Essay:Atlas Shrugged reviewed

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In 1957, Ayn Rand published her last and longest novel, Atlas Shrugged. It was probably the most provocative novel of the twentieth century. It received mostly negative, often scathing, reviews. The most infamous was by Whittaker Chambers, then of National Review[1]).

Yet the novel became a best-seller, and is still in print. That is remarkable for a novel that breaks nearly every rule of modern novel craft:

  1. It runs to more than 1100 pages.
  2. It has so many characters that one truly needs a scorecard to keep up with them.
  3. It contains a speech that easily would need three hours to read out loud from start to finish.
  4. It takes the omniscient point of view. Worse, it often shifts point-of-view several times in one scene, or even one sentence. Almost any recognized literary agent in practice today says that an author shouldn't do that.

A novel that breaks so many rules would never sell today—certainly not as a first novel. It mightn't even sell as a second novel from an author who, like Rand at the time, already had a word-of-mouth best-seller to her credit. And certainly any novel with so many "craft defects" should never stay in print for more than fifty years, as Atlas Shrugged has done.

What makes this novel so special? Why has it not only managed to stay in print for so long, but come roaring back in popularity? It currently ranks seventh in sales of literary fiction, 13th in sales of science fiction, and 19th in sales of classical fiction.[2]

This is a review of the novel and an assessment of all the reasons for his success. Those reasons have a lot to do with its subject matter and little to do with its quality as a novel.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

Contents

The premise

Nathaniel Branden once said that Atlas Shrugged is a mystery story,

not about the murder of a man's body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man's spirit.

Indeed the novel has three mysteries that its heroes, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden, set out to solve:

  1. "Who is John Galt?" More to the point, is "John Galt" just a metaphor for economic decline and social breakdown? Or is he a real person?
  2. Who invented an electrostatic motor (or, in the film adaptation, a quantum motor) and then destroyed his prototype and disappeared?
  3. Why are so many creative and productive citizens—both businessmen and artists—suddenly retiring from their careers, and in some cases vanishing without a trace?

Those three mysteries are actually one, because John Galt is a real person, and the inventor of the electrostatic motor. He also is responsible for all the retirements and disappearances. Indeed, Miss Taggart and Mr. Rearden call him "the destroyer." Behind that mystery lies another: Has society, in its seemingly unswerving march toward socialism, finally provoked those who actually make any society work to walk away from it—to, in effect, go on strike?

The heroes each make their own investigations, and try to keep things going for their own love of it. They finally discover that John Galt had the right idea. The time has come for the most productive people in their society to say, as Ellis Wyatt says in the last line of the motion picture:

I'm gone. Don't try to find me. You won't. I am on strike.
In the end, they don't so much succeed in any project of their devising, as join a project that one man started many years before. Their very act of joining makes the project succeed.

Features

Randall S. Ingermanson[3] often says that a good novel, or dramatic script, requires "three disasters and an ending." Atlas Shrugged does not quite conform to this convention. In structure, Atlas Shrugged better resembles a three-act stage play (or a motion picture, or a trilogy of motion pictures, or a television mini-series) than a conventional novel. This shouldn't surprise anyone, because Ayn Rand studied screenwriting in her native Russia and worked as a copy editor of screenplays in Hollywood. This, plus her unfamiliarity with literary convention, caused her to write two novels (the other was The Fountainhead) while following the conventions appropriate, not to novels, but to motion picture scripts.

Nevertheless, each of the two heroes of the novel does suffer three disasters. Dagny Taggart's three disasters are:

  1. The destruction of Colorado, after she managed to rebuild a dilapidated railroad line,
  2. The destruction of the Taggart Tunnel, and
  3. Her realization that she was not ready to remain in John Galt's Atlantis, because she loved her work too much to leave it.

Henry Rearden suffers three disasters of his own:

  1. The Equalization of Opportunity Act forces him to divest himself of some of his ore and coal mines,
  2. Directive 10-289 forces him to surrender the secret of his new metal to the public domain.
  3. Dagny Taggart disappears, and Rearden thinks she's dead.

Each of the heroes decides to "keep on keeping on" in the face of these disasters. Finally, as mentioned, they each realize that "keeping on" is the worst thing they each can do.

