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The Visual Power of Ayn Rand's Fiction

The Visual Power of Ayn Rand's Fiction

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Published by Sherrie G
This essay, by Norwegian literary scholar Kirsti Minsaas, first appeared in the book "The Literary Art of Ayn Rand." It is one of two linked essays in the book by Kirsti Minsaas, which derive from lectures presented at The Objectivist Center's 1995 Summer Seminar. (The organization is no called The Atlas Society and its annual conference is called "The Atlas Summit.") Together, these present a thorough exploration of Rand’s method of “slanted realism.” In this essay Minsaas delves into the visual and cinematographic elements of Rand’s technique. She highlights the symbolic and integrated role that visual descriptions of setting, characters, and physical movement play in Rand’s fiction, and shows how Rand employs a language that is both precisely descriptive and highly connotative to imbue the narrative with emotional resonance and symbolic meaning.
Minsaas continues her discussion of Rand’s “slanted realism” in the second essay (to be published on this Scribd channel) “The Stylization of Mind in Ayn Rand’s Fiction.” Minsaas notes that although Rand stood against the psychological turn in 20th-century fiction exemplified by stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, she brought imagination and a variety of effective techniques to the task of representing human psychology and conscious experience on her own terms. Indeed, we come away from this essay looking at Rand’s writing not as distant from the inner life of her characters, but rather as extensively imbued with their perspectives, memories, thoughts, values, and emotions.

For more on Objectivism see: http://www.atlassociety.org/objectivism

For more on Atlas Shrugged see: http://www.atlassociety.org/atlas-shrugged

For more on Ayn Rand see: http://www.atlassociety.org/ayn-rand
This essay, by Norwegian literary scholar Kirsti Minsaas, first appeared in the book "The Literary Art of Ayn Rand." It is one of two linked essays in the book by Kirsti Minsaas, which derive from lectures presented at The Objectivist Center's 1995 Summer Seminar. (The organization is no called The Atlas Society and its annual conference is called "The Atlas Summit.") Together, these present a thorough exploration of Rand’s method of “slanted realism.” In this essay Minsaas delves into the visual and cinematographic elements of Rand’s technique. She highlights the symbolic and integrated role that visual descriptions of setting, characters, and physical movement play in Rand’s fiction, and shows how Rand employs a language that is both precisely descriptive and highly connotative to imbue the narrative with emotional resonance and symbolic meaning.
Minsaas continues her discussion of Rand’s “slanted realism” in the second essay (to be published on this Scribd channel) “The Stylization of Mind in Ayn Rand’s Fiction.” Minsaas notes that although Rand stood against the psychological turn in 20th-century fiction exemplified by stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, she brought imagination and a variety of effective techniques to the task of representing human psychology and conscious experience on her own terms. Indeed, we come away from this essay looking at Rand’s writing not as distant from the inner life of her characters, but rather as extensively imbued with their perspectives, memories, thoughts, values, and emotions.

For more on Objectivism see: http://www.atlassociety.org/objectivism

For more on Atlas Shrugged see: http://www.atlassociety.org/atlas-shrugged

For more on Ayn Rand see: http://www.atlassociety.org/ayn-rand

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Published by: Sherrie G on May 21, 2013
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08/07/2013

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The Visual Power of Ayn Rand’s Fiction
Kirsti Minsaas
 He looked as if his faculty of sight were his best-loved tool and its exercise were a limitless, joyous adventure, as if his eyes im- parted a superlative value to himself and to the world—to him-self for his ability to see, to the world for being a place so ea-gerly worth seeing.
Ayn Rand,
 Atlas Shrugged 
A
striking feature of Ayn Rand’s novels is their strong visual appeal. As anovelist, Rand addresses our mind’s eye, inviting us to visualize the events of her stories as if they are actually taking place before our eyes. In rhetoricalterms, her novels are imbued with the special quality ancient rhetoricianscalled
enargeia
, a term literally meaning “vividness” or “distinctness” butspecifically used to denote a “visually powerful, vivid description which re-creates something or someone before your very eyes.”
1
This quality of 
enargeia
in Rand’s fiction is in substantial degreerelated to her commitment to the doctrine of showing over telling in literaryrepresentation. As she stated in her fiction-writing course, “you have to
show
,not tell.”
2
(
 AF 
155) The extent to which this was not merely a theoreticalstance but a working principle informing her creative imagination is suggestedby many of the entries in her
 Journals
.
3
In her notes on
We the Living
, forexample, she defines her assignment in terms of a general “picture” of whatthe novel is to convey:A terrific machinery crushing the whole country and smothering ev-ery bit of life, action, and air.A picture of the state, and those who are the state, strangling theindividual. A picture of the masses showing who and what thosemasses are, their ideas and their rise against the unusual and higherman. (
 JAR
56)
 
