Archives for category: Novels

Those of us who learn on our own to think for ourselves do not require immersion into the work of writers who relentlessly promote “rationality” and “reason.” We accept it as bedrock. We move on.

That is my usual explanation to my friends who admire Ayn Rand, or who went through an  “Ayn Rand phase,” or were once or (alas) are now self-describing as a “student of Objecctivism.” She was of little use to me. I read her “too late” for her work to have an impact.

I waited until I was 22 before I opened the pages of The Fountainhead. I had read, the year before, the essays making up The Virtue of Selfishness. I liked the novel. But I was not blown away. I grew leery of the essays. But it took me a while to see her central error.

I had already discovered the “pro-liberty” novels I needed in my teens: The Once and Future King, Titus Groan, Brave New World and others. As for philosophy, I had read Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and as much as I could find out about anarchism in my backwater locale before I found and devoured Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which did indeed “blow my mind.” But I did not come to any big conclusions about political philosophy for several years, until after I had read more, including some economics.

Before political philosophy, I confronted religion. Also without Ayn Rand’s help.

I started, in a sense, with C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, which, as a Christian, I judged dishonest, and moved on to consider a wide array of ideas. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was a bit of a challenge, in that I learned a lot from the book, but came to disapprove of its basic modus: attacking low-level exponents of a philosophy (the textbook writers who annoyed him so much) without addressing that philosophy’s high-level theorists (Ogden, Richards, Ayer, Stevenson). Surely that was a form of intellectual dishonesty as well.

So I by the time I was 20 I was reading existentialists and Walter Kauffmann and C.S. Peirce and many others. I had put aside Heidegger. I had bracketed Husserl. I was thinking for myself. By 22 I had moved from a sort of Millian liberalism to something like a full-blown libertarianism, without any input from Rand.

Hence my jesting status as a member of the Null Rand League. I am one of those individualists — rare in my generation — who has not been influenced by Ayn Rand directly, except in the negative, and whose intellectual inheritance comes from other sources. I had read Lysander Spooner and Auberon Herbert and Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises before I ever read one word of Ayn Rand.  (I had also read Marx, Schumacher, Wilson and many, many others of an anti-libertarian stripe.)

And when I did finally get to The Fountainhead (and only because a cute girl I knew had read it), I was impressed with parts of it, and creeped out by a few things as well. (I have written about this before.) As for her philosophy at large, I have many problems with it. (Also written about elsewhere.) So I simply am not the go-to person to write a level-headed reappraisal of Rand. I have never been bitten by the bug. I have never had to recover, or fight it off to any great extent.

So Charles Murray’s recent piece on the subject is worth consulting. I have no problem with it. And I do have many friends who would concur. Though he does not float one idea I have often heard — that her best work of fiction was her first.

But, once again, I have read neither We, the Living, nor Atlas Shrugged. I cannot even stomach a foray into the much shorter Anthem.

This conclusion to Murray’s review seems spot on:

Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.

The “greed is good” theme that progressives revile so much in Rand is, to the extent it is there, of course idiotic. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness, which is a necessity; despising profit and the profit motive is for witless ninnies. But the excess of a virtue is not virtuous. It is the definition of vice. Even suggesting that greed is good is folly.

But hey: Rand extolled what she called “selfishness” more often than greed. And redefined it, and balled it all up, too, in the process. But give her her due.

So it is good to see an interpretation on the utopian element in Atlas Shrugged interpreted in a way more in line with the moral and political philosophy of Bastiat and Spencer than with what we might think of as Ayn Rand’s.

Whatever she wrote about the subject, I didn’t need her to tell me. I worked out my thoughts on utopianism by reading Nozick, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and many other books, and by confronting economic theory and the realities of history . . . on my own, without one one guide to call “hero” or “master.”

Or Mistress.

Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack WoodfordIf you are researching American sexual mores and family values, in addition to the “usual suspect” list of literature, you might consider reading Jack Woodford’s 1934 effort, Unmoral. The first chapter is a brilliantly conceived and written work of fiction, very suggestive . . . of a great work to follow. But what actually follows is a talky novel of ideas, where the theme is “the new world to come.” Many crisp passages deliver what must have been, in the 1930s, “daring thought,” but which will today strike most readers as merely the present reality or its discarded afterbirth. Here is a typical passage, from the mouth of the heroine, Nausicaa Bradford:

Americans pass a law against liquor and go right on drinking; they frown, publicly and openly upon the relationship of mistress and lover, and go right on having such relationships under cover. They draw up huge categories of business ethics, and American business is rotten to the core. It’s America’s fetich: this, “Save the Surface and You Save All,” theory.

Not exactly deep, but perceptive of the time and of the direction of trends. And like all of Woodford’s writings, it is something of a hoot. Like Mencken, Woodford’s attitude carried him a long way.

This “novel of ideas” mostly takes the form of pre-coital and post-coital negotiations and manifestos, in which the heroine makes quite clear to her various lovers that she doesn’t love them, but still wishes to engage in the physical pleasures of life. There is a quaintness about this, as one often encounters with a philosophy graduate on a first date.

Indeed, before the end, the author finally marshals his personal philosophy, not as one of “selfishness,” but of “selfness.” This is not so much a pre-echo of Ayn Rand, but an echo of Max Stirner and his followers, one of which coined the delightfully ungainly term “selfyness” to capture the same set of notions Woodford here pushes.

Woodford, master of brevity, cleverly dropped the “y.”

To modern readers, the elision of any description of the love-making, or even the mention of certain concepts by name (“fellatio” being the first to strike one by its pointed absence), seems itself dated. Woodford could not get away with, commercially or perhaps even legally, at that time, such frankness as practiced by Henry Miller, whose first work of explicit sex talk and sexual activity, Tropic of Cancer, came out in the same year as Woodford’s Unmoral. And was banned.

Woodford, ever the consummate hack, saw little point in writing books only to have them banned. He wanted to be paid. This book, published by his own publishing company (the better to reap as many rents as possible), was intended to sell, and sell steadily. And it does appear that Woodford was something of a success in his day.

While Woodford referred to his craft as that of the art of the “sex novel,” Unmoral, aside from being a novel of ideas (if mostly sexual), is also, in a sense, an example of a very American form of novel: the novel of success. Yes, a “success novel.” Horatio Alger and all that. His heroine, Nausicaa, is a business triumph, and some of the ideas in the book express her developing philosophy of how to get ahead — and not just in bed.

The key to understanding the book is one that C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb might appreciate: Woodford dedicated the book to his daughter, Louella. The book was surely designed to serve as a life manual, specifically for her. And she apparently took to the message. Three years later she produced a novel with the gotcha-dad title Maid Unafraid.

Prose style aside — Woodford purveyed a clean, crisp prose that nevertheless delightfully fails to be pedestrian or serve as an example of today’s dreadful “no style” style — the quality of the book is uneven. The first chapter, I repeat, is a perfect specimen, and shows that the author was fully capable of writing excellent short fiction competently. But the bulk of the book is talkier than Crome Yellow or Point/Counterpoint, and, today, sparks more intellectual or historical interest than literary value. But by the end, and with the last sex scene (this time not marred by elision, but cleverly if tastefully told), the genius of the first pages returns.

I am sure were I to wade through, again, his many volumes of writing advice (Trial and Error; How to Plot a Brainstorm; etc.) , I would receive pearls of wisdom regarding the importance of a good opening and a good closing. Well, here, in Unmoral, Woodford lives up to precisely that standard: Great start; fine finish. Unfortunately . . . what a middle!

But that’s to be expected, right? Wasn’t it Iris Murdoch who said that the novel must be very Aristotelian,  having, as she put it, a beginning, a muddle, and an end?

Unmoral is, by this standard, perfectly Aristotelian, even if more Stirnerite and Nietzschean in substantive philosophy.

Astute followers of that long-gone age’s culture will note a few of the more interesting citations, such as to James Branch Cabell. Woodford ably squeezed in mention of his favorite contemporaries. As, I suppose, should we all.

Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack Woodford

This pitch being delivered, don’t forget the home run: Woodford’s Autobiography remains his best book.