Very few heroes in literature are as well-developed and believable as Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden. These heroes are not perfect—at least, not by conventional standards. (The only perfect people in the novel, even by Ayn Rand's own standards, are its three anti-villains, John Galt, Francisco d'Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjøld.) This novel is definitely for adults only, if only because the heroes (and two of the villains) occasionally do some very Not Safe For Work things. But the story clearly revolves around these two. The villains continue to extort as much as they can from them (and from those like them who are the productive members of their society). The anti-villains try to recruit them. Eventually they succeed.

The villains are all clearly recognizable allegorical types. In one sense they are all the same type. They are a type of anyone who believes that someone other than themselves owes them either a living or the means to be generous. Furthermore, each is a type of a specific sort of person in American politics or intellectual life. The situations in this novel no doubt seemed extreme in the year of its publication. They do not seem so extreme today. Anyone who watches current political events with any degree of care will see the parallels. And almost without exception, the villains are fully believable. (One of them does strain credulity by his actions, of which more below.)

The anti-villains are all meant to be ideal men. In most ways they are. They are anti-villains because they are ideal, single-minded in their joint and several purposes, and almost never make mistakes. (Ragnar Danneskjøld and John Galt do each make one almost fatal mistake in the course of the novel.)

Best of all, the novel presents not only mystery but also suspense. Will Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden succeed in unraveling the mystery? If they do, how will they decide? What, indeed, is proper for them to decide?

The flaws

Nevertheless, this work has its flaws, some worse than others. As discussed elsewhere, many critics have found Rand's characters one-dimensional, her situations contrived, and her tone excessively "preachy" (if you grant the premise that an atheist is ever "preachy"). Their first objection is a quibble. Villains and even anti-villains are supposed to be one-dimensional; their very single-mindedness and refusal to stray from the paths they have set for themselves would make them look one-dimensional to casual observers. The novel's two heroes are anything but one-dimensional. Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden experience the full range of emotion, from the highest exaltation to the lowest depression. And they have good reasons that any reader can see.

Contrived situations include people behaving in a way that one would not normally expect (or could get away with), and sometimes new inventions with very little feasibility. Practically no critic has found any specific fault with four specific inventions that could fall into the category of science fiction:

  1. John Galt's electrostatic motor,
  2. Henry Rearden's new alloy of copper and iron,
  3. The ultrasonic weapon of mass destruction known as Project X, and finally
  4. The refractor-ray screen that provides concealment for Atlantis.

(The novel does mention a fifth "weird" invention, that being John Galt's self-destruct mechanism that reduces the laboratory he keeps to ashes when the government men try to force its door. The reader sees that in only one scene, and only because Miss Rand did not want to complicate matters by simply saying that John Galt used a dynamite booby trap.)

No one has yet duplicated any of these inventions. But no one can prove that any of them would be impossible, either. Each one seems to have some basis in a well-documented scientific principle, or even (in the case of Project X) a practical application. (Ask your dentist, especially if you are an habitual tartar depositor.)

However, some of the situations do seem contrived. For instance, the villains try to persuade John Galt under torture to accept the "economic dictatorship" of the country. That's fine. But first the government men have to break it off after James Taggart realizes what he has always been after and goes nuts. Then Ragnar Danneskjøld and the other members of his "spearhead group" rescue John Galt unharmed, with ridiculous ease. And they suffer no casualties other than a minor flesh wound to Henry Rearden's shoulder.

The political situations that Rand describes no doubt did seem contrived in the year of publication. Certainly Whittaker Chambers found them so. But neither Chambers, nor his employer William F. Buckley, nor perhaps even Rand herself could have conceived that almost every one of the destructive policies that she depicted are now in force or are about to come into force. This is probably the greatest single reason why reprint sales of Atlas Shrugged are as high as they are today. Perhaps the only policy or project that has not come to pass is Project X. And many people fear that the United States government today does have something as potentially destructive as Project X, though perhaps not based on an ultrasonic mass pulverizer as Rand describes.

