Tonight I read Karen Reedstrom and Thomas Gramstad’s excellent 1997 Full Context interview with Norwegian literary critic and scholar Kirsti Minsaas. I enjoyed many of the exchanges. Here are some excerpts I found especially thought-provoking.
Q: You are writing a book about Ayn Rand. Can you tell us about the topic, scope and progress of this work?
Minsaas: Well, the book will in part be based on the lectures that I have given, but I want to integrate them into a coherent presentation of Ayn Rand as a literary artist, emphasizing in particular the romantic qualities of her writing, both in terms of style and content. Also, I want to discuss the relationship between literature and philosophy in her works. There seems to be a general tendency, even among Objectivists, to downgrade Ayn Rand’s literary achievement as compared to her philosophical achievement. My own view is that she was a greater artist than philosopher. In fact, I think her philosophy is in many ways reductive of her own thinking, that her ideas, as presented in the novels, through the characters and events and not just the speeches, are much richer and more fertile than her explicit philosophizing. Or to put it differently, I like her better as a literary philosopher than as a theoretical philosopher. This is something I want to emphasize very strongly. Moreover, as a literary scholar, rather than a philosophical activist, I am more interested in showing her power as a novelist than in proving the truth or significance of her philosophy. …
Q: Some people think that there is a big discussion emerging about the nature of virtue, that this is a topic not sufficiently covered by Rand. Can you comment on this?
Minsaas: I think she covered it all right, but again, more as a novelist than as a philosopher. In fact, her heroes are walking embodiments of virtue. And this is why we take interest in them. Several Objectivists have lately emphasized the primacy of value over virtue in Ayn Rand’s ethics, but if you look at the novels, it is obvious that she saw virtue as in many ways an end in itself, the source of one’s own self-esteem and the source of the admiration we may feel for another human being. When we take pleasure in contemplating the character of Howard Roark, for example, it is primarily because of the virtues he embodies and not because of the values he achieves. And if we consider Ayn Rand’s admiration for Cyrano de Bergerac, it seems evident that she regarded greatness of soul as more important than existential success. Conversely, I think that she would have found the story of a man achieving external success but at the cost of virtue as not only boring but morally revolting. But this much being said, there is obviously a lot more to be said about virtue than Ayn Rand ever covered either in her fiction or in her non-fictional writing. Like the contribution of writers and thinkers before her, hers is only a limited, even if important, one. …
Q: Do you think that heroic literature (and arts in general) is dead or do you see something of the heroic tradition continuing today? If so, where and in what form?
Minsaas: It is, of course, still continuing in the popular arts, as Ayn Rand pointed out. But in serious literature it seems to be virtually dead. It seems either to be dismissed as unserious, something you outgrow once you are past your adolescence; or it is associated with the Nazi perversion and with Nietzsche’s superman. In either case, we need to do some scholarship in this area, to show that the heroic represents an important aspect of moral life and that hero worship represents an important psychological need. But it has to be done with a little more sophistication than has been the case in Objectivist debate so far.
Q: Victor Hugo wrote about average men becoming moral giants. We can see Jean Valjean make choices and go from a petty thief, to an ex-con with a bad attitude, to a morally redeemed entrepreneur who rises above his own selfish needs to save the life of his adopted daughter’s lover. We see an ignorant hunchback become a hero, we see a black slave lead a rebellion for freedom in Jamaica. With Hugo’s heroes anyone can say “I can be a hero too, he did it and he was no better or even less than I”. Victor Hugo was nationally revered in his own time. He lived to see a street named after him. On the other hand, Rand’s heroes seem to be ready made geniuses, not the kind of people to appeal to, or inspire, the average man. Do you think that is why there are no streets named after Rand as there was for Hugo? That she doesn’t appeal to average Americans?
Minsaas: You may have a point there; yet Ayn Rand does have a large popular appeal, far beyond what you would expect given the intellectual level of her novels. The reason why she has not been generally recognized, I believe, has more to do with resistance from the intellectual and cultural elite, an elite that is not too appreciative of Hugo either. So in many ways, they are in the same boat; only the times have changed. But I do agree that Rand’s novels may not have the same power to inspire a will to change, to choose a better life course, as is the case with Hugo’s novels. And this is reflected in her esthetics too. What she emphasized there was the kind of art that would appeal to a rational man in need of fuel to sustain his ambition. She did not consider the role of fiction in inspiring such ambition by showing how men may change and improve for the better. Which may have to do with a conception of human perfection as something static, as something largely inborn in fact.
Q: What do you think of Rand’s portrayal of the average man in the character of Eddie Willers? At the end of the book we see him stranded in the middle of nowhere. The “prime movers” are all gone and the average man is left helpless without them. Is this a fair characterization? There is ample proof in reality that the average man can take care of himself in times of disaster. A good example of this is the failure of massive bombing of cities during WWII. Average people quickly adapted and innovated to meet the challenges of their disrupted lives. Military experts were surprised that the spirits of the populations were not destroyed but actually rose to the occasion. The bombing tactic was a failure. What do you think of Rand’s view of the average man? Did she underestimate him? Should Willers have joined his friends in the Gulch?
Minsaas: I don’t think we should regard Eddie Willers simply as a symbol of Ayn Rand’s vision of the average man. Again, we have to consider his specific function in the novel. As I see it, the clue to Eddie is the image Ayn Rand paints of him as a captain going down with his ship. He is the man of absolute loyalty and commitment who chooses to perish rather than be saved. Ronald Merrill has suggested, rightly I think, that Ayn Rand was here thinking of men like her father who chose to stay in Soviet Russia in spite of having an opportunity to get out. They simply could not imagine beginning all over again in another world. …
Q: What do you think of the writers of the realist school such as Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, or Somerset Maugham? While Objectivists have panned them as not heroic, can it be argued that they give us heroes that inspire us for everyday life? While their characters are not shaking the world with their achievements, they are struggling with and finally facing very difficult inner dramas. For example in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams has his characters struggle with lies they have been living with and the agony it is causing them. In the end they overcome their fears and look at the truth. I find this very inspiring and heroic. Ayn Rand and Objectivism seem to look for heroes to build skyscrapers and slay pirates. Since all of us mostly live in the everyday, do you think this viewpoint is a shortcoming?
Minsaas: I think we must remember here that Ayn Rand did have room for everyday heroics, but it is something she reserved for minor characters. Cherryl Taggart, for example, is fighting a very heroic even if tragic battle to face up to the truth about James Taggart. So she could appreciate this kind of heroics. The problem is that she did not see it as fit material to carry the major plot of a novel. Of course, this was her privilege as far as her own writing was concerned. But it becomes a shortcoming when universalized into an esthetic principle binding on all literature, a norm that excludes the kinds of literature that you refer to where the prime focus is the inner struggle toward truth and self-acceptance that take place in more ordinary people. As consumers of art, we need different types of literature that can hold up to us different views of the world and of human existence, and that may serve different needs in different individuals in different situations and at different times. (Again I adopt what is essentially an Aristotelian viewpoint).
See the full interview for much more.