Atlast!

Atlas Shrugged is over a thousand pages. I don’t have a problem with it being long, but I wish it wasn’t so bloody big, it takes up most of my handbag all by itself!

First off, I like it. More than I thought I would, if I’m honest. Mostly I think that it’s well-written (although there’s the odd sentence that makes me roll my eyes and wish it had been better edited…and the mere fact of the book’s length makes me think that an editor could definitely have been useful) and very thoughtful. It consists of well constructed arguments, and it demands that you think out your objections and counter-arguments carefully rather than going with an vague, intuitive feeling about something. I don’t think that I necessarily agree with Rand’s arguments, but that doesn’t matter. It’s nice to just read and consider well argued theory. I do feel a little weird about the fact that I’m reading fiction (that isn’t simply an allegory or a satire) that seems to have been explicitly created, at least in part, to promote an ideology but I also know that if that doctrine sat further to the left I’d probably find it a little easier to swallow, so I probably shouldn’t complain about it.

I certainly feel that it’s often less of a defence of selfishness than it thinks it is. Maybe that’s just my personal interpretation because I think that ‘selfishness’ still has a negative gloss to it, in the way that a defence of egotism or self-interest probably wouldn’t to me. Even so, I don’t really buy the idea that these characters are necessarily all that selfish. They’re well rounded composite characters rather than caricatures, which is definitely a good thing, but they’re also just incredibly noble most of the time. They demonstrate time and time again that they subscribe to a higher morality, to certain ideas of what is inherently right- and it doesn’t just happen as a by-product of their selfishness at all.

I’m glad that the novel doesn’t hide from just how American it is, although I would like it to at least acknowledge that this ‘selfishness’ that it lauds is a value (if indeed it is one) which applies uniquely to a very specific context. I think the idea that Capitalism arose in the States as a rejection of the idea of slavery is an interesting one (mentioned as a throwaway comment, but I’d love to see it expanded on), but I’d also like the book to maybe at least touch on America’s history of genocide and slavery.

There at least was a reference to Manhattan being sold by the indigenous people for a small sum in glass beads. I could have done without the ‘stupid savages’ implication. (And anyway, it’s not as if that story is supported by any actual facts).

I think it paints a very skewed version of American history, not only in largely omitting these very obvious points, but also comitting the common sin of completely ignoring the importance of collectivist ideas, and yes even socialist ones, on the early history of the USA.

It does definitely strike a chord with me. It has these beautiful ideals, which I can appreciate even if I don’t necessarily agree with. I started off rolling my eyes a little at the ideas it was presenting. I was thinking “sure, I’d love to go and live in a wood cabin (with wireless) and ignore everyone”, but I didn’t think that the book was going to actually create this awesome enclave (hidden by some hilarious comic book style technology) where the ‘deserters’ could live happily apart from the rest of the world. The plot is doing nothing less than embodying everything wonderful about anarchism, and crucially it isn’t only the (primarily American) individualist strand (embodied by Thoreau) but definitely also contains ideas that resonate with Proudhon’s, Tolstoy’s and even the good parts of syndicalism.

The abject hatred towards Marxism (and indeed the word ‘contradiction’!) expressed in the book makes me a little sad. I don’t think that Rand’s vibrant support of the free market is necessarily entirely at odds with socialism, especially that of a strongly anarchist bent- like Benjamin Tucker’s theories for example. Obviously I can understand Rand’s outrage and disgust at the way she saw ‘Communism’ being implemented in her life time, but I don’t think that that should lead to an outright dismissal of Marx. I think that their theories have some common ground, he too wanted the best of the best! In fact I can imagine Karl Marx as actually fitting in quite well with a lot of her characters (although I don’t think she would have liked Engels very much)…

