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Dina Schein on Ayn Rand, Victor Hugo, and Analyzing a Work of Fiction

New Romanticist: Who is Dina Schein?
Dina Schein :
I will be getting my Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas in the fall. My dissertation is on the topic of egoism. I was a member of the first graduating class of the Objectivist Graduate Center of the Ayn Rand Institute in the mid 1990s. A number of years ago I have read all the correspondence that Ayn Rand’s Russian family wrote to her in the 1920s and ’30s. This was an ARI Archives project; I summarized each letter and translated some of them (I am a native speaker of Russian). I’ve given a number of courses at Objectivist conferences on ethics, on Ayn Rand’s life, and on her fiction.

New Romanticist: How did you become interested in Ayn Rand?
Dina: When I was 16, I had a conversation with someone I had just met, during the course of which I attacked communism, the lack of standards in education, and people who did not think and care about the sorts of ideas they were spouting. At the end of that conversation, this person said that he had some books by an author “who thinks just as you do,” and that he would like to give them to me. The books he gave me were Anthem, We The Living, and Atlas Shrugged. I read Anthem first – and was never the same afterward. It was completely my kind of universe. I had previously read many things with which I agreed, but none about which I could say, “this is me.” Her books gave me that.

New Romanticist: How did you become interested in Victor Hugo?
Dina: One day, when I was four years old, my mother took a thick book off the shelf and read me a scene from somewhere out of its middle. I didn’t know what novel it was, but listening to this scene was a completely new experience. Instead of the boring children’s stories I had previously been used to hearing, I was suddenly transported to a world where important things happened to people, where a single event could radically change a person’s life. It was a tragic scene, but one of grandeur. Some years later I learned the title of this book that so engrossed me in early childhood. It was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I read it from cover to cover at age 12 – couldn’t put it down – then reread it at 20. Incidentally, that scene that introduced me to a world of grandeur at age 4 was the scene where little Cosette suffers constant abuse at the hands of the Thenardiers, then Valjean appears and rescues her.

New Romanticist: Wow! Isn’t this the same way Ayn Rand was introduced to Victor Hugo?
Dina: Sounds similar, doesn’t it? In her case, she overhead a scene from “93” read to another person when she was 7.

New Romanticist: What is the relationship between Ayn Rand and Victor Hugo?
Dina: Ayn Rand called Hugo the greatest novelist in world literature. She discovered his novels as a child; he had been the fuel sustaining her spirit in her early years in Soviet Russia. In his novels he created a world of grandeur populated by heroic individuals. So did Ayn Rand. She regarded herself as owing him “an incalculable debt that can never be computed or repaid.”

New Romanticist: Can you tell me about your Summer 2002 East course, “Analyzing a Work of Fiction: Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs“? What is its value to Objectivists?
Dina: Esthetics is the field that is perhaps most overrun by subjectivism today. Any smear is called a painting, any glob of solids is called sculpture, and any string of words on a page is called literature. Objectivists know that there are objective standards for esthetics, just as there are for everything else. But how many people can explain and defend the standards by which a given work of literature can be judged as good and another as bad? How many feel confident that they can correctly apply those principles to a novel, and analyze it in detail?

This course aims to teach the principles of literary analysis as Miss Rand identified them in the Art of Fiction. However, you will not gain these skills simply after having read that book. You have to actively practice them. This is what we will do in this course.

Another benefit of this course is that knowing how to analyze stories enables you to derive greater enjoyment from the good ones you read – because greater knowledge leads to more intense emotions. You will enjoy something much more if you are competent at it. You will suddenly grasp new levels of meaning in a novel.

New Romanticist: Why did you pick Victor Hugo’s novel as the work of fiction to analyze?
Dina: For two reasons: First, in teaching the principles of literary analysis, we need a model to apply these principles to, an example to practice on. Victor Hugo is the greatest novelist in world literature, not counting Ayn Rand, and The Man Who Laughs is his greatest novel. The wonderful thing is that The Man Who Laughs is both a literary masterpiece and at the same time a very clear model on which to teach these principles to a beginner.

The second reason is the sheer joy of immersing yourself in a great story and going on a treasure hunt. This is one of my very favorite novels and I want to share its grandeur with the class. Understanding Hugo’s choices, from the events of his plot, to the broader meaning behind his characters, to particular elements of his style, will help you find gems on each page – because we will see how everything he includes has been carefully selected to convey that grandeur.

New Romanticist: Thank you Dina, it was a pleasure speaking to you, and I look forward to your course at Summer 2002 East.

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