Descending Mount Olympus

As on Objectivist I used to have this little problem: nothing was ever good enough. I could find something irrational or immoral in almost anything. Ayn Rand’s thought was for me a launching pad for negativism. My mother summed it up in a perfect bon mot when she said I followed the philosophy of “Objectionism.”

Objectionism is not Objectivism, of course. But Rand did sometimes see the dark side of things too much, and that influenced me in my youth and ignorance. Still, I take responsibility for not more aggressively seeking out good things.

My problem has manifested itself in many areas of life, but one especially troubling area has been literature. Before I encountered Ayn Rand, I used to love to read fiction. It was mostly science fiction (this was in my teens) but some other stuff too. After I became a serious Objectivist when I was 21 or 22, my fiction reading dropped off dramatically. This was especially troubling because I married a writer. I almost couldn’t read her work.

The problem had a twofold cause: 1. Nothing could compare to the heroes and themes of Rand’s novels. 2. Rand had convinced me that the prevailing culture was wicked, except for a few exceptions, most of which I would not touch with gloves on (such as Mickey Spillane). As a result I felt the world, and literature, to be gray and shallow and full of irrelevant chattering. It took me many years to challenge and defeat the twin sources of my difficulty.

It’s not that I didn’t read anything. When I was in my thirties I thought of writing a book about The Fountainhead, so I did some research by reading several of Victor Hugo’s novels and a couple of Dostoyevsky’s. I liked them; I didn’t love them. Otherwise, for the most part, the 1980s were a long literary dry spell for me.

Two novels my wife and I read in the 1990s made a big difference, although they weren’t quite enough to break the logjam. The first was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. In it a group of college students engages in an ancient ritual, which leads them to murder one of their own. After stories like The da Vinci Code, this sounds like a cliché, but it was a fresh idea when Tartt came up with it. More importantly Tartt used this set-up to talk about two things a lot deeper than ritual: the issue of reason versus passion and the operation of cosmic justice. I would describe The Secret History as “American Dostoyevsky”

Somewhat later my wife stumbled across a novel we both came to love very much, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident. This is my favorite novel after The Fountainhead (and yes, before Atlas Shrugged, which I think is overrated as literature by its fans). I have tried to encourage Objectivists to read it, with no luck, even though the nature of reason is one of its primary themes. Maybe the reason why Objectivists are not drawn to this novel is that it is about black people. Not that most Objectivists are racist, but perhaps the culture and problems of black people seem to be too specific to be of universal philosophical significance. Rand always seemed to imply that slavery and by extension Jim Crow, were non-essential in America, when of course, they were actually near the heart of American identity.

But I am getting sidetracked. Although The Chaneysville Incident gave me hope, I didn’t find much else like it. However, it did help get me reading again. I picked up a little science fiction again (Octavia Butler mostly), but sci-fi, mysteries and the like do not nourish me, and I resumed my steady diet of non-fiction.

Then I found a novel, which, though I didn’t know it then, started something good for me: Louis Auchincloss’ The Rector of Justin. In his many novels and short stories, Auchincloss chronicled the upper-class Protestant set in New York and Boston. This did not bode well, since I have no interest in novels about class (which is why most British literature leaves me cold). But this one worked for me.

The Rector of Justin follows an idealistic headmaster of an Episcopalian boys school from 1875 to 1946, giving us an interesting slice of American cultural history. But it is the central figure, Frank Prescott, who fascinates. He has the intellect, wit, energy, ambition and idealism of an Ayn Rand hero, although many of his principles are wrong, since he is a Christian and a minister. He doesn’t build the world’s tallest building or anything like that, but he does found and build up a successful school, one which he hopes will lift the American character. The true meaning of this man’s life, and whether he should be counted a success or a failure, are the fascinating foci of the story.

Judge Learned Hand, the model for Frank Prescott’s appearance

Frank Prescott was kind of a bridge between Rand’s heroes and the protagonists of more typical novels. It’s not that Prescott helped me diminish my expectations or anything like that. It’s that he helped me see how an interesting, even exceptional character did not have to be a god. And further, Prescott helped me relate character to events, trends and ideas in the real world. It matters to his character that Prescott’s father died in the Civil War. Howard Roark’s father might have fought in the Spanish-American War, but it doesn’t make any difference.

