Fairness in Fiction

I recently wrote an article in this space on the difference between propaganda and art. Like a philosopher, I attempted to divine the first principles or essential of both species, and to define them.

But it occurs to me that the philosophical approach is exactly backward when discussing art, since art is based on the intuition that grasps an abstraction by means of the concrete. All art is this attempt to find an ideal, such as, say beauty, by means of a perfect example or counterexample, such as, say, a marble nude.

Therefore to aid our blind and groping search for truth during the thunderstorm and shipwreck of life, let me offer, by way of seeing eye dogs, some examples of works which I hold cannot be propaganda, merely because they so adroitly tell both sides of the argument.

I will not use examples from Shakespeare or Milton or Herman Melville because I am a philistine who only reads the juvenile trash called science fiction. Although, actually, I have read those books, and those writers allow each man to have his full say, from Yago (whose motive is as impossible to discover as the Nolan’s version of the Joker from BATMAN) to Captain Ahab to Lucifer.

Indeed, Milton allowed Lucifer so eloquently to plead his case that some famous men were deceived into thinking the author was of his party. (I will not embarrass a famous name by calling anyone an idiot, but I will mention parenthetically that on midnight of the full moon, rain or clear, summer and winter I paint myself from head to toe with blue woad and stand naked in the town square screaming ‘William Blake is an Idiot!’ at the top of my lungs until the constables can subdue me with truncheons. )

Now that the bone fides of both my expertise and sanity have been established, let me mention some works which I think exemplary in telling both sides of a question. I will deliberately select authors who write works not to my taste to show the reader I am not merely flattering these stories.

Here is the best example, and it is an example I have mentioned in other essays:

A book of the Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley whose name I forget (perhaps it was HAWKMISTRESS) has a short scene near the beginning where a character from the technologically superior spacetraveling civilization is speaking with one of the natives of Darkover, a semi-medieval world. I forget how the dispute begins, but the native expresses outrage that the bureaucrats of the spacefaring culture never made decisions of their own, whereas the native’s liege lord, right or wrong, is responsible for what he says and does, and even if he is in the wrong, he makes the decision; and so too do the other lords of Darkover. The spacefarer nods, as if to admit the point, but says in reply that no one among his people has ever been killed in a duel.


What I liked about this scene, when I have forgotten everything else about the book, was the balance of it. There was no way I could deduce which side of the argument had the authoress’s sympathy, if either. I don’t recall which character spoke first or who had the last word. But there is something passing brave in the greatness and glory of a medieval civilization where the buck stops with the decision maker, and he lives and dies by his word. And something bloody in it, too. And, again, there is something petty and disgusting in the labyrinthine maze of lawyerly rules modern society wades through. And yet there is something civilized, peaceful, orderly, and great in it. The lists where nobles joust at tourney is a glorious thing; but so is an agora where trade in peace is conducted, and even the police need not be armed.

Second best of the several other examples that come to mind appeared in TUF VOYAGING, a fixup novel of short stories by George RR Martin. The premise of the story is that a chubby nebbish by happenstance becomes the owner of an operating ecological seedship of the long-lost First Empire, and all the secrets of a biotechnology forgotten on all human worlds are his alone to command. The main antagonist is a planet which indulges in dangerous overpopulation called S’uthlam (Malthus backward-get it?) so that her number outstrip her food supply, and she is a constant danger to her neighbors, whom she repeatedly threatens to invade. After attempting to get the S’uthlamites to contracept and abort their children voluntarily, Tuf uses the ship to sterilize the population against their will.


Now, reading this as an innocent child, I had no idea what Mr Martin’s political beliefs were, nor did I care, and the story was (as one would expect of a writer of Mr Martin’s caliber) very well told.

Unlike the case with Marion Zimmer Bradley, however, even a relatively inattentive adult can tell that this story is in the same philosophical ballpark as Harry Harrison’s MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM or John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR, and many another quaint and curious scare stories about overpopulation that seem ironic, now that we live in an era of underpopulation.

