What if Atlas Shrugged?

July 8, 2012 12:48 pm

My experience of Ayn Rand until this year had always been that she was an author widely disliked, a radical thinker, someone generally shunned by the literary world. She drew a jibe from South Park here, a sneer from somebody else there. Perhaps with good reason; I had no idea and was not particularly intrigued to find out.

…Until I saw an interview with her about her personal philosophy. She was fascinating and I found myself hypnotised by her; the unexpected accent, the distracted flicking of the eyes, her verbosity in explaining such dangerously radical ideas.

I had to know more. Not because she spoke to me on a personal level but for the same reasons I’d explore an abandoned building.

When I said I was going to read Atlas Shrugged I was warned away by many friends that had already done so. ‘She’s the queen of deeply unlikable characters,’ one said. Another tried, ‘Read “The Fountainhead”, it’s not as bad — or perhaps one of her shorter novels.’

Absolutely no one encouraged the idea. Which I have to say, encouraged me even further.

Having gone down that path, I feel obliged to share my criticisms but I will only say one thing directly about her literary techniques as that is the reason she is most easily attacked and actually the least daunting aspect of her work: her techniques are very limited for a book of such length and the view they provide too narrow for her attempted philosophical depth.

So, general criticisms aside, what is so wrong about Ayn Rand’s ideas?

Well; plenty, if you take her seriously. She posits a world inhabited by fickle, shallow people. Her heroes are characters with no understanding of selflessness or empathy. If Mark Haddon had written about her heroes people would assume that they, like his most famous lead character, suffered from Asperger’s and deserved certain compassion- but he didn’t and in Rand’s hands these heroes simply seem socially incompetent and detestably self-involved. Those characters with altruistic feelings –who are never heroes– are misguided and deeply unsatisfied, and are often there simply to confound the heroes progressions. Anyone who is not a hero is a cipher character.

Almost every scene in this novel is composed of one or two characters astonished (or completely un-astonished; Rand only writes in extremes) by something they can’t quite understand in someone else’s expression and the plot trudges along slowly, regardless of whether the characters can “grasp” the situation or not. Quasi-philosophical conversations appear but not often enough to truly explore their ideas, as if Rand were trying to prove that nobody is capable of using their own reason sensibly, apart from a hero.

I can accept that some readers may not see this as wrong, perhaps just a bit nasty and short-sighted. Everyone sees the world from different perspectives. Yet that too is short-sighted and is surprisingly against Rand’s own (misguided) “ideal” of a world governed purely by reason.

She has said herself that she doesn’t write her characters as people but as embodiments of ideas or ideals. Whether this is intentional or merely a practical view of a poor writing style is entirely up to you to decide — I go with the latter, simply because I can imagine her egotism blinding her view of her own prose. But it is a dangerous writing style because it completely dehumanizes the characters. Abstracting philosophical ideas to view them unbounded is one thing; doing this gave us maths and science and highlighted the many limitations of language as an exploratory tool. But to philosophise about social sciences with so little concern for other people and to generate a single-minded fantasy world populated by personified ideas removes the humanity from philosophy, and that is dangerous.

None of the characters go about their clueless meandering with more intensity than the protagonist, Dagny Taggart. At first, it seems easy to suppose Dagny as Rand’s attempt at a feminist character. She is strong minded, strong willed and willing to work her way to success in what is clearly a patriarchal society. What could be wrong in that? How can someone clearly of the view that a woman’s place in society is equal to man’s begin to approach the realms of misogyny?

Oh! There we go, I’ve spoiled the surprise.

Dagny Taggart requires a man. It isn’t immediately obvious to begin with. The first man she falls in love with is cold and horrible, like all the other characters and Dagny inexplicably admiring him is no surprise within a Randian fantasy. However, when she falls in love with her next man it becomes clear that Rand believes a woman should suit a man and make herself suitable and pliable to him.

The first time they have sex is brutal (well, in that same tedious tone in which all the action wades); he is trying to prove his sexual urges are something separate from love and she is determined to be his animate sex doll. She keeps this up, her willingness to do anything and everything to satisfy him. ‘Hank,’ she said, ‘I’d give up anything I’ve ever had in my life except my being a luxury object of your amusement.’

Initially, I thought this was Rand embarking on a bit of Foucauldian sexual dynamics and I had to read elsewhere to substantiate my guesswork. Sadly no; she does indeed believe that a woman’s place in a relationship is to hero worship.

This problem within Rand’s philosophising pops up all over the book and perhaps best highlights the most dangerous thing about her thinking. Despite adamantly propounding the power of reason as the only guiding force a human being could need, so much of her own reason is founded on personal feelings that she does not take the time to question. It’s a horribly potent and paradoxical foundation to build a logical structure on: ‘Your reasoning is wrong.’ / ‘But I can’t be wrong, because selfish reasoning is infallible.’ Rand is the child sticking her fingers in her ears and screaming, ‘I can’t hear you!’

We have a book that comes across as a teenage steam-punk sci-fi by an egotist author who doesn’t seem to have had any other human to bounce ideas off. She’s capitalist, corporate, selfish, misogynistic and believes in acceptable discrimination. Absolutely nothing dangerous about that, is there? What on Earth made me think this could be a dangerous book?

 

Actually, it was this book, an exploration of real-world Randian heroes which made me think Atlas Shrugged could be bad for humanity. If Randian ‘philosophy’ is about hero-worship, then Randian philosophers hero-worship her. What’s scary about this book is the number of important, incredibly influential names that submit to the ideals of Objectivism: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, John Allison, Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. Here are some of the most influential and richest (interchangeable terms after a certain degree of wealth is achieved) people openly believing and committing to a personal philosophy of selfishness. Is this what wealth does? Forces one to adopt a narrow minded, Randian view of other people in order to justify your own incredible degree of wealth (read ‘influence’)?

Even though it took me so long to bother to find out anything about Ayn Rand, the title, ‘Atlas Shrugged’, has been drifting about in my awareness of popular culture for a long time. The idea of Atlas, a person with the infinitely exhausting task of holding the world aloft on his own, is a powerful image. More so, the idea of him shrugging while he does it! Apparently, Rand titled the book ‘The Strike’ (because of its plot of all the ‘creative’ minds going on strike) until the eleventh hour when she changed it to ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ She did so with good reason. It’s a revolutionary image, perfectly capturing the idea of place and caste being overthrown. It’s just such a pity that Rand had to make her reasons selfish.

I stress, this is only dangerous if you bother to take her seriously.

Which begs the question: If Ayn Rand shrugged and nobody saw, would her ideas be of any significance?

As a counterpoint to my melodrama, try reading this bubbling reaction.

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