It took awhile before the effect really took hold, but eventually, my literary muscles started to unclench. I decided to find interesting novels about interesting people. They didn’t even have to be about heroes, per se. But they did have to have remarkable people or situations or psycho-epistemology. Furthermore, they had to have a plot and some kind of theme that I found worthwhile. This makes it sound as if I’m casting my net more widely than I really am. I do usually demand some fairly serious intellectual content in a novel and a rational universe and characters who think. (The intellectual content can be completely between the lines and does not entail characters giving speeches or the author lecturing.) I’ve read more novels in the past two years than I had in the previous two decades.

I think a lot of my problem was that I believed, with Rand, that the highest function of literature – almost its only worthwhile function – was to present a moral ideal. Even Dostoyevski’s stories could be seen as sort of a negative ideal – what man could be and shouldn’t be. Although giving the reader the experience of a hero is important, taking it to Rand’s extreme is a very limiting view of literature.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Rand: maybe this view is Objectionism, not Objectivism. Still, sometimes it seems as if Rand saw no middle ground between worshipping heroes and trolling the sewers. Where Objectionism leads me to see things in black or white, I now tend to see – not shades of gray – but a spectrum of color.

Take a wonderful novel I just finished: Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend. The story is about the early days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. We follow a junior manager at a non-government organization (NGO) based in Saigon devoted to “nation building” (and collecting a little intelligence on the side). The manager tries to get a French colonial rubber plantation owner to yield some information, but the Frenchman has been unmolested by the Viet Cong and wishes to remain neutral. The story builds to a painful climax from there.

There is no hero in this story. There are several sympathetic characters, but no one I would in any way put up on a pedestal. There’s not even a character whose point of view is supposed to be comprehensively right, except maybe the unnamed narrator. (The junior manager does become wiser by the story’s end, however.) The head of the NGO and the Army end up looking pretty bad. The point of the story is to show the kind of thinking that led the Americans to defeat in Vietnam. The real “dangerous friend” is the United States. It is fascinating and illuminating. Some of the characters are close to exquisite. (For more about the “exquisite character,” see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

But A Dangerous Friend does not exist to show things as they could be and ought to be. It helps us understand ourselves (us Americans) as we were and are. It is especially relevant give our recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it has a good plot. (And no, it’s not naturalism – characters make free and meaningful decisions.)

Three or four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to get through this small gem of a novel. I would have found it “dreary and depressing,” I would have lamented the lack of a focal hero to admire. And so I would have missed out.

Reading Ayn Rand, especially The Fountainhead, was a peak experience for me. But it was a peak I stranded myself on, with very little air to breathe. It took me decades to descend that peak – I still have a ways to go. But now I’m finding more and more good things and I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I finally feel I’m reading up to my potential, and I’m happy.

Have you had an adventure in reading you’d like to share? Leave a comment about how you’ve grown as a reader and what you’d like to see more of.

17 thoughts on “Descending Mount Olympus

  1. My father, a gentle and good man who worked a lot with his hands, who has no pretense of being an intellectual, used to accidentally call my philosophy “Objectionism” now and then when I was in college. At the time I rolled my eyes inside, but now I smile at the irony, particularly if I think about what I must’ve been like during those years. He got the correct pronunciation down later, once he had read Nathaniel’s memoir describing the growth of the movement in the 1960s (which he said he loved, interestingly enough).

    In any case, the name works as a lovely device in this piece, a good illustration of the “enemy inside.” I also like the visual of you descending from Olympus, coming back to the world and to your deeper self. And I am glad for your even-handed look at Rand’s notions about what constitutes good art. That is some fertile territory, for sure.

    What I like best about this piece, though, is that it reveals something of the process we all go through inside, as we mature intellectually and emotionally, after touching the fire that is Ayn Rand. I think it’s a process that needs to happen and be discussed much more, and in the open, as part of the process of maturing what is left of the Objectivist movement.

    I would love to reprint a version of this piece, at some point, for discussion at the Atlasphere — after we’ve caught up with publishing your other recent (and not-so-recent!) submissions.

  2. Hi Kurt,

    You’ve given me some books to put on my list. I’m often looking for a good book to read. But too often when I take a flyer on something that “looks” promising, I often end up disappointed (guess that’s my fault for trying to judge a book by its cover). One result is that I’m often hesitant to buy anything (and as long as I’m in the Philippines, the library isn’t usually an option). I’m sure there are lots of ways I could find guidance and recommendations — your blog post is an excellent start.

