I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus.

by Daniel on April 11, 2008

I am responsible for the Ayn Rand/charity beat at Crooked Timber and here’s another story on the subject. This really doesn’t look like it’s going to end up well. A large charitable foundation attached to a bank has given the University of North Carolina Charlotte, among others a donation in return for making “Atlas Shrugged” compulsory reading. Most tragic rationalisation:

BB&T donated $500,000 last year to Johnson C. Smith University to help endow a professorship on capitalism and free markets, with lessons including “Atlas Shrugged.’’ It’s the fourth endowed chair at the historically black college in Charlotte.

“I don’t believe I have to advocate that people accept Ayn Rand’s philosophy,’’ said Patricia Roberson-Saunders, who holds the chair. Roberson-Saunders, who will present Rand with other texts, said students will benefit from reading about a world view held by “people with whom they will have to work and for whom they will have to work.’’


Although the Ayn Rand Institute is quoted as being basically approving of the trend, I think that a decent case can be made to the effect that the article is wrong to say that “While Rand, an advocate of free markets, would support a university’s getting paid to teach her works”. This is essentially a bribe to the university and as far as I can see, taking a bribe to compromise your own vision of an undergraduate reading list doesn’t fit in particularly well with Rand’s particular ethics of self-reliance[1] and independent thought[2]. I don’t even really think that having a university professorship endowed by a charitable foundation is particularly consistent Objectivism but there you go.

It is a bit of a shame that it has to be Atlas Shrugged that gets on the curriculum. In many ways it’s my favourite Ayn Rand novel[3] because I like the sprawling narrative and it’s fun to try to work out who’s who in the roman-a-clef bits where she’s satirising New Deal politics. But it is a bloody long book to force undergraduates through, and it’s not a particularly good introduction to capitalism because the underlying economics of the novel is undermined by the fact that it turns on a few rather daffy science-fiction premises (in particular, a miraculous free-energy machine), and the main idea of “capitalists going on strike” is both pretty incoherent when you come to think about it and utterly unlike any of the real world examples of concerted political action taken by capital-owners (capital flight, lock-outs, business-financed coups). There are a few vignettes in the novel that are basically parables of public choice economics (in particular, the collapse of the worker-run car factory due to shirking) and my guess is that the college course will concentrate on these.

I should probably also make the point that I always make when talking about compulsory religious education (and in passing, I note that Rand was famously and militantly atheist, and that hostility to religion is a pretty important part of her philosophy, which makes the list of famous and successful Randians in that article rather more interesting), which is that this sort of thing is always counterproductive to the educational aim it is trying to achieve. I forget who was that said that there is a moment in a child’s life when he is reading the Narnia novels and some grown-up tells him “Of course, you realise that Aslan is really Jesus” and the kid realises that he can never trust an adult again. As with Pilgrim’s Progress, as with Narnia, as with all such books, the students are going to end up fucking hating capitalism for ruining an otherwise perfectly decent novel.

[1] I also note that the author isn’t much of a Rand student. Ayn Rand absolutely was not an advocate of “free markets”; she was an advocate of capitalism and of monopoly capitalism in particular. Most of the first half of Atlas Shrugged is a bitter satire on antitrust.

[2] In practice of course this meant “independently deciding to agree with Ayn Rand, even on obvious matters of personal taste like whether to smoke cigarettes or not”, but it’s pretty clear that AR was not behaving consistently with her own philosophy here and Socrates and Foucault are not subjected to this sort of ad hominem criticism.

[3] Of course it is a commonplace of people who don’t like Ayn Rand’s politics to insist that her novels are badly written. In the linked article, we get Harold Bloom, whose own prose has the crystalline beauty of geese farts at sundown, providing the standard rentaquote. Rand is a perfectly good novelist, very visibly in the tradition of Victor Hugo (who she greatly admired). She writes long books but so did Hugo. Her characters break off into irrelevant philosophising but so does John Buchan. She doesn’t make any more use of superhero characters or bizarre coincidences than Lee Child. The last half of Richard Wright’s Native Son consists of one character making a political speech and nobody objects to that because it’s a good political speech, and so is Howard Roark’s speech at the end of The Fountainhead (I am not going to defend the radio address at the end of Atlas Shrugged – that one is incomprehensible). Rand writes perfectly decent novels which rattle along at a good old pace and have interesting characters in them; there is also quite a lot of rather good humour (the major plot premis of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” is quite possibly lifted from The Fountainhead). I do think that there are some things which I genuinely don’t like about Rand’s style of writing (I have been promising the big Rand review article since literally the very first days of my blog, so don’t hold your breath), but it’s just not true to say that her books are badly written in the way in which, say, Jeffrey Archer’s are.

[4] It is almost traditional for me to end theselook-at-me-contrarian pieces with a fanfare of footnotes[8] which are a) completely irrelevant and b) not even cited in the text. So I will repeat an old joke of mine on the subject of The Trees, a song by Rush[5] which many have seen as an Objectivist parable. Its allegorical force is rather undermined by a fairly basic point of forestry, which is that maples grow faster than oaks. The oak is one of the slowest growing trees there is. If you planted maples and oaks together, the maples would shade the oaks, not the other way round. The only way that the state of affairs in the song could come about is if someone had planted maple saplings in a grove of mature oaks. In which case all the trees would be screwed anyway[6] because anyone doing that would presumably by doing it as part of a forestry management program that would certainly involve harvesting them at some point.

[5] Apparently this band is huge in the town of Maesteg (municipal slogan “The Wrexham Of The South”), according to “Bash The Rich“, the autobiography of Ian Bone, the founder of Class War. He apparently lives in Bristol and I can thoroughly recommend that book as a read; apparently there are plenty of people mentioned in it who disagree about whether things actually happened that way but everyone does agree that they were all too drunk most of the time for there to be any reliable witnesses.

[6] The maples perhaps would be less likely to be actually destroyed than the oaks, as the woodsman might be planning to tap them for syrup rather than cut them down. However there is no such thing as “oak syrup” and thus no commercial use for an oak forest after all[7] other than for the timber.

[7] I suppose potentially an oak forest is useful for keeping pigs in to feed off the acorns if you want to make pata negra ham, or it might be a stand of oak forest in which you hunted for truffles, but in that case what are the maples doing there?

[8] Actually there is a strategic purpose to the footnotes[9], which is to create enough obfuscation and distraction at the end of the piece to hopefully[11] point the comments section in the direction of a freewheeling and interesting discussion of literature, Ayn Rand and such like, rather than about a dozen earnest “OMG CORPORATE TAKEOVER oF educations BAD MMKAY!”. I mean yes it obviously is, but the fact that it is bad is so unbelievably cut and dried that I just can’t be bothered dealing with the trolls who will presumably pop out to say that it isn’t. Hey ho hum.

[9] A complete lie; this was just a post facto rationalisation, as clearly evidenced by the fact that footnote [8] above is out of sequence as I couldn’t be bothered to change the footnote numbers.[10]

[10] If I composed these posts in Word instead of the WordPress test editor I would have got away with that and it would have been the perfect crime.

[11] A lot of people have a scunner against this use of the word “hopefully” and I don’t understand why.

{ 196 comments }

1

Matthias Wasser 04.11.08 at 9:40 am

I think the Objectivist obligation on the teachers is clear: their vision compromised by the forces of faceless bureaucracy, they must blow it to high heaven. Unless every student comes out of that course a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (one of them, anyway,) the ghost of Howard Roark will be quite disappointed.

Anyway, Narnia.

2

ajay 04.11.08 at 10:35 am

[11] because it can be ambiguous:

“ajay will ask hopefully if we’re going to see this Ayn Rand piece any time soon”

can mean either a) you hope I’m going to ask that or b) I’m going to ask it in an optimistic, expectant way. Using “I hope” instead if you mean a) is unambiguous.
You may well point out that most of the time it’s not ambiguous in context and thus spending too much time on the issue is the sign of a pernickety mind. Well, there you go.

Terry Pratchett is very fond of pointing out things like this.

“My motives are, as ever, transparent”, the Patrician says at one point, and another character reflects that this could either mean you can see right through them or that you can’t see them at all.

3

magistra 04.11.08 at 10:44 am

If we’re going to start on ambiguity, I read the title as meaning ‘I’m going to thank my parents, (who are) Ayn Rand and Jesus’ and have still not entirely recovered from the momentary contemplation of that as a marriage.

4

dsquared 04.11.08 at 10:51 am

yes, that was the joke; “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus” is occasionally seen in stylebooks as a justification for the “Oxford comma” after the last item in a list.

5

ejh 04.11.08 at 11:14 am

I forget who was that said that there is a moment in a child’s life when he is reading the Narnia novels and some grown-up tells him “Of course, you realise that Aslan is really Jesus”

I think I was in my thirties before I realised this. Had my Catholic education made me more devout I suspect I’d have worked it out about twenty years earlier and without having to be told. I sell children’s books now, in a Catholic country. Forget the kids, should I tell the parents what the novels are all about?

I went to see Rush at Wembley Arena in, I think, 1982. Loved them then. But like Ayn Rand, they’re for kids, and intellectually developed but emotionally underdeveloped kids at that. This is probably quite an objectionable thing to say, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

6

Robert 04.11.08 at 11:19 am

I’ve been working (slowly) on blogging on this as well. But my news story link is to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Atlas Shrugged is too badly written. I saw your point about Richard Wright when I read him. LeGuin has her hero’s speech in the Dispossed occur off-camera, so to speak.

I’ve been told that “presently” is not a word, either. So I tend to use “currently”.

7

dsquared 04.11.08 at 11:37 am

thanks very much for the link, Robert! Via one of the commenters below, some substantiation for my claim that Ayn Rand wouldn’t necessarily have been in favour of this; toward the end of “The Fountainhead” press baron Gail Wynand orders his newspapers to print editorials in support of Howard Roark (and rather ridiculously, his printers go on strike as a result, because they are that passionate about architecture criticism). Roark more or less spurns this offer of help, commenting that although it’s clearly Wynand’s right to use his newspapers to push a political message, it’s probably not really an effective way of promoting Roark’s ideas.

I suppose one could argue that this is not so much Objectivism in action as part of Roark’s general character as an ungrateful[1] bastard, because although Roark’s obviously a Nietszchean superman, he’s not really a 100% pure Messiah character like the good guys in “Atlas Shrugged”. But I think it’s at least indicative.

[1] And a pretty stupid one too. There are loads of architectural clients who don’t mind all that much if the aesthetics of your building are out of tune with popular taste if it’s really practical and cheap – factories, the Army, bridges, prisons, grain silos etc. Why on earth did Roark decide that the sensible thing to do was set up a specialist architect’s practice that only ever designed private homes and large showpiece public buildings?

8

Great Zamfir 04.11.08 at 11:44 am

Now that we are covering the topic, can anyone explain to me how that Aslan is Jesus stuff is supposed to work?

I heard it many years after I read a few of those books as a kid, and from what I remember about the books, there was nothing especially Jesus-like about Aslan.
I can’t remeber crucifixions, wine-to-waters, virgin births or whatever. It might be that I will find things if I were to reread the books. But what is the point about a book about Jesus, if the readers do not realize in any way that it is about Jesus unless you tell them?

9

Matthias Wasser 04.11.08 at 12:07 pm

Zamfir, the crucifixion is the central event, more or less, in LWW. The Lion and the Witch agree that she gets to kill Aslan (in a rather gristly method for children, of course) in exchange for some sort of metaphor for sin getting removed from the world. They sanctify their compact with Deep Magic, which is supposed to represent Mosaic law or something.

Then Aslan comes back to life and says ha ha, you chump! My dad has access to Deeper Magic! A rather nasty trick, all in all, what with the reneging on treaties and subjecting young children to such a sight, but we can console ourselves that the Witch probably would have broken the deal if she could, too.

10

abb1 04.11.08 at 12:14 pm

This is essentially a bribe to the university…

Don’t worry. More brilliant ideas attract more bribes on the market of bribes. It’ll all work out just fine.

