Sunday, December 31, 2006

Some Holiday Reading

I'll be away from a computer most of the time over the next couple of weeks, though Greg may be posting if the mood takes him. So meantime here's a little New Year reading: David Ramsay Steele's "Alice In Wonderland", supposedly a review of Barbara Branden's "The Passion Of Ayn Rand" but really just an excuse to open up a big ol' can of his particular Libertarian brand of whup-ass on Rand and Objectivism as a whole. Here's a small sample:
"The true plot of Atlas Shrugged is: how some good-looking individuals were saved by coming to agree in every particular with Rand, and how everyone else was eternally damned."


Neil Parille said...

Steele's article on Objectivists, Kelley & Kant is even better --

gregnyquist said...

Neil wrote: "Steele's article on Objectivists, Kelley & Kant is even better"

I agree. He makes some points about Kelley that I have for many years suspected but have hesitated to utter publicly because I'm not exactly overly familiar with Kelley's work. But I have noticed what seems like a tendency on Kelley's part to make qualifications to Objectivist doctrine which, however, he does not consistently adhere to. Often both he (and TOC in general) appear to take a line so very close to Objectivist orthodoxy that it's hard to distinguish it from some of the work being done at ARI. But then there are these qualifications, which make Objectivism more reasonable but less orthodox. It makes one wonder precisely what is Kelley's position, and whether he isn't divided in his allegiences: his allegience toward Rand pulling him one way, his allegience toward reasonableness and the truth pulling him in another.

Daniel Barnes said...

I can also recommend Neil's recent detective work over at his Objectiblog re: the faking, quote-clipping and miscellaneous dissembling of Mr James Valliant in his "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics". Reminds me of DRS's great quote (one of several in the essay):

"The doctrinal structure of Randism is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics."

Daniel Barnes said...

The link is here:

Michael Prescott said...

Thanks for the terrific recommendations. I already knew about Objectiblog, which is always worth reading. The two Steele essays were new to me, though Jeff Walker references one of them in his book. Good stuff!

I have to disagree, though, with Steele's statement that Rand "never mastered English." He may not like her writing style, but she gained an estimable command of the language. I also think he underappreciates Atlas, which, from a purely narrative standpoint, has an awful lot of good things in it.

David said...

I apologize for the length of this. It got away from me.

I don't think that Atlas Shrugged is all that good from a purely narrative standpoint. For one thing, I find the pacing of the plot slow and tedious. This is not an automatic mark against it; there are lots of great 'slow' novels like Moby Dick, Sexus, or Lord Jim where the slowness of plot is made-up for with character development, creating the right atmosphere, establishing and developing a theme, etc.

However, Rand does not use this space to develop her characters. We pretty know know exactly what they're all about from the momenbt we meet them. The protagonists of Atlas Shrugged are merely Rand mouthpieces, all the men being nearly identical in temperment and character, with Galt acting as a sort of guru to help them become true individuals by becoming even more like him! In short, the characters start out as flat, simple charcaters, and by the novel's end, they are even flatter and simpler! Romantic? Yes. Realistic? No? I personally prefer psychological realism, especially if the setting and the plot are science fictional or otherwise unrealistic. If I don't believe in the character, I don't care about the character, and in the end, I don't care about the book or its ideas.

As for he use of description, I find them banal and cliched. Her description of the sturm und drang inherent in the brakeman's whistling of Halley's 5th Concerto reads like something I would have written in my 9th-grade music appreciation class. The heroes are described as physically perfect (even though they subsist on caffiene, nicotine, and fat) and the villains are physically deficient, which of course is supposed to symbolize the heroes moral perfection and the villains villany. Another example of transparent symbolism (and obvious foreshadowing) would be the comparison of the rotten tree to the Taggart Transcontinental sky-scraper.

