always turn the other cheek and just – calm down. (Also, I have never had to fight for my safety or my life, and so I can think that people never really need to do that.) This has made me incapable of understanding people who are members of what we blithely call hate groups: why, I think, can’t they just calm down?

There’s two answers, there, because I think there is more than one type of member in a hate group. Probably there is a spectrum as broad as the number of people in the group, but there are two categories at least we can put them into, and should. One is the group that is actually, genuinely filled with hate: every time they encounter the object of their hatred – let’s say, every time a Neo-Nazi encounters a Jewish person, or every time a Klansman meets an African-American – they are filled with a rage that brings them to violence. That rage never fades; they carry it with them, everywhere, always. It is a part of them. It is possible that they are upset with themselves, and saddened, as my wife is, that they cannot simply let that rage go; I would wager that if they lose loved ones, family members or friends that turn a cold shoulder because of the Klansman’s/Neo-Nazi’s hate, that they wish that they could just let the hate go. But they can’t: and every negative feeling that gets piled on someone who hates, gets added to the list of reasons to hate. The object of the hate receives the full blame for all of the consequences of hate. The Klansman thinks, “If those [African-Americans] wouldn’t be so awful, then my life wouldn’t be so terrible. I hate them even more for making me hate them, and for screwing up my life with that hate.”

This kind of conflict cannot be reasoned with. It cannot be cajoled away. I don’t know that it always lasts for everyone who feels it; surely some people change. But I don’t think there is a pattern to that, not a process that can be prescribed to end real, violent, hate. I think the only thing that can be done about it is my wife’s solution: separation. She never sees the person she hates, and never intends to. It doesn’t make her feel better, it doesn’t make the hate go away; but it keeps her from becoming violent. It minimizes the occasions when she has to think about it. (And I have to say: as important as I think this topic is, I feel terrible that writing this is going to drag my wife back down into everything she feels about her family. I really am sorry. She will of course read this before it is published and so it is possible, if she wishes it, that no one else will ever read it.) That’s the best we can do with the people who feel genuine hatred.

But for the rest of them – probably, I think, the majority of them – what they feel is not hatred. For them, it’s more like me saying I hate when my students ask me the same question three times in a row (“When is this due?” “Friday. It says it on the board.” “Wait – when is it due?” “Friday.” “What’s due on Friday?” “I hate you.”). That does drive me crazy; but it doesn’t make me feel violent, and it doesn’t make me feel sad. I don’t even know that it makes me angry, as such.

I think the word for what I feel at those times is: contempt. Maybe disgust, but I think disgust has a visceral, nauseous element; disgust turns one’s stomach. Students not paying attention doesn’t turn my stomach. What it does do is make me smirk at them, and think mean things about how dumb they are – after all, why can’t they read the due date on the board, right over there? Why weren’t they listening when I explained this to them not thirty seconds ago? They must be idiots. They’re not, not really: I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a student that I would call an actual idiot; every single one of them was either capable of doing what I asked, or had a reason (such as autism or developmental disabilities) why they couldn’t do it. The majority of them have not done the majority of what I have asked, but not because they were idiots. When I think that, it is a dismissal, a belittling, created from my contempt.

That, I think, is what most members of hate groups actually feel for the object of their “hate.” Contempt. I think their ideas are about as valid as my contempt for my students when they don’t listen, and I’d guess that every instance of contempt is similarly unfounded; it may be that their contempt is, like mine, largely projected: I get mad at my students for not listening at least in part because I know full well that I never really listened to my teachers when I was in high school. My irritation with them is certainly some irritation with my past teenaged self, seen reflected in their slack jaws and dull eyes, so like my own. It’s also true that they are most distracted when my class is most boring, and I know that when it is boring, it is mostly my fault, not theirs (though I will note that often the boring things I teach are unavoidable: somebody has to explain commas and apostrophes and the passive voice); when I taught John Knowles’s terrible novel A Separate Peace, boredom was the appropriate response. Maybe even contempt.