But Mr Martin was not writing propaganda, on the grounds that the S’uthlamite officer is given a chance to have his say: he says, in effect, that the next baby born could be a Shakespeare or an Einstein, and that the alleged dangerous of overpopulation are insignificant compared to the benefit such a child would bring, therefore they dare not impede his birth.

Oddly enough, even as a child, I knew enough to see the sense of the S’uthlamite officer’s argument. He was, in effect, arguing that life was holy. It was an attitude Captain Tuf did not share, and the story is arranged so that there is no ambiguity about who is right: Tuf’s universe backs Tuf’s position.  Nonetheless, while I forgot nearly everything else about the story, the argument about the unwisdom of contracepting and aborting potential genius babies stuck with me my whole life, and haunted me.

The reason why this is in second place is because the story clearly slants toward one position; the umpire of the universe is on one side. But that does not make this or any story propaganda. Even a slanted story where who is the good guy and who is the bad is utterly unambiguous escapes the dishonesty of propaganda if both sides get their say.

This is true even in simple boy’s adventure stories.

Let me use an example of two-sidedness from a story I liked: in the novella THUNDERHEAD by Keith Laumer, a lone military officer on an outpost forgotten by the Naval bureaucracy he once served has to make a desperate ascent to the top of a mountain to trigger the beacon when an alien warship, the last and desperate thrust of a dying race, attempts to trespass into human space. The aliens are portrayed in a convincingly alien fashion — few writers capture a truly alien look and feel better than Laumer — and these are clearly buglike enemies bent on the death of innocent humans. And yet, Laumer portrays them in a sympathetic light, underscores their courage and hopeless devotion to their lost cause, which parallels the hopeless loyalty of the main character’s devotion to a Navy that has forgotten him.


Even as simple and grand an action story as A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs, merely by telling the tale of Tars Tarkas, the one Green Martian who, among all the Green Martians otherwise raised by the collective like Spartans, knows and loves his wife and child, Burroughs eludes any accusation of onesidedness. (Any serious accusation, that is. Leftist would accuse God Himself of racism for choosing the Chosen people.)


Now this is not to say that stories without sympathetic villains are propaganda. Far from it! Both GALACTIC PATROL and its unadmitted younger brother STAR WARS are about heroes without flaws fighting villains without virtues. The Boskonians and Darth Vader (at least in the first film) are irredeemable Black Hats we are supposed to enjoy ourselves hissing and booing.

Indeed, a sympathetic villain, as we might see in Shakespeare … whoops! I forgot I was a philistine there for a second … as we might see in Blackie DuQuesne in SKYLARK OF SPACE, or the sad but treasonous figure of Dr Yueh in Frank Herbert’s DUNE, make the work impossible as a work of propaganda, if the villain enunciates his point of view, and, that is, not as a strawman argument.

But let me emphasize that point that works where the villain is made into a victim, so that the villain is now allegedly exonerated but in actually just as evil as before, are indeed pure quill propaganda. I am thinking of works like WICKED or MALEFICENT or INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. The propaganda message is always the same tired postmodern nihilism, preaching that wrong is right and right is wrong and nothing means anything.

An example might make this clear. Boromir is a character in conflict in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, tempted by the easier and darker path of seizing the Ruling Ring and using its evil magic to defend his threatened city. He is, so to speak, a gray chessman, partly good and partly evil. But the chessboard on which he moves is particularly distinct for having the white and black squares clearly marked: the black is unabated and inexcusable evil, and the white pristine with heartbreaking loveliness. But Boromir is not a bishop, so to speak, and so he ends on a different color where he starts. He is a villain, or, at least, a hero who succumbs to overmastering temptation, who redeems himself by a valiant death.