I definitely have some problems with the way that she writes about women. Dagny is a very strong and likable female character (who clearly looks an awful lot like Felicity Huffman in the Sports Night days, she even dresses like her) but I really hate a lot of her romantic and sexual relationships. Although Rand creates an eloquent defence of pleasure seeking, arguing against allowing sex to be tainted by guilt, I can’t stand the way Dagny is constantly submitting and giving herself to be ‘used’ by her lovers. Sometimes the male characters seem to be submitting too, but it is to passion, rather than to a woman. I find it to be incredibly grating. Also, the most ‘evil’ character book appears to be Dagny’s opposite, Hank’s wife Lilian (I’m not entirely convinced that the ‘Lil-‘ name is unintentional either). She’s definitely a despicable person, but I’m not sure that she deserves to be painted as the absolute worst character in the book simply because she’s “not-Dagny”.
Earlier I felt that part of the novel was basically a love story between Francisco and Hank, now it feels more like one between Francisco and John. I held out hope that the free love angle would get pursued, and that there’d be a better orgy than in the Perfume movie (the one in the book was just dandy) in the offing. I also desperately needed some respite from the fact that so many of the main characters were in love with Dagny. I don’t know if this is a brand of Mary Sue-ism, but it’s certainly irritating.

Possibly the most irksome thing about Atlas Shrugged is that it’s based on a very bad analogy, Atlas held up the sky, not the world. It’s just such a glaring error.
Dagny Taggart is an awful, awful name. Who would call their child that? It’s so ugly! Tinky Holloway, however, is an excellent name. Also I think it is possible for a book’s characters to overuse the phrase “I know it”, especially if they insist on constantly doing it grimly.

I like the fact that Dagny sometimes gets to dress up and revel in her femininity, and have that not be separate from her identity as an executive. However, I think that this is slightly tainted by the fact that most of the time she’s wearing a nice dress she ends up in some protracted romantic situation. On the subject of Dagny’s clothing, I absolutely could not take John’s confession of love (andstalking watching over her) seriously, because telling her that he spent the past twelve years watching her from the tunnels below and could sculpt her legs from memory made it sound a lot like he had a fetish for upskirt peeping. That sort of thing can get you fired here you know.

Something that I find kind of jarring (and certainly not just in this book) is that the characters are more wordy than season 7’s speech-happy General Buffy. They often give speeches, and I don’t have a problem with that if they’re supposed to be. A fair bit of the time though, they aren’t. I don’t think it’s reasonable for there to be quite so many multi-page monologues. It’s a common literary device, but I tend to find it incredibly annoying. That, combined with the fact that they all seem to have an amazing ability to recall pretty much anything that anyone has ever said to them and quote it verbatim and the fact that several of the characters have definite Marty-Lou characteristics and are just too perfect kind of encapsulates what worries me about reading a novel which has a politico-philosophical agenda. The characters are sometimes sacrificed to the author’s greater plan and it means that they don’t always ring true.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m pissing all over the book though. I’m not, at all. I’m still definitely enjoying it. I wouldn’t bother to consider all of this if I wasn’t. I like the way that it lightly picks at the flaws of what it criticises, I especially liked this:

There, he thought, was the final abortion of the creed of collective interdependence, the creed of non-identity, non-property, non-fact: the belief that the moral stature of one is at the mercy of the action of another.

I know that a lot of Marx’s writing that has what I would characterise as a more individualist bent, and focuses more on ideas of freedom might not have surfaced (or if it had then might not have been widely known) when Atlas Shrugged was written (it was first published in 1957). I also found this Popper quote to be appropriate:

Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. This is especially true of those who disagree with his doctrines.

Now some mere idle curiosity. Firstly, I’m just intrigued as to whether Midas Mulligan ever explains why the Atlantis valley wasn’t on any maps? Did I miss something?

Secondly, does “Piss” Harry King in the Discworld books remind anyone of Hank Rearden a little? Or am I just reaching… He is listed on the television trope page for the self made man (which is interesting because I don’t think that he’s ever been portrayed on television) but I’ll take it as evidence that I’m right.

