Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Art of Retrospection

"Returning to an old book ought to be a procedure that is anti-sentimental," wrote an old soldier and man of letters I enjoy returning to with fond sentiments.

" True, it is difficult to fully eliminate emotions when reading a novel - what good would literature be if it did not move us? - but one must contain emotion and make it subservient to reflective inspection. To return to a book we have read before is not merely a test of the work's endurance in the realm of our intellectual lives, it is not merely the renewal of a friendship or deliberation. Above all it is a confrontation of our earlier judgment with our present judgment. Judgment, we presume, made richer on account of experience."

Whether this is the best approach to literature is debatable. Certainly it is the safest approach to the innocence of adolescence that all adolescents resent upon its possession and long for ever after. There are some readers who see their literary sojourn as a process of outgrowing themselves. For them it is always progress, never return.

Perhaps those who do return are by nature sentimentalists. If so it is all the more reason why the old soldier is right. Men of reflection ought not allow sentiments to linger in their hearts without going to the trouble of thinking them through. That they often do not can be attributed to embarrassment. I can't let anyone know I liked that when I was a teenager.

Ayn Rand is the perfect "that". She is clearly widely read, particularly by certain types of young boys. I once discussed Rand with a reader who - if memory serves - read her as an adult and thus found more virtues in her writing to which this reader could escape from the sewage of postmodernity than I found vices from which I escaped into the temples of antiquity.

Yet the art of retrospection is not literary criticism. It is self-appraisal. It is less the evaluation of a novel in and of itself and more the evaluation of our first reading of it as juxtaposed with our current comportment to the whole affair. As such, Rand taught me to judge human nature highly when it ought to be judged realistically.

Rand's adults were very serious. Gravitas was the costume they wore to mask their pathos. As such they were always good or evil and consciously so. Even Peter Keating was serious insofar as his fear of rejection shaped his conformism with equal inevitability as Roark's dedication to his peculiar vision of architecture. To the young reader whose mind was on the brink of maturity, but who lacked all experience of it, such a vision was bound to make for great disappointment when in future it occurred to me that adults are not serious, only banal.

Good and evil do exist, yet as Mark Twain's novels demonstrate, they exist in us all at the same time, engaged in subtle war for our souls. Rand's archetypal heroes and villains seem now not only unrealistic but above all constrained. For a novelist out to glorify individualism, Rand painted a picture of it that was rigid and paradoxically (as opposed to heroically) the polar opposed of her self-proclaimed nemesis, Kant.

In his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant identifies the categorical imperative as acting "only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." To do so demands that before we act, we must ponder the universality of the action. Rand seems to teach that the actions of self-identified men of principle have universality in and of themselves, that the actions of principled men are by nature universal moral imperatives. In practice this requires conformity to Rand's vision of individualism. It essentially identifies morality with acting in accordance with Rand's often subjective principles interwoven into the fabric if Objectivism. It is a monastic principle applied to an atheist creed. Its result is a cult of personality.

The immediate appeal of Rand's characters was their heroic realism. Yet they are archetypes of men and women nowhere to be found. At best they are stunted in their growth as human beings, though certainly the author presents Roark as a complete personality. This is what makes our hero so unappealing to those with high aspirations. He does always have a new building to put up, but never a new layer to add to his closed circuit character. Roark never grows, he is merely a vehicle for the growth of buildings.

The Nietzschean tragic hero of The Fountainhead is likewise a failure. He excited the adolescent mind, he continues as my favorite of Rand's memorable cast, because he has endured as the most realistic of the lot. He is a man of understanding and conviction who nevertheless is incapable of living up to his own standards. This is not really a Zarathustra. This is a Christian. Once we grow out of Rand and read Nietzsche with care, we see this clearly. Nietzscean Man does not struggle with questions of good and evil - he is above them. To mistaken Nietzschean rhythm, Nietzscean aphoristic form for Nietzschean content is to miss the point. Even Nietzsche does a bad job of writing Nietzschean Man. Beyond Good and Evil is exquisite, Thus Spoke Zarathustra so utterly boorish. Nietzsche knew better than to show all five fingers: why did he?

This mild digression begins the redemption of Ayn Rand's books. For insofar as I can say that a classical liberal education and the experience of some decades passed have cured me thoroughly of my short-lived commitment to Objectivism it may be that without Rand I never would have thought a classical liberal education worthwhile. Given that my concurent interests at the time were economic, it is not impossible to concieve that I may have pursued a Death of a Salesman life.

However, Roark's egoism clearly implied the superiority of the world of ideas as opposed to material wealth. The one was not antagonistic to the other in general, but if they should clash, Roark - like his architectural mentor - would choose poverty and principle as against security and compromise. There is a saintly quality there, yet Roark is not a Saint.

In this respect, Ayn Rand - while perhaps getting the good guys wrong - was quite successful in her portrait of the bad guys. For both Keating and Toohey would talk themselves hoarse on account of the poor, the downtrodden, the underprivileged, but never would they accept the sacrifice of their material wealth on the altar of any principle.

Mrs. Rand would no doubt now take issue with my use of the word "sacrifice" in this context, for Roark does not "sacrifice" anything, according to her. I say he does - he is just too stubborn to admit it. Roark sacrifices the most and gives the most. He is the Christ of the novel not merely because he is judged and condemned but because he is throughout the story someone who gives his best to others and receives their worst in return. Even Dominique who loves him marries other men because Roarke may offer passion and principle, but not security.

Roark is in many ways analogous in temperament to the tragic hero of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (another adolescent favorite of mine and far superior to both 1984 and Animal Farm). Both men are stubbornly committed to principle. Roark happens to build things and love them because he is an architect. Gordon Comstock happens to destroy them because he is a communist.

Paradoxically, when confronted with the one thing in the world which he actually made - his unborn baby - Comstock not only refuses to destroy the child through an abortion, he accepts that there is a low, but noble purpose to bourgeois life: the care for his accidental baby and future wife. All of his compassion for abstract humanity which had served to fuel his facile acts of self-destruction suddenly energize his return to the world and forms the basis upon which he comes to terms with it. The abstract humanitarian revolutionary becomes the concrete father of a soon to be born child and once he decides to preserve this child, the preservation of all else follows.

Roarke, in keeping with Rand's Objectivism, would destroy his own work rather than have the world alter its perfection. He defines perfection as the combination of his vision with the solid slabs of steel that make up his towers. It is hylomorphism run amok. That he has been defrauded and has the right to expect his partners to follow their contractual obligations is correct. That he himself has contractual obligations to pursue his claims in a court of law rather than detonate his own building escapes his notice. That Howard Roark cannot, as a matter of philosophical consistency demand that others abide their contracts on the basis of the civil law while giving himself absolute license to nullify those portions of civil law he does not agree with apparently escaped Rand or fell victim to the necessities of written drama. Something, after all, must explode

In the end, whether one continues the many tedious debates which Rand's work no doubt opens or abandons them for more mature thinkers, there is nevertheless a sense in which Rand provides the adolescent mind with the first rumblings of philosophical inquiry. We dread - later in life - that hers were the rumblings of the nihilist's inquiry as presented so well by Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Certainly the old Russian novelist gives us a more honest account of the nihilist than Rand, whose real failure rests in her writing a book about men of principle whose only principle was nothing but themselves. If this is not nihilism - nothing is.

Note: Photograph courtesy

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