And then there's the endless repetition of "Who is John Galt?" which even Dagney Taggart finds annoying. That one lone and unknown engineer from a failed auto-manufacturer could so penetrate the popular psyche and remain completely invisible, even as he plots the downfall of civilization is ridiculous, while the use of the phrase as a sort of liet motif is grating and annoying. Rather than reinforcing a theme or idea, or heightening the mystery of just who John Galt is (which I think is what she was trying to do) it eventually just becomes white noise.

As science fiction, the novel fails because she isn't even paying attention and projecting from the technological trends of the 1950's, jet flight, rocketry, nuclear power/weaponry, television, the first computers, etc. Furthermore, she doesn't seem to be paying attention to contemporary social trends either: America's post-war economy was booming, anti-Communism was in its hay-day, the civil rights movement was in its nascent stages, the non-aligned movement was rejecting both Communism and American capitalism in favor of nationalism, labor was partnering with capital (and organized crime), and so on and so on, yet these things aren't in any way reflected in the novel. The only reference I recall to pop culture was a sneering description of a jazz version of one of Halley's concertos.

Then we have various unrealistic plot-points. Dagney Taggart, with one semester of metallurgy under her belt, is able to determine the validity of the Reardon metal formula, while the government scientists are too stupid, evil, or jealous to realize what a boon it is. We have John Galt's machine, which is essentially a perpetual motion machine, without which Rand Objectivist utopia of Galt's Gulch would be impossible. And of course, we have Galt's 56-page speech which rivets the nation, even though by Rand's own description, it is a nation of barely-human, looting, second-handing idiots. (I tell you what, if John Galt interrupted the adventures of Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, I'd be pretty pissed. Now there was some good drama! Realistic characters in a realistic setting dealing with complex issues of power, freedom, and morality. You can learn more about human beings and the human condition in one hour of Gunsmoke than you can in all 1000+ pages of Atlas Shrugged!)

And that's what this comes down to for me, the human condition. My litmus test for good literature is whether or not if offers insight into the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition, whereas Rand's very premise is that there's no such thing as ambiguity, complexity, or even a human condition!

Now, all of my criticism are completely void if you read Atlas Shrugged as an Objectivist allegory or fable. All of those things I criticize (unrealistic and flat characters, banal and cliched descriptions, over-obvious symbolism and foreshadowing, ridiculous plot-points, etc) in Atlas Shrugged are almost necessary when writing allegory because you're trying to drive home an unmistakeable point. However, if you're reading Atlas Shrugged as an Objectivist allegory, it's no longer being read as pure narrative.

Anyway, that's my sawbuck on the issue. Feel free to disagree.

Daniel Barnes said...

>You can learn more about human beings and the human condition in one hour of Gunsmoke than you can in all 1000+ pages of Atlas Shrugged!

Great analysis, David. I'm dutifully re-reading "Atlas" at the moment, which amounts to re-reading the unreadable. What gets me is the way the characters are either screaming, or being very, very still. It's a very weird book.

Michael Prescott said...

I haven't read the book in years, but I think I would still have a higher opinion of it than David's. I would see it as highly stylized, operatic story - not realistic at all. Some sections are pretty powerful, like the whole build-up to the tunnel disaster.

I don't think it was meant to represent a science-fiction future - more like a parallel universe in which 1940s/50s America is significantly more collectivist (because the individualists have been going on strike). Of course, it really reflects the USA circa 1930, but Rand never seems to have moved beyond her initial impressions of the country she adopted.

Anyway, as James M. Cain famously said, the only critic who counts is Old Man Posterity - the test of time. Atlas is still around after 50 years, so Old Man Posterity seems to be smiling at it thus far.

(Admittedly, if I reread it today, I might hate it. I'm basing my opinion on memories from 15 years ago, back when I still agreed with Rand.)

Dragonfly said...

Like Michael I think the book does have its strong points, otherwise I couldn't have read it a dozen times. Although in the past I already had some misgivings about some parts, it's only fairly recently that I've become fully aware of the weak points. So it is a compliment for Rand that she could seduce me for so long a time. I still think that some parts are excellent, for example the introduction, which has a filmic quality, it's like the opening of a Hitchcock movie. Also the gathering of the people in the dark room at the top of the building, and there are many more pregnant scenes. What I also value is the "integration" of the style (this is a terrible Objectivist buzzword, but I think it's here in place), that every sentence is meaningful and not just some superfluous padding, like extensive descriptions of the environment; even if she describes the environment it's always full of meaning. I remember examples of Balzac where he describes the construction of a building that is so complex that I got completely lost (he'd better give a picture instead).

