Saturday, October 08, 2016

The New Republic's think pieces on the Ferrante coverage and on Ayn Rand, is the personal history and identity of a best-selling woman author sacrosanct chiefly because of a political reading?

Having not read any of Ferrante's books I'm not writing to express any thoughts on her books or even about her.  This is a consideration of what authors, just at The New Republic, have written about her and the connection between what authors at The New Republic have to say and think about the identity as personal/political about Ferrante compared to identity as personal/political on another best-selling woman author who used a pen name, Ayn Rand.

As a writer who's used a pen name I could be one of the first to be sympathetic to the idea that a pen name provides some distance between the author as author and the author as person.  I can also thoroughly appreciate that pen names can be taken up not so much for immediate benefits as vicarious benefits.  There were plenty of people in the history of Mars Hill who would benefit from not being immediately identifiable as someone who knows the blogger at Wenatchee The Hatchet. Not that this has ever made me anonymous, really.  Among those who would claim to know of this blog but not who writes at it, these are probably people who don't really want to know that badly on the one hand (which is completely reasonable) or who want some kind of plausible deniability for reasons that would be hard to assess.

In the past people took stage names because they had ethnic and family lines that were not considered all that acceptable.  The history of taking up pseudonyms to work in the arts and entertainment is a long venerable one. 

But the disconnect I'm thinking about with respect to authors at The New Republic is that between how they write about Ferrante and how they write about Rand.  In an era in which the personal is political is a kind of proverb that serves asa  shorthand for a web of ideas it would seem that the bases from which to attack the personal ethics and ideas of Ayn Rand would be of the sort that depend on the assumption that the political thought of a best-selling author, once you've settled on the conviction that you disagree with her ideas, warrants a no holds barred assault on the legitimacy of her ideas and character alike.  And this is what progressives had certainly done over the years and, frankly, as a moderately conservative religious sort I don't even really blame them for that.  I generally found the self-identified fans of Ayn Rand's ethical views to be self-absorbed dicks. Not all, just many.

In this election cycle (for which I confess I have zero optimism) the left and right have been adept at formulating mythologies that are not unlike a Randian Fall narrative in which one of the ruling classes (either the financial ruling class or the intellectual ruling class) has somehow betrayed a social contract and thereby betrayed the common good.  Progressives tend to scapegoat the financial ruling class (because many progressives are artists and academics whose occupations often depend upon finances they often can only, at best, indirectly control). Conservatives without fail seem to scapegoat the intellectual ruling class (because they seem to have this sense that you can't really go out into the world and work without getting the kind of education that the educated class participates in and controls by dint of teaching; and also because at some level the kinds of people who control the currency you would ask for have generally all gone through college). 

I'm skeptical about the pervasiveness and popularity of these paradigms of class warfare mainly because it seems as though the majority of those who formulate the human experience in terms of class warfare do so on self-exonerating terms, terms through which the articulating person self-identifies as one of the victims of the ruling class, whichever ruling class that may be. 

If no best-selling author should be fisked over matters of personal life and personal connections how categorically do the writers and editors at The New Republic take this principle? 

Now perhaps we could propose for the sake of discussion, that Ferrante's novels, however politically her readers may choose to read them, has never risen (or stooped) to the explicitly political agitprop levels of an Ayn Rand.  Therefore, there's no particularly good reason to do a journalistic expose on the author of the Ferrante novels because her politics is not the politics of the author but of the readers, readers who impute their own political ideals and paradigms of class conflict via gender on to the books which themselves, at least compared to Atlas Shrugged, are more tabula rasa than political tracts.

When the personal is political there's a power in it but the same avenue can be the basis for dismissal.  Note the ease with which Jonathan Chait expressed the following thought:
Rand's early life mirrored the experience of her most devoted readers. A bright but socially awkward woman, she harbored the suspicion early on that her intellectual gifts caused classmates to shun her. She was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg. Her Russian-Jewish family faced severe state discrimination, first for being Jewish under the czars, and then for being wealthy merchants under the Bolsheviks, who stole her family's home and business for the alleged benefit of the people.

Anne C. Heller, in her skillful life of Rand, traces the roots of Rand's philosophy to an even earlier age. (Heller paints a more detailed and engaging portrait of Rand's interior life, while Burns more thoroughly analyzes her ideas.) Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum's mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that "this may have been Rand's first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism.’ " (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite "sales tax" or "income tax." The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)

So has the patriarchy at The New Republic dismissed the understanding of a woman about the experiences of her own body ... or ... is some range of alternative explanations possible?  Progressives of various stripes do not generally seem to be in a rush to delve into the personal psychology of Rand except to articulate why her views, when applied in the realm of politics and economics, should be considered sociopathic.  Even if a generalizing case could be made that libertarians as a whole have major daddy or mommy issues couldn't a comparable case be made for progressives?  It's not as though in the history of the world there have been no progressive authors and thinkers with wildly fraught relationships with father and/or mother.

Charlotte Shane could probably make a case that there are ways to dissent from Rand's political views without 1) having to know anything about Rand's personal history and 2) without conflating the personal experience with political.  Whether Shane would is not something I can really make any guesses at.  Authors who have contributed to The New Republic have not, as a general rule, gone out of their way to defend Ayn Rand's philosophy as in any way defensible because of it being inextricably bound up with experiences as a woman with a working class father. 

