Sunday, December 30, 2007

An Accidental Libertarian?

I recently read The Shining by Stephen King. The book is old enough (1977) that I guess all the broad strokes have been painted - and I don't really have much to add in the way of general assessments. It was pretty much what I expected: Stephen King's good-but-ultimately-inadequate novelization of Kubrick's great film (chuckle).

Alright - seriously, if there was one thing I noticed that was a bit ... unexpected ... it was the libertarian subtext.

No, really.

I know, I know - King is a big Democrat. He's a 60s-generation hipster who loves America but hates the war, exactly the type whose whole life was devoted to hating Reagan in the 80s. Not exactly the kind of person you'd expect to write the new Atlas Shrugged. And yet, there it is. Like one of those stereograms that used to be so popular: once you've seen it, you can't unsee it, can't deny it's there.




Here's my case.

King himself has said that the story is primarily about a mediocre writer's fears of failure. (Not surprising, really, that this was about the time King himself invented the Richard Bachman pseudonym. Though this was ostensibly a device for allowing him to publish more than one book a year, King has confirmed that he also worried at the time that his success owed to luck of circumstance and that Bachman was a way of testing whether this was true.) It's also, of course, about how alcoholism destroys individuals and families - but it's the "mediocrity" plot thread that's of importance here. Jack's son Danny (get it? Jack Daniel? Anyone?) "shines." He has a special intuitive ability that manifests in few people - and in Danny's case it's particularly strong. Jack, however, has had to earn his keep. He's an ordinary guy who was doing reasonably well for himself by any honest standards - steady job as a teacher, up for tenure, occasionally published in respectable literary journals - but he wants to be more. He wants to write the "great American novel," and he's unsure he can do it. Like so many others in this situation, he subconsciously sabotages his efforts and finds ways to lay his failures at the feet of others. The story doesn't exactly say he doesn't have it in him to be great, but it seems less likely than not, and in any case he never really gives it a go. Most of what Jack does is motivated by envy or frustration - right up to the attempt to kill his family at the end of the book. And if this sounds like the makings of an Ayn Rand anti-hero, you've got the point.

Early in the book, Jack sits down for an interview with Mr. Ullman, the manager of the Overlook Hotel. Mr. Ullman takes a fierce pride in his work and brags that the hotel has housed presidents - Wilson, Harding, FDR and Nixon. Jack quips that he shouldn't be proud of Nixon and Harding. In other words - Jack is a Democrat - a member of the "world owes me a living" party. Nice setup. Ullman is then frank with Jack, stating that without his connections (Jack is friends with one of the primary stockholders) he wouldn't have gotten the job at all. He softens the blow by saying "nothing personal," it's just his assessment. But rather than a determination to prove Mr. Ullman wrong, what we get in Jack is a strong desire for revenge. It is personal. Never mind that there's every reason to believe Mr. Ullman will be happy to be proven wrong and will change his opinion on a dime if Jack does his job well - Jack wants his approval before he's done any work, and he's not at all embarrassed about not having gotten the job on his merits. Very Jim Taggart.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Jack is far from being the victim of circumstances he likes to paint himself to be. It's true that the student he beat (the event that resulted in his firing) had wronged Jack. He was slashing his tires - hardly a benign act of vandalism. But he had reason to: Jack set back the timer to give himself a pretense for cutting him from the debate team. The student in question had a real talent for debate - save for an unfortunate stutter. And so we get an idea of the kind of guy Jack is. A caring teacher devoted to his profession would, of course, have tried to coach the boy through his stutter early on. At the very least, Jack could've been honest with him about the reason he was being cut. But no, Jack's rigged the game against him - a cowardly thing to do. And there are plenty of not-so-subtle hints that the reason for it is because the student is a child of privilege. It isn't really the stutter or Jack's fear of not being able to coach him through it (though no doubt that plays a role): it's good old fashioned class envy.

One of the first supernatural events in the story is the wasps' nest coming back to life. Jack finds one in the roof and bugbombs it and then gives it to his son. In the night, not just a couple but a swarm of wasps comes out of the definitely-dead nest and stings Danny all over his hand. Jack's reaction? He's less interested in treating the wound than he is calling a lawyer to try to set up a lawsuit. It's a suit he must know is hopeless: even if there had been any witnesses to testify that he had used the bugbomb correctly, there's no way a swarm can have come out of a nest that looked empty. Faced with a supernatural event that harms his son, Jack thinks "free money." He's all about the unearned.