11

abb1 04.11.08 at 12:16 pm

Hopefully.

12

rea 04.11.08 at 12:21 pm

I can’t remeber crucifixions, wine-to-waters, virgin births or whatever.

Well . . .

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book of the series, Aslan tells the children that although they must return to their own world, they can find him there also (Hooper 123). Aslan says, “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” (Hooper 123). Some of Lewis’ readers wonder what the significance of this statement is and begin to search for Aslan here on earth. Hila, an eleven year old girl from the United States asked Lewis what Aslan’s name is in this world (Dorsett 31-32). His response was this:

“As to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the great Emperor. (3.) gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb…. Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer!” (Dorsett 32)

http://cslewis.drzeus.net/papers/success.html

13

bernarda 04.11.08 at 12:35 pm

Rand’s “Objectivism” just seems to be a hodge-podge of various 19th century thinkers. I will note Lysander Spooner and Max Stirner for example. I don’t know that she ever read these guys, but the similarities are striking.

I enjoyed Rand when I was around 18. By 20 I think I got over it. People would do better to read Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”.

14

Dave 04.11.08 at 1:03 pm

Or Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, or indeed the phone book, which wouldn’t activelytry to render them unfit for society…

15

James Wimberley 04.11.08 at 1:09 pm

I reckon that you can only understand the delirious reality-free extremism of Ayn Rand by realizing that she wasn’t an American novelist but a Russian intelligent.

16

Nick 04.11.08 at 1:10 pm

but it’s just not true to say that her books are badly written in the way in which, say, Jeffrey Archer’s are.
It rather depends to what extent you believe his books to have been ‘written’ by ‘Jeffrey Archer’ . . .

17

Steve LaBonne 04.11.08 at 1:10 pm

yes, that was the joke; “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus” is occasionally seen in stylebooks as a justification for the “Oxford comma” after the last item in a list.

Or “Harvard comma” as we Yanks call it.

18

Great Zamfir 04.11.08 at 1:14 pm

The trouble with the whole “dying and then coming back” thing is that is a basic plot device in so many holywood films. Think of a movie where, half an hour before the end, the powerful hero dies leaving the others confused and in the grip of the Big Evil Guy, only to return because he didn’t really die. Doesn’t really make you think about jesus, does it?

19

richard 04.11.08 at 1:16 pm

the students are going to end up fucking hating capitalism for ruining an otherwise perfectly decent novel.

Given that, to a large extent, the humanities are structurally dependent on the hatred of capitalism, or at least the ‘modern and postmodern conditions,’ this seems like quite a good strategy. Back in the 70s you could rely on them hating capitalism because of injustice, poverty and the threat of a lifetime of wage labour, but these days they grow up knowing about and being comfortable with the ideas that WalMart is evil and the government works on behalf of corporate interests, the Che T-shirts are interchangeable with EastCoast Choppers or Bacon is a Vegetable. How, then, to work them up to accepting post-Marxian critique?

and the kid realises that he can never trust an adult again
best thing I’ve read all day. Never trust anyone who tries to push C. S. Lewis on you. What about when the kid realises Tolkien’s orcs are Turks/Boche/early modern proletariat?

there is no such thing as “oak syrup” and thus no commercial use for an oak forest after all[7] other than for the timber
Oak can be quite successfully coppiced, so timber does not have to equal tree death. Growth rate is extremely slow and there are no longer vast forests of oak awaiting the axe, so the destruction of capital involved in chopping an oak down is starting to look unattractive. See the Globe Theatre project for methods of gathering oak with minimal environmental destruction.

20

bernarda 04.11.08 at 1:24 pm

The Ayn Rand Institute says, “The philosophic source of this viewpoint and its major advocate in the history of philosophy is Aristotle.”

Unfortunately for them, Aristotle also thought of the “state” as a natural entity. “the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature’ (Politics I. 2”

Sorry for using Wiki, but it is just easier for quick summaries.

21

yabonn 04.11.08 at 1:25 pm

Rand is a perfectly good novelist, very visibly in the tradition of Victor Hugo (who she greatly admired).

Hey! You! Put back that Victor Hugo were you found it and step back now! Slowly! MmMkay?

… Apart of that : the footnotes are lagging behind the technology. Still no hyperlinked multiple choices ones? C’mon!

22

Diana Hsieh 04.11.08 at 1:42 pm

The nature of these BBT&T grants seems to be rather seriously misunderstood. From what I’ve heard, here’s what happens:

(1) A professor makes a request for a grant to BB&T, with specific proposals about what they wish to do with BB&T’s money, e.g. teach a course featuring “Atlas Shrugged.”

(2) If BB&T likes the proposal, they make an agreement with the university that the money that they’re donating to the university will be spend as per the grant request.

In other words, the demand that the university teach “Atlas Shrugged” is nothing more than a requirement that the university uphold its end of the bargain, rather than, say, funneling the grant money to the women’s studies department or some new diversity office.

Moreover, none of the BB&T grants make “Atlas Shrugged” compulsory reading. I’ve heard of grants in which all incoming freshmen in the business school are given copies of the book. They aren’t required to read it, however. And BB&T funds courses that teach the book, but no student is required to take those courses.

So what’s supposed to be the problem here?

23

John Meredith 04.11.08 at 2:10 pm

“And a pretty stupid one too. There are loads of architectural clients who don’t mind all that much if the aesthetics of your building are out of tune with popular taste if it’s really practical and cheap – factories, the Army, bridges, prisons, grain silos etc.”

It is rare for any of these to be architect designed, though. I know there has been a bit of a craze recently for ‘bridge architecture’ but generally they are just bunged up by engineers (and all the better for it in many cases). I’m sure there has been an architect designed factory or two but I bet they were pretty much useless.

24

Keith 04.11.08 at 2:19 pm

I forget who was that said that there is a moment in a child’s life when he is reading the Narnia novels and some grown-up tells him “Of course, you realise that Aslan is really Jesus” and the kid realises that he can never trust an adult again.

I think it was Neil Gaiman. At least, he tells a story about the day he realized Narnia was an allegory and how he felt cheated.

25

Brautigan 04.11.08 at 2:20 pm

Of all the dreck through which I was required to slog in my undergraduate studies, “Atlas Shrugged” was the one that made me finally throw up my hands and get the Cliffs Notes. I simply could not make it through an entire chapter without zoning off/falling asleep.

Well, that and The Inferno. But that one was only because of time constraints.

26

Brautigan 04.11.08 at 2:22 pm

OOps, forgive my construction. I certainly did not mean to include Dante in the category of “dreck”.

27

John Emerson 04.11.08 at 2:25 pm

Like Jesus isn’t an allegory. CS Lewis, damn his eyes, took allegory even more meta than it had been.

28

Sam C 04.11.08 at 2:34 pm

The problem is only that Rand was a hack, and that students will benefit far more from reading any of a huge range of alternative texts on her subjects. The influence the BB&T grants have seems to be pretty soft, sure, but it’s nonetheless an influence for the worse.

29

Robert 04.11.08 at 2:40 pm

As I understand it, academic freedom mandates that the teacher of a class decides what is or is not part of the discipline(s) taught in that class. This is not a decision left up to university administrators. These grants are a violation of academic freedom.

At least that’s a view as I understand it.

30

Keith 04.11.08 at 2:51 pm

Speachifying by characters is all well and good but for everyone in the literary world to stop and listen to a 50 page lecture about how they all suck is just way beyond reasonable.

31

dsquared 04.11.08 at 3:00 pm

I also think that there’s a clear line which ought to prevent professors from accepting or soliciting grants that are conditional on specific changes to the education that they give their students. Quite apart from anything, are they going to tell the students they’re doing this? And it’s also, as noted above, arguably contrary to Randian ethics too.

32

Dave 04.11.08 at 3:18 pm

Personally, if someone paid me for the opportunity to point out that their book was full of cr*p, I’d be well up for it.

33

"Q" the Enchanter 04.11.08 at 3:40 pm

I once had a university english prof insist that the correct usage was ‘it is hoped’ (rather than ‘hopefully’); the tension with his prior imperative to avoid the passive voice seems to have gone unnoticed. (NB: Use of passive voice here is not inadvertant [and of course here I’m getting back at my h.s. english teacher who objected to my use of litotes — an objection that did not go not unheeded.])

34

joseph duemer 04.11.08 at 3:42 pm

The pop band Vampire Weekend has a song on their most recent CD that begins, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” It’s quite a catchy tune, though another track’s title is more directly appropriate to blog commenting: “I Stand Corrected.”

35

Matt Weiner 04.11.08 at 3:43 pm

[11] I think the basic problem is that people are selectively down on utterance modifiers. As in comment 31 — dave doesn’t mean “If someone paid me personally” but “I am expressing a personal opinion: If someone paid me.” “Hopefully” can mean “I am hopeful when I say this.”

I see the paper I linked says that utterance modifiers are intonationally isolated but I think it’s pretty clear that they don’t have to be. — “He’s frankly a waste of space” sounds OK to me.

I’m going to assume that the moment someone tells you that Narnia is an allegory must be before you reach the end and [SPOILERS] Aslan tells the characters that they’ve all been killed and gone to heaven except for Susan. That hung a lampshade on it. God that ending pissed me off, and it’s the only thing I remember about it. Further discussion here (mostly I’m whoring that post because I like the coinage “crapstone,” meaning “the last volume of a multi-volume work, which sucks,” and would like to spread it.

36

Picador 04.11.08 at 3:44 pm

What’s the fuss about? Grade schools in the US teach kids math by having them multiply rows of Cheetos and add stacks of Oreos. Now universities are getting kickbacks for altering the curriculum to the dictates of their corporate sponsors as well. It’s all as Ayn Rand would have wanted.

an otherwise perfectly decent novel

Are we still talking about Atlas Shrugged here? By Ayn Rand? Because I tried reading that roll of toilet paper once, when I was relatively sympathetic to the philosophical positions it advanced, and you’re not fooling anyone with your “perfectly decent novel” nonsense. It reads like a Harlequin romance, but with the sex replaced with red-baiting.

37

Dave Maier 04.11.08 at 3:45 pm

Like the other dave says, I don’t know what the big deal is. I would totally read Atlas Shrugged for $500,000. (Although my guess is that Watchmen is better.) The only Rand I’ve read is Anthem, which is officially the stupidest thing I have ever read. I think the point of that book was to stand to Objectivism [TM] as the Narnia books do to the scriptures; but please.

Speaking of Narnia, I read them all as a tyke, and even then I was rolling my eyes at the ham-handed Xian imagery. Good comments from matthias and rea (great quote!). I actually think the thing that did it for me was that when Aslan came back his mane had been shaved off (plus his insufferably infinite melancholy, I suppose). I’m not sure now why that struck me that way, but there it is.

I don’t mind “hopefully,” but what the heck is a “scunner”?! (Where you from, boy?)

38

Doug 04.11.08 at 3:57 pm

The Hitherby link at 1 would be much improved if crossed with Fafblog. Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and the Medium Lobster. Hijinks and novel worlds ensue.

39

lemuel pitkin 04.11.08 at 4:13 pm

utterance modifiers.

Hey, that’s the most useful thing I’ve learned on a blog all week!

On the topic at hand, Ayn Rand is crap. She’s a crap writer, a crap thinker, and influenced in the direction of crappiness, well, everything she influenced at all. And people who like her and her books are vicious halfwits.

“Perfectly decent novel”? Um, no.

40

abb1 04.11.08 at 4:38 pm

…extremism of Ayn Rand by realizing that she wasn’t an American novelist but a Russian intelligent.

That doesn’t explain anything. Nabokov was a Russian intelligent. Similar background, similar life story, but he just happened to have talent and plenty of it.

41

rm 04.11.08 at 4:50 pm

I’ve often wondered what oak syrup would taste like. This is a case of trusting ancient tradition — presumably, the ancient Native Americans tested all the trees, and only maples are suitable. I assume you could tap any deciduous tree in a climate with a sudden spring thaw, so it must be that other saps are inedible. But do we really know? Have we tried getting sap from other trees? Howard Roark, or whatever the character’s name was, would tap the damn trees to find out.

