From Superhero Babylon: Heroism in Horror, We the Living

Landon Erp's picture
Submitted by Landon Erp on Sat, 2009-11-07 11:45

"Tell them Russia is a graveyard and we're all dying."

This is the last sentiment Rand took from Russia, and it was the inspiration for her first major novel, We the Living.

There are easy parallels to be drawn from the heroes of her later novels and modern superheroes, Ragnar Danneskjöld and Francisco D'Anconia especially. All are heroic men of action who fight for their ideals and win in the end.

Daniel Ust states in his article one of the reasons horror shouldn't simply be dismissed without further examination:

[One] reason comes from Aristotle's notion of catharsis as treated in in [sic] his Poetics and interpreted in Richard Janko's essay "From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean". [4] In Janko's view, catharsis involves fine tuning character, specifically one's emotional makeup. Art can serve this purpose by showing how to feel (as well as act) the right way in extreme situations. In much the same way as working out will tone up muscles even though few weight lifters have to fight hand-to-hand or move boulders for a living, literature tones up the feelings though few spectators would find themselves in the position of Hamlet, Howard Roark, or the characters in a Lovecraft story.

If this is so, Horror may just provide another means of attaining catharsis, and, thereby, of emotional growth. Particular works could then be judged by their contribution to this end.

With that in mind, everything I've read on Rand's state of mind from her early days in America strongly implies that a bit of catharsis was required before she could handle thinking in terms of heroes, and really achieving one's life's goals. She had many more positive ideas in mind for novels she wished to create, but by most accounts it seemed she always obsessed about her past. Escaping the brutal dictatorship of Soviet Russia left a mark on her that would not allow her to move on until she had truly moved through it.

In The Romantic Manifesto essay "The Goal of My Writing" Rand claimed that

The motive and the purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. My purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers............ My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark as an end in himself. My basic test for any story is: "Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?

On at least some level this statement seems at odds with setting a story in the worst conditions of abject human suffering. In We the Living, the reader is dragged through the feeling of being obsessed with where the next meal is coming from and fearing that IF it comes it will not be enough to fight off starvation. It's a nightmare scenario where the rules can never be adjusted to because they are always changing, and the next unimaginable nightmare is coming right around the corner.

And the worst part of all this is that as it happens, you see yourself and everyone you care about slip into one sort of living death or another. There is a living death of just giving up, doing whatever is required to survive and never thinking further than two minutes in the future. There is also the living death of becoming one of the monsters yourself, joining your tormentors, giving in to the worst within yourself and being richly rewarded for it.

There is another possibility, perhaps the worst of all: actually being taken into the mentality of your tormentors, willingly doing everything that morality requires and being happy and proud to do it. Living your life this way every single day until you realize in the story of your life, YOU are the real villain more so than any of your enemies could ever have aspired to. The world will never seem to be full of "Draculas and Frankenstein's Monsters" if you happen to be one of them.

I guess what I'm saying is that if Rand thought horror barely qualified as art, her first novel had a funny way of showing that.