Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Alas, "Atlas"

Former ARI writer Robert Tracinski plugs "Atlas Shrugged"'s 50th over at Fox News, decrying the somewhat unsympathetic reaction the novel still generates even today among reviewers.

Commenter Jay provides the link, as he's curious as to what we denizens of the ARCHNblog think is wrong with the book. Well, Greg puts the situation nicely here in his defence of Whittaker Chambers' infamous review for The National Review. My one-liner on it is that Rand's unique combination of the pulp fiction potboiler and "philosophic" self-help manual genres (eg: 'The Road Less Travelled' etc) explains much of its enduring appeal. However, that said I'll tag the excellent David Ramsay Steele and let him put the hurt on Rand's epic folly:
"In 'Atlas Shrugged' a future United States is sinking into interventionist chaos, with more and more government controls causing more and more disorganisation. The rest of the world has long since collapsed into the barbarism of starving "peoples' states". One by one, all the most brilliant intellects in the US - businessmen, artists, scientists. businessmen, philosophers, businessmen, businessmen, and businessmen - mysteriously disappear. The heroine, who manages a large railroad corporation. becomes aware that there is a conspiracy behind the disappearances. The plot is that of a mystery story, but there is no mystery: the solution is obvious before page 50, and is hammered into the reader's head on each of the next few hundred pages. The great achievers are going on strike, because they are fed up with the way everyone else is living off their achievements whilst maligning and persecuting them. The achievers have disappeared into obscurity. and every year they all take a holiday together at Galt's Gulch, a utopian haven in the mountains, based on gold coinage and the mutual respect born of rational greed.

The book has many virtues, including a fundamentally sound plot and a lucid, unpretentious narrative style. It was the first major work I read connected with twentieth-century free market ideas, and I was at first dazzled by its seeming audacity and its eerie, anachronistic, dreamlike quality. I was also inspired by its hints of a fully-worked out theoretical system, a metaphysical. epistemological, and ethical structure which somehow supported the author's political conclusion. It was a great disappointment to find later that this system did not exist. The various speeches and allusions in Atlas Shrugged - so obviously far-fetched and logically slipshod, but perhaps defensible as rhetoric within a novel - are themselves quoted at length in Rand's non-fiction essays on philosophy, art and politics. The horrible, pitiful truth finally dawned: this is all there is to Rand. She really believes that this mouth-frothing sloganeering is philosophy, is reasoning, is the way to persuade rational people.

All the faults of The Fountainhead have become horribly magnified, and most of its saving features have been lost. Atlas Shrugged doesn't contain any convincing characters. only cardboard cut-outs which move jerkily this way and that, while the ventriloquist-author has them spouting her doctrines. The good characters all agree exactly with the author's views on sex, business, music, philosophy, politics and architecture - the only exception is that sometimes one of the good characters hasn't quite grasped a significant point, and when the penny drops and he comes into full conformity with Rand's opinions, this is a highly dramatic development. The bad guys all agree with what the author says all her ideological opponents must believe (almost entirely different from what these opponents actually do believe, outside fiction). Both goodies and baddies continually expound their incredibly shallow Weltanschauungen in Rand's stilted jargon. None of them is authentic or has a personal voice. Unlike Toohey in The Fountainhead, none of the villains is intelligent or effective. (Stadler doesn't count; he is stated to be a genius, but this never affects his described behaviour.)

Just as in real life Rand surrounded herself with yes-persons, hanging on her words and reciting them anxiously back to her so in Atlas Shrugged she creates a world of zombies mouthing her patented terminology and going into the zombie equivalent of convulsions of delight whenever they hit upon another of her conceptual gems. Galt's Gulch is indeed Rand's Utopia: a society where everyone makes speeches all the time expounding Rand's opinions. the listeners all blissfully nodding their heads in agreement. 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. The book has often been described as nightmarish; it has something of the unnerving quality of a delusional system made real which we find in some Philip K. Dick novels, notably Eye in the Sky. (But Dick could really write, and he was doing it on purpose.)

