Friday, May 11, 2007
Randy Atlas, Shruggy Atlas
I decided, on the principle that one should not condemn an enemy from a position of ignorance of their work, actually to read Ayn Rand’s sumo-size Objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). This I did, over the Easter break. And what an interesting experience it turned out to be.
I was surprised, for one thing, how readable the book was. I’ll confess that somewhere around page 300 the relentlessness of the novel’s combination of gnashing, effortful intensity of outrage and the sheer pressure of industrial-economic pseudo-detail was starting to wear me out. But I pushed through, and the last eight hundred pages just slid by. Which is to say, eventually they slid by. Which is to say, what with the fact that there was nothing on the telly, and nothing much else to do, eventually I read it. Actually the novel elaborates a narrative version of society rather like Dynasty: a few brilliant, beautiful members of the super-rich, a few powerful villains, and lots of spear-carriers. Dynasty was always crap but watchable, not unlike this book. Indeed, had Dynasty had the courage of its convictions and spent a series tracing the decline of its America into a dystopian economic collapse, brought about by the ressentiment and incompetence of the masses manipulated by evil politicians via spurious slogans of ‘social equality’, and thereafter the resurrection of a cleaner, better, grander enterprise society, then it might have very much resembled Atlas Shrugged.
One of the things that surprised me was how very redolent of a particular era of American science fiction the novel is: in tone it reminded me of Robert Heinlein—the long declarative sections in which characters debate the best way to get a misfiring country working again, the stress on engineering competence as the touchstone of human value, the vigorous simplification. There’s also something of Philip K Dick, in the first half at least, in the sense of a flattened, rather greying representation of social disintegration; although Dick was too canny to invest his hopes in the Wellsian utopian idealism of a society planned and run by geniuses in the way Rand does.
In obvious ways, of course, the book is science fiction. It posits the creation of certain technological nova for instance: a superstrong variety of steel, a motor engine that draws its power from ‘static electricity in the air’ as it drives along; a weapon that destroys using only sound waves. More to the point, its worldbuilding is of the sub-Orwellian, or sub-sub-Orwellian, variety, where everywhere in the world has been swallowed by malign ‘people’s republics’ (the whole of Europe, for instance, is a place of mass slavery, death camps and wicked pseudo-Communist tyranny). America seems to be the last place in which Capitalism still operates, but it’s under threat at the beginning and succumbs about halfway through. Our main characters are: brilliant and beautiful Dagny Taggart, of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (keeping the entire company operating through sheer force of her will and genius, and in the teeth of the company’s nominal director, her venal brother James); brilliant and handsome Hank Rearden, owner of Rearden Metal and inventor of the new sort of steel, trapped in a loveless marriage; and the handsome and brilliant Francisco D’Anconia. These three have a few loyal and worthwhile friends and deputies, but otherwise all the other characters either manifest the physical ugliness of the self-evidently corrupt (‘’the pendulous face of Orren Boyle with the small slits of pig’s eyes. The doughy face of Mr Mowen with the eyes that scurried away from any speaker and any fact’, 560) or else are hardly there at all.
For about two thirds of this 1100-page novel Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden undertake heroic struggles to keep their respective companies afloat in the face of the tide of public hostility, governmental tyranny and greed. D’Anconia on the other hand, though posing as a skittish international playboy, is actually working for a hidden cabal of geniuses, organised by one John Galt. In the world at large the question with which the novel opens (‘Who is John Galt?’) has become a meaningless slogan, uttered by people when they mean to say ‘who knows?’ But John Galt is real. He has a plan to save the world.
The world he is trying to save is sketched by Rand via emblematic figures. For example, the Arts are represented by a wholly meretricious novelist called Balph Eubank who writes novels with titles like The Heart is a Milkman and The Vulture is Moulting. It might be considered, shall we say, brave of a writer who called her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to crack wise at the expense of pretentious novel titles. But never mind that for the time being. There’s also an evil Relativist philosopher called Pritchett who preaches the fluidity of all meaning and the absence of absolute values, and who, in the rigorously pared down logic of the novel, has replaced the only other philosopher in the world—a virtuous quasi-Objectivist called Hugh Akston—in public affection and influence. Akston is working as a fry-chef in a café in the middle of nowhere, but he’s perfectly happy. Indeed, as the ‘looters and moochers’ grasp more and more power into their greedy, incompetent hands, the people of real talent (almost all such people, according to Rand, are businessmen and factory owners) are silently vanishing, whither none know. Corrupt Washington politicians enact more and more oppressive legislation, until the country grinds to an absolute standstill. Then, when Rand has squeezed every last dribble of outrage from her polemical spleen, she reverses the movement; the novel ends as the disappeared geniuses and great wo/men return, poised to set the world to rights, and get their proper reward: healthy profits, lots of money, and a world fit for rugged individualists to build railways across.