146 
The Literary Art of Ayn Rand 
Similarly, in her notes on
 Atlas Shrugged 
, she also conceives of the overallconception in pictorial terms:
Theme
: What happens to the world when the prime movers go onstrike.This means a picture of the world with its motor cut off. Show: what,how, why. . . .The theme requires showing who are the prime movers and why,how they function; who are their enemies and why. (
 JAR
390)The doctrinal foundation for Rand’s emphasis on such “pictorial” show-ing was her belief that an author’s abstract ideas must be communicatedthrough the concretized reality of a story rather than through vague and ab-stract theoretical exposition. Showing, that is, signifies for Rand a mode of philosophical demonstration or objectification—as clearly indicated by thisentry on
 Atlas Shrugged 
:And show that those who despise “the material” are those who de-spise man and whose basic premises are aimed at man’s destruction.. . . —show that these second-handers are not the creators, but thedestroyers of material production. Show that to conquer, control, andcreate in the material realm requires the highest kind of spiritual ac-tivity and the highest type of “spiritual” man.And to go to the roots of the whole vicious error,
blast 
the separationof man into “body” and “soul,” the opposition of “matter” and “spirit.”(
 JAR
551)It is not unlikely that Rand’s desire to show her ideas by means of literarydiscourse is indebted to the philosophical approach to literature that charac-terizes Russian novelists like Feodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Like herRussian colleagues, Rand largely thought of the novel as a vehicle for theexploration of ideas, especially philosophical ideas.
4
Like them, she took whatmay be seen as a visual or pictorial approach to ideas, seeking to convey herideological convictions in the objectified form of a story.In addition to philosophical demonstration, however, showing for Randalso takes on the more narrow sense of dramatization. What is implied by thiskind of showing is not the concretization of abstract ideas by means of thestory but the detailed presentation of the story’s events through dramatic scenesrather than through narrative summaries. However, the two types of showingseem in Rand’s mind largely to merge, with the dramatization serving as avehicle for the demonstration by virtue of its detailed and visually vivid repre-
 
147 
The Visual Power of Ayn Rand’s Fiction
sentation. In a note on
 Atlas Shrugged 
, for example, she writes: “The keypoints which will have to be
dramatized 
(in concrete events,
not 
merely byimplication and exposition): The nature of the
 prime movers’ martyrdom
.That must be
shown
.” (396) Thus, Rand’s insistence that abstractions mustbe shown by means of concretes means essentially that they must be drama-tized.The idea of showing as dramatization is, of course, by no means origi-nal to Rand. Historically, it dates back at least as far as to Plato’s distinction inthe
 Republic
between direct narration (
mimesis
) and mediated narration(
diegesis
)—a distinction which in modern theory is usually rendered as anopposition between showing and telling.
5
But it was only in the early part of the twentieth century, chiefly as a result of the influential writings of HenryJames and Percy Lubbock, that showing was elevated into a popular literarydoctrine. Lubbock especially, who in his book 
The Craft of Fiction
(1921)pronounced that “the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of hisstory as a matter to be
shown
, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself,” set off a vogue for an “objective” or “impersonal” mode of narration that asked theauthor to minimize his presence in the story by dramatizing the events ratherthan narrating them.
6
That is, the author should as far as possible avoid such“intrusive” forms of narration as summaries, commentary, and description sowidely practiced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists like, for ex-ample, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and Victor Hugo and present the eventsmainly through dramatic scenes, stripped of all signs of authorial interven-tion.
7
Although Rand never makes any explicit reference to this modernistvogue for dramatic or scenic showing, she quite clearly absorbed some of itsbasic tenets—as suggested by the following statement: “Fiction is an atheisticuniverse: you are the God who is creating it, but there must not be any God inyour writing.” (
 AF 
103) However, contrary to some of the more extremeadvocates of this view, who believed that the most effective story was one inwhich the author had been totally “effaced” from his work, apparently exer-cising no mediation at all (as Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” exempli-fies), Rand cultivated a less purist form of scenic presentation. What shesought to avoid was the kind of overt commentary in which a narrator inter-feres in his personal voice to explain or evaluate the events, or to discourseupon philosophical, historical, or scientific topics only slightly relevant to thestory. On a less intrusive level, however, Rand permitted certain forms of authorial mediation, aiming at an art of showing marked by a narrator whosepresence can be perceived in several respects.First, although Rand’s scenes are quite numerous, dominating hernovels, she does not rely exclusively on dramatization but chooses (like earliergenerations of novelists) to alternate between scene and summary, practicing

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