About this last: Rand said that the minor villain, Dr. Robert Stadler, has his basis in J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project. But Robert Stadler finds himself forced to recite an absurd speech in praise of Project X, and then in the end tries to seize control of Project X. He then dies in a struggle over its control system with one who has already had the same idea and beaten him to it. That anyone as eminent as J. Robert Oppenheimer would actually behave this way is very hard to believe.

Many of the actions of the anti-villains seem similarly contrived. How Ragnar Danneskjøld came by a ship fast and powerful enough to become the terror of the high seas, and even to conduct a shore bombardment, Rand never explains. This is a fault that Rand shares with Jules Verne, who also created at least two villains who each commanded a seemingly impregnable ship. But in Atlas Shrugged the problem is worse: How and where does Ragnar Danneskjøld recruit his crew? One does not recruit a privateer crew merely by canvassing the ranks of a limited number of creative people who decide, individually, to withdraw from society. Any ship's crew, especially that of a warship, has highly-trained specialists for members. And how does Ragnar Danneskjøld refit, refuel, and revictual his ship? True, Danneskjøld might retrofit a ship with an electrostatic powerplant, so fueling would be a moot point. But where does he get a continued and ample supply of ammunition? Does he trade and traffic with dealers in hijacked armaments? That would put him at constant risk of betrayal. He would be dealing with men who had already decided to betray their own countries for hard currency. Perhaps those arms dealers would be immune to any inducement that any People's State could offer them, because the People's States would never pay them in anything approaching a hard currency. Or perhaps someone in Atlantis mass-produced the artillery shells that Danneskjøld's guns fired. Or perhaps not. Rand didn't mention any such detail.

Or perhaps the solution to this riddle is Francisco d'Anconia. He still owns the D'Anconia Copper Company. For all that anyone knows, perhaps Francisco himself recruited a privateer crew, commissioned a ship, fitted it out for war, and then let Ragnar Danneskjøld take command at the right moment. But this begs the question of how Francisco could aid and abet Ragnar Danneskjøld for twelve years and have no one find out about it.

Moreover, Francisco d'Anconia's other activities also seem contrived. He seduces many women, but at the last moment refuses to be intimate with them. Do none of them compare notes on his activities? Are they all so embarrassed at the prospect that the "great Latin lover" rejected them and only them that they never communicate to one another and find out that the "Latin lover" pose is a total sham?

Which brings us to the affair between Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden. This affair is worse than mere fornication and is in fact adultery. True, the two of them break their relationship in the end, but only because Dagny Taggart finds, in John Galt, an even stronger personality than Henry Rearden turned out to be. (This is not to detract from Henry Rearden in any way). Henry Rearden never reconciles with his wife Lillian and indeed simply walks away from his marriage. By thus demeaning the concept of marriage, Rand also weakens the foundations of Dagny's later relationship with John Galt.

Lastly, the novel does strike an overly "preachy" tone. Ayn Rand was, in life, a very angry person, and this anger shows in all her work. It shows especially in Atlas Shrugged. The novel succeeds despite this tone, chiefly because Rand speaks for many of her readers and can make them just as angry as she is at the "looters' system," at Project X, and at all the rest. But this is "preaching to the choir." That probably won't make the archetypes of her villains search their own hearts or wonder whether their ideology might lead a real-life John Galt to call just such a strike as he calls. So one will either love this novel or hate it. And the critics mostly hated it.

The content and its sources

Literary criticism today often has a credibility problem. A critic sometimes attacks a novel's content by pretending to attack its craft. Certainly when Granville Hicks said that the novel was "written out of hate," or when Whittaker Chambers said that every page of the novel tells its readers to go to a gas chamber, they were not criticizing craft alone. They objected to its content—period. Only the content, and their vehement objection to it, could make them rant and rave as they do. (And critics who write phrases like these, conform to the very stereotype that Ayn Rand invents. That makes them even less believable.)

But one cannot ignore content completely, because content is at least as important as craft in making a novel a good or bad choice.

The content of Atlas Shrugged was "ahead of its time." No reader of Atlas Shrugged could have predicted, when it came out, that any American administration in real life would behave with the near-total flight from reality that characterizes the Thompson administration, or have the kind of villains in it with whom Mr. Thompson surrounds himself. For that reason, no one would have thought that any reasonable person, even a conservative, would consider himself provoked to the kind of drastic actions taken and recommended by John Galt and Francisco d'Anconia, let alone the violent reaction of Ragnar Danneskjøld.