Most of the novel is written in a declarative, rather grey prose, in which characters discuss various practical matters at length.
‘All right Hank,’ she said, ‘we’re going ahead with the new Rearden Metal bridge. This is the official order of the official owner of the John Galt line.’
He smiled, looking down at the drawings of the bridge spread in the light on his desk. ‘Have you had a chance to examine the scheme we submitted?’
‘Yes. You don’t need my comments or compliments. The order says it.’
‘Very well. Thank you. I’ll start rolling the metal.’
‘Don’t you want to ask whether the John Galt Line is in a position to place orders or to function?’
‘I don’t need to. Your coming here says it.’
She smiled. ‘True. It’s all set, Hank. I came to tell you that and to discuss the details of the bridge in person.’
He was not looking at her; he was looking at a sheet of figures on his desk. ‘I’ve had my engineers prepare a breakdown of the cost of the bridge,’ he said, ‘and an approximate schedule of the construction time required. That is what I wanted to discuss with you.’ He extended the papers. She settled back to read them. 
There’s an awful lot like this. From time to time Rand puts the declarative mode on one side in order to purple-up her style. The result is not what literary critics call ‘good’. Here is Dagny riding a train:
The green-blue rails ran to meet them, like two jets shot out of a single point beyond the curve of the earth. The crossties melted, as they approached, into a smooth stream running down underneath the wheels … Trees and telegraph poles sprang into sight abruptly, and went by as if jerked back. … The glass sheets of the cab’s windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead, and in the next instant she was beside it, and past.
Rand is fatally drawn to over-emphatic expression. At moments of intensity (and this novel is prodigiously over-supplied with such moments) she turns the prose-style dial all the way up to 11, and, in some cases, to 12. This is how something occurs to one character: ‘it was not a thought, it was like the punch of a fist inside his skull’ . Nothing moves; everything whirls, or thunders, or convulses. Characters are not afraid, the fear ‘goes through them in spasms’. Instead of ‘speaking’ people cry and scream. Here, from a few pages in the middle of the novel:
‘Dagny,’ he screamed. ‘Don’t go …!’
The screaming of the telephones went on through the silence. …
He flung the glass door open and from the threshold, in the sight and hearing of the room, he screamed: ‘where is she!’ …
‘I won’t tell you.’
Taggart’s scream rose to the shrill impotent sound that confesses a miscalculation. [624-5]
But when intensity has no other mode, it palls. There are times—and actually, the times are all the time without exception—when it is simply more effective to write ‘he got to his feet and spoke’ than it is to write ‘he shot to his feet with the stored abruptness of a spring uncoiling, his voice driving on in merciless triumph’ . But the idea that less could ever be more was clearly one alien to Rand’s aesthetic. The back of my Penguin edition of the novel carries this endorsement, presumably from a 1957 review: ‘she writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly. The New York Times’. The bitterness comes through on every page that isn’t given over to improbable ecstasy, but the brilliance and beauty … not so much. Often the writing is really heroically bad, impossible simile following impossible simile. Here we read of ‘an announcer, with a voice like a machine-gun spitting smiles …’ . There we read:
A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of the peaks. 
If Objectivist philosophy called for people to sleep on mattresses stuffed with sloppy wads then no wonder it didn’t catch on.
But, wait, what am I saying? Objectivism not catching on? Objectivism has become, via indirect routes, the dominant ethos of the world today. Alan Greenspan may not individually have been the world’s most powerful figure, but his long period of prominence and influence reflected a half century in which the principles of profit, individualism, greed and selfishness achieved unchallenged dominance across most of the Western world. It has conquered even China and Russia now. The paradise-on-earth Rand prophesied: we’re pretty much living in it. Atlas Shrugged is about as timely a book as is imaginable.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, there’s an obvious answer and a less obvious one. The obvious one is that Atlas Shrugged is a polemical Objectivist novel, designed on every page to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophical world-view. It’s not that her authorial thumb is in the balance; it’s that she has jammed her whole arm in there—that she’s clambered her entire body into the balance and is jumping up and down to get it to register the quantity she wants. It seems to me that the flaws in Objectivist thinking are such as to render the novel inert as polemic, and without that there is only the rather empty Soapy pleasures of the narrative. But a Randian would complain, with some justice, that I’m only voicing my own ideological preconceptions.