I’m glad that I read the book in conjunction with (slowly, slowly) watching Carnivale. They’re set to similar backdrops so it was nice to have them both captivating my imagination at the same time. There was an awesome quote from Dolan, which for some reason I can’t find, about him wanting to help Iris to find her brother so that he can gain a larger audience and get richer. It sounded like something that could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged.

I still haven’t worked out who Francisco reminded me of, and it’s bugging the hell out of me. It was especially strong earlier in the novel when he was in the position of a tempter, luring people to go on strike. Knowing me it’ll probably turn out to be a Whedon or Sorkin character, and the cogs of my brain will probably finally find the answer for me to scream out at an utterly inappropriate moment. C’est la vie. I remember that after watching Dune (which I also still haven’t read) I had an incredibly strong sense that the Fremen’s blue eyes reminded me of… something which I just couldn’t quite grasp. I drove our poor lecturer somewhere round the bend as she listed off lots of possibilities, most of which were obscure references to science fiction films or television shows that I have no knowledge of. When I finally worked out that it was Groo (a fairly minor character from Angel), I don’t think she considered it to have been worth all of that effort.

John’s radio broadcast (apparently around three hours long, which I can well believe- but I didn’t mind the length here since it was conceived of as a speech, and so didn’t feel false) slightly reminded me of a much shorter speech. Wes Mendell’s in the Studio 60 pilot. The first couple of episodes of Studio 60 had me bubbling with excitement, I’m still kind of annoyed at the way it ended up. Here is a link to the clip from the pilot which culminates with said speech (and I’d completely forgotten that Felicity Huffman had a guest spot in the pilot, please she so is Dagny, enough with this Angelina nonsense). I’ll also include this link to the cold open from, uh, ‘The Cold Open’ for no reason other than it makes me laugh.

On the subject of Francisco, which I’m sure that I was discussing at some point, I was immediately convinced that Frank Adams was him as soon as I read the name ‘Frank’. I didn’t have to wait long for that reveal, but Hank’s surprise at something that was so obvious was typical of a lot of the book. Again and again the reader becomes aware of something that a character desperately wants to know or should know, the identity of Eddie Willer’s confidante for example. This had the effect of making me a bit exasperated with Hank, Dagny and Eddie time and time again for being so dense (and for their inevitable gasping when they discover the truth) even when, based on the knowledge available to them, they weren’t actually being intensely stupid. It reminded me of Harry Potter a little, although I don’t think anyone could be quite as dim witted as Harry (or gasp as much as Hermione). Luckily I love the word phrase hyphenate ‘self-immolation’ (and I’d like to point out that I’m the one who came up with the ‘molating Marx thing, and probably plenty of the others even if I can’t remember them… firing Foucault possibly?) otherwise I’d definitely be complaining loudly about its overuse.

I very much loved, in a pretty much unqualified way, Rand’s attacks on Cartesian duality; the split between mind and body.

Personally I feel that there’s never been a proper free-market Capitalism experiment, just as there’s never been a proper Communist one. Maybe it’s because they only really exist as ideal types, and life is a lot more messy, but its certainly (also?) because they haven’t been allowed. Dagny (and the others) look towards an idealised past (where Nat Taggart roamed around) of perfect laissez-faire capitalism. I’m pretty sure that that didn’t exist. The free market has never truly been free, I’ll come back to Benjamin Tucker for example: he argued that the four main monopolies (money, land, tariffs and patents) would need to be broken down first before a truly free market could be set up. We see examples of it all the time, the US government cries that the market ought to be free! Except for pharmaceuticals. Importing cheap Canadian drugs would hurt American producers, and that would be wrong. Repeat ad infinitum with whatever it is this week.

