Friday, June 17, 2016

Rand's Novels 4: Atlas Shrugged

Rand's Atlas Shrugged is easily her most polarizing novel. It's hard to be neutral about it. You either love it or you deplore it. When I first read the work some thirty years ago, I wanted to like it, but it just would not go down. Whereas it only took me two or three days to read We the Living and The Fountainhead, Atlas required more than a month to finish, and even then, it was a tedious slog. I found the story preposterous, the characters flat and uninspiring, and the work's message shrill and one-sided. In Atlas, Rand seems to go out of her way to avoid subtle, nuance, and verisimilitude. She simply wants to preach, in parable form, her newly minted Objectivist philosophy. She does not shrink from hammering the same point over and over. Throughout the book there is the same hectoring tone, unrelenting and bristling with contempt, which she uses to try to beat the reader into submission. Even when I found myself largely in agreement with some point she kept making over and over, the shrillness of her tone and the insistent dogmatism of the presentation were off-putting and patronizing.

As in my review of The Fountainhead, I will provide quick glances at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Rand's magnum opus.
The Good. This is going to be a bit of a challenge. We can begin with the prose style of the work. Many critics of Rand have complained about Rand's prose. Atlas, these critics claim, is verbose and badly written. Oddly enough, rarely are these critics very specific about their complaints; rarely to they provide specific examples of what they don't like. I suspect that some of these critics confuse Rand's tone with her writing style. Atlas, for all its faults, is not a badly written work. While Rand may not be the most elegant or inspired of prose stylists, she never fails to get her point across and her descriptions are rarely verbose.

While it would be difficult to defend Atlas as a work of serious literature on par with War and Peace, The Brothers Karamozov, or L'Éducation sentimentale, it would be possible to rank it higher if we regarded it as exemplifying a less demanding genre. This is precisely what reviewer John Chamberlain attempted in his review of Atlas for The Freeman. Chamberlain's review begins as follows: 

AYN RAND’S Atlas Shrugged is bound to be a best seller, not because it is Tolstoyan fiction in the round (it isn’t), but because it deals with the most vital philosophical and economic issues of our times in the form of a wildly exciting parable. Here is the work of a supreme teacher.
After quoting from some of the speeches in Atlas, and then lightly criticizing Rand for rejecting Christian charity, Chamberlain concludes as follows:
Despite its pedagogical lapses, however, Atlas Shrugged should make converts to the cause of freedom by the score. The novel is so deftly plotted, so excitingly paced, and so universal in its hero-villain intensity, that it will carry its message to thousands who would never be caught dead reading a textbook -- or even a difficult article -- on economics. Even libertarians who ordinarily despise fiction will want to read Atlas Shrugged for the insights that tumble out of the mouths of its dramatis personae on virtually every page.
Chamberlain is suggesting that Atlas succeeds as propaganda. While that view could be disputed by those of us who don't find the novel all that convincing, even as propaganda, it's nonetheless a fact that millions of readers have been influenced in varying degrees by Rand's massive tome. Strange but true.

The Bad. Where do we start? Probably with the flat, one-dimensional characters. Nor is it solely an issue here of realism, although that would be a problem if Atlas were regarded as a work of serious fiction (as opposed to a thriller or a propaganda novel). Even as romantic characters, Rand's characters leave much to be desired. Simply compare the stick figures who populate Atlas with the characters in Dumas' Three Musketeers or Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Neither of these romantic novels exhibit the same level or depth of psychological insight that we find in Tolstoy's War and Peace or George Eliot's Middlemarch. But for all that, Dumas character's, d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, still live and breathe. We can relate to them as human beings, as real people. Scott's characters are perhaps a little less colorful. But they're still far more human and interesting than the leaden, cardboard ciphers who populate Atlas.

