I decided to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I’m just coming out of the last throws of that 1200 page illness. Rand is supremely proud of her unique achievement, the creation of a new form of book, the novel about ideas. No one had ever done this before. Everyone knows that. Plato faithfully recorded the words of Socrates. Hugo and Dickens give is fun and frivolous romps through 19th century Europe without trying to make a point. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy explore philosophical, psychological and political themes just for fun; if they had wanted to write about ideas outright, the czarist Russian autocracy would have been tickled pink and wouldn’t have even thought about sending them to Siberia for an instant. No, Rand is using a totally new literary form.
The basic plot follows the struggles of Dagny Taggert, the strong, cold, egoistic female operating manager of a railroad owned by her altruistic, charitable, and thus evil brother James. Dagny is annoyed by the repeated use of the nonsense phrase “who is John Galt?” meaning something like “that’s life, what can you do?” She works with the married metal magnate Hank Rearden to fight worker incompetence and the government’s bureaucratic blocking to build a stretch of rail and a bridge using a new alloy that is universally declared unsafe by the experts, the moochers from Washington. Everyone expects the bridge to collapse. Dagny and Hank ride in the engine of the first train to run the new line, which she decides to call the John Galt Line in defiance of convention. They spend an exhilarating day with each other, glorying in the work of their hands and stealing furtive glances at each other. As they finally pull safely into their destination, they fall into each other’s arms in what can only be described as mutual rape. But their accomplishments are undermined by new government regulations and the mysterious disappearance of every industrialist and worker who is actually reliable. And to make matters worse, vital copper supplies and resources are being disrupted by the wildly erratic business decisions of Dagny’s ex-lover, Francisco D’Anconio. Dagny is mystified by Francisco’s behavior because he is the smartest man she has ever known. He tells her that any time you are faced with an apparent contradiction, one of your premises must be wrong.
Dagny and Hank decide to take a road trip vacation, and run across an abandoned factory. While looking through the wreckage, they find the ruins of a new form of engine that runs entirely on the static electricity in the air. They immediately see the potential this engine has for revolutionizing industry and Dagny sets out on a wild goose chase to find the inventor. In the mean time, she asks an engineer to try to repair the mysterious engine. As all the great minds disappear from the earth, Dagny suddenly fears the engineer will disappear too before repairing the engine. She crosses the country to check on his progress, she is stranded on a deserted train and rents a private plane, flying it herself to the engineer’s lab, only to learn that he has border the plane of a mysterious man. She follows the mysterious plane until it disappears into what looks like the face of a mountain. She follows it and crash lands in a secret valley populated by all the great minds who have abandoned the world. She is rescued and cared for by a man who identifies himself as John Galt. She is surprised to learn that Francisco is also part of this group and that his playboy persona and destruction of his family fortune and business are part of a plan to ruin the economy. They try to convince her to join them, but she wants to continue fighting for her family’s railroad. But the economy only gets worse and worse. Finally, John Galt gives a speech on all radio frequencies telling the world in a 60 monologue that he was the one who caused the world’s motor to stop, the he and all the great thinkers, artists and industrialists are on strike, that selfishness is the only good and that charity is evil, and that they will only come back if all the moochers in Washington step aside and allow free trade. The Washington crowd find Galt through Dagny, who had begun a rather violent love affair with him, and they proceed to torture him until he’ll agree to run the economy as dictator. Their torturing is interrupted when the machinery breaks down and the technician only knows enough to operate the controls. Lying naked on the torture rack, Galt gathers enough strength to tell him how to fix it. The technician is so spooked and impressed, he runs out. The rest of the Washington men start to crack, and decide to take a break. While they’re out, the rest of the great men, led by Hank, Francisco and Dagny, rescue him and they fly off into the night as the rest of the world collapses.
One thing does set the book apart from other literature that deals with ideas: the fact that it’s so heavy handed, like the heavy hands that now clasped her shoulders, naked beneath the thin film of the blue-green blouse that seemed to accentuate the form of her body rather than conceal it. His mouth closed firmly on hers as they saw in each other’s eyes the mocking conviction that this was no more than an exchange of the commodities they had rightly earned by their hours of… Whoa, what just happened? Um, wait… What was I talking about? Oh yes, the book is just so heavy handed. Her philosophy appears naked beneath the transparent veneer of a plot line that clings to its muscular shoulders, enhancing every sinew of… Ok, get ahold of yourself… Um, yeah. So, her sexual preferences are pretty heavy handed too. Anyway, the book is a thinly veiled allegory for the dangers of collectivism and the glories of individualism and free-market capitalism. Rand champions the ideals of selfishness and contempt for “the mob.” Her heroes are all misunderstood, despised geniuses, what she calls “prime movers,” surrounded by petty, bigoted people who claim to care for others, but really only use their charity as an excuse to avoid the fact that they have no principles.