He does have a productive idea soon, though - in the form of writing a book about the hotel. He wants it to be a reflection of "post-WWII America." Interesting choice of topics that I'll come back to in a minute - but notice that this is essentially a history of welfare-state America. One problem with this good idea is that it's hugely ungrateful to the stockholder friend who got him the job. Smearing his friend's hotel - an investment Mr. Ullman has already told us is barely profitable and on thin ice for the future - is hardly a way to return a favor. Still - it's a productive thing for Jack to do, and if he'd sat down and just done it it might have come to something. He could've even spun the end of the book in such a way as to lend the hotel a kind of glamor, who knows? But of course, this isn't what he does - because that would involve actual work, and Jack isn't motivated to do actual work. He's motivated to get revenge on the world - on Mr. Ullman in particular - and so he trades in his real project for a cheap over-the-telephone blackmail-ish slap at Ullman. He calls Ullman to threaten to write the book, which only results in a predictable call from his stockholder friend warning him off the project.

It's interesting, though, that Jack wants the hotel to be a history of post-WWII America. In reality, as the fact that both Wilson and Harding were there, the hotel greatly predates WWII. And yet, his research into the hotel more or less confirms that the bad vibes grew primarily in the period he's talking about. The hotel is shut down just before the War. It reopens a decade later and is now no longer directly in the hands of the family that built it. Its owners and guests get shadier and shadier as the years go by, culminating in a lot of mafia activity. Jack figures out for himself that the hotel has always been a haven for the "jet set," even before there was a "jet set." Which is to say - it was never really the productive rich that came here, but rather the idle rich - the rich that live off of the achievements of the dead relatives- with politicians and mafia thrown in because ... well, they belong.

The hotel seems to exist out of time. There's an ongoing party - one that never starts and never stops - that features dead guests from its entire history. And the only obvious thing about this party to anyone who's read Atlas Shrugged is that it's the spitting image of the party where Dagny Taggart buys Lilian Rearden's bracelet. The guests are there primarily to show off their status and make each other miserable - not actually to enjoy each other's company. It is, in classic Ayn Rand fasion, a grotesque display of parasitic wealth.

Naturally, Jack wants to be a member of the club. He wants to cavort with power and show off status more than he wants to earn it. And of course the main plot of the book is his rage that it's really his son Danny - the one with the "shining," the one who's actually someone special - that the hotel wants to possess. The hotel (which is a character in the novel, by the way - arguably the main character) only turns to Jack once it's clear Danny won't join it/them. And in classic Randian parasite fashion - what it cannot control it wants to destroy: Jack isn't really being invited into the inner circle, he's just being used as a tool to exact murderous revenge on Danny for not joining. Jack is going to be made "middle management," (the ghost of) Delbert Grady tells him, and that only if he does a particularly good job. That Jack is willing to kill his family to be something so mundane as "middle management" says all we need to know about whether he really believes he could have been great novelist. For all his posturing about hating people of privilege, he's willing to trade a lot for a pathetically low rank in their order.

And what ultimately destroys the hotel? Well, the ancient furnace has to have steam let out of it every so often or the pressure builds up. Some readers will think I'm stretching it here - but for a book written in 1977 I really don't think so: this is a metaphor for inflation. The furnace is the hotel's "economy." It keeps the place warm and running. And in a place that's meant to symbolize welfare-state America - which also happens to be post-gold standard America - it's fitting that the greatest danger to it is that there's too much steam in the pumps. Just like a good Keynsian - you "pump-prime" (their actual word) when the pressure is low by building up steam (money), and you let it out (contract the money supply) once things are good and toasty. Keynes thought this was the proper way to overcome the boom-bust cycle, and by the end of the 1930s all major economies were operating on this theory. By the 1970s, this furnace has gotten really old so that it's only a matter of time (the summer caretaker tells Jack) before it goes. His job is to frantically keep the pressure where it's supposed to be - putting off the inevitable as long as possible. Sounds like stagflation to me. No shocker to any Ayn Rand devotee that fiat money and government meddling will heat you for a time but are ultimately unsustainable. The hotel had to go sometime - and of course the best argument against government meddling in the economy of this kind is ... why put all management in a central system and risk incompetence (Jack) at the controls? And that's what ultimately happened to our hotel - a very real economic fear in the 70s.