42

Righteous Bubba 04.11.08 at 4:51 pm

“Perfectly decent novel”? Um, no.

As Ayn Rand would say, different strokes for different folks.

43

Grand Moff Texan 04.11.08 at 4:53 pm

There seems to be a lot of “I will pay you cash money to teach the meth-fueled revenge-rants of a self-absorbed bint who never got over not inheriting daddy’s fur farm” going around. I guess pay-for-ignorance isn’t just for think-tanks any more.
.

44

Jacob T. Levy 04.11.08 at 5:03 pm

I don’t recall needing an adult to explain that Aslan was Jesus; pretty sure I got it in LWW, quite sure I got it by the end of Dawn Treader, and still have the lumps on my skull from getting hit over the head with it in Last Battle.

The years of Sunday school might have been enough by themselves, but it’s also true that I only came to Narnia after Lord of the Rings, and I’d read Tolkien’s foreword with its indictment of allegory– which I think I had to look up– so the *possibility* of allegory was in my head before I picked up the first Narnia book.

45

roac 04.11.08 at 5:15 pm

“Scunner” means approximately “feeling of aversion tinged with nausea.” I believe it’s Scots.

I’m with 37 and 44 on Narnia. It’s beyond me how anyone with the faintest acquaintance with Christian doctrine could miss Aslan = Jesus. Of course I was an adult when I got around to them, but still.

As for Rand, I will have no truck with her or with anyone who does. The worst of it is that I have been banking at BB&T because they have a branch a block from my house. Switching will be a pain.

46

ligedog 04.11.08 at 5:52 pm

As a reader of (though not believer in) a lot of libertarian sci-fi I have to say that Ayn Rand falls pretty far below a lot of other authors. The school would do better to teach Heinlein – at least he’s coherent (until Stranger in a Strange Land of course).

47

Aulus Gellius 04.11.08 at 6:29 pm

As with Pilgrim’s Progress, as with Narnia, as with all such books, the students are going to end up fucking hating capitalism for ruining an otherwise perfectly decent novel.

I’ve only read anthem by Ayn Rand (which was at best very imperfectly decent); and fair point about Narnia (though it is not, of course, true that everyone has that reaction); but does anyone feel like this about Pilgrim’s Progress? I read it as an adult, and loved it taking it as an allegory; plenty of people just plain hate it; but I refuse to believe that anyone reads it, and then later goes, “Oh wait, that was allegorical? Shit! I thought Ignorant and Despair and Gospel were just common 17th-century English names!”

It’s popular now to whine about how allegorical meaning makes a work somehow impure, but that’s just because you’re used to modern novels and realism; back in my century (the second CE), we liked to read even Homer allegorically, and thought the better of him for it.

48

Aaron Baker 04.11.08 at 6:37 pm

Well, I remained unconvinced that Rand was a good novelist. I have, I admit, only limited evidence to work with: I started THE FOUNTAINHEAD in college, and it was so unrelievedly bad that I couldn’t reach pg. 100. I can also recall an anti-environmental screed in which a hypothetical young family man was reduced to penury, all for the sake of some wretched pelican. With those examples indelibly imprinted, I don’t think anything would convince me to seek out more.

49

Righteous Bubba 04.11.08 at 6:50 pm

I started THE FOUNTAINHEAD in college, and it was so unrelievedly bad that I couldn’t reach pg. 100.

I think I bailed out on two of her books in under a hundred pages each, maybe sixty. There should be some sort of Ayn Rand Insensibility index determined by pages read.

I think my fastest defeat was at the hands of Philip Pullman and the Golden Compass: I lasted a page. Now that I look at it again it doesn’t seem all that awful but following on the Harry Potter heels didn’t help.

50

Mitch 04.11.08 at 6:55 pm


What about when the kid realises Tolkien’s orcs are Turks/Boche/early modern proletariat?

What? … Do you mean it was all about…?

God damn you.

51

Grand Moff Texan 04.11.08 at 7:16 pm

I actually made it through both “Anthem” and “We the Living,” the latter having qualified me for martyr status in some societies. They were both crap.
.

52

rea 04.11.08 at 7:21 pm

Why on earth did Roark decide that the sensible thing to do was set up a specialist architect’s practice that only ever designed private homes and large showpiece public buildings?

Good question; however, Roark of course is Frank Lloyd Wright, more-or-less, and that’s what Wright did.

53

roac 04.11.08 at 7:21 pm

I am with #47 in not objecting to the allegory in Narnia per se. But the way it is done is pretty ham-handed.

The Lord of the Rings is superior to Narnia in proportion as its Christian subtext is less blatant.

54

Doctor Slack 04.11.08 at 7:23 pm

If it’s any help to Dsquared, I found Rand’s prose ludicrous, her plots insipid and her characters laughable long before I understood how vile her politics and incoherent her “philosophy” were. And a lot of Hugo’s appeal stems from his intelligent treatments of social issues, which puts Rand “visibly in his tradition” to about the same extent that Kenny G is “visibly in the tradition” of Charlie Parker.

55

engels 04.11.08 at 7:28 pm

it’s just not true to say that her books are badly written in the way in which, say, Jeffrey Archer’s are

Whose are? They still suck…

56

freight train 04.11.08 at 7:35 pm

There is such a word as “presently;” it’s just that it means “in the near future,” not “currently.”

57

mollymooly 04.11.08 at 7:41 pm

I remember reading The Land of Far Beyond, Enid Blyton’s kids’-version of Pilgrim’s Progress. When the kids get to the City of Happiness, this dude called Jesus turns up and takes their Burdens off their backs. I laughed — it seemed so random to have a Bible character in an Adventure story. Like when Leonard Rossiter turns up in 2001: a Space Odyssey.

58

Righteous Bubba 04.11.08 at 7:54 pm

There is such a word as “presently;” it’s just that it means “in the near future,” not “currently.”

English, for good or ill, moves on and “presently” can mean “currently”. Since I’m using Princeton as a reference feel free to blame Americans for ruining the word.

59

Matthew Kuzma 04.11.08 at 8:12 pm

I had a niece who recently found out there’s no such thing as Santa (a little too late, I might add) and to her credit she immediately picked up on the pattern. “If Santa isn’t real, then the Easter Bunny isn’t real, and God isn’t real!”. Good job.

60

nick s 04.11.08 at 8:23 pm

Are we still talking about Atlas Shrugged here? By Ayn Rand? Because I tried reading that roll of toilet paper once

Which reminds me of the half-a-paperback of Atlas Shrugged that I once saw in a college toilet.

And yeah, it’s a bad novel, written by a bad writer. Saying that similar incidents of badness can be found in better novels is no mitigation.

61

engels 04.11.08 at 8:31 pm

English, for good or ill, moves on and “presently” can mean “currently”. Since I’m using Princeton as a reference feel free to blame Americans for ruining the word.

Much as I usually love to Blame America First, according to the OED, Chaucer was talking this way in 1425.

?a1425 (c1380) CHAUCER tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. V. pr. vi. 122 The science of hym..lokith in his simple knowynge alle thingis of preterit ryght as thei weren idoon presently ryght now.

62

Gene O'Grady 04.11.08 at 8:40 pm

Since no one has picked up the Buchan reference, let me say that I have read all of Buchan’s fiction with contemporary (to him) settings, and I’m sure that it took less time and gave me greater pleause than going through Atlas Shrugged would. On the point about Buchan’s characters going off on tangents, one of Buchan’s virtues is that those philosophical tangents are often, not always, undercut by the flow of the narrative, or what the characters come to understand in spite of themselves — I think particularly of the smug anti-Semitism of Leithen and his friends in The Dancing Floor.

And surely the point of the allegory in Pilgrim’s Progress (one of Buchan’s favorite books, for what it’s worth) is that (at least in my believing moments) I can read it as autobiography — and in the other moments I can see how it might be read that way. By the way, people in the 17th-18th centuries really did have names like that, my favorite being the woman called Freelove whom I found buried near Robert Frost.

63

DCA 04.11.08 at 8:42 pm

I believe that Fowler points out that Shakespeare used “presently” for “immediately” (as in “bring a surgeon presently”), and pointed out how far we had come from that (“the docter will see you presently”).

64

Righteous Bubba 04.11.08 at 8:56 pm

The argument somehow appears to be that the archaic usage was extinguished and harumph.

65

Cryptic Ned 04.11.08 at 9:22 pm

“I don’t believe I have to advocate that people accept Ayn Rand’s philosophy,’’ said Patricia Roberson-Saunders, who holds the chair. Roberson-Saunders, who will present Rand with other texts, said students will benefit from reading about a world view held by “people with whom they will have to work and for whom they will have to work.’’

So we have two scenarios envisioned here by Professor of Objectivism Roberson-Saunders.
A) Students at Johnson C. Smith University will in the future be working with Objectivists.
B) Students at Johnson C. Smith University will in the future be working for Objectivists.

True to form, the notion that Rand-believers could be supervised by non-Rand-believers is not considered.

66

Dave Maier 04.11.08 at 9:52 pm

Re: footnote [8]: your strategy seems to have worked – this is a great thread. On the other hand, and I hate to bring it up, no preview of my comment is in fact appearing as I type. The reason why, I cannot tell. I hope that’s temporary; I always thought that was neat.

67

anonymous 37 04.11.08 at 10:23 pm

Rand is a perfectly good novelist, very visibly in the tradition of Victor Hugo (who she greatly admired). She writes long books but so did Hugo. Her characters break off into irrelevant philosophising but so does John Buchan. She doesn’t make any more use of superhero characters or bizarre coincidences than Lee Child. The last half of Richard Wright’s Native Son consists of one character making a political speech and nobody objects to that because it’s a good political speech, and so is Howard Roark’s speech at the end of The Fountainhead (I am not going to defend the radio address at the end of Atlas Shrugged – that one is incomprehensible).

Right, all of these writers had a single quirk that didn’t manage to ruin their novels, and Rand’s books had all of them.

rea> Roark of course is Frank Lloyd Wright, more-or-less, and that’s what Wright did.

Apparently, Lloyd Wright viewed Rand as a crank and set impossible conditions when she approached him to design the sets of the Fountainhead movie. Also, Wright’s politics can reasonably be defined as socialist: he wanted to give every American a land grant.

68

Matt Weiner 04.11.08 at 10:30 pm

cryptic ned — maybe she just thinks there’s no particular benefit to reading about the world view of the people who work for you.

69

Matt Weiner 04.11.08 at 10:34 pm

Incidentally, to be boring, it looks like the historically black college in Charlotte is Johnson C. Smith, not UNC-Charlotte which has been another recipient of BB&T’s, um, generosity.

70

Righteous Bubba 04.11.08 at 10:37 pm

maybe she just thinks there’s no particular benefit to reading about the world view of the people who work for you.

Or that she trusts her students wouldn’t hire freaks.

71

rm 04.11.08 at 11:18 pm

I think she’s thinking this:
— My students will be sane. Most of them are black, and just about none of them come from not-ridiculously-privileged backgrounds.
— My students will have the benefit of my teaching them to read this crap with a critical eye.
— They will work in law firms and business offices for white right-wing children of privilege, people like Alan Greenspan, because America is not a meritocracy.

I do not think she’s imagining that Randians rule the world through the force of their inexorable will. I would guess she understands well that the ruling class rationalizes their privilege by reading Ayn Rand and making strings-attached donations to schools of opportunity.

72

DarylP 04.11.08 at 11:19 pm

Not pertinent to the subject at hand but just wanted to say “you guys rock”! I followed a link back here from kos (a site that makes me laugh on so many levels – and not in a good way) and stumbled on some of the funniest and most provocative writing on the net – funny in a good way. Honestly, I can’t stop reading. I’ll most likely remain a lurker as you folks have much bigger brains than mine, but mine is just big enough to appreciate your clever thoughts and good humor. Thanks!

