Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand: a Review

While reading Atlas Shrugged, I could not help but think of the stark contrast between this novel and the writing of my favorite 20th century author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Mr. Tolkien's philosophical convictions are not so much on the surface as Ms. Rand's, both of these authors manifest ideologies representing forms of conservatism -- Ms. Rand is described as a libertarian, to be more precise. Nonetheless, any similarities end there. Mr. Tolkien's novels, though written for a different world ("middle earth"), celebrate nature and tradition; Ms. Rand despises tradition and worships the world of industrialization. Only a theist could have written Lord of the Rings; Ms. Rand promotes atheism. Mr. Tolkien finds corruptibility in the hearts of all of his creatures; Ms. Rand finds evil in societal structures corrupting pure hearts.

Not surprisingly, this reviewer prefers the vision of the creator of hobbits, though he wanted to like this novel, as well. In the end, he could not.

Because of the nature of the novel, any review of Atlas Shrugged must consider it as both a work of art and one of philosophy, and the novel falters on both counts. Any art worth paying attention to will have a demonstrable world view, but when art attempts to serve ideological ends, it nearly always suffers from the effort. Atlas Shrugged is no exception.

"Who is John Galt?" the novel begins, and it takes nearly 700 pages before we begin to find out. The novel takes place in a dystopian culture in the United States circa 1950. As the politics of the nation move increasingly toward socialism, the wider culture increasingly reflects mediocrity while deploring the "greedy" and those who pursue excellence in any profession. A handful of industrialists stand against that collectivizing trend, with the protagonist of the book being Dagny Taggart, who by virtue of birth and ability is the chief operating officer of a transcontinental railroad. As her brother possesses the same birthright, but lacks any discernable ability, she, in fact, runs the railroad in a losing battle against the political and cultural forces shaping the world.

Her battle is made harder by the fact that the other great industrialists of the age are gradually disappearing, and the reader eventually learns that they are being convinced by the aforementioned John Galt to go on strike. The idea is to bring the motor of the world to a standstill, so that those who know how to run things will be free to do so without approbation. That is actually an intriguing idea to this reviewer, who has frequently noted the abuse heaped on entrepreneurs, who make things people want and create jobs in so doing, and wondered if they ever think of cashing out and going home. In Atlas Shrugged, they disappear and wait for the world to crash.

As said before, art that is subservient to ideology suffers thereby, and Atlas Shrugged suffers in both plot and characterization. Ms. Taggart, though limited in some ways, manages to be interesting -- since starting to read the book, this reviewer has talked to several women who read it when they were younger and were inspired by her powerful character -- but most of the other characters seem less like humans than cardboard cutouts of Ms. Rand's ideological vision. Her heroic industrialists are all full of competence, entrepreneurial energy, philosophical brilliance, and are great looking. The bad guys are the opposite of all of those attributes. The card board nature of the characters is ironic, since the author frequently describes the heroes of her novel as being the only ones who are "alive" and "real." The plot also becomes contorted and falls completely apart in the latter half.

The good guys in Ms. Rand's rendering are those who live entirely for self -- who define their own values and then live in a manner consistent with them. Any form of self-sacrifice is evil, and greed is defined as good. In that regard, Ms. Rand correctly opposes those who consider the profit motive as a form of evil, but one might suggest that she goes too far in insisting that it is a positive good. In fact, one would hardly be anti-capitalist in suggesting that the profit motive is neither good nor evil, but can be either depending on what other values and actions are invested in its pursuit.

The good guys are also those who reject any notion of human depravity, including that taught in the Christian doctrine of original sin. Ms. Rand, who paints all of her opponents with a broad brush [her enemies are variously dismissed as mystics (the religious), looters (the tax collectors), or moochers (the unachieving seeking the goods of the achievers)], considers the doctrine of original sin to be a great enemy of freedom. Ms. Rand, who was born in Russia, would likely not appreciate the irony that arguably the most significant voice of freedom in the 20th century in her homeland, A. Solzhenitsyn, was the man who wrote, "The line that divides good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being...." Contra Rand, belief in human sinfulness need not be the enemy of freedom. Frequently, it is not.

Ms. Rand claims to be celebrating reality, but having rejected tradition, nature, nature's God, and human depravity, she then can only find her reality in utopia -- in a place alternately referred to as Atlantis or Galt's Gulch. In that hidden locale, the most brilliant people of the age live in perfect professional and personal harmony. Even the unspoken selection of a new lover at the expense of an expectant previous one is managed with stoic reserve and acceptance.

Though the novel is ideologically overbearing, perhaps Ms. Rand feared that the point wasn't clear enough, so she has John Galt deliver an absurd 70 page (in my edition) radio broadcast expounding the philosophy. The leaders of the country cower at the profundity that they cannot accept.

Many conservatives, distressed at the collectivism that reigned at the end of the Bush administration and the first year of President Obama, have taken a look at the philosophical pretensions of Ms. Rand. Looking for conservative principles is not a bad idea, but this reviewer would suggest finding them in a world inhabited by hobbits and elves, not in the unreal world of Ayn Rand.

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