“Anyone Who Fights for the Future Lives in It, Today” --Introduction to The Romantic Manifesto
At times, Ayn Rand permitted herself to write of Romanticism with a terrible yearning redeemed only by her fighting spirit. In the introduction to The Romantic Manifesto (1969) she wrote:
As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history…If one has glimpsed that kind of art—and wider: the possibility of that kind of culture—one is able to be satisfied with nothing less…. It is that knowledge I want to hold up to the sight of men…before the barbarian curtain descends (if it does) and the last memory of man’s greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.
But this was Ayn Rand, so, of course, the rest of the Romantic Manifesto is dedicated to a brilliant, inspiring presentation of the nature, philosophical roots, craft, and life-giving importance of Romanticism. As she wrote, “There is no Romantic movement today. If there is to be one in the art of the future, this book will have helped it come into being.”
An “End in Itself”
The Romantic school of literature--its heroes and projection of a sunlit world, whatever the struggle required to reach it--was Ayn Rand’s earliest exposure, as a girl in Russia, to a new universe of philosophy. She chose to be a novelist while still in a world where long-term ambition seemed a bitter taunt. Against all odds, she devoted her life to the creation in fiction of the ideal man—not the accepted ideal of this time, of that place, but the ideal as defined by a radical philosophy of reason and egoism. That she succeeded is testified to by tens of millions of readers who say The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged not only delighted and inspired them, but, in many cases, changed their lives more than any other book.
It all went back to an emotional fire in one young woman, a fire that could not be extinguished even by the soul-crushing malevolence of communist Russia. Many decades later, she explained in The Romantic Manifesto that all serious literature expresses the emotional equivalent of philosophical, especially metaphysical, conclusions. Her term for the emotional process by which our minds automatically sum up all our experiences to reach implicit generalizations about human nature, the world, and their meaning for our lives, is “sense of life.” When art enables us to experience a world that is the homeland of our sense of life, that pleasure is an end in itself.
We feel: “I am glad to have been alive to experience this.” Every lover of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead will know what I mean.
From one perspective, I think, she believed that there is nothing more important. Emotions are the way we experience life, including enjoyment of it, and our emotional foundation is our sense of life. In everything she wrote about art, literature, and sense of life, she shared her love for authors and works of the Romantic movement that began near the end of the 18th Century and throughout the 19th Century: Victor Hugo, Friedrich Schiller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Edmond Rostand…
In The Romantic Manifesto, she penetrated to the philosophical essence of Romanticism. As one of the three “revolutions” proceeding from the Age of Reason (the others were the Industrial Revolution and the political revolutions in America, France, and elsewhere), Romanticism portrayed man as possessing free will and therefore master of his individual destiny—his life shaped by choosing, pursuing, often struggling for his values.
Romanticism yielded to the rise of Naturalism and Realism starting as early as 1850 in Europe and America; a century later, new literary novels in the Romantic tradition were virtually unknown until the revival represented by Ayn Rand’s own works. At the same time, though, Romanticism could not be extinguished outside of academia and literary circles; it lived on in such popular genre as detective and spy stories and science fiction, which still dominate book sales--if not reviews in “serious” high-brow literary journals.
Ayn Rand never lost her delight in “turning on” readers to the best popular novelists: Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, the early Ira Levin… Cumulatively, though, we see that the occasions for her enthusiasm were few over the decades she wrote.
When, in The Romantic Manifesto (1969), she expressed the hope that this tribute to Romanticism might nurture a new era of Romanticism, she could point to no examples of contemporary Romantic “literature”—only popular fiction.
A Romantic Revolution
Reading the book almost 50 years ago, I knew of no Objectivist who was publishing fiction, though a few were struggling to write it. I have wondered if fear of judgment was the cause (although Ayn Rand tended to encourage young writers). Was it an accident that the first novel arising directly from her inspiration was published in the year she died? Catching Fire, by Kay Smith, one of Ayn Rand’s closest circle of friends, came out in 1982, followed by four others in the next decade. Erika Holzer, another associate of Ayn Rand, published Double Crossing in 1988 and Eye for An Eye in 1993.
