Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (73 down 27 to go)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Who is John Galt? ~ Oft repeated phrase from Atlas Shrugged 
I am, therefore I’ll think. ~ John Galt

This is the first time I’ve read Atlas Shrugged or Ayn Rand. The novel is a dystopian novel, with a bit of science fiction. It is the third-person narrative of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and her fight against an increasingly interfering Marxist government. It is set in America, but the time setting is more complicated; Rand never sets the year.  The novel was published in 1957. Technology in the novel, and a few other contextual clues would indicate early 1960s, but the world geo-political situation is drastically different from 1957 and would have required decades to account for the change. I think Rand intentionally avoided going too far into the future, to avoid the perils of predicting technology advances she could not imagine, while presuming a different world political history prior to 1957, sufficient to account for the political changes.

My rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars



This novel satisfies #7 of the Back to the Classics Challenge: fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic.

Wow! What an amazing, poignant, and riveting story. I think every American ought to read it.

I’m tempted to give it 5 stars, but I’ll get around to a few minor complaints later.

Dagny Taggart is one of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered in literature. She is the daughter of the late Nate Taggart, a railroad tycoon from the American industrial revolution. Dagny is operating vice president of Taggart Transcontinental, while her older brother, James (Jim) Taggart, is the company president. Jim is a tool of government officials; it is really Dagny who runs things.

The greatest industrialists of the day are continuously and increasingly frustrated by absurd government interference and the passage of such things as: The Equalization of Opportunity Bill, The Preservation of Livelihood Law, and a general anti-greed campaign.

There are a number of such industrialists, from various sectors of the economy, but two in particular are important to this story: Hank Reardon a self-made steel magnate and inventor of Reardon metal, …a metal that would be to steel what steel had been to iron…; and Francisco d’Anconia, CEO of the world’s largest Copper mining company.

And then there is John Galt. Who is John Galt?

That question is a vaguely defined slogan of the day, that means something like…”who can tell?” No one knows if there is such a person, or who he is.

There is also a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld. Yep, a pirate.

I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot. My version of the book is nearly 1200 pages and I feel any attempt to synopsize would be miserably inadequate. I’ll just say, it is brilliant. I’ll continue my review with some excerpts.

First some jargon spouted by party elite, most often stated as if the truth were self-evident:

Doesn’t everyone agree that the purpose and justification of an industrial enterprise are not production, but the livelihood of its employees?

At a time of desperate steel shortage, we cannot afford to permit the expansion of a steel company which produces too much, because it might throw out of business the companies which produce too little…

…noble historical precept: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

…people don’t want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think. But by some sort of instinct, they feel that they ought to and it makes them feel guilty. So, they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them justification for not thinking.

I don’t think the strong should have the right to wound the self-esteem of the weak.

Privations strengthen the people’s spirit…and forge the fine steel of social discipline. Sacrifice is the cement which unites human bricks in the great edifice of society.

There will be no chance for the poor, until the rich are destroyed.

It’s intelligence that’s caused all the troubles of humanity. Man’s mind is the root of all evil.

…the anti-industrial revolution.

…they made it sound like anyone who’d oppose the plan was a child-killer at heart and less than a human being.

The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any.

The only justification of private property…is public service.

Now the antithesis. Near the end of the book, John Galt (oops, spoiler – he does exist), takes over a government radio broadcast that all Americans had been urged to listen to. The following are excerpts from that speech:

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason – Purpose – Self-esteem.

Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative.

…you have never discovered that achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death. Joy is not the absence of pain, intelligence is not the absence of stupidity, light is not the absence of darkness, an entity is not the absence of a nonentity. Building is not done by abstaining from demolition; centuries of sitting and waiting in such abstinence will not raise one single girder for you to abstain from demolishing – and now you can no longer say to me, the builder: “Produce, and feed us in exchange for our not destroying your production.”

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.

You let them infect you with the worship of need – and this country became a giant in body with a mooching midget in place of its soul…

The only proper functions of government are: the police to protect you from criminals; the army to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property…

Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not.

John Galt's speech is very long, 70 pages, and often thought of as the emblem of the book. It was not my favorite speech in the book however.

Much earlier in the story, Francisco gives a shorter speech at a party wherein he extolls the virtue of Laissez-faire capitalism, completely contrary to the common sentiment of the day. Afterward, he is challenged by a wealthy socialite who concedes that her intellect is no match for Francisco’s, but, she asserts, that in her heart she knows he is wrong. Francisco’s response:

Madame, when we’ll see men dying of starvation around us, your heart won’t be of any earthly use to save them. And I’m heartless enough to say that when you’ll scream, “but I didn’t know it!” – you will not be forgiven.

Much later in the book, while speaking to Dagny, Francisco says:

We kept mankind alive, yet we allowed men to despise us and to worship our destroyers.

No quotations from Dagny. She is a thinker and a doer, but not much of a talker. Here is an excerpt about her thoughts as she passed a statue of her father in the Taggart terminal: 

To look at that statue whenever she crossed the concourse, was the only form of prayer she knew.

