Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I'm re-reading Ayn Rand's Anthem, which is structured as a journal kept by the hero.Today I was particularly focused on the visual descriptions offered by the hero. She has a special gift in this area, a cinematic delight in how things actually look. She passes this gift to her hero, but he expressions must be filtered through his society's circumscribed language. Like this:

"The fields are black and ploughed, and they lie like a great fan before us, with their furrows gathered in some hand beyond the sky, spreading forth from that hand, opening wide apart as they come toward us, like black pleats that sparkle with thin, green spangles."

So she starts with a camera-eye view of receding parallel rows, finds a metaphor ("fan held by a giant hand") for that appearance, and describes it as actively happening ("opening"). That's pretty characteristic. Heck, then she turns the dirt into black pleats and the plants into green spangles, just to give a completely metaphorical vivid description.

So, even though her style seems really different in Anthem, you can see that the underlying approach to visual description is still there. It's just adapted.

I've seen people try to parody her descriptive style, but I haven't seen anyone really get this approach right. Partly, I suppose, because it's hard, and it's not the way most of us look at things. Partly, I suspect, because Rand is so strong on ideas that you tend to get distracted from the means by which she conveys the sensory.

She throws off ideas at high speed,
Which makes it hard, while you read,
To really notice the little tricks
She uses to color her virtual pics.


Ergo said...

Wow, John! thanks for this brief but brilliant insight into Rand's literary skill. True, her philosophical accomplishments have sometimes overshadowed her incredible achievements as an artist. Even in her novels, its easy to be lost in the depth of her ideas... although, I think at some semi-conscious level, one also enjoys her artistry.

But you're right.

JohnJEnright said...

I think you are aware, as you read, that the writing is excellent. I think it's just hard to pay attention to the writing in isolation. If she were an author who was saying the same old thing, the style would jump out at you more. Of course, that "if" is like saying "if diamonds were dust."