Today, half a century after The Romantic Manifesto, the situation has changed. One informal list posted on Amazon includes more than 30 first novels inspired by the fiction of Ayn Rand. Nor is that list complete. Why did this take so long? I believe that many Objectivists had to overcome their awe of Ayn Rand’s achievements in fiction and her imperiously high standards for judging the fiction of others. The “Open Objectivist” movement of the Atlas Society encouraged unintimidated exchange of ideas, criticism of Objectivism, contributions to thought about Objectivism, even contributions to the Objectivist philosophy: that is, to Ayn Rand’s ideas viewed as an independent historical philosophical system, with its own internal logic and integrity--not Objectivism in the (also valid) sense of Ayn Rand’s works.
Another factor has been self-publishing. It always was available, of course, through what were called “vanity presses,” but the name suggests the stigma. With self-publishing through Amazon, the cost of publishing a new novel became vanishingly small—as did the chances of reaching a significant readership. Self-publishing removed the requirement to persuade professional editors at publishing houses to accept a novel with themes such as (to name actual examples) a heroic laissez-faire Presidential candidate, a battle against evil environmental activists, or a thriller about the 1960’s-1970’s New Left’s resort to violence in politics.
Two New Objectivist Romantic Novelists
In this and future columns, I will introduce new Romantic novelists with an Objectivist philosophical base. (I have published four novels and several novellas, but will leave them for others to discuss.) I have not read even all the first novels by Objectivists; I hope to do so. Here, I will begin by discussing just two novelists whose work I know well and have reviewed at length elsewhere. I am excited by their novels because they are not easily categorized as generic detective or thriller fiction (although, as in Atlas Shrugged, there are elements of the thriller)—the category usually embraced by Objectivists (including myself) influenced by Ayn Rand’s personal enthusiasm.
Vinay Kolhatkar is the author of A Sharia London (2016) and a first novel, The Frankenstein Candidate (2012). Enthusiastic reviewers comment that the novels “must” become movies, not knowing that Kolhatkar has written screenplays and thinks in terms of the “cinematic novel.” He began and edits an Objectivist-based online publication, Savvy Street (www.thesavvystreet.com), an e-zine dedicated to furthering individualism. Kolhatkar gave presentations on modern Romantic film at two recent Atlas Society summits.
The Frankenstein Candidate is a brilliantly plotted and consummately executed story of political ideas and intrigue in an American election--and a vision of what might and ought to be. Yet, Kolhatkar understands that plot and ideas never are enough. His novel is about what William Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself"--the conscience of a beautiful, successful, and ultimately honest and courageous woman who first must find truth in herself before she brings truth to a viciously deceived, collapsing, and desperate America of 2020.
U.S. Senator Olivia Allen's ambition takes her almost to the Democratic Presidential nomination in an election campaign at once appalling, sickening, but ultimately gloriously inspiring. Almost. Until her own inner journey toward honesty cries: Stop! It is a cry that rings, too, from the novel itself--a cry to America and the American electorate. Readers inevitably will ponder the prophetic meaning for the election of Donald Trump in 2016 of this novel written fully four years earlier.
Want to know what might happen if a truly honest man addressed the American electorate--the unvarnished truth, truth shorn of rhetoric? Want to imagine a "dream candidate" that is not a "dream" in the usual sense--electability--but an ideological dream? Meet billionaire Frank Kenneth Stein, who runs for president as an independent candidate. The man whose truth makes him a monster to America's political elite--with their media cheering section and their Wall Street crony capitalists and their environmental lobbyists--must be destroyed because it is either-or.
This kind of writing, and Kolhatkar’s kind of thinking, changes minds and ultimately cultures. Works like this, if they can gain traction with readers--against the inevitable stonewalling of the mainstream intellectuals--can take a revolution in ideas to a popular audience. It is a blessing that The Frankenstein Candidate is written in a fully professional style, with professional editing and proofing, so that it loses nothing in the competition with the offerings of the Establishment press.