I’m sorry, but I’m coming back to Marx again. I just feel that Rand (and she’s certainly not alone) misinterprets his views on Capitalism. He didn’t hate it. He didn’t want to destroy it. He thought that it was excellent, in a limited way. It unleashed enormous productive power, and allowed for innovation in a way that previous epochs had not. He didn’t provide a moral criticism of Capitalism in his work, and he in fact explicitly argues against trying to bring about the untimely end of Capitalism. He simply believed that Capitalism was beset by inherent contradictions (just like the previous socio-economic systems), and as a result would eventually collapse and give way to a new social system.

Needless to say, he wasn’t exactly right about how it played out. I’d definitely be interested in finding out if Rand ever explicitly discussed her attitude to Marx’s writing. In Atlas Shrugged she doesn’t, but I feel (perhaps wrongly) that some of her criticisms are directed that-a-way. There’s a lot of stuff in Marx’s writing that I think Rand must have agreed with, not least his emphasis on rationality and of course that famous sentence from Theses on Feuerbach, ” The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”.

Of course I suppose that her criticisms were actually directed more at the Russian governement then at their (claimed) ideological underpinnings. It’s hard to work out when the novel’s supposed to be set, since it’s futuristic in some senses but also rapidly retreating into the past. Combined with that is the fact that the characters are often looking to an idealised industrial past, which often permeates their world and time, especially as the setting of the railroad (and to a lesser extent the mines) has a distinctly nineteenth century quality to it. In my head I kind of split the difference and seem to be imagining something vaguely 1930s-esque (I suppose I can partly blame this on Carnivale too). I get the impression that Rand was explicitly critiquing Roosevelt’s policies, and I can understand why her ideas would clash with his “make work” philosophy. However, at the same time I can see similarities between his New Deal and the great minds of Atlas Shrugged trying to rebuild the world after its destruction… (Of course it also makes me think of Toby’s revulsion at the idea of including “the era of big government is over” in the speech in the West Wing ep ‘He Shall From Time to Time’ in which I don’t think the name “Roosevelt” is ever spoken, but I swear that you can actually see what Toby’s thinking. I love Richard Schiff a little too much.)

Well maybe the real problem with a university education is it creates the desire to identify fleeting similarities and synthesise ideas?

I also felt that the arguments against the ‘mystics of muscle’ seemed to be more of an argument against the Functionalist school of thought than anything else (especially with the organic analogy). I suppose Rand wouldn’t particularly like them, but it felt a little weird in a rant that seemed mostly against altruism and collectivism. I also wondered if the fact that both John and Ragnar raise the issue of income tax as important was construed as an explicit reference to Thoreau. I’m glad that there was a reference to the fact that paper money is assumed to be worth the same as gold, I think people should pay more attention to the fact that the world’s economy is basically held together by a mass delusion. No one’s on the gold standard anymore, and there might very well come a time when you don’t really care how many flimsy pieces of paper you’re holding or how many zeroes are at the the end of the number on the computer screen. Hopefully by then I’ll be back in London with my pumpkin patch and fruit trees though, so I won’t really care.

I would have liked to see religion addressed more. Rand dismisses religion (and I personally don’t have a problem with that), but it wasn’t really dealt with much within the novel, there weren’t really any religious characters. After reading the introduction I’m a tad annoyed that the Father Amadeus character was cut, but I might have had to spend some time trying to work out where his name fits on the awful/awesome axis if he hadn’t been.

Rand belittles the sociological/interpretivist-style criticisms of science. I will freely admit that sometimes these criticisms can be take way too far. I love Bruno Latour, he has an immense and respectful appreciation of science and he acknowledges that there are such things as objective facts. However, he points out that science in the process of occurring isn’t a series of objective facts, and argues that stating this isn’t a rejection of science. I’d also like to add that Rand actually endorses one of those criticisms of science without acknowledging it, she’s disgusted by the idea of state funded science, and that’s something which many of the sociological criticisms of science have highlighted, as well as investigating other ways in which the production of scientific knowledge is effected by other (subtler) factors.

