Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Connections

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Remember James Burke’s wonderful series Connections (or its sequels Connections2 or Connections3)? If you don’t, buy them right now on DVD (the first series, sadly, appears unavailable) — especially if you have kids. Burke would explore history in a way that prefigured Google by 20 years — he’d follow the remotest, seemingly least consequential intellectual threads that connected wildly different places, things, events, or times, and wind up showing how, for example, how Renaissance water gardens made the carburetor possible.

I love this sort of intellectual detective work and, while I rarely have the knack of finding such links in history, I do occasionally find them in films or literature.

So far as I know, I am the only person to suggest that Joseph Conrad had an influence over the evolution in Poul Anderson’s writing style. (In fact, even in Sandra Miesel’s superb essays on Anderson, I have found little confrontation with the rather large gulf that separates Young Anderson from Mature Anderson. I should note that I have yet to acquire a copy of Against Time’s Arrow, so perhaps Miesel did address it there.)

Another connection I’ve never seen addressed is Anderson’s engagement with both Roert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand in his Harvest of Stars sequence. Both connections strike me as obvious. The keystone figure of the series is a cantankerous entrepreneur named Anson Guthrie, and a major element of The Stars Are Also Fire is a rebellion of native-born Lunarians against Earth authority — these are just the two most obvious Heinlein nods. The heroine of Harvest of Stars is named Kyra, while the central figure of The Stars Are Also Fire is Dagny. Again, these are simply the two most obvious references to Rand.

I’m looking forward to reading Ayn Rand’s Journals at some point, because I’ll be curious whether I discover another connection which I strongly suspect. Though the characters are clearly different, and their authors judge them in radically different fashion, some elements of Rand’s characterization of Howard Roark echo uncannily W. Somerset Maugham’s characterization of Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence.

To wit, from The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Chapter XII:

“You won’t go back to your wife?” I said at last.

“Never.”

“She’s willing to forget everything that’s happened and start afresh. She’ll never make you a single reproach.”

“She can go to hell.”

“You don’t care if people think you an utter blackguard? You don’t care if she and your children have to beg their bread?”

“Not a damn.”

I was silent for a moment in order to give greater force to my next remark. I spoke as deliberately as I could.

“You are a most unmitigated cad.”

“Now that you’ve got that off your chest, let’s go and have dinner.”

And, from The Fountainhead (1943), Chapter 1:

“The Dean phoned for you while you were out.”

For once she expected to see some emotion from him; and an emotion would be the equivalent of seeing him broken. She did not know what it was about him that had always made her want to see him broken.

“Yes?” he asked.

“The Dean,” she repeated uncertainly, trying to recapture her effect. “The Dean himself through his secretary.”

“Well?”

“She said to tell you the Dean wanted to see you immediately the moment you got back.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you suppose he can want now?”

“I don’t know”

He had said: “I don’t know.” She had heard distinctly: “I don’t give a damn.” She stared at him incredulously.

(Note, please, that I am not equating the two characters or scenes, but noting certain similarities, in that both characters place little value on what other people think or will say. Roark, however, is not disavowing a clear personal responsibility, which Strickland is. Roark is also, unconsciously, more courteous in form — it’s his attitude which Mrs. Keating takes as not giving a damn, not his actual words.)

Rand generally dismissed Maugham as a naturalist (though Leonard Peikoff mentions his discussion of Of Human Bondage with her in at least one lecture, and I wish he had gone into more detail), but this strikes me as reasonably compelling evidence that she may have been influenced by Maugham in some small measure, consciously or not.

Now I am finding echoes of Rand in another very unlikely place, though this one admittedly could be pure coincidence. Because if you asked me, based purely on their reputations and Rand’s published opinions of modern trends in literature, whether I thought Rand would ever take any positive influence from Joseph Conrad, my reply would be a rapid “Hell no!”

Yet I am reading Nostromo, and nearly 100 pages into it I can’t shake the feeling that, if you take certain elements of Charles Gould — the inherited South American metal mine, the desire to live up to (and improve) his ancestor’s reputation, the reserve about his true motivations — and mix them with elements of Nostromo’s personality — his joie de vivre, charisma, natural leadership, and his singular effectiveness and competence — you come out with a fair first draft of Francisco d’Anconia.