But there is another problem here, and it has to do with dramatic conception. Atlas Shrugged is a one-dimensional novel, despite Rand’s very strenuous efforts to breathe life and depth into it. It is one dimensional because Objectivist philosophy holds to a strictly non-dialectical, one-dimensional metaphysic. Whether this is a valuable philosophical position or not is a matter about which interesting discussions, perhaps, can be had; but in a purely dramatic sense it is a fatal limitation.
Characters in the novel repeat, not once but many times, that there is no such thing as contradiction. ‘If you find a contradiction,’ says D’Anconia, time and again, ‘then examine your premises. You’ll find one or other of them to be mistaken.’ This is the caricature image of Objectivism as a whole: a hectoring insistence that one ‘examine one’s premises!’ But, to put the matter in artistic terms, it robs narrative of dramatic tension. For Rand there is nothing tragic in Antigone; there cannot be a clash between Creon and Antigone. All there can be is one party (I’m guessing she’d side with the latter) in the right and one in the wrong.
But this would be to misread Antigone; or to put it another way, the reason why aesthetic theoreticians have over many generations kept banging on about the play, is that it embodies with attractive clarity precisely the motor of the greatest art: not only tragedy, but all properly engaging or moving dramatic representation. Conflict. Without conflict there isn’t drama. And for all the pop-eyed cod-intensities and enormity of scale of Rand’s novel, there isn’t really conflict, or drama, to be found anywhere in the text. Her politicians don’t really believe in social equality and justice; they’re all venal self-serving villains. It would have made a more interesting novel if they did really believe in social equality and justice, or if Rand had been able to think herself convincingly into the mindset that did. Her heroes are in the right on page 1, and in the right on 1168, and the reader is never allowed on any page to doubt that they are right.
I remain unconvinced ideologically; I remain unconvinced aesthetically; and I refuse, as a matter of principle, to check my premises.
Well, you’ve made me want to read it, which is something that none of the Randian panegyrics I have ever come across have done.
After this long-overdue review, you could check out other strangely overlooked scifi classics such as Battlefield Earth. After all, it’s Mitt Romney’s favorite book!
The real SF book of that era for our age is, I think, PKD’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It has it all: the invasion of everyone’s worldview by the product / drug ironically named “Chew-Z”, the stigmata of steel eyes to see, hand to grasp, jaw to consume, the belief in personal development of the elite which oddly enough just seems to make them more stupid.
They’re making a film of Atlas Shrugged, you know: Brangelina to star; 2008 release date pencilled in. This will at least mean we’ll get some entertaining porn-industry remakes: Atlas Shagged, Ass-Lad Shrugged and so on.
It probably is a good time to look at it, Adam, even though it’s too bad that anyone has to.
The ultimate remake that ever can or will be remade was Aslan Shrugged:
* here ("This is a story to show the dear niece of our colleague C.S. Lewis that the only magical cordial she needs is a devotion to modern industrial medical practice");
* here ("The lamp post shines like a monument to industry.");
* here (""It’s Plummer Metal,” says the witch. “Also called ‘Turkish Delight.’” “You can ensure me a supply of this? For my railroad?"")
* here (""Because Aslan is Aslan,” says Peter. “A is A."")
Hitherby Dragons is truly excellent.
I really must get round to reading Battlefield Earth before I die. But then, on the other hand ...
Every time I re-read that series, a different amazingly funny sentence strikes me. This time it was “Lucy, playing seppuku second as she has always done--- [...]”
I wonder how many cult leaders have written SF books? I think that Ayn qualifies, and of course so does Elron. But wouldn’t the Angel Moroni have delivered those gold tablets via spaceship, if one had then been culturally available?
Sf interventions within Christianity have been marginally better, I suppose, if only because there have been more of them, so some must creep up one side of the gaussian distribution. Even then, though, I can’t think of any offhand that are really good.
C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet (and series)? Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man?
One of the more elegant implications of this essay, which was a pleasure to read, was that the apparent structure of the novel—the great war against egalitarian mismanagement—fails because Rand doesn’t understand conflict on all its levels. Without a grasp on inner conflict, and the capacity for error, you can’t tell a good battle story either. So Galt allows the world to go to seed, and then comes back to redeem it in the eleventh hour.
Joe, thanks! You’re right: in a nutshell ... A is A is no agon.
This is a strong post, which surprised me given its subject: I spent part of it wondering why anyone would waste time on this novel, then wondering why anyone needs to write a new version of the default sensible review of Rand (questionable thinker, grotesque human being, risible novelist, etc.), but your ending (as Joseph points out) has some kick to it. Well played.