Rand placed great stress on the plot. When asked what were the three most important aspects of fiction, she replied, "Plot, plot, and plot." And Atlas, in a sense, is very ambitiously plotted. And yet it's not clear that it altogether succeeds. The whole novel is over-written, over-planned, and way too self-consciously organized and plotted. It lacks spontaneity, freshness, the element of surprise. Everything, including the plot, is dragooned into the service of the message. And that message is Objectivism at its most dogmatic and unyielding. If you're an Objectivist, this might constitute the chief merit of the book. But if you're not an Objectivist, it  becomes a tiresome exercise in special pleading.

The Ugly. The Winston Tunnel Scene, where Rand rationalizes why the people on the train deserve to die, should perhaps be considered in this category. But since we have already covered that scene here on ARCHN, there's no need to say anything more about it here. Other than the tunnel scene, I would select the general tone of the novel as its ugliest feature. On this point, I agree with Whitaker Chambers. He wrote of Atlas:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.
And Chambers concludes:
We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feeling at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything.
There is another feature of the tone which deserves comment, one which I find the most annoying. The novel's tone combines moralizing with an adversarial stance. It's as if Rand assumed that everyone who reads Atlas is somehow morally suspect and must be browbeat into agreement. This aspect of her tone is at its fiercest in Galt's Speech, which is not only long and boring and chock full of empty or dubious philosophic assertions, it also suffers the fault of constantly assuming the very worst about those listening (or reading) the darn thing. The whole screed wreaks with moral indignation, as if Rand is shouting at her readers: "How dare you disagree me, you disgusting little worms!"

This is the problem with authors who embrace philosophical principles that fail to square with sentiments prominent in most exemplifications of human nature. Since their doctrines clash with the sentiments of nearly everyone, they become frustrated at their inability to gain converts, and in their frustration, they resort to shouting people down and regarding everyone who disagrees with them with a scathing contempt. Hardly an edifying spectacle.



27 comments:

Gordon Burkowski said...

I think that the most impressive aspect of Atlas Shrugged is what Nathaniel Branden described as its "integration": Rand's boast was that every point raised by Galt in his speech is illustrated by one incident or another in the narrative. Of course, most novelists aren't interested in such a project: but I can't think of anyone who has done it better.

When a novelist has this single-minded an objective, there is a huge artistic price that inevitably must be paid. Rand ruthlessly subordinates characterization and complexity of effect to the single goal of illustrating theme by narrative incident. If you buy into this, the result is very powerful - as millions of readers can attest. But if you retain a critical intelligence, the effect wears off - or best of all, never gets established in the first place.

Anonymous said...

It would have been better if it were shorter.

Reardon's relatives could have been deleted.

Also the Speech could have been a lot shorter.

After all,the Gettysburg Address was only a few pages!

Gordon Burkowski said...

"Reardon's relatives could have been deleted."

No. They are there so Rand can make points about sex, marriage and family obligations. As I said, the narrative is there to give a comprehensive philosophy and everything is subordinated to that.

Eric Johnson said...

One thing I never really understood about the novel was who was running things when the uber-dude* went on vacation? Did John Galt ever have a sick day?

In the novel Rearden and Taggart went of to Wisconsin to go find the super-motor and have a little fun doing the horizontal mambo. During this time while Hank was gone, who the hell was running Rearden Steel? If Hank Rearden was so important to the operations of his company, then how the hell did it not completely collapse on itself while he was gone?

From my experience as an NCO in the Army, the big rule of thumb is to train your subordinates to do your job. The point being that if you were to get killed, then the Private below you could take over and successfully complete the mission. I believe that, to some extent, it is the same way for business. If this is the case, then wouldn't Galt's Brain Strike prove futile since there would be someone in middle management who could step up and run things?

*I much prefer to use the term "uber-dude" instead of "ubermensch." It's a bit of an American twist insomuch that you can easily highlight how ridiculous a concept it is without wasting a lot of breath. Also, I am an American and thus have a natural aversion to foreign sounding jargon.

Jzero said...

" If this is the case, then wouldn't Galt's Brain Strike prove futile since there would be someone in middle management who could step up and run things?"

