Thursday, March 22, 2007

JARS: "Ayn Rand as Literary Mentor"

Kirsti Minsaas provides a short review of Erika Holzer's Ayn Rand: My Fiction Writing Teacher. In the course of her review, Minsaas indulges in a short discussion of Holzer's and Rand's "shared interest in larger-than-life heroes." Minsaas, as far as I can tell, shares Holzer's perspective about the "objective" need for "romantic heroes," and even goes so far as to describe the type of hero projected in Rand's novels as "sophisticated." So here we have three women--Rand, Holzer, and Minsaas--all expressing sympathy for "larger-than-life" heroes of the Randian variety. Could it be that Randian heroism is a product of peculiar sort of female sentimentalism? I personally don't see anything heroic in Rand's heroes. They are not even gentlemen, as no gentlemen would go around raping women (even when the women want it), dynamiting newly completed housing projects, engaging in piracy and petulant economic sabotage, and spouting self-righteous ideological rhetoric. The Randian hero is an ideologue par excellence, which is another way of saying that he is a man without any real sense of honor.

Minsaas' review also touches upon an even less agreeable subject: Rand's "sense of life" construct, which constitutes one of Rand's very worst theories. Great literature seeks to illuminate the perplexities of the human condition. In the pursuit of this end, literature must sometimes grapple with the tragic side of existence--that is to say, it must cover such things as sickness, pain, infidelity, death, and evil. Rand's excessively secular and rationalist view of life caused her to shrink from such subjects, because her philosophy had no answers to the problems they raised. So she created an elaborate rationalization in order to dismiss novels that raised just the sort of difficult issues which demonstrate the poverty of her philosophy. She argued that the very fact that an author chooses a tragical subject is proof positive that he considers the subject of paramount importance. If an author like Tolstoy writes a novella about death (e.g., The Death of Ivan Illyich), this proves that Tolstoy believes that death is the most significant thing of all, more significant, even then life, which, Rand would argue, proves that Tolstoy has a "malevolent sense of life." But here Rand, as usual, misses the point altogether. The The Death of Ivan Illyich is not a glorification of death, but merely a mediation about death, giving Tolstoy's thoughts about the subject. Whether death is "metaphysically significant" or not, it's clearly an important subject; so why shouldn't a novelist, especially one as great as Tolstoy, provide his take on it? By dismissing the lion's share of great literature as "malevolent," Rand merely encourages her followers to remain ignorant of the some of the best that has been said and thought about the great issues confronting human beings.


David said...

Rand's Romantic Realism [RR] is simply a form of genre fiction, like science fiction, detective fiction, adventure fiction, etc. Like any other genre, RR has its conventions of character (extreme idealized types, all good, all evil, all smart, all stupid), setting (contemporary with the writing), tone (didactic), plot (hero always comes out on top), and symbolism (obvious and ham-handed). However, the genre it is most similar to, ironically, is Socialist Realism [SR]. Both genres present people as they ought to be (RR with the heroic individualist and SR with a heroic everyman champion), both place these idealized types into a contemporary setting where they rage against the status quo, and ultimately the character triumphs, proving the rightness of his cause.

However, the most striking (and aesthetically damning) similarity is that the proponents of RR and SR disdain all other works outside their genre as ideologically incorrect and therefore, incapable of truly being great literature. In short, in both RR and SR, ideology trumps craft, beauty, complexity, creativity, and pretty much anything and everything that makes Great Books great.

Both systems reduce art to Agitprop (and not even interesting Agitprop a la Bertold Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" or "Galileo"), leaving no room to explore the messy complexities of the human condition as it is, substituting facile (and infantile) wishful thinking in its stead.

I've often thought about writing a more academic essay on this subject, but in the end I guess I'd rather spend my time reading Dostoevsky and Melville.

Mike Huben said...

The notion that such a subject is of "paramount importance" is transparently silly: many authors wrote about multiple subjects. Are all of those subjects paramount? Why is it only the ones they published that are paramount? Say they were writing the book on their paramount subject when they died: Ayn would be mistaken then, right?

Michael Prescott said...

OT, but since the issue of the Atlas Shrugged movie has come up on this blog, here's part of a recent interview with Angelina Jolie:

Cinematical: Can you give an update on Atlas Shrugged? What sparked your interest in developing it?

Answer: I think it's a wonderful book. I'm a fan of her writing. I think it's an amazing project. It's, in many ways, a controversial and complicated project and I think it needs to be done right. There's been a lot of talk as to how that can be and 'what are the important reasons for making it?' There's a lot of really great people involved. It's being written now, and we'll see as the script comes out, how close we are. Then we'll know how close we are to possibly making it. Everybody involved, the producers involved, we all sat down around a table and we all agreed that if we couldn't do it right, if we couldn't do it justice, if along the way any one piece didn't come together like the right director or the right script, then we would all just fold it and not do it. So that's where we're at right now. We're taking it step by step, and we're going to make damn sure that it's done right.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the more it occurs to that "Atlas Shrugged" is to Objectivism and "Battlefield: Earth" is the Scientology, except that "Battlefield: Earth," except that L. Ron Hubbard had the good sense as a writer to not give his protagonists 80-page monologues.

wss said...

Thanks to the anonymous poster who compared Atlas Shrugged to Battlefield Earth.

My first internet posting on Rand covered the similarities:

"With regard to Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, in which she laid out concrete examples of her philosophy in action: Oi. Fantasy. Rant. Haranguing dialogue. Characters with the depth and realism of Skeletor, Lex Luthor, Bizarro Superman, She-Ra and Wonder Woman.

So far I have only read the first 650,000 of its 800,000 pages. At the moment, as I struggle through the chapter "The Utopia of Greed," it reminds me most of L Ron Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth," with Rand's monsters slightly more horrid and evil than Hubbard's nightmarish slavedrivers, the titanic struggle between good and evil only slightly more titanic . . . mind you, Hubbard's book is also slightly longer, at 1,000,000 pages of turgid, pulpy, entertaining hooey.