When you read further, the negative points become increasingly prominent, like the preachiness, with its absurd climax in the speech by John Galt, and the one-dimensional personages. I think Rearden is relatively her best creation, he still has some human traits, but the annoying Galt is a complete abstraction. Her villains are all ridiculous cardboard figures. Toohey was an at least an interesting person with a rather sinister power, but in AS the villains are just laughable.

In the third part the story starts to deteriorate quickly. Already at the first reading I had my doubts about the valley episode, it sounded too contrived and unrealistic, not to mention the silly oath. The worst part is at the end, when the heroes rescue Galt from the torture chamber. Here the writing becomes definitely childish, with all the villains screaming with fear and dropping down like flies and trembling when d'Anconia proudly rattles his dozen names. Here Rand has lost all sophistication and is really fantasizing fairy tales like a child.

I think Rand fell in love with her creatures during her writing of the novel over the years, and this is reflected in the novel in the deteriorating quality and the increasingly unrealistic scenes in the last part. Her heroes had become so big supermen that they just needed to blink an eye to shatter the evil looters who are reduced to shivering blobs of jelly and are constantly screaming with fear.

Then there is the overall believability of the story. That is of course close to zero. Now that it in itself doesn't have to be a problem, suspension of disbelief may be acceptable, like in sf stories, as long as the author succeeds in making us forget the implausibilities. Here Rand is not quite unsuccesful, as I read the book many times without being too much disturbed by the unlikely events (not that I was quite unaware of them, but I largely ignored them). But now, when I look with a more critical eye, I've become fully aware of the absurdity of the whole story. The idea that you can "stop the motor of the world" by removing at most a few dozen prominent figures from the scene is of course utter nonsense.

The problem is that Rand was fixated on the idea of the single creator who alone could run a whole industry of thousands of mindless people who were all incompetent and unable to achieve something on their own, in that regard whe was completely out of touch with reality. And what about the motor? Her problem was that she had to think of something that had to be rather unrealistic, as no one after Galt could imagine that such a motor was possible (the sf premise). But instead of keeping it a bit vague, she explicitly described it as a machine that picked up static electricity from the environment with a series of antennas and converted it to usable energy. Well, that goes against the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and as we all know, that is a mortal sin. Her ideas about scientists were also rather weird. Galt is an engineer, a theoretical physicist (she probably didn't know the difference) and a lowly railroad worker at the same time. I've never understood what exactly Stadler's sin was, except that he accepted government funds. Well, if that makes him into an evil villain...

Then there is the infamous shooting of the guard, who was just killed because he couldn't decide. It was not a question of a shoot-out in a rescue attempt; Dagny had all the time to discuss with the poor man, and it's obvious that Rand very deliberately wanted to show that it's ok to kill someone for his (lack of) thinking. It's amazing to hear how in discussions this scene is strenuously defended by the real randroids (although some of the more liberal Objectivists do have their doubts about it).

Ok, my 2 cents...

gregnyquist said...

Micheal: "Anyway, as James M. Cain famously said, the only critic who counts is Old Man Posterity - the test of time. Atlas is still around after 50 years, so Old Man Posterity seems to be smiling at it thus far."

While it is normally true that Old Man Posterity is pretty good at separating the literary wheat from the chaff, once in a while he screws up, and AS is perhaps the most conspicuous of a bad book that has not been forgotten after half a century. It is not, however, the worst book to remain in print for more than 50 years: that honor goes to Melville's novel "Pierre," which is even worse than AS. Of course, even though still in print, hardly anyone reads Pierre, whereas 1000s buy and read AS every year. But we also have to factor in the quality of the readership. Who bothers to read AS? Mostly, if I'm not mistaken, very young people, high school and college age persons, often very ignorant of good literature and not really very fit to judge of such matters. I find it very doubtful that anyone with much experience of life and any real acquaintence with great literature could actually sit down and read AS all the way through. So Cain's Old Man Posterity test, in this respect, would appear to mislead us.