And what ultimately is the hotel? As we see in the scene of its final destruction - it's a swarm of wasps. Get it? W.A.S.P.s. It's the good-ol'-boy establishment going up in smoke. And why not? Ayn Rand herself said that racism was the most odious form of collectivism. But this image goes a bit further than King probably wanted. In addition to being an exclusive white privilege club, the point is it's also a collective. No one distinguishable from the others - we are many and we are one. The message is very Randian - you can't build on their foundation. You can't exterminate the wasps and still use the nest they built as decoration, and you can't make a hotel run by favors and inside tips and "friendships" and "jet sets" - as opposed to truly productive people - profitable. The hotel itself is bad. Which is to say, the whole post-WWII society is bad. Or - as I prefer to put it - the welfare state is bad. You can't take a bad hotel and make it good, you can't run a bad furnace forever, and no matter how you micromanage a collectivist welfare state, it ultimately will not function.

Just as in Atlas Shrugged, this particular welfare state (the hotel/post-WWII America) needs to keep absorbing talent in order to sustain itself. It cannot produce any on its own - it must consume it from outside. And when Danny refuses to cooperate, it's really not unlike John Galt going "on strike." Of course, we get a nice death by fire rather than the slow freezing in ice of Atlas Shrugged, but the central point is the same. Without the cooperation of its victims, the hotel cannot survive.

The ultimate clue, though, is the tip Hallorann gives Danny at the end of the book. Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann are working together at a wholly different getaway in Maine. It's maybe a stretch to call it Galt's Glutch, but there are similarities: the characters have escaped to a functional haven and are planning a return to the real world. (Ironic sidenote: in Atlas Shrugged Colorado is the site of the safety zone; here it's the site of the evil hotel. Though Maine isn't specifically mentioned, Maine has always been one of the most-taxed and least economically successful states in the union. In that sense, it's an inversion on my central point.) Realizing that this is one of the last times he will see Danny, Hallorann tells Danny that the Shine makes him special - and that the world doesn't hate him for it, but it doesn't love him for it either. The world is what he makes of it, in other words - there is no free lunch but also no deck stacked against us. We are how we play the hands we're dealt. There are no lessons more "Randian" than that.




Of course, Stephen King isn't dead yet, so he can't roll over in his grave that I'm interpreting his book this way - but to tell the truth, even if he could I don't think he would. I doubt he intended his book to come off as an Atlas Shrugged retelling, but I'm not sure he would totally object to my taking it that way either. I'm SURE he doesn't endorse any free-market political agenda; last I checked, he was a faithful Democrat. But he also says things like this, from Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes:


If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.


Which he follows up with


People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented.


and


...the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid


That's a very libertarian definition of "talent." Fuck what the literary establishment thinks - the question is just "did you do something that people find useful?" Quite literally - I changed my opinion of Stephen King (whom I had previously had a low opinion of) when I read that line. If my dad hadn't told me about him having said this, I wouldn't have read The Shining last week at all.

Another one:


Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap


To which I say (and Ayn Rand no doubt would say): BRAVO!

From On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:


Read four hours a day and write four hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can't expect to become a good writer.


In other words, he doesn't expect it to come from God; he has a real work ethic.

As for why he is a writer - well, it's the same reason Howard Roark is an architect:


There was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That's why I do it. I really can't imagine doing anything else and I can't imagine not doing what I do.


He was also an early entrepreneur. He was very nearly suspended from high school for selling short stories to his friends: his teacher made him give back the money.

So while I don't think of Stephen King as a political capitalist, he has a lot of personal traits that one could call "Objectivist." More to the point, King himself is an intuitive writer. He doesn't plan his stories, they "grow organically." Writers like that rarely are surprised to see subtexts in their work they themselves might not have conciously intended.

Alright, that's my case. Make of it what you will.

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