It’s interesting to think of Ayn Rand in the socio-political context. Her work is reactionary to the progressive movements of the 1920s and 1930s, much like the immense rise of right wing think tanks was and is a reaction to the libratory movements of the civil rights movement and the progressive movements of the “1960s” that have continued and grown. Rand was largely pre-identity politics, so her focus is more strictly economic.
Some of her early works were written in the ‘30s, and The Fountainhead, the first of her two main novels, was planned and partly written in the mid and late ‘30s, and published in the early ‘40s. Its working title was Second-Hand Lives. About 1944, ‘45, she started journaling about Atlas Shrugged (according to her associate Leonard Peikoff). It carried the title, The Strike, apparently until 1956, before its 1957 publication.
Much of her style is a sort of mix or modeling of Hemingway (and thus some Stein) mixed with Victor Hugo – much exposition of ideas and substantial amounts of what is called romanticism, or idealism, and thus something of a precursor to Heinlein, as Adam notes. A good bit of the theme is Huckleberry Finnish – in Rand’s case, a sort of dogged and noble youth spirit manifest in a few select idealized adults ranged against an implacably corrupt society. Her novels are often very appealing to youth, for much the same reason Huck Finn appeals to youth. Huck takes his stand, as do Rand’s figures, refusing to be guilt-tripped or incriminated in various “adult” abominations.
The difference: the conniving, morally questionable Huck took his admirable stand against slavery, for his runaway friend. Rand’s irreproachable characters take their principled stands against adult corruptions of various sorts too, but also ultimately on behalf of the anti-democratic rule of wealth – entirely reminiscent of the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay: “Those who own the country, ought to govern it.”
So Rand’s false either-or choice is this: choose life or death; righteousness or immorality: an ideal benevolent dictatorship of wealth or an inevitably fatally corrupt democracy. She attacks an indefensibly corrupt elite on behalf of a nonexistent elite whose closest manifestation in reality is another version of an indefensibly corrupt elite. Totalitarian ostensibly benevolent corporate elite rule versus totalitarian malign governmental elite rule. The choice is as false as could be, of course, but Rand presents the former as freedom and goodness, and the latter as slavery and rot by way of psychological comparisons that often resonate strongly with youth sick of being governed by often highly imperfect, and in fact highly unprincipled, school and family and religious structures, and who also may see big corporate money as a key to freedom.
As Adam notes, Rand is symptomatic and emblematic of the current diseased socio-political structure.
Her prose has its scratch your head moments, often, but even some of the worst of these moments are remarkably similar to the opening two pages of Jonathan Franzen’s lauded opening, and novel, The Corrections. The sentences do not to a large extent hold up upon close inspection but have a sort of aura of power about them, due to a certain technique, and the cumulative power of the prose (as Adam in part attests, on the one hand), if not much of the rest of the work(s), is often mistakenly, I think, underestimated (including the passages Adam presents, on the other hand).
(My comments here about Franzen’s prose refer to the opening couple of pages only, of The Corrections. They are sort of an impressive, I suppose, disaster—and are in their own way peculiarly much inferior to most of the rest of the prose in the novel (if not much of the story) which is often quite well done.)
Rich: Werner Erhardt at EST is an obvious suspect. He was a scifi buff at least.
This is a good post.
Have you ever read the graphic novel in which we are shown an alternate timeline where Superman landed in Soviet Russia rather than America? Apparently communism works if you have a nearly all-powerful being at the helm. (For some reason, this post reminded me of that.)
The communist superman comic is Red Son. Interesting idea, done at the level of political intelligence of a fifteen-year-old… But anarchist batman is cool.
Actually, I think the “green-blue rails” paragraph is pretty good. At any rate, if I saw it in a “real” literary novel it wouldn’t seem out of place. And as for Rand being unable to think herself into the mindset of her villains, isn’t this true of most “politically committed” novels? (Though I haven’t read too many of those.) Not that I want to defend Atlas Shrugged as a whole.
After reading Adam’s post, it occurred to me that the central conceit of Atlas Shrugged—that without the geniuses to keep things running, civilization would collapse—is very reminiscent of C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons.” In fact, iirc, one of the geniuses in that story says that they had tried leaving the populace to their own devices, but had to give up after a week because the corpses had piled up too high.
Adam S. Yes, I may have been unfair about the green-blue rails passage. AR’s purple-variety prose doesn’t read so badly in small doses, in fact; but in longer goes it’s too much icing and not enough cake.