A Sharia London, as far as we can tell, may take place in London today, or next year, but the reality of the story is unfolding across Europe. Islamic jihadists, like terrorists everywhere, are targeting their moderate co-religionists who are publicly protesting Islam-as-murder, cooperating with police against the terrorists, or simply trying to break free of the religion of their birth.
Marlon Stone, like most of us, affirms religious tolerance. Unlike most of us, he teaches and preaches it as a college lecturer. After all, there are billions of Muslims in dozens of countries who lead peaceful lives among their fellow citizens. But Marlon misreads the jihadists as standing up for Islam against provocation--and the protestors against Islam as the ones stirring up trouble.
This begins to change on the first day of class when a beautiful, independent-minded, outspoken, and notably sexy woman in her early twenties, a Muslim apostate, sweeps into his class. Her ideas about Islam challenge him immediately, but it is her dream in life--to live Sharia-free and help other women oppressed by Islam--that draws Marlon into battle against all-too-real bloody jihadists.
When Marlon falls in love with this heroic student, Jamila Khan, and comes to see that she is unqualifiedly good--and threatened by an evil irredeemably blind to the good--something clicks. Whatever the cesspit of confusion or rage, hurt or hate, in the minds of the jihadists, the only response can be to protect what he loves by answering force with force.
Kolhatkar narrates in swift, lean, evocative prose that focuses on action; his talent is make that action speak for itself of the emotions and the values at stake. When his rhetoric goes beyond even this, seeking peak moments, it often is in describing the physical love between Marlon and Jamila and of Jamila's exuberant sense of life:
"He knew that he was past the point of no return. He took her breasts in his mouth, one at a time, shifting from left to right like a child in a candy shop unable to decide what to spend his penny on.
"She became aware of the imminence of the final stage of ecstatic agony only moments before it exploded. Quickly, she took a deep breath and ducked under the water. Her moan that would have been audible became a single forceful exhalation--the exhalation merged with the rising globules of warm air."
A Sharia London elevates a thriller into literary Romanticism, when, in parallel with Marlon's external journey, the novel unfolds his transformative internal journey. It is a journey that begins in psychological despair--the frozen grip of paralyzing anhedonia--and reaches by the end a robust affirmation of life, love, and assertive action. His guru is his student, Jamila: "...it dawned on him that she was the teacher, and it was he who was the student. Always had been ... It was she who taught by doing--a masterclass in the art of living."
D. K. Halling
D.K. Halling is the literary signature of the husband-wife team of Kaila and Dale Halling, whose second novel, Trails of Injustice (2015) followed by two years a remarkable first novel, Pendulum of Justice (2013). Yes, the novels are all about justice, seen through the eyes of Dale Halling, whose profession is patent law, Kaila Halling, who is a professional writer, and both, who are involved in Objectivist organizations and activities. (Dale Halling has made two presentations on patent law at Atlas Summits.) They live on the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico.
Pendulum of Justice is a thriller, but, to me, the first sign that a novel might be a contribution to revival of literary Romanticism is that it is not a formula mystery or secret agent story. I have grown up loving such books; I scarcely can imagine my world without them, but, in seeking intimations--however faint--of an emerging Romantic Revolution, I would not point to such works. They have existed in abundance in the realm of popular fiction even as Naturalism and Realism have come to dominate utterly the “serious” literary scene.
Pendulum of Justice has a serious, complex theme: the life and death decisions we now leave in the hands of the Washington bureaucracy that controls innovations, including medical innovations, through the Patent Office. One can say "life and death," but Pendulum of Justice dramatizes this issue as a heart-stopping reality--and suggests how the man of justice might respond when someone he loves is the victim.