    For reasons that are perhaps similar to some of yours, unless I have some basis for really high expectations for a work of fiction, for the past decade or more I have been drawn more to non-fiction works, especially those that chronicle the life of someone really interesting or inspiring, or that chronicle some fascinating intellectual or scientific debate, technological achievement, or any major undertaking.

    Among popular authors, Eric Larson, Tracy Kidder, Doris Kearns Goodwin sometimes write good books of this kind. Off the top of my head, they include stories about putting on the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, about the development (and the developers) of telegraphy, about the progress of meteorology into a science, about the development o the PC, about designing and building one’s own house, about Doctor’s Across Borders in Haiti, and about Abraham Lincoln and his “team of rivals” during the civil war.

    An excellent example from another author is “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World,” by Steven Johnson. Recently, I’ve had my eye on “Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor,” by Hali Felt.

    Another one that sort of fits this category, from way back that you already know about, is A.S. Neil’s “Summerhill.”

    But I also find non-fiction books about more or less ordinary people meeting physical or other challenges very engaging, including those of the “survival story” variety, especially if they are written in a largely precise and objective way (which doesn’t exclude rich portrayals of the inner lives of the people in the story). One popular book of this type is John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” about how some people perished and some prevailed during an Everest expedition that went horribly wrong. (However, I didn’t much like Kraukauer’s “Into the Wild,” not just because it ended badly, but also because the purposes and intentions of the real-life protagonist were so muddled.) Another example was a book about Shackleton’s exploratory expedition to the Arctic.

    When I am focusing in life on some particular subject, I can easily become deeply engrossed in non-fiction books of a variety of types — sometimes it’s enough that there are lot of details to mine from the book, even if there isn’t any narrative flow or the viewpoint offers little. Some examples from the past few years are “Southeast Asia: The Long Road Ahead” by Chong-Yah Lim” (economics), “America’s Boy” (Philippines history) by James Hamilton-Paterson, or arcane books on both acoustic and electronic resonant filters, temperament and tuning theories, the various “inharmonic” properties of strings resulting from the physical properties of the alloys used, optics, etc.

    Despite this trend away from fiction, I’ve never had the exact problem you describe. For example, during my green objectivist days, I was easily engrossed by Dicken’s “David Copperfield,” Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” and George Elliot’s “Middlemarch.” And my requirements for a book aren’t nearly as strict as yours are now, either. If they have EITHER “remarkable people or situations or psycho-epistemology” OR “a plot and some kind of theme that I [find] worthwhile,” I am pretty engaged and happy.

    You ask for BOTH those things, AND “demand some fairly serious intellectual content in a novel and a rational universe and characters who think”. Actually, it’s hard for me to imagine a worthwhile plot without “a rational universe and characters who think,” nor would I be likely to find people or situations interesting, no matter how “remarkable,” if they don’t think and choose consciously. So perhaps we are not so far apart about those things. But if it has interesting characters or an interesting story and theme, I don’t really need “some fairly serious intellectual content” on top of it. If the book portrays the characters or tells the story well, I guess I can do my own intellectualizing about it.

    And I’m guessing you are the same way with non-fiction — after all, you don’t demand that all your experiences in life come with built-in intellectual content — that’s the subject’s job, not the object’s, lol. But I can see why you would want more digestion, analysis, synthesis, insight in general, from your fiction. For me, it’s great if it’s there, but its absence doesn’t make me uninterested.

    Nonetheless, I find myself at a loss to name even one recent fiction book that was galvanizing enough to specially come to mind now. I can think of some I found engaging — for example, Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections” — but I wouldn’t even necessarily recommend them. Actually, the only recent fiction that stands out in my mind is a sort of (highly) fictionalized history: W. Somerset Maugham’s “Now and Then,” a somewhat comic yarn about Machiavelli being tripped up in his own machinations. Perhaps some better, even great, novel will come to mind eventually, and if it does, I’ll post a follow-up. In the meantime, I’m still looking!

    By the way, I also just read your blog post about your Killing Cool book with interest.

    • Hi Trent, Perhaps it’s misleading when I say I want a book to have a lot of intellectual content. I don’t mean characters standing around talking philosophy or anything like that. I mean that the plot and characters give me something to think about beyond caring about how the story ends. For example, in A Dangerous Friend we get a picture of how America operates and how that affected the Vietnam War, but nobody lectures us on it.