But I’m not all that interested in trying to understand why Neo-Nazis feel what they feel, whether it is contempt or it is hatred; I don’t really care. There isn’t a way to feel hatred for an entire race that is justified the way my wife’s hatred is justified, because an entire race of people cannot be guilty of heinous acts towards a single person. Contempt for an entire race is also moronic, as my contempt for my students would be if it lasted more than a few seconds; but after they all know what the due date is, we go back to discussion of George Orwell, and they have intelligent and interesting things to say, and I realize they’re not at all idiots, and I was being a jerk when I thought they were. I don’t understand why Neo-Nazis and Klansmen don’t have that same realization. I kinda think they’re idiots. That is the biggest difference: my contempt is only momentary, and never very serious; a Neo-Nazi feels a long-term, maybe even a permanent contempt for the contemptuous object. Enough to make him willing to join the swastika crowd. The Neo-Nazis that aren’t idiots – and of course there are some such – either feel hate, or they are those who can be turned away from their hate groups, those people who make a friend of a different race and realize they maybe shouldn’t be marching in the hate parade.

Here’s what matters. Contempt can frequently be dismissed as unimportant, because it does not incite violence. Nobody wants to hit someone they feel contempt for; the object of contempt is too pathetic, too insignificant, to go through all that trouble. You might shove them out of your way, but you would never pursue them and beat them; you would never run them down with your car, or hang them from the nearest tree. Those are acts of hate. Hate, obviously, should not be dismissed as harmless. That is not to say that everyone who hates is violent or murderous; but the emotion creates the chance of violence, where contempt does not.

I think a lot of our treatment of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists is contemptuous. We make fun of them, we belittle them, we dismiss them. We feel contempt for them, because we think that all they feel for their victims is also contempt, so we don’t really worry about them doing harm. (Also: they’re idiots. I think.) By contrast, our treatment of terrorists is fearful: because we know that they feel hate, and therefore are they very dangerous. People who would set off a bomb in a crowded place are full of hate. People who would drive a car, or a plane, into innocents, are full of hate. And if and when we see white supremacists marching, at night, carrying torches, chanting “BLOOD AND SOIL!” we recognize that as more than contempt: that is hate. You watch video of police officers setting attack dogs on civil rights protesters, it is clear: that is hate. Hate, genuine hate, must be treated as something dangerous, because it is. Treating a person filled with hate as if they only felt contempt would make us vulnerable; we can turn our backs on people who feel contempt. We can get up in their faces during a rally, we can yell at them, we can follow them playing “Ride of the Valkyries” on a tuba. We can laugh at people who feel contempt. It is dangerous to treat those who hate as if they only feel contempt. That is the first mistake we have made in the past, and hopefully, the events of Charlottesville will remind us that ignoring, dismissing, belittling those who actually hate is never going to make them go away. For them, we must make them go away: we must enforce separation. Which probably means law enforcement.

But here’s the thing. When we treat those who only feel contempt as if they actually feel hate, that is ineffective, too. Because it isn’t justified: a guy who makes racist jokes doesn’t need to be on an FBI terror watch list. Some putz who hangs a Nazi flag on his house, or a Confederate flag on his truck, doesn’t need to be treated as if he is about to explode into violence. And if you confront that person and say, “You’re full of hate!” in whatever way you say that, they will say, “No, I’m not. I don’t hate anybody. I just think racist jokes are funny, and the Confederacy fought for Southern pride and state’s rights.” They may say, “I have plenty of [black/Jewish/female] friends.” And maybe they do, though I think it is hard to be friendly with someone for whom you also feel contempt. But regardless, they do not feel hate. They can reasonably deny any label that they are members of a hate group, or that they are a violent threat to a civil society. If you try to force that label on them, they can turn it around and call you intolerant, and a bigot; they can call you Communist or antifa or the alt-left. They can claim that you are limiting their freedom of speech by keeping them from speaking on your college campus. They can take the moral high ground. Then they can argue for greater freedom for their groups and their causes – and then that means greater freedom for the members of those groups and causes who actually feel hate, who are genuinely dangerous.

Then you get Charlottesville.

