The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Summer of Lost Literature

For all of his admitted flaws, Karl Marx was smart enough to almost say that history repeated itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."[1]

This summer poses an admirable example of the phenomenon in the literary world. It began with the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, in which we had the tragedy of Atticus Finch's declining years, and were forced to question simple assumptions about the virtues of the finest Southern gentleman in literature. Now, as summer nears--well, let's not rush things, and call it the end yet, but, as Labor Day begins to hove menacingly into view, we are confronted with the return of Ayn Rand:
The movie-star heroine of Ayn Rand’s “Ideal” is a legendary, enigmatic beauty named Kay Gonda, paid a fortune by Hollywood for her work and worshiped by the faceless multitudes. Her press agent writes: “Kay Gonda does not cook her own meals or knit her own underwear. She does not play golf, adopt babies, or endow hospitals for homeless horses. She is not kind to her dear old mother — she has no dear old mother. She is not just like you and me. She never was like you and me. She’s like nothing you rotters ever dreamt of.”

In short, Kay Gonda is one of Rand’s Nietzschean protagonists — an über-frau who has fans, not friends, and who thinks that she towers above all the losers and “second-handers” who populate the world. She is also, it turns out, a close relative of Dominique Francon in the early portions of “The Fountainhead” (a character Rand once described as “myself in a bad mood”)— a pessimist radically alienated from a world she regards with disdain.

he premise of “Ideal” is that Gonda is on the run, suspected of murder and seeking refuge with a succession of fans who have written her mash notes; most turn out to be hypocrites and weaklings who pledge undying loyalty and love but betray her in her supposed hour of need.

The story is an ugly, diagrammatic illustration of Rand’s embrace of selfishness and elitism and her contempt for ordinary people — the unfortunate, the undistinguished, those too nice or too modest to stomp and roar like the hard man Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.” It underscores the reasons that her work — with its celebration of defiance and narcissism, its promotion of selfishness as a philosophical stance — so often appeals to adolescents and radical free marketers. And it is also a reminder of just how much her didactic, ideological work actually has in common with the message-minded socialist realism produced in the Soviet Union, which she left in the mid-1920s and vociferously denounced.
Ah, sounds bracing, doesn't it? I remember once in college taking a course on Soviet Foreign Policy (I did this in 1987, showing that I was not prescient.) Anyway, among the works we read was a Communist Party approved treatise, which had been translated into English. It had the same stilted, purportedly welcoming tone, as it rumbled over clunky usages and improbable syntax that no human mouth ever spoke, as does Rand's dialogue. The review gives several risible examples, but my favorite occurs when Gonda is tasked with having been complicit in a young man's suicide; "she coolly says it was 'the kindest thing I have ever done.'”

That's our Ayn. A self-proclaimed philosopher who took all the paradox and irony, the wit and sarcasm, out of Nietzsche, and solemnly explicated the practical implications of his stark parables, as though they were an instruction manual.[2] Leopold and Loeb did him more credit as disciples.


[1] Actually, the quote is "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle."

[2] One cannot miss the opportunity to quote the great John Rogers:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


Karen Clark said...

No one to talk with, all by myself
No one to walk with, I'm a misanthropic elf
Ayn misbehavin', savin' my contempt for you
I know for certain the one I love
Believes in hurtin’ humanity, which I’m above
Ayn misbehavin'
Oh savin' my contempt oh baby, my contempt for you.
Like John Galt, I have no faults, I
Don't go nowhere and I don't care
My Aryan ideal’s worth waitin' for, babe
I don't stay out late, Ayn got no friends
My means are justified by my outlandish ends.
Ayn misbehavin'
Savin' all my scorn for you.

Anglocat said...

Sweet-talker! Still not buying the book, though...