73

rm 04.11.08 at 11:19 pm

Again with the failed bullet list.

74

rm 04.11.08 at 11:20 pm

Strike either a “not” or a “none” from comment #70.

75

Flying Rodent 04.11.08 at 11:29 pm

You know, I can’t find the survey with Google, but one did show up this week. Terrifyingly, amongst American men over thirty the Bible was first, and among the other top ten highlights were Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Lord of the Sodding Rings

Funnily enough, Ayn Rand hasn’t featured in any of the British top 100 novel lists I’ve ever seen, and I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t even figure in the top 1000. That’s probably because we’re afraid of success, and fond of communism.

Or – and I just throw this out there for shits and giggles – we don’t have wingnut lunacy forced on us as children.

Either/Or. I suppose it depends upon what your definition of “Art” is.

76

Flying Rodent 04.11.08 at 11:38 pm

I suppose it depends upon what your definition of “Art” is.

Now that I come to think of it, that’s a really snotty line. Sorry about that, but then, I defer to Daniel when he’s talking about economics. Fair’s fair.

77

jenniebee 04.11.08 at 11:45 pm

True to form, the notion that Rand-believers could be supervised by non-Rand-believers is not considered.

Silly #65, you miss the obvious: it isn’t that they don’t think it’s possible, it’s only that to a Randoid, the beliefs of the supervised are irrelevant to the vision of the supervisor.

78

burritoboy 04.12.08 at 12:08 am

“Good question; however, Roark of course is Frank Lloyd Wright, more-or-less, and that’s what Wright did.”

Except that, insofar as Frank Lloyd Wright actually had any coherent politics, he was a mushy Romantic Fabian-esque quasi-socialist of the Edwardian era. Perhaps he had a bit of a libertarian bent, but that was probably more due to the construction laws harshing his particular mellow rather than any principled opposition or philosophy.

79

rm 04.12.08 at 12:17 am

Strike the number 70 from comment #74 and substitute the number 71.

Quitting while I’m ahead, now.

80

Zora 04.12.08 at 4:47 am

I’ve never read The Lord of the Sodding Rings. Is it any good?

81

richard 04.12.08 at 5:14 am

Zora: depends if you like landscape and/or hiking, which is what the book is actually about. There’s also lots of war and fantasy racism, but not many Difficult Choices or Personal Growth, except for Gollum. Watch the movies first: if they don’t make you sick, you might like the books.

82

Paul Gowder 04.12.08 at 6:01 am

You gotta be kidding. You think that horrid woman was a competent prose stylist?!

83

Roy Belmont 04.12.08 at 7:49 am

#75:
“…we don’t have wingnut lunacy forced on us as children…”
Keeping in mind that very few indeed are the responsible parties who willingly and knowingly “force wingnut lunacy” on anyone. It’s mostly just been accomplished by a body of troops in close array who are convinced beyond argument of their rightness in certain basic matters. So convinced of that rightness that it passes through our days indistinct, like the air, like the cycling hum of electricity in municipal wires, invisible, inaudible.
Teachers must believe in their fitness to teach, and the appropriateness of it, but it’s specious and a little ignorant to begin with the assumption there can be no lunacy in your own presentation, or in those you learned from when young.
Many false and error-ridden premises were taught as fact up until quite recently in all our universities and schools, absurdities forced down the minds of young eager students as undeniable fact, in fact.
The commonest excuse for this is our narrowing focus, our clarifying lenses, our archives of erudition and discovery. We’re getting better at it. We’re getting closer to not only the larger truths of where and what we are but to ways of getting at that truth and verifying it that are increasingly larger in scope and more accurate at the same time. Cheers for all that. But there are fundamental assumptions about what’s going on here that are going unchallenged mostly because they’re not spoken, because they’re such basic tenets of reality as we know it they’re unquestioned.
Some of that, some of our unquestioned assumptions about where this is and what we’re doing here will prove to have been mistaken enough to qualify as a kind of lunacy, a blindness of the reason, an internal rendering of the outer world founded on bedrock that turns out to have been made of paste and cardboard and paint, though not specifically wingnut in character.
A little charity for the other side. It’s late, many of them are tired and discouraged, weighed down with compunction and embarrassed regret. It’s charity that distinguishes our myopic self-interest from theirs, or should.

84

Zora 04.12.08 at 8:11 am

I’ve read Lord of the Rings; I was wondering about Lord of the Sodding Rings, which sounds like it could involve landscape gardening. Or perhaps sodomy and cock rings.

Never mind. Guess it wasn’t funny.

85

Nick 04.12.08 at 8:28 am

For a cogent analysis of what The Lord of the Rings is actually about, see this clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDFz3cvTaFw&feature=related
Apparently, it’s really about encouraging us to be quirky and individualstic by all exercising the same consumer choices . . .

86

ejh 04.12.08 at 9:13 am

Like when Leonard Rossiter turns up in 2001: a Space Odyssey.

It’s great, isn’t it? Even better, though, when Captain Mainwaring turns up at the end of Kind Hearts and Coronets.

As a reader of (though not believer in) a lot of libertarian sci-fi I have to say that Ayn Rand falls pretty far below a lot of other authors. The school would do better to teach Heinlein – at least he’s coherent (until Stranger in a Strange Land of course).

I manged to get through the first chapter of Starship Trooper – very much a political speech – and it struck me as very coherent and not at all libertarian.

I don’t know what happens in chapter two.

87

Doctor Slack 04.12.08 at 9:31 am

Or perhaps sodomy and cock rings.

If only Tolkien had had the requisite vision. This would have been a far better book.

88

Sam C 04.12.08 at 11:26 am

Tolkien wasn’t a racist. He did apparently think that whole societies could become corrupted by the desire for power over others and over nature, just as individuals can. But it’s the individuals and their encounter with temptation he’s really interested in: Saruman, Boromir, Denethor, Frodo, Gollum… LOTR is a novel about the effects of power.

89

roac 04.12.08 at 12:00 pm

My main button having been pushed, I can’t not respond. Possibly I can make a post short enough that somebody will read it.

LotR is not a novel, but a romance. Criticism applying standards appropriate to the novel is misplaced.

Tolkien was certainly a racist by instinct, since almost everybody is, but not on principle.

Tolkien was an orthodox Catholic, a monarchist, and a last-ditcher in the battle against literary Modernism, decades after the Modernists had won.

He was not an imperialist or a warmonger either, but a conspicuously humane person. He would have been as appalled as anyone by the Bush administration.

At the center of LotR is a Kantian protest against the universal practice of treating other people as tools to accomplish one’s own ends. The book is intricately constructed and dovetailed to illustrate this theme, of which the Ring is the central symbol.

The central journey in the book is Frodo’s journey toward the realization that Gollum, who is deliberately made a corrupt and revolting as a creature with a soul can be, is just as entitled to humane treatment and respect as anyone else, and is capable of redemption. (The claim that no one in the book undergoes significant change is ludicrous. Frodo is utterly transformed — “sanctified” is the word Tolkien used.)

A lesser writer would have had Gollum reform and prove Frodo right. In fact, we are shown Gollum almost repenting — but Frodo never knows that he was right.

90

Righteous Bubba 04.12.08 at 1:46 pm

I suppose it depends upon what your definition of “Art” is.

I think it depends on what Ayn Rand’s definition of “Art” is, being the correct one of course.

91

novakant 04.12.08 at 1:54 pm

Funnily enough, Ayn Rand hasn’t featured in any of the British top 100 novel lists I’ve ever seen, and I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t even figure in the top 1000.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that Rand is more or less unknown outside of the anglosphere.

92

novakant 04.12.08 at 1:54 pm

Funnily enough, Ayn Rand hasn’t featured in any of the British top 100 novel lists I’ve ever seen, and I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t even figure in the top 1000.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that Rand is more or less unknown outside of the anglosphere.

93

Philosophy Fan 04.12.08 at 2:06 pm

Say what you will about Ayn Rand’s writing and/or philosophy, she certainly had a colorful love life.

For a wonderful parody of the Rand cult see this:

http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/mozart.html

Concerning:

English, for good or ill, moves on and “presently” can mean “currently”.

Definitely for the worse. If “currently” means “now” and “presently” means “in the near future” we have a useful pair of meanings. If “presently” means “now” we have two words for “now” and no words for “in the near future.”

94

James Wimberley 04.12.08 at 3:06 pm

Abb1 in 40 takes me to task for stereotyping Ayn Rand as a Russian intelligent, citing Nabokov as a counterexample.
1. The pre-Revolutionary Russian intelligentsia as a class, cut off from the normal political responsibilities of the well-heeled, seems to me to have been exceptionally prone to extremist ideology and logorrhea. See Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution. Pipes was a good historian once.
2. I obviously agree that Nabokov, unlike Rand, was a writer of real talent and formidable intelligence. But his literary vice is over-intellectualism. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to see some shared national characteristics.

95

engels 04.12.08 at 4:37 pm

I reckon that you can only understand the delirious reality-free extremism of Ayn Rand by realizing that she wasn’t an American novelist but a Russian intelligent.

Yes indeedy because as Richard Pipes has shown deirious reality-free extremism is quite alien to the American national genius…

96

abb1 04.12.08 at 4:43 pm

Hmm, come to think of it, maybe you are onto something here, James. Maybe there is a common strain of snobbery.

97

Demon 04.12.08 at 5:00 pm

ejh:I manged to get through the first chapter of Starship Trooper – very much a political speech – and it struck me as very coherent and not at all libertarian.

I don’t know what happens in chapter two.

Hitler invades Poland.

98

Doctor Slack 04.12.08 at 6:55 pm

Okay roac, I’ll bite:

LotR is not a novel, but a romance.

This distinction doesn’t make sense. The 20th-century fantasy genre — of which Tolkien was not the beginning but was certainly a part — was born specifically as an attempt to update the chivalric romance in novel form. LotR is most directly descended from Eric Rucker Eddison, not Sir Thomas Malory or the Norse sagas; of course it makes sense to critique it as a novel.

Tolkien was certainly a racist by instinct, since almost everybody is, but not on principle.

Racism, and classism, came packaged with the chivalric romance genre. Tolkien didn’t just fail to notice it, he intensified it. The orcs-as-the–proles estimation is dead on, for instance, and for a “conspicuously humane person,” the slaughter-them-all attitude that Tolkien adopts toward these “degraded and repulsive versions of the least lovely Mongol types” is rather noteworthy. Middle Earth also features the imaginary Moors/Saracens of chivalric romance (along with The Hun), but in only one dimension, as largely faceless villains; there’s no trace of the more complex love/hate attitude that pervades much of the European tradition about the Moor, which at least had some room to conceive of the honourable enemy. To Tolkien this complexity was irrelevant*.

(* At which point someone usually quotes the passage in RotK that has one of the hobbits musing over the corpse of a Haradrim, but no. That passage is about the hobbit, not the Haradrim.)

The claim that no one in the book undergoes significant change is ludicrous.

Actually it isn’t, because the truth is the characters in LotR just aren’t that well drawn. It’s nice that Tolkien thought to tell us Frodo was being “sanctified,” but then he rather has to, doesn’t he?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate LotR (it’s still pretty entertaining all these years later), but it isn’t just snobbery that makes people think it doesn’t belong anywhere on best-novels lists. As a novel it has flaws aplenty.

99

roac 04.12.08 at 8:37 pm

LotR is most directly descended from Eric Rucker Eddison, not Sir Thomas Malory or the Norse sagas; of course it makes sense to critique it as a novel.

Begging your pardon, as Sam Gamgee would put it, but this is not right. Tolkien’s project was his own, and he embarked on it as an undergraduate, though none of the product saw the light of day until after is death — the Silmarillion, which I find unreadable though some people admire it.

LotR of course grew out of The Hobbit, which is essentially a joke — the introduction of a member of the Edwardian minor gentry into a “heroic” world cobbled together from various Germanic texts. (Except for the hobbits themselves, almost everything in the book can be referred to a particular source.)

