Copyright Karen Reedstrom and Thomas Gramstad
Full Context Vol. 9, No. 5 (February 1997)
Kirsti Minsaas is a Norwegian literary scholar who has lectured on Ayn Rand as a literary artist both in Europe and the U.S. She was formerly a stage actress, but is now a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Oslo, preparing a thesis on Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedy. She is also writing a book discussing Ayn Rand's fiction. One of her major interests is the relationship between ethics and literature, two disciplines she believes have been too rigidly compartmentalized by academia. Minsaas presented two lectures at the Institute for Objectivist Studies' Summer Seminar in Philosophy in 1995.
Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas or events influenced your life?
Minsaas: I grew up in Oslo, Norway, in the fifties. My father was a musician, working in the theaters, so music and theatre were important ingredients of my early years, and the area that I initially staked out for my own future life. But academia took over.
Q: Why did you decide not to pursue theater and go into academia?
Minsaas: Let me say it like this. When I first decided that I wanted to be an actress (in the early sixties), it was because I went to the theater and said to myself: "I want to be part of this world". When I decided that I wanted to quit (in the late seventies), it was because I went to the theater and said to myself: "Thank heavens I am not in this play". When I went into academia, it was more as an escape than as a positive alternative. But it turns out that I have been able to pursue many of the same interests that drove me into the theater. So it was a good choice. Although I miss the theater sometimes, its dynamics and the versatility of life it offers.
Q: How did you become interested in Ayn Rand?
Minsaas: Through my brother. He had read Atlas Shrugged and recommended it to me while I was still in high school, but I did not actually read it until I was given a school assignment to write an essay about the relationship between a brother and a sister in a novel. So my career as a literary critic on Ayn Rand started very early you could say. But little did I dream then that this was something I would end up doing professionally. That was very far from my mind or my ambition.
Q: What sort of literature in Norway would you consider "romantic" or "heroic"?
Minsaas: Nothing much, that I can think of. You have to go back to the Viking sagas for that. There is Henrik Ibsen, of course, but his plays are neither romantic nor heroic. Generally, he is considered the father of realism, and in many of his plays he takes a clear critical stand against heroic and romantic sentiments. This is why I find it a bit curious that NBI had Ibsen on their book lists, because there is a lot in Ibsen that should upset Objectivists. In The Master Builder, for example, you have an aging architect protagonist who is driven to his death by a young hero-worshipping woman who makes him climb to the top of one of his buildings with the result that he falls down. And in Ghosts you have a young artist hero who dies from syphilis, a disease he has inherited from his father, suggesting the idea that he dies as a punishment for the sins of his father. This is not to deny Ibsen his rightful place as a great dramatist. As a craftsman he was superb, and his plays are wonderful examples of how ideas can provide material for interesting dramatic conflicts. But his world of ideas is a far shot from Objectivism.
Q: What is the Objectivist "scene" in Norway or Scandinavia in general?
Minsaas: Well, there has always been a strong interest in Ayn Rand in Norway, more so here than in other Scandinavian countries, I believe. But it is largely underground; as in the U.S. she is not part of the public debate. Yet, it is a fact that her novels have been selling well for years in popular bookstores. We have also had an Objectivist campus club since the early seventies. But its activities were seriously disrupted because of the Peikoff-Kelley split. Personally, I am not involved any more, since it chose to take an official stand for Peikoff and ARI.
Q: How do you find academia in Europe, what is their opinion of Rand or Aristotelian ideas? Are they more relaxed and open-minded than in the U.S.?
Minsaas: On the whole, I believe that the academic climate in Europe is much more relaxed than in the U.S., in the sense that it is more devoted to scholarship and less to ideology. The political correctness movement seems to me to be very much an American phenomenon, although it has had some repercussions here too, but not in the same way. But I don't think this has resulted in any greater receptivity to or interest in Ayn Rand. Rather, there might be some hostility precisely because of this, since many will be alienated by her strong ideological slant. Yet, I believe that if a European student wants to write a thesis on Ayn Rand, philosophical or literary, chances are that he or she will meet with less resistance than in the U.S. as long as the approach is scholarly and not ideological.
Q: You are writing a doctoral thesis about Shakespeare. How do Shakespeare and Rand compare?
Minsaas: Well, for me they are both examples of creative genius, having the power to amaze me with the incredible mental power that must have gone into their work.
Q: Are there any important similarities and differences?