So the issue is, we have to make a distinction between those who feel contempt, and those who feel hate. And we have to treat them differently. The hateful must be watched, and prevented from doing harm; the contemptuous we should ignore.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in my plans for how to fix all of this. I do not know how to discern hate from contempt; they probably blend together for the observer, they may both be present in the same person. No reason why a Neo-Nazi couldn’t feel contemptuous of Jews and hate African-Americans, for instance. Or feel contempt for African-Americans and hate black policemen, specifically. A contemptuous person may get angry and sound just like someone full of hate, even if that feeling fades quickly, where it wouldn’t in someone who genuinely hates. But I do think that we will make more progress, and have better results, if we treat the two categories differently when it is clear which is which. That crying Nazi who got banned from OKCupid, for instance? That dude is not full of hate. A man who hated non-whites would hate them more after they got him banned from Tinder. He might lie about it, of course; but I think he probably would not cry.

Though maybe that thought is coming from my own contempt.

I hate that.

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand


I don’t think I understood this book.

I understood parts of it. The hero, Howard Roark, is intended, I think, to represent the ideal man in Ayn Rand’s terms: he is self-made, dependent upon no one else, answers to no one but himself, acts for no other reason than his self-interest. He is not selfish in that he does not take things that he does not earn, does not steal from others nor hoard things that others would find valuable; he does not seek to impose his ideas on anyone else. He is a mix of what I would call an artist and what Rand would call an artist, in that she puts a higher premium on production and industry than I do, and thus Roark’s art – architecture – is seen as grander, by Rand than it is by me, because Roark erects man’s greatest achievement, in Rand’s view: the skyscraper. The city. I don’t know that I see cities as the ideal human creation, but I agree that architecture is an art with a particularly elemental aspect, in that architects build our homes, build our places, and thus have great influence on our lives. I can live with that as a sort of pinnacle of value.

(By the way: it isn’t that I would argue that architecture is a lesser art than, say, literature or music or painting; it’s just that art has to have an impact on the viewer to achieve its highest, or deepest, effect, and for me personally, a building doesn’t have the same magic as the perfect poem or song or painting. Totally subjective. Speaking of subjective, Rand keeps trying to pawn off Roark’s architectural style as the perfect ideal, and I don’t see it that way; she’s clearly a fan of Modern architecture, and I like several styles. Unimportant but kind of annoying while I was reading.)

The villain, Ellsworth Toohey, is the opposite of Roark. He lives entirely through others, but focused on himself in a purely selfish, greedy, and therefore evil manner: Toohey seeks to control others, to force them to obey his whims, for no other reason than because he desires that control (Rand hints, as she states more clearly in Atlas Shrugged, that by denying his own self-interest, what Toohey really wants both for others and for himself, is death. Okay.). He uses public opinion, which he can sway, to intimidate or extort others until they obey him; if they will not, he tries to use it to destroy them. He tries to destroy Roark because Roark can’t be controlled, because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion. (One of the best exchanges in this book is when Toohey, having used his manipulative wiles to screw up Roark’s life, catches Roark alone and says, “You can tell me what you think of me,” because he thrives on hatred and envy and bile. To which Roark responds, “But I don’t think of you.” That was a great line.) But because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion – because he lives only for his own happiness, using only his own reason to determine his value – Toohey’s attempts to destroy Roark do not work. Roark, like the honey badger, doesn’t give a shit. I appreciate that. I can even admire it.

The other character I understood was Peter Keating. Keating is not the opposite of Roark, but the negative of Roark: he cares only for public opinion. He never uses his own standards, nor even his own ability to accomplish anything; like Toohey, he excels at manipulation, and Keating uses that manipulation to worm his way into people’s trust and then take credit for their work. He is supremely successful because of that, and absolutely miserable: the opposite of Roark. (Keating too is an architect.)

I got all of that. I could appreciate that story, of Keating competing with Roark and not really understanding why he feels like he’s losing even though he wins every award, every contract, every accolade that he and Roark both try for. I could appreciate the story of the evil Ellsworth Toohey trying to destroy the good Howard Roark, and Roark essentially winning that fight even though Toohey is appallingly effective at manipulation, just because Roark doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and because he is good enough at what he does for the quality of his work to show through despite what the critics have to say about it (Among other things, Toohey is the premiere critic of architecture in the book.).

What I didn’t get, though, was the love story. The female protagonist is named Dominique Francon: she is the daughter of Peter Keating’s boss and predecessor as most-successful-but-least-actually-talented architect, and she is, like Toohey, a critic of architecture. She is also, like Roark, a Randian ideal in that she thinks for herself and cares not at all what others think of her. She enters into relationships as a self-interested party offering value for value, which is how Rand says that love should work.