LotR itself was begun in response to the publisher’s insistent demands for a sequel. Tolkien was stuck with the Hobbits, wildly anachronistic as they are. For me as for the general public, their continuing presence is what gives the book its significance.

Tolkien is on record as admiring Eddison’s skill while disliking his viewpoint, which Tolkien chracterized as “cruelty and arrogance.” (Eddison and Rand — now there are two authors with a similar outlook on life.)

Eddison of course has merits Tolkien did not share. If you want vividly drawn characters, you will find them in Ouroboros, though the bad guys make much more of an impression than the good guys. And he was good with sex! Though it is noteworthy that the bad girls are sexy and the good girls are not.

100

bernarda 04.12.08 at 8:39 pm

A much better book than Lotr or Harry Potter is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Johnathan Stroud. It is fantasy but has some very good characters.

101

Doctor Slack 04.12.08 at 8:56 pm

Begging your pardon, as Sam Gamgee would put it, but this is not right.

Sorry, Tolkien’s project was influenced by Haggard, not Eddison. My mistake. But the basic point is that it was part of an emerging milieu of adventure and romance writing in novel form, so claiming that it was not a novel will not hold water.

102

nick s 04.12.08 at 8:57 pm

it’s worth keeping in mind that Rand is more or less unknown outside of the anglosphere.

And only vaguely known in Britain: I don’t know whether the rest of the non-US anglosphere is similarly unacquainted.

103

Sam C 04.12.08 at 9:45 pm

Doctor Slack: I’m not really clear what’s at stake in the novel/romance debate, but the suggestion that Tolkien was influenced by (presumably H Rider) Haggard is a bit startling. Evidence?

On the orcs-as-proles suggestion: Tolkien certainly writes low-level villains as slightly embarrassing stage cockneys (no more embarrassing than Orwell’s, though). More charitably, orcs are working class soldiers, of whom Tolkien had presumably met a few as a WW1 army officer.

On the racism claim: I’ve already suggested that Tolkien is centrally concerned with corruption brought about by power. Orcs are victims of that corruption in others: they’re not (as a racist might claim) acting out their own inferior nature, they’re expressing someone else’s evil will. Again, perhaps, they’re the victims – on both sides – of WW1. But that might attribute more political awareness to Tolkien than seems plausible.

I’m just thinking aloud here, really…

104

rm 04.13.08 at 12:37 am

Roac, I’m mostly with you. It’s much more fun to talk about Tolkien than Rand, anyway. (Though I found out there is such a thing as birch syrup).

I think all four main Hobbit characters grow significantly. Frodo glimpses death and heaven, and he can never recover in this life. Sam changes from a hat-in-hand servant to a leader of men, a patriarch (and, yes, this is a place to begin a feminist reading, but there it is). The two adolescents grow into adults, change from pages to worthy knights.

I also think it matters that this is romance. Most SF and Fantasy is romance. It’s not about the narrative structure, it’s about the nature of setting and characterization — in a romance the setting is an enchanted landscape full of immanent meaning, and the plot is a crucible for moral testing. It rejects the novel’s mimesis of social, economic, and political realities.

I have to agree with Dr. Slack that Tolkien has a lot of unreflective, provincial racist thinking in his story, but before I call him an outright racist I would want to see him act racist in real life. He expressed disgust for racism publicly. I can forgive his subconscious if his conscious mind was in the right place.

105

engels 04.13.08 at 2:15 am

I move that the lack of environmentally sustainable lesbian subaltern voices in Chapter VI of the Silmarillion provides damning evidence of Tolkien’s repressed anthropocentric heteronormativity and that all remaining copies in the Student Union bookshop be returned to the publisher with a strong worded letter of complaint forthwith!

106

rm 04.13.08 at 3:48 am

I want to defend Tolkien’s portrayal of the orcs for a moment. In the era of _The Hobbit_, if you go into the orc caves of Mordor and, like the Goblin haunts in the Misty Mountains or Moria, the jobs have been gone now since the start of the Third Age and Sauron hasn’t come back. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to cannibalism, or civil war, or antipathy to the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, or anti-tree sentiment, or anti-Beorning sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

So, I’m saying that Tolkien really has some sympathy for why the orcs go along with Sauron once he comes back. Consider also that Aragorn spent much of his younger decades (before 60, maybe) living or traveling in Harad (no, really, I think it’s in “Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age” in _The Silmarillion_, but please don’t make me find it) and learning to respect their ways and trying to turn them towards the Good.

107

Dave 04.13.08 at 8:34 am

@105: But what about Galadriel?

108

Nick 04.13.08 at 8:50 am

@105: But what about Galadriel?
Oh dear oh dear . . . Tolkien’s female characters are either domestic invisibles or unobtainably distant princesses with concealed powers . . .
And don’t get me started on all the symbolic castration.
And re Tolkien’s presumed racism, it’s worth remembering that the British educated classes of that time had an endemic anxiety about yellow and brown-skinned people. Whatever the traces of these ideas in the writings, he seems to have notably disavowed such behaviours both publically and privately.

109

Demon 04.13.08 at 12:22 pm

rm wrote: Aragorn spent much of his younger decades (before 60, maybe) living or traveling in Harad…learning to respect their ways and trying to turn them towards the Good.

Like an Anglican missionary in Africa, perhaps?

As for the ‘power corrupts’ theme in LotR, Tolkien clearly presents power in the right hands (inherited power) as a good thing: Galadriel, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragon etc. Sauron’s power (self-wrought not inherited) challenges the established order of things hence its evil.

110

Alex 04.13.08 at 1:02 pm

Why on earth did Roark decide that the sensible thing to do was set up a specialist architect’s practice that only ever designed private homes and large showpiece public buildings?

Er, this is functionally equivalent to the guy in the Tom Lehrer song who qualifies as a doctor and decides to specialise in diseases of the rich. Architecture is unmatched among arts in its dependence on wealthy patrons, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who goes looking to commission something from a well-known architect wants either a luxurious private home or a pompous public building.

111

Alex 04.13.08 at 1:03 pm

Further, Dan, you didn’t specialise in catering to the stockbroking needs of the poor, did you?

112

George 04.13.08 at 2:36 pm

“Oh dear oh dear . . . Tolkien’s female characters are either domestic invisibles or unobtainably distant princesses with concealed powers . . .”

Except for Eowyn.

113

John Donohue 04.13.08 at 3:16 pm

a) assuming India is part of the “non-US anglosphere”, that is where you will find a strong following for Ayn Rand. And why not; that nation, unlike the rest of the anglosphere including the US, is moving towards capitalism instead of thrashing it.

b) crap and toilet paper: shocking lack of diversity in the excoriation of Atlas Shrugged. What’s wrong with you people? Well, maybe it is indicative of where your brains reside.

c) paraphrasing the ubiquitous ‘well it kinda got me when I was a teen, but thank goodness I grew up and now see it is crap.’ Worth noting that the late teen-early twenties is the window when most humans despair of holding their higher visions against cynicism and give up. This coincides with encountering the sink-drain crappy professors who majored in giving up and are qualified for only regurgitation of the party line with the purpose of squashing any high opinion of the United States and/or pure capitalism. Suggest the drop-off in being inspired by Rand coincides not with maturing but with accommodation to the common. For those who never had any affinity (encountered Rand as crap right away), unfortunate you didn’t read her earlier.

d) from the Objectivist point of view, success at funding profs/departments/schools who elect to teach this book is a meager rejoinder — a candle in the wind — to the monolithic bought-and-sold education establishment, largely beholden to taxpayer-funded bureaucrats — and patrons/intellectuals — whose statist agendas dominate. If this be a “bribe” (Daniel) than make the most of it. Unless the statists are suddenly now willing to forgo the Big Bribe.

e) Daniel: >>>[1] I also note that the author isn’t much of a Rand student. Ayn Rand absolutely was not an advocate of “free markets”; she was an advocate of capitalism and of monopoly capitalism in particular. << This is so wrong that I wonder if Daniel really gets Rand at all. If you are going to characterize Rand, you should at least respect her highly visible, highly supported and highly flown flag about this: She proved that capitalism equals free markets and cannot be alienated from that identity. Therefore, she advocates both capitalism and free markets. As such, she consistently condemned coercive (government-driven) monopoly. She would not call the cartel-ized corporate social democracy currently in place in US “capitalism.” If you wish to conflate capitalism with anti-free markets and coercive monopoly, you are free to attempt to make that point. However, it is inaccurate to state that Rand did.

Otherwise, great thread!

Sincerely,
John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

114

THR 04.13.08 at 3:16 pm

Ayn Rand is for idiots who don’t know what philosophy is all about.

Can anyone name a single intelligent Randian? I thought not.

115

THR 04.13.08 at 3:28 pm

In fact, I suspect Rand’s parents would say much the same thing:

http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/incest-couple-had-another-child/2008/04/07/1207420263808.html

116

Dave 04.13.08 at 3:46 pm

[For the record, I was kidding at 107], but seriously, can anyone name a literary figure of the first half of the twentieth century who can’t now be held up to scorn and ridicule for at least some elements of their beliefs? To which we might add the supplementary question, is the ability to stick pins into the flaws of figures of the past really progress?

Meanwhile, at least no one seriously ever suggested refounding society on Tolkienist principles, did they?

117

Mark Wickens 04.13.08 at 4:10 pm

Can anyone name a single intelligent Randian?

Oh, I can name many. Here’s one: Tara Smith.

Of course, if, as I suspect, your criteria for intelligence includes not being a Randian…

118

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 5:49 pm

103: but the suggestion that Tolkien was influenced by (presumably H Rider) Haggard is a bit startling. Evidence?

Uhhh, I do believe Tolkien himself cited She as an influence, but I can’t remember exactly where, sorry.

[the orcs are] not (as a racist might claim) acting out their own inferior nature, they’re expressing someone else’s evil will.

The orcs are acting out the innate nature that was bred into them in ages past by Evil. This sounds to me exactly like something a racist might claim; “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do,” and all that.

It’s not about the narrative structure, it’s about the nature of setting and characterization—in a romance the setting is an enchanted landscape full of immanent meaning, and the plot is a crucible for moral testing.

The crucible and the characters therein still have to be convincing, and “mimesis of social, economic and political realities” is not at any rate a particularly necessary definition of the novel.

110: Can anyone name a single intelligent Randian?

Otherwise bright people who haven’t read much in the way of philosophy can sometimes be conned into taking her seriously. I think Henry Rollins is an avowed Rand fan, for instance.

111: is the ability to stick pins into the flaws of figures of the past really progress?

Sheesh, defensive much? It’s not exactly criminal to point out that for Tolkien to be passed off as great literature is not a sign of progres, right?

119

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 5:51 pm

“It’s not about the narrative structure” of course quoted from 104, not 103.

120

Sam C 04.13.08 at 6:07 pm

Demon at 109 wrote:

As for the ‘power corrupts’ theme in LotR, Tolkien clearly presents power in the right hands (inherited power) as a good thing: Galadriel, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragon etc. Sauron’s power (self-wrought not inherited) challenges the established order of things hence its evil.

Tolkien has a strand of romantic monarchism, sure. But, first, he also has a strong strand of Chesterton-type distributivism – or maybe Ealing-comedy English anarchism – balancing it. Second, he’s concerned that power be in the hands of people who use it well and are alert to its dangers: all of the characters you mention worry about the effects of power on them (consider Gandalf’s or Galadriel’s response to Frodo offering them the ring). Sauron’s evil is in what he does with his power, not where he got it from – or at least I’d like to see some textual or biographical evidence otherwise.

I’m not really concerned to defend Tolkien against the charge of having (gasp!) the wrong politics, or to suggest ‘refounding society on Tolkienist principles’ (thanks Dave). But LOTR is a lot richer and more subtle than is being made out here. And a hell of a lot more so than anything Rand ever wrote, too.

