Ayn Rand, Victor Hugo and the Risk of Esthetic Recommendations

JoeM's picture
Submitted by JoeM on Sat, 2007-06-16 20:01

"Speaking of one's inability to know another's sense of life, now might be a good time to make a request: Please don't send me records or recommend music. You have no way of knowing my sense of life, although you have a better way of knowing mine than I have of knowing yours, since you've read my books, and my sense of life is on every page. You would have some grasp of it- but I hate to think how little. . I hate the painful embarrassment I feel when somebody sends me music they know I'd love-and my reaction is the opposite: it's impossible music. I feel completely misunderstood, yet the person's intentions were good....So please don't try it. It's no reflection on you or on me. It's simply that sense of life is very private."


Rand wrote these words, yet indulged herself in her recommendations to her readers of the works of Victor Hugo. As a commentator, she is a very insightful guide to his works. But as a recommendation, I am saddened to say that, after reading LES MISERABLES, well, her words above ring too true. Not that Rand should be embarrassed, mind you; it truly is a great book. But it's in this case, I'll paraphrase Rand and say that "it's a great book-but I don't love it." Paraphrased because I DID like it, but not loved in the sense that she did. And I WANTED to, to be a "Hugonaut." It wasn't the book that let me down, however, it was the buildup that Rand gave. No, that's not right. It's the personal buildup that Rand gave to her OWN experience. That's the crucial difference.

I bring this up now in light of recent recommendations of music on SOLO, in the hopes of furthering the understanding of the nature of artistic responses. If you're of the mind, as I am, that Rand's work justifies her indulgence, you may be more willing to forget her request when it comes to her own recommendations. You might not accept it from others so readily, however, as many reviews are nothing but personal, subjective opinions that deal little with the actual work and more with the personal response and/or agendas of the reviewer. So with that caveat, I'd like to comment on Rand's review with...my own review of Rand's recommendation of Victor Hugo.

Rand's above words ring so true (especially here on SOLO, witness any thread on musical matters). Musicologist Robert Jourdain quipped that to insult someone's politics and you risk being considered a fool, but insult their music and you become an enemy. But it's not just the field of music that justifies the above, but any field that involves one's sense of life. Say, literature. With that in mind, I'd like to discuss Rand's overwhelming recommendation of Victor Hugo. Anyone who's delved into THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO knows how she felt about Hugo, how she described his work as a "sunlight universe," his "inexhaustible imagination" that make her feel as if she's "entering a cathedral," and how his "exalted mind" could give great stature even to the intended villains of his stories. If she were limited to one word, she'd probably pick "grandeur." Being the objective observer that she was, she was not blind to his faults, mainly his dichotomy between his implicit and explicit beliefs, and how he didn't "translate his sense of life into conceptual terms," that "Hugo the artist overwhelmed Hugo the thinker." But it was primarily his sense of life that she responded to and promoted as a kind of "white heat."

Even more important than all this, however, is Rand's claim in her INTRODUCTION TO NINETY THREE that "the distance between (Hugo's) world and ours is astonishingly short...but the distance between his world and ours has to be measured in esthetic light-years...he is buried under the esthetic rubble of our day." That is a bold statement, and one maybe impossible for me to verify, these words being written in 1962 and my being born in 1974. Having been caught on fire by her enthusiasm, I took up the task of reading LES MISERABLES. And that is why I write this, because if she was right in her time, I'd like to think that maybe, just maybe, I was born in a different universe than the world of squalor she depicted in '62, with the curiosity if anyone else has a similar experience?

(Considering the existence of the very popular musical of LES MISERABLES, it's even harder to verify, though I have a hard time "seeing" the story as a musical. And from what I've heard music wise, I'm in no rush to try it.)