I made a similar point somewhere on another reply thread. Just because someone might have been a genius who invented the automobile, if that person takes off it doesn't mean there aren't thousands who are still able to repair and maintain the things. It's a skill, but not a genius-level skill.

The scene near the end where the heroes are flying over the city and the lights go out - well, we're never told exactly how the generators fail. But a 1950s era generator is a relatively easy thing to run. You need to spin a turbine, either by feeding fuel into a boiler, or letting some natural force like water pressure do it for you. Once invented and built, you don't need to be a Galt to run it. Rand's world seemed to be populated by supermen and incompetents, with very little attention spent on the bread-and-butter, rank-and-file actually doing the grunt work of running things. Surely Rearden didn't pour his ingots himself.

advancedatheist said...

I just find the novel's view of sex really weird, because what it shows conflicts with what it says. Many of the novel's villains have girlfriends, mistresses and pickups, while the moral characters have to live like sexually abstinent Christians for much or all of their lives. Did Eddie Willers ever sleep with a girl, for example?

In other words, the bad boys get the girls, while the conscientious, productive grinds generally don't, much like in real life.

Yet Rand and her Kool-Aid drinkers pretend that her philosophy offers sexual fulfillment, at least as a side benefit. Perhaps Rand contrasts the heroes' sexual poverty with their ability to produce material abundance to make some kind of point about the constraints they had to live under in a corrupt society, but she doesn't say that. She leaves the impression that the sexual poverty would continue even after the success of Galt's strike.

advancedatheist said...

Regarding Rearden's family, I find it strange that Rand doesn't say anything about Rearden's father, or whether he and his brother Philip even have the same father. If his mother slept around and gave birth to Hank and Philip illegitimately, but fathered by different men, that would have made Hank's contempt for his mother and brother more understandable.


Anonymous said...

Hank's contempt derives from their "leeching" behavior; in Randworld that in itself is sufficient.

Lloyd Flack said...

Rand's view about sex comes across as her believing that it should be tied to hero worship and that if it does not fulfil her romanic ideal that you should be abstnent. It must be all it can be (by her standards) or it is wothless. She wand it to give exaltation and undevalues other things that most people associate with it, things such as affection or loyalty.

Michael Prescott said...

Though I think highly of Atlas, I always thought the plot depended on making the main characters rather dense. Dagny and Rearden simply cannot fathom why all these productive people are disappearing, even after they receive innumerable clues. Even while being called a "scab" by the strikers, Dagny remains baffled. Francisco's first talk with Dagny should have been enough to clue her in.

Readers get it right off, though admittedly we have the aid of a title that gives away the premise. (Still love the title, though.)

I think the anger in Galt's speech was an artistic decision intended to make the speech more dramatic and to reinforce the idea that Galt is addressing a morality bankrupt, collapsing world. I agree that the speech is overlong, but as Gordon said, the whole book is intended to be a series of concrete illustrations of philosophical precepts, so it was necessary to spell out all those precepts in order to bring the point home.

With regard to the lights going out, it was a dramatization of the theme of the lights going out all over the world, a motif that recurs throughout the story. Given that society had almost totally collapsed by that point, it's not so hard to believe. Look at the chaos in Venezuela right now. Running generator may be easy enough if there is fuel, but it doesn't take much to disrupt the fuel supply. Blackouts are common events in developing countries and are increasingly common even in the US.

Eric Johnson said...

That very well maybe what Rand was trying to do, but the end result was a horrible mess. All of the main characters have no redeemable qualities and all the villains are painted with such cartoonish incompetence one struggles to figure out how they got into their position of power in the first place.

Major Plot Hole 173.2(a): What about the divorce laws in Pennsylvania? If Rearden owns his company outright, then wouldn't his wife simply file for divorce and take half of his company? He did run off with another woman to Wisconsin after all.

Eddie Willikers said...

For a chapter-by-chapter leftist analysis of Atlas:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/series/atlas-shrugged/

It subjects the story to numerous reality tests that are illuminating.

gregnyquist said...