An ounce of Kornbluth is worth a metric tonne of Rand. Why is this, I wonder? Might it have something to do with the fact that K. had a sense of humour and R. not?
It feels like a personal slight to me that I’m forced by Providence to share Ayn Rand initials, you know.
The rails passage reminds me: since I have no intention of reading Atlas Shrugged, would anyone who has read it tell me what’s going on with the railroad-as-nostalgic-symbol-of-progress? Ever since Mieville’s Iron Council, it’s been something I’ve been sensitized to. When AS was written, in 1957, railroads were already of the past.
Well . . . but air travel wasn’t as routine then as it became 20 or 30 years later and passenger trains were much more common then than now. Trains were more visibly a part of people’s lives. And toy trains were common. Me and my friends all had electric trains.
Sure, Bill, and my kids have electric trains now too—I don’t think that’s going away. But I’m interested in the train as symbol of *progress*, something which you’d presumably want to pick a new technology for.
With Iron Council I’d guess it was in part a nostalgia not for the technology as such, but for the days (not so distant for UK socialists) when the Transport and General Workers Union had real power in this land. That union’s strength has been mostly broken now, in part by Thatcher’s strategic decision to build many roads and shift transport away from the rails. With Ayn Rand I’d guess it’s a simpler fetish for Big Powerful Machines. Biiig Machiiines!
Well, Rich, how about cultural inertia—plus that power fetish that Adam mentioned? Remember that the technogeekery of science fiction was still cultish in those days. It took the launching of Sputnik in 57 to bring new technology before the public in a big way.
I hadn’t thought of that with regard to Iron Council—I thought that it had something to do with how Marx wrote about railroads, which either illustrated or contributed to how they became symbolic of the moment of industrialization. Mieville’s train goes off the rails as a way of showing his desire to show history going off its rails, both in the sense of an alternate history of the socialist revolutions of the past, and of overcoming the neoliberal presumption that history has ended and that nothing can now change. The trains equal industrialization thing is part of it for Rand, I’d guess, as well—the alternate symbol, the factory, can not stand by itself without workers to work in it, while the train can. Delany wrote about how sword-and-sorcery fantasy replicates the moment when the market takes over—I know I’m bungling that idea, maybe Ray Davis has the source handy—and these trains perhaps do something similar for a slightly later moment.
Of course Kornbluth is far superior to Rand, but Kornbluth could be heavy-handed too, at times. For example, the story which has an alternate future in which, because the U.S. didn’t drop the bomb on Hiroshima, the Nazis have ruled the world for a thousand years and have regressed to believing in witchcraft (iirc).
Back to Rand: thinking over my vague memories of Atlas Shrugged (which I read once about thirty years ago), it seems to me that Rand’s striking geniuses are motivated less by principle—or even self-interest—than by petulance: “if you won’t do things my way, I’m taking my toys and going home, and then you’ll be sorry!” Ditto for Howard Roark in The Fountainhead.
Another problem with AS from a dramtic point of view is that not only are its villains one-dimensional, they’re not very good villains: they can’t even put up a good fight. All the geniuses have to do to defeat the villains is, literally, to do nothing. (Again, iirc.)
Railroads are the ultimate symbol of capitalist power because they combine technology and expansive space in ways that nothing else really does, even to this day.
Think of it this way: For a train to work, you need steel rails set at precisely the right width and laid as far as you want to go. You’re forcibly laying technology down upon the earth - conquering it. (Rand’s language is all about conquest. Consider that the only “good” sex in any of her books is violent enough to leave bruises, every time. Consider her infamous rhapsodies about the poetic beauty of the act of smoking a cigarette—“controlling fire”, no less!)
Railroads also had the advantage of representing the first really big, colorful tycoons, and their networks of wealth and power. Ships required a similar level of technology, but you don’t have to lay track on the ocean. One could argue that she should have looked at roads, but the Interstate and Autobahn were disruptive to the capital-intensive order of the Kingdom of Rail.
That “rail was in the past” by that time is a well-taken point, but it also makes her misguided ideas that much more poignant: She needs this big symbol of control through technology (and control _of_ technology, real mastery of it, is in her book emblematic of virtue), and there’s nothing obvious in the world she lived in that would take the place of rail. Trucks? Who gives a crap about trucks?! Trucks just need a silly road!
Re. Mieville, I think he may actually be coming at it from almost the same angle, but with a different point. The Iron Council is building their own track. They don’t need to rely on an infrastructure: They’re making their own as they go. It’s really kind of a bravura rebuttal to Randianism, in a way. One of those ideas you hear and you think, “There’s just no way in hell that’s actually what that book is about.”