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Atlas Shrugged - Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand

Claire Messeud in The Woman Upstairs describes a state in which one becomes obsessed with a topic. She describes how one can be transfixed by an idea and then for a period of several days or several weeks see that idea EVERYWHERE and be astounded by the omnipresence of something that had been previously unnoticed. In college, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged back to back and spent the next month or so absolutely entranced with Rand’s themes. I saw everything in terms of the ants and the grasshoppers (because, after all what is her story but a more complex version of the fable?). I was enamored.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I should buy Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead for my kindle (this is remarkable only if you know that despite reading almost exclusively on my kindle for the past 3 years, I am so cheap that I have yet to buy an electronic book. Yes, I need to volunteer and/or give more money to my public library system) simply because they were such good works. My husband laughed at me. He thought it was absurd that I would want to buy these books (out of all others) especially since they were so oftentimes used and cited for conservative justification. That settled it, I immediately put Atlas Shrugged on e-reserve so that I could re-read and post an accurate review.

I must give one more caveat before I actually engage with the content of the novel. Rand speaks to me personally (as she most likely does to some degree to all of the ants out there). While her characters are archtypes and way too similar to each other to provide the necessary variation in life, she does address a few “types.” I am stronger than Cherryl (who is rather empty headed, stupid to fall for Jim’s blather, and weak to commit suicide), but my history is similar to hers. I come from a background of mostly grasshoppers who are convinced that their lack of success in life is simply because they made choices to do for others rather than for themselves. As my family wallows in poverty and addiction, they are convinced that had they chosen to be selfish they would now be better off in their “worldly” life. Instead, they appease themselves with the thoughts of the reward they will reap in the life beyond. Of course, under their viewpoint, I am nothing but a selfish, greedy, heartless elitist who cannot see the value in the average man. I recognize that sacrifices were made for my good (when I was a child), but I also doubt the accuracy of their own expectations for themselves if they had not made such sacrifices. And I am unable to understand how or why the choices made over 30 years ago can prevent one from making constructive changes now (or 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago). I understand that life is hard; I understand that life is work; I know that addiction is debilitating, but I believe that happiness comes from a feeling of self efficacy and accomplishment. I don’t think it should be anyone’s responsibility to ensure the happiness or economic well-being of another. I have given help and been disgusted watching tens of thousands of my own dollars go up in smoke (quite literally on that one). I have offered no further help without a willingness from them to attempt for sobriety and employment. Unfortunately, as much as I can (and will) stand on principle, I am not removed from the guilt. It will be hard to watch the train wreck that is coming in the household in which I grew up. It is hard to accept that the best I can hope for may be that it goes quickly. 

As mentioned by other reviewers, this novel was unnecessarily long. I actually thought it should have ended with Dagny in the valley after her crash. She should have sent word to Hank to come to her. Instead of seeming noble for trying to save the rest of earth, Dagny just comes across as thick headed. 

Rand repeats herself endlessly throughout, not only in the text of her philosophical rantings but with the repetition in plot points. For example, both Dagny and Hank did not need young proteges (Cherryl and the Wet Nurse). Either (or really both at that point in the book) of these “sentimental moments” between the industrialist and the young person who sees the truth could have been cut. 

Hank doesn’t see the “truth” of things even after long discussions with Frisco, accepting his relationship with Dagny, and even protecting Ragner from the police. It is not until after his mills are attacked that he is able to “get it.” Similarly, Dagny does not realize that Galt is the third of the students; she does not understand (or even suspect) that Frisco is working with the destroyer. So much of the novel is just repetition and beating the reader over the head with things that have already been said.

Her characters are stiff, stereotypical archetypes. All the heroes are essentially the same, each representing a different industry. Nothing is realistic, the whole representation is so very black and white. For example, Dagny’s search for Galt (as the creator of the motor) was unnecessarily long and too convenient. Each time she reaches a dead end she is again given an unexpected lead. Similarly, international trade was ignored as industry is falling apart except when it became important to her plot and the destruction of d’Anconia copper.

The regulations that are passed are nonsensical. I get that her point is that the non thinking men are incapable of passing decent regulations. However, I would argue that even those who devalue production are still thinking beings. Instead of providing slightly grey (rather than solidly black and white) characters, she sets up ridiculous examples with which we cannot disagree except to say that they are improbable, unlikely, and therefore not instructive. In modern times, I can think of examples that would prove her point: ridiculous political maneuvering through things like economic bailout for big banks and the lack of respect by the average American for thinking people with the election of “dubya” (Jim Taggert is sooo GW Bush) over Gore. 

I was not convinced by her argument that the weasely folks did not know that their game would eventually end. I did not buy into the idea that they were ultimately searching for death. This is the only way she can reconcile her revile of humanitarian and socialist ideas with the necessary destruction of everything in the world. Per Rand’s arguments, all of the “socialists” are necessarily selfish, but they have to create a world in which their selfishness is hidden under a layer of sacrifice. It is all just too cloudy; she is unwilling to admit that Taggert’s group know that they are being weasely; she continues to represent them as entitled, rather than conniving. In the real world, these type of people are more often clearly aware of what they are doing and would rather scam the world then properly engage it. Instead, Rand’s characters neither engage nor scam; they just make irrational regulations to satisfy momentary desires without thinking at all. I understand that this is most representative of her philosophy but an unlikely unrepresentative example does not, in fact, prove her point. For example, Taggart talks about breaking the spine of the railroad (and he is the one who is most interested in killing Galt at the end), but this is nonsensical. He would not really want this. He does not crave destruction. He craves reward without effort. He is a moocher not a destroyer.