Minsaas: The strange thing is that, different as they may seem to be, they are yet very similar in that they deal with the same fundamental issues regarding human existence, particularly on the moral level. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they are both deeply steeped in ancient philosophical traditions. I am not here thinking only of Aristotle, although he certainly is important in both cases, but also of schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism and even Platonism. What we find in the literary works of both Shakespeare and Ayn Rand are fictional explorations of the questions that concerned these ancient philosophical traditions, like: how should one live? what is the good life? what is the role of evil in man's life? why do men fall into tragedy? what is the nature of happiness? But their way of doing this was of course very different. Generally, apart from the fact that Shakespeare wrote dramas and Rand novels, I would say that Shakespeare was a much more openly inquiring writer than Ayn Rand, less dogmatic, closer to Aristotle in fact, less concerned with teaching a doctrine and more concerned with inspiring and provoking the reader to think for himself.
Q: A lot of Objectivists think tragedy in art is automatically bundled with a malevolent sense of life. But I look at a play such as Romeo and Juliet and do not see a tragic sense of life but the author's warning to future parents of warring families whose children may fall in love. Do you think that tragedy can have the purpose of making people grieve about third party characters and shock them into rethinking their own actions in life? That some tragedy is an effort to inspire the audience through the emotion of grief to become better people?
Minsaas: Yes, I believe these are things that tragedy, good tragedy, may do. But more important, perhaps, from an Objectivist perspective, is the fact that a tragedy, to achieve these effects, indirectly must be strongly value affirmative. It is because we sympathize with the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet, because we identify with their youthful and passionate romance, that we get mad at the parents and the feuding families. In this, the story is in fact very much like We the Living.
Q: Why do you think Rand characterizes tragedy this way? Was it limited knowledge or some spiritual bias on her part?
Minsaas: Both perhaps. Obviously she found art that presented the negative aspects of life either very boring or very depressing, preferring art works that gave her the kind of spiritual fuel she made essential in her esthetics. I think we can understand this better if we think of the enormous value such art must have had for her in her own struggle to survive the ordeals of life in Soviet Russia. But then she proceeded to make this into a question of metaphysics, reducing art experience to an opposition between a "benevolent" or uplifting art and a "malevolent" or depressing (or even evil) art and ignoring other possibilities. Hence she came to believe that art should present only positives (virtue, achievement, happiness, success), while the presentation of negatives (evil, failure, misery and defeat) was appropriate only for contrast, as a foil. But the mere fact that an art work presents negatives does not necessarily entail a bad metaphysics.
Even such a horror story as Shakespeare's Macbeth (which definitely has nothing uplifting to commend it) does not project a malevolent philosophy but shows us the self-destructiveness (both spiritually and existentially) of crime. It even ends with the good characters triumphing over evil. So the universe it presents is in many ways just, but not inspiring. Like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment the play is first of all a brilliant study in criminal psychology, showing us that crime has self-defeating consequences. So, before we jump to the conclusion that a negative slant in an art work necessarily entails an evil metaphysics, we must ask, what function does it serve?
Only in some cases, like for example the plays by Samuel Beckett, do we actually have deliberate attempts to present an absurd or meaningless universe. In other cases, there might be some other reason - as in the Shakespeare-plays.
Q: In what way can an appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare add to one's understanding of esthetics? Of ethics?
Minsaas: The supreme value of Shakespeare, I think, lies in his mastery of translating philosophical ideas into drama, of turning different ethical codes into the stuff of dramatic conflict, experienced by thinking, feeling, living human beings. But to fully appreciate this, one has to have some knowledge of both ancient and Renaissance philosophy. Leonard Peikoff has complained about Shakespeare that his characters are not motivated by ideas but by passions, springing up from nowhere. But this is not true at all. Generally, his characters are embodiments of some ethical code or value system. Brutus, for example, in Julius Caesar, is a Stoic, who is destroyed by a rather rigid moral idealism incapable of dealing with the complexities of political reality. And Hamlet was probably meant to represent the code of the courtier that played such an important role in the Renaissance conception of the ideal man and that was popularized through Castiglione's famous book. The Book of the Courtier. What Shakespeare does with him, however, is that he places him in a situation where he comes under pressures that put his code seriously to the test and force him to readjust it to the demands of reality. Thus, Shakespeare's tragedies dramatize in different ways what it means to live an ethical ideal in actual reality, put up against the demands of sometimes complex and shifting social pressures. This, I think, should be of great interest to Objectivists - at least to Objectivists interested in living the philosophy rather than just preaching it to other people.
