Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 9

"Byronic" Romanticism. With Rand's division of free will into two parts, one pertaining to consciousness and the other to existence, she proceeds to develop a second category of Romanticism:

There are Romanticists whose basic premise, in effect, is that man possesses volition in regard to consciousness, but not to existence, i.e., in regard to his own character and choice of values, but not in regard to the possibility of achieving his goals in the physical world. The distinguishing characteristics of such writers are grand-scale themes and characters, no plots and an overwhelming sense of tragedy, the sense of a “malevolent universe.” The chief exponents of this category were poets. The leading one is Byron, whose name has been attached to this particular, “Byronic,” view of existence: its essence is the belief that man must lead a heroic life and fight for his values even though he is doomed to defeat by a malevolent fate over which he has no control.
The problem with this category is (1) the vagueness of its terms, and (2) lack of specific examples. Because of these two issues, it's difficult to determine where this category is applicable. Keep in mind that, initially, Rand claimed that Romanticism could be distinguished from Naturalism through the literary device of a plot. But here we have a type of Romaticism that is plotless. So how does one distinguish Byronic Romanticism from Naturalism?

The Byronic Romantics, Rand tells us, adopt grand-scale themes and characters. Yet so does Shakespeare in his tragedies. Why is Shakespeare not a Byronic Romantic? Rand's attempt to use the issue of volition-orientation to analyze literature again demonstrates the futility of viewing narrative works through this particular prism. Except in extreme cases (e.g., Zola for instance, who is explicit in his determinism), the issue of volition versus determinism is not applicable to literature. Most serious novelists and dramatists seek to create characters and narratives that are believable. Whether their characters are "grand-scale" or not, they are nonetheless drawn in the hope of being compelling and believable manifestations of human nature. And why should any believable representation of human nature be equated with determinism?

Curiously, Rand's equation of "journalistic" descriptions of human beings with "Naturalism" implies that a scrupulously realistic portrayal of human nature supports determinism. Why should this be so? Most likely, Rand would have tried to circumvent this troublesome implication by drawing on her selectivity principle. Yet this merely demonstrates the poverty of Rand's selectivity principle. If you are determined to over-interpret a work of art, you can read anything into it that you like. But in criticism and aesthetics, the purpose is not to over-interpret works of literature, but to appreciate and enjoy them.

When analyzed carefully, most of Rand's aesthetic categories become entirely unconvincing. Under Rand's conceptual schema, there is (generaly speaking) no way really to distinguish between Romantic and Naturalist literature, beyond recourse to Rand's own statements about a handful of specific authors. We know that Dostoevksy and Conrad are Romantics, because Rand said they are. And we know that Shakespeare and Balzac are Naturalists for the same reason. But if Rand had said nothing about these authors, would we have been able to place them "correctly" in her contrived categories? And what about all those authors Rand never mentions? What of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Fielding, Richardson, D. H. Lawrence, George Eliot, Henry James, Mark Twain? English literature is particularly difficult to place in Rand's categories, because it tends to be so moralistic, and moralism implies volition. Yet "grand-scale" characters are not especially pentiful within the confines of the English novel.

In discussing Byronism, Rand is able to provide only one example -- that of Byron himself. She notes that "the chief exponents of this category were poets," yet refuses to name any of these poets other than the aforementioned Byron. This is a typical failing throughout Rand's philosophical writings: a failure to provide specific examples so that her readers could better evaluate her contentions. This failure suggests one of three possibilities:

(1) Rand was not familiar enough with those authors to evaluate them (meaning she hadn't read them)
(2) Those authors don't fit into her categories, so she ignored them
(3) Combination of one and two

If (1) is true, then we have to question whether Rand is even qualified to make aesthetic pronouncements on literature; and if (2) is true, then we have to question the utility of her categorizations (since if they are not applicable to most literature, what good are they?). In any case, Rand's attempt to devise aesthetic categories based on volition through which to evaluate literature are so poorly thought out that it raises suspicions of the whole thing being a ruse by which Rand could justify her personal tastes in serious literature. For, as it turns out, Rand's favorite serious authors and serious novels all turn out to be among the most consistent exemplars of Romanticism!