I liked the feminist thread in Rand’s discussion on sexual openness and desire, and her clear representation of Dagny as a hero, but the book could really have used a few more powerful women. Ultimately, the valley is going to end up with about 6 women and 400 men (at the rate things were going) which is going to create a huge problem between them.

Along this same theme, her portrayal of sex and sexual relationships felt too simplistic. I like that Dagny was free and Reardon was tied by guilt over his sexual desires. I like that Reardon eventually is released from his guilt, but I thought his development was too overt and ridiculous and not at all believable. Rather than realistically complicating things by having Dagny sleep with all of them (which I suspect was her intention), Rand sets up three slightly ridiculous relationships. 

First, it was completely unbelievable that her affair with Frisco was not public knowledge. They were both public figures. If they spent that much time together as kids and in their young professional life there would have been questions and mentions in the tabloids. Further, the first time Dagny and Frisco have sex is when he is 20. I understand that he was not the playboy that he portrayed himself to be (which is fine and believable to an extent), but I do not believe that one of the richest, smartest, and most physically attractive teenage boys in the world did not engage in any sexual activity between the ages of 15 and 20. And, I do not believe that he would be celibate then for the rest of his life after he and Dagny were finished. 

Second, Hank has a guilt-ridden sexual desire (which is believable) and so forces himself on his wife only when he can no longer refrain until he meets Dagny and they have an affair, through which he discovers and accepts his own sexuality. Not because he trusts himself or his judgement (wait, doesn’t that contradict things here a bit? Isn’t Galt’s whole speech about evaluating for oneself rather than waiting for instruction? And doesn’t Hank live his whole life by this creed? Oh yeah, he does, but not with regard to sexuality because then Rand wouldn’t have the convenience of “teaching” this revelation to her reader), but because Frisco (yeah, Frisco of all people) tells him: “The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer—because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut.” Hank eventually accepts his sexuality and recognizes his affair with Dagny as a mutual expression of their respect and love for each other, just in time to quietly give her up to a better man. Huh? Oh yeah, and now he’ll probably also be celibate for the rest of his life.

Finally, Dagny and Galt are the ultimate couple. Galt is the epitome of mankind (and in fact is nothing but a poorly veiled Jesus representation), while Dagny is the perfect female. Clearly, I’m glad that perfection in female form is more than just T and A, but the disney-fied union of these two was too perfect to not induce nauseous feelings.

I think I was most disgusted with the religious undertones. Clearly, Rand professes to be a devout atheist (and this is at least one point on which I can solidly say she differs from the right wing fanatics), but the plot parallels the crucifixion story. Galt is not only the creator of the valley, but he is the gatekeeper; he choose who to invite to his heaven. He is the potential savior of mankind, but he will only save those who accept his creed, ask for his forgiveness, and follow his teachings. Finally, the ignorant attempt to sacrifice him after he has been forsaken by one of his followers (Dagny turned Judas) by strapping him naked to be tortured (in the position of a man on a cross but lying down rather than hanging up). In the end he is “resurrected” and then leaves earth to return to his heavenly home. What the fuck? How can this be anything but a religious representation? Is Rand trying to convince the masses by working within a framework that they may subtly understand? Isn’t that just dishonest? How can she reconcile her philosophical position on truth if she is subverting with this Galt/Jesus parallel?

As a final little complaint, I was almost violently angry that Eddie Willers was left alone on the track. He was good and competent and hard working and represents everything they want in the valley. He was even Galt’s lunch buddy…how come he got so screwed? At some point, someone should have gone back for him or at least given him instructions on how to find the valley.

All of these complaints aside, I do believe in the core of what she is trying to say, and I think her arguments about the truth of respecting the mind and searching for others of value are valid and important. I have my favorite quotes below:

“All he remembered of those jobs was that the men around him had never seemed to know what to do, while he had always known.”

“she felt herself screaming silently, at times, for a glimpse of human ability, a single glimpse of clean, hard, radiant competence. She had fits of tortured longing for a friend or an enemy with a mind better than her own.”

“She was incapable of love for any object not of her own choice and she resented anyone’s demand for it.”

“there’s nothing of any importance in life—except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value.”

”if one’s actions are honest, one does not need the predated confidence of others, only their rational perception.”

“The worse guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced.”

“No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or to destroy.”

“People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked. And if one gains the immediate purpose of the lie—the price one pays is the destruction of that which the gain was intended to serve. The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on.”

“honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.”

“it’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.”

“Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.”

Ultimately this is an important work and should be recognized as such. I embarked on this re-reading with the expectation that I would find ways to refute the usurpation of my ideals by the evil political machine. I am not sure I can do so. I no longer fondly remember AS; I am not completely disillusioned with Rand and I do support lots of her ideas, but I can’t in good conscience give this the 5 star rating that I would have unquestionably assigned to it prior to re-reading. Alas, none of the books I have re-read this year have lived up to my recollections of them.