Q: Each year 500 new works about the philosophical issues in Shakespeare's works are published, but none, even among Objectivists, are doing work on philosophical issues in Rand's novels. Considering what gold mines Rand's novels are, what do you think is the reason for this neglect?
Minsaas: First, let me say that not all these works are about philosophical issues: some of them deal with more purely formal or esthetic issues. But your point remains: why is there so little commentary on Ayn Rand's novels? I believe there are many answers to this question, but a major one is probably that Ayn Rand is in a way victim of her own dual role as a philosopher and a novelist. The reason why there has been so much Shakespeare exegesis is that his philosophy, or his thinking, is contained in his works; there is no shortcut to the meaning of his plays through philosophical essays summing it all up for us. In Ayn Rand's case, those interested in digging deeper into her thinking are tempted to turn from the novels to the essays or to the work done by her philosophical heirs and followers. The result is the neglect of the novels as rich and complex and valuable sources to Ayn Rand's philosophical thought (and also to her style of thinking). There are so many things in the novels never even covered in the explicit philosophy.
Take for example the question of tragedy. This is a topic that has been discussed by a number of major philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; but it is not considered an important philosophical topic in Rand. The word is not listed in Binswanger's Ayn Rand Lexicon; it does not occur in the index for The Romantic Manifesto, nor in Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. And yet, it is so central in her novels and the philosophical vision they convey. In my view, it is only when you start looking into issues like this that you get in touch with Ayn Rand's thinking and come to realize that her vision of life is much richer and much more complex than what is conveyed through the essays or the speeches. As she once answered when asked whether she considered herself primarily as a philosopher or as a novelist: "I consider myself as both - primarily". She could not separate the two activities. Maybe we too should regard her as both - primarily. Instead, we have split her up.
Q: You are writing a book about Ayn Rand. Can you tell us about the topic, scope and progress of this work?
Minsaas: Well, the book will in part be based on the lectures that I have given, but I want to integrate them into a coherent presentation of Ayn Rand as a literary artist, emphasizing in particular the romantic qualities of her writing, both in terms of style and content. Also, I want to discuss the relationship between literature and philosophy in her works. There seems to be a general tendency, even among Objectivists, to downgrade Ayn Rand's literary achievement as compared to her philosophical achievement. My own view is that she was a greater artist than philosopher. In fact, I think her philosophy is in many ways reductive of her own thinking, that her ideas, as presented in the novels, through the characters and events and not just the speeches, are much richer and more fertile than her explicit philosophizing. Or to put it differently, I like her better as a literary philosopher than as a theoretical philosopher. This is something I want to emphasize very strongly. Moreover, as a literary scholar, rather than a philosophical activist, I am more interested in showing her power as a novelist than in proving the truth or significance of her philosophy.
Q: What do you think of Chris Sciabarra's thesis in Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical that Rand's type of novel writing comes from the Russian tradition of Dostovesky, Tolstoy, and the symbolist poets?
Minsaas: I think he is probably onto something. He refers, for example, to the importance of organic unity in her writing, a point I have made too. But I attributed this more generally to her Romanticism, since it was a central idea in Romantic esthetics. It was also important in Aristotle. So there are a number of sources that may have influenced her here. And I do believe (like Sciabarra) that she really was influenced by others, that she did borrow ideas from different writers and thinkers and then synthesized them into her own unique vision. This is not to detract from her originality. It is only to recognize that genius does not work in a vacuum but in a context.
Q: Some people think that there is a big discussion emerging about the nature of virtue, that this is a topic not sufficiently covered by Rand. Can you comment on this?
Minsaas: I think she covered it all right, but again, more as a novelist than as a philosopher. In fact, her heroes are walking embodiments of virtue. And this is why we take interest in them. Several Objectivists have lately emphasized the primacy of value over virtue in Ayn Rand's ethics, but if you look at the novels, it is obvious that she saw virtue as in many ways an end in itself, the source of one's own self-esteem and the source of the admiration we may feel for another human being. When we take pleasure in contemplating the character of Howard Roark, for example, it is primarily because of the virtues he embodies and not because of the values he achieves. And if we consider Ayn Rand's admiration for Cyrano de Bergerac, it seems evident that she regarded greatness of soul as more important than existential success. Conversely, I think that she would have found the story of a man achieving external success but at the cost of virtue as not only boring but morally revolting. But this much being said, there is obviously a lot more to be said about virtue than Ayn Rand ever covered either in her fiction or in her non-fictional writing. Like the contribution of writers and thinkers before her, hers is only a limited, even if important, one.
