Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The importance of orcs

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


I have been reminded of this quote multiple times over the past few weeks, partly because both Tolkien and Ayn Rand have been the subject of recent articles I have read.

Over at Touchstone, Anthony Esolen writes that "When my daughter was young, she would often be asked, not usually by fellow homeschoolers, why she kept reading The Lord of the Rings. I told her to reply, 'Because I want to know what's going on in the world.'"

A similar argument was recently made by Mark Mitchell (my philosophy professor) about Jane Austin: "Austen reminds us of the largely forgotten categories of the lady and the gentlemen. It is her genius to make us aspire to these roles even in a world where such notions are strange and often ridiculed."

Reality, honor, family - that is what these stories give us.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, has no room for such concepts, as poignantly and painfully demonstrated in a recent Salon article entitled "How Ayn Rand Ruined My Childhood."
From what I understood of [my father's] favorite capitalist champion, any form of altruism was evil. But how could that kind of blanket self-interest extend to his own children, the people he was legally and morally bound to take care of? What was I supposed to do, fend for myself?

The answer to my question came on an autumn weekend during my sophomore year in high school. . . . [My dad] and his new wife sat me down at the dinner table with grave faces.

"We were wondering if you would petition to be emancipated," he said in his lawyer voice.

"What does that mean?" I asked, picking at the mauve paint on my hands. I later discovered that for most kids, declaring emancipation is an extreme measure -- something you do if your parents are crack addicts or deadbeats.

"You would need to become financially independent," he said. "You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here."

This was my moment of truth as an objectivist. If I believed in the glory of the individual, I would've signed the petition papers then and there. But as much as Rand's novels had taught me to believe in meritocracy, they had not prepared me to go it alone financially and emotionally. I began to cry and refused.
For Rand's world, unlike Tolkien's or Austin's, is surprisingly unreal. As Whittaker Chambers notices in his review of Rand:
Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy.
Rand's world stands alone, disconnected by the past (the elderly) or the future (children). Nor is she dependent on anyone (dependence, for Rand, is evil), as Chambers notes "Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle." Chambers then continues to assert that Rand owes more to Friedrich Nietzsche than to Aristotle.

In contrast to the classics, which address truth and beauty and good and evil, Rand merely has weak and strong, dependent and independent. Not knowing real self-sacrificing good, she is unable to write about real evil, and her characters are reduced to caricatures. If only they had to face some orcs, then we could truly judge their worth.
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