27 March 2012

The Only Way to be Remembered is to Piss Off Everyone; Or, How to Win Fame and Alienate People

This week’s book is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The same Ayn Rand who is so well-known in the US that I’d rather assumed the rest of the English-speaking world would be aware of her as well, but whose work seems not to have made the jump into the socialistic murder-pit that is Peninsula of Peninsulas. Even the Czechs I asked, largely literary and capitally capitalist, were unaware. I have never felt so ethnocentric in my entire life. The sensation was so overpowering, so all-encompassing that I came dangerously close to experiencing an emotion. For those of you who are not familiar with the book, it is best known for two things. The one we’re going to talk about is the philosophy of Objectivism, essentially the idea that the market will handle all needs whatsoever provided that there is an incorruptible government which can enforce contracts, protect IP, and so forth. And no, I’m not going to talk about the other thing it’s known for. You know… that scene. Feel free to argue it in the comments, if you like, but I’m here for something else.

You will note, no doubt with an overwhelming mixture of shock, anger, and betrayal, that it is not an eBook. Apparently I’m not even trying to stick to the flimsy pretense of promoting my fellow Kindle and Nook guttersnipes and am just writing about whatever I read like the objectivist asshole Ayn has made of me. That (if I may say so) brilliant segue brings us to the thrust of the post, which is to talk about fiction, specifically novels, as a vehicle for the propagation of ideas or philosophies. This is a technique which was more common in centuries past, with things like Philosophy in the Bedroom and Candide taking up special places in our hearts (and, in the former case, often in that secret place near our beds where we put all the things we’re “not” getting off on). However, despite their taking rather controversial views, even (or perhaps especially) by modern standards, they raise none of the ire that Ayn Rand has managed to.

 I’ve contemplated this for a number of years, having read her other major Objectivist tome, Atlas Shrugged, in what ought to have been my formative years. Obviously my first thought was that the concept of a selfishness as a virtue was simply not something people could accept even as a possibility. This is reinforced by the fact that owning a copy of Atlas Shrugged was sufficient justification for being exiled from the dating world, as The Hairpin reminded us in a half-joking article (which is worth a read for the humor if not the insight). And yes, I do read The Hairpin. No, I don’t think that calls my masculinity into question. Well, you know what, I don’t need to justify myself to you with all that weird porn you keep in your bedside table and yes I saw it! Ahem. Anyway.

My point is, Philosophy in the Bedroom is usually (and wrongly, in my opinion) interpreted as a guide to committing dire sins against nature purely for the sake of taking mirthful glee in perversity; surely the idea that capitalism will cure what ails us is not a more repugnant concept than that for a society so obsessed with sexual restraint that at time of writing there are a dozen states with signs that say “good girls don’t” hung in the halls of their public schools? I think not. So I locked this  particular line of questioning up in my head, taking it out every so often to roll it over before getting bored and putting it back again.

When I began to study the history of philosophy after realizing I knew literally everything else in the universe that didn’t involve math, I found that Voltaire’s work with Candide, even more so than his more straightforward philosophy which was or ought to have been more controversial in itself, was not taken well by the body politic. It was, in fact, met with a notable degree of ire. What this tells us, apart from the fact that I am apparently content to draw conclusions from only a couple data points so long as the alternative involves some form of work, is that  we must, perhaps, look to the format. My suspicion is this: People get upset when they go into a book expecting a narrative and instead get philosophy, especially philosophy which disagrees with their sensibilities (which all good philosophy must, not just because its job is inherently to challenge the status quo but because the average person is so overwhelmingly wrong on virtually every subject that writing in agreement with them must of necessity involve monkeys and typewriters, or else the fetid Bard himself), they become rather outraged. This outrage lasts a few generations as one teaches the next to hate the things they hate, and then dies out because who actually gives a fuck?

The moral of the story is this: If you want to be remembered, piss off a lot of people. If you want to piss off a lot of people, write a philosophical fiction piece. If you want to write a philosophical fiction piece, get in fucking line because mine’s getting published first and there’s nothing you can do about it.