Q: How does Rand's ethics fit in with traditional subdivisions of ethics in the history of ideas?
Minsaas: I am not quite sure what you mean by this question, but one thing that strikes me is that hers is a curious blend of virtue ethics and principle ethics. The first she may have taken from the Aristotelian tradition, the second from the Kantian tradition. And if she sometimes seems to lapse into duty ethics, I think it is because of the principle orientation rather than the virtue orientation.
Q: I thought Rand was against duty ethics as Kantian. Can you elaborate on your assertion and why you think she tended in this direction?
Minsaas: Yes, I think that although her ethics must be seen as basically belonging in the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, there were two important points in Aristotle she ignored, or failed to understand: his idea of virtue as a habit and his doctrine of virtue as a mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. The first involved a recognition of the fact that virtue is something that must be acquired through practical exercise, by doing; the second involved a recognition of the fact that virtue is contextual, that it must be related to considerations of time, place, manner, motive and so forth. The idea of the mean is not, as many believe, a doctrine of moderation or compromise; it is Aristotle's notion of excellence. If you think of athletes, this becomes clear. To win they always have to steer clear of the twin dangers of a "too much" and a "too little". How to compute this? Well, that is the art of living, and in part contingent upon a not too highly honored word among Objectivists, experience. Ayn Rand neglected all this. The result was that she ended up translating virtues into principles, into categorical imperatives in fact, to be rigidly adhered to as absolutes rather than as habits practiced in a context.
I don't mean to imply that she in any way absorbed this from Kant. But in many ways she seemed to share the same inclination to make morality into an absolute. What she objected to was his altruism (probably taking her cue from Nietzsche), his separation of ethics from personal ends and desires. But even selfishness can be pursued in a spirit of cheerless duty, with an attitude of "price no cost". And there is a certain danger of this in Ayn Rand. But all these are questions that need to be worked out by future Objectivist scholars. This is why I think it is so important to place Ayn Rand's ethics (and the rest of her philosophy) in a historical context and not discuss it as a self-contained system.
Q: Can the nature of virtue be completely addressed and explored through philosophy, or is literature a necessary means in order to fully grasp what virtue is?
Minsaas: I definitely think that literature has an important role to play in showing the nature of virtue, in making it fully graspable, because only fiction can show us what virtue is on a concrete level. And Ayn Rand herself certainly believed this, of course. It was a major reason why she wrote her novels. But somehow, there does not seem to be very much interest in this particular aspect of her writing. Many Objectivists seem to think of ethics merely as the logical base for politics, as something you can use to defend capitalism rather than as a guide for how you choose to conduct your life.
Q: In the last (1996) IOS summer seminar Nathaniel Branden gave an argument saying that many of Rand's heroes are repressors of their emotions. Do you find this is a valid criticism? If so, what aspects of repression do you see in her characters?
Minsaas: Yes, I do find it a valid criticism, but only up to a point. Primarily the tendency toward repression pertains to negative emotions. You have for example the description of Galt's face as being without pain or fear or guilt, as if experiencing such emotions somehow detracts from one's spiritual perfection. It suggests a moral ideal not far from the Stoical wise man, an ideal of rational self-sufficiency unperturbed by passion. Yet, if we consider the character of Hank Rearden, we see a liberating growth that in many ways involves a process of derepression as he comes to recognize the legitimacy of his own passions both for Dagny and for his mills. That is, he becomes free to accept and enjoy his own deepest values, without repressing or suppressing them in any way. So I think we have to make this distinction between positive and negative emotion, since the first certainly was permissible in Rand's moral psychology. It was only the latter she denied. Unlike the Stoics, she definitely encouraged a life of passionate value commitment. The problem is that she did not seem willing to accept that such a life is not just conducive to joy and pleasure but is also vulnerable to the pains of loss and disillusionment, that positive and negative emotions are frequently closely intertwined, so that if you want a full life you have to accept both.
Q: Rand has been criticized for not addressing the issue of moral redemption in her novels. That if a character does "turn around" such as the Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged he dies afterwards. This is not too inspiring. What is your opinion?