Works like WICKED or MALEFICENT are merely the opposite of this. They darken the white squares, such as by making the harmless comedy-relief father in Disney into a raping and pillaging evildoer, and brighten the black squares, by making the evildoers into victims who were pushed or prodded into their evil without the magnificent blasphemies of Milton’s Lucifer. Oops. Showing my lack of philistinism again. I mean, without the magnificent will to evil of Doctor Doom or Darkseid of Apokalips. The point of such stories is to turn the chessboard gray, because this is part of the political worldview of the perpetrators of these vile defilers of childhood.

Catwoman is not necessarily considered a sympathetic villainess, but I am mentioning her only to have the flimsiest imaginable excuse to post a photo of her:


Let me use only books I very much enjoyed as counterexamples of what really are propaganda disguised as fiction. There are the two examples I mentioned in my previous essay.

The buglike aliens in Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS are completely unsympathetic, merely targets. None comes on stage, expresses any emotion, has any say, has any justification, nothing. We do not even get a scene, as in the movie THE LONGEST DAY, where an enemy attempts to surrender and is shot. They are just bugs, something to spray with insecticide.

But having an unsympathetic villain is not enough to make a book propaganda, nor is having a point of view, or a message, or portraying things from the artist’s own viewpoint.

star troop

What makes STARSHIP TROOPERS propaganda is that the message is beaten into the plot even when there is no plot, such as scenes in school or OSC, and the only voice speaking against the message are strawmen so flimsy that even the Scarecrow of Oz would be embarrassed, as when a  bubbled-headed blonde breathlessly whines, “My mother says violence never solved anything!” She is merely the Abbott for the Costello of Heinlein’s zinger, “Tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.” (This was dumbed down in the movie version to ‘the city fathers of Hiroshima’ but since Hiroshima is still standing, I think the dumber-downer did not get the point of the zinger.)

So, again, we are not restricting our remarks to unsympathetic characters, but to unsympathetic points of view.

Heinlein’s book is only framework to preach his message about civic militarism. It is a message I like and I agree with, but no one not agreeing with this message is likely to like this book, because there is nothing else to it. Except the cool power armor. And it was the first book told from the point of view of a grunt, not a hero, who never learns either the causes nor the final resolution of the war.

atlas shrugged

Likewise with ATLAS SHRUGGED. Despite what its detractors say, the novel is written with extraordinary artistic skill. Anyone who says Ayn Rand is not a great novelist is shallow.

What Ayn Rand did, and I know of no other author who attempted something so ambitious, is invent her own theory of aesthetics, the meaning of beauty, and attempt to write a novel according to that theory.

Hence her every choice of wording, characterization, description, plot and so on, is in the most severe iron discipline of any work I have ever seen aside from Dante, but in this case the theory was her own, not classical examples of disciplined Cathedral-like symmetry as we see in Dante. You can read the opening five paragraphs of Ayn Rand and see why she selected the words and images she selected in order to produce the mood and atmosphere, and everything down to the last comma points to her moral philosophy she is trying to capture in storybook form.

However, this disciplined philosophy of art, a sort of streamlined classical modernism, leaves no room for the other side. No St Thomas Aquinas, however logical he may be, is allowed as a character in Galt’s Gulch among the other so called Men of the Mind. No human weakness or sentiment is allowed, even when a woman is choosing which lover to cleave to. And certainly no socialist or collectivist is allowed to do or say anything even the slightest bit sympathetic: their every nuance, even the way James Taggart blows his nose when he has a cold, must be monstrous and evil because he is a symbol of a monstrous and evil philosophy.

This distinction between art and agitprop is not that hard to make, but everything in our modern Left-controlled culture, which is hell bent on muddying and abolishing the distinction between propaganda and debate, expressing opinions and oppressing the downtrodden, makes that distinction hard for most people to grasp. I hope the examples here help.

In the case of Tuf Voyaging, the story universe was on the side of Tuf and on the side of Malthus (I say nothing about which side Mr Martin is on, since writers are a tricky breed, and we don’t necessarily let the reader in on our secrets).

