Monday, May 14, 2012

Playing the Piper

Here is a fascinating Playboy Magazine interview with Ayn Rand from 1964. It's full of weird and interesting tidbits (the psychology of Hitler and Stalin is "in effect, is summarized in Atlas Shrugged by the character of James Taggart"!), but this one struck me the most:
PLAYBOY: What [do you think] about [Vladimir] Nabokov? 
RAND: I have read only one book of his and a half -- the half was Lolita, which I couldn't finish. He is a brilliant stylist, he writes beautifully, but his subjects, his sense of life, his view of man, are so evil that no amount of artistic skill can justify them.
I mentioned this a long time ago, but when Rand was growing up in St. Petersburg, she was best friends with Nabokov's sister, Olga. It may be more accurate to say that Olga was friends with Rand, one of Rand's only friends in a youth marked by precocious social awkwardness. I'm less interested in the amazing coincidence of the families of Nabokov and Rand, two of the 20th century's most celebrated and overrated (respectively) English language novelists, growing up together, than I am in Rand's own response to it. She remarked on the connection elsewhere, in a very different fashion. From Ayn Rand and the World She Made:
[H]er literary mission accomplished, her social reticence returned. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Joan Kennedy Taylor hosted a radio program called The World of Books on an educational radio station in New York. When Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita shocked the nation in the summer of 1958, Taylor asked Rand for advice about whether to interview the author on her program. To the younger woman’s surprise, Rand didn’t comment on Nabokov’s lurid subject matter or abstract literary style but instead said, wistfully, “Oh, Nabokov! If you do interview him, please ask him how his sister is! She was once my best friend.” It was a remarkable moment of nostalgia for the characteristically forward-looking Rand. Yet she made no effort to see Nabokov, although he was a professor of Russian at Cornell and visited New York a number of times to promote Lolita. And she never contacted his sister Olga, who was living openly in Prague. “She was very, um, cautious about being identified,” said Taylor. “She was afraid of being on some kind of [secret Soviet] list and being found.” She remained wary of Soviet surveillance well into the 1970s.
This is indeed an unusually personal moment for Rand; the Playboy interview is much more typical. Here was an opportunity to remark, even if briefly and offhandedly, about the amazing coincidence that she had such a close relationship with Nabokov's family growing up. Yet she remains clinical, discussing only his work, the only capacity in which he would be publicly known, in the driest terminology possible (with one as moralizing as Rand, "evil" very quickly becomes a generic descriptor).

Abstract, devoid of personal qualities, this is Rand 'in character,' which I mean very literally:
Toward the end of her life, Rand listened as a prominent psychologist stood onstage and dismissed her fictional heroes—those idealized steel barons and physicists and composers—as implausible. Soon she’d had enough and stood up in the crowd, outraged. 
“Am I unreal?” she shouted. “Am I a character who can’t possibly exist?” 
She intended this, one suspects, as a refutation. It strikes me as maybe the most profound question she ever raised.
As dull and irritating as Rand's character development in Atlas Shrugged is, I still maintain that in a technical sense it isn't 'bad' because Rand isn't trying to fulfill normal expectations of 'good' characterization. Inner conflict, doubt, tangential thoughts, quirks of personality; to Rand these hold no interest in themselves outside of being personal defects of an objectively good and pure persona. Rand's heroes are two-dimensional philosophical concretizations because that is what she considers the ideal person to be.  They're bad by my standards, certainly, but that doesn't matter.  One of the principal rules of evaluating art (and in a post-Duchamp world, we cannot but classify art by the creator's intent) is viewing it on its own terms. Rand presents a unique challenge because her radical kitsch stands in willfully stubborn opposition to the (aesthetic, moral, political) values of most critical observers, and so she is too easily dismissed as merely bad or right-wing when her oddities make her so much more interesting and compelling.

The interplay between Ayn Rand's personality and her fiction was a two-way street. She wrote characters that expressed her grandest ideals and in turn considered herself the embodiment of everything her heroes represent. Thus did she guardedly present herself as eminently logical, free of whim and whimsy. Even when discussing matters of love, that most personal and vexing of emotions, it was in abstract terms. She told Playboy she would step in front of a bullet aimed at her husband because he is a 'great value' to her. The real-life details of this 'great valuation'--Rand's dominance of her husband Frank O'Connor to the detriment of his career, social life, independence, health and happiness--need not be rehearsed here, for they are implicit in the Objectivist formulation of the individual as first subject. All others, even significant others, are objectified.

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