Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, first impression

So this is my first live blogging experience and I’m going to be making multiple posts before handing this back to Anna next week. If nothing else, this book brings up a lot of issues. First, a quick review of my general impressions of the first five chapters of:

AtlasShruggedAtlas Shrugged
By Ayn Rand
1957

Atlas Shrugged has come up in various political discussions since I’ve been in college but it really got highlighted by Paul Ryan’s run for Vice Presidency. When Anna was contemplating reading it, I offered to read it if she did.

I went into it with really extremely low expectations. It has surprised me in the ways in which the book has been both better and worse than those expectations.

For the better:

It’s not bad writing. While there are some writing issues that I don’t care for (she has a very active narrator voice, with clear opinions, describing landscapes as “seeming” one way or another, even when there is no character to whom it seems anything), the writing is well done. Rand’s real strength is the way in which she delves into the thought processes of her characters. She also does a reasonably good job of building suspense.

Plus, my first reaction to the first chapter was that this was the beginning of one of the creepier (and more awesome) Doctor Who episodes and John Galt is probably either a Moriarty-type character or possibly even The Master. After reading the first five chapters, I’m still not sure this isn’t true.

For the worse:

It’s even more of a punch in the face of all liberals than I had expected. It’s less that there are some awful characters who mouth liberal concepts merely as hypocritical excuses (because, honestly, people like that do exist, much to my dismay), it’s that there’s no acknowledgement that these people aren’t actually liberals. The whole thing reminds me a bit of a quote that I half-remember from years ago: a bad Satanist is not the same thing as a good Christian. In this instance, the application is that an incompetent Capitalist is not at all the same thing as a successful Socialist. Rand, however, does not appear to see any distinction between these. (She also doesn’t see any distinction between monopolies and unions. I have severe doubts regarding her knowledge of business principals.)

For the depressed:

It feels like the writing of someone working through depression. I don’t actually know anything much about Rand’s life and haven’t even read her Wikipedia page, but I assume she was fighting depression and writing Atlas Shrugged was one attempt to deal with it.

One of the aspects of depression, as I know it, is the combination of thoughts that say (1) the world is an awful place, (2) I have a perfect understanding of how awful it is, and (3) I know with absolute certainty that there is nothing to be done about it.

Rand’s characters desperately want to make a connection with other people and yet are completely unwilling to put any effort into it at all and will self-sabotage any situation that might help. Since they know that no one can understand them, they refuse to see that there are other people out there, understanding them. They also know that certain people aren’t worth knowing. Anyone involved in business and politics are viewed as unworthy of any consideration to the extent that both Dagny and Rearden skip board meetings, ignore journalists, refuse to either ask or answer questions, and expect that nothing that those people can do would in anyway impact their own lives. They already know that those people aren’t worth their time without actually knowing anything about them.

This is a mindset that I find particularly frustrating, all the more so as I very much recognize it from dealing with one of my friends who struggles with both depression and with drug/alcohol addiction. Since he already knows that nothing can help him, there’s no point in trying to get help. Since he already knows that everyone hates him, there’s no point in trying to get anyone to like him.

This is a view of the world that I strongly disagree with. You can’t just know what someone else is thinking or doing without knowing them. There are always surprises and change is always possible if not inevitable.

That’s my perspective on the world we actually live in.

The world of Atlas Shrugged, however, is a dystopian world where values and morals are absolute, people are worthy or not worthy, and everyone knows it. This binary concept of values  is incredibly frustrating although it actually cracked me up a bit when it was applied to music in chapter four. The critics who dislike a piece of music write that, “The music of Richard Halley has a quality of the heroic. Our age has outgrown that stuff.” and “The music of Richard Halley is out of key with our times. It has a tone of ecstasy. Who cares for ecstasy nowadays?” Everybody knows the music is good, just the populace in Rand’s world apparently hate good music.

In one of my graduate classes focusing on intellectual property laws, the professor liked to remind us students that “reasonable people can disagree.”

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, reasonable people have a shared understanding of what is right and good and proper. If you disagree, then you are clearly incapable, incompetent, and morally bankrupt.