The problem is that she loves Howard Roark. It wouldn’t be a problem, because Roark is the ideal man and therefore of course she loves him, except: their relationship starts when Roark rapes her. Straight up, not simply according to my overly-sensitive interpretation; Roark breaks into her house at night and rapes her, and when she refers to it later, she says “He raped me.” And then they love each other. They love each other so much, in fact, that Dominique leaves Roark and marries Peter Keating. Who, because she does not at all love him, she does not respond to, turning into a lifeless mannequin whenever he touches her (A particularly distasteful element that Rand also played up in Atlas Shrugged, with one of the female villains in that book.). Now, Dominique does this ostensibly because she can’t stand to watch Roark go through the crap he has to deal with from Toohey and all of his allies as they try to destroy his reputation and therefore the man himself, but I really don’t get it. I don’t get why she marries Keating, I don’t get why she then leaves him and marries Gail Wynand (who I also don’t get), and I don’t get why she loves Roark after he raped her. I don’t get what Rand is trying to say with all of this. I don’t get why Dominique is the ideal woman when her major quality seems to be her unearthly beauty (Which, as an unimportant side note, I also couldn’t see simply because Rand’s idea of beauty is not mine: Dominique is tall and thin and pale and cold and has hair that is repeatedly compared to a helmet complete with metallic sheen. But that’s neither here nor there: if she had been described as my ideal imaginary woman, I still wouldn’t understand her actions or role in the book.) and her determination to leave the man she loves and marry a man she loathes. I don’t get how that’s good.

My problem with the book is that the parts I didn’t get took too much away from the parts I did get. I can’t root for Roark when he’s a rapist. I can’t root for Dominique when I don’t know why she does what she does. I can’t root for Toohey or Keating when I do understand that they’re scum. I would actually root for Gail Wynand, who is a badass and also a Randian ideal: he is self-interested, motivated, hard-working, and entirely self-made. It seems that his failing that makes him a flawed character is that he has built an empire based on public opinion rather than his own ideals and reason. Wynand sought power, and he found it along with wealth by becoming William Randolph Hearst: he owns all of the trashiest, most sensational, and most successful newspapers in the country. In the second half of the book, Toohey goes after Wynand (Because Wynand has power that Toohey wants), and Wynand is finally destroyed by Toohey, though Wynand makes it a Pyrrhic victory for Toohey. I’m not sure why Wynand loses, though. Rand shows how manipulating public opinion, and really socking home the idea that altruism is the only good and anyone who is wealthy is greedy and therefore vile and selfish, can destroy an empire; that’s how Toohey takes Wynand down. But I think Wynand is not supposed to be a victim, here: he is somehow partly responsible for his downfall. He used his papers to manipulate public opinion in order to garner power, and that is finally turned against him; I suppose that is his evil, his tragic flaw. But I feel that undercuts the message of Toohey’s villainy, and it made me unsure if I should be mad at Toohey or Wynand. And then there’s the fact that Wynand falls in love with Dominique, and she marries him and loves him on some level – but then drops him like a hot rock and goes back to her rapist. (And I feel like I’m supposed to appreciate how Dominique can look past the fact of her rape, and therefore I’m being like a stick in the mud or a prude or something by harping on this. And if so, well, bite me.) So is this more evidence that Wynand is flawed and I’m supposed to admire Roark more than Wynand? I don’t. I see Wynand’s evil side, in his abuse of power; but I see Roark’s evil side in his abuse of Dominique. And Dominique’s evil side in her betrayal of – well, everyone, in one way or another; particularly herself.

Basically, I dislike everyone in this book, and so I can’t see the ideal aspect I’m supposed to appreciate and try to emulate. I was not made happy by the happy ending.

So I figure, either I didn’t understand the book well enough to appreciate it, or I did understand it, and it’s pretty much evil crap. Either way, I can’t recommend it.

I invite anyone who feels they can explain the book to me to do so. I completely accept that I am not a fair judge of it because I didn’t really get it, and I would like to understand it even if I still don’t agree with it, should that be the case.