I first took up '93 years ago after reading Rand's exaltations, and remember very little of it. I chalk that up to youth, and little enthusiasm for "historical" novels or period pieces or anything French. (Contemporary as it may have been for Hugo!). I didn't NOT like it, it just didn't really register for me the way it did Rand. So I held off on LES MISERABLES (it's a long book, you know) until recently after rereading Rand's ART OF FICTION. Her depiction of Hugo's skill as a writer was the motivation this time, and wanted to see for myself. And I'm glad I did. She didn't lie. All his virtues, as well as his vices were accurately depicted by Rand (especially the gripe about insertions of historical essay, "brilliant as they may be in themselves.) The stature of the characters was nothing less than heroic, the integration of theme, plot, characterization, the way everything came to a beautiful climax, all stunning. And I found myself stopping too often to write down a line here and there that were brilliant in themselves (I'll post them on a separate thread.) On a personal level, I was amused and heartbroken by the life and death of the urchin Gavroche, whose defiance and joy I suspect contributed somewhat to Francisco D'Anconia, and personally identified with the stubborn Javert, warts and all (and who I suspect was a possible model for Andre in WE THE LIVING.)

I can't say that it was a horrible or even decent novel, it is a GREAT novel. One can see why Rand was in love with Hugo, and how much of him influenced her own writing. And that's the problem. As one commentator put it, "Rand out-Hugo'd Hugo". I read Rand first, and wonder how much that affected my reaction to Hugo, because standing on his shoulder, gave me a better view of "what might and ought to be," with the added bonus of a philosophical integration to boot. She outclassed him on so many levels, it's almost not fair of her to build him up so much after her own achievement (but to her credit that she did. )

But I think there's more to it than that, which goes back to my main thesis, that of the sense of life of the individual reader is so varied, along with the possible backgrounds and experiences. If Rand is speaking to those who truly have experience nothing but what's permitted under the "Joyce-Kafka" amendment, Hugo truly WOULD be the blinding light she depicted. In her words, "don't look for the folks next door, you won't find them," as she tells tales of the "race of giants that could and should have been your neighbors." But my experience was a bit different. Having grown up in a pretty bad situation (I'll spare the Oprah-style couch session this time out), let's just say I was compelled to look beyond my literal back yard, not to other neighborhoods, but above, to the stars. I identified closely with Luke Skywalker, the image of him standing in the twilight, staring at the twin setting suns, wondering, KNOWING that there is something more than just being a dirt farmer alone almost makes the faults of the rest of the movies forgettable. Just that one image was enough. Matter of fact, I was one of Rand's "space cadets" that she depicted in "Art and Moral Treason," the ones who refuse to sacrifice their "own personal Buck Rogers" while enduring the admonitions to "come down to Earth" since "life is not like that." Superheroes, space explorers, transforming robots battling for good and evil on an epic, cosmic scale that would make Wagner blush. The value I got from Atlas was seeing that same sense of life depicted on EARTH, for sure, but the key to understanding the appeal to the more fantastic elements is not to focus on the "trappings" of the genres, but the sense of life, the bigness, the grandeur, the sense that values ARE important, that life can be adventure (contrast this with the words of Peter Pan, in his NeverNeverland, who claimed that "to die will be an awfully big adventure.") As Rand wrote, enemies of Romanticism try to convince the little space cadets that "to be like Buck Rogers means to wear a space helmet and blast armies of Martians with a disintegrator gun, and that he'd better give up such notions if he ever expects to make a respectable living." But she goes on to say that it is not the "impractical fantasy" they object to; it's not the Martians and ray guns that aren't possible, it's the striving for something better, the adventure, the passion that they feel is impossible.
It is all this, combined with having read Rand first, that prevent me from appreciating Hugo on the same level as Rand. In an issue of the Superman comics, Superman feels "alienated" from the world due to his super abilities, and sets out to find others like him on another world. And he does, on the planet NeoGenesis. Ironically, for him. He sees a falling child, and instinctually flies to save him, but soon discovers that the child too can fly, as the kid graciously laughs at Superman's naive attempt to play savior. In a world of giants, Superman is suddenly the status quo. This is how I feel about Hugo; it is no insult to him, but in my own mental universe, he is a Superman among many, and maybe why that's why Rand's recommendation was a disappoint to me. But I'd like to hope that it's a testimony to the possibility (and a justification of my personal ramblings here), that if the world was that devoid of Romanticism in '62, then Romanticism has not in fact perished, and that values do still have a chance. That Objectivism has a chance to spread in the culture today, that great things are still possible, that space explorers are indeed realizing the supposed impractical fantasies (witness the thread on "SpaceShip One".) That the legacy of Hugo, and Rand, are ever growing and evolving, that their contributions are not lost.

