Sunday, April 24, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: a Reconsideration

I am rereading Atlas Shrugged.

When I was in high school, a couple of self-described 'socialists' verbally pinned me to the wall and peppered me with questions to which I had no answers. My mile wide/inch deep opinions were quickly exposed, and my stuttering confusion was obvious to everyone. Growing up in a conservative Republican household does not really prepare one to do intellectual battle with the forces of evil...hell...I would have lost an intellectual fight with a stone.

So, in my embarrassment, I had three choices: shut up, accept the 'socialist' arguments (this was during the Cold War and this was NOT going to happen), or find some answers on my own. My visit to the local library yielded almost nothing on the subject of free markets or capitalism. The only book I found in the card catalog, circa 1973, was "Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal," by Ayn Rand.

What a mind-blowing treasure trove! The book was not just a defense of capitalism, it was an attack on all non-capitalist systems. The logic was direct and powerful. It gave me live ammunition to use against my socialist tormentors...but it also opened up a divide between myself and mainstream conservatives.

At seventeen, I took on "Atlas Shrugged." If any book ever ruined a young man, this was it. The novel is over 1100 pages long, but I remember being so caught up in the story that I was disappointed when I had finished it. I had gotten sucked in. Life in the book was more real than the life I was living. This is not an uncommon phenomenon among young readers of Rand...that's how most 'Randoids' are created. I spent several years believing the answers to damned near any question could be found in one of the innumerable speeches, especially Galt's speech. I was insufferable to my friends and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught around me. I had the worst intellectual disease one can have: absolute certainty.

The circles I travelled in, however, did not think highly of Rand. She, her philosophy, and her novels, were denigrated as elitist, doggerel, simplistic, and unreadable. Though I initially vehemently disagreed, I faced three of decades of dismissive statements by uncountable academics, friends, pundits, and family. I ultimately came to believe that Rand was a flawed philosopher with mediocre writing skills. Whenever I dared to come to the defense of Atlas Shrugged, I usually started with "I know it is a deeply flawed novel, but...."

Let me apologize to Rand, post mortem. Atlas is a wonderful story. It is written with power, and color, and depth, and sensitivity. Contrary to what her critics claim, the story is internally consistent, the characters are complex, and the prose is direct...with pejorative power. This latter trait...the derogatory words used to describe commonly accepted political, economic, moral, and philosophical positions...makes her entertaining and enlightening to those who agree with her, but utterly disgusting to those who do not. Thus she is a lightning rod.

While I am always surprised at the intensity of the venom directed at Rand and her writings, I should not be. To a great extent, Rand gets back what she gives. She labels those who advocate for a welfare state "looters." Ok, I get it. Just like looters, they take from rightful owners, so they are morally and functionally little different from a common thief, albeit with the goal of "helping" people. Nevertheless, using the term "looters" virtually guarantees that advocates of the welfare state will cease to seriously consider the arguments put forward and instead strike back with their own put-downs. If Rand was intending to win over the people she thought were wrong headed "looters" with the force of her logic and the power of her words, she might have considered reading 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' before deciding how to label them. "Looters" and "moochers" was not a good place to start, because the push back resulted in similar name calling, such as "fascist," "Darwinian," "power worshipper," "egotistical," and "cult leader." Discussion of Rand usually gets no farther than this. The vocabulary gets in the way.

Her abrasiveness toward the people she believed held a faulty ideology aside, what about the other accusations? Prose style? Character development? Plot line?

Rand's writing style is unique. Some people don't like it. I do. Hemingway had economy of words. Carlyle had biting verbosity. Shakespeare had poetry. Rand had an argument. She worked her ideas over with argumentative insistence, drilling down, down, through her characters and through their language to find the underlying premises. The style, therefore, seems to be direct, and as I said earlier, pejorative. If you agree with her, her language is celebratory. Yes!, you say, finally someone calling a spade a spade! If you disagree, however, it is doggerel. Eleven hundred pages of doggerel.

I used to believe Rand wrote two dimensional characters. Good guys. Bad guys. Stick figures spouting philosophy. Upon rereading Atlas, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
How did the critics miss it? How did I miss it? The self-torture of Hank Reardon. The crushing loneliness of Dagny Taggart. The conflicting loves of Francisco d'Anconia? One must understand their inner lives if one is to understand the things that they do and say. Far from being purple prose, the language these characters use provides the clues to their thoughts as they attempt to reconcile their inner conflicts. Rand leaves us the bread crumbs to follow, but we, the readers, must be willing to follow. Without understanding the inner conflicts, we cannot make sense of Hank's coldness and his inexplicable insults toward Dagny, the woman he loves, at Wyatt's house. Or Francisco's aloofness punctuated by tears. Or Dagny rejecting Hank. Many readers will refuse to follow, for reason's mentioned above, so the characterizations seem strangely stiff and bizarre. For example, they often refer to the sex scenes as sadistic/masochistic rape scenes because they cannot understand the push and pull going on in the characters' psyches. There is more to the characters than appears on the surface. It's a pity it has taken me many years to fully appreciate the depth of the characterizations, and it is unlikely the negative critics will ever discover it.

When viewing a play, it has been said that an audience member has an obligation to suspend belief or the play cannot work. I think the same is true for reading a novel. I will admit that I have read novels that I could not 'get into' because for one reason or another I refused to suspend my disbelief. I never had that problem with Atlas Shrugged. Viewed from the inside, the plot development is internally coherent. Actions and events flow from their antecedents and further the story and the themes. I find the plot to be illustrative of the process by which societies go into decline, and so from that standpoint it is also coherent outside the story. Critics have dissed the plot as 'contrived' because it involves things that haven't happened (the collapse of the economy), or unlikely to happen (new source of energy from static electricity, or the disappearance of the most productive members of society...correction...that DID happen in Eastern Europe during the Brain Drain after WWII). Yet critics forget that fiction can do this...all it demands is internal consistency, not scientific proof. I cannot fault the plot. I find it an acceptable frame on which to hang the characters and the themes.

My new-found, or re-found, appreciation of Atlas Shrugged, and Ayn Rand, comes at a time when much of what she warned of is coming true. The corporatism, or crony-capitalism, of our modern society (Think G.E., Halliburton, Boeing) looks eerily like Orren Boyle's Associated Steel, or Paul Larken's mines. Government 'experts' on energy, the environment, and technology sound like Dr. Ferris from the State Science Institute, and the executive orders of Barack Obama sound like the pronouncements of Wesley Mouch. Is life imitating art? Or was Rand onto something when she said the primary evil in the world is the acceptance of the creed that we must give up our selves for the good of our communities and the country. President Obama recently opined how it is good to sacrifice some people (the rich) for the common good (a balanced national budget). This could have come directly out of the pages of Atlas...but the critics would have considered it nothing but exaggerated 'tea bagger' paranoia. Rand anticipated Obama because she recognized, and named, the principle under which he operates. Obama is just the latest in a long line of men who saw it as their right to demand sacrifice from others...then to stand there and collect the booty.

If Rand was right, and I believe she was, then the lessons of Atlas Shrugged have not yet been learned. Collectivism is still on the march. Our lives are not our own, from the assertion of government power to extract any tax they wish, to the power to regulate any behavior they don't like, to the power to lock away and torture people they fear (Bradley Manning?). I know we will not have learned our lesson until we can say "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will not live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine."

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