Today the Thompson administration, in many respects, looks like the Barack Obama administration. Furthermore, the TEA Party movement shows an attitude very close to John Galt's attitude: that perhaps the most productive citizens of our society really ought to "go on strike" and see how long the rest of society could live without them. Thus far, one can see the wealthiest residents of many States within the United States moving out of those States strictly on account of recently enacted rises in tax rates, broadening of taxable categories of income or purchases, and the like. A hidden "society within a society" like John Galt's Atlantis (but without its refractor ray screen), or even the rise of many armed camps after John Galt's speech, might come next if Obama and his associates and supporters don't stop.

But the content of this novel has one important and almost critical flaw. This flaw pervades Rand's entire philosophy, and is the one thing that even Whittaker Chambers did not discuss nearly as thoroughly as he should have.

Ayn Rand grew up in a Russia dominated first by the Russian Empire, and the Russian Orthodox Church, and then by the Bolshevik Revolution and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Nathaniel Branden, in The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,[4] described Russia as

a mystical country in the very worst sense of the word, a country that never really passed through the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment in the way that Western Europe did. Ayn Rand herself was not only a relentless rationalist, she was profoundly secular, profoundly in love with this world, in a way that I personally can only applaud. Yet the problem is that she became very quick on the draw in response to anything that even had the superficial appearance of irrationalism, by which I mean, of anything that did not fit her particular understanding of "the reasonable."

Rand was secular, no doubt, because the Russian Orthodox Church presented the worst possible witness to her at a time when the country of her birth was going through a profound social upheaval. That the member of that Church who had the most profound influence on the events of that period was Grigoriy Rasputin, alone speaks volumes.

The problem with that, which Branden also missed, is that she came out of this experience not believing in God. Indeed Rand consistently portrayed people of faith in her novel as in league with the socialists, and behaving in a way that any serious student of the Bible would recognize as unbiblical. Indeed, all practitioners of Christianity in the novel practice a misguided form of their religion known as liberation theology, the notion that Jesus Christ was the First Great Socialist Rebel.[5] The problem: Rand believes that this is what Christianity is all about.

Never once in Atlas Shrugged does she give any evidence to back up her portrait of people of faith. One might guess where she formed that mistaken impression: from the decision by the early Christian church to form a commune and to have all its members contribute all of their property to it, and the summary divine execution of Ananias and Sapphira when they try to cheat the Church by withholding some of their gains from it while pretending to be surrendering everything. (Acts 4-5 ) This argument assumes that the Church intended this to be a model for all of society, and specifically for government policy. One cannot make this inference, because this early experiment in communism appears only once. It also ignores the experiences of the Pilgrims, who experimented with this very sort of communism, saw it fail spectacularly and tragically, and abandoned it in favor of capitalism, with highly salutary results. And finally it implies that Jesus came to this world in order to achieve the greatest economic good for the greatest number. Jesus came on no such Mission as that: he came to redeem people from sin, not from poverty. He also said that the poor would always exist, at least until His Second Coming.

All socialist movements, throughout their history, have denounced all religion. They call it, as Karl Marx famously called it, "the opiate of the masses." Rand never once thought that mattered.

Worse than this lapse is Rand's refusal to believe in any form of redemption. And so not one of the villains ever follows Dagny Taggart's challenging, perhaps even wounding, but ultimately sensible advice:

Give up and get out of the way.

Two of the arch-villains, James Taggart and Lillian Rearden, go down to ignominious defeat rather than ever recognize the error of their ways. James Taggart goes completely nuts. Lillian Rearden—well, come to think of it, no one knows what happens to Lillian Rearden. She tells James Taggart that she's afraid of sinking into "stinking, hall-bedroom poverty." But worse things than that can happen to a person like her when society goes further than mere economic depression and into anarchy.