( categories: )

And yet, I consider Atlas

JoeM's picture

And yet, I consider Atlas infinately MORE valuable. Smiling

Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

Hugo vs. Rand

nevin's picture

If Rand had continued to focus solely on literary quality after _The Fountainhead_, she might have stayed on a trajectory that would have brought her art up to Hugo's level after a few more titles. I base this on comparing _We, the Living_ and the best passages from _The Fountainhead_, judging purely on literary finesse and emotional expression.

A wildly popular, pro-reason, pro-individualism, pro-free market Rand, with 4 or 5 chart-topping 20th-century novels, written with Hugoesque panache and craftsmanship, would have had an enormous positive influence on our culture.

But would she have changed the world, if that had been her chief accomplishment? Instead, she chose to focus on ideas, and thereby gave us _Atlas_, and Objectivism.

_Atlas_ is a gem unto itself, full of boldly original marvels of literary device as well as philosophy, and easily blowing away any contemporary non-Rand work on aesthetic terms. But the artistic merit of its prose, however sparkling, does not live up to the promise of her earlier works.


Hugo's language

nevin's picture

I read a couple of plays in the original, but read all the novels in translation because his novel-writing prose is beyond me.

I once tried to translate a section of L'Homme Qui Rit that included the passage Rand quoted in "The Comprachicos." That was an eye-opening experience. I was only able to approach it because my alma mater's library had an excellent French reference section, including a copy of the Encyclopedie. It took hours to look up obscure (to us) references to French historical figures.

Agree with Jennifer on the power of Romance languages vis-a-vis English.


Language/Concept dichotomy

JoeM's picture

Personally, I don't get caught up in the style of prose as much as the ideas of the stories, and I thought the Wilber version (translated by Fahnestock, Macaffe, based on Wilber's translation) got the point across well enough. But then, I'm not a poetry fan, as it is. I've heard this story, and complaint, about the translations before, and was aware of it during reading, but I don't think it hurt my appreciation. Whether it would have been improved with a "better" translation...well, all I can say is "maybe."


Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

The value of words.

Prima Donna's picture

I have to agree with Phil in that much of the magic of Les Miserables is lost in translation. I've read it in both French and English, and there is simply no comparison. The melodic language Hugo uses to express the emotions and actions of these magnificent characters (and this is true of most expressions in Romance languages) simply cannot be captured with justice in the English version.


-- Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Translation Hurdles

PhilipC's picture

One reason for Rand's enormous love for Hugo with which many Objectivists don't fully agree is that she, who had studied many languages, may well have read him in the language he actually wrote in, whereas we have read him in a (probably Charles Wilbur) translation from French.

She translated a brilliant passage from, I believe, the Hunchback of Notre Dame in one of her essays on literature. I got a copy of the standard translation and it was overwhelmingly inferior, murky, without clarity or power. I SO WISH Charles Wilbur were not the translator of so many of Hugo's books who is always on the bookshelves. I know French and after reading so many awkward, clumsy, murky passages in Wilbur's Hugo, I decided to read a few passages at random in French.

Conclusion (at least from my small sample): Wilbur is a clumsy translator. He's probably responsible for many of those who dislike Hugo.

Hard enough

JoeM's picture

Maybe not Hard enough for you, Rick. Must be that thick skull of yers. Eye


Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

sing dance fight sing dance fight

Rick Giles's picture

I THOUGHT I did make some recommendations,

I believe we tried a couple but you admitted you didn't know anything that was really hard enough. Suits me. Not interested in trying again now.

a great deal of pleasure the last couple of years through my advocacy of Hindi cinema.

I used to cop a fair dose of that when I worked with Indians in Auckland. Suppose the formula to our cinema is pretty same-old when you think of it. But Hindi stuff all looks the same even if I don't think about it! T'would be interesting to see you make a case.


nevin's picture

Rick: "Actually, I feel a bit miffed sometimes when a mate has been taking some wonderful ... element of their standard of living for granted and I've been missing out for years. But the same feeling turns to pleasure when the roles are reversed and one is able to pass on something wonderful to those who appreciate it."

I know exactly how you feel. I like getting the inside scoop on valuable cultural happenings and, conversely, have received a great deal of pleasure the last couple of years through my advocacy of Hindi cinema.