121

lemuel pitkin 04.13.08 at 6:50 pm

People shouldn’t be so defensive. LotR has a politics; it’s Tolkien’s politics, not just that of his time and place; and it has clear affinities with some major strains of reactionary thought.

None of which is to pass moral judgment on author, or on books or to deny their pleasures; my father read the whole series to me and my brother when we were 6 or 8 years old, I’ve reread them all (and most of the other Tokieniana out there) various times since. But altho the racism of the books needs to be situated in a larger worldview and genre, it’s real and important and needs to be thought about, not dismissed with musty PC jokes as in 105.

(Also, what happened to the preview? i want my free ice cream with sprinkles, damnit!)

122

lemuel pitkin 04.13.08 at 6:54 pm

The orcs are acting out the innate nature that was bred into them in ages past by Evil. This sounds to me exactly like something a racist might claim; “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do,” and all that.

Not might; do. “Sons of Ham,” anyone?

123

roac 04.13.08 at 6:59 pm

The orcs are acting out the innate nature that was bred into them in ages past by Evil.

Yes, exactly. By stipulation, the Orcs have no souls and are not redeemable. (You can see Tolkien twisting and turning in an unsuccessful attempt to deal with the theological implications of this.) they are so for reasons.

It is altogether unreasonable and against the evidence to infer from this that Tolkien believed this about any group of humans in the actual world. Various racists do believe this of various groups of actual humans, but is Tolkien to blame for this? (He was nearly struck dumb with indignation at the suggestion that Germans should be exterminated as inhuman after the war.)

Tolkien clearly presents power in the right hands (inherited power) as a good thing: Galadriel, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragon etc. Sauron’s power (self-wrought not inherited) challenges the established order of things hence its evil.

The issue is how power is exercised. The striking thing about G, E, G & A is that they never, or almost never, compel anyone to do anything. Examples could be multiplied without limit.

“Haradrim” is a plural, by the way.

124

lemuel pitkin 04.13.08 at 7:13 pm

Sauron’s evil is in what he does with his power, not where he got it from – or at least I’d like to see some textual or biographical evidence otherwise.

Well, that’s to say he’s evil because he’s evil, which isn’t interesting and doesn’t do justice to the books.

One of the frustrating things about these debates is that people are so resistant to a critical look at the politics of a book they admire, that they refuse to look at the plain evidence of the text. Inherited power and authority are always the only legitimate power and authority in the books. There’s no ambiguity about this at all.

I’m not really concerned to defend Tolkien against the charge of having (gasp!) the wrong politics

Well,t eh books do have the wrong politics. it’s not something they need to be defended against. Larkin, Eliot, Pound and Yeats are four of my favorite poets; they all have bad politics, too, not only in their lives but very much in their writing. So what? Destructive or reactionary ideas are as capable of artistic expression as any others; sometimes, it seems, even more so.

125

Nell 04.13.08 at 7:31 pm

Thank you for the information on BB&T’s “generosity”; a family member will probably be inspired to move his bank account.

126

Sam C 04.13.08 at 7:34 pm

Some remarks mostly in response to Lemuel Pitkin:

1) You’re right, orcs can be read as ‘sons of Ham’ style racism. I still think that there are good reasons for not doing so – that the theme is better read as a romantic concern for corrupted nature – but I accept that my defence was at best too quick. I’m not sure how to do more to defend that view in a blog comment of reasonable length, though.

2) I’m not being defensive, or resistant to a critical look at Tolkien – I’m enjoying myself thinking the problem through. Sorry if I came across otherwise.

3) my suggestion that I wasn’t concerned to defend the LOTR’s politics was intended as the same one you’re making: it does have the wrong politics, but doesn’t need to be politically right to be good in other ways. What I’m interested in doing is getting a bit clearer (in my own mind if nowhere else) what exactly LOTR’s politics are and how they inform the story. They certainly aren’t as simple-minded as (e.g.) demon was suggesting.

4) “Inherited power and authority are always the only legitimate power and authority in the books. There’s no ambiguity about this at all.” Even if this is true, being inherited isn’t what legitimates power: as roac and I have both suggested, what legitimates power is how it’s exercised. You’re right that Tolkien usually presents the people who exercise power well as also being the people who inherit it (but not vice versa – e.g. Saruman, Theoden). But again, that can be read as seeing the world as corrupted from an original Eden, and renewal as return. I know that can be a reactionary trope, but it’s also a revolutionary one (anabaptists, spanish anarchists, etc.).

127

Eric H 04.13.08 at 8:18 pm

Re: My parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus.

Anyone ever heard the Bloodhound Gang’s “A Lap Dance Is So Much Better When the Stripper is Crying“? The part about Mickey Mouse and Jesus? Ah, memories…

128

Nick 04.13.08 at 9:32 pm

It is altogether unreasonable and against the evidence to infer from this that Tolkien believed this about any group of humans in the actual world. Various racists do believe this of various groups of actual humans, but is Tolkien to blame for this?
roac – the one big problem you have with this line is Tolkien’s declaration (in a BBC interview, I don’t have a citation) that ‘the dwarfs are obviously the Jews’ (or words to that effect). Given Tolkien’s portrayal of the dwarfs as Aule’s imperfect imitation of real creation and their undifferentiated gender we’re immediately into Weininger territory and some deeply unpalatable implications . . .

129

Nick 04.13.08 at 9:37 pm

“Inherited power and authority are always the only legitimate power and authority in the books. There’s no ambiguity about this at all.” Even if this is true, being inherited isn’t what legitimates power: as roac and I have both suggested, what legitimates power is how it’s exercised
Sam, I’m with you up to a point there – look again at The Hobbit’s portrayal of Bard the Bowman and The Master of Esgaroth (a dry-run for Denethor and Aragorn). The former pretty obviously knows how to exercise power because of his lineage, the latter fails to do so effectively precisely becauae he has none to speak of and is driven solely by commercial gain.

130

engels 04.13.08 at 9:58 pm

I move that any comrade found sniggering or making counter-revolutionary jokes–which in any case are not at all funny–about the very serious and highly important project of subjecting Bilko Biggins and Wombles to an earnest, über-geeky PC critique be respectfully advised to work out her or his issues by taking part in group music therapy at once!

131

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 10:02 pm

117: “Haradrim” is a plural, by the way.

I know. Since Tolkien never refers to them in anything other than the plural, I usually just go ahead and pretend this is the singular form as well. (I’m sure it would be possible to construct a plausible singular form from all the info on his languages, but I’m not that fanatical.)

It is altogether unreasonable and against the evidence to infer from this that Tolkien believed this about any group of humans in the actual world.

Ehhh, I find it rather implausible that the constant appearance of tropes like this and like the evils of race-mixing* in his fiction can have no relationship whatsoever to the author’s inclinations, publicly confessed or otherwise. But at any rate, I’m just not that interested in splitting the last possible hair about whether Tolkien the man was an according-to-Hoyle bigot or not. The question was whether there are racist tropes in the books, and the obvious answer is yes.

(* We’re specifically told this is the cause of the deterioration of the blood of Numenor.)

120: as roac and I have both suggested, what legitimates power is how it’s exercised.

And it just so happens that the people with the wisdom to exercise it correctly generally stem from respectable royal lines, unless they’re angelic beings like Gandalf. Even the hobbits come from distinguished stock. So this isn’t much of an answer to Lem’s point.

I still think that there are good reasons for not doing so – that the theme is better read as a romantic concern for corrupted nature

Such an explanation is also perfectly plausible, it just wouldn’t be exclusive of racism.

132

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 10:04 pm

Whoops. The attributions in that last post should be to 123 and 126 respectively.

The Bloodhound Gang are excellent for group music therapy.

133

Sam C 04.13.08 at 11:45 pm

Dr Slack at 131:

“And it just so happens that the people with the wisdom to exercise it correctly generally stem from respectable royal lines, unless they’re angelic beings like Gandalf.”

I addressed that point.

“Such an explanation is also perfectly plausible, it just wouldn’t be exclusive of racism.”

Lots of things aren’t exclusive of racism, right down to liking vanilla more than strawberry icecream. The point is that it’s a non-racist central theme which explains those tropes you’re reading as racist.

134

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 11:54 pm

But again, that can be read as seeing the world as corrupted from an original Eden

This does not count as addressing the point. Whether or not someone there’s monarchist ideology going on has nothing to do with whether they see the world as corrupted from an original Eden. It’s irrelevant.

The point is that it’s a non-racist central theme

No, the point is that concern with corrupted nature is usually a component of racism, and this particular trope is occurring in a work that manifests other obviously racist tropes, so there’s no particular reason to read it as a “non-racist central theme.”

135

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 11:55 pm

(There’s a stray “someone” in there…)

136

Doctor Slack 04.13.08 at 11:59 pm

Actually, to amplify that first paragraph, “seeing the world as corrupted from an original Eden” is not a sufficient reason to prefer an Anabaptist reading of ideas that are much more directly explained as being part of a monarchism that also believed in the Fall.

137

roac 04.14.08 at 12:48 am

We’re specifically told [race-mixing] is the cause of the deterioration of the blood of Numenor.

We are also told that Gondor was almost destroyed in a civil was initiated by those who could not countenance the accession to the throne of an heir with non-Numenorean blood. The rejectionists being quite explicitly the bad guys.

Tolkien’s declaration (in a BBC interview, I don’t have a citation) that ‘the dwarfs are obviously the Jews’

I am not familiar with the interview in question in the published Letters, tolkien says that the Dwarves are reminiscent of the Jews in a situational sense; as being exiles and nowhere at home, and taking on the coloration of the other peoples among whom they are in contact. (My copy of Letters is elsewhere or I would find the reference.)

The passage that has always made me cringe in this connection is from <The Hobbit: There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money . . .”
On the other hand — as I am surprised nobody has pointed out yet — Tolkien was outraged by Nazi racialism, and he had great admiration for a fellow don who taught Jewish history.

138

Tom 04.14.08 at 3:09 am

And it just so happens that the people with the wisdom to exercise it correctly generally stem from respectable royal lines, unless they’re angelic beings like Gandalf. Even the hobbits come from distinguished stock.

Well, except for Sam, who of course is the emotional heart of the book and basically saves the day. There’s certainly a discussion about class to be had here, too, in which Sam would no doubt be implicated (he’s a bit dim at times…is this because he’s a commoner?), but he’s still the major exception to all the royal/inherited power/gentry characters in the book.

Interestingly, though this thread is ostensibly about Ayn Rand, we’ve basically left her behind in order to go into a long, detailed, and intense discussion of Tolkien. This leads me to two conclusions. 1) Tolkien is a rich and interesting writer who, despite his flaws, deserves to be read and discussed. 2) Ayn Rand is not. She is so uninteresting, in fact, that even comment threads on an intellectual, academic blog that attempt to discuss about her work inevitably end up talking about far more interesting things like the genealogies of orcs.

139

Tom 04.14.08 at 3:09 am

sorry, forget to close off my italics there…

140

lemuel pitkin 04.14.08 at 3:24 am

130-

The joke isn’t any funnier the second time, comrade.

141

John Donohue 04.14.08 at 3:39 am

well…Daniel could post and apologize for his error as pointed out in 113e and others could comment on my contention in 113d that it is the monolithic academic culture that is sutured into place ideologically by money, and the BB&T funding of Atlas Shrugged is a tiny knife cut against that leviathan.

142

engels 04.14.08 at 3:53 am

Sorry, Lem. Back to your gnomes and fairies…

143

Doctor Slack 04.14.08 at 3:55 am

136: Yes, Sam would be the obvious exception.

And yes, obviously Tolkien is a more interesting writer than Rand. I take that as a given.

144

Lee A. Arnold 04.14.08 at 4:04 am

In re #116: James Joyce.

145

Douglas Knight 04.14.08 at 4:29 am

I’m sure it would be possible to construct a plausible singular form from all the info on his languages, but I’m not that fanatical.

Haradben.
other people are fanatical for you.