Of all modern tendencies in fiction, Rand's novels are closest in spirit to the socialist realist works favoured by the Stalinist regime. Stalin said: "Artists are engineers of the soul." Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul."

One of the climactic points of Atlas Shrugged is Galt's long speech. which explains Rand's theories, in Rand's language, over all radio and TV channels simultaneously, and helps to bring about the downfall of "the looters". Actually, airing this tedious drivel over all stations would speedily lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government which permitted such lax regulation of the airwaves, followed by the guillotining of Galt. With cretins like Rand's villains running the US, I reckon I could take over within a week. given a handful of marines and a few rock 'n' roll tapes, except that plenty of others would get in ahead of me. Galt's speech is 58 pages long, and I suppose 90 percent of readers skip most of it, as I did on my first reading. Branden claims that it took Rand "two full years" to write (266). It feels like two full years reading it.

In Branden's judgement, part of Galt's speech takes "a major step toward solving the problem that haunted philosophers since the time of Aristotle and Plato: the relationship of 'ought' and 'is' - the question of in what manner moral values can be derived from facts." No such problem has haunted philosophers since the times of Plato or Aristotle. In the eighteenth century, David Hume raised a different question. whether values could be derived from facts (alone) at all, but this attracted no attention at the time, and didn't haunt anyone until the twentieth century.

According to Galt's speech, in a passage singled out by Branden, "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non- existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms." This is false. Any class of matter (atoms. crystals. stars, etc.), not just living organisms, may exist or not exist. Galt (Rand) also emphasises that: "to think is an act of choice ... man is a being of volitional consciousness." This too is false. Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds. Galt (Rand) also keeps insisting that "existence exists". This seems to he of momentous importance to Galt (Rand), but in the only sense I can make of it (that 'existence' is something which exists in addition to all the things which exist) it is not evident, and I believe it is false. (If what is meant is that "Things which exist exist' - existence exists - then that is trite and has never been denied by anyone.) And so it goes on, 58 pages of it. one pompous vacuity after another.

There is the possibility that Atlas Shrugged may be produced as a TV mini-series. This would probably be its most favourable incarnation. The characterisation is not up to the level of Falcon Crest, but the plot is a lot more interesting, and thankfully most of the pedantic dialogue would have to be cut. Galt's speech could be eliminated altogether and something should he done about the fact that Rand's 'future' is now impossible, since she did not forsee such developments as the eclipse of rail by air travel. Maybe Dagny Taggart should run an airline instead of a railroad."

- 'Alice In Wonderland', David Ramsay Steele


Bobby Funk said...

Steele made some really excellent points. However, I would have to take issue with this statement:

"Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds."

Come now, he doesn't REALLY believe that, does he? The next time he can't start his car, I wonder if he'll just sit there and wait for the answer to magically appear in his head without any volitional mental effort. Or will he get out, pop up the hood, examine individual parts and their relational functions to the rest of the system in an effort to determine what's wrong?

If he decides to take it to a mechanic, will the mechanic just instantly know what the solution is without examining the engine and its relational constituent parts? Will the answer just sort of "pop!" into the mechanic's head like gas passing out of his behind following the consumption of a spicy bean burrito, without any voluntary mental exertion?

Steele wrongly conflated the involuntary act of receiving sense data and integrating them into perceptions with the concious, willful, volitional act of abstracting those perceptions into concepts.

Rand is desperately in need of thoroughgoing criticism, no doubt about it, but it's often disappointing to see even her seemingly most intelligent critics toss out half-baked statements like analogizing human thinking to gastrointestinal functions. With the proliferation of such stupidity in the world, it's little wonder that an intellectual even as mediocre as Ayn Rand so arrogantly considered herself some kind of super-genius.

Daniel Barnes said...

>The next time he can't start his car, I wonder if he'll just sit there and wait for the answer to magically appear in his head without any volitional mental effort.

Hi Bobby,

I think the point may be moot, as you (or DRS, or Rand for that matter) may be mixing thinking per se (the continual flow of thoughts - and these are not 'percepts', note - in our head) with thinking aimed at a specific purpose (eg restarting a stalled car). I wouldn't hang to much on that point as Rand is not all that clear herself. DRS's may be a reasonable interpretation.