You don't have to care what happens to James Taggart; in a very real sense, he gets what's coming to him. But what about Lillian Rearden? Lillian is, by Rand's own account, a type of the literary and political crowd at The New Yorker magazine, a magazine that she held in utter contempt. That's fine, as far as it goes. But Lillian is still Henry Rearden's wife. He did marry her, and he needs to deal with that.

Why did Henry Rearden marry that woman to begin with? What could have attracted him to a woman like Lillian, who never once demonstrated any appreciation for him as a businessman and inventor, or even as a fellow human being? One could almost ask why Lillian married Henry, but Lillian is, after all, a minor villainess. Henry is supposed to be smarter than that. Is he, then, a type of all businessmen who mistakenly marry what are known as "trophy wives," thinking to enjoy intimacy but finding out, too late, that they have locked themselves into relationships with women with whom they have nothing in common? Indeed, Lillian Rearden criticizes Henry for precisely such a motive: she was the "Rearden Wife," a woman with whom Henry might not even have been in love when he married her.

Rearden's solution is not satisfactory: he simply walks away from Lillian. True, he also walks away from his mother and brother. True, you can't choose your relatives. But you do choose your husband or wife. Marriage is too important to enter into as lightly as Henry Rearden did—and divorce is a breach of contract, pure and simple. This is the very sort of "reality faking" that John Galt condemns and will not even permit in the society of which he is the nominal mayor.

Perhaps this shows Ayn Rand's general contempt for the institution of marriage. (Indeed, Whittaker Chambers commented that Dagny never falls pregnant by any of the men with whom she is intimate, and concluded that Ayn Rand just flatly didn't like children.) So why does Ragnar Danneskjøld marry the actress Kay Ludlow? Why does John Galt marry Dagny? And if you can so casually walk out of a marriage, how can we know that either of those two marriages will last?

Ironically, Henry Rearden offers what could have been the proper solution. When his mother asks him whether he is incapable of forgiveness, he replies,

I am not. I could have forgiven the past, if today you had urged me to quit and disappear.

Is that impossible? Does Rearden throw that out as a rhetorical device? Not necessarily. Suppose, for instance, that Lillian Rearden, after her tryst with James Taggart, realized in that moment how low she had sunk. Suppose she saw how utterly foolish she was to trust the ideology and system that James Taggart represented? Might she not then have sought redemption in exactly the way that Henry Rearden suggests she might? Would she not then have sought to warn him that the government never intended to make a phony tax lien go away, but instead sought to drain him dry? Does she not say, "Henry, don't go to New York; they're just setting you up?" Suppose she also knew about the staged riot at the mills? She might even have tried to protect him physically at a critical moment, only to die in the process. Now that death would have been rich with irony. The one time that she decided to be genuinely loyal to someone other than herself, the very pseudo-victims that her intellectual allies championed end up murdering her.

But that might have interfered with what sometimes appears to be Rand's chief goal. She targeted a particular class of politicians and intellectuals for the most ignominious punishment she could devise, with virtually no prospect of redemption. One, and only one, character achieves any redemption. That character is the young man known variously as the "Wet Nurse" and "Non-Absolute." Sadly, he achieves his redemption only by dying and by giving a last warning to the man he has come to admire. But more to the point, as Rand herself admitted, the redemption of "Non-Absolute" developed by accident. She intended that "Non-Absolute" be a throw-away character, and he ended in giving one of the most powerful "anti-looter" testimonies in the novel. If you want to see a powerful, gut-wrenching statement of what is wrong with "democratic socialism," don't try to find it in that abstruse three-hour speech by John Galt; instead, look for it in the scene in which "Non-Absolute," now called by his first name of Tony, gives his dying warning to Henry Rearden.

That should have been Lillian's speech to deliver. And it would have been an even more powerful indictment of the pseudo-intellectual social set that she represented than even the portrait of her doing her worst. This would have been especially true if Lillian had died in that riot, and Henry had had the chance to mourn the woman he once had loved, and metaphorically had one last chance to meet again.

But in addition to being a member of a condemned class, Lillian Rearden was, in essence, Ayn Rand's own rival for Henry Rearden's affections. Dagny Taggart, by Rand's own account, is Ayn Rand, without the faults (especially the moderate obesity) that Rand knew she had, and was always sorry about. Lillian Rearden is, then, a romantic rival, and Rand must destroy her. In so doing she allowed her personal likes and dislikes to cloud her professional judgment. And when she did that, she broke her own rules—again. Rand had a habit of that in real life, with disastrous results.