146

Nick 04.14.08 at 8:02 am

George @ #112: Eowyn could I suppose be taken as an exception (& it’s interestng that Tolkien seems to say that skill in warfare is part of the normal upbringing of a princess of the Rohirrim; you’re just not allowed to play for real with the boys) – but he also makes it clear that being a shield-maiden is deeply against the social norms & that Eowyn’s problem is that she’s just not met the right man yet. As soon as she does (sensitive boy, from a similarly dysfunctional family, starved of affection) she falls head over heels and settles down to a life of the higher landscape gardening on a scale suited to a lady of her station.

147

Sam C 04.14.08 at 9:06 am

Doctor Slack:

[My claim that Tolkien ‘can be read as seeing the world as corrupted from an original Eden’] does not count as addressing the point. Whether or not … there’s monarchist ideology going on has nothing to do with whether they see the world as corrupted from an original Eden. It’s irrelevant.

No, it’s not. We’re trying to understand what politics LOTR dramatises. My tentative account is an alternative explanation for the phenomena which you explain by claiming that those politics are purely monarchist/racist, and there’s plenty of evidence for that alternative explanation. For another example: the Shire is an Ealing-comedy England with class and wealth divisions, but also shared values and the possibility of cooperation in adversity, and no obvious monarchy. The final sections of LOTR are about resistance to Saruman and Wormtongue’s industrial corruption of that rural ideal. (Do I need to note, again, that I don’t share these politics? I’m just trying to understand them).

No, the point is that concern with corrupted nature is usually a component of racism, and this particular trope is occurring in a work that manifests other obviously racist tropes, so there’s no particular reason to read it as a “non-racist central theme.”

Even if it were true, which I doubt, that ‘concern with corrupted nature is usually a component of racism’, that wouldn’t show that people who are concerned with corrupted nature are racists (compare ‘All dogs are mammals, therefore all mammals are dogs’). And our argument is about whether the ‘other obviously racist tropes’ are, in fact, racist.

148

Dave 04.14.08 at 10:57 am

One could ask if there is actually anything wrong morally [as opposed to practically] in yearning for a pre-industrial idyll? It is, after all, what those directly confronted by the monstrous transformations of industrialisation did [I give you Icarianism, the Chartist Land Plan, the Owenites, and many others]; as opposed to the alienated intellectuals like Marx who were content to sit through the misery in the belief that it would all turn out alright in the end… [And as we all know, cf. a couple of threads up, it hasn’t, and won’t, not even in the deluded minds of Objectivists, who, like anyone else, cannot make non-renewable resources out of thin air.]

Now, as I said, practically, with 6+ billion people, we’re past that stage whether we like it or not; but I don’t actually see why we need to be constrained to like it, and to look down on anyone in the past who didn’t like it. Unless you really do think that the consumption of fossil fuels is the road to utopia.

And fercrissake, what’s all this cr*p about racism? Sentiments of that ilk were entirely endemic in the first half of the twentieth century; it, in fact, belittles the monumental qualities of the change in public culture that has happened since to think of them as in any way unusual, or indeed as meriting discussion. Especially since, in the matter of JRRT, we seem to have been at the angels-dancing-on-pinheads stage from very early in the thread.

149

Nick 04.14.08 at 11:46 am

One could ask if there is actually anything wrong morally [as opposed to practically] in yearning for a pre-industrial idyll?
Well I think someone needs to point out the impracticality thing to The Countryside Alliance & that enemy-of-the-people Charles von Battenberg . . .

150

rm 04.14.08 at 12:53 pm

Italicus Confringo!

Did it work?

151

rm 04.14.08 at 12:53 pm

No.

152

Peter 04.14.08 at 1:10 pm

Funnily enough, Ayn Rand hasn’t featured in any of the British top 100 novel lists I’ve ever seen, and I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t even figure in the top 1000.

She’d be listed in the top 100 of any US-based list or the list of any organization with a strong pro-US bent. I have a hard time expressing the irony of a novel where the heroes all go on strike being one of the sacred texts of the anti-union movement in the US.

153

Z 04.14.08 at 1:28 pm

I blame Tom. He didn’t close his italics and here we are now.

154

roac 04.14.08 at 1:43 pm

I think I am the non-italics-closing guilty party (137). Mea culpa. Is there anything I can do about it?

155

Righteous Bubba 04.14.08 at 2:20 pm

Double-close them.

156

Righteous Bubba 04.14.08 at 2:21 pm

Dammit! Works elsewhere!

157

engels 04.14.08 at 2:39 pm

At the risk of losing what remain of my right-on credentials, may I point out that it looks fine in Internet Explorer?

Anyway, there is something about this whole discussion that reminds me of this

158

Sam C 04.14.08 at 2:45 pm

I’m enjoying myself, but obviously if I’m boring Engels I should stop…

159

engels 04.14.08 at 4:05 pm

No, don’t stop now. The exploited elf-maidens of Morthgar are depending on you…

160

Doctor Slack 04.14.08 at 5:23 pm

Even if it were true, which I doubt, that ‘concern with corrupted nature is usually a component of racism’,

Oh, you shouldn’t doubt it. It is. The fear of contamination by corrupted matter is a central, persistent theme of racism in just about any era. When supremacists in contemporary America talk about the “mud-race,” this fear of contamination by the corrupt and inferior is exactly what they have in mind.

And our argument is about whether the ‘other obviously racist tropes’ are, in fact, racist.

I have yet to see any effective argument that they aren’t, actually. I dunno, maybe Dave would care to contribute: he can tell us all about how “degraded and repulsive version of the least lovely Mongol types,” the one-dimensional evil Saracens et cetera are all in “angels on the head of a pin” territory as regards racism. Watching fanboisie contort themselves is always a treat.

And fercrissake, what’s all this cr*p about racism? Sentiments of that ilk were entirely endemic in the first half of the twentieth century;

No fucking shit, Sherlock! Dave gets a gold star! Ergo, there is absolutely no call for people to expend large amounts of energy on the task of not seeing the quite glaringly evident racism in Tolkien’s writing.

161

Doctor Slack 04.14.08 at 5:26 pm

“One could ask if there is actually anything wrong morally [as opposed to practically] in yearning for a pre-industrial idyll? “

Has someone said there is?

“as opposed to the alienated intellectuals like Marx who were content to sit through the misery in the belief that it would all turn out alright in the end…”

Hmmm, I seem to recall Marx becoming rather famous for advocating revolution of some sort. I think he even wrote some sort of a manifesto about it or something. What was that called?

162

Sam C 04.14.08 at 5:40 pm

I think this has reached the point of diminishing returns, so I’m ducking out. It’s been interesting: thanks for the conversation.

163

Doctor Slack 04.14.08 at 5:46 pm

Well, on this at least we have comity:

“For another example: the Shire is an Ealing-comedy England with class and wealth divisions, but also shared values and the possibility of cooperation in adversity, and no obvious monarchy. The final sections of LOTR are about resistance to Saruman and Wormtongue’s industrial corruption of that rural ideal.”

Perfectly fine as a description. Honestly, I’ve just been pounding away at what seems to me like denialism about racial tropes, because it’s a habit that annoys me and I see no good reason for it. I’ve not been engaged with any larger project about visualizing the books’ politics; lots of good work has been done on that outside comments threads.

164

abb1 04.14.08 at 6:06 pm

Isn’t there, strictly speaking, a bit of a difference between nativism and racism?

165

lemuel pitkin 04.14.08 at 6:09 pm

Sam C-

It has been interesting. And even tho I’m more on Doctor Slack’s side of the debate, I’ve particularly enjoyed your contributions.

As for Engels, he’s exactly the sort of pompous killjoy he thinks he’s mocking.

166

engels 04.14.08 at 7:04 pm

Oh dear. I didn’t complain that anyone was boring me. I’m happy that you have been enjoying your discussion, but you must realise that it looks pretty comical to outsiders. But I’m sorry if I hurt anybody’s feelings.

167

roac 04.14.08 at 7:37 pm

Dr. Slack: I don’t see anyone denying that Tolkien was in some sense a racist. What those on my side have been maintaining is that (1) he was no more racist than the run of Englishmen of his class and background; (2) his racism was instinctual and not rationalized. To put (2) another way, racism was not the organizing principle of his world-view; Catholicism was.

It is always frustrating to me that discussion of Tolkien ends up so often with its drive-wheels spinning in this particular mudhole, when there are so many more interesting things to talk about.

As for the assertion that longing for a pre-industrial Eden always and everywhere equals racism: I don’t get it. By which I mean that I don’t merely disagree, I don’t perceive the data from which the conclusion is supposed to follow. How do “mud people” enter into the argument about waterwheels v. steam engines? (Not that that is an argument I want to get into.)

168

Demon 04.14.08 at 7:52 pm

Tolkien and Rand have more in common than some think:

i) A romantic belief in superior human beings upon whom civilization depends for its very existence. These great men deserve to control the world benevolently because of their better qualities.

ii) A rejection of the trend of modern society during the 1920s, 30s and 40s toward some form of collectivism or socialism where the needs of the many would outweigh the needs of the few.

Tolkien saw the battle as a futile one; the Edwardian pre-war world he loved disappeared before his eyes and he could only console himself by retreating from the modern world into an imaginary one. Rand lived through a more extreme version of this as the Bolshevik revolution swept away the Russia of her childhood but she showed more fight than Tolkien; she thought that the gifted few could still rout the barbarians from the city but even she depicts in Atlas Shrugged the retreat of the privileged elite into an enclave (much like the Elves holed up in Lothlorien or Rivendell, preserving their noble elevation against a land swarming with orcs and lesser breeds).

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lemuel pitkin 04.14.08 at 8:19 pm

(1) he was no more racist than the run of Englishmen of his class and background; (2) his racism was instinctual and not rationalized.

One of the frustrating things about these discussions is that racism as a pesonal moral failing completely crowds out racism as an analytic category, in more poeple’s minds.

The argument being made by Doctor Slack, myself, and others is that:

* A central feature of LotR is the division of people into a number of distinct races, each with inborn, immutable personal and moral qualities.

* With both races and individuals, visible physical characters are strongly linked to inward moral character.

* Attempts to exercise power or authority above one’s station are almost always disastrous if not outright evil, while those who have properly inherited their authority almost always use it well. (Contra Sam C. at 126, Theoden is not a counterexample.)

* Even among e.g. hobbits, individuals’ traits are generally presented as typical of their lineage or ancestry.

* These ideas have strong affinities with the main currents of what we call racism, or are even constitutive of it.

And, irrelevant with regard to the books themselves, but important in the larger discussion:

* Many of Tolkien’s “races” have rather obvious affinities with real-world “races” — Dwarfs-Jews, Haradrim-Arabs, etc., as Tolkien himself acknowledged.

Finally, it ought to go without saying but obviously doesn’t:

* Most 20th century literature — even heroic fantasy — was not organized around racial types in this way.

Obviously Tolkein wasn’t some “pure” racist who made orcs dark-skinned because he just disliked dark-skinned people. But unmotivated racism of this type *doesn’t actually exist* — racism is *always* rooted in some larger worldview within which it is rational.

There’s a weird faux-naive literalism that comes into these discussions. In a way, it would be nice if there were some other word for “seeing people’s personal and moral qualities as the product of their ancestry and marked by their physical appearance”, since “racism” has become such a red flag that people will go to absurd lengths to deny its presence in works like LotR that are obviously saturated with it.

One can still enjoy the books despite this (I think a lot of the defensive raction from folks like Roac is based on the idea that if they acknowledged the racial tropes in LotR they’d have to give up Tolkien. I like Lord Jim, too.) And of course, there is an important difference between the allegorical racism of LotR and the literal racism of The Bell Curve or whatever. But regardless of Tolkien’s stated personal beliefs, his books are saturated with racial thinking through and through.

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engels 04.14.08 at 9:58 pm

In a way, it would be nice if there were some other word for “seeing people’s personal and moral qualities as the product of their ancestry and marked by their physical appearance”…

It certainly would because whatever else this is it isn’t racism. (The essential concept, namely race, is absent.)

