The undertaking was long and tedious, but I had a game plan; 100 pages a day between Monday-Friday (and whatever I could get in on the weekends). The goal was to finish it within 14 days. I started making notes after 400 pages, disbanded those and began again at 780 pages. I used Google and Wikipedia and watched a couple of videos of the author (see below); one with Mike Wallace from 1959 and another with Phil Donahue twenty years later. I had read The Fountainhead about a month ago and did a brief review of it here at Knucksline. Now that I’ve finished Atlas Shrugged, as Rand would have it, I owe myself some happiness and intend to drink until I fall down.
Wallace and Rand, 1959; Part I
Ayn Rand’s novels profess her philosophy of objectivism; the concept that reality exists as an objective absolute; man needs a rational morality (morality based on reason) to guide him in his quest for happiness.
Donahue and Rand, 1979; Part II
Her controversial novel, Atlas Shrugged, is way too big to recount here. Essentially, however, it is one story told over and over (and over); a novel 700 pages too long featuring writing as melodramatic as it gets. After a while, at 400-500 pages, say, it became torturous. I found it incredibly dishonest, but suspect that Ayn Rand wasn’t trying to convince me (or my ilk) of anything she had to say. It is aimed at a particular crowd; one that buys her shtick; that greed is good and altruism is evil.
The author portrays altruism as phony, weak and ultimately how society will collapse. She also makes no bones about what she doesn’t like. The characters she paints as the bad guys (those espousing altruistic views) are vapid, lazy, ignorant or badly intentioned; they are mindless leeches and followers of those seeking power and/or those seeking power at the expense of the truly deserving. She goes further, however and almost always gives them unattractive physical attributes; they are ugly, fleshy, fat, graceless, etc.
On the other hand, her heroes and heroines are supermen/superwomen who are physically beautiful, geniuses in their own right and the hardest working, most single-minded existentialists you’ll ever come across. Their only flaw, if they have any, is some seemingly inherent subservience of women to men (although I suspect Rand or her followers wouldn’t see it this way, even the apparently welcomed rapes). Dagny Taggart, the heroine in Atlas Shrugged, much like Dominique, the heroine in The Fountainhead, doesn’t mind being slapped, raped, inclining her head subserviently or sitting at the feet of the supermen in her life.
The men, of course, have no flaws to speak of.
The evil of a society that enforces equality for all was much more succinctly (and interestingly) dealt with by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his wonderful short story, Harrison Bergeron. I doubt, however, that Mr. Vonnegut would subscribe to Rand’s hypothesis that any attempt at leveling the playing field (as opposed to actually handicapping the intellectually, creatively and/or physically gifted) is self destructive in itself and if successful would lead to the end of society as we know it. In her attempt to paint altruism as evil, Rand conveniently ignores the achievements of those who reject her theory and live by a more humane moral code (i.e. Mozart, Albert Schweitzer … Lech Wałęsa to name a very few). None of these people (or their types) existed in her novel.
John Galt is her übber hero and the first 700 pages of the novel are peppered with the phrase “Who is John Galt?” As I said, this is far too big a novel to summarize, except to say that altruism has made it impossible for those with the brains and balls to achieve from achieving further. Welfare has become so rampant that the brains and workhorses behind the scenes (the producers—who also happen to be the owners of the means of production—the Galt’s of the world) have decided to stop the motor of the world from running. They have created their own society of like-minded people where gold has become the standard monetary value and all take an oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.” This place (Galt’s Gulch) has permitted them to escape the “looters” (the bulk of society that had been content to live off of others abilities). Galt delivers a LONG speech (70+ pages worth) at the end of the novel explaining Rand’s philosophy (so feel free to skip the first 900+ pages). He praises individual achievement and enlightened self-interest.
One of the things I couldn’t help but notice (especially after being dumbfounded by the rape in The Fountainhead), was the lack of women in Galt’s new society. There were very few we actually meet. This made me wonder if the author was suggesting her heroine had multiple rapes to look forward to.
Yes, I became that cynical of the absurdity.
Like Aristotle, Rand believes the universe does not permit contradictions; contradictions do not exist. If an egg is egg it cannot also be a brick. If man is inherently corrupt, then a society formed of men cannot exist without corruption. Liberty is man’s most precious right. To inhibit liberty is to create slaves. Capitalism is the only method by which man can achieve his true potential. Life demands man’s rational selfishness; reason is man’s basic survival tool.
It is an arrogant philosophy, no doubt, but it does have its followers. It also flies in the face of reality itself. Not all those with an opposite view of life and morality are lazy, incompetent, weak (or unattractive). Man, in fact, does co-exist within structured (governed) societies. Greed, as we recently learned from our Rand-like society of bankers, isn’t necessarily good.