      One reason I don’t like genre fiction (sci-fi, mysteries, westerns, etc.) is that they usually don’t give me anything to think about, or if they do, it’s a kind of “Gee, whiz!” idea that is nothing more than a bauble. But some novels and movies transcend genre fiction and have something to say.

      I am reading a novel right now that does not seem to have any intellectual content to speak of, but simply gives me the experience of being with people I respect and enjoy trying to do something interesting. (It’s The Durable Fire, by Howard Swiggett. It’s from 1957 and I found it at an estate sale in Florida.)

      I think I will adjust the wording in the post a little, just to make my point clearer. I’m afraid I a restless reviser.

  3. Hi Kurt,

    I don’t think you necessarily have to descend from Mount Olympus to find enjoyable or valuable works of literature after having been exposed to the powerful force of Ayn Rand’s fictional world. A better solution is to find other great writers who are up there with her. I am in particular thinking of some of the great classical authors. Since it has been my job to study and teach many of the great classics, and since I loved many of them before I discovered Ayn Rand, I have never really suffered from the problem you delineate. But I believe many Objectivists have, only they do not always recognize this themselves and limit their tastes to the dictates of Ayn Rand.

    The problem, as I see it, is not so much that she set standards that were too high but, rather, standards that were too narrow — especially by dismissing literary works that did not conform to the literary ideals set forth in her Romantic aesthetics. While I sympathize with many aspects of Rand’s Romanticism, and share many of her personal tastes and preferences, I find it deeply problematic that she seemed to find little pleasure or value in many of the great classics of world literarature–most notoriously exemplified by her categorical dismissal of Shakespeare’s tragedies on the dubious assumption that they show heroes doomed to failure because of an alleged tragic flaw. This is a gross simplification of what Shakespeare’s tragedies are all about, and reveals to me that she probably was not very familiar with his plays but took her view from secondary sources. Apparently, she did not even know that he wrote a number of delightful Romantic comedies, where the idea of a tragic flaw has no relevance at all.

    The irony of this is that Ayn Rand saw herself as an advocate of great art and literature. But because she perceived artistic greatness by reference to her Romantic theory, she was often incapable of recognizing true genius, sometimes being guilty of regular genius bashing. I’m here not only thinking of her disparaging remarks about Shakespeare, but also her equally unfounded criticisms of Mozart and Beethoven.

    I find this terribly sad, because for me the alternative to the sordid drabness and nihilism of much, if not all, modern literature has been the classics. I have often wondered why so many people who admire Rand’s novels prefer to read popular fiction, never or only reluctantly delving into the treasure house of classical literature. One reason for this is no doubt that this is the kind of fiction that, through the depiction of efficacious heroes and the construction of intriguing plots, comes closest to Ayn Rand’s own fiction, only on a more superficial level in not having any serious philosophical meaning. But another, and more damaging, reason is that Rand herself discouraged her admirers from any deeper engagement with classical literature. Most of the literature she recommends in The Romantic Manifesto is — with the exceptions of Hugo, Rostand, Dostoevsky and a few other “top-rank” Romanticists — popular genre fiction, especially thrillers and detective fiction. I do not here want to disparage the value such fiction can have as a source of pleasure and inspiration, but it is not as intellectually demanding or rewarding as the great classics. That’s why some works become classics — because they hold up, in imaginative form, a philsosophical vision of human nature and existence which, in depth and universality, transcends the limited concerns of a given age.

    Rand’s failure to fully appreciate the classical literary heritage is, I think, almost unforgivable. While her own works open a young reader to a new and fascinating world of heroic struggle and achievement, backed up by a philosophical vision, the narrowness of her Romantic aesthetics often entraps her admirers in this world, preventing them from exploring other fictional worlds that can also be rewarding, only in a different way. If all one looks for in a fictional work is a vision of man and of life that coheres with Rand’s Romanticism, one is bound to be disappointed. Worse, one risks stagnating. For equally important, I think, are literary works that challenge this vision, works that offer insights that may enrich and broaden one’s perspectives on human existence. The vision of life presented in Ayn Rand’s novels is a captivating one, but also a limited one. To grow as a human being, to mature both intellectually and morally, one needs to be exposed to alternative visions of human possibilities, presented by other types of fiction than what Rand prescribed in her Romantic aesthetics.

