Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ironic Provincialism

The doughty Gus Van Horn has linked to recent pieces discussing Ayn Rand. Some of the commenters at Volokh offer an opinion that has astonished me for 30 years -- that Ayn Rand's novels are not well written. There are those who say the novels are not great literature, or sometimes they call them "subliterature." Some go so far as to say they are not novels at all. They rarely give examples, but assert the inferiority of Ayn Rand's writing as if it were self-evident and any sophisticated, impartial reader would see it.

Since I am an Objectivist, my opinion is meaningless to them -- I am biased/blinded/cultish/a true believer/one who doesn't like real literature -- but I'll give it anyway. Ayn Rand is a brilliant novelist. Her style is a remarkable integration of clarity and passion, or fact and value; she gives concrete percepts that add up to thematic and emotional meaning. She avoids vague emotional writing unconnected to specific percepts as well as dry concretes that add up to no evaluation. (This is just an observation on her style. One could write a book about the excellence of her plotting, characterization and themes.)

The blithe certainty of these critics is made possible by our current culture, in which modern literature (especially naturalism) is assumed to be the way literature should be and pre-modern literature (especially romanticism) is assumed to be inferior, merely a step in our cultural evolution that culminates in modernism. Pre-modern literature is just the sapling, its potential still unfulfilled, whereas modern literature is the tree: mature, actualized literature. The assumptions of naturalism are unquestioned, like the air we breathe.

The literary critic Northrop Frye called our time the age of irony: instead of looking up at a protagonist who is larger than life, we look down at one who is smaller. Kafka's heroes, trapped in a nightmare existence in which they are helpless, are archetypal figures in ironic literature. Frye called the idea that irony is sophisticated or better than the literature that came before it "ironic provincialism."

(As an aside, the premises of naturalism/modernism/irony have played hell with the art of acting. Many of today's actors are terrified to do anything "unnatural" -- that is, anything larger than life or romanticized. Marlon Brando's mumbles are the unquestioned "way it should be," but John Gielgud's glorious music is considered inferior. An acting teacher once told me he tried to get an actress to do something big and presentational, one of those moments when the actor looks right at the audience and speaks. The actress shrank in horror and replied, "But that's... theatrical!" Imagine that, actors afraid to be theatrical. This is where a century of naturalism has brought us.)

Ayn Rand's novels are unnaturalistic in every aspect, from plot to style, but I think two aspects bother the modernists more than the rest. First, she has something to say. Her novels have her ideas in them, and some characters speak the author's ideas. This drives the modernists crazy. Open any book on fiction writing/screenwriting/playwriting and you will find warnings against using characters as a "soapbox." Naturalists consider it bad if a character speaks the author's "message."

The soapbox can be bad if it is handled ineptly. The thematic material must be integrated with the plot and characters for it to work. John Galt's speech -- the most audacious speech in the history of literature, in which Ayn Rand not only makes the point of Atlas Shrugged, but also introduces a revolutionary new philosophy -- is integrated, because it gives the explicit thematic meaning of what has been dramatized in the previous 900-plus pages.

You'll notice that those who are against soapboxes are rather selective in their indignation. If a character is a cynic who denounces man as inherently depraved, somehow that is not criticized as being a soapbox, even though the character is expressing the author's belief. Instead, this is praised as "challenging," "disturbing our bourgeois complacency," and so on. Any play that attacks George Bush, conservatism, capitalism or America is praised as a courageous act of justice.

The more consistent naturalists will attack soapboxes on both the left and the right. In their radical empiricism, they see any thematic summation as unnatural. If characters are shown stumbling around in an idiotic, concrete-bound daze, never using reason to understand or add it all up, then the empiricists are comfortable that the writer has dramatized human nature realistically.

The other aspect of Ayn Rand's writing that convinces modernists she is inferior is her clarity. She writes clearly and with power. In our modern age novels that make you scratch your head and mumble "What the f**k was THAT all about?" are considered sophisticated literature. Ambiguity is praised as a literary virtue. As Nietzsche put it, they muddy their waters to make them look deep. By this standard Rand can't be a good writer because she can be understood.

But there will always be young people coming along who have not yet been corrupted by the modernists into believing obfuscation, plotlessness, nihilism and despair are sophistication. Those young people will respond positively to Ayn Rand's novels. Some will continue on to study Rand's nonfiction books and explore the philosophy seriously. The fate of the West, I suspect, is in their hands.


Anonymous said...

See, this is what I try to tell people. Or I would, if the ones that pan AS weren't so window-lickingly stupid that I consider it pointless to even try.

Also, what's up with Billy Beck saying that it's a philosophic text first and a novel second? Ayn Rand vehemently said the exact opposite, explicitly, in The Art of Fiction (I think).

Myrhaf said...

You are right, Inspector. Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel. Plato's dialogues are philosophical works set in a fictional form; Ayn Rand's novels are not.

EdMcGon said...

One of these days I will get around to reading "Atlas Shrugged".

Aquinas Dad said...

I've read AS 7 or 8 times; same with Fountainhead, Anthem, etc. They are fun, and a good read.

But they are rather, uh, 'pulpy'. Her characters are a bit one-dimensional and the dialog serves the philosophy, not the characters or the plot (purely).

Like I said, I enjoy them, but when your dialog suffers in comparison to Edgar Rice Burroughs and HP Lovecraft has more complex characters, well....