Rand writes a little bit about mental states like "full focus", which is interesting, but this in turn is surely not the only exclusive meaning of the very broad word "thinking". So DRS's comment is not so "half-baked" really.

BTW, while Rand can be criticised at a number of levels, IMHO the place where the most devastating criticism takes place is her epistemology, which turns out to be little more than a series of oxymorons (ie self-contradictions) such as "contextual absolute". This is a highly damaging result, because Rand claimed all her ethics, politics, etc flowed from her epistemological insights. Thus where she is right in these areas, she is right by instinct or accident, rather than by sound reasoning.

Bobby Funk said...

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Main Entry: 1thinking
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1: the ACTION of USING one's mind to PRODUCE thoughts
(Emphasis is mine.)

Please write the folks at Merriam-Webster and let them know that they are confusing "thinking per se" with "thinking aimed at a specific purpose." Or could it be that "thinking per se" IS "thinking aimed at specific purpose"??? To state the latter is redundant of the former.

It was my assumption that Steele was confusing thinking with percepts, as percepts are as close to an involuntary process of the mind as "digestion" is to the body. I really can't say for sure with what, exactly, he was mistakenly substituting thinking.

Your own particular criticism of Rand's epistemology is about as clear as mud. Please explain how Rand's "contextual absolute" is an oxymoron...Without abstracting it out of context, of course.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Please write the folks at Merriam-Webster and let them know that they are confusing "thinking per se" with "thinking aimed at a specific purpose."

Sometimes thinking is not aimed at a specific purpose, Bobby. People can even have unwanted and confusing thoughts. While all terms are vague to some degree, "thinking" and "thought" are vaguer than most. So you can't hang too much on one definition vs another.

>Your own particular criticism of Rand's epistemology is about as clear as mud. Please explain how Rand's "contextual absolute" is an oxymoron...Without abstracting it out of context, of course.

Well, it will take a little time to explain, and I do not really expect to convince you...;-) In fact I think you may find my claim prima facie ridiculous. Anyway, here it is:

Some of Ayn Rand's most important doctrines, on examination, turn out to be no more than mere plays on words. Many of these wordplays are oxymoronic self-contradictions, that add nothing but empty verbiage to the philosophic problem they allege to solve.

I know, I can it be that a thinker such as Rand, with her keen awareness of the importance of contradiction, can nonetheless end up embedding a bunch of oxymorons at the root of her system? Well, never mind how for now, it turns out she did. And, like a clever card trick, once you start seeing how it's done it no longer seems all that clever.

Let's look at one example: "contextual absolute". An "absolute" usually refers to something that cannot be changed or improved, regardless of where it is in space or time. For example, an "absolute" law of physics -the kind of thing scientists spend their lives trying to discover - is a law that is invariant throughout time and space, anywhere or at any time in the universe.

That is, it does not vary in any context.

Yet observe Rand's various "absolutes" are "contextual" - that is, they do vary according to "context."

Thus the word "absolute" is redundant; mere window dressing, in just the same way that saying "definitely maybe" is really just saying "maybe." (In fact "definitely maybe" is logically equivalent to "contextually absolute")

(We observe the same problem with her "absolute certainty", which is also "contextual" and also her "absolute precision", which, as clearly described in the ITOE, is merely what is usually referred to in non-Randian jargon as an approximation)

Anyway, I do not doubt you will find this claim that a system as seemingly mighty as Objectivism is founded on little more than a few puns to be quite incredible at first. And you are welcome of course to reject it out of hand. But I recommend you think about it carefully for yourself first.

Wells said...

Bobby Funk, Thinking is involuntary. The brain consumes about 20% of the energy that you produce. You do something with all that power. Your brain is always thinking of something. When you think about something, you are simply giving the brain a particular task. You can kind of observe this the next time you have a particularly hard problem. Sometimes if you stop working on it for a short while, do something else, then come back to it, you will know more about how to solve it.