These are reactionary prejudices, perhaps linked to a feudal or religious world view (or remnants of it), which have been held by very large numbers of people until very recently indeed. Try reading Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, for instance. In fact, even today there are well-known experimental studies that show that people routinely allow their judgments of the character, intelligence, etc of people they meet to be influenced by their physical appearance. All very bad, clearly, but it isn’t racism–unless race is involved.

It seems that you are mixing up a large number of progressive kvetches about Tolkien’s world view (eg. points 2-4 on your bulleted list above) and subsuming them all under the category of racism. That makes your case seem very confused.

And these background assumptions are important because I think that racism is in general a much nastier thing that the kind of prejudices you are talking about here and I think that if you define racism in this watered-down way you will also likely be led into error regarding its history, causes and so on.

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engels 04.14.08 at 10:23 pm

The first point on your list, about the division of the people of the world into elves, dwarfs, whatever, is certainly something that can be said to have affinities with racist thought, especially if there are echoes of real-world racial stereotypes. It certainly seems to me like a weird way for any grown-up to view the world, and this is one reason I don’t consider any of this stuff to be ‘literature’ and haven’t read any since I was about 15. However, you could make the same argument about Star Trek, Star Wars and–as far as I know–most other ‘genre’ fiction.

Finally, you do realise that your assertion that, for example, Eliot’s politics (as expressed in his poems) do not diminish the value of his poems is at best a very, very controversial one?

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lemuel pitkin 04.14.08 at 10:35 pm

Hah, Engels, I *knew* I could lure you in.

Anyway, that’s why I left the weaselly option of “strong affinities” with racism as an alternative to the stronger claim.

you could make the same argument about Star Trek, Star Wars and—as far as I know—most other ‘genre’ fiction.

Well then, you don’t know very far. Tolkien’s stuff really does stand out here.

your assertion that, for example, Eliot’s politics (as expressed in his poems) do not diminish the value of his poems is at best a very, very controversial one?

Sure. And yet, I think it’s true. Want to make the opposite case?

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roac 04.14.08 at 10:53 pm

I’m tired in general and tired of this discussion in general. But one more response to Lemuel Pitkin.

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen depicts an aristocratic family living luxuriously on the proceeds of sugar estates, which certainly depended for their profitability on the brutal exploitation of African slaves. If Austen didn’t know this, it was through an effort of will, yet she never manifests the slightest disapproval. (The filmmaker who made the novel into a movie apparently felt the need to set this right.) In full recognition of this blind spot, I choose to regard Jane Austen as the greatest of all novelists in English.

You are not going to convince me that your understanding of the nature and extent of Tolkien’s monarchism/racism (I have to agree with Engels that you are conflating several phenomena under one label) is correct and mine is wrong. I have spent too much time and thought on the subject. But if you did, it wouldn’t change my assessment of his literary merits. Which, in my view are considerable, though certainly not on the same order as Austen’s. That is the view I would love to defend, but here I am, doing the racism number over and over again.

Most 20th century literature—even heroic fantasy—was not organized around racial types in this way.

Do you know, do you not, that Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves were not his invention, but a given of his project? And I invite you to produce an author of Tolkien’s generation who wrote egalitariaan heroic fantasy. (I further require that the candidate have some perceptible literary merit,)
As far as I know Austen’s novels remain in the curriculum of some universities at least. Do you approve?

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lemuel pitkin 04.14.08 at 11:05 pm

As far as I know Austen’s novels remain in the curriculum of some universities at least. Do you approve?

Sure. As I’ve said in every single comment I’ve made on the subject, I think Tolkein wrote good books, that I got a lot out of reading and would gladly recommend to anyone who I thought might enjoy them.

But it’s also true that the racial tropes in his books have strong affinities with modern racism.

We shouldn’t refuse to enjoy art because of its politics. But at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore its politics, because we enjoy it as art. That’s all.

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engels 04.15.08 at 12:03 am

‘Strong affinities with racism’ applies to the elves and dwarfs thing, which imo is a fault but hardly justifies calling his work ‘saturated with racial thinking through and through’.

The other stuff you dragged in is neither here nor there. Yes, Tolkien’s view of the world is archaic, reactionary, superstitious, infused with a nostalgia for a vanished monarchic or aristocratic order which we all know to be deeply unjust. In fact, I’d say that that is blindingly obvious. So much so that criticising him for the lack of social mobility in Middle Earth or the gendered division of labour among hobbits seems somewhat beside the point, and to be as amusingly anachronistic as Monty Python’s anarchist peasant.

Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
[Angelic music plays…]
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king!
Dennis: (interrupting) Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcicial aquatic ceremony!

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Doctor Slack 04.15.08 at 12:40 am

Lem’s done a good job of summing things up. I find it curious that people seem to imagine that acknowledging racism in Tolkien, or in Austen, would constitute some kind of “gotcha” that made their books henceforth verboten. I started out by saying quite specifically that I was NOT saying this, but it doesn’t seem to have taken. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me.

(I do find Tolkien a tad overrated, ’tis true, but this is not the same thing as saying he’s bad or not worth reading.)

I also don’t know where anyone is supposed to have made “the assertion that longing for a pre-industrial Eden always and everywhere equals racism,” but never mind.

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engels 04.15.08 at 12:55 am

Just to be clear: I don’t think that the presence of racism in a artist’s work disqualifies it from being a work of art. If it did, we would have to throw out a large part of what is usually considered to be literature. I do think that there are some political and moral views of which it is impossible to imagine legitimate artistic expression and racism, if taken to sufficient depths, can be one of them.

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SG 04.15.08 at 2:09 am

Yes, Tolkien’s view of the world is archaic, reactionary, superstitious, infused with a nostalgia for a vanished monarchic or aristocratic order which we all know to be deeply unjust.

Isn’t this why we read him?

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John Emerson 04.15.08 at 2:16 am

[redacted]

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John Emerson 04.15.08 at 2:17 am

Try again.

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Ted 04.15.08 at 2:40 am

Hey, can I change the subject partially? I teach Huxley’s _Brave New World_, and there are elements in the book that clearly seem racist (the feelie of the helicopter rescue, the fact that the most fertile ovaries seem to come from Africa, etc) and sexist (all the important characters in the book are men, Lenina is clueless, etc) but it’s not clear to me whether this is because 1) Huxley himself is racist/sexist, 2) Huxley is simply projecting the views of his time into the future without thinking about it, or 3) he’s trying to subtly indicate that some of our prejudices are going to make it into the Brave New World, and that “perfection” is never perfect.

If I could get some evidence for one of these positions, or some other that I haven’t considered, without having to do a ton of reading (his other works, biographies, etc) that would be great for me, and also my students. (I’m willing to do some reading, if someone has a specific something I should read). Can anyone help me out here?

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abb1 04.15.08 at 7:41 am

What about Wells with his Morlocks and Eloi?

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Doctor Slack 04.15.08 at 12:33 pm

Oh, I missed this in 170: “It certainly would because whatever else this is it isn’t racism. (The essential concept, namely race, is absent.)” Actually, race — and particularly the concept of “scientific” race at its height in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — is precisely this kind of concept. It doesn’t have some absolute demarcating line from prejudices about working-class folk with too-low foreheads; it’s just that when you got into the business of factoring in specific markers of “race,” like skin colour or sloped eyes or hooked noses or presumed Satanic ancestry, things tended to get much more virulent.

Long time since I’ve read Wells or Huxley, sorry.

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engels 04.15.08 at 12:47 pm

“There’s no ‘absolute demarcating line’ between racism and non-racism. Therefore, let’s just call everything racism!”

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Doctor Slack 04.15.08 at 12:53 pm

Hey, I wasn’t calling everything racism, you racist, you.

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engels 04.15.08 at 1:09 pm

“seeing people’s personal and moral qualities as the product of their ancestry and marked by their physical appearance”

is not racism, it is something else. The fact that there may not be a sharp line between this other thing and racism does not show that they are the same thing.

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Doctor Slack 04.15.08 at 2:01 pm

I didn’t say it did. However, where one appears, you can pretty reasonably expect to see the other.

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engels 04.15.08 at 2:13 pm

So you are not disagreeing with my claim (‘it isn’t racism’) then. Good.

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richard 04.15.08 at 2:23 pm

Wells was a truly great and epic racist, even for his time and cultural background. On the other hand, he objected strenuously to the genocide in Tasmania, so that’s OK.

Inasmuch as I am interested in Tolkien’s theory of group identity and propensities, as expressed in his young adult fiction(1) I’m interested exactly in the blurry line between race, ethnicity, nation class and political affiliation – partly because these all seem like categories that get blurred together here in the real world.

Clearly, race, ethnicity and nation refer to/identify different groups of people (although, if we can possibly separate the idea of nations from that of nation states, I’m not quite sure what the difference is in imagined community between ethnos and nation). Also, it might (just might) be possible for an individual to disavow their nation (?), but it’s famously not possible for them to do the same with race.

Is there, though, any meaningful difference between the kinds of chauvinism that attach to the three categories? Is there any difference in the things people do or abhor on grounds of race, ethnicity and nation? Is there a reading of Tolkien (whose books are, in the end, immured in ideas of race, ethnos and nation) that can help us understand these categories? Tolkien really doesn’t present us with a discussion of these things: just a world constructed out of them. Can we deduce ideas of personal choice or the tyranny of the superego from a comparison of the Balrog and Gandalf, both of whom are presented as maya spirits with their agendas set for them by higher powers?(2)

I’m thinking that Tolkien doesn’t quite give us the tools to do so, which is why we end up trying to puzzle out his own cultural structures and assumptions, as reflected in his fiction. Perhaps there’s another sort of discussion to have, though: one about the cultural hooks he uses to present his various racethnotional groups and their behaviours: one that takes his categories seriously, for the purpose of discussion, and tries to work out what he is saying with them.

(1) I’m fairly confident in this anachronistic label, since I believe he wrote at least partly for Christopher and was reviewed pre-publication by Unwin’s 11 year old son.
(2) And they end up in some weird fiery passage through death and resurrection, fighting all the way down, in an aside from the main plot, so god knows what’s going on there. Probably religious, like we needed that in the discussion.

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richard 04.15.08 at 2:55 pm

by the way, was I the only one who, on watching the movies, thought immediately of redoing Heart of Darkness from the perspective of Saruman’s Uruks?

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engels 04.15.08 at 2:58 pm

where one appears, you can pretty reasonably expect to see the other

Guilt by association, in other words.

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engels 04.15.08 at 2:59 pm

(I should say that your post #98 is the kind of evidence I would consider for the text being racist. This later stuff, though, which seems to be trying to blur the boundaries between racism and different but related prejudices, I don’t much like. But I didn’t intend to get into this discussion in the first place, so that will be it from me.)

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lemuel pitkin 04.15.08 at 3:38 pm

seems to be trying to blur the boundaries between racism and different but related prejudices, I don’t much like.

But the boundaries *are* blurry, whether you like it or not.

But I didn’t intend to get into this discussion in the first place, so that will be it from me.

We’ll see about that!

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abb1 04.15.08 at 5:10 pm

Boundaries are blurry and there are also various degrees. By lumping it all into a single concept you trivialize it a little bit, I’m afraid. It’s better, I think, to have different terms for different manifestations: stereotyping, nativism, etc.

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Doctor Slack 04.15.08 at 7:12 pm

“Guilt by association, in other words.”

Induction from one was very commonly used to justify and support the other during the period we’re talking about; hence the renewed vogue for phrenology in the early century, for instance. But of course, pointing out the obvious features of the period is dirty pool, since it’s plainly impossible that this cultural atmosphere had any influence on writers. My bad.

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chris y 04.16.08 at 11:46 am

My fave comment from this thread:

I can forgive his subconscious if his conscious mind was in the right place.

So LotR was created by automatic writing? Who knew? andre Breton would be proud.

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