Monday, October 14, 2002 :::
Book 'Em, Cowboy
THE ART OF FICTION: A GUIDE FOR WRITERS AND READERS by Ayn Rand, edited by Tore Boeckmann. It is the habit of many smart libertarians to publicly deny Rand three times and more. While I do not agree with every aspect of her architectonic—I don’t see that she has ultimately proved the objective reality of her moral code, and think she sloughs over important problems regarding possible imperfections in sensory data—I am an enthusiastic fan of her writings, and consider her an overwhelming force for good. She is a passionate and utterly uncowed warrior for values that are right, dammit, and she just sings sweetly to my soul almost all the time. At times her sheer rhetorical power can have me cheering things that I ultimately don’t agree with, because the areas where we do agree are so vital and she is such a smart defender of some shared values. (Aesthetics is the most significant areas of my disagreement with her, and this book in question in on literary aesthetics.)
That many of her followers don’t make good pen pals or party guests is an interesting datum, and worth discussing. That she could be rude and controlling and drove many of her closest friends to distraction or worse, the same. I love both those Branden books myself. None of which should be dispositive in considering her qualities as a thinker or writer. (Since I don’t think anyone has convincingly proven the objective reality of their derivations of political or ethical philosophy, I have a hard time condeming Rand too much for her failure, especially since the spirit of her inquiries and where she ends up resonate so warmly with me.) Her novels are all spectacular verging on breathtaking achievements, and most of her early essays are marvelously entertaining invective even if not masterpieces of reasoning.
This book is an edited version of lectures she gave informally to pals and followers in 1958, extending her literary aesthetic a bit beyond what is already available in the well-worth-reading THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO. I have a curious ambivalence about her aesthetic. What she defends seems marvelously worth defending, and I can even understand and appreciate why she hates what she hates. She can even momentarily make me feel a bit ashamed for admiring non-objective art or sentences that don’t stick strictly to the facts of observable reality. But you can’t in the end argue someone out of their aesthetic preferences, it seems to me, which makes her whole attempt to rationalize aesthetics in this book and ROMANTIC MANIFESTO a failure. But they are interesting failures and a writer striving to latch onto a meaningful style and approach for fiction might want to give this book a gander and its prescriptions a try. I’ve always found her defense of Mickey Spillane’s prose vs. Thomas Wolfe’s quite convincing and would like to see a refutation that doesn’t completely evade her point.
She clearly didn’t understand her own emotional realities, and I don’t think she really fully understood what she was doing in her own novels. (Atlas Shrugged, for example, is not really an exploration of how life should be and ought to be—and if she thought so, maybe she was as corrupt in spirit as Whittaker Chambers thought. But I doubt it.) But she was a great novelist, I state as an objective fact of reality.
SEX BY PRESCRIPTION by Thomas Szasz. An interesting extended essay on the historical absurdities and ethical meaning of treating sex and sexual difficulties as diseases or disorders to be solved through a medical model. Some of the same material he’s touched on in other books on the psychiatric profession’s grotesque and unconscionable treatment of masturbation and homosexuality and Freud’s views of sex as either disease or treatment, covering all cases. Masters and Johnson get roughed up, and Szasz proves less sympathetic to transsexualism than one might have expected. A complicated man. He excoriates modern liberal sex education for being (bad) ethics disguised as science. His directly ultimate point: all so-called medical sex therapy problems are properly ethical, not medical. His more abstract point—and an important one—is that life is difficult, and that easy-out medico-therapeutic “solutions” often disrespect and try to slough over that difficulty, in ways that aren’t always for the best. Szasz is, as always, a supple thinker who is deeper than he appears on first thought.
THE UNTAMED TONGUE: A DISSENTING DICTIONARY by Thomas Szasz. A collection of Szaszian epigrams, a good place to dig into his deeper meanings—contemplating the resonances and underlying distinctions beneath what is, at its least, an entertaining collection of potential desk calendar sayings. A good, easy place to start with Szasz, and if you are fascinated enough to wonder what this guy means by all these heretical pronouncements, go on from there. INSANITY: THE IDEA AND ITS CONSEQUENCES is the best major work. Szasz is the most difficult and challenging libertarian thinker of Our Movement’s post-war wave. And if I could find the damn book around this increasingly absurd clutter of this bookstore I live in, I’d quote some for your delectation.
::: posted by Brian at 10:16 PM