Descending Mount Olympus
As on Objectivist I used to have a problem: nothing was ever good enough. I could find something irrational or immoral or at least terribly uninspiring 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. However, it's not her fault that I stayed within the bounds of her experience. 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 had zero interest in, such as Mickey Spillane or Ian Fleming. 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 late twenties 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 explore themes a lot deeper than ritual: the conflict 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 of course, but perhaps the culture and problems of black people seem to be too specific to be of the kind of universal philosophical significance that appeals to them. 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, began 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 so much of 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 in engrossing. 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.
Frank Prescott was 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 godlike being. 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.
Rand, for whom selectivity is the hallmark of great art, was for me too selective about what real-life details she included. She alludes to a real New York City, but the fact that Roark, with his Gaelic name and red hair, would have been Irish in a time of anti-Irish prejudice doesn't make it into the novel. If she didn't want this implication to come up, she should have given him an English surname. One of Rand's critics said that Rand's New York has as much to do with the real New York as does Superman's Metropolis. That's not quite fair since The Fountainhead does feature Central Park and Hell's Kitchen, but still, one of the reasons I was stranded on Mount Olympus was that I let myself live in Rand's overly-abstracted world, instead of in the world of things, important things, that I related to, such as the Civil War. The Rector of Justin was a good corrective.
We could pursue this point in the non-fiction of Rand and her followers. For them, American history consists of the Revolution, the glorious nineteenth century of unfettered capitalism, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which was the beginning of the end of that glorious era. After that we get the stink of the New Deal. Slavery, Jim Crow, black people generally, the Civil War, and even Abraham Lincoln do not have much of a place in Objectivist scholarship, at least not until recently. Despite the fact that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are set in New York, they have no black characters and no obviously Jewish or Slavic characters, not even as walk-ons. A mid-century New York without blacks or Jews isn't New York; it's basically Metropolis. Some of Rand's fans will disagree with this point, and I will return to it in another essay.
It took awhile before the effect of the non-Randian novels I read 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 an interesting style. 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 (before the time this essay was originally published) 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 my own Objectionism, not her Objectivism. But despite the fact that the younger Rand liked Sinclair Lewis, sometimes it seems as if the mature Rand saw no middle ground between worshipping heroes and trolling the sewers. Where Objectionism led me to see things in black or white, I now tend to see – not shades of gray – but a spectrum of color.
Take, for example, 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 in Rand's sense of the term – 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.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life