The Rorschach Test

Steve Ditko was an Objectivist. 

For those not familiar with the philosophy here it is in broad strokes: It was articulated in its modern form by Ayn Rand and views good and evil as absolute goals. Everyone is striving for one or the other with no shades of gray in between. It’s an atheistic philosophy and one that relies on men to have clear minds and clear goals, measuring their decisions against morality and their own goals to reach definitively good or evil ends. While people can (and do) act in confused or ignorant fashion in an objectivist world, their deeds can still be weighed as good or evil. 

Objectivism is an appealing philosophy in many ways. It has strong moral principles, it places the power to make meaningful decisions in the hands of those who espouse it and it’s not so overly complex it breaks down on contact with reality, which is a common flaw in philosophical systems. If I were to site one flaw, it’s the philosophy’s dependence on men to parse good and evil. 

In my experience, humans are terrible at that kind of thing. 

Ditko, like Rand before him, had a lot of faith in the human ability to make moral decisions without reference to any higher level of morality. Again, that gives rise to a degree of nobility. Objectivism places a lot of value on individual autonomy and personal freedom as important parts of the moral order. This resonates strongly with most people raised in the Western tradition. Ditko tried to embody these values in The Question, a character he created and wrote in the 60s and 70s, who’s name (if not his principles) have gone on to live in the lore of DC comics. While the roots of The Question are largely forgotten his principles still live on in the character Rorschach, created by Alan Moore for his comic series The Watchmen

That’s fascinating, as Moore considered objectivism an interesting idea in the same way you might consider the morality of a paranoid schizophrenic interesting. 

To reiterate: Alan Moore was not an objectivist. He does not think good or evil are real concepts, much less pure concepts that could not be mixed. He wrote Rorschach as a bit of a madman. And yet many true Objectivists look at Rorschach and see a hero who fought for their ideals with courage and conviction. There are two reasons for this. 

The first is that Moore found Objectivism in general, and the Question in particular, interesting. He disagreed with the ideas, but he did not hold them in contempt. 

And as a result, we arrive at the second reason – he gave a true portrayal of Objectivism. Rather than dismissing it or worse, oversimplifying it to belittle the point of view, Moore allowed Rorschach to give a full throated voice to the ideas of Objectivism, to the point where many adherents of the ideology became quite fond of him. This wasn’t Moore’s intention. He thought he was making a strong case against the philosophy in his work. But he was so honest about what he was speaking to that he captured it regardless. 

Moore isn’t the only one to do this. The movies Starship Troopers and Robocop were both trying to mock scifi action movies but they turned out to be such good scifi action films that audiences loved them. At the same time, Starship Troopers, the novel, was written by Heinline, a hardcore libertarian who was trying to depict a society to show the importance of getting people to buy into their own society, and how hard that would truly be. On the other hand, the writer and director thought they were mocking Heinline as a fascist. However, they were such excellent artists that the truth Heinline was trying to depict – ‘service guarantees citizenship’ – still shines through and is embraced by many. 

It is obvious, then, that great artists must include truth in their work and that truth will then resonate with the audience. It is this resonance that, in turn, reinforces the integrity of the artistic work. That’s especially the case when the audience resonates in a way the artist did not expect. 

That’s also one of the reasons many artists resist this kind of truth. The job of a writer is to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the audience to a predetermined ending point so when things go radically off script it’s something of a failure for you, the writer. There’s a strong temptation to discard nuanced and realistic portrayals of viewpoints or ideas writers disagree with, so that they can get to that ending. The uncertainty must be controlled. While an outcome like Rorschach may not satisfy the writer, audiences can smell that oversimplification coming and will reject it much more often than accept it. 

If you seek to tell a story with artistic and creative integrity, if you wish to appeal to and entertain an audience and if you believe truth is an important part of storytelling, you cannot always determine how your audience will react. Don’t let that deter you from investing in these things. Ultimately, you serve the audience. Let them react as they will. You focus on your duty to the truth. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s