Michael Prescott said...


You may be right. As a fiction writer whose books go out of print within two or three years, I'm perhaps unduly impressed by the staying power of Rand's novels. Jeff Walker compares her to Edward Bellamy, the 19th-century socialist whose preachy novel "Looking Backward" remained popular and influential for decades, but is almost unread today. (I read half of it before giving up - it's not really a story, just a blueprint for utopia.)

Fifty years is probably not enough time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Dragonfly: "I think Rearden is relatively her best creation, he still has some human traits,"

I would vote for Dagny, though Rearden is a close second. His puritanical attitudes about sex are a bit hard to accept even in the context of the 1950s. Overall, the characters in The Fountainhead are much better realized.

In addition to the shooting of the guard, there's a strange moment in Atlas where a tramp (who turns out to have worked at Galt's old company) is about to be thrown off a speeding train while Dagny watches. She is apparently willing to let him be tossed out the door, even though she knows the expulsion will probably prove fatal. Only the fact that he grips his satchel a little tighter saves him; her heart is softened by this show of possessiveness.

What I wonder is, if he hadn't held on tightly to his satchel, would it have been okay to throw him to his death? Would Dagny have just shrugged it off - another moocher meets his fate?

With any other author, I'd say it's not meant to be taken so literally, but with Rand ...

Mark Plus said...

I get the impression that Rand wrote Cherryl Taggart's character into the novel as an afterthought. Dagny makes an emotional connection with Cherryl, then the poor girl commits suicide when she finally understands her husband Jim Taggart's depravity. You'd think that would piss off Dagny and contribute to her alienation from Jim. But no, Cherryl drops into oblivion for the rest of the novel like she never existed.

Anonymous said...

Another major flaw in the novel is the lack of a credible protagonist for Galt, especially since the story is based on a struggle between good and evil. In a mirror image of the heroes’ moral, intellectual and practical virtues, the baddies are not only moral lepers and intellectual dunces, they are also hopelessly incompetent at being evil dudes.

As a result, the heroes’ victory is a hollow one, since on account of their stupendous virtues they were bound to win anyway. Credible bad characters need to have some sort of belief and value system, in order that the conflict can be couched in terms of opposing values and thereby gain some symbolic weight.

But since Rand doesn’t want to give her baddies any credibility or genuine motives, they are almost wholly nihilistic. As a result, they are not very interesting, because they have no particular reason for doing evil.

Galt’s main protagonist is in fact Dagny, who wants to prevent him from undermining the status quo. But since they share the same primary values, their conflict is merely strategic, over the means to realise their values rather than over the values themselves. Once that conflict is more or less resolved in Galt’s Gulch, the novel’s dramatic tension largely evaporates, and the final third of the story is an anti-climax.

Mind you, Atlas Shrugged can supply some no doubt unintentional amusing moments to lighten the tedium. I came across this gem at random: “She looked at the lone straight shaft of the Taggart Building rising in the distance – and then she thought that she understood: these people hated Jim because they envied him.”

Dr Sigmund would have been impressed.


Neil Parille said...

"the baddies are not only moral lepers and intellectual dunces, they are also hopelessly incompetent at being evil dudes."

A good point. It has been commented by others that whereas Rand often portrays evil as incompotent in her ethics and novels, in her philosophy of history the whim worshippers and mystics of the muscle have dominated for centuries.

Dragonfly said...

Neil: "A good point. It has been commented by others that whereas Rand often portrays evil as incompotent in her ethics and novels, in her philosophy of history the whim worshippers and mystics of the muscle have dominated for centuries."

Right, according to her, Kant is the culprit who made Nazi Germany possible, so it seems he must have been pretty powerful.