But the story was not written to drum an idea into my young head, but to get me to think about the idea, or otherwise there is no point in letting the pro-Catholic villain of planet Overpop have his say. His say was say enough that, despite the slant, even as a youth, I thought he won the argument. Someone else reading the same story might think Tuf won the argument, or Tuf’s cat. Be that as it may: his art was enough like life so that living readers could have more than one reaction to the debates and disputes in the plot.

Not so with STARSHIP TROOPERS. No one could read that and say, “Hmm, although I do not agree with the bubble headed blonde dumpling, she makes a good point that violence never solved anything! And it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, for even the light yoke of gratitude to the all-Highest Creator, if extended to infinity in time, is a burden thereby grown infinite — and that my proud luciferian spirit and sense of injured merit will not tolerate!” The art is not like life, unless you think that there is no argument to be made on both sides of the issue.

Novels are about the search for truth. STARSHIP TROOPERS and ATLAS SHRUGGED are novels only by courtesy: they are really essays or exhortations in novel form. Now, I protest yet again that I enjoy both of these works very much, and I assert that both (unlike Phillip Pullman’s execrable AMBER SPYGLASS) are constructed with great craftsmanship, and, in Ayn Rand’s case, genius craftsmanship.

However, they are sermons. Good sermons, mind you, and sermons I like, but sermons nonetheless.  Perhaps it would be more accurate not to call them sermons but to say these two books are something a would-be Moses might proclaim as he descends from the mountain of truth to address students, children, and inferiors.

Someone who has the one and only right answer is not doing what a seeker after answers does.

* * *

And it should be mentioned that the Catwoman is a seeker after jewels, not after truth. I mention her again only to have a flimsy excuse for posting yet another image:






  1. Comment by Mary:

    Can’t have been Hawkmistress because that was before the Terrans showed up.

    But that’s a good cover, so we’ll let that slip. 0:)

  2. Comment by DGDDavidson:

    I will not embarrass a famous name by calling anyone an idiot, but I will mention parenthetically that on midnight of the full moon, rain or clear, summer and winter I paint myself from head to toe with blue woad and stand naked in the town square screaming ‘William Blake is an Idiot!’ at the top of my lungs until the constables can subdue me with truncheons.

    When I was in India teaching English, one of my fellow teachers was quite enamored of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and cajoled me into reading it. Its contents were so silly and shallow that I frankly don’t remember them, but I do remember explaining to this fellow exactly why the book was silly and shallow. He wasn’t pleased.

    When I read the Paradise Lost, I picked up a copy of the Cliff’s Notes along with it because I assumed the poem would be difficult and opaque. In fact, it was not at all difficult to read or understand, but I nonetheless read the Cliff’s Notes along with it simply because the commentary was excellent and also pleasurable to read. One passage in particular struck me, in reference to the tendency of later readers to think Milton sided with Satan: to paraphrase, “Satan’s monologues would not have fooled anyone in Milton’s day, but they fool many people in our day.”

    On another note, I recently finished both City Beyond Time, which I adored, and Judge of Ages, which had me grinning throughout even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand half of what was happening. I’ve been reading e-books of the Count to the Eschaton, but they are so dense I think I’m going to have to buy hard copies so I can more easily take notes or make a flow-chart or something, because I really want to unravel all these convolutions and plot twists. You are one of the few authors I can read for pleasure even when I don’t know what’s going on. I notice a few critics have put up semi-negative reviews because these books are so dense, but to that I say balderdash: it is their bewildering density that makes them a joy to read. Those critics simply aren’t the target audience.

    Anyway, I keep hearing praise for Awake in the Night Land, so I think I will have to get it as well. I’ve hesitated only because I once attempted Hodgson’s work and, though fascinated by his vision, nonetheless bogged down in his bad writing. How necessary is it to read his work before reading yours?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      How necessary is it to read his work before reading yours?

      It is hard for me to say, but I think the answer is “not at all”. My story is set in the same background, but I allude to nothing he explained without also explaining it: and he explains nothing, not even what the Thing Which Laughs is laughing at, or why it is better to die than to discover the truth of it.

