Sunday, July 19, 2009

Philosophical Novels

I just came across this flow chart "How to succeed as an Ayn Rand Character" (ht: Brian Doherty). I've just been reading through Atlas Shrugged, and I can say that this chart is spot on. The last time I'd read Ayn Rand was when Anthem was assigned as reading in my English class in High School, back in 1997. People had recommended to me that I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged during those years, and I've managed to put it off until now. I always thought the books were unbearably too long, and it also didn't help that other people I knew really bad-mouthed Ayn Rand. But now that Atlas Shrugged has been getting so much attention lately and has had a large recent upsurge in popularity, I thought it important.

I'm not exacxtly bowled over by it. Atlas Shrugged is definitely unbearably too long, and Rand has no skill for succinctness. I can't share other libertarians' fondness for her, though I share the same type of resentment towards the man counter-productive programs initiated by the government in the name of the common good. On the other hand, I don't share the profound disgust that my philosophical colleagues have towards her. I think the main reason they don't like her is because she isn't very philosophically sophisticated. Her ideas aren't as philosophically rich as the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or even lesser luminaries, which makes her far less interesting and worth the time of study/

But also Atlas Shrugged has left me with the impression that I just don't like philosophical novels in general. I figure that if you want to write about or defend an idea you should just write about it, and not try to dress it up in some contrive plot. There have been many idea-books out there that have sold extremely well (like books by Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas L. Friedman, Steve Levitt), so you can't argue that you need to dress it up to sell it to the people. Admittedly, such books aren't as sophisticated as great philosophical classics, and thus probably aren't the road to timeless philosophical glory, but they are quite influential.

I remember I was reading recently (I wish I could remember where) someone saying that all literature (as well as all movies and plays) is manipulative. The author is always trying to get us to feel certain things, or think certain things about the characters or events. But as a reader (or viewer) what we don't like is obvious manipulation. We don't like to feel we're being manipulated. It causes us to rebel. We like the artistry of subtle manipulation. One thing one would be reluctant to accuse Ayn Rand of is subtlety. Her clearly most admirable characters are all pure prophets of her philosophy, and they defend it in long monologues. If you read her non-fiction, she'll frequently quote her characters' speeches as if they express her philosophy better than she could.

I think one of the problems with philosophical novels, in general is that they have to be so obvious. If they're too subtle, then people will miss the point they're trying to make. SO I say, better to lay out your positions in clear non-fiction prose, and confine yourself to some brief illuminating examples rather than stretching it out over a full-length novel.

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