Henry Rearden casts Lillian aside for another reason, the same reason for which Dagny Taggart casts him aside for John Galt. Ayn Rand never believed in monogamy. The Objectivist theory of love and sex, as attested by Nathaniel Branden and expounded by Rand herself, has no place for the idea that anyone would have one mate for life. Branden himself, in his own treatise on romantic love, stated that the best idea was "serial monogamy," in which a person might have multiple partners in his or her lifetime, though not more than one at a time. Rand took the concept further: she stated that any person would always attempt to find the best intimate partner that he or she could find, and that no person would have any better grounds to expect a spouse to remain loyal "as long as they both should live" than would any businessman to expect a customer to maintain consistent brand loyalty. As some students of Objectivism, discussing this very work, have stated, "love is a free market."

THis is impractical, for two reasons. First, it ignores the high emotional cost of ending a relationship. It even suggests that a perfectly (and coldly) rational being should be able to break off a relationship without cost. For another, it makes no provision for the rearing of children. Perhaps the Objectivist ideal would entail the automatic granting of custody to the mother, and the vesting in the mother with full authority and responsibility for any children whom she might bear. Thus the relationship of a mother to her children might be construed as similar to the relationship between a doe and her fawns. But this analysis suggests that fathers are totally unnecessary participants either in childrearing or as family providers.

Ayn Rand never once addressed this issue in any of her essays, nor did Branden or any of her associates. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand mentions children only briefly: some of the residents of Atlantis have wives and children,

but there is a mutual trade involved in that, and a mutual payment...
Dagny Taggart never has any children by any of her three lovers. And by the time she becomes a permanent resident of Atlantis, she is thirty-eight years old. At that age, sadly, any child she does have is uncomfortably likely to suffer from Down's Syndrome. Talk about unintended irony!

Spoilers end here.


Current popularity

As mentioned, Atlas Shrugged is very popular today. Thank the politics and policies of the administration of President Barack Obama. Those policies have provoked a series of spontaneous protests, called the TEA Parties. Many participants have said that Ayn Rand was correct in her predictions. She was just more than half a century too early. Back then, no one could have imagined that the United States government would ever behave in so potentially destructive a fashion. The TEA Party people have introduced a new phrase: "to go Galt." That might mean to call a strike of the men of the mind, exactly as John Galt did, even if the strike plans are limited to John Galt's original orders: that those who can, retire and live off their savings, with the rest taking the lowest jobs that they can find.

This popularity has also brought the novel to film at last. Some Hollywood watchers said last year that such a movie might become "Hollywood's first anti-bailout movie."[6]

Will the novel continue in its popularity? Might it be one of many catalysts for another political realignment? Time and events alone will tell.

Signature

--TerryHTalk 21:14, 8 May 2009 (EDT) Revised and supplemented by TerryHTalk 15:27, 18 May 2009 (EDT)

References

  1. Chambers W, "Big Sister Is Watching You," National Review, December 28, 1957. Hosted at National Review Online, published January 5, 2005. Accessed May 1, 2009. <http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/222482/big-sister-watching-you/flashback>
  2. Amazon.com Listing for 'Atlas Shrugged'
  3. Advanced Fiction Writing by Randy Ingermanson
  4. Branden N, "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand," audio presentation, 1984. Transcript hosted at <http://www.nathanielbranden.com/catalog/articles_essays/benefits_and_hazards.html>.
  5. For a detailed commentary on this particular fallacy, see Rodriguez A, "Jesus Was a Conservative," The Intellectual Conservative, May 26, 2009. <http://www.intellectualconservative.com/2009/05/26/jesus-was-a-conservative/>
  6. Zeitchik, Steven. "With 'Atlas Shrugged,' Hollywood may have its first anti-bailout movie." The Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2009. <http://www.riskybusinessblog.com/2009/03/with-atlas-shrugged-hollywood-may-have-its-first-antibailout-movie.html>
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