Minsaas: I am not sure this is really true. I believe Dominique can be seen as a case of redemption, at least as someone who undergoes a profound moral awakening that, unlike the case of Gail Wynand, gives her a new start. But I think questions like this have to be considered by reference to the context of the novels; that is, we have to ask what function does the tragic ends of the Wet Nurse or Gail Wynand or Robert Stadler serve in the novel's overall conception. Through the Wet Nurse, for example, Ayn Rand gives us a devastating critique of the American college system by showing us its detrimental effects on the mind of a basically bright and decent young boy. This critique would not have been as effective if she had let the boy survive. The scene where Rearden picks him up after he has been shot is one of the most moving in the whole novel. To have him redeemed and then following Rearden to Galt's Gulch would have been terribly banal. It would simply have diverted us to the idea that if only you reform yourself you will be saved. Ayn Rand was desperately concerned to show, through fiction, that ideas have practical consequences, that even if you 'come round' as you say, it may sometimes be too late - as it is for Wynand but not for Dominique.
Q: Is The Code of the Creator a universal ethics that everybody can follow and adhere to?
Minsaas: To some extent I would say yes, since we all have to be producers in order to survive. But this does not mean the same thing for all people. One's hierarchy of virtues must to some extent be adapted to one's specific situation, to one's choice of profession, or one's age, or the conditions of one's society. This is something Ayn Rand does not allow for. Her virtue hierarchy, therefore, tends to be too rigidly fixed, too universalistic. I believe Objectivism has a lot to learn from Aristotle here, who is much more flexible in his account of the virtues, opening up for individual differentiation. The precise set of virtues, for example, will necessarily be different for a soldier or a nurse than for an architect. And it will be different for a young person than for an old person. This is not relativism but simply a recognition of the fact that virtues are contextual. There is a tendency in Ayn Rand to make the producer in a very narrow sense an absolute paradigm of virtue. Also, she totally neglects what we can call social virtues, restricting herself to justice. David Kelley, of course, has tried to set this right through his emphasis on benevolence as a major Objectivist virtue. But again I think we should not be too eager to generalize. There are situations in life that might call for the kind of brutal ruthlessness that Ayn Rand to some extent seems to extol, for example in situations of war or as a necessary quality in the creative genius.
Q: Aside from Aristotle, do you see any other philosophers or writers who could open up for a better understanding of individual differentiation? What about Nietzsche and Stirner, for example?
Minsaas: I think you will have to search primarily in the Aristotelian tradition for the kind of individual differentiation that I have in mind. Although Nietzsche and Stirner are philosophers of egoism, they are not concerned with the problem of relating virtue to one's individual situation the way Aristotle is. Also, it is very useful to trace the history of virtue ethics before Rand, to see how her system compares with earlier attempts to establish virtue hierarchies - beginning with Homer and the Greeks and then proceeding through the Stoics and the Epicureans, the Chivalric codes, the Renaissance ideal of the Courtier to the virtue hierarchies of Benjamin Franklin and Jane Austen. (Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue is a good guide here.) I find this much more illuminating than engaging in endless debates about abstruse technicalities.
Q: Do you think that this tendency in Objectivism could be caused by an over-emphasis on structure and a corresponding underemphasis on process; hierarchy downplaying context, facts or beliefs downplaying method, perfection downplaying growth - or if you will, too much Apollo and too little Dionysos?
Minsaas: No, I don't, since it would imply a conversion of Aristotle into Nietzsche.
Q: In Rostand's play Chantecler the author makes the point that if heroes are ridiculed society breaks down for the worse. It seems to me the play was a warning for the future. This play was written almost a hundred years ago. What was going on culturally then that needed such a warning?
Minsaas: I don't know. There was, of course, a rather dark mood at the time, a sense of fin de siécle decay and decadence, that was extended into this century and strengthened by the atrocities of World War I. But one may very well ponder why the heroic has come under such attack in our century, particularly from the intellectuals, since times of decay or decadence may equally well breed a desire for the heroic, as a counter movement. Why has this not happened? - except perhaps in the rather perverted form of the Nazi movement. (This by the way is something we should recognize as a major reason for the popular appeal of the Nazi ideology, its attack on entartete Kunst, and its cult of an idealizing art that bears a slightly disconcerting resemblance to the Objectivist esthetics. I here refer to the cinematic work of Leni Riefenstahl. This is a fascinating chapter in Nazi history that Peikoff overlooks.)
Q: I believe the same point could be made about revolutionary communist art and esthetics, idealizing the worker as hero, which is similar in sense and style to the Nazi art. Could this be a phenomenon similar to what Rand says about Salvador Dali: that he has a great style and a terrible content; and that perhaps there exist some universal stylistic elements that have to be present in order for some work to appear heroic - and that some of that appearance will remain as long as those elements are present, even if they are combined with a terrible content?
