Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ayn Rand's literary roots

Ayn Rand, the Russian-American Victor Hugo - Econlib - Bryan Caplan:

February 3, 2005 - "Ayn Rand’s novels blend two distinct genres. She fits squarely into the tradition of the Russian philosophical novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But she is also a plot-rich Romantic in the tradition of Victor Hugo. Some standard features of the Russian approach:
  1. Characters embody philosophical positions.
  2. The plot explores the implications of these philosophies on the characters’ lives.
  3. The conclusion of the novel vindicates the current philosophical position of the author....
"In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, Ivan embodies idealistic atheism, Alyosha earnest Orthodox Christianity, Dmitri unreflective pragmatism, and Smerdyakov nihilism. The murder of the sons’ father tests their convictions. And (spoiler!) the revelation that Smerdyakov is the murderer ultimately discredits not only his nihilism, but Ivan’s idealistic atheism, for the latter paves the way for the former.

"If she had written only We the Living, Rand would probably now be hailed as one of the lesser 20th-century descendants of Dostoyevsky. Its characters embody idealistic Communism, cynical Communism, defiant individualism, and despairing individualism. But then she up and wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged which are, by the standards of the Russian philosophical tradition, far better. The characters' philosophies are more interesting, the plot pits them against each other more effectively, and the concluding epiphanies are more compelling (especially in Atlas)....

"When you measure Rand’s against her Russian peer group, she is among the masters. But this understates her artistic achievement because she simultaneously works in another tradition: 19th-century Romanticism exemplified by Victor Hugo. Some standard features of the Romantic approach:
  1. The characters are larger-than-life.
  2. The plots are imaginative.
  3. The plots are carefully crafted puzzles, unpredictable in advance, but cleanly logical in hindsight....
"I love Victor Hugo, and even if he’s not for you, it’s hard not to admire the craftsmanship. Dramatic situations and dramatic characters stitched seamlessly together – it’s not easy....

"When you put Ayn Rand beside Victor Hugo, however, the student is the master. Rand out-Hugos Hugo. For starters, her characters are more colorful.... The plot of Atlas Shrugged is likewise more imaginative than anything Hugo cooked up.... Her craftsmanship is better too. Hugo is full of improbable coincidences. Rand studiously avoids them....

"If you hate Rand’s style, I probably can’t talk you into enjoyment. But I suspect that the main reason many thinkers I respect don’t enjoy Rand’s fiction is that – even though they like one or both of the genres she exemplifies – they can’t bring themselves to judge her by the standards of those genres. If they did, the worst they could say about her would be 'Pretty damn good.'"

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