Atlas Shrugged

[openbook booknumber=”0451191145″]


My second attempt at reading an Ayn Rand novel went off even worse than my first. I’m going to basically cover all the things I found wrong with Anthem and include a few more basic problems I have with her philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel written by Ayn Rand, and her last before she turned from novel writer to full time philosopher. The novel outlines and supports her basic tenets of Objectivism.

The theory I don’t have a problem with, generally, my problem is mainly how it is applied in this novel and the way people are using this book to support conservative attempts to have the market limitations put in place during this latest recession be repealed as it is “harming market growth”. This novel is also being used as an argument against the new health care initiative and as a way of gainsaying the economic stimulus package and the green jobs it has created. All of these arguments ignore one vital point: in the novel the market failed because of the market limitations that were put in place on a market that was going on just fine before hand, in the real world the market failed because of circumventions to the market limitations in place and because some market limitations that needed to be in place were not there creating an untenable situation that ultimately collapsed. A circumstance most pundits seem to be glossing over for their own reasons.

Anyway, back to the story. In the story a man saw all of these market limitations and, taking it a step further, resulting socialist states in the novel and decided he would show them how their system would not, could not and should not work by “stopping the motor of the world”. And, he did. To keep from spoiling too much of the plot, since it is an interesting piece of literature, I will have it suffice to say that the main character, a woman named Dagny Taggart, learns along with the reader about the philosophy of Objectivism through out the story through a variety of circumstances and an increasingly dire state of living. Meanwhile she attempts to run her brother’s railroad against increasingly insurmountable odds as the government changes around her. Soon her world starts to give up and come to a standstill. The freeloaders and beggars win in a world where all is equal, since the hard workers have to give, and they have but to receive. Dagny gives until she can give no more, and then she learns the truth: Who is John Galt?

Who is John Galt?”
       The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still – as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
       “Why did you say that?” asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
       The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
       “Why does it bother you?” he asked.
       “It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.

As far as the literature aspect I will say that the writing was very well done, the descriptions vivid, the metaphors enlightening and the plot at times truly engaging. That being said, the characters acted, thought and spoke in a very stilted way and after a while I finally hit on what was wrong with them. They were talking in the way the author supposed humans to speak, not how they actually did. I suppose this is because they were mouthpieces for a philosophical work so she was looking for charactures of man kind, not actual humans to portray. None the less it did make it hard to empathize and understand a philosophy that it seemed to me only worked for fictional characters and not real people, as real people do not act, think, or speak like they do in Ayn Rand’s novel.

On a flip to this, I enjoyed the feminism in the novel. A woman was portrayed as strong, sensible, logical, smart and was free to love and be loved on her terms and to engage in romantic and sexual encounters with whomever she felt equal to her. Pretty revolutionary for 1957. And, again, how the author thought a woman should think, speak and act, not how they actually did, obviously. That being said, she was conflicting on this as well.

Another problem I had with the novel was the under tone had a very strong vibe of hatred. It was present in Anthem to some degree, but in this one it really was brought to bear. During one scene she paints the enemy, the government, as coldly and callously leaving a group of people, the average man, to die. Only a few chapters later people die due to “the stopping of the motor of the world” but instead of painting these people, also the average man, in a sympathetic light, she went into how each of them believed in the government and trusted them to care for them, or had a son that did, or a brother – how they were invested in the new world order and so, even though they did not know they were about to die, it was okay because they deserved it for believing in the way that they did. This is not the only conflicting (or hateful) message in Atlas Shrugged, but it is the one that stuck with and disturbed me for the longest.

Ultimately I believe that this novel is really no longer relevant in it’s current form. The bullet of socialism has been dodged for the most part and using it to validate a free, non government controlled, market or health care system is truly sticking your head in the sand at this point. A free market resulted in one of the worst health care systems in the first world, and the most expensive. A free market resulted in this current economic recession that is now affecting the entire world. When your ultimate goal is the bottom dollar, ethics is not always brought to bear. Not anymore. Self regulation can no longer be trusted. And, whereas the characters in Atlas Shrugged showed fierce commitment to ethical standards along with their logical pinnacles of thought, this just isn’t so for people in the real world, and a novel, no matter how well written, is not about to change that.

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