That very well maybe what Rand was trying to do, but the end result was a horrible mess.

I generally agree that Rand made a mess of her basic theme. The general notion behind the novel, of the economic/entrepreneurial leaders of society giving up under the weight over-socialization is an interesting one, but a theme like that would be far more convincing in novel with a much stronger degree of verisimilitude. Such a book, of course, would be very different from Atlas, with a much greater degree of moral ambiguity. It would do very poorly as a "preaching to the choir" propaganda book.

Joseph Conrad's novel Nostromo, in its character of Charles Gould and his silver mine, touches upon Rand's them in a way that's far more sophisticated and realistic than what we find in Atlas.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"The end result was a horrible mess."

Particularly notable: the final end of James Taggart. It is one of the most ridiculous scenes ever written.

Eric Johnson said...

The most sympathetic character I always found in the book was James. Mostly due to the idea I have that if my sister was such an unlikable bitch then I would act in a similar fashion. Of course I would have just blown Galt's brains out with a .45 automatic at the end of the book, but hey, that's where we would differ.

On a serious note, the villains in a James Axler throw-away adventure novel act more logically. It's as if not one of them ever bothered to think, "Hey our altruism plans aren't working. Time to put a few against the wall and make some examples for the 'encouragement of the others.'" Even the Bolsheviks managed to figure that out!

And I still think that Rearden's wife should have hired a really good divorce lawyer and taken poor Hank to the cleaners. "Running off to the Badger State with some railroad floozy! I'll show you rational self-interest!"

Jzero said...

@Michael:

"With regard to the lights going out, it was a dramatization of the theme of the lights going out all over the world, a motif that recurs throughout the story."

Oh, sure, I get that, symbolic and all. Still, even Rand shoots this one in the foot if anyone pays attention. There's a moment when Dagny and Hank are on their road trip, where she witnesses the sun setting on the decrepit half-abandoned town, and cries out - in horror - as instead of electric lights, the light of lamps and candles begins to appear.

And while I suppose it's *possible* that all the average folks in New York just ignored all the warning signs - certainly Rand seemed to think they'd be that stupid - it strains things to think that nobody would have bothered to stock up on simple, old-style tech for just such emergencies. So what Dagny and Co. ought to have seen was a moment where New York went dark, followed by dimmer, perhaps flickering lights coming back on. Civilization existed for quite a long time getting by in the dark before electricity was tamed. I know for Rand it seemed that kind of regression would be unbearable, or unforgivable, but even she knew that even her most listless, vacant proles would put lights on one way or another.

@Eric:

I've mentioned elsewhere that I thought it was an authorial misstep that Cheryl Taggart didn't survive to the end, considering Hank Rearden (not to mention Fransisco) winds up without Dagny at the end. If James turned out to be not who she thought he was, there were so many characters who WERE the kind of man she admired that she could have conceivably been quite happy with one of them, instead of being killed off. But then, that would have required that one of these men that loved Dagny so much would have had to have gotten OVER her, and I think Rand couldn't bear to have anyone's passion for her heroine cool off. She could have even had Cheryl hook up with Eddie, instead of throwing him into the desert to die - after all, he ran things while Dagny was gone, he was obviously bright and competent, if not a genius. But as the review on Patheos.com notes, even if you're on the side of good, not being a genius is pretty much a death sentence in Rand's story.

Anonymous said...

How about Eddie Willers and Gwen Ives,Reardon's secretary?

They were both good "average" people.

You don't have to be a genius to be in love!

Lloyd Flack said...

One of the consequences of Rand's obsession with using plot to illustrate theme is the fate of Eddie Willers. She saw it as a demonstration of the dependence of common men on the genius creators.
What she did not understand is how Dagny Taggarts abandonment of him and not even thinking about him would go down with readers. It was disloyalty to a friend and Rand did not understand its moral import. It demonstrates Rand's blind spots.

