Vol. 9, No. 6 (February 1997)

In the following excerpt from Full Context's conversation with Minsaas, editor Karen Reedstrom and guest co-author Thomas Gramstad discuss Rand's approach to tragedy, comparing and contrasting Rand and Shakespeare:

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Q: You are writing a doctoral thesis about Shakespeare. How do Shakespeare and Rand compare?

Minsaas: Well, for me they are both examples of creative genius, having the power to amaze me with the incredible mental power that must have gone into their work.

Q: Are there any important similarities and differences?

Minsaas: The strange thing is that, different as they may seem to be, they are yet very similar in that they deal with the same fundamental issues regarding human existence, particularly on the moral level. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they are both deeply steeped in ancient philosophical traditions. I am not here thinking only of Aristotle, although he certainly is important in both cases, but also of schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism and even Platonism. What we find in the literary works of both Shakespeare and Ayn Rand are fictional explorations of the questions that concerned these ancient philosophical traditions, like: How should one live? What is the good life? What is the role of evil in man’s life? Why do men fall into tragedy? What is the nature of happiness? But their way of doing this was of course very different. Generally, apart from the fact that Shakespeare wrote dramas and Rand novels, I would say that Shakespeare was a much more openly inquiring writer than Ayn Rand, less dogmatic, closer to Aristotle in fact, less concerned with teaching a doctrine and more concerned with inspiring and provoking the reader to think for himself.

Q: A lot of Objectivists think tragedy in art is automatically bundled with a malevolent sense of life. But I look at a play such as Romeo and Juliet and do not see a tragic sense of life but the author’s warning to future parents of warring families whose children may fall in love. Do you think that tragedy can have the purpose of making people grieve about third party characters and shock them into rethinking their own actions in life? That some tragedy is an effort to inspire the audience through the emotion of grief to become better people?

Minsaas: Yes, I believe these are things that tragedy, good tragedy, may do. But more important, perhaps, from an Objectivist perspective, is the fact that a tragedy, to achieve these effects, indirectly must be strongly value affirmative. It is because we sympathize with the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet, because we identify with their youthful and passionate romance, that we get mad at the parents and the feuding families. In this, the story is in fact very much like We The Living.

Q: Why do you think Rand characterizes tragedy this way? Was it limited knowledge or some spiritual bias on her part?

Minsaas: Both perhaps. Obviously she found art that presented the negative aspects of life either very boring or very depressing, preferring art works that gave her the kind of spiritual fuel she made essential in her esthetics. I think we can understand this better if we think of the enormous value such art must have had for her in her own struggle to survive the ordeals of life in Soviet Russia. But then she proceeded to make this into a question of metaphysics, reducing art experience to an opposition between a "benevolent" or uplifting art and a "malevolent" or depressing, or even evil, art and ignoring other possibilities. Hence she came to believe that art should present only positives, virtue, achievement, happiness, success, while the presentation of negatives, evil, failure, misery and defeat, was appropriate only for contrast, as a foil. But the mere fact that an art work presents negatives does not necessarily entail a bad metaphysics.

Even such a horror story as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which definitely has nothing uplifting to commend it, does not project a malevolent philosophy but shows us the self-destructiveness, both spiritually and existentially, of crime. It even ends with the good characters triumphing over evil. So the universe it presents is in many ways just, but not inspiring. Like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the play is first of all a brilliant study in criminal psychology, showing us that crime has self-defeating consequences. So, before we jump to the conclusion that a negative slant in an art work necessarily entails an evil metaphysics, we must ask, what function does it serve?

Only in some cases like, for example, the plays by Samuel Beckett, do we actually have deliberate attempts to present an absurd or meaningless universe. In other cases, there might be some other reason—as in the Shakespeare-plays.

Q: In what way can an appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare add to one’s understanding of esthetics? Of ethics?

Minsaas: The supreme value of Shakespeare, I think, lies in his mastery of translating philosophical ideas into drama, of turning different ethical codes into the stuff of dramatic conflict, experienced by thinking, feeling, living human beings. But to fully appreciate this, one has to have some knowledge of both ancient and Renaissance philosophy. Leonard Peikoff has complained about Shakespeare that his characters are not motivated by ideas but by passions, springing up from nowhere. But this is not true at all. Generally, his characters are embodiments of some ethical code or value system. Brutus, for example, in Julius Caesar, is a Stoic, who is destroyed by a rather rigid moral idealism incapable of dealing with the complexities of political reality. And Hamlet was probably meant to represent the code of the courtier that played such an important role in the Renaissance conception of the ideal man and that was popularized through Castiglione’s famous book, The Book of the Courtier. What Shakespeare does with him, however, is that he places him in a situation where he comes under pressures that put his code seriously to the test and force him to readjust it to the demands of reality. Thus, Shakespeare’s tragedies dramatize in different ways what it means to live an ethical ideal in actual reality, put up against the demands of sometimes complex and shifting social pressures. This, I think, should be of great interest to Objectivists—at least to Objectivists interested in living the philosophy rather than just preaching it to other people.

Q: You are writing a book about Ayn Rand. Can you tell us about the topic, scope and progress of this work?

Minsaas: Well, the book will in part be based on the lectures that I have given, but I want to integrate them into a coherent presentation of Ayn Rand as a literary artist, emphasizing in particular the romantic qualities of her writing, both in terms of style and content. Also, I want to discuss the relationship between literature and philosophy in her works. There seems to be a general tendency, even among Objectivists, to downgrade Ayn Rand’s literary achievement as compared to her philosophical achievement. My own view is that she was a greater artist than philosopher. In fact, I think her philosophy is in many ways reductive of her own thinking, that her ideas, as presented in the novels, through the characters and events and not just the speeches, are much richer and more fertile than her explicit philosophizing. Or to put it differently, I like her better as a literary philosopher than as a theoretical philosopher. This is something I want to emphasize very strongly. Moreover, as a literary scholar, rather than a philosophical activist, I am more interested in showing her power as a novelist than in proving the truth or significance of her philosophy.

Q: What do you think of Chris Sciabarra’s thesis in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical that Rand’s type of novel writing comes from the Russian tradition of Dostovesky, Tolstoy, and the symbolist poets?

Minsaas: I think he is probably onto something. He refers, for example, to the importance of organic unity in her writing, a point I have made too. But I attributed this more generally to her Romanticism, since it was a central idea in Romantic esthetics. It was also important in Aristotle. So there are a number of sources that may have influenced her here. And I do believe, like Sciabarra, that she really was influenced by others, that she did borrow ideas from different writers and thinkers and then synthesized them into her own unique vision. This is not to detract from her originality. It is only to recognize that genius does not work in a vacuum, but in a context.

Kirsti MinsaasKirsti Minsaas is a Norwegian literary scholar who has lectured on Ayn Rand as a literary artist, both in Europe and the U.S. She was formerly a stage actress, but is now a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Oslo, preparing a thesis on Aristotle and Shakespearean tragedy. She is also writing a book discussing Ayn Rand’s fiction. One of her major interests is the relationship between ethics and literature, two disciplines she believes have been too rigidly compartmentalized by academia. Minsaas has presented lectures at the The Objectivist Center (formerly Institute for Objectivist Studies)’ Summer Seminar in Philosophy in 1995 and 1996, and at "Objectivism Today" in 1994.
An audiotape of Minsaas' "Structure & Meaning in Ayn Rand's Novels" is available from Principle Source.

These excerpts represent less than 20% of the interview with Miss Minsaas. To read the full text, you may order a copy of the February 1997 issue of Full Context here.

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