The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet

To the lay literati, fiction writer and theorist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, is no longer a household word, though he may have come close to that in the 1950s and 60s. The essays in For a New Novel are a kind of manifesto for the “objective” or “imagist” type novel. At the center of this collection is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, Robbe-Grillet seems a heady recruit for my army of Fashion Anarchists, attacking all normative criticism by saying that every novel must create its own genre and cannot be measured against a pre-existing standard (e.g., the Balzac novel). On the other hand, he makes his own work into a norm, suggesting that only an inferior writer today could write in that “Balzac” genre based on psychological depth and storyline nuance.

Thus when Robbe-Grillet speaks of a “new realism,” I can see the connection to Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and all of the stream-of-consciousness writers whom he praises, but I don’t see the loss of depth as an absolute. To be sure, older centers of meaning like religion no longer provide a deep and fixed anchor as we move into modernist culture. One response to this is to allow oneself to be absorbed in the surface play. Robbe-Grillet, says structuralist icon Roland Barthes, describes objects as mere optical surfaces, which have “neither function nor substance” and are “susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever.” One might recall in this light the imagist poems of William Carlos Williams and the sliced surfaces of Picasso – perhaps even the fascinating, glassy world of Richard Brautigan’s adult fairy tale, In Watermelon Sugar. (My more intrepid readers might wish to plot my stories [e.g., The Clown and the Tiger] or small poems [e.g., Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco] against these aesthetic coordinates.)

But it seems that other responses to a vanishing ground of meaning might be just as valid. The colliding surfaces and subjectivities of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse stir up all kinds of interesting undercurrents at the psychological depths. I myself have much enjoyed what I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet’s prose art, and I can read Brautigan all day long with sheer delight, but I don’t see why an appreciation of these essentially non-psychological, non-plotted, descriptive prose artworks can’t exist alongside an appreciation of novels that locate meaning at a depth or at an external distance from the objective markings of the prose.

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On Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”

One of the things that struck me about The Kite Runner was how it forced apart two layers of identity: ethnic identity and human identity. On the ethnic level, the differences between Afghan and Western social practices became more concrete than ever. We always knew of cultural differences, but the Western reader, after bonding so intimately with the narrator (Amir), is struck by how even in California he accepts that he will marry Soraya without ever having kissed her or seen her alone. Moreover, women are eerily absent from the first third of the novel, which takes place in Afghanistan, and male bonding remains disproportionately (from the Western vantage point) the paste of Afghan society, even in diaspora.

And yet, underneath the ethnic layer of identity, Amir shows the universal humanity that binds us all.  He plays with his childhood friends much like we do, gets into mischief, questions what he hears in school, what he hears at home, his religion, worries about how to find a job, a spouse, a place in life. Most of all, he struggles with the enormous anxiety that comes with the gap between acquiring moral knowledge and having the strength to live up to that knowledge. This breach between moral knowledge and moral strength knows no ethnicity. It is part of the deep structure of coming-of-age. It may the struggle that brings us to adulthood, as in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Or it may be, as in The Kite Runner, that coming-of-age is the moment in which that moral breach opens, and our subsequent lives are all about trying to close it. Or it may be the breach that marks an entire society in transition, as in Ngugi’s Kenya in A Grain of Wheat. In any event, the tearing open of that breach between moral knowledge and moral strength is the fall of Adam and Eve, the kiss of Judas, the dilemma of Hamlet, all sprung from the same conflict deep within the collective unconscious.

So those are my two first impressions of the book: (1) how it highlights the difference between the level of ethnic identity, whose hard differences might variously be cause for celebration or alarm, and human identity, which we all share in equally regardless of ethnicity (or race or gender, etc.); and (2) how it makes concrete once again and in its own way the archetypal inner struggle between moral knowledge and moral strength.

Blurb on Ayn Rand

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I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged but read the The Fountainhead not too long ago (along with The Virtue of Selfishness and some additional bits and pieces). I had always heard of Ayn Rand’s commitment to rational self-interest and capitalism, and of her blueprints for conservative politics. What captured my interest over the years is how she seems to gain converts from among people who would not ordinarily lean that way. So I read The Fountainhead, and I do think it helped me to better understand both the appeal and the danger of buying into her ideas.

In some ways my initial reaction is probably quite the opposite of most people’s. I get the impression that most people take the political/ethical philosophy quite seriously but skip over the aesthetic/artistic value. I, on the other hand, was surprised at the literary quality of The Fountainhead – from cubist descriptions to provocative analogies and metaphors and symbolic values, complex characters in interesting situations, etc., I found the book to have great literary merit and great cinematic potential. But in terms of politics and ethical philosophy, I find her at best naïve, at worst a danger to herself and others.