      One character in the Hodgson story is the ancestor of heroine in one of my stories, but that is about it.

    • Comment by Tom:

      I haven’t read Hodgson’s work, and I did read Awake in the Night Land.

      I had no problem jumping in and enjoying the whole thing. Awake is absolutely terrific as well. It was so well written that I had to go make sketches and a digital painting out of a scene from it.

      I felt a very similar way about the Count to the Eschaton’s density that you did. But by the end of Judge of Ages, I really felt like things came together really well. I read really slow but with high comprehension usually though. Finding out about Menelaus’s mother’s response to her husband’s death for example is one of the spots where out of nowhere there is a tie back to something from a thousand pages ago.

      The editor for the hardbacks needs to be more careful about the actual words that are there, not just spelling. I found no typos, but there were quite a few confusing replacements of one word with another that changed meanings or made things jibberishy. The ebook version of Judge of Ages only had one or two though.

    • Comment by PK:

      I did not have any trouble reading it without going through Hodgson’s work first.

    • Comment by Mary:

      The Great Divorce was a retort to Marriage.

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      I am not proud to say I found Milton’s PARADISE LOST to be slow, ponderous, even boring reading. I remember how long and hard it was for me to read it all the way thru just once. And I gave up rereading it after five books. Also, the anti Catholic passages here and there irritated me. But, mostly, it simply wasn’t fun or interesting for me to read.

      In contrast, I LOVED Dante’s three part DIVINE COMEDY. Simply as literature, Dante knew HOW to tell a story which really grips a reader’s attention and interest. His INFERNO, for example, was much more grim and terrifying a place to be in than was Milton’s Hell. And Dante’s PURGATORIO is where you can find his gentlest and most tender poetry. I do concede some will find his PARADISO the most dificult and abstract part of the COMEDY.

      I’m so much a Dante fan that I read as well his LA VITA NUOVA, his political treatise DE MONARCHIA, and a collection of his surviving letters. And fans of the DIVINE COMEDY really NEED to read his letter to his friend and patron Can Grande della Scala commenting on the COMEDY.

      Sean M. Brooks

  3. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    Hiroshima is still standing

    So is Carthage, if the criterion is merely to have new buildings on the same geographical spot. But the issue of whether Japan was to be a militaristic empire ruling most of Eastern Asia was settled at Hiroshima just as thoroughly as the issue of whether Carthage or Rome should have hegemony over the western Mediterranean.

    • Comment by Brian Niemeier:

      According to Wikipedia, after having been reduced to a minor farming village for 900 years, Carthage is now a growing suburb of Tunis with an estimated population of 21,276.


      Interesting. I hadn’t considered whether the site had been repopulated until you mentioned it.

      • Comment by Mary:

        It was. It was even in Roman times. Augustine discussed it in City of God.

        • Comment by Brian Niemeier:

          That’s what I get for reading Confessions and De libero arbitrio but skipping City of God!

          Then again, who can truthfully claim to have read all of Augustine’s works?

          • Comment by Nostreculsus:

            TO CARTHAGE then I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares. For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God; yet, through that famine I was not hungered; but was without all longing for incorruptible sustenance, not because filled therewith, but the more empty, the more I loathed it. For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense. Yet if these had not a soul, they would not be objects of love. To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscense, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness; and thus foul and unseemly, I would fain, through exceeding vanity, be fine and courtly. I fell headlong then into the love wherein I longed to be ensnared.

            Confessions (Book Three)

      • Comment by BigFire:

        Cato the Elder always end his speech with “Carthago delenda est”. So when Hannibal failed to destroy Rome, and Rome finally went ahead and destroy Carthage once and for all, and salt the earth, just to be on the safe side. Julius Caesar founded the forerunner to the modern Carthage on the very same spot, just to demonstrate HIS power.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      If, as a reasonable person might suggest, the criterion is to have the descendants of the same population living on the same geographical spot and continuing in a recognizable descendant of the same culture and polity — why, then, Carthage died in 146 B.C. and never rose again. The site was uninhabited for a century, and when Julius Caesar built a city of the same name there, he settled it with Roman colonists.

