Atlas Shrugged (Chapters 1-5)

By Ayn Rand

Cover: Atlas ShruggedMy only previous references for Atlas Shrugged are Paul Ryan, of course, and a very funny recap of the movie version of the first half on Grantland. This, however, has not stopped me from judging anyone who spoke positively of the book. So, when a friend of mine listed Atlas Shrugged as one of her favorite books, I mocked her without restraint. She, of course, replied that maybe I should try actually reading it, which seemed like a fair point, so here I go with another round of semi-live-blogging.

A quick warning, though: I lean so far left, politically, that President Obama and the Democratic party are significantly right of me. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, I caucused for Kucinich (devastatingly unsuccessfully), and if there were a viable socialist party in the United States, I would probably be a member. I am very obviously not the audience for this book, and I am, under no circumstances, diving into it with anything close to an open mind. I intend to hate it, with my reward being that I can then mock its fans with complete impunity.

Rebecca, who has also never read any Ayn Rand, has agreed to join me in reading Atlas Shrugged and ‘live-blogging’ it for the next several weeks. Kinsey has already read The Fountainhead, so she got a pass. So, with no more delay, let’s get started with the spoilers!

Chapter 1:

Via Eddie Willers, a childhood friend and business acolyte, we meet the Taggart siblings, who own the country’s largest railroad. James Taggart has a weak, droopy body to match his weak, droopy mind, and he is incapable of running the business because he is so concerned with doing moral good. Dagny Taggart has beautiful legs (that is seriously the first description we have of her, and it is important enough to be repeated later in the chapter). Her beautiful legs are somehow “incongruous” with her slender body, her angular face, and her sensual mouth. She is the opposite of her brother, and real big on making quick decisions.

In fact, she decides that Taggart Transcontinental is going to use a newly invented metal, which has not yet been put to any practical use, on all of their new rails. This seems like a very bad idea to both me and James Taggart, but since Dagny is the protagonist (and possibly a bit of a Mary Sue), I assume this does not lead to hundreds of people’s deaths.

Chapter 2:

Photo of Michael FassbenderWe meet Hank Rearden, who invented this new metal, and who is despised by everyone, including his own mother, brother, and wife, for being so successful. He is described as having been called “ugly” because the “prominent cheekbones” and “sharp lines” of his face made him look older. He also has eyes “the color and quality of pale blue ice” and “ash-blond strands” of hair, so he sounds just hideous.

This chapter reinforces some really odd descriptors of nature vs. industry from the first chapter (which had an old and powerful-looking oak revealed to be rotted inside). Lots of buildings, trains, and construction equipment are described in loving and grandiose terms while an untended field is described as containing “bright, green, living weeds, like gorged cannibals.” I had to reread that line a couple of times because I couldn’t quite believe plants were being described as “gorged cannibals.”

Chapter 3:

Rands sets up her liberal strawmen, as Jim Taggart meets with his own metal developer (it is the kind of world where everyone has their own metallurgist, I guess), and a couple of other hangers-on, including a turn-coat friend of Hank Rearden and Rearden’s Washington lobbyist. They talk about how it is the responsibility of privately owned companies to take the whole of society into consideration when making the decisions, and the whole chapter is pretty agonizing to read as socialist-leaning liberal.

Rand is familiar enough with a liberal agenda to be able to put the basic arguments in her strawmen’s mouths, but she doesn’t understand how anyone could think that way, so none of their follow-up discussion points sound right or even make much sense.  She, through the voices of Dagny and Hank, seems to feel that no one could truly believe in the liberal agenda, so people espousing it do so only for some hypocritical purpose, hiding their real motivations. I felt very tired and a bit depressed after this chapter.

Chapter 4:

So, here’s Rand’s difficulty: she’s trying to argue that pure self-interest is the truest and most righteous way to live, but her emotionless, self-centered protagonists are really difficult to empathize with. So, to compensate, she has to make every other character in the book super-dislikable to act as foils.

This is the first chapter, at page 83, in which two characters have a fully amicable interaction, when Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are threatening each other with using their own companies to take advantage of the other company’s struggles.

Meanwhile, our liberal strawmen have imposed an Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Act (hilariously cumbersome name) that eliminates competition in the railroad industry. On the one hand, Rand is trying to show how liberalism/socialism can drive out successful business people by removing healthy competition. On the other hand, this act is in essence illegal price regulating that businesses themselves have used to remove healthy competition. This chapter made my head all fuzzy and confused.

Chapter 5:

This was my favorite chapter (or least unfavorite?) so far. We look back into Dagny and James’ past, growing up as children when they were somewhat more interesting. We also meet their childhood companion, Francisco D’Anconia, who is the last scion of a long family of Spanish nobility, heir to a number of copper mines, and definitely the most interesting character so far.

Francisco becomes Dagny’s lover in a truly uncomfortable sex scene that while obviously written as consensual, really reads like a rape. He later proves himself to be a complete psychopath by my consideration, and simply “has too great a capacity for joy…in a world where there’s so little occasion for it” by Rand’s consideration.