    For me, Shakespeare has been especially valuable in this respect, serving as a much needed antidote to Randian philosophical and aesthetic dogmatism. I know of no other literary artist that has such a deep and penetrating understanding of human nature, free of judgmental moralism, and enhanced artistically by his unique powers as a dramatist and a use of verse that in its poetic force and beauty is unequalled in the English language. But I have profited from reading many other classical writers as well, including Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky. I have no quarrel with Ayn Rand here. My quarrel is with her rejection of or exclusion of so many other classical writers worth reading, because she finds them philosophically unacceptable — or simply had never read them. One should, however much one admires Ayn Rand, be able to enjoy the works of Homer or Dante or Spenser or Jane Austen or Dickens or Tolstoy or Mark Twain, or some of the great Romantic poets, to mention but a few.

    But, of course, a love of the classics may blind one to the fact that there also are examples of worthy literature written in our own times. I may be guilty of that, though academic specialization has given me little time to explore the contemporary literary scene. Rand is a major exception. But the few glimpses I have had of “serious” modern literature have, on the whole, not whetted my appetite for more or stimulated my curiosity. Yet, in the hope of correcting this bleak view, I will take a look at some of the works you mention–when time permits. Nothing would please me more than to discover that there are some literary gems out there that deserve greater attention and recognition.

  4. Dear Kirsti,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I certainly take your point about the classics and I am a great lover of Shakespeare. For example, I love Julius Caesar for its portrait of Brutus, a man too noble for his own good, who thought he could fix a systemic social problem with a simple assassination. Isn’t that like America thinking it could fix the problems of the Middle East with a couple of invasions?

    I do regard Rand’s works as a pinnacle, because she has heroes as almost no one else has. I agree with you that people settle for sci-fi and mysteries in order to get the heroic experience. I don’t mean to say that I’m trying to settle for less, only that I’m trying to see humanly important things outside of Rand’s context.

    While I do love (some of) the classics (I think Jane Eyre is a hero equal to any of Rand’s), they are not enough for me. I want something set in a more recent world and written in a streamlined language. There are modern classics such as those I mention in my post, and I am convinced that there are others. How many of the books I listed had you heard of? Still more that I haven’t heard of may be lurking out there, waiting to be discovered.

    I also think there is a sizable fund of great general fiction, near-classics. For example, Taylor Caldwell’s Testimony of Two Men, which is like The Fountainhead from an alternate universe. (My review of it will be published in The Atlasphere in a couple of months.) Actually, this novel touches the lower levels of literary fiction, unlike the rest of this rather schlock-y author’s work.

    One definite classic that has never mentioned by a major Objectivist author is To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s hero is “just” a small-town attorney, but he does something heroic, and it’s quite believable.

    Well, anyway, I’m rambling on a bit. I’ve got several more essays on this subject in me, all struggling to tumble out at the same time. Please continue to discuss these issues with me–when time permits!

    Yours,
    Kurt

  5. Hi again,

    It suddenly struck me that I perhaps missed the point of your title — that descending Mount Olympus did not mean a descent to literature written by lesser lights than Ayn Rand, but descent to literature that does not have a godlike hero in it, yet still can be enjoyed because it presents interesting, though less heroic, characters.

    If so, my comments were perhap a bit beside the point. Though not entirely — because this is precisely what many of the great classics do offer. Jane Austen, with her sharp eye for human imperfection, wrote in a letter that she did not like “pictures of perfection.” Yet her humorous portrayals of human folly and vanity are free of contempt or disgust, so that we like her characters while laughing at their weaknesses. And in the end, her major characters — like Emma or Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice — always discover their own weaknesses, reaching a stage of self-knowledge and greater maturity.

    Such portrayals of human growth and development is something I miss in Ayn Rand. Her heroes — with the exception of Hank Rearden — do not grow. They are perfect from the very beginning, which suggests, not free will as she insisted, but an inborn superiority — as in Nietzsche.

