Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part 2


In the last few days I've realized that the political spectrum of this country seems to be driven by the fear of two ghosts.  Liberals are afraid of Big Brother, and Conservatives are afraid of Stupids like Jim Taggart.  "1984" and "Atlas Shrugged" seem to be almost rival novels, one detailing the horrors of government oppressing individual freedoms, the other detailing the horrors of government oppressing the free market.  Big Brother stole the humanity of his victims, breaking down their ability to even see reality past the lies of propaganda.  Jim Taggart and his government cronies just steal everything they can under the claims of regulating the economy.  Ayn Rand ultimately comes to the conclusion that these characters are their phony altruism exist only to destroy everything they see, including themselves.  To the Right in America, President Obama is a foolish Randian Looter, ruining the economy to steal hard-won money from the real workers.  To the Left, President Bush is a Orwellian Tyrant trying to kill liberty in his search for power.  Both viewpoints are extremely delusional and indeed outright dangerous.

I have finally managed to finish "Atlas Shrugged" in one of the worst slogging reads I think I've ever managed to complete.  Reading Ayn Rand's masterpiece is a desperate climb through a seemingly endless expanse of paragraphs the size of houses, each one smashing on the reader's brain with the horrible thud of bloated mass.  This book for me was the Battle of Passchendaele:  endless muddy charges in a bitter war of attrition.  Which would break first?  Rand's prose or my own consciousness?  At nearly twelve-hundred pages of 645,000 words, this monster is 200,000 words longer than "War and Peace".  You could build bridges using copies of this book as bricks.  It is just inexcusably long - since ultimately it can be cut down to half its length with very little lost to the plot line.  Any teacher who forces his or her class to read this novel is committing a crime against humanity.

No. "Atlas Shrugged" is not a good book by any stretch of the imagination.  As a matter of fact, it easily ranks onto the list of the worst things I have ever read, right up there with Dan Brown's schlock and the indigestible vile that James Patterson wretches up every few years.  But unlike modern crap writers like Brown and Patterson and even Stephenie Meyer, Ayn Rand didn't write this just to make a buck.  No, this was to be her grand achievement, her great message to the generations.  This is the most monumental single work of fiction I've touched upon on this blog.  It deserves, at the very least, a much more detailed analysis than I usually give.

I left Part 1 of this review off with only half the novel read.  What I didn't know was that the structure of this review has ironically ended up similar to the structure of "Atlas Shrugged".  The first half details the characters and their role in the world, while the second half actually gets the plot rolling to its dark ultimate conclusion with the complete collapse of modern society.  Of course, when I did my brief character analysis, I left out John Galt himself, because he doesn't actually appear until roughly page 700, well past the point where all sane readers would have abandoned this book to a forgotten place on the bookshelf (or perhaps more properly in the dumpster).  So let's character analyze John Galt right now, this won't take long:

John Galt is not a character, he is an ideal.  He doesn't really have any features besides his sandy-colored hair, and he doesn't have any personality of any kind.  I thought Fransisco d'Anaconda was a Mary Sue - he has nothing on John Galt.  This is because he is Ayn Rand's symbol of complete perfection, a very difficult thing for any book to contain.  You can't have a perfect character because he won't have anything to do in a story, and also no reader will ever actually understand him.  We humans don't do perfection, we cannot even understand it beyond an esoteric ideal.  This is why John Galt is perhaps the worst character in the book, he's nothing, nobody, a zero sum of meaninglessness.  Who is John Galt?  I still don't know, and probably never can know.  His only distinguishing feature is that he's in love with Dagny Taggart, a character that already was unrealistically idealize, but human enough to make mistakes.  I can't help but get the sense that Galt is slumming it with Dagny, since he's a God and she's just an avatar for Ayn Rand*.

Galt, like I thought last time, is the man who is causing all the great Supermen industrialists to disappear.  He's tired of letting his labor be used by the despotic idiots like Jim Taggart, and so leaves the world to them, which promptly collapses because Taggart and the rest of the world are incredibly stupid.  John Galt also made that magic SciFi engine that could create energy from nothing.  With his inventions and the collective genius of the Supermen, Johnny built a perfect society in Colorado where they can all live out the fall of society and the death of billions, then rebuild the world.  What drives this engine is the worship of the human mind itself, pure reason is the guiding force.  Oh, and that nobody ever gives anybody anything without the expectation of something in return.  People don't actually love each other, they're using each other for sexual enjoyment and companionship.  Mothers don't love their children, they're working the job of creating children with the same mindset of production like any other factory owner making a commodity.  Its... a bit disturbing.  Of course, once these great mysteries are answered, "Atlas Shrugged" becomes even more difficult to read.  Without the allure of mystery driving you forward, there is even less reason to keep on going.  Well, there is the morbid allure of watching America collapse, I guess.