But, as noted earlier, it does not seem that Ferrante's work can be read as "political" in the same way that Rand's novels insist upon.  If there are theories about regarding the death of the author authors like Rand seem to have bequeathed to us a body of work that pushes back against the idea that a literary work can be construed as something no longer necessarily dependent upon or reflecting upon its author. 

If Ferrante's work explores the ways that women live lives profoundly circumscribed by the rules and conditions of social systems run by men then she'll get to contribute to a body of work that includes authors like Jane Austen.  More power to her. But I've been wondering whether within progressive enclaves there is a kind of double bind they aren't seeing in the way they approach literary criticism and the axiom that personal narrative is expected to be fraught with political significance.  What if, and I just admit to speculating here as a Shostakovich fan, what if "dissent" is overly imputed to works themselves as a kind of narrative intra-personal imposition on a body of work?  The actual evidence that Shostakovich was a dissident seems nill to me.  Ferrante's identity, up until recently not formally considered known, may have depended upon saying things about living as a woman in a world of men that she felt could not be so readily said with a known public name.  That's understandable.  I've written a lot about the life and times of Mars Hill using a pen name not so much because I would never one day wish to have my name attached to writings about Mars Hill but because it seemed other people who were still within Mars Hill might get problems for association with me. 

Ferrante's defenders have been so quick to comment on her anonymity out of sympathy for her that it has me thinking, since I've used a pen name for a different reason, that the reasons people take up pen names can vary wildly.  We can't operate on some na├»ve insistence that if we don't know the "real" name of an author and the author's personal history we can't take their work seriously.  Nobody I know over the last thirty years thinks less of Erik Blair for having written as George Orwell. Ferrante's work shouldn't be disregarded and it sounds like it hasn't been-but perhaps a journalistic temptation of our era is running with the axiom that the personal is political to a pointwhere "death of the author" topes are really offset by celebrity fixation  It's not necessary for an author to attain celebrity status or for a document to have a celebrity role within a critical field.  Let's take Q in biblical studies.  It's not like we've divined who the author of Q is, assuming Q exists, but Q definitely has a celebrity role in biblical studies.  Does that make it less useful in the context of critical discussions?  Probably not.  Ferrante never needed to be identified for her work to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, if we use the track record of The New Republic on Ayn Rand as a counterexample, the biggest reason to be concerned about the conflation of personal and political is the speed with which parties on both the left and the right deploy the personal narrative and the personal identity as a way to defuse and delegitimize the political and social discourses of authors on the "other" side.  Progressives recognize when this is done by social conservatives to their number but they seem less alert to it when they conduct this kind of attack themselves, either that or they just don't care because the whole point of a double standard is you don't apply it to yourself.  Social conservatives who are backing Trump obviously spring to mind on the matter of Trump's personal approach to women and what social conservatives would have to say about abortion or porn.

But then this election year has suggested that double standards are probably the baseline for human socio-political activity. 

Ferrante's identity as a topic for journalistic enquiry isn't something I paid any attention to until people reacted to the activity.  I don't need to know who the author is and it doesn't much matter to me as I am more into studying music and writing about other things.  Gotcha journalism has a long and often ignoble tradition and this is probably just another case in point.  To stick with my discussion of The New Republic, it seems that there's nothing "political" in Ferrante's work at the level that could be described as the "political" thought of Ayn Rand.  There might be but nothing in the praise authors at The New Republic have had for Ferrante's work suggest this.  As previously proposed, there's a world of difference between an author writing stories about women who find their lives circumscribed by the men around them and the limits of their own bodies and an author writing stories declaring in combative terms how the human condition ought to be construed in class warfare terms.  That distinction could simply be the difference between what modern Westerners consider real art vs political propaganda and that, too, might have some bearing on the distinction between The New Republic's editorial stance on the two best-selling women authors who have made use of pen names.   But then as some have been saying, all art is political, right?  Of course that's just a bromide and one which seems worth reconsidering as to what "we" even mean by "political" and what we describe as "art".

It seems, for now, that The New Republic might want to consider that the outrage at the use of the personal to diminish the impact of the political implications of a best-selling woman author's ideas about society is understandable, but their track record on doing pretty much exactly that to Ayn Rand in the process of objecting to her political ideas might raise for readers left and right whether or not there's a double standard in the editorial history of the publication.  Not that double standards are necessarily wrong if they are in the service of a previously committed political goal or at least if you agree with the political goal it might no longer be a double standard.  This year's election cycle seems to have established that for the public record beyond all reasonable doubt.


The idea that art can have political implications without necessarily having to be agitation or integration propaganda (I hope) can be accepted but not everyone does accept it. In fact there have been cases made that art for the sake of art has tended to be an ideological view that's easily embraced by those who do not examine their own power and privilege with respect to access to means of distribution.  I agree if that is a concession that the vocational artist can only ever be a servant of the ruling class or a member of the ruling class but the trouble is that for the most part progressives don't want to go that far, they want to find a way to exempt themselves from being either the servants of the ruling class or particularly members of the ruling class by emphasizing on how art must serve the working class.  The working class used to make art for itself just fine and we've come to call that folk art ... but folk art's not the kind of stuff that people with writing degrees from the college system teach, is it?

So there's a sense in which Ferrante's treatment in the press highlights a series of double standards we may not have examined across the political spectrum.  The New Republic editorial handling of two women authors may highlight this most pointedly because you would think this is something a nominally progressive publication could be consistent about on the topic of women who have been bestselling authors who used pen names.  I'm aware there are reasons some progressives regard The New Republic as an intellectually, morally and politically bankrupt entity from the left and right but I ... do want to do other things this weekend.