Category Archives: Historical

Literature Commentary: Ideal

It’s been a fascinating year for late-flowering publications, with both Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” and Ayn Rand’s hitherto-unpublished novel “Ideal” hitting bookstore shelves. As a longtime appreciator of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” “Ideal” unquestionably belonged on my summer reading list.

“Ideal” is an uncharacteristically dreamy novel for Rand, taking place over the span of a single night. Actress Kay Gonda (who may or may not have committed a murder) drifts from house to house of those who have written her fan letters. These fans include a family man in a middle-management role, a manic priest watching his congregation implode, a lecherous aristocrat, and a young burnout, among others. Each of these individuals responds to her presence differently: at bottom, she exposes the inadequacies of their lives and their respective failures to pursue higher things. Whether or not Gonda is actually a human being – or rather merely symbolic of her admirers’ craving for sublimity – is a question that lingers after the final page is turned.

In “Ideal,” as in “Anthem,” one truth remains persistently clear: this is a parable, not a serious attempt to depict true-to-life circumstances. Indeed, the narrative structure and motifs evoke biblical imagery – the angels’ visit to Sodom, the spies in Rahab’s house at Jericho, and the parable of the ten virgins, among others. None of Rand’s books are meant to be read as realistic fiction, and “Ideal” is no exception”; that’s not to say, though, that it isn’t oddly compelling in its own way. The surrealism of “Ideal” is a radical shift away from the plot-heavy structure of Rand’s later work, but here it works as an asset: Rand’s much-derided didactic cudgel isn’t on display here (at least relative to subsequent books). “Ideal” systematically changes up its mise en scène, displaying hints of the stage play it would later become, but remains engaging throughout its short length.

It’s been several years since I sat down with a Rand novel, and in that time I’ve read a great deal of criticism of her work (much of it coming from thinkers I respect). I submit, however, that many of these rebuttals are but surface-level criticisms of her novels’ more cringeworthy moments (and there are plenty). Not many engage with the very real reason her novels have remained popular for so long – their vigorous affirmation of a life not only suffused with meaning, but also with purpose. Chiefly, Rand advances a vision of the human person that transcends materialistic nihilism. You were meant for more, her novels tell the reader. Create. Experiment. Risk. This fiercely burning moral directive is compelling on a deep psychosocial level – much more so when juxtaposed against the postmodern ennui of other writers. (As a side note, the persistent affirmation of this transcultural, transpersonal imperative is staggeringly inconsistent with Rand’s claim that man is both the source and end of value. Why can a man not electively assert his autonomy to embrace an apathetic/misanthropic lifestyle? Rand never says.). “Greed is good” is far too simplistic an assessment of the ethical philosophy at play here (and indeed, the profit motive is almost wholly absent from “Ideal”); to its credit, “Ideal” doesn’t attempt to make a case for Objectivist ethics. Instead, this short novel simply hints and suggests, operating more from inference than from pitiless ideology.

Rand’s attacks on the trappings of religion, as in “Atlas Shrugged,” remain on full display here. Her view is an unfortunately myopic one: Rand’s understanding of religion exclusively stresses the debasing of the human person, but ignores any doctrines regarding the glory of the imago Dei (as reflected in the human capacity for creativity). Accordingly, her depictions of religiosity evidence a deeply Gnostic caricaturization: here, there is a slavish and penitential degradation, but no accompanying sanctification or glorification.

So is “Ideal” worth reading? For starters, Rand aficionados owe it to themselves to pick up a copy. Where more general audiences are concerned, this recommendation still holds: like “We the Living,” “Ideal” might actually prove a pleasant surprise for those whose only encounters with Rand’s work have come through dust-ups with insufferable “Atlas Shrugged” acolytes. The seeds of Rand’s controversial philosophy are certainly present, but here they don’t flower into anything overtly questionable. “Ideal” raises more teleological questions than it answers – and its reticence to pontificate is, in fact, its greatest asset.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
“Ideal” won’t convert Rand’s critics, but in the tradition of “Anthem,” it’s a surprisingly accessible parable.

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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Historical


Literature Commentary: Go Set a Watchman

Literature Commentary: Go Set a Watchman

Questions over the legitimacy of its publication aside, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” recently sparked additional controversy: namely, the notion that Atticus Finch – the fictional character whose speeches inspired plenty of young people to go to law school – might’ve been a segregationist. I find literary controversies like this compelling – particularly given the immediate cultural relevance of the issues in play – and accordingly picked up a copy of “Watchman” this afternoon.

In a nutshell: it’s a much more thoughtful, sophisticated story than you’ve heard – even more so than its predecessor.

It’s now the 1950s, and Jean Louise (the narrator “Scout” of “Mockingbird”) returns to her hometown of Maycomb after an extended stint in New York. With the Civil Rights Movement on the horizon, tensions between white and African-American citizens are running high – to the point that a segregationist “council of concerned citizens” has been formed among the town’s leading men.

Worst of all, Atticus Finch – defender of innocents – has been sighted at their meetings.

The narrative of “Watchman” subsequently unfolds through a series of encounters between Jean Louise and figures from her past, each of whom are reacting in different ways to the sweeping cultural changes that surround them. While at times painful to read – though it never lapses into despair – “Watchman” is every inch a worthy sequel to its acclaimed forerunner (though viewers raised on the clear moral contours of “Mockingbird” may be put off by the conceptual thorniness of ‘Watchman”).

Throughout its short length, “Watchman” provides a compelling look at the ever-present conflict between Northern and Southern traditions in America, and in many respects feels surprisingly contemporary. Through her characters’ various arguments, Lee exposits the myriad narratives offered in defense of the South (states’ rights, preservation of a way of life, defense of home and family, cultural identity, resentment of dictates from the federal government on high) and ultimately finds them wanting. In answer, Lee suggests that “color blindness” is the most humanizing attitude one can adopt: in an era of increasingly widespread identity politics, it remains an open question whether her solution will prove to be lastingly salient.

On a more metahistorical level, “Watchman” depicts the collapse of the “white man’s burden” narrative, a state in which white attitudes toward African Americans were characterized by deprecatory paternalism (“of course you’re equal in abstract dignity, but not equal in actual value”). This position, while morally reprehensible in historical hindsight, isn’t actually inconsistent with Atticus’ heroic stand in “Mockingbird” (as seen through the eyes of a child narrator). Indeed, Jean Louise challenges him on this very point: at what point must lofty, idealized conceptions of justice give way to simple concern for one’s hurting neighbor? In exploring these themes, Lee probes the subtle implications of the declarations that led millions of readers to idolize Atticus: it’s disquieting, but in the most challenging of ways.

This is not a story of “disillusionment” per se, as some critics have alleged: at bottom, “Watchman” is a coming-of-age story about the ambiguities inherent in revisiting one’s past. All too often, as one grows to adulthood, the starkly drawn moral narratives of childhood give way to murkiness and nuance. Such is the tension which propels “Watchman” (and indeed, the story can only be genuinely appreciated when juxtaposed alongside its predecessor).

“Go Set a Watchman” isn’t as well-written as “Mockingbird,” and probably could’ve used a harsher editor. That being said, it’s also a much more thought-provoking story, and one that has prompted me to think critically about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on fundamental questions. No man is a perfect saint, Lee illustrates for her readers; all of us have our blind spots, a function of our shared human weakness.

In the end, “Watchman” is a worthy sequel indeed. Recommended.

Though better as a companion piece to “Mockingbird” than as a novel in its own right, “Watchman” is multilayered and moving.

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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Historical

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