Her characters start out as complex, passionate, literary creations with real cinematic value. The problem arises when the characters come to express abstract syllogisms — e.g., according to Rand, if we consider compassion a virtue, then we must wish others to suffer so we can express that virtue — Toohey in The Fountainhead slides from being a wonderfully complex character into a silly caricature when she reduces him to this abstract principle. What’s worse, the principle is patently untrue. Of course I can feel compassion for my daughter when she is sick without “wishing” her to be sick. In Rand’s books, my compassion would be “rigged” to be a bad thing, but in real life my compassion for my daughter is obviously not bad. We are interconnected whether we like it or not, and those rare occasions, times of loss, etc., where I’ve felt the flow of compassion between myself and another, are some of the most life-affirming and authentically human moments in my life. Ironically, those who try to deny our interconnections (as Rand would have us do with her stark individualism) end up leading shallower, less authentic lives, or are forced to become hypocrites (ironically, since that’s what Rand was trying to avoid). To embrace Rand’s abstract principles, just because they worked out fine in her novels, puts one on a very dangerous moral track.

If Atlas Shrugged is similar to The Fountainhead, it will start out rich with literary value, and then in the second half Rand will self-destruct as an artist — i.e., she will reduce villains and heroes alike to abstract, one-dimensional principles in ethics/politics — worse, she will reduce them to principles (such as the above) that are demonstrably false in real life. So the potentially first-rate artist deteriorates into the second-rate philosopher.

I have this hunch that when Ayn Rand was a kid, some adult admonished her (probably rightly) to quit being so selfish, and she became so enraged that she devoted her entire life to an elaborate justification of her own selfishness. The trick is that she weaves the self-serving justification into an engaging story with enough philosophical threads of real value (e.g. embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions) to make it quite appealing to a casual reader … hence the real danger she poses to the mass of uncritical readers.

To summarize, if one reads her characters as figures of compelling literary/cinematic value, and possibly as starting points for philosophical discussion, the rewards are great, but if one reads her heroes as role models to emulate in real life, one is making a big mistake.

The irony is that one of her strongest thematic points was that acting with integrity means never being a follower. And what is her biggest legacy? A worldwide organization (The Ayn Rand Institute) of people who, for the most part, uncritically hang upon everything she said.

 … And in response to some of my friends who have come to Rand’s defense …

I perfectly agree with some components of her ethics, including tenets to embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; to envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; to trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions, the value of self-reliance, etc. These excellent principles come right out of 18th-century Enlightenment and Romantic traditions and have been embraced by many philosophies besides Rand’s. Thus, the part of her philosophy that I appreciate most is not essentially “Randian” but just things that she shares with the many.

It is by weaving these essentially good tenets into her philosophy that she lures people into a kind of complacent agreement, but the devil is in the other details. The more controversial and the signature Randian stuff, like the ideas that selfishness is always good and compassion always bad, would be silly on the face of it were they not intermixed with the self-evidently true tenets. Those good tenets are the teaspoon of sugar that gets people to swallow the toxin. And in the U.S. some very high profile people swallow the toxin. E.g., the recent Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan is right out of Ayn Rand — more tax cuts for the rich and eliminate programs that help the poor and middle class.

Yes, I had thought about Ayn’s Bolshevik connection in the same vein as my fantasy about some adult telling her to be less selfish. I.e., in witnessing the excesses of Bolshevism, she swung to an opposite but equally unprofitable extreme, the negative emotional investment in Bolshevism from her childhood blinding her to some of her adult weaknesses.

Think of Aristotle’s ethics, wherein vice is a virtue carried to an extreme (you might recall his example that courage is a mean between extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness). One might argue that Rand carried good positive ideals to such an extreme (think Pasha/Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago) that she becomes as bad as the tyranny she’s fighting against. The virtue of self-reliance, e.g., is radicalized into “Never ask for help or give help under any circumstances because to do so will weaken the moral integrity of both parties.” She is the kind of automobile driver that would not slow down to let you over when you’re trying to change lanes because to do so would mean (1) sacrificing her own interest for no reason  and (2) reinforcing weakness in the other driver by selflessly easing his path instead of letting him rise to the occasion and take his rightful position on the force of his own strength. All of this sounds great, but I’d rather somebody just let me over, and I’d do the same for them.