Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ayn Rand: Not The Thing It Is Thought To Be

I have a collection of thoughts that have been building for quite a while, to the point where I think I'm going to have to write something.  Up front, I want to explain that this post is not intended to be about D&D.  Something may occur to me while I'm writing the post, but at present I have no ideas about D&D at all.  I just want to write.  I want to try to get some of it straight in my head.

I am reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and not for the first time.  It is more probably the ninth time.  That alone is a difficult confession.  Attitudes towards the book are so finely charged, both from people who have never read the book, but have heard critics, and those who have read the book, who find themselves wondering why there is so much fuss over such a bad book.  Most everyone I have ever known who has read the book, or tried to read the book, has hated it.  I feel quite confident that if any of you gentle readers come away from this with the intention of reading the book, the book will disappoint you.

There are several passages of the book that are understandably confusing.  The book at one point seems to condone rape.  The main woman character of the book, Dominique, has motivations that are strange and incomprehensible.  The principle male character, Howard Roark, is, most people find, wholly unlikable, unbelievable or otherwise reprehensible.  The language of the book promotes, it is understand, that 'selfishness' as a virtue, and that 'altruism' is the worst sin that has ever been perpetrated by anyone.

Overall, from the perspective of almost any well-read person, the book simply annoys.  Because they characters are so bizarrely motivated, they are hateful and one cannot identify with them.  And because the book seems to say, in effect, fuck everyone who are not these characters, there has arisen two philosophies - one that argues that the book needs to be destroyed because of its offensiveness ... and one that argues if you want to be important, the book justifies fucking over the world.

I don't agree with any of these evaluations ... but as I read through the book each time, I can see where each evaluation has arisen.  I see where the offense arises from the 'rape scene' but something more like consensual bdsm.  I can see where cold and heartless businessmen delude themselves into thinking they are Howard Roark or the other male power-character, Gail Wynand, and that therefore their selfish accumulation of wealth is justified.  I can see, again and again, how the characters of Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey, the proponents for 'altruism,' are misunderstood.  I get all the confusion.  On some level, the sheer degree to which people miss the point has a meritorious grandiousity.

All of it is based upon some singular portion of the book, or a singular character's stated viewpoint, in exclusion to every other part of the book that in fact denies it.

Dominique wants to be 'raped.'  It is a BDSM scene, a consensual scene of violence, without animosity or accusatory criminality.  It is no more rape than the millions of people who have experimented in the bedroom with things they would never do with a stranger.  Only the greatest possible sexual infant could read the words and see 'rape' just because that word is bandied about.

Roark at no time in the book insults, nor abuses, nor takes anything from any other person.  For a 'selfish' person, he has distinctly no interest in anything that any other person has.  In fact, repeatedly, he refuses the things that others strive like hell to give him.  That is very much the point.

The greatest misunderstand is, I think, regarding all the characters, almost all of the dialogue and certainly all of the relationships - except for that between Dominique and Roark - is that everyone throughout the book is, continuously, unreservably - and at no time with any distinct signs offered by the author - expressing themselves through lies.  Hardly a line is said that means what the words indicate.  I think this, more than any other element, makes the book very difficult to understand, and makes the book utterly brilliant.

It also makes many people reading the book utterly lost as to why the characters believe all these awkward, irrational things ... because they are used to characters in a book meaning what they say.  And these characters very rarely mean what they say.

So it sounds like ... well ... the highest demonstration of pretense.  Remarkable pretense.

And yes, the characters are pretensious.  They pretend to believe things they do not.  They pretend to have opinions they do not have.

Welcome to reality.

In my life, I have 'real' conversations with just one person.  That person is my partner Tamara.  She is the only person whom I believe says precisely what she means, because she doesn't hesitate to hurt me, quite often, with things she says to me.  She hurts me because the things she says need to be said, and although I am hurt I don't snap or attack or start a fight, because I know they are things that need to be said.

It is very much like the dialogue that you, gentle reader, have in your own head, where you know things about yourself that are very painful, things from which you recoil, ways you speak to yourself to motivate yourself, cruel ways, ways that are inconsiderate because you know if you do not do this, or start to do this, you're lost.  Those are the conversations I have with Tamara.  Those are not the conversations I have with anyone else.

People have the unfortunate habit of believing that a 'lie' is something that is the opposite of the truth.  In fact, a 'lie' is anything except the truth.  More to the point, a 'lie' is a tremendous simplification, where the truth is a complex, exquisitely difficult thing to nail down accurately.

A salesclerk wishing me a "good day" seems to be a reasonable thing to say to a stranger upon departure.

