Monday, May 23, 2011

Ayn Rand & Aesthetics 11

Plot and character. When asked to name the three most important elements in fiction, Rand replied, "Plot, plot, plot." For Rand, a plot "is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax" and explicated this statement as follows:
The word “purposeful” in this definition has two applications: it applies to the author and to the characters of a novel. It demands that the author devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story—a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.
Rand's emphasis on "logical" sequence of events is problematic. No sequence of events is ever "logical." Logic applies to arguments, to propositions. There may exist, for example, a logical sequence of propositions. A sequence of events may be causally connected, but they cannot, on the face of it, be connected by logic. One event is never deduced from another. Rand here is confusing logic with inevitability.

But why is this sort of inevitability of events so important? Rand explains:

A chronicle, real or invented, may possess certain values; but these values are primarily informative—historical or sociological or psychological—not primarily esthetic or literary; they are only partly literary. Since art is a selective re-creation and since events are the building blocks of a novel, a writer who fails to exercise selectivity in regard to events defaults on the most important aspect of his art.
However, all this merely begs the question, leaving us as ignorant as we were before. Why must only inevitable events be regarded "esthetic and literary," whereas non-inevitable events are merely "informative." Rand has failed to provide a compelling argument for the importance of plot in fiction. Are there compelling arguments for other elements? In a word, yes.

Consider, as an alternative view, what H. L. Mencken had to say of the novel:
In brief, a first-rate novel is always a character sketch. It may be more than that, but at bottom it is always a character sketch, or, if the author is genuinely of the imperial line, a whole series of them…
The moral of all this is not lost upon the more competent minority of novelists among us. It was not necessary to preach it to Miss Cather when she set out to write "My Antonia,"… nor to Sinclair Lewis when he was at work on "Babbitt." All such novelists see the character first and the story afterword. What is the story of "Babbitt"? Who remembers? Who, indeed, remembers the story of "The Three Musketeers"? But D'Artagnan and his friends live brilliantly, and so, too, will George F. Babbitt live brilliantly — at all events, until Kiwanis cease to trouble, and his type ceases to be real. Most of the younger American novelists, alas, seem to draw no profit from such examples. It is their aim, apparently, to shock mankind with the vivacity of their virtuosity and the heterodoxy of their ideas, and so they fill their novels with gaudy writing and banal propaganda, and convert their characters into sticks. I am, at times, immensely amused and sometimes I am instructed, but I seldom carry away anything to remember. When I do so, it is not an idea, but a person. Like everyone else, I have a long memory for persons. But ideas come and go. [Prejudices 5, "Essay on Pedagogy"]
Now whether Mencken is right, he at least give a compelling argument for his position: namely, interesting characters are more memorable than stories or plots. And if one examines the novels that are remembered and read generations after they are written, they are all character sketches of some sort or another. They may be a great deal more than that; but few novels survive merely on plot alone.

Rand's view makes every element of narrative fiction subservient to plot:
The plot of a novel serves the same function as the steel skeleton of a skyscraper: it determines the use, placement and distribution of all the other elements. Matters such as number of characters, background, descriptions, conversations, introspective passages, etc. have to be determined by what the plot can carry, i.e., have to be integrated with the events and contribute to the progression of the story.
In practice, this sort of outlook turns characters into mere plot devices. The practical consequence of the sort of plot-driven fiction would be novels populated by unmemorable one-dimensional stick figures. Such novels may survive, as Rand's own Atlas Shrugged has thus far survived, for it's value as an instrument of propaganda; but as literature, it will be scorned and (probably) forgotten. Even as propaganda, it's value is close to nil, because only those who already agree with the message are likely to read and appreciate it. If Rand had really wanted to get her message out and achieve something beyond merely preaching to the choir, she would have striven for Atlas to be character-driven, rather than a plot driven, book. Then, assuming it was well done, intelligent people would have read it, even if they didn't agree with its message. One of the distinguishing characteristics of great literature is that intelligent people will read it even if they don't agree with author's view. Consider, as one example, the novels of Tolstoy. Many people can read and enjoy War and Peace and Anna Karenina without agreeing, or even respecting, Tolstoy's rather eccentric political and social views.


Michael Prescott said...

"A sequence of events may be causally connected, but they cannot, on the face of it, be connected by logic."

I think by logic, in this context, Rand did mean cause-and-effect. She was distinguishing between a story where one incident follows causally from a preceding incident, vs. one where incidents follow one another in haphazard fashion.

Many stories of the "quest" type fit the latter description. The heroes encounter an evil troll, a monstrous gryphon, a greedy ogre, and a hungry dragon before they reach their prize. These incidents could be rearranged without substantially altering the story -- as in fact they often are in the videogames that are offshoots of such stories.

A plot in Rand's sense reflects the characters' choices, with each choice leading causally to the next event, which entails a new choice.

I think the distinction is valid and even somewhat helpful, though I'm not denying that many worthwhile novels have plots that don't fit the Randian scheme. But even Rand probably didn't deny that.

Ken said...

...every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events...

Remind me again - what was Rand's attitude toward determinism? Here in the physical universe, that is.

gregnyquist said...

I think by logic, in this context, Rand did mean cause-and-effect. She was distinguishing between a story where one incident follows causally from a preceding incident, vs. one where incidents follow one another in haphazard fashion.

