Friday, September 23, 2011

Strange Bedfellows: Ayn Rand and Flannery O'Connor

courtesy of Cracked.
On a friend's mailing list, a healthy, if sometimes heated, discussion arose about the merits of Ayn Rand.  As can be expected, opinions were mixed but quite strong.  Some admired the merits of Objectivism, while others panned her prose, philosophy and followers.

Speaking as charitably as I can, I find Rand's skills as a philosopher somewhat wanting. She's given to dogmatic statements and blanket dismissals that would get her swatted down in any half-decent Philosophy 101 class.  (And don't even get me started on how badly she misunderstood Nietzsche or how she disparaged his philosophy as the nihilistic ravings of a madman while glorifying Nietzschean Übermenschen). But it's those very weaknesses as a philosopher which served to make her such an effective writer.

"Effective writer?" you may ask, pointing to her one-dimensional characters, her lengthy passages of exposition and her penchant for writing tomes which were approximately the size of the Manhattan Yellow Pages And yes, she's guilty of all those things.  Rand is by no means a subtle writer: she's a strident polemicist with little use for nuance or ambiguity.  But she transforms her weaknesses into strengths: her books succeed because she has such undying conviction in her beliefs. (Don't believe me? Point to another 1,200+ page tome from the mid-20th century which is still being read today).

In that she reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor.  O'Connor was a rare combination - a devout Roman Catholic born and raised in Georgia.  Her stories combine the kudzu-choked strains of southern Gothic literature with the brutality and glory of a Passion Play.  For O'Connor fiction was a way to explore the workings of Grace, to chronicle the descent of the Holy Spirit among the people wandering through the rural south trying to figure out what they needed more, sin or salvation.
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. 
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.  
"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now."   
His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Both O'Connor and Rand had deep convictions and the certainty of faith. But O'Connor understood that faith entails a Kierkegaardian "blind leap" which does not reject so much as transcend reason.  It is not so much that Rand did not make that leap as that she did not recognize she had: she made an idol of her convictions and called them "reason."  And because she was a skillful prosodist, she created a fascinating idol which has attracted many passionate worshippers

O'Connor's work is Grand Guignol Catholicism: as she put it, "I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear."  Ayn Rand's writing is Grand Guignol Capitalism. Socialists aren't just wrong, they're active agents of evil.  The horrors of egalitarianism are writ large, so that nobody might be deceived by their lies and their pretty words.  They are both writers of ideas, writing not just to entertain but also to educate.  But O'Connor understood that her stories were exaggerations which pointed to a deeper Mystery: Rand (and, later, many of her followers) made the mistake of thinking her fiction was an accurate representation of mundane truth.