    As for Shakespeare, he spanned the whole register of human character. His deep understanding of all the different shades and variations of human nature is almost incredible. And, like Austen, he never expressed contempt or disgust with human imperfections. Although, also like Austen, he never gave us any portrayals of human perfection, some of his tragic heroes have great stature, almost godlike, as, for example, Othello or the Roman heroes Coriolanus and Mark Antony. But they are all presented with a certain ambivalence and ultimately destroyed — not by any innate tragic flaw but rather by certain weaknesses attending their greatness, what one could describe as their tragic virtue. Brutus also falls into this category, since his destruction is caused by several errors of judgment related to his somewhat rigid moral character. If Ayn Rand had criticized Shakespeare for this, and not the tragic flaw, that would have been more understandable. Since tragic destruction of human greatness was something that was intolerable to her, literature that showed such destruction had to be rejected as an expression of the malevolent universe premise — except when caused by the corrupting conditions of life in a totalitarian dictatorship, as in We the Living. But, for me, Shakespeare’s more complex perspective on human greatness — his recognition of its tragic potential — is one reason why I see him as a valuable antidote to Randian dogmatism. Ayn Rand never tired of arguing that the reason why Romantic literature failed to present a successful and convincing hero was the code of altruism. That may be true of Victor Hugo, but it does not apply to Shakespeare. Brutus was a Stoic, Coriolanus the embodiment of Roman virtus, and Othello a martial hero whose moral traits lie close to the ideals — central in Renaissance thought — of Christian Stoicism.

    But, by all means, Ayn Rand is a pinnacle for me too. Yet the study of Shakespeare has enriched my perspective on Ayn Rand, just as my study of Ayn Rand has enriched my perspective on Shakespeare. And I really wish more Objectivists would engage more critically with Ayn Rand’s hero-worship, not just her political ideas. It is, at once, the source of her greatness as a fiction-writer, but perhaps also the source of some of her weaknesses.

    • Hi Kirsti,

      Some people say that character development is the hallmark of serious fiction. If that’s true, then Atlas Shrugged has a problem, because as you say, none of the characters grow except Rearden.

      But I would claim that The Fountainhead is different. Of course Dominique grows, that’s fairly obvious. But so does Roark. He starts out as quite naive. He can’t even keep his mind on philosophical questions. He knows nothing about people and is only barely attached to anyone. The day after he has sex with Dominique the first time, he is astonished to find that he is still thinking of her. But he learns from people, partly by studying his clients and Keating. He learns about love and despair with Dominique.

      By the time he meets Wynand he is very wise, describing the emotional dynamics of their encounter in a way that would have been impossible to him at the novel’s beginning. He tries to save Wynand when he betrays himself. On the yacht and in the courtroom he shows that he can focus on philosophy, that he sees the necessity of it. He has become self-conscious. When he sees Wynand for the last time he suffers from the sight of Wynand’s remoteness and knows he will carry that pain the rest of his life. He has gone from almost completely unconnected to another human to so connected that he will feel a pain forever over another human being’s loss to him.

      The Fountainhead is primarily the story of Roark’s growth into a mature human being. He isn’t the perfect man at the novel’s opening, and I don’t think Rand meant us to take him that way. But he becomes a “perfect” man by the novel’s close: wise, thoughtful, self-conscious, theoretical, connected. Roark is not like John Galt, sprung from the head of Jupiter. He grows.

      I wrote an essay on this subject 15 years ago, which I will probably submit to The Atlasphere. I feel very strongly about this: Atlas Shrugged has better philosophy than The Fountainhead, but in many ways The Fountainhead is a vastly superior novel to Atlas Shrugged.

  6. My favorite novel of recent years is “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. Following description copied from Amazon.com:

    Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turn moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007 with sales of over 900,000 copies to-date.

  7. Kurt,

    First, I agree with you that The Fountainhead in many ways is a better (if not vastly superior) novel than Atlas Shrugged. I also agree that Howard Roark, unlike John Galt, grows, and for this reason is a much more successfull projection of an ideal man. I was a bit hasty there.

    But still, I would say that Roark grows primarily in insight and understanding, not in stature. His superiority to others, both as a creative genius and as a man of moral perfection, is there from the start. And this jars with Ayn Rand’s extreme emphasis on man as a volitional being in her mature philosophy. She says somewhere that “genius is made not born.” But what she presents in Roark is a genius who is both born and made, through gradual improvement of his technical skils as an architect. And the same is true of his moral character. It is both something he is born with and something he develops, chiefly by finally grasping the “principle behind the Dean” and also realizing that helping Peter Keating was an error.