Minsaas: No, not really, since what Rand meant to say about Dali was that he had a brilliant psycho-epistemology but a revolting metaphysics. In the case of Nazi and Communist art, neither is true. The heroism we can observe in their art is (in most cases) marked both by a primitive conception of the heroic and an appalling lack of style or true artistic merit. Leni Riefenstahl is an exception here, and might perhaps be taken as an example of the view you are trying to express, since her heroic appeal definitely has to do with certain stylistic qualities, particularly in regard to selective emphasis. Hers is, we could say, a brilliantly stylized heroics. But it also has to do with content, with her choice of subject. Her most famous film, the documentary from the Olympics in Berlin, 1936, is in many ways completely non-political and all focused on showing great athletics. It was only used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes that were not, I think, intended. So it would be absolutely false to say that her style is beautiful but her content terrible; her great error was that she, probably out of a certain political blindness (it is still uncertain whether she actually was a Nazi) placed her considerable talents in the service of Nazi propaganda. This is the reason why she is still a cult figure and why she is so hotly controversial. Had she been of the mediocre caliber typical of other Nazi artists, she would merely have passed into oblivion.
Q: Do you think that heroic literature (and arts in general) is dead or do you see something of the heroic tradition continuing today? If so, where and in what form?
Minsaas: It is, of course, still continuing in the popular arts, as Ayn Rand pointed out. But in serious literature it seems to be virtually dead. It seems either to be dismissed as unserious, something you outgrow once you are past your adolescence; or it is associated with the Nazi perversion and with Nietzsche's superman. In either case, we need to do some scholarship in this area, to show that the heroic represents an important aspect of moral life and that hero worship represents an important psychological need. But it has to be done with a little more sophistication than has been the case in Objectivist debate so far.
Q: Victor Hugo wrote about average men becoming moral giants. We can see Jean Valjean make choices and go from a petty thief, to an ex-con with a bad attitude, to a morally redeemed entrepreneur who rises above his own selfish needs to save the life of his adopted daughter's lover. We see an ignorant hunchback become a hero, we see a black slave lead a rebellion for freedom in Jamaica. With Hugo's heroes anyone can say "I can be a hero too, he did it and he was no better or even less than I". Victor Hugo was nationally revered in his own time. He lived to see a street named after him. On the other hand, Rand's heroes seem to be ready made geniuses, not the kind of people to appeal to, or inspire, the average man. Do you think that is why there are no streets named after Rand as there was for Hugo? That she doesn't appeal to average Americans?
Minsaas: You may have a point there; yet Ayn Rand does have a large popular appeal, far beyond what you would expect given the intellectual level of her novels. The reason why she has not been generally recognized, I believe, has more to do with resistance from the intellectual and cultural elite, an elite that is not too appreciative of Hugo either. So in many ways, they are in the same boat; only the times have changed. But I do agree that Rand's novels may not have the same power to inspire a will to change, to choose a better life course, as is the case with Hugo's novels. And this is reflected in her esthetics too. What she emphasized there was the kind of art that would appeal to a rational man in need of fuel to sustain his ambition. She did not consider the role of fiction in inspiring such ambition by showing how men may change and improve for the better. Which may have to do with a conception of human perfection as something static, as something largely inborn in fact.
Q: What do you think of Rand's portrayal of the average man in the character of Eddie Willers? At the end of the book we see him stranded in the middle of nowhere. The "prime movers" are all gone and the average man is left helpless without them. Is this a fair characterization? There is ample proof in reality that the average man can take care of himself in times of disaster. A good example of this is the failure of massive bombing of cities during WWII. Average people quickly adapted and innovated to meet the challenges of their disrupted lives. Military experts were surprised that the spirits of the populations were not destroyed but actually rose to the occasion. The bombing tactic was a failure. What do you think of Rand's view of the average man? Did she underestimate him? Should Willers have joined his friends in the Gulch?
Minsaas: I don't think we should regard Eddie Willers simply as a symbol of Ayn Rand's vision of the average man. Again, we have to consider his specific function in the novel. As I see it, the clue to Eddie is the image Ayn Rand paints of him as a captain going down with his ship. He is the man of absolute loyalty and commitment who chooses to perish rather than be saved. Ronald Merrill has suggested, rightly I think, that Ayn Rand was here thinking of men like her father who chose to stay in Soviet Russia in spite of having an opportunity to get out. They simply could not imagine beginning all over again in another world.