The book definitely contained far too much of an Orientalist attitude, an extreme overuse of the word ‘savage’ and an apparent damning of everything ‘non-American’. I don’t have a problem with the novel’s pro-American sentiment (nor do I have a problem with it in anything penned by Aaron Sorkin), even if I don’t endorse it. I do appreciate passionate feeling like that, and basically anyone who subscribes to the Granny Weatherwax school of philosophy:

“…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword.”

I know that Rand’s views on race and gender (and other things too of course) are a product of her time. I expect some things to crop up that I dislike but can understand as a result of this. I think it’s just a bit too much though. I have to contend that in some areas she was just a bit of an idiot, and I’d be interested in reading Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, especially Brownmiller’s ‘Ayn Rand: A Traitor to her Own Sex’. I assume that that title is there for shock value, at least to some extent, and that there is some appreciation of Dagny’s character (and indeed Cherryl’s, although it would have been nice to see her develop a bit more before her death). I assume that there’s plenty of criticism of the (relatively?) sexually submissive role that Dagny randomly gets cast in, which I’d definitely be interested to read.

I’ve never understood why someone would think that I would want my cake if I wasn’t going to eat it too. Claiming that one can’t eat one’s cake and have it too at least makes sense.

It’s a good thing that John was the one who started the movement, if people were wandering about asking who Francisco D’Anconia or Ragnar Danneskjold were all the time the book might have been a lot shorter. Certainly it might have taken the government a lot less time to track John down at the end if he didn’t have such a common name. I felt worried that things were going to take a tragic turn when Dagny led them to John, and I’m glad that instead there was a happy, hopeful ending. (And that Dagny wasn’t punished for being a silly, emotional woman.) I felt kind of sad for poor Eddie though. I liked the idea of the torture machine- it was really gruesome (and the idiots torturing Galt almost to the point of death because they were adamant that he had to help them were captivating), the machine itself kind of reminded me of the torture device in The Princess Bride. The idea of trying to torture someone with the sound of their own heartbeat was effective, and it reminded me of the horror that one of Doc Benton’s victims in the Supernatural episode ‘Time is on my Side’ who has a heart rate monitor still attached to him from when he was jogging suffered.

The idea that it’s impossible for the nasty bad guy politicians to step aside at the right time idly made me think of F.W. de Clerk.

I know that it’s silly, but I think I would have liked a bit more science. I know that Ayn Rand wasn’t a scientist. Partly it’s just because the refractor rays made me roll my eyes and laugh out loud. It felt like an episode of Johnny Quest, especially with the whole Shambhala feel to Galt’s Gulch. I would have loved some science geekery (even if it was complete and utter nonsense) to provide a bit more of an explanation to Galt’s super awesome motor, rather than the constant solemn assurance that it was something amazing that would have made the world better, without details to flesh it out and make it sound more realistic.

I think I’ve come round to the idea of Rand the novelist more. When I first started reading I thought that I was reading a novel designed as propaganda of, or at least promotion of, a specific view point. On completion I can say that it does (mostly) feel like a novel. I’ve also become convinced that she wasn’t engaging with philosophical or political theory (other than her own anyway) as much as I thought she would.

Sadly there was no orgy finale. There was a mention of orgies towards the end, but they’re discussed in a very disparaging way. I can at least console myself with the not stated (but clearly implicit assumption) that Hank and Francisco were walking off into the world together. Obviously.

I didn’t clock that Ayn Rand was Russian until I read the biographical information in the reader’s guide. I guess that explains some of her anger a little bit. It makes sense that Rand wasn’t her real name, I think it would be too much of a coincidence if her surname actually was a currency!.I’d kind of had her pegged as a Catholic what with all the emphasis on guilt. I should have paid more attention to The First Wives Club where Brenda explains that she’s half-Catholic, but that its the Jews that really own guilt. Unless that was actually in another book, which is possible.

My brain is addled. Maybe that’s why I think that there should be a cartoon of Atlas’ shrug (as in the item of clothing). That logically seems like one of those things that only sleep-deprivation makes funny.

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