      In any case, it was not the bombing of Hiroshima that settled the issue of whether Japan was to rule Eastern Asia. That issue was already settled; Japan lost. The only remaining issue was whether the Japanese would surrender without a long and bloody land campaign in their home islands, or with one. So the parallel between Carthage and Hiroshima is exceptionally poor, and it speaks ill of Verhoeven’s historical literacy that he would choose to replace one name with the other in his so-called adaptation. But then, I have never heard any good thing about that film.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        In any case, it was not the bombing of Hiroshima that settled the issue of whether Japan was to rule Eastern Asia.

        Fair enough. The point stands that the issue disputed at Hiroshima was indeed settled, very finally so, by violence.

        And the issue settled at the final siege of Carthage in 146 was also not that of hegemony over the Mediterranean; that had been decided fifty years earlier, when the Second Punic War ended. The Third Punic War was fought for no very identifiable geostrategic reason. It seems a fairly reasonable analogy to the bombing of Hiroshima to me.

        All of which to one side, this is all irrelevant to the real reason Hiroshima was chosen: Few people today have even heard of Carthage (or, absent gods help us all, Rome); Hiroshima, being within living memory, has at least a fighting chance of being familiar even to the movie-going public. As a matter of getting Heinlein’s point across, it is probably the best choice available, analogies be damned.

  4. Comment by AstroSorcorer:

    Thank you for posting this, I found it more helpful (especially Catwoman). Can a well constructed novel about conflict (and all the one I like have conflict, which may or may not also be violent conflict) have protagonists and antagonists, or are heroes and villains necessary? Can good drama come form conflict where the main characters are bot and variably good and evil? Does such grayness muddy the waters?
    In a desire to make more fully understandable (and believable) heroes and villains what would be some of the best examples?
    PS: We need more Catwoman.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      In all but the most shallow of adventure stories (STAR WARS) some internal conflict is needed for the protagonists, and usually this means the hero wrestles with his conscience, which means he is imperfect.

    • Comment by Pierce O.:

      It’s often dismissed as too cynical and bleak, but I’m rather fond of the conflicted characters that populate A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE/A GAME OF THRONES, particularly Daenerys, whose desire for justice is admirable, but regrettably untempered by mercy; and Tyrion, who, while host to many vices, tries hard to protect the innocent from the intrigue of the court. Conflict can also be just as engaging when each side has its merits. For example, when Stannis Baratheon lays siege to King’s Landing, I was torn: Stannis had the rightful claim to the throne, and Joffrey was a horribly evil king, but if Stannis breached the gates, there was going to be a pretty awful sack and looting of the city to follow, and a lot of other characters and innocent NPCs were going to die. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to win, but I had to find out.

      DRESDEN FILES has a good cast of imperfect heroes as well. What’s refreshing about DRESDEN is that while the cast is shades of gray, the author keeps the universe black-and-white, and evil deeds are never glossed over, nor are they without consequences.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        It is a safe rule of thumb that for character conflict, you need imperfect heroes, just for the same reason that, for plot conflict, you need an imperfect world. The conflict is between the black and white bits in the character’s soul urging him to move to help the black side or the white side of the chessboard of life. Certain genres, such as detective stories or boy’s adventure fiction, concentrate on puzzles and car-chases and fight scenes and do not need to spare the time to tell about the character’s internal conflict — in some stories that would be a distraction. But even in the simplest of adventure tales, and by that I mean STAR WARS, the internal conflict of Darth Vader deciding to save his son from imperial electrocution is the climax of the third movie. In either case, the characters can be as gray as the plot demands, but the chessboard squares must be stark black and stark white, or else there is no drama in the choice between them.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Hmmm. . . technically, you have conflict within a perfectly incorruptible pure hero owning to his limitations, just as two such heroes can conflict.