I suspect Ayn Rand upchucked her caviar at the point in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol when Jacob Marley bemoans: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
A constant flaw I find in the arguments of those who subscribe to Rand’s philosophy is the use of “morality” to justify much of their motivation. I don’t believe in an objective definition of morality (if there is one). Rand claims that man’s highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness. I say what is moral to one man may be immoral to another (talk about contradictions co-existing); one might read Rand’s take on morality as hedonism gone wild. I sure would.
Those who adhere to Rand believe that to take from one man (i.e., a tax) to give to another (welfare) is immoral; that unless it is a charitable contribution an individual makes of his own free will for another’s benefit, it is looting and therefore evil. “Why take from what I have earned to give to another who hasn’t earned it?”
It is a valid argument, except it assumes all those who might need the benefits of such a tax (i.e., the unemployed) are in bad shape of their own free will; that all have had an equal opportunity to “make good” and that those who don’t have made their own poor choice. Strict followers of Rand go one further and claim that even if one has a legitimate need, why should others be forced to provide whatever it is?
I’ve gone back and forth over these types of arguments over and over at a conservative political site where I’m one of a few outsiders (or looters, if you will), but that is not to suggest the people there aren’t bright, polite and just as passionate about the discourse they engage in. Yes, there were/are some heated exchanges, as always happens in political discussions of any nature, but it is mostly polite and a place to understand some of the contrary opinions out there. I was challenged to read Ayn Rand and I did so because what do I have to lose (besides time)? I'm glad I did read her work, but I won't read more.
A couple of the left wing blogs I used to visit (or torture, depending on how you took me) apparently took so much exception to contrary opinions they posted hissy fits and shut down. The nastiest thing I’ve been called at the conservative site was a “savage” but I later learned (from reading Rand’s novels) that “savage” is part of the author’s lexicon. There is something to learn ...
I suspect those at the conservative site won’t agree with my analysis of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but we do come from different starting points. I am one of those who believe that man in the state of nature wasn’t to be trusted; that without a social contract, he would do what he had to do to survive and it wouldn’t be pretty. Governments were formed for the betterment of mankind and that those which have been bastardized (dictorships, fascism, etc.) have more to do with time and circumstance than the nature of greater mankind. No matter how contradictory that is to the Rand philosophy, I do believe that men (inherently greedy alone) created social contracts to protect themselves.
While I don’t believe in an absolute welfare state, I no longer believe that capitalism works (at least not for the greater good). The gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us is too great and unnecessary. Nobody needs to earn $192 million a year, but everybody needs to eat, have shelter, health insurance and a job. It isn’t something easily attainable, nor does it have to be at the absolute expense of the fat cats on Wall Street, but the fat cats on Wall Street (and that 1% of the wealthiest) don’t need what they “earn” either. The “sweat of my brow” argument, it seems to me, only applies to those who actual sweat for what they earn; not those sitting on piles of cash and investments either gifted through inheritance or “earned” through some windfall that involves 90% luck and 10% actual work.
The problem with Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged is that sooner or later, assuming Rand’s model was correct and the world of the looters would come to a standstill, those same looters would get hungry enough to look for food. By sheer numbers alone they would overrun Galt and Company to sustain their lives. And if rational selfishness is what it’s all about, savages or not, they’d be the ones who survived ... and to that end, social Darwinists wouldn’t have much to complain about.
There aren’t exact formulas for solving the problems of society. Rand believes there is a basic one, but her position is arrogant and like most arrogance (including the arrogance of some on the left who dare call their counterparts stupid), it looks down its nose and refuses to see the possibility that it is wrong. So be it. Pride goeth before a fall.
My challenge back to those on the right (at the conservative site I visit) will be for some of them to read George Bernard Shaw’s, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. I don’t expect them to be converts, as I suspect they didn't think Atlas Shrugged would turn me into a Randite, but The Guide is an interesting read.
And DOC, on a potentially snowed-out nurses Christmas party at casa Stella this fine Saturday evening:
I was thinking you should do a dramatic reading of "The Night Before Christmas": Rudolph, with no expression on his face, said to Santa, "I can get you some toys."
And the DOC says (Sunday morning--he made it to the party ... it was us and him) ...
My dear Chaz,
That was an incredibly insightful and informative multi-media review of "Atlas Shrugged". I would consider it perfect if it did not conflict with one of my personal tenets of book reviews (i.e., The book review should never be longer than the actual book).
I've set aside March and April to read your review of the Bamster's 2,000 page Health Care plan.