Francisco buys a worthless copper mine in Mexico, sinking a bunch of investors’ money in it, before letting the socialist Mexican government commandeer it. He describes in lengthy detail about how little actual money he ended up spending on the mines, building the shoddiest possible infrastructure that will collapse under the workers within the year, and return them to destitution even worse than they lived in before.

Dagny is appalled at how he could be so cold-hearted to the investors who trusted him with a financial return. The whole thing made me feel a little ill, which is, again, more strongly than I’ve felt about any other part of the book so far.

…And, done (for now). I am happy to hand over the semi-live-blogging duties to Rebecca for the next week, while I grimly work my way through the next section.

—Anna

8 comments on “Atlas Shrugged (Chapters 1-5)

  1. Rebecca says:

    Hah! I also wonder if I don’t find this book quite as painful as you do (still painful, though) because I do have a few libertarian leanings mixed in with my extreme liberal political stance.

    Anyway, I hadn’t thought about the fact that the strawmen that Rand created have to be pretty darn appalling in order to make her emotionless protagonists at all appealing, but it’s a really good point. And a really bad sign for those protagonists. When they can only appear to be smart when compared to morons, then they can’t be very smart.

    I will write more tomorrow, once I’ve had a chance to weed down my four pages of notes into something more cohesive for a post.

    • Anna says:

      It’s a little like in my last “live-blogging” when the haunted hotel in The Shining could only manage to be so diabolical because the Torrence family was so weak-willed.

  2. Well, at least you admit that you’re not attempting anything like an objective review of Atlas Shrugged. That honesty is more than can be said of most collectivists who talk about the book.

    People who are out to hate Atlas for political motives typically make themselves blind to Rand’s subtle implications of emotions in her heroes. In order to see an emotion, they apparently would need Rand to hit them over the head with something like, “Dagny was sad,” or “Rearden threw a furious tantrum.” Of course, in order to be really “sympathetic,” the heroes would not only have to effusively express these emotions, but be ruled by them, just like the collectivist reader.

    • Anna says:

      I am seriously so liberal that there is no way I could ever judge this book without bias. It’s a bit of a predicament because Rand’s collectivist characters really do spout the same political arguments as I do; I just have to think that I can do a somewhat better job of backing them up.

      I also will confess that, like most adults, I don’t like the idea of changing my world view, and I was/am a little concerned that after 1,200 pages, Atlas Shrugged may force me to reexamine some of my carefully held views. We’ll see, I guess.

      • I appreciate your self-awareness, and the fact that you indicate you are willing to consider counter-arguments bespeaks honesty. I know that basic changes of viewpoint can be psychologically difficult. But if the change represents your best, most honest judgment, then the short-term pain is a long-term gain.

        I’ll tell you that I don’t agree with Ayn Rand lightly. Through the years, I have repeatedly subjected Rand’s philosophical viewpoints to the toughest questions I can come up with, and her philosophy has held up in the end. I intend to explore some of these challenges in my blog. But of course, I don’t expect you to take my mere assertion as evidence. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

        A couple of things I want to mention: 1) As you’ll hopefully realize, the politics of Atlas is only the surface layer of what it is about. Atlas encompasses an entire philosophy, and its theme is actually one of fundamental human nature. A person’s political ideas are generally dependent on her views (implicit or explicit) on the deeper questions of epistemology, human nature and morality.
        2) As idea-laden as Atlas is, it is still intended as a work of art, and not as a textbook on Rand’s philosophy. This is difficult for many people to believe after reading it, but it’s true. If you want Rand’s fullest argument for laissez-faire capitalism, then that would involve reading her nonfiction, such as The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

        By the way, here’s a video excerpt of one of Rand’s essays (written in the 1960’s) that you might appreciate: Racism.

        • Anna says:

          So, I haven’t had a chance to totally delve into your links (only partly because I have a lot going on, and partly because all of the Rand in my life is sort of bumming me out a bit), but I did want to tell you that I will get to them before too long, and also that I really appreciate you providing them, as well as your perspective.

          Almost immediately upon starting this book, Rebecca and I realized that it would have been helpful to also get the perspective of someone who fully understands and appreciates Ayn Rand, but we didn’t have anyone readily available, so your comments have already been really helpful. I’ve been realizing that as much as I would prefer to stay close-minded and mocking of the book for the entire two months it is going to take me to read it, I should actually try to understand her message if I don’t want to be completely miserable during the entire process.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I was thinking about why that one sex scene read so much like a rape even though it was fully consensual and I realized that while Dagny consents internally, she doesn’t verbalize or indicate that consent in any way externally. She also believes (apparently happily) that Frisco would ignore any dissent anyway. It’s essentially a rape fantasy played out where our protagonist doesn’t have to put any effort at all into having what she wants, not even so minor an effort as saying “yes.” Also, she’s something like 16 or 17 at the time and Frisco is two years older.

  4. Ben says:

    Rereading this after it’s all done, I’m a bit sad that Sword of Apollo didn’t seem to stick with you to the end. I guess it’s another example of how the Rand-ists don’t want to talk with anyone who doesn’t already agree with them (unless they show signs of potential conversion, and until it becomes clear that that conversion is not going to materialize).

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