Mindspell, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: William Morrow, 1982, 311 pp., $13.95.
Ayn Rand is no longer. Yet the ideas of the philosopher-novelist live on, inspiring writers, thinkers, activists.
Among fans of the Randian novel there is a good deal of interest in the published novels of her past associates. One of these is Kay Nolte Smith, a former actress who was once the main film and theater critic for Rand's journal, The Objectivist. Smith is the author of a number of short stories and recently published her third novel, Mindspell. Her work has won awards and acclaim from the mystery writers' establishment and the appreciation of novelists Andrew Greeley and Robert Bloch.
Is Smith's work "in the Randian tradition"? But this raises another question: What is that tradition?
There are many ways to go about answering this question, but all lead to the same answer. To pursue one way, consider with whom Rand the philosopher most closely identified herself: Aristotle. Rand's philosophy, to a large degree, is an updated or modified Aristotelianism. But as anyone familiar with Rand's fiction and nonfiction realizes, Rand the novelist and Rand the philosopher cannot be divorced. Rand the philosopher called for the abandonment of modern philosophy and the revival of classical philosophy, or at least of its concerns. Rand the novelist called for the abandonment of Christian culture, or as she put it, "the cultural traditions of the past 2,000 years," and a revival and transformation of the heroism of Greek, especially Homeric, culture.
Rand sometimes alluded to this in her frequent references to the Prometheus legend. Prometheus was the Olympic god in Greek mythology who gave fire to men, against the orders of Zeus, the king of the Olympic gods. For disobeying his orders, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain where vultures were daily allowed to feast on his immortal and eternally regenerating body.
Greek myths, poems, and plays are full of this kind of story. The protagonist commits an act of hubris, stepping outside the natural (or divine) order, and is punished as a result.
A special case of stepping outside the order of things is the case of being good at something, so good that one excites the envy of gods or humans. And within this case there is the more special case of being good at the particularly human virtue, reason, or any of its offspring: science, technology, entrepreneurship, or art. The Prometheus myth itself falls into this category, since fire is both illumination (the beginning of knowledge) and the basis of technology.
Heroic literature begins when the tables are turned on the envious gods. Human beings are portrayed as both capable and worthy of the excellences previously allowed only to the superhuman. Homer initiated heroic literature with the Iliad (a work constantly cited by Aristotle) by allowing his hero, Achilles, the strongest, swiftest, and most beautiful of the Achaeans, to disobey an aging and envious king, Agamemnon. Although Achilles does die on the battlefield, he is not reduced to obedience, and he, unlike the rulers who envy his natural excellence, is praised and remembered long after his death.
Rand continued this heroic tradition. The order out of which the Randian hero or heroine steps is mass society, mediocrity, everyday life; the envious are no longer gods and kings but egalitarian politicians and next-door neighbors; the heroes and heroines are no longer primarily warriors, representatives of the animal or bodily excellences, but representatives of excellence in the particularly human power, reason.
Thus, the essence of the Randian novel is to pit excellence against envy—and, unlike tragedy, to show why the excellent can win. And in this sense Smith continues the Randian tradition.
In Mindspell, Smith takes her mythological bearings not from the Greek but from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Her heroine is associated with a witch, or wise-woman, who was one of her ancestors. This points to the myth of Eve, the Judeo-Christian analogue of the Prometheus legend. As Prometheus brought fire (science/technology) to humankind and was punished by the Greek king of the heavens, so Eve brought knowledge (the fruit of the tree of knowledge) to humankind, and she and her descendants were cursed by the Judeo-Christian king of the heavens.
Mindspell is the story of Cayla Hayward, a businesswoman who is the chief executive of Hayward Industries, a company that produces pharmaceuticals and engages in biochemical research. As the story begins, Hayward Industries has just performed a successful in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering, the latter an "operation" on the chromosomes of a four-celled human embryo to cure it of a hereditary illness, Tay-Sachs disease, which occurs only in Jews. (As Eve brought us the fruit of knowledge, so Cayla Hayward brings us knowledge of how to be more fruitful.)
This research and experimentation is a hot topic of political debate (both in this novel and in the world today). Should life forms be patentable private property? Should humans be allowed to tamper with God's work? Should research be done for a profit? Shouldn't parents be forced to accept their own barrenness, or their children's congenital deformities, if God intended them? Smith has a little fun with conservatives' and the liberals' similarity in their desire to limit freedom only to the activities of which they approve.
Just as Congress begins to hold hearings on whether or not to restrict or outlaw this research, skeletons begin to fall out of the Hayward family closet. In 1643, a Scottish ancestor of the Haywards (who live in New York and Connecticut) was burned at the stake for being a witch after being accused of witchcraft by her nieces. She left a letter before her death, expressing her sorrow and anger and saying that if she were a witch, she would curse all her nieces' female descendants to be witches and suffer the tortures she has suffered.
Of course, historically, Kella Hagaward (the Scottish ancestor) and others accused of being witches were simply people who collected herbs and prepared home remedies. As such, however, they were threats to religious competitors in the business of supplying advice and comfort. Individual humans—particularly socially marginal humans like women, widows, or the elderly—should not aspire to improve on the works of God, church, or state. But Kella Hagaward's true historical status as healer and victim (not villain and witch) does not save Cayla Hayward from the ravings of the fundamentalists when they learn that one of these "atheistic scientists," attempting to "play God" with human genes, has been cursed by an ancestor to be a witch.
Cayla's predicament pushes her close to the limits of sanity—mindspell. Why are all the other women in her family either "crazy or lazy"? Why have so many been institutionalized or died at an early age? Is it the death curse of a witch? Is it bad blood? Is it patriarchal conditioning that has forbidden these Eves to gather fruit, to be active in the world?
Mindspell is a wonderfully entertaining mystery. Despite my comparison of Smith and Rand, they are not alike in all ways, and the prospective reader should not expect this. Each has her own virtues. Smith's novels are far less panoramic and shorter in length. And while the Randian protagonist enters the novel possessing a complete self-confidence or a perfect understanding of the world, Smith's characters are always still growing and learning. Ayn Rand showed us what human beings ought to be, but perhaps Kay Nolte Smith shows us more about how they can become so.
Bruce Powell Majors is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Heroic Excellence".