    In her Journal notes on Howard Roark (p.93), Rand writes about Roark’s selfishness that “He did not acquire it. He did not come to it through any logical deductions. He was born with it …. He is a man born with the perfect consciousness of a man.” The editor notes that this conflicts with Ayn Rand’s later rejection of innate ideas and refers to John Galt’s speech. But the question is, does it conflict with what she shows us in The Fountainhead? I don’t think so. There is a Nietzschean remnant in her thinking here.

    Yet, I don’t see this as any real weakness. Because I do believe that genius is both born and made; and perhaps also is, in some degree, moral character. The problem for me is that Ayn Rand’s mature philosophy is not always consistent with what she shows us in her novels, especially We the Living and The Fountainhead. And this is often lost on her readers, because they think that the philosophical implications of her novels are summed up in what she tells us in the speeches and her essays. But this is not always so.

    I am, by the way, rereading The Fountainhead right now, in preparation for my book on Ayn Rand’s fiction. A central topic in the book will be the conflicts between the philosophical meaning that can be extracted from her novels, through what they show us, and her explicit formulations of her ideas in Galt’s speech and her philosophical essays.

  8. I just came across this thread and would like to add my ‘two cents worth’. I have to say I have not really experienced the reluctance to read any ‘unauthorized’ fiction. I was a voracious fiction reader long before discovering Ayn Rand at 18 and I don’t love my early favorites any the less for having discovered her. And here they are: East of Eden by Steinbeck. From the Terrace by John O’Hara. Les Miserables (you know who). Gone With the Wind. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They have in common a grand sweep. They are big books – both in physical size (except for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and scope.

    On the whole I haven’t found any others that give me what they do. Most of my fiction reading now is light fiction – and Kurt I don’t disdain Agatha Christie and Neville Shute as you do. I love the world and world-view that they create, and in the case of Neville Shute there are often some serious underlying themes – see The Far Country for the most devastating depiction of socialized medicine.

    By the way my initial reaction to The Fountainhead was purely literary, not philosophical. I read it in a sitting, loved it passionately, and when a friend asked me why I said it was the precision and clarity of her writing, her use of the exactly right word, the amazing images. Perhaps that is why I have never felt the need to renounce other works which are of less philosophical quality but still have great literary value.

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  10. I had biases against contemporary literature that were inspired by Objectionism, but dispelled in my 20s when I was living with someone who was an avid reader of contemporary fiction. That experience gave me a more balanced appreciation both of Rand’s criticisms of contemporary fiction and of what was wrong with her own writing about literature. Much contemporary literature really was naturalistic in Rand’s sense, and had the flaws she attributed to naturalism, but some of it was still very good, and drew attention to her over-generalizations and exaggerations about non-Romantic literature.

    Sometime in the 90s, I got interested in the fiction of Iris Murdoch. Murdoch is a kind of anti-Rand–an avowed Platonist and communist who regarded the ego as the root of all vice. But she was a great and prolific novelist. My favorite novel of hers is “The Nice and the Good,” an exploration of the tensions between being nice and being morally virtuous. I also liked “The Sea, The Sea.”

    Just as Rand seemed to imply that slavery and Jim Crow were incidental to American history, so, many Objectivists seem to think that imperialism was incidental to world history. Two brilliant novels about imperialism: E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. (Reading the Raj Quartet involves a large-scale time investment, so my advice is to watch the mini-series before trying to read the books.) Scott is particularly insightful on altruism as a psychological prop for imperialism. Though it’s not really about imperialism, I found Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country” quite moving. All three films are in my view well-made, and faithful to the books.

    Anita Desai’s “In Custody” is in my opinion a great novel and great film, but possibly too narrowly ethnic to be of wider interest. It’s about the moral and physical decline of a great but aging Urdu poet, and the professor of literature who tries unsuccessfully to effect his rehabilitation. The depiction of some of the hidden indignities of academic life are priceless.

    Kurt mentioned Jane Eyre, but I think all of the Bronte sisters’ novels are worth reading. In my view, the best of the non-Jane Eyre ones is Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette,” but it has a more tragic-pessimistic outlook than Jane Eyre.

    Though it has a very dark/malevolent sense of life, I found Yukio Mishima’s “Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea” brilliant.

    I haven’t read “The Fountainhead” in fourteen years, and haven’t read “Atlas Shrugged” in about twenty, but I recently re-read “We the Living” and was favorably impressed with it. It has its flaws, but I think it’s a much better novel than it’s been given credit for.

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