The chapters inside John Galt's utopia are completely insufferable.  Ayn Rand honestly believes this "Atlantis" this to be the perfect form of life for people, even as nothing about any of this feels real on any level.  The propaganda behind "Atlas Shrugged" is most naked in the Atlantis section because it is completely ridiculous that any community can be this flawless.  Even the children (of which there are only two) are said to be the most perfect children that have ever been, and I don't know what that's supposed to mean.  Is Ayn Rand really trying to tell us that a society based on brain-worship cannot become corrupt like any other?  This is as ridiculous as this novel gets.  Atlantis can only survive if its populated by Randian Supermen, flat hardly human characters.  The strangeness of this society can be seen best when Hank Rearden willingly gives up Dagny to John Galt without even a touch of jealousy.  NOBODY WHO HAS EVER LIVED ON EARTH HAS EVER ACTED LIKE THAT!!!

But let us leave Atlantis now.  It is a silly place.

Back on Earth, the economic collapse continues onward and onward.  The Stupids in their stupidity have pushed society to the brink, and soon it falls right off the edge.  Ayn Rand makes a weird case that every victim of this collapse actually are not victims of any kind, rather every person is responsible for the disaster.  Take one particularly hateful passage during a train accident, when the Stupids have created such a tyrannical regime but are so incompetent that the trains definitely do not arrive on time.  One train goes through a tunnel with a coal engine, suffocating everybody on-board, even though every person on Dagny's rail line knows better.  So of all the people who die in the accident, Ayn Rand helpfully gives us their back story.  Luckily every one of them believed in collectivism and political ideas like "they have a right to rail service", and so they all brought this death upon themselves.  Lucky thing no honest normal people were on board.  Oh, but there were two sleeping children who died in a horrible medieval ordeal, but they don't count.  Nor do the millions of others who are going to die thanks to John Galt's strike.  The only Superman with a family, Hank Rearden, abandons them all when he decides they don't appreciate him enough - he basically leaves his own mother to die in the most horrible part of the entire book.

Of the characters who exist between the Supermen and the Stupids, their fate is utterly hopeless.  Eddie Willers is left in the desert abandoned by his love Dagny who never really cared about him in the first place.  He never could tell her he loved her, and Ayn Rand just isn't interested in him, honestly.  Cherryl, Jim's poor wife, kills herself when she realizes that Jim is an ass and that the upper classes of society are just as corrupt as the lower classes.  Hank Rearden manages to convert one Stupid, and he sacrifices himself to save Hank in a riot.  Not one Superman character ever dies.  But as for the honest regular people who John Galt didn't even try to save... they're fucked.  Even if you wanted to live by Objectivist principles and bought Ayn Rand's ideas completely, "Atlas Shrugged" really doesn't give any kind of model to live by.  Its really more of a warning:  "over-regulate the economy and you will DIE!!!"  By the end, every nation on the globe has fallen to pieces, ultimately leaving Galt's tiny utopia the last vestige of civilization.  Enjoy the Dark Ages until they save us.

Luckily "Atlas Shrugged" can only work if every single productive person in society leaves immediately.  I, being far more of an optimist than most people, will say that 95% of all workers are competent at their jobs.  So even if Galt did take the top one-hundred best of us out of the equation, another one-hundred will take their places.  The apocalypse of "Atlas Shrugged" also only works on the assumption that all politics, mass-media, and education has been ceded to the Stupids.  These forces will never manage to be conquered completely by any one power except in the most brutal of dictatorships, which "Atlas Shrugged"'s America actually isn't.  The Stupids are too incompetent to ever enforce such rules.

On that thought of predictions, I can't really tell if "Atlas Shrugged" is supposed to be a vision of a dark future or not.  "1984" very clearly was based in a dystopian future, its right there in the title.  Orwell also clearly includes SciFi technologies that show how different this world is after forty years, such as the telecreens and Floating Fortresses.  "Atlas Shrugged" has no year attached to it, but the technology of the book is very strange compared to the 1957 Ayn Rand wrote this in.  For one, there's the railroads, which by 1957 had been basically beaten by the automobile and airplane, but in this book are the central mode of transportation.  Then there's nukes, which don't exist here (no way Ayn Rand didn't know of it) but instead there's a soundwave that deconstructs objects - and this thing only exists here as a metaphor for the Stupid's ultimate goals.  There are the magic metals and Galt's engine, but those things aren't really futurism as much as symbols for the power of human imagination and brilliance.  I can't tell if Ayn Rand meant for this book to be the future or some kind of alternate reality 1957 where the world fell to Communism.  This can be further seen in the book's curious history, where at one point in the 1800s Americans were protesting against railroads(??).  When in the world was the US in the nineteenth century anything other than a supporter of unencumbered progress, no matter what the price?  "Atlas Shrugged" is the only dystopian story that has this temporal problem.  I guess it doesn't matter because dystopian literature by nature is never really about the future, its actually a commentary on the present, but this bugs me.