Q: Still, none of the "average" decent characters make it to the valley, they all die (Eddie, Cherryl, The Wet Nurse), and in the valley there are only giants, no average decent persons; and the blurb of Atlas Shrugged, presumably approved by Rand and Peikoff, states that the book is about the men who are the motors of the world, also referred to as prime movers in the book. So isn't it accurate to say that one of Rand's messages is that the life and existence of ordinary men depend on great men (a message also repeated in The Fountainhead), and that they will perish without the great men? Many people read Rand as a defender of elitism, a point that is further enhanced if one assumes that differences between people are largely inborn.
Minsaas: Yes, I grant that the novel may convey the impression of a questionable elitism. But we have to dig a little deeper into this. The "average" but decent characters that you mention do not perish because they are useless, but because they do not have the resources to survive in times of hardship or faced with evil. They might even be seen as peculiarly vulnerable, precisely because of their decency, as in the case of Cherryl Taggart. Her death does not merely demonstrate the point that average people cannot survive without the superior men; it shows us something about how evil operates and functions in this world, how it may succeed, short-term. In this way it adds a valuable dimension to the novel's complex of ideas. Ayn Rand needed some tragic casualties to show the evils of the altruist-collectivist system she wanted to attack. So we could see these characters as a continuation of the theme in We the Living that dictatorship kills even the best. The reason why the very best, the giants, are permitted to survive in Atlas Shrugged, has less to do with elitism and more to do with Ayn Rand's belief that she had discovered a weapon with which they could fight: her moral code and, through this code, the withdrawal of any moral sanction of the system that is exploiting them. Also, it has to do with Ayn Rand's struggle to liberate herself from a tragic sense of life. So I believe the tragic lot of the average characters in Atlas Shrugged involves much more than just an elitist philosophy.
Q: What do you think of the writers of the realist school such as Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, or Somerset Maugham? While Objectivists have panned them as not heroic, can it be argued that they give us heroes that inspire us for everyday life? While their characters are not shaking the world with their achievements, they are struggling with and finally facing very difficult inner dramas. For example in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams has his characters struggle with lies they have been living with and the agony it is causing them. In the end they overcome their fears and look at the truth. I find this very inspiring and heroic. Ayn Rand and Objectivism seem to look for heroes to build skyscrapers and slay pirates. Since all of us mostly live in the everyday, do you think this viewpoint is a shortcoming?
Minsaas: I think we must remember here that Ayn Rand did have room for everyday heroics, but it is something she reserved for minor characters. Cherryl Taggart, for example, is fighting a very heroic even if tragic battle to face up to the truth about James Taggart. So she could appreciate this kind of heroics. The problem is that she did not see it as fit material to carry the major plot of a novel. Of course, this was her privilege as far as her own writing was concerned. But it becomes a shortcoming when universalized into an esthetic principle binding on all literature, a norm that excludes the kinds of literature that you refer to where the prime focus is the inner struggle toward truth and self-acceptance that take place in more ordinary people. As consumers of art, we need different types of literature that can hold up to us different views of the world and of human existence, and that may serve different needs in different individuals in different situations and at different times. (Again I adopt what is essentially an Aristotelian viewpoint).
Q: You speak and write English as a second language. Rand and the author Rafael Sabatini wrote in English as a second language very successfully. Can you tell us how great a feat this is since English is supposed to be harder to learn and every language has its own nuances and untranslatable contexts and concepts?
Minsaas: As far as academic writing is concerned I don't think that writing in English as a second language represents any particularly great feat, especially not today where most non-English countries are bombarded with the English language because of the revolution in the communications industry - to the point of threatening a person's ability to master his own language. But from this to write English well in creative writing is, I think, a truly great feat, particularly for someone like Rand who did not know all that much English when she arrived in the U.S.
Q: What's your take on feminism? Was Rand an individual feminist? Are you?
Minsaas: I guess I am, in the sense that I consider a woman as a man's equal intellectually, and worthy of equal rights. But I don't hold this as a fighting position, since I have never felt myself seriously discriminated against in any way. Many feminists seem to me a bit paranoid, and I think that a lot of what has been going on in the feminist movement is embarrassing and in fact harmful to women. As regards Rand, I think she probably felt very much the same way. The intellectual equality of women to men was so self-evident to her that it did not require emphasis.
Q: In what ways does Rand represent a step forward or a step backward for women?
