Sunday, December 04, 2005

Capitalist Realism

"Why would we be drawn to return to those novels every several years as if we needed a recharge of Rand's certainty and energy?"

So writes Mitch at Anteroom with a further link to an extended review (more of Rand's life, rather than her fiction) by Jenny Turner at The London Review of Books.

It's good reading, but neither of them can answer the question. I think the answer comes in two parts:

Rand was a superior entertainment author. And she discovered a secret of genre fiction - combine TWO genres for a "crossover hit". In her case it was Romance Novel and Science Fiction.

Her two early novels were pure examples: "We the Living" is a Romance love triangle (one woman, two men) set against the historical backdrop of the early Soviet experiment - much like Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" (same triangle…also a civil war), and "Anthem" is a dystopia in the vein of "1984" and "Brave New World". Neither is altogether a bad book, but wouldn't remotely command our attention today.

Both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged combine great dollops of steamy Romance (along with numerous cartoon character sketches) and thick layers of Sci-Fi - a sort of Neapolitan ice cream. In Atlas Shrugged this is more obvious: zany inventions - a wonder-metal, a generator which converts static electricity into useable power, a sonic weapon - drive much of the storyline.

But the Fountainhead is a sort of Alternative History, also - set in a 1930's American unvisited by the Great Depression or crises overseas…and doting on a mid-industrial civilization, quaint and extinct today.

Rand's strident philosophy assaults many readers, but could be seen as a fictional premise, a plot-device…sorta like Kurt Vonnegut's "Tralmalfadorian" maunderings. Rand's kind of Sci-Fi is squarely in the tradition of Harry Turtledove's alternative histories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And just as harmless.

Rand may well have been influenced by Socialist Realism in her teen years - the early Soviets under Lenin and Trotsky were nothing if not Westernizes and modernizers, dragging the peasants into the 20th century "kicking and screaming, if need be". And her own Capitalist Realism resembles nothing so much as a Roosevelt-era mural in some post office - In the Glare of Welding Torches, and the Shadows of Steel Girders, Hard-muscled Engineers Gaze Fearlessly Into the Future!

But the future isn't what it used to be. The 20th century has passed, socialism is dead, and the climax civilization emerging today resembles mid-century industrialism very little, if at all. Even the production areas of Viet Nam and Sri Lanka (still less, New Delhi or Shanghai) don't hazily accord with Marxist or Randian visions.

Still everyone who enjoys literature should read a fair amount of entertainment fiction…for the pace, the energy, the tempo and verve that more ambitious and thoughtful types of literature almost necessarily must forgo. To be too abstemious risks hatching a sensibility as jaundiced and lifeless as Proust and Kafka, Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

And besides, Ayn Rands Capitalist Realism is a lot more fun than Socialist Realism…for all the reasons capitalism is a lot more fun than socialism!



Blogger David Matthews said...

This is a fine and stimulating piece. It will likely come as no suprise to you I think the statement "socialism is dead" a little extreme. I recall a while back an administration flack on some news show or other dismissed the European position on the issue under discussion, stating, "Who cares what the Europeans think? They're all socialists anyway." I am in the beginning stages of an essay on where those of us who still believe in certain aspects of the socialist dream are left in the present circumstance of radical capitalism's triumphant moment.

11:52 AM  
Blogger David Matthews said...

For the record, while I think it is a nicely done piece, I respectfully disagree with much in this essay. This may not have been clear from my earlier comment.

2:38 PM  

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