Truth is that clerk's requirement to make that statement, corresponding to the reality that he probably doesn't wish me any particular ill will, but in fact has said it so many times that it has ceased to matter, with the collarary that it is good business practice to seem to be sincere, even if one is not sincere, because human body chemistry responds positively to the outward expression of sincerity, even if both parties know it is not sincere.  All of that is true.  It is also true that the clerk hasn't the time to truly know me, or know my reasons for being at that store, or why I might be buying what I'm buying, or what sort of person I actually am, or even if I'm someone who ought to be wished a good day.  All life long, uncaught serial killers are wished a good day just like you and I, they are given 'best wishes' just like anyone else, they are told 'merry Christmas' and 'hope you have a good weekend,' just like anyone else.

It takes two seconds to have the relationship with the clerk that I have.  It has taken me more than ten years to have the relationship I have with Tamara.  And there was a great deal of fighting in the beginning.

If the gentle reader can understand, the ordinary daily lies of life are mitigation.  If a commenter says a post is 'good' ... the truth is probably that the commenter does think it is that.  But ... how good?  How much does the commenter protect themselves.  Is it really that good?  Is it just sort of good, does it barely meet the lowest possilble standard that makes it 'good' ... or is it really that the post wasn't that good, but there's a recognition that an effort was made, and that the effort to be good should be approved.  Plus that the poster was a friend, that no one else has commented, that one feels an urge to commemorate a person just because they're known, etc.

On the other side of all that, all human beings know better than to 'gush' ... there's nothing worse than being too moved by something we've read.  Our inter-relations, particularly in western society, mocks or dismisses those who LIKE something TOO MUCH.  We slap labels like fag, bootlick, suck-ass, etc., or anyone who seems to appreciate something, and even a tiny bit of too much approval will draw the attention of the worst little bastard trolls who will gleefully stomp on that enthusiasm with hob-nail boots made of soft and saggy penises.  So, if someone thinks a thing is 'really good,' they are sure to say just 'good,' because of the risk of being too approving.

This is why I rarely give a shit about an approving comment.  I don't know which it is.

Most people, I know, are more than willing to take everything at face value.  Exactly at face value.  Thus the much-used argument, "Don't think too much" ... because thinking tends to encourage investigation into what people really mean - and that almost never works out well for us.  What people really think is best not known.

NOT taking things at face value is the format of the book The Fountainhead ... it deliberately denies any character delivering the story through the usual expectation from written art that it means what it says.  Ayn Rand did not care about that.  She wanted to demonstrate how people really speak - both good people and bad people ... and both mitigate, mitigate, mitigate.  For different motivations, of course, and those motivations are very carefully HIDDEN inside all the mitigation ... except in those places in the book where the mitigation is dropped, to demonstrate the truth.

That long, long 40 page speech by Roark, which everyone hates, explains all the mitigation.  But then, most of the readers who have tried to read the book, don't know there has been any mitigation, so they don't understand how that speech doesn't 'fit' with everything that has already been said.  The subtlety is lost.  The point is lost.  The clarity is lost.  And people, who haven't the willingness to think too much about what people mean when they're spoken to in real life, haven't the willingness to think at all about that speech of Roark's.

So it is lost.  It is misunderstood.  It is rehashed into whatever people think they want it to mean.  It is taken in pieces and reassembled like a Frankenstein's monster to justify singleminded abuse of fellow human beings.  And so on.

I suppose all this does have something to do with D&D.  If you're not prepared to identify what people really mean when they're playing a character ... if you haven't got in your mind what motivations they might have to 'pretend' to be something they're not ... then you are going to miss one hell of a lot of subtext.

But that connection is a bit slapped on at the end of this.

I want to say that The Fountainhead is certainly not the book it is thought to be.  Just as people are not the people they are thought to be.

I felt it needed to be said.


JDJarvis said...

Wait a minute here... people think an author endorses what a character is saying or doing in a story and that charcters in a story shouldn't speak to each other like people do?

JB said...

Fucking Ayn Rand.

(having given my visceral reaction allow me to say your post has actually given me a completely new and fascinating lens through which to view this novel. I'd be interested in reading your literary take on Atlas Shrugged)

Carl Nash said...

I think there is a good lesson to be drawn for DM's from this post, namely to remember that most/all NPCs should be lying most/all of the time.

For one thing, I think most people usually lie to themselves about their motivations, let alone what they tell other people. Words get tailored to the audience and what is expected of the speaker.

More importantly it is fun for the PCs to piece together "the truth" from competing narratives that all claim to be true, and it fosters thinking critically about the game world.

Quincy Jones said...

And then Tao was a literature blog.

"Fountainhead: 10/10. Natural Twenty!" --Alexis Roark

I'm feeling it. Next up: Finnegans Wake.

But seriously...

"A salesclerk wishing me a 'good day' seems to be a reasonable thing to say to a stranger upon departure."


Every time. Takes all I've got to smile and nod and walk away.

AnAxeToGrind said...

As much as we disagree on some things, this I could figuratively gush about, trolls be damned. Well said sir, well said.