In conclusion:

This book is well-written and while it doesn’t suit my particular tastes, I can see how it would have a lot of appeal to some people. It brings up some interesting ideas and would likely help people define their thoughts and opinions.

My real problem is not with the book itself, but with the people who are reading it for guidance and direction rather than for thoughtful conversation. There are real politicians who are using this as a serious political treatise. It feels a bit like if, after reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, a politician were to decide that every covert military action should include at least one untrained civilian to carry out some vital task. Or, after reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, one were to start recruiting child soldiers. These books are all good and thought-provoking and can certainly be used to develop one’s political stance, but they should not be taken as holy writ.

6 comments on “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, first impression

  1. Anna says:

    John Galt is definitely a mysterious presence, but to my mind, Atlas Shrugged won’t get a better Moriarty than Francisco D’Anconia. The man is brilliant, charming, and disillusioned with the world to the extent that his only apparent entertainment is to manipulate people into their own ruination, which he does very skillfully and with no concern for collateral damage. He is also constantly “laughing mockingly” which certainly doesn’t hurt in a villain character.

    • Rebecca says:

      Yeah. Frisco does make a great Moriarty character. He does have that time in the hotel room with Dagny where he appears to be having doubts regarding his master plan, but otherwise, he’s a perfect Moriarty. So far he’s actually my favorite character because, while he’s both malicious and vicious, he at least acknowledges the people he’s ruining and does so with intent rather than blowing them off entirely as Dagny does.

  2. “It’s even more of a punch in the face of all liberals than I had expected. It’s less that there are some awful characters who mouth liberal concepts merely as hypocritical excuses (because, honestly, people like that do exist, much to my dismay), it’s that there’s no acknowledgement that these people aren’t actually liberals. The whole thing reminds me a bit of a quote that I half-remember from years ago: a bad Satanist is not the same thing as a good Christian. In this instance, the application is that an incompetent Capitalist is not at all the same thing as a successful Socialist. Rand, however, does not appear to see any distinction between these.”

    Rand did see the distinction, and her villains aren’t meant to represent all modern liberals. Ayn Rand didn’t think in terms of “modern liberalism vs. modern conservatism,” because this divide is not fundamental. If you were to read We The Living, you’d find that she has two Communist protagonists who’re essentially good men. Ayn Rand, rather, thinks in terms of fundamental divides among people: rational vs. irrational, intellectually honest vs. dishonest, egoist vs. altruist, individualist vs. collectivist, value-productive vs. value-parasite, etc.

    Rand has her villains mouth leftist slogans because they are the most consistent political applications of the fundamental ideas that drive her villains (and the most relevant to the plot of the novel.) But you’ll also see what you would call a “liberal” turn out not to be a villain.

    So there’s “no acknowledgement that these people aren’t actually liberals,” because Rand doesn’t think in those terms in the first place. There are also plenty of modern conservatives that Ayn Rand did and would have contempt for. (To let you in on a little secret: Paul Ryan would almost certainly be one of them.)

    Ayn Rand would fully acknowledge that there can be good, honest people on the political left, even while thinking that they are mistaken in many of their political views.

    • Rebecca says:

      I am beginning to realize how badly formed my preconceptions of Rand have been, based as they were on the various people (i.e. Paul Ryan and various old college dorm mates) who various purport to follow her philosophy or mock it unread.

      I realized, even as I was reading these first few chapters, that a lot of what Rand was writing was stuff that I would have accepted from an author I trusted. For instance, in a book written by a trusted author, I would have assumed these villains happened to be liberals, but weren’t meant to be representatives. For Rand I assumed they were. What I’m only beginning to realize is how that lack of trust was based on other people rather than Rand herself.

      Despite coming to this realization, it’s still really hard to sort through my own thought process to identify which parts of the book, judged purely on its own merit, I genuinely like or dislike.

      The video on racism that you linked was really excellent and helped me see a bit clearer the line between fiction and philosophy in Atlas Shrugged. It makes me wonder, though, how appalled she would be at the thought of corporations being treated as people. And I’ll need to check out some of the other videos, too.

      I really appreciate getting your comments as a counter weight to the my bias. It helps me gain perspective.

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