One of the major flaws of this novel is that Ayn Rand's philosophy means that the villains are completely unbelievable.  They have to be incredibly dumb in order to be the kind of death-worshiping collectivist that Rand and the heroes despise, but that also means they never are threats.  Yeah, they run the entire government, but these guys are so incompetent they can't even grow a soy bean crop.  Why in the world are Dagny and the other Supermen so willing to follow their silly regulations?  Jim Taggart, the most prominent villain is no O'Brien, he's hardly an iconic symbol of dominance.  He's a bumbling moron, having only managed to get as far as he does because he lives in an age of stupidity.  Is George F. Babbitt a scary character?  I don't know if Taggart actually represents any kind of political philosophy on any level, he's too much of a hypocrite and too self-delusional to stand for anything more than blunt stupidity.  This is a problem all the villains have - nobody actually believes in anything in this book unless they're heroic characters.  There is one faith, Galt.  All others have no believers, only manipulators and con-artists.  You can't be afraid of somebody like Jim Taggart because he relies on Dagny the entire book.  Hell, halfway through the Stupids are so desperate they can't even touch Dagny or Hank because they're the last competent people left.  Kill them and it all comes crumbling down.

I still don't know why John Galt's strike is the best solution for the problems in this book.  It seems to me that if Galt simply gathered up an army powered with his magic engines and everybody else's superminds that he could easily depose the Stupids and reform society immediately.  Or if he was going to break with the Stupids, don't hide in a valley that nobody knows of, publicly declare Colorado to be your own fiefdom where competent people can live away from the Stupids.  Repeatedly its shown that the average person hates the current system, and they rally around the heroes whenever the heroes actually do something heroic, like stand up against the tyranny.  This is no "1984", the Stupids haven't built a perfect oligarchy, they can be knocked out with ease.  In the final scene, the villain's doom fortress is able to be conquered by only four people because the guards have been trained for years to never think... so they can't do anything to stop the heroes.

The greatest single flaw of "Atlas Shrugged" however, is the dialog.  Characters routinely give speeches the size of Shakespearian soliloquies in what are supposed to be normal conversations.  Some single speeches go on for pages.  Single meetings between two characters can last dozens of pages because each character will talk for that long.  Who talks like this?  Oh, and you want to know what the grand climax of the book is?  John Galt talking.  And talking.  And talking.  And talking some more.  He talks uninterrupted for sixty pages, one single massive speech on Objectivism.  Who in the world is going to listen to that?  Who is going to read that??**  Even I couldn't, I skipped half of it.  The great part is that there's no reason on Earth this needed to be so long, one guy managed to summarize it in 1000 words.  This proves without a doubt that "Atlas Shrugged" did not have an editor.  Nobody could read this stuff and let Rand get away with it.

Also, isn't the whole point of this book to be a literary metaphor for Objectivism?  Why do you need to bluntly lay it out like this when you wrote a whole novel to tell it in a subtle way?

Okay, to try to be a lot more respectful to Ayn Rand, she isn't entirely wrong.  She is making some important points here.  There is a tyranny to be found in collectivism, but I think we already knew that.  As for her idea of altruism, she is right - to a point.  Giving for its own sake is no virtue.  You can't sacrifice yourself to everybody without a return.  You're only going to fall apart.  Nobody does anything without something in return, even if that something is assurance that they're a good person.  But you shouldn't write off the entire idea of giving in of itself.  Altruism isn't evil, and "Atlas Shrugged" doesn't show that.  It does show that hypocrites and corruption is evil, but that is going to exist in any system - the point is to balance it out so that they cannot do great damage.  Also, I'm still skeptical about a completely free market, but I suppose that Rand's warning against government regulations ruining us is an important one.  This is why Conservatives hold an important place in our country, they fight against an abuse from over-regulations.

And ultimately, "Atlas Shrugged" is not 1200 pages of paranoid Glenn Beck-style rantings like I feared.  It was better than I thought.  I'm still not convinced, I still don't think it was a good book, but it was an interesting viewpoint at least.  It gave me something to think about.  Rand might not be correct, but she represents ideas that I don't think I'll ever completely forget.  I don't recommend reading this awful book, but its at least worth looking into, maybe.

* Oh, Ayn, nice one placing your own avatar in a romance with your Perfect Man.  Wish fulfillment much?

** Who is going to read this entire post, for that matter.  Be honest, how much of this have you skipped by now?


  1. I read the whole thing, Blue. I love your musings. Whether this is rebellion, kiss-assery, flat out lying, actual honesty, or me just trying to seem better than everyone else is up to you good sir.

  2. There are actually readings which suggest that 1984 was about Orwell's present, or - using what Tolkien called applicability - the elements in our own which are similar to what is portrayed in an exaggerated fashion.

    By the way, it's "telescreens" and "Floating Fortresses" in the book. And, you are correct to deride liberals who compare George Bush to Big Brother - he is far too incompetent for that. ;)

  3. I read the whole thing. Granted, the topic material was dry as hell, but I slugged through it.

  4. its me again the guy who told you to go to comment section. heard of bioshock ?
    random guy

  5. In the late 1800's the Populist Party protested railroads for their exploitation of farmers who had to ship their goods by train to survive. Basically the railroads were so underregulated that they were free to ruin the agrarian economy by charging farmers back into the subsistence level for shipping costs.

    @Yuan- Yes, Bush was too incompetent. But Cheney, Rove, and the various party leaders that controlled Bush were not incometent, but neither were they power-hungry dictators. They were just greedy.