Rick: "That's good, because

JoeM's picture

Rick: "That's good, because you're still holding back on me re classic music that's got some thunder and passion and bang that's in line with what I'm getting from my classic rock."

I THOUGHT I did make some recommendations, but if you mean any that were actually WORTH something to you, well, I've stopped trying. Not a fan of banging my head against some mad bugger's wall. Eye But seriously, do you see a connection between the failure of anyone to convince you of a classical piece (so far) and Rand's request? Course, the difference is that you're courting it, but I feel like it's a game with loaded dice.

"I think this is a far better attitude than holding back judgement or pretending one hasn't got one."

Sure, but you know what they say about opinions...the point is, WHY does that judgement matter to someone else? On that note, I'm going to withhold my judgements for a bit and let others discuss this (my whole arm is severely cramped after doing data entry combined with mixing music via a mouse for two weeks straight. I really should have rested it today, but wanted so badly to share my views and opinions that I suffered gladly. Smiling But it's catching up to me. I'll gladly solicit any recommendations as to remedies.)


Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

oh good

Rick Giles's picture

That's good, because you're still holding back on me re classic music that's got some thunder and passion and bang that's in line with what I'm getting from my classic rock.

As long as we all permit one another the liberty to be elitist aesthetical authoritarians when it comes to matters of one's own taste we can't go far wrong.
I think this is a far better attitude than holding back judgement or pretending one hasn't got one. According to my readings for last podcast, the Florentines had more or less perfected this attitude.

Banning judgements?

JoeM's picture

Well, I agree Rick, would never suggest BANNING recommendations and judgements (which is part of the irony of Rand's request; though to be fair, it was probably that she was deluged with such requests from both well meaning fans and, more sadly, people looking to have their own personal favorites validated...). At any rate, personally, I'm not saying that such recommendations should be banned, but discussing the RISK of making them and the reality that some will not feel as strongly as the one making the recommendation (and, as a side note, discussing how to make relevant recommendations.)

There's the other side of things, negative reviews. For example, I held off on seeing THE ASTRONAUT FARMER, even though I was really into the idea, based on Luke Setzer's negative review, which killed my enthusiam after reading some of the plot details. (I'll wait til the DVD.) Diana's review of 300 almost had the same effect, but since I have to see movies like that on the big screen to justify the effects, I gave it a chance it might not have had otherwise, and glad I did. But I wouldn't BAN Diana's review, I did get some insight from it, even if I disagreed overall.

Your point about discovering new inspirations based on recommendations, and the camaderie it inspires, is a good point, and obviously the flip side to the negative possibilites.


Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

hoist it up and see who salutes

Rick Giles's picture

I don't have the same problem as Ayn Rand. There are lots of songs and films and shows and books right up my alley, and in support of the kind of aesthetic I believe in.
Finding them in the world is often thanks to folk's willingness to thrust their opinions about in the marketplace. Therefore I think it's for the best that we do make recommendations to others about what we think is good.
Actually, I feel a bit miffed sometimes when a mate has been taking some wonderful aesthetic, or technological, or cultural, element of their standard of living for granted and I've been missing out for years. But the same feeling turns to pleasure when the roles are reversed and one is able to pass on something wonderful to those who appreciate it.

to insult someone's politics and you risk being considered a fool, but insult their music and you become an enemy.

Well I think that only applies to people with bad attitudes. My fools and enemies need more dimention than that in order to be qualified. Even so, these risks are no reason to ban aesthetic judgements from society.

Hugo and Comics

JoeM's picture

Interesting bit of trivia, btw, that provides a link between the two worlds: the original version of the Joker from Batman comics was based on Conradt Veidt's Gwynplaine in the silent film THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, story by Victor Hugo, and Veidt was a favorite of Rand, I believe..she also quoted the story for her Comprachicos essay...and...apparently there's a story called BATMAN: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, which acknowledges the influence as it retells the origin of the Joker.

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Spaceplayer Sight and Sound


JoeM's picture

Bill, I'm aware that it was somewhat removed from Hugo's own time, but a lot closer to his than ours, for sure. Eye


Spaceplayer Sight and Sound

La Vendee

nevin's picture

>Contemporary as it may have been for Hugo!


It wasn't exactly contemporary for Hugo - his father first met his mother on the campaign that forms the background of the novel!



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