Monday, July 26, 2010

Literary digressions

My good pal Sherman and I struck a deal a few months ago: I'll read The Plague if he reads The Fountainhead. Interestingly, there seems to be more similarities between the two books than you would think at first blush.
Sherman noted:
- They were both published within a few years of each other (Rand's in '43, Camus' in '47)
- They both are inspired as part of their author's response to totalitarianism (Rand to Stalinism, Camus by now should be painfully obviously writing an allegory for Nazified France)
- They both center on strong, professional men
- They both deal with questions of how one should live one's life in light of the world
- They both are written by authors who are a great deal better at thinking of ideas and explaining them than novel-writing with all its plots and stuff
- Both Rand and Camus are not often regarded highly by "hard" philosophy types, despite being enormously influential on multiple generations... far more influential than Kierkegard or Heidigger, to name two that philo majors obsesses over
- Most importantly, La Peste is as important to me as the Fountainhead is to you
Then Sherman scared the pants off of me by saying he wanted to do an "academic exchange" before we met over dinner to discuss. My first attempt at a thematic essay on literature since at least 2004 is thus below...

Both books explore the nature of love though it is neither’s leading lady. Love is an end in itself in The Plague while merely a side effect of principled living in The Fountainhead.

For Camus, it seems love is an ambiguous feel-good emotion which is acknowledged as selfish and secondary to societal obligations and duties. “[H]e knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it” (291). This could be a cover for Camus poor power of description but it is clearly part of Camus’ larger theme that love is second to duty and societal good. Camus is purposefully vague in his descriptions of women, couples, and their connections. Perhaps by relegating women to mere mentions and vague references of ‘wife’ Camus is emphasizing the level of import we are to attach to these attachments. Though Rieux seems somewhat cold and detached from his wife (could just be poor writing?), it is stated clearly that he loves her and misses her. Rambert loves his ‘wife’ as well but as time passes is less and less clear as to why he loves her. Both men struggle with their desire to reunite and connect with their wives – should they be reconnecting with their wives? Rieux does not chasten Rambert’s escape attempts nor condones them: he doesn’t know what is right. He does not know which is the more just end.

From the beginning, Camus established love as a central theme. “Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die” (4). The book focuses on these three themes in particular and how their presence or absence affects the individual. “People linked together by friendship, affection, or physical love found themselves reduced to hunting for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram” (69). Note love is given reverential treatment here with the use of the word ‘communion.’ Since Camus was an atheist was this religious allusion to love meant as a condescension? Absence can make the heart grow fonder but also more vague. The ambiguity and scarce words on the subject are frustrating. Something must fill the gap of love if absent or removed and Camus seems to think that service and duty can. When Rieux challenges Rambert’s zeal for “living and dying for what one loves” by saying “Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.” Rambert jumps to his feet and asserts, “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love” (162-163). Once Rambert discovers Rieux has turned his back on his wife (or at least hasn’t tried to escape), he too turns his back on his escape plans in honor of his greater sense of duty.

The Plague’s treatment of love is simpler and more universally appealing than in Rand. Despite the ambiguity with which Camus describes the feeling of love and the impetus for the attachment, it is clear that love is a respectable and desirable end in itself. “A loveless world is a dead world and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart” (261). Camus strikes a resonating chord with that line. It is true: we have all been there and felt that basic human need. “They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love” (300).

The Fountainhead’s treatment of love may foster a healthier sense of individuality within a couple but its narcissism risks the greater good of society if taken too literally. Self interested behavior would have definitely won out in the love versus societal duty debate for Howard Roark or Dominque Francon. However, love is much more specific in Rand and seems like a more precious and respectable state of being than in The Plague. Dominique loves Roark for what he can do and the honesty with which he lives his life. Roark loves Dominique because she’s hot, clever, and can recognize his worth (aka worships the ground he walks on). Love is a conscious choice. Though this conception of love is more idealistic it is also not an end but a side product of living an honest, rational, productive life. The problem with this is that not everyone is honest, rational, and productive. This hero worship is hard to relate to and sets up unreasonable expectations of what can be achieved or expected out of one’s partner.

“To say ‘I love you,’ one must first be able to say the ‘I.’” It is hard - if not impossible - to honestly accept another's love for you if you cannot recognize your own self worth. Dominique takes time to fully appreciate her worthiness of Roark and thus her circuitous path to ending up in his arms both in the light of day and in the bedroom. This maxim can help remind people in relationships to maintain their individual identities. What does “I love you” mean if you cannot define the “I”?

Rand also goes so far as to speak derogatorily of brotherly love. The more specific love is, the more meaningful under Rand’s view. Ergo, the less specific the more dangerous the ideal of love because it can then become a call to action for the amorphous beast Steven Mallory imagines is personified best by Toohey. Brotherly love can be an excuse to quell any individual action and that is the root of all evil in The Fountainhead. This paradigm is extreme and does not go so far as to explain what happens to the poor and destitute in society if all men acted so purely self-interested.

1 comment:

Ashley Hasty said...

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