Hank Rangar is an innovator and entrepreneur in medical technology, but, today, there are gatekeepers of that technology--and their motives and the basis of their decisions are as affected by power lust, horse trading, and lobbying as any other decision out of Washington. Believe me, as the hero of Pendulum of Justice comes to see what that bureaucracy has done, and why, you will cheer and cheer at how he decides to react.
Trails of Injustice brings back hero Hank Rangar—suggesting the popular thriller genre, since Romantic literary works tend to create characters, a world, and a story artistically complete in one book. (Still, if Ayn Rand had lived to write a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, I would not have judged it, prima facie, not Romantic literature!)
A thriller thrills on many levels: plot and action, character charisma, veracity of detail such as the technological, compelling power of theme, and even (yes, occasionally) the philosophical ideas at stake. Trails of Injustice, for me, succeeds on all these levels.
As in Kolhatkar’s A Sharia London, excitement in Trails of Injustice arises, in part from contemporary events that are the novel’s context and launching pad—in this case. the federal government’s plan, in 2009, to strike at the giant Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel—especially its pipeline of guns, including high-powered rifles, from the United States. The scheme was to allow the guns to be fed into the pipelines, not stopping them when purchased by American “straw buyers” for the cartel, but following them into the heart of the Sinaloa operation. The program ultimately made a lot of headlines--not all flattering!
A Romantic novel is never its setting, of course, but this novel’s backstory brings into play not only agents forced to “cooperate” with criminals, but deep deception and manipulation from Washington. Hank Rangar, lying low in Mexico after his first encounter (in Pendulum of Justice) with a Washington bureaucracy gone rogue, is drawn into the dangerously disintegrating affair. The battle that he and his allies must fight in Trails of Injustice is guided, again and again, by Hank’s command of a bristling armamentarium of computer tools and skills. I can think of no novel that has done this with greater authenticity, intrigue, and panache since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The action soon immigrates into the United States, focusing around Arizona, ground zero of the real Operation Fast and Furious, and in Washington, D.C. The stakes increase and the desperation of the Washington forces becomes murderous when they try to pin blame for the “gun walking” south of the border on a firearms manufacturer who is Rangar’s friend.
One of the great Romantic themes is that of the fearless individual in a righteous cause summoning every ounce of brainpower and scrap energy to fight the limitless resources of a government that has abandoned law to defend its power at any price. In that sense, Trails of Injustice, like Pendulum of Justice, is a classic.
Risks of Romanticism
Here, then, are two Objectivist authors, one a team, who have loved and understood the fiction of Ayn Rand and taken the risks of believing in a Romantic Revolution that is still a battle cry without an army. Theirs is not only the challenge of creating an intricately plotted novel, with character, action, and conflicts driven by clashing values--and events with clear meaning. Theirs, too, is the task of reaching readers largely by their own efforts. Self-published authors do not need to please editors or avoid offending editors and reviewers; but the tradeoff is that their only allies are readers who discover their work and champion it.
And yet, a renaissance in Romanticism has powerful realities in its favor. First is the historical Romantic movement, which produced literary works still among the most revered and enjoyed. A second is the incomparable glory of Ayn Rand’s novels, which cast in deep shadow, for millions of readers, the best output of Realism and its variants. A third is the Objectivist theory of esthetics, explaining at a depth barely suggested by earlier theories, the role of Romantic art in human development, morality, and attainment of the human ideal. Last, and perhaps greatest, is the hunger of readers for the experience Romantic literature offers of heroes to admire, heroes striving for crucial values in a world where wild laughter at life’s unimaginable surprises and wondrous gifts is always just around the next corner.
About the Author
Walter Donway is a novelist, poet, and writer about contemporary issues from the perspective of Objectivism. His most recent novel, about the 1970’s New Left violence, is The Way the Wind Blew. His articles for TAS publications, his presentations at summer seminars, and his contributions to this site can be found in the archives. His most recent book, Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist, with a preface by David Kelley, is a comprehensive look at loss of economic freedom in America; it is available on Amazon.