Rey said...

Objectivists (TUP? JD? Anyone?) also need to clarify what she meant by "plot" and defend the implication that Zola's Germinal (for example) doesn't have one. Then they need to demonstrate how their necessarily narrower definition of plot is a more useful tool for literary analysis than say, Aristotle's or Freytag's definitions, both of which would recognize that Germinal does, indeed, have a plot.

I also have questions about poetry and Objectivism. If plot is now essential to poetry, what is one to make of non-narrative poems such as sonnets, haiku, certain lyric pieces, or odes? Or are ballads (in the traditional sense, i.e., songs and poems that tell a story), epics, and certain (other) lyric poems the only forms of poetry that Objectivist recognize as poetry?

Rey said...

Per The Ayn Rand Lexicon, "A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax," which isn't that different from Aristotle's notion that a plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end with causally related events.

Now if Plot is what separates Romanticism from "Byronic" Romanticism and Naturalism, then Emile Zola's Germinal is not an example of Naturalism, but of Romanticism, because, by Rand's own standards, Germinal has a plot---a beginning, middle, and end with causally related events. Even if you comb through the 12 superfluous paragraphs in the ...Lexicon entry on Plot, there's nothing that disqualifies Germinal.

Now here's where we have a choice: We can either decide that that self-described Naturalist Emile Zola, who consciously rebelled against the Romantic literary conventions of his day, was really a Romantic after all and 150-years of literary theory, criticism, and history are wrong (which is possible, tho' it's then incumbant on anyone reaching such a conclusion demonstrate the superior explanatory and analytical power of their approach over the traditional one); or we can conclude that Rand's definitions of Naturalism and Romanticism are arbitrary, ahistorical, and that she doesn't really know what she's talking about.

The fact is, having Plot as one of the features that differentiates Romanticism from Naturalism is a fatal flaw in her theory of literature because the vast majority of fictional and dramatic works, including those regarded as canonical examples of Naturalism, possess a Plot, by Rand's definition, disqualifying them from falling under her rubric for Naturalism. Because of her Naturalism-Romanticism dichotomy, those works have nowhere else to go than Romanticism, creating an overbroad category containing the vast supermajority of literary works. This limits it's value as an analytical tool.

Finaly issue that has me scratching my head: Her application of Plot to poetry. Only certain genres and forms of poetry have Plot (e.g., epic poetry, ballads (in the tradition sense of songs and poems that tell stories), verse drama, and certain lyric poems. Does this mean that non-Plot poems (e.g., sonnets, haiku, and certain (other) lyric poetry) are all Naturalistic (in which case, Wordsworth's "Tinturn Abbey" isn't Romantic, which it is (see above re: Germinal), or does it mean that that such poems aren't really poems? If so, the whole of literary history, theory, and criticism needs to be rewritten.

Finally, what value is her Romanticism(s) v. Naturalism dichotomy outside of literature? How can a system that relies on Plot as one of its key demarkations be applied to music and the visual arts?

Rey said...

I apologize for the post-length comment, but the whole Plot thing has been sticking in my craw for a while. Time for some whim-worshiping with Charles Mingus ... I wonder if his music is Romantic or Naturalist...

Ken said...

I would love to see this analysis applied to H.P. Lovecraft. He had two very distinct styles:

1) Highly-romantic fantasy exemplified by The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and the other Dream cycle stories. These have only the loosest of plots, since the protagonists are literally moving through a dream landscape - but for that same reason, the protagonists can, if sufficiently strong-willed, exercise a great deal of control over the events.

2) Very naturalistic science-fiction, albeit one in which alien creatures make use of natural laws unknown to humanity, as found in The Colour Out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, and even The Call of Cthulhu. These have very definite plots and logical structure, but are also the stories that make strongest use of what Lovecraft called "cosmic horror" - the realization that man was insignificant in the cosmos, and that ultimately all human endeavors were meaningless.

Lovecraft thus presents strong counterexamples to Rand's literary theory, and it seems impossible to categorize his work under her crude system.

Neil Parille said...

Here is what Ayn Rand is known to have read (from the ORC's website).

I doubt, however, that she read all of The Critique of Pure Reason or Human Action.