          The hero learns of a terrible deed. Revealing it will cause much anger and bad consequences, the extent of which he can not judge. On the other hand, suppressing it is dishonest, and allows the guilty to continue in a position where they can do bad things, the extent of which he can not judge.

          However, there aren’t many of them.

        • Comment by Arakawa:

          As a counterexample to the rule of chessboard squares in a good story being stark black and stark white, I’ll point to Miyazaki’s recent ‘The Wind Rises’. It is true that there is a struggle between light and darkness in Horikoshi — but he does not know where the light and where the darkness is.

          So with his main character, Miyazaki was asking a question that he himself does not have the answer to — for the sake of honesty, he is therefore forced to present a Shogi board where the squares are clearly delineated but blank, but the viewer is forced to decide on the colours. Having the author specify colours would be, in fact, premature.

  5. Comment by ConceptJunkie:

    OK, I’ll read the rest when I have more time, but would it be appropriate (i.e., referring to juvenile trash and blue woad) to describe these in relation to the author’s philosophical and mental well-being as “male fides”?

    As when discovering, many years ago, the techie slang term “pessimal”, extrapolated from the word “optimal” (and can be found in the OED, but not very many other places), I’ve always had a fascination with constructing new, or at least new to me, words by substituting the Latin or Greek roots as appropriate, to get really cool words such as “pessimal”, “superversive”, or by replacing Greek roots with the equivalent from Latin (or vice-versa) to get cool terms like “contraterrene”.

    It recently occurred to me that “catastrophe” could be used to modified to create the word “anastrophe”, which I thought might mean a sudden and dramatic _good_ thing occurring, but “anastrophe” refers solely to grammar, something that might be used when describing Yoda’s diction, and the term I was expecting was in fact coined by Tolkien as “eucatastrophe”… which makes more sense.

  6. Comment by Lee A Steven:

    Another way to look at this question is in the light of honesty vs. dishonesty, which not only distinguishes art from propaganda, but good art from bad art. Good art requires (as a necessary but not sufficient condition) honesty, which means, among other things, that the literary artist present a character and his motivations and ideas in a way that is consistent with and true to the nature of the type of person presented. A one-dimensional character is not true to anyone actually existing in the world, or if such people do exist in the world, they are not, if we are honest, the one’s we recognize as the best or even a fair exemplar of a disputed philosophical or moral principle. Heinlein’s bubble-headed blonde is not a character but merely a prop, the occasion that allows him to make the pronouncement about the efficacy of violence that he does. Propaganda is by its nature dishonest because it hides contrary positions to the message it wishes to convey and refuses to recognize that the issue at hand is actually disputed. If it does recognize the dispute, it dumbs down the other side by creating straw men and straw arguments. By the same token, bad art is often dishonest, even if not deliberate, because it creates shallow characters, shallow conflicts. That’s what we call sentimental writing, and it is bad because to doesn’t do justice to the individuals, emotions and motivations it is trying to present.

  7. Comment by The_Shadow:

    I am confused by an apparent contradiction. Please clear it up for me?

    One the one hand, you say that the ATLAS SHRUGGED (and more specifically, the writing therein) proves that Ayn Rand is a great novelist.

    Then later you say that ATLAS SHRUGGED is a novel only by courtesy.

    How can a work that is not really a novel prove one a great novelist? Surely to be a great novel, a work must actually be one and not merely by courtesy? And surely a great novelist must be someone who tends to produce great novels?

    And whatever her craftsmanship with words, which I will not presume to analyze, her incessant one-sidedness produces in me, at least, a curiously crabbed impression; I do not find reading her work a pleasant experience at all. Her philosophy is, as you say, nakedly on display; and it is an ugly philosophy.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I apologize for using my terms more flamboyantly than rigorously. In one place I was using a narrow definition of novel, as art in the service of truth, and in the other a broader definition, any book length story.

      The two definitions are not necessarily at odds. If ATLAS SHRUGGED is a novel by courtesy, it is a novel. It merely not art in service of truth; it is rhetoric in service to Ayn Rand’s personal vision of the world. Now, to be sure, that is a rather logical and impressive vision, and the craftsmanship by which it is put together, in my professional opinion as an novelist, is equaled for its structure only by Dante.