Although I think is right, I don't find it particularly illuminating. Technically speaking, all sequence of events are a consequence a causation and choice. I think the problem here is that Rand really hasn't put her finger on what is most distinctive about a story with a "plot." Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter both relate a sequences of events involving character choices leading to an adulterous relationship and, eventually, to the death of one of the main characters. Yet Rand explicitly denied that Anna Karenina had a plot, while strongly implying the opposite conclusion concerning the Scarlet Letter. I believe Rand is more or less correct in denying that Anna Karenina has a plot; while The Scarlet Letter surley does have a plot. So where is the difference? I don't believe it's an issue of a "logical" or "causal" sequence of events, or even choice driven events. Those features exist in any story, whether plot-driven or not. The difference between the Hawthorne and Tolstoy novels of adultery is that the sequence of events in The Scarlet Letter are arranged in such a way as to create greater suspense and tension, leading to a more dramatic climax and resolution. A plot, then, could more adequately be described as a series of tightly woven events leading to the resolution of a climax. The value of a plot is that it creates suspense and high drama, which makes the story more absorbing and compelling. It's a technique of good story telling, rather than an inevitable product of "metaphysical value judgments."

Michael Prescott said...

Now that I think about it, Greg, you're probably right. Most novels are a mixture of cause-effect relationships and unanticipated developments. Even Rand's novels fit this description.

Ian Berger said...

I'm finally treating myself to the grand tome known as “Atlas Shrugged”. While I certainly have respect for Rand as a writer, she does certain things very well, like description, her characters are almost deliberately wooden. It's quite strange how all her heroes seem to be “without the ability to feel for others”. If it came up once, I probably wouldn't pay it that much thought, but it comes up again and again. This is not a good quality trait. As a matter of fact, this is a very creepy quality trait, one usually assigned to the group of people we call sociopaths/ Now this by itself might be interesting, but Rand isn't interested in the ramifications of that trait except to further her own philosophy.

Rand also clearly doesn't understand that the basis of a novel is in essence a voyage inside. No matter how many external struggles a character goes through, they are mirrored by what happens on a character's interior. That's what made “The Fountainhead” so boring. Mr. Roark begins the book as a perfect person and stays that way. The entire book (okay, as much as could get through, 'cuz it was so boring) is essentially an enormous justification of how and why this character is a superior man. He seems to make no mistakes, and is always completely confident and in charge of himself. In other words, he's inhuman.

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks, who did celebrate the individual in ways that Rand (I'm sure) appreciated, also allowed their characters human traits. Agamemnon, who was willing to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of glory and the defeat of Troy, comes off in “The Iliad” as an egoistic ass, someone who can barely inspire others because his followers can't stand him. yes there's that single-minded search for glory, but there are also *consequences*. Same thing with Achilles, who paid for his surety of point-of-view with the death of his cousin Patroclus. What I find most moving about “The Odyssey” is that while Odysseus leaves Troy laden with treasure, in the end all he wants is to go home and be with his wife and son.

I have more to say, but I've got to return to my own novel, which is a commentary on Rand's form of libertarianism.

stuart said...

Also, I can't shake the feeling that Atlas Shrubbed is really a screenplay; It's entirely cinematic and could in fact have been a terrific movie: black and white, Orson Welles directing-- maybe you've indulged in reading such woulda-coulda-shoulda projections on O-sites.

Rand wrote about the imperative of choosing the entirely right adjective, and I think says something about the reasons she never allowed anyone to make a movie of Atlas Shrugged. It always was a movie, in her mind. Only she could cast, produce and direct it, as well as operate all the cameras.

The trouble was, she didn't know all the adjectives, in the way she needed to know them. I'm sure she plied the dictionary and the thesaurus with fearsome clarity. She decided the only adjectives which were worthy and cast aside the rest.

Sorry, I'm deviating from the topic of this segment and writing about Style which I hope will be discussed later.

My point here is that I think Rand, a skilled craftsman, crudely adapted her craft in the service of a demanding client (herself, high priestess of Truth), and was obliged to justify herself as a great craftsman. Her many shrewd, self-insightful comments on writing show that she knew that she was not a great novelist. But she had to rationalize all that for the sake of the higher purpose. She should just have stayed away from aesthetics theory, what a dogs' dinner she made of

Ian Berger said...

In response to what Stuart said, Rand was definitely not a great writer, but she certainly was a competent one. I find much of her point of view on life fairly reprehensible, but to give credit where credit is due, she can spin a yarn. Granted it's a yarn in a strange science fiction world with cardboard cutouts running about, pretending their people, but the story, at least as much as I've read so far, holds up.

Speaking purely as a response to the novel, I find it difficult to sympathize with wealthy people who just aren't respected for how awesome they really are. One of the few actually redeeming aspects of Howard Roark “The Fountainhead” is that he does pull himself up by his own bootstraps. That part was interesting. “Atlas Shrugged” is populated by very wealthy people who don't give a damn about anybody else. Someone tell me why I should find their story gripping? Why is this so fascinating?

Maybe I'm blind to this because I grew up poor? Maybe, but it seems to me that the heroic journey is about ultimately caring for others besides yourself, the hero seeing that (to quote the eminent philosopher Mr. Spock) “The needs of the many outnumber the needs of the few.” The journey is about growth and risk. Rand's “heroes” seem to just be on a journey to validate their own awesomeness.