Lloyd Flack said...

Adam Lees seriies of articles in Patheos linked to above show the degree of Rand's hypocriscy. He shows the degree to which she applauds in her heroes behaviour that is inconsistent with her claimed opposition to force and fraud. He demonstrates Gregs claim of Rand's primary interest being hero worship rather than the promotion of rationality and the avoidance of force or fraud.

Anonymous said...

Lloyd, you refer to "Gregs claim of Rand's primary interest being hero worship rather than the promotion of rationality and the avoidance of force or fraud."

In my opinion this is right on the money, so to speak. Rand told Barbara Branden that her interest in philosophy grew out of asking: What are the ideas that will lead a man to be a Cyrus? Cyrus was the hero of a children's adventure story which Rand read at age 9.

So Rand started with the notion that ideas make a man in full. (Intellectual qualities were her best asset; so she assumed that they were the qualities uber alles.) Then she tried to suss out the master ideas that make possible a figure from, basically, a comic book. Her system is rationalization of this.

John Salt said...

It doesn't help that Cyrus in that story was a British imperialist fighting the "savage beasts" of India. Compare with Rand's views on Native Americans and Palestinians. In those views there is little actual concern for rationality and none at all for the avoidance of force and fraud. They are instead a red-hot assertion of the Cyrus model. With her childhood comic book hero she cries out, Crush the savage beasts!

Lloyd Flack said...

Rand denounces what she call second handers, people who live through another. But what is hero worship but exactly that? And what sort of person wants to be its subject?

Strelnikov said...

"Rand's Atlas Shrugged is easily her most polarizing novel. It's hard to be neutral about it. You either love it or you deplore it."

Not exactly true; you can treat it as an unintentional comedy, but you have to read it critically. Galt's Gulch and the little motor had me laughing out loud, but the fate of Eddie Willers and the train going into the tunnel and asphyxiating everyone on board did tick me off.

Adriana I. Pena said...

The novel appeals to teenagers because they have no idea of what the real world - without benefit of parents can be. Any adult who has to wait for a plumber to show up will immediately want to know if there are plumbers in Galt's Gulch and that waiting with a clogged toilet waiting for the free market to eventually provide a solution is NOT an option. Also, adults know that coffee trees do not grow in the climate there, so they are well hidden, but they keep running away to get their morning brew...

As for the factories collapsing without them, have they ever heard of the Argentina experience with "fabricas recuperadas"? After the economic crisis a lot of owners walked away from the factories, and the workers appelaed to banrupcy court for lost wages, and were awarded the factories to be run as cooperatives - the reasoning was that a working factory is ALWAYS preferable to an abandoned site. As far as I can tell, they are doing fine. All those indispensable men were not so indispensable, after all.

There is a bit of a contradiction about her faith in the free market. Now, the market is not a pure entity, but it is the aggregate of the buying and selling decisions of every human being. Supposedely those are purely rational decisions. But Rand spends a great deal of time showing how irrational people are, and castigating them for it. But she expects that when those irrational people form a market they are going to be rational. Somehow those irrational people become founts of sense and wisdom when they go shopping...

Anonymous said...

I think that the train wreck scene in Atlas was one of the best, every one of those cretins deserved to die a horrible death and if millions like them died every day the world would be better off. The damage that they did while living far exceeded any alleged tragedy from their welcome deaths.

Galt's Speech was not too long and the obscenity of cutting it down to five minutes in Atlas, Part Three, was typical of the way that whole project was made.

By the way Buckley repudiated Chambers's gas chamber remarks on Atlas in a Charlie Rose interview decades ago and WFB acknowledged Atlas as the greatest selling serious work in world history.

A distinction should be made between Rand's philosophy and the Brandens' created Cult. Rand should never have allowed it so she shares the blame. I found the reaction to the Valliant expose of the Brandens' hilarious because the Brandens had 35 years of cheap shots before Valliant's rebuttal. Valliant is a Randroid but he was on target on the Brandens who with Buckley are now dead and forgotten.