Finally, some excerpts that merely show the elegance of Rand’s words:

The houses stood like men in unpressed suits, who had lost the desire to stand straight: the cornices were like sagging shoulders, the crooked porch steps like torn hem lines, the broken windows like patches, mended with clapboard.

Eddie Willers was smiling the kind of smile that is a man’s substitute for breaking into tears.

…and she saw the tall, dry stem of a single weed rising from the steps of the main entrance. Hit by a sudden, blinding hatred, in rebellion against the weed’s impertinence, knowing of what enemy this was the scout, she ran forward, she fell on her knees and jerked the weed up by its roots.

He looked at Taggart with the lifelessly conscientious glance of a scholar confronted by a field of knowledge he had never wanted to study.

But I’m not quite done. To really appreciate this novel, you need to know a little about Ayn Rand. I am not a disciple. She has certain beliefs that I am diametrically opposed to. In my opinion, she was nonetheless, extraordinary.

Four years ago, during our presidential campaign, Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan was criticized because he was on the record for appreciating the writings of Ayn Rand. When I began reading Atlas Shrugged I was amazed that anyone would object, but the more I read the more it made sense that a certain segment would object. It threatens them – just as Dagny and the industrialists threatened the ruling elite in Atlas Shrugged. The political environment in Atlas Shrugged is very reminiscent of the climate today.

At least to me.

So why 4 ½ stars instead of 5? First, Dagny’s love life was ridiculous. She loved three different men in two chapters. I don’t mean made love to them – I mean she loved one, then realized she loved another more, or maybe the same, and then she realized she loved another more than either of them. And those two, by the way, were far too magnanimous about losing the woman they loved. There was a fourth man who also realized HE loved Dagny in this same span, though his love was unrequited.

That’s really my only objection. I balked a bit at parts of John Galt’s speech, which Rand used as a venue to proclaim her philosophy, namely objectivism, of which she is the creator. I am aligned with Rand’s thoughts on governance and economics, but there are tenets of objectivism that I strongly disagree with. I can’t fault her for using this venue though. It’s her book and she wove it very naturally into the story. I’m fairly certain that was her purpose. I just wanted to be clear that for all my praise of this book, I am not a disciple of Ayn Rand or objectivism.

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. ~ Ayn Rand 

One last thought. A while back I posted something about INTPs in literature. John Galt is INTP, like me.

Film Adaptation: Three film serial production:  Atlas Shrugged Part I (2011), Atlas Shrugged Part II (2012), and Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt (2014). Three films was probably a good idea, but entirely recasting each successive film was not. No exaggeration – 100% recast each film.  There were a few other minor problems, but it was pretty faithful. I don’t recommend it though. If you are a fan of Atlas Shrugged the novel, you should probably skip the films. If you are not a fan of the book, you should definitely skip the films.
 

8 comments:

  1. It's been such a long time since I have read a positive review on Atlas Shrugged! Though it has been years and years since I read it, I recall being completely floored by it. Like you, I was able to understand where Ayn Rand was coming from. I can't say that I understood it from a socio-economic point of view since I was a mere teenager when I read it, but in terms of genius and mediocrity it made so much sense to me. I was, at the time, very much aware that classmates who were so naturally brilliant were constantly put down by teachers who felt threatened by them....and so The Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged made so much sense to me. I can't recall much of the love triangle or whatever it was going on there. But I do recall liking Francisco (he was quite charming, I think), and being fascinated by John Galt (the idea, not the person).

    I did not, of course, agree with her philosophy much, but I loved the way she had written this novel (and The Fountain Head).

    I'm so glad you enjoyed it!:D

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    1. Well I'm impressed you read this in school. I doubt many American H.S. are reading this. Thanks for the feedback. (Yes, Francisco was quite charming.)

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  2. Oh I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I concur with your analysis of Galt's "fireside chat". Found myself agreeding more with D'Anconia's money speech in the earlier part of the book.

    If you consider the way Rand defines love throughout the book, then it almost makes sense for Dagny to have several lovers. If I remember correctly, "love" was (more or less) the reaction/response to the praiseworthy/true characteristics of a person or thing. Rand's "real" love had no altruistic elements and was by no means unconditional. There was passion, but little sentiment. In a way, "love" could be categorized as utmost respect. And Dagny certainly felt that for all three of our leading men!

    Makes you wonder what this election could have looked like if this was required high school reading...

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    1. Yeah...I get that from Rand's perspective, Dagny's "love" for Reardon...then Francisco...then Galt makes sense...but I still found it ridiculous, particularly in how quickly she passed from one to the next. Required H.S. reading...this election...indeed...if only. Thanks for the feedback :)

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    2. BTW...I'm reading Great Expectations now, but then it's back to Rand with The Fountainhead.

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    3. The Fountainhead didn't resonate with me quite like this one. Can't wait for your review! :)

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  3. I don't often see positive reviews of this book and the reviews I've read in the past are often partly philosophical arguments that make me think I'll either not understand this one or be bored by it. However, I like what you've pointed out here, even your critique on Dagny's love life. That made me curious to see why it didn't work for you. Maybe there wasn't enough development in those relationships in such few chapters to show that they're relevant?

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    1. I didn't find it hard to understand. It's a long one, but I'd say give it a go. Thanks for the feedback.

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