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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and Noble Vision

Ayn Rand died in 1982. She was probably better known for her novels than she was for her philosophy, Objectivism, but what she wrote, both fiction and non-fiction, has affected millions.

One of the more persistant criticisms I've heard of Rand as a writer is that her characters aren't like the people you'd meet in real life. There are people who have a problem with that. Or maybe more accurately, they tend to feel that if the characters don't seem like real life people, the ideas in the book can't reflect real life.

Superman, for example, isn't real, and he doesn't really act like anyone you know. But he's a comic book character, and no one expects reality from comic books. But a novel about ideas is supposed to (according to some) have realistic characters espousing or portraying those ideas.

Rand herself referred to the genre of her fiction as "Romantic Realism". To those who see the romantic and the realistic as diametrically opposed, Romantic Realism sounds like a contradiction in terms. But that view comes from a philosophical position which says that we can't reasonably aspire to something better. Rand defined Romantic Realism as "a portrayal of life as it could be and should be."

While The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged aren't the only novels Rand wrote (We, The Living is a magnificent, though depressing, story of the changes in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution), they are both her most well known work, and the two novels which really put her philosophy on display. No one is as absolute and pure as Howard Roark in real life. No one is as consciously evil as Elswood Toohey. No one is as brilliant and unconflicted as John Galt. These are archetypes. Distillations of elements which exist within many people to some or other degree. By portraying these archetypes as actual people and making us care about them, Rand was able to make philosophical points and tell a fascinating story without either compromising the other.

The Fountainhead dealt with the issues of truth and justice and honesty (as opposed to compromise and fairness and pragmatism) in the arena of architecture and journalism. Atlas Shrugged dealt with the same issues in the arena of industry and productivity and wealth. Had Rand lived long enough to tackle the subject of medicine and bureacracy in a novel, it would probably have looked a lot like Noble Vision, by Genevieve (Gen) La Greco.

Here is the synopsis of the book, taken from the dustjacket:

Ballerina Nicole Hudson has overcome a childhood of neglect and abandonment to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a famous dancer on the Broadway stage. For months she has been receiving flowers and love letters from a secret admirer who attends her performances. His writings hint at a great aspiration in his life and at his despair at obstacles that prevent him from attaining it. He tells her how she inspires him to continue his struggle. Nicole is stirred by the tender words of her anonymous suitor.

Her secret admirer is Manhattan neurosurgeon David Lang. He believes that he has discovered a way of regrowing injured nerve tissue to cure paralysis and other neurological disorders. His revolutionary treatment requires the consent of CareFree, New York State's new health care system. Because of budget overruns, regulatory red tape, and other priorities, CareFree does not approve the new procedure. David feels a growing frustration in his career and in his marriage to a model CareFree doctor who urges him to give up his research and play by the rules. His unsigned letters to the lovely Nicole become his way to escape his problems and express his deepest thoughts and cherished dreams.

In a terrible accident, Nicole suffers a nerve injury that will leave her permanently disabled. Her career is destroyed, and her life in shambles. She is a perfect candidate for David's treatment. Although his procedure uses drugs and surgeries that CareFree will not authorize, David believes it safe to test on a human. Gaining approval through the system will take years, but the ballerina's condition must be treated immediately. She does not know that the young neurosurgeon whose experiments offer her only chance of recovery is also her secret admirer.

CareFree's refusal to allow David's new procedure brings the surgeon into a heated conflict with the state's secretary of medicine. The politically ambitious secretary aspires to be the governor's running mate in an upcoming bid for reelection. With the governor determined to keep the financially troubled CareFree afloat and to demonstrate its benefits to the voters, decisions about the care that the system will provide seem contingent on what will garner the most votes--which excludes new, expensive procedures needed by only a few. David is faced with an imossible choice: to treat Nicole with the ineffective methods of the past, which will leave her permanently disabled, or to defy the law and try his new procedure, which will cause him to lose his license.

I don't know if there's any real way I can communicate to you how good this book is, both in the sense of an enjoyable read and in the sense of the goodness it expresses. This is a book that makes you look upwards, aspire, be free and true. And alive. Go and read it. You won't be sorry.

I lost a considerable amount of sleep over the weekend, because I could not put this book down until I finished it. And then I had to force myself to go on to another book rather than turn back to the beginning and read it again.

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