      I find her work unpleasant in the same way I like drinking lemonade. From time to time the mouth craves sour.

  8. Comment by ChevalierdeJohnstone:

    Blake may well have been an idiot, but his poetry is credited by Thomas Merton for preparing Brother Merton’s soul for conversion by the Holy Spirit.

    Darth Vader is not a villain, he is an antagonist. Until his reinvented 21st century bildungsroman, Vader’s role in the first movie was simply to oppose, with the full force of the law of the Republic, the actions of some thieves and terrorists who seek to return the galaxy to rule by a select few chosen essentially by birthright, instead of rule by the people of the galaxy instituted through legally-elected representatives. Of whom the Emperor, Vader’s boss, is one. Vader never does anything “villainous”; he is simply a capable warrior and general who carries out seemingly lawful applications of military force. (If you smuggle contraband, you are stopped and searched. If you resist violently, the response is in kind. If you use the resources of your planet to attempt the violent overthrow of the lawful government, your planet is destroyed. The first tactical rule of just warfare is, if your enemy hides his military materiel behind a human shield (Aldebaran), and you must destroy his materiel to prosecute a just war, then the death of the human shields are on the enemy’s conscience and not your own.

    David Brin has an essay in which he does a better job of highlighting the “Master Race” overtones of Star Wars, in contrast with Star Trek which, while fantastical, at least suggests a fantasy future in which humanity is ruled by laws, not men, and in which said laws treat all men and allied aliens as equals. In contrast, in Star Wars a Jedi can, apparently with impunity and no remorse, engage in mind control of an unwilling person simply to evade a legal process which said Jedi does not want to undergo (Obi Wan Kenobi does this).

    I think this is why Vader is always such a more fascinating character than Luke. You still see Vader masks at Hallowe’en, never a Luke mask. Luke is a whiny brat who grows up to realize he is entitled to be a whiny brat because, in fact, he is a genetically superior superhuman who deserves to decide the fate of lesser men.

  9. Comment by Raphael:

    One has to remember that Blake was an eccentric visionary living in a country dominated by a very respectable state church, a church that had scoured the walls and smashed the stained glass windows of its cathedrals. There were only so many ways such a one could develop under such conditions. His personality was twisted by suffering and misunderstanding, and perhaps by something more.

    I find his Songs of Innocence & Experience very beautiful, though I don’t pretend to be an expert on such things, and some of his visual works – the illustrations to Job, for instance – are sublime. But his prophecies, &c., I’ve never been able to get through.

    Chesterton wrote a perceptive and very sympathetic biography of the man. Sayeth he:

    “What was it that was eating away a part of Blake’s brain? I venture to offer an answer which in the eyes of many people will have nothing to recommend it except the accident of its personal sincerity. I firmly believe that what did hurt Blake’s brain was the reality of his spiritual communications. In the case of all poets, and especially in the case of Blake, the phrase ‘an inspired poet’ commonly means a good poet. About Blake it is specially instinctive. And about Blake, I am quite convinced, it especially untrue. His inspired poems were not his good poems. His inspired poems were very often his particularly bad ones; they were bad by inspiration. […] It was exactly because he was unnaturally exposed to a hail of forces that were more than natural that some breaches were made in his mental continuity, some damage was done to his mind. […] He was an idiot because he was inspired. When he said of ‘Jerusalem’ that its authors were in eternity, one can only say that nobody is likely to go there to get any more of their work. He did not say that the author of ‘The Tyger’ was in eternity; the author of that glorious thing was in Carnaby Market.” [pp. 93 – 94]

    And finally, for me, the money quote:

    “It is all very well for great men, like Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne, to trust utterly to the seraphim of Blake. They may naturally trust angels – they do not believe in them. But I do believe in angels, and incidentally in fallen angels.” [p. 97]


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