I recommend to your dozen or so regular readers the ARI Watch which rebuts the Mossad operation known as the Ayn Rand Institute. Peikoff's only intellectual contributions where his large audio edition of the history of philosophy and the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. Not sure if he was right there but it was revolutionary. His book on Nazism was pure holocaust-Good War trash as was the Dimwit book.

Atlas has now sold 30 million copies, how many readers has the Nyquist book been sold to ? Rand always had bad practical politics, Nixon, Ford, Greenspan, ad nauseum, and now Yaron's crazed attack on Trump.

So one can admire the philosophy and reject the Rand & Branden Cults.

Great news on The Bore Machan's demise. As far as Rothbard's competing governments go it is a non-starter. Any entity with the power to arrest, incarcerate, try and execute is per se a government. We don't need such multiple agencies in the same area.

Also good news is the failure to make all libertarians into kochSuckers and the complete collapse of the leftist LP ticket this year.

Hear that Objectivist Lying, SOLO Fruit Punch and Regurgitations Of Randroidism are all dying. Same old, same olds are the onlies writing for them. Did Billy Boy Dwyer croak ?

Cheers.

Anonymous said...

"Atlas has now sold 30 million copies, how many readers has the Nyquist book been sold to ?"

By that logic, the Bible would be the far superior book. Do you even think about what comes out of your virtual mouth?

Michael Prescott said...

This comment is only marginally on-topic, but I can't resist. Last night I watched a somewhat obscure 1940 MGM movie called Boom Town. It features a stellar cast: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamar. The movie itself doesn't quite live up to the assembled talent, but it's watchable enough. What interested me was that at several points it provides a possible source of inspiration for Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand, of course, was a big movie fan and was working in Hollywood at the time (though not for MGM). The movie was a major release, and it's entirely possible that she saw it.

Here are the similarities:

1. Two industrial tycoons are in love with the same strong-willed woman. Despite the fact that she is destined to settle for only one of them, their friendship is ultimately unimpaired. One of the tycoons (Gable) is a playboy, while the other (Tracy) is a committed monogamist of a somewhat puritanical bent who remains loyal to his first love for years, eschewing all other romantic relationships, despite having no hope of winning her.

2. The two tycoons are at loggerheads when a disastrous fire breaks out, prompting them to work together to save an endangered oilfield at great personal risk.

3. One of the tycoons (Gable) ends up on trial, accused of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. The other one (Tracy) shows up and delivers an impassioned speech about the virtues of entrepreneurial capitalism, which sways the jury, prompting them to spontaneous applause. The accused man is acquitted.

I see similarities with Atlas in the following respects:

1. Hank Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia are both in love with Dagny Taggart, but remain friends despite their rivalry. Francisco is (believed to be) a playboy, while puritanical Hank is committed to his marriage at any cost.

2. Francisco and Hank are engaged in an intense conversation when a fire breaks out at one of Hank's furnaces, prompting both of them to work together, at considerable risk to themselves, in order to avert a crisis.

3. Hank, facing a congressional review for violating a fictional law similar to the Sherman Antitrust Act, earns the applause of the spectators by making an impassioned speech about capitalism.

Did Rand see this movie? Did she remember it and make use of it when she was writing Atlas? I don't know, and probably no one will ever know.

Please note that I'm *not* accusing Rand of "plagiarism." As a writer myself, I know that we're all magpies and take inspiration from anywhere we find it. And certainly the differences between Atlas and Boom Town far outweigh the similarities.

But I do think it's possible that she saw the movie, and that it perhaps nudged her in the direction of writing an epic novel about industrialists as romantic heroes. The rags-to-riches oil wildcatters depicted by Gable and Tracy are powerful exemplars of the capitalist ideal.

Those who have access to Warner Archive, a subscription streaming service, can view Boom Town and judge for themselves.

By the way, I'm glad to see that ARCHN soldiers on, even if posts are rarer than they used to be!