Rey said...

Three non-deep thoughts on Rand reading list:

Don Quixote: One of my favorite books. Anyone know Rand's opinion/interpretation of it? As was the convention at the time of its composition, the book lacks a single, cohesive plot, but is made up of smaller, loosely connected vignettes. Also, Cervantes was intentionally parodying medieval Romances (from which the 19th century Romatics took their name) and their unrealistic idealizations of knighthood, warfare, heroism, etc.

Frankenstein: Another one of my faves. Again, I'm curious as to Rand's opinion/interpretation. Because of the book's fantastical premise, as well as Mary Shelley's initimate association with the Romantic poets, the novel is generally considered by literary historians to be Romantic, yet one of its major themes is how society creates the Monster by treating him like a Monster.

Moonraker: Absolutely the worst of Fleming's Bond novels and probably the worst Bond movie, but if you're looking for idealized (to the point of parody) characters and lots of Plot, you can't go wrong with a Bond book.

@Ken: Excellent points. Lovecraft's writing simply will not fit into Rand's rubric. "The Silver Key," another one of Lovecrafts Dream tales, is noteworthy for this reason because, even through it is has well-structured plot, it completely omits the climax. We go from rising action (Carter visiting his childhood home, looking for key to dreams, etc.) and elides into the denouement (people are now looking for Carter, but he is never found) and resolution ("...a new king reigns on the opal throne in Ilek-Vad"), leaving it to the reader to fill in the gaps.

Dragonfly said...

Neil: I doubt, however, that she read all of The Critique of Pure Reason.

I'm sure she never read Kant, except for some cherry-picked quotes provided by Peikoff or possibly in that obscure book about Kant she once read.

gregnyquist said...

Don Quixote: One of my favorite books. Anyone know Rand's opinion/interpretation of it?

She hated the book. If memory serves right, I believe she grouped it with Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as books she particularly abhorred.

Neil Parille said...


Rand studied philosophy in university so she probably had some first hand acquaintance with Kant.

Barbara Branden said that she and Peikoff would summarize philosophy books for Rand. I imagine they both would have been reluctant to say "he's saying something similar to you."

Ken said...

Neil Parille said: I imagine they both would have been reluctant to say "he's saying something similar to you."


I remember attending a conference where, after a paper had been presented, one of the audience said "this work has already been done and published three years ago, why did neither you nor your thesis advisor find this in a literature search?" Even as an audience member, it was horribly uncomfortable; but that kind of feedback is essential to the research process.

Unless Rand never spoke in a venue where she was held up to criticism - and admittedly from what I've read that's quite possible - she should have welcomed people willing to tell her "he's saying something similar to you."

Rey said...

"She hated the book."

It's a real shame she was so humorless. It's not like Don Quixote mocks her Ideal Man, but the laughably unrealistic chivalric ideal presented in medieval Romances.

When your philosophy won't let you have innocent fun, UR doing it wrong.

gregnyquist said...

Barbara Branden said that she and Peikoff would summarize philosophy books for Rand. I imagine they both would have been reluctant to say "he's saying something similar to you."

Well, to be entirely fair, Kant is rather difficult, and Rand was not the first person to claim that Kant's philosophy was tantamount to a denial of knowledge. Kant's philosophy contains an odd mixture of realist and idealist notions; and if the critic focuses primarily on the idealist side of Kant, he can make a plausible case that Kant unwittingly denied knowledge. As far as I know, Santayana was the first to make such an allegation, which he put forth in the 4th chapter of his book Reason in Common Sense, a work which at one time was considered a classic. Rand almost certainly picked up Santayana's view of Kant (though stripped of all its depth and nuance) through Isabel Paterson (Paterson was very well read and very likely read Santayana). Once Rand had committed herself to this viewpoint, it would be easy for her to read it into any passage that was relayed to her by her acolytes. Kant's denials of speculative knowledge (i.e., knowledge based on "pure" reason) she could easily misinterpret as denials of any and all knowledge.

Xtra Laj said...

When your philosophy won't let you have innocent fun, UR doing it wrong.

Innocent fun? Come again? The kind of fun you enjoy is a function of your premises!