Am I certain? By no means. I don’t even know that Rand read any Conrad, though it does seem likely if for no other reason than her early admiration of H.L. MenckenShe wrote Mencken an incisive (and humble!) letter after he expressed an interest in helping her get We The Living published (28 July 1934). Also, I believe the character of Austen Heller in The Fountainhead is based, to some extent, on Mencken., and he admired Conrad strongly, publicly, and often. To my recollection she does not mention Conrad in The Romantic Manifesto or The Art of Fiction, and I do not recall him coming up in her Letters, though I’ve not read them in nearly ten years so that might be lack of recall on my part.

If she did have an opinion of him, I’d bet long odds (10 to 1 or more) that it was substantially negative for any number of reasonsHis tragic world-view, his frequent depiction of man as essentially savage, and his tendency toward non-linear narrative, to name but three.. Yet here is Nostromo, with two central characters who could combine to make a not-too-distant cousin of a pivotal character in Atlas Shrugged, though the characters in the two novels are used to vastly different ends.According to Volens in the comments at Diana Hsieh’s blog, I’m wrong, Rand had a surprisingly positive (though still negative) assessment of Conrad. Most interesting, indeed.

As I say, I find this sort of thing most interesting and it is, perhaps, comforting to me as a writer. When I look over almost anything I’ve written, especially outlines or first drafts, I become painfully aware of what influences I brought to the work.

For example, my NaNoWriMo novel this year was consciously inspired by the synopsis of a Conrad novel I have not yet read (The Rover), but it also shows signs of Heinlein, Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Firefly, C.J. Cherryh, and likely several others I haven’t noticed yet. My current screenplay reads like a mash-up of its inspiration, M. Night Shyamalan, minor elements from a couple James P. Hogan novels, Conrad (from whom I lifted the title), Men in Black (minus the comedy), and (it just now occurs to me) My Brother Sam Is Dead (of all things!). Amongst others.

Let me make clear that observation — or admission — of influence is in no waya denial of originality. Academics (and far too many professional writers) often use it in this way, especially to denigrate those they do not like, such as Rand. Because of this, perhaps, Rand often denied any influences at all save, in literature, Victor Hugo and a few other individual romantic novels and, in her philosophy, Aristotle alone. While understandable, it is also wrong. Influence does not denote philosophical agreement or the absence of original effort.

Thus, when I say that I suspect Conrad of having an influence over one character in one Rand novel, I am in no way belittling her achievement, no more than pointing out that Alfred Bester’s wholesale repurposing of Alexandre Dumas’s plot in The Stars My Destination does anything to remove it from contention for the title of Best SF Novel Ever. (Neither does it suggest that SF is inferior and strictly derivative.)

Influence is influence, nothing more nor less.

And it bugs me that I felt I had to include that extended caveat.

(I was going to do a bibliography, but decided against. Most of the entries are covered by the links, anyway.)

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Written by [IMH]

8 December 2005 at 9:13 am

Posted in Literature

3 Responses

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  1. I don’t see those quotes as “reasonably compelling evidence” of influence. Isn’t there some sort of hollywood archetype of a loner who is economical with words? But the underlying cause would be that an egoistic, self-confident character would not not feel the need to explain his feelings at length to strangers. One could just as well say she was influenced by “Gone With The Wind” in that line, or cinematic dialogue in general.

    I for one find that the dialogue in “The Fountainhead” is quite different the dialogue in “Atlas Shrugged,” with the expressions used being much more modern. I still remember, at age 15 in 1985, looking up the word “bromide” in the dictionary. I have no idea how the Chinese edition has translated this.

    A.West

    9 December 2005 at 2:33 am

  2. I think there’s more here than just that. When I first read Moon, this scene struck me between the eyes for its similarities to The Fountainhead. Both characters are completely isolated from society, and prefer that. Even The Virginian craved some connection, however laconicly.

    I’m not saying that Rand had the scene in mind when writing hers, but I find the similarities at least as interesting as the differences.

    Neither character is much of a match for Rhett Butler, either, who is a ne’er-do-well, and cheerfully so. Strickland is never cheerful, and Roark lives by his own code consistently, except for his indulgence of Peter Keating.

    Ian

    9 December 2005 at 7:28 pm

  3. I think there’s more here than just that. When I first read Moon, this scene struck me between the eyes for its similarities to The Fountainhead. Both characters are completely isolated from society, and prefer that. Even The Virginian craved some connection, however laconicly.

    I’m not saying that Rand had the scene in mind when writing hers, but I find the similarities at least as interesting as the differences.

    Neither character is much of a match for Rhett Butler, either, who is a ne’er-do-well, and cheerfully so. Strickland is never cheerful, and Roark lives by his own code consistently, except for his indulgence of Peter Keating.

    Ian

    9 December 2005 at 7:28 pm


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