Minsaas: I hardly see how she can represent a step backward given the unusual caliber of her heroines. I can't think of any heroines in world literature that can compete with Dagny Taggart in terms of intellectual power and moral strength and integrity. She is really my favorite of all of Rand's characters, including the males, partly because she is both heroic and believable as a human being without being flawed the way Rearden is. The mere fact of having created such a woman should make her the spearhead of the feminist movement. But it has not, which suggests something about the feminist movement that I don't like to think of.
Q: What is the importance of comedy in art? Is it as important as drama or tragedy or is it regulated to a lower place?
Minsaas: I definitely think it is important in the sense that it serves a legitimate function and satisfies needs not covered by other genres - such as the release of laughter, satirical ridicule, and the pleasure of contemplating a satisfactory solution to the ups and downs of wooing. The reason why it is frequently regarded as inferior to tragedy or serious drama has primarily to do with the fact that it does not and cannot offer the same opportunity for exploring the great philosophical issues of human existence, the life and death issues. Its aim is primarily entertainment.
Q: What do you think of the novels of the early 19th century women writers such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, and why do you think the revival in movies of these books is taking place?
Minsaas: I enjoy both, particularly Austen. I am not too sure about the movie revival, but it might have to do with the fact that many people (both audiences and people in the industry) are tired of the mindlessness and the value vacuum of many contemporary movies and simply go back to great literature for more substance.
Q: Who are your favorite woman characters in literature and why? (Non-Rand)
Minsaas: Let me restrict myself to one: Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter - because of Hawthorne's ability to invest in this sensual and sinful woman a moral purity absent in the Puritan society in which she lives. And because of her proud defiance of its mores.
Q: Who are your favorite male characters in literature and why? (Non-Rand)
Minsaas: Again just one: Hamlet - because of what one critic calls his moral beauty, and because of the quality of his mind, his lonely searching and questioning, his sardonic wit, his earnest desire to do right in a situation where this is practically impossible. He is probably the greatest intellectual hero of world literature; and unlike Ayn Rand's intellectual heroes, we are permitted to share his thoughts, to look into his mind, and not just contemplate him from the outside.
Q: What books or movies can you recommend that our Objectivist audience may not be familiar with?
Minsaas: None in particular, but I do recommend Objectivists to spend more time on classical writers (besides Hugo and Dostoevsky) like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hawthorne, or Austen because there is so much to be had out of these writers in terms of philosophical thought. Like Rand, and unlike most modern writers, they are profoundly concerned with moral issues and conflicts, and explore these issues fictionally in a way that provides valuable philosophical insight. In some cases, they also provide a valuable corrective to Rand.
Q: Could you give an example or two about how Hawthorne and Austen provide a corrective to Rand?
Minsaas: Let me restrict myself to Austen. In Austen's works, we find an emphasis on prudence, involving a fear of excessive romanticism. Yet she was not hostile to romantic values; she only wanted them kept within the bounds of reason. This is very clear in Sense and Sensibility, where one of the sisters is lacking in romantic passion, the other one having a little too much of it. In the ups and downs of their search for a spouse, they finally meet in the middle and win the right man, having learnt to combine sense and sensibility. Not very exciting, perhaps, but yet commendable, and a useful reminder of the dangers of excessive passion. Surely Dominique's and Kira's stormy love affairs are more suited to capture our romantic imaginations, but they are hardly to be recommended as representing the most rational ways of finding a partner in life.
Q: Are there any contemporary philosophers you would like to recommend?
Minsaas: Yes, I strongly recommend Martha C. Nussbaum, since she has done some wonderful work in uniting philosophy and literature as academic disciplines on an Aristotelian basis, arguing for the value of literature as a concretizer of moral philosophy. In fact, she is doing the kind of scholarly work I would like to see more Objectivists do, observing academic rigor while steering clear of academic pedanticism, empty jargon and fads. For anyone interested in both literature and philosophy she is a must. Both Love's Knowledge and The Fragility of Goodness would be good starters.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests other than your profession?
Minsaas: Yes, music (particularly vocal music), ballet, opera and theater - in short, my old profession. And then I am addicted to cats, and I love skiing.
Q: Do you do any creative writing of poetry or stories yourself or do you just study what has already been written?
Minsaas: I just study what has already been written, although the reason why I started doing this was that I wanted to learn in order to write myself; I had no intention of making an academic career out of it. But that, it seems, is the way it has turned out. But I haven't quite given up the idea of writing creatively myself. But first I have to finish my dissertation and my book.
Q: What has been your biggest lesson in life so far that you can share with us?
Minsaas: That you become a true objectivist the day you begin to question the absolute truth of Objectivism.
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