...in the VQR Young Reviewers Contest. Our own Emily Colette Wilkinson was awarded the prize for her review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. We'll post a link if and when VQR puts the review online. Congrats Emily!
Not long ago my father emailed me a reading suggestion: Ayn Rand. He knew I was completing a book about the history of utopian thought – a project that stemmed from the fact that my father raised me on a street called Utopia Road – and he recognized Rand as falling within the constraints of the genre. He liked her, he said. He'd turned up his nose at her for fifty years, and regretted it. He claimed Rand's utopian avatar, John Galt, reminded him of me. I declined the suggestion. My father is an avid reader, but politically we're nothing alike. He's been trying to get me to read Ann Coulter and Liberal Fascism for years. I explained that I wasn't likely to fall for Rand's philosophy, and if he wanted to read a conservative utopia he should try Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia. (Islandia's "conservatism" dates from a few decades back, when conservatism wasn't so far from conservation – it's all about preservation of the local in the face of globalization.) My father wasn't quite ready to let it go. When my girlfriend and I visited a short time later, he pulled out a Rand book, and dared me to read just one paragraph – part of a paragraph! As it happens, that one tiny slice of prose demonstrated that Ayn Rand wasn't utopian at all; she was something much worse. And all of this matters because we now have a candidate for the senate who is not only a follower of Rand, but named for her. Here's the chunk of writing my father asked me to read, from an introduction to an anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged. Incidentally, a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means, (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation) – this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means – this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction, and translating it through new, original means. This, as far as I know, is only me – my kind of fiction writing. I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it's terrible – and then I attacked it. "Incidentally, a sidelong observation:" is redundant, I said. So is "creative fiction writing." Rand's "if/then" lacks a "then," and there's no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete. Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms. Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract. Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it's actually attempting to beguile the reader. Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex. Actually, it's not. And that's about as far as I got before my father and I wound up not in a screaming match, exactly – but something more like a hissing match. We hissed because the things we said were so vile no even we wanted to give them full voice. "You used to be a writer," my father hissed. "Now you're just an elitist." Ouch. But, wait – writers are often elitists, aren't they? Wasn't he wrong in suggesting that you sacrifice the first in becoming the second? And anyway, wasn't Ayn Rand being at least a little elitist in claiming that her fiction is the only fiction that says new things in a new way? More than her redundancies or punctuation, that's the problem – because her elitism is not earned. She's not, in fact, saying new things in a new way. Even my father knew this. He thought of her as utopian, which means she was operating within the boundaries of an established tradition. And he liked the book because he recognized the ideas in it – they weren't new either. Atlas Shrugged is "known" ideas delivered in a "known" way. By Rand's definition it's "popular trash," which pretty well describes the book's publishing history. And that's what throws Ayn Rand into such a peculiar light today, when her philosophy is perhaps closer than it's ever been to achieving actual power. It's fashionable at the moment to conflate Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement, and, now, Rand Paul. What's not been discussed so far is the wide range of open religious sentiment apparent in all of these. Ayn Rand was a famous atheist. Glenn Beck is a curious and dangerous mélange of talking head and televangelist. And the Tea Party wants to regard the Constitution as sacred document. There's a reason they're all in bed together. In In Utopia I make the argument that extreme conservative utopias (everything from Theodore Hertzka's Freeland to a range of twentieth century novels suggesting that the path to peace runs through holocaust) are not really utopias at all. Rather, they are reconciliations to an imperfect world. These "utopias" reject the idea that government or planning of any kind can make the world a better place. Much better is a policy of not planning, small government, the invisible arm of the market, social Darwinism as nature's intent, and so forth. In short, no plan is a better plan. Here's why that's not utopian: that's how civilization started. When cities emerged, when people began to live in close quarters and form communities, no one had a plan for how they should proceed. The result was Athens, brimming with disease, filth, and crime. Utopian thought begins with Plato and Aristotle offering up improvements – visions of planned societies. "It has justly been said," Martin Buber wrote, "that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian." So why can't planning for no plan also be a plan? Well, it sort of is – but it's a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order. Who emerges from the chaos? The elites. Whether it's greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative "utopias" rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better? These days, not-planning-as-plan isn't even earnestly meant. Ayn Rand was recently the subject of a new biography, and what her life reveals is that she has a whole lot more in common with L. Ron Hubbard (her career as a screenwriter matches Hubbard's as a sci-fi guy) than she does with Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or a host of earnest utopians who used an old literary genre to say some new things that did, in fact, make the world a better place. It's Hubbard that links Rand back to Beck and the Tea Party. They're all fundamentalists of one kind or another, and they are the reason "utopia" is now largely synonymous with "scheme." Like any false prophet, Rand must convince us that her message is new and true (when it's old and false), and the fake sophistication of her language is as insidious as Glenn Beck's alligator tears. These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers. They found one in Ron Paul, and now we're on to the second generation. I'll finish with the end of my own two-generation story. After my father and I finished hissing at each other, my father, to his credit, agreed to read Islandia. I had to pester him by email a little, but he eventually ordered the book. A month passed before he wrote to say he'd loved it, every word, he ate it up – could I recommend more? My heart swelled. This is what books – utopias or no – should do. I told him to read Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. There's a little utopia in each of them. I've not heard back from my father since, but I have high hopes. Back | 1. Note: Rand Paul himself has denied that he was formally named for Ayn Rand, so I'm taking some liberty here. He has claimed that he was named Randal at birth, went by Randy for much of his life, and his wife started calling him Rand. At the same time, he calls himself a "big fan" of Ayn Rand's work, and admits that his father met the author. Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage – like a monk or a pope.
● ● ●