Rand was born to a Jewish family in St. Petersburg in 1905, during the push for more political freedoms that would end in the establishment of the Duma only after the unnecessary massacre of a peaceful protest. At the age of 12, she witnessed the early events of 1917 with hope, as a new liberal government began to do away with the restrictions and control that characterized the czarist autocratic reign, only to have this hope dashed as the still weak newborn government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. She would remain in the Soviet Union, witnessing the collapse of the economy, the government’s concession to free trade in the form of the New Economic Policy, and the forcing of industrialists to share their expertise, until in 1926 she would get a visa to travel to America, giving the excuse that she would study film production and return to Russia to produce Soviet propaganda.
Rand’s depiction of the collapse of the economy and society in Atlas Shrugged seems to be based on her experiences in Russia during these early years of soviet rule. She vividly portrays the growing reliance on what she calls “pull”, what Sheila Fitzpatrick would call blat, the replacement of official channels by an informal network of personal connections, patronage and nepotism. As the economy collapses, goods can only be obtained through the black market or through barter. In order to curry favor with one patron or another, much needed freight trains are commandeered for such tasks as shipping an enormous stock of grapefruit. Meanwhile, essential services are stopped do to faulty equipment and lackluster employees who have no incentive to do their best. While Rand’s depiction of a collectivized economy is fictional, it is based on and mirrors the actual conditions she left behind in Russia. But, as is often the case when people reject one extreme, her rejection of soviet collectivism leads her to glorify another extreme without admitting any flaw.
She has a Nietzschean view of man. There are only two types of man: the superman and the mob. She sees the mob as unworthy of attention. This rejection of all lesser men can be seen in Hank Rearden’s refusal to give his brother a job because that would be charity, and, perhaps more ominously, the great men’s refusal to intervene as thousands die of starvation, violence and civil war. Any intervention into the freely chosen lives of others constitutes self-immolation. Charity it evil. Love of neighbor is evil. Anything done for another person is evil. The only good is selfishness. The only good is seeking pleasure. And the only love that is real is the mutual using of one another, mutual rape.
Children rarely appear in the book. They are practically nonexistent. Dagny has love affairs with three of the main characters, but at no point is the possibility of pregnancy even mentioned. Rand, herself, had an abortion, and remained childless throughout her life, activity supporting the legalization of abortion. The book does include one woman living in the secret valley who chooses to be a mother, but it is stressed, as if her choice needs justification, that she sees her children as an investment which she fully intends to cash in on. Rand rejected the idea of the natural family supporting each other as people need to choose who they will be attached to. She took on protégées, even referring to two of her closest followers as “the children,” but this was a freely chosen relationship.
The complex love-triangle–or rather quadrangle, as it involves three men, Hank, Francisco and John Galt, and Dagny–reflects Rand’s idea that sex is an ideal, rational recognition of the value of the other, and that any truly rational man would see another man’s desire for his wife as an affirmation of her value. One thing can be said for Rand when it comes to sex: she practiced what she preached. While writing the final section of Atlas Shrugged, she and her closest protégée, Nathaniel Brandon, met with their spouses to inform them that they would be beginning an affair. It seems they were met with some objection, but Rand laid out their reasons with impeccable logic, and in the end, their spouses agreed to let them meet twice a week. Like Dagny and Hank, whose only sin was not proudly acknowledging their affair until late in the novel, Rand was unashamed of the affair. Surprisingly, Rand condemned homosexual love. One might ask, “by what right?”
Rand seems to enjoy with an almost sadomasochistic pleasure adopting terms and phrases usually used negatively. She is proud to be selfish. She openly declares that she cares only for material things. She sees love of money as her highest ideal. She sees family as an economic relationship. She believes in free love–freely taken, that is, as, like all commodities, love can never be given away freely. Her heroes take an oath never to live for the sake of an other or let anyone live for them.
Rand claims her philosophy is based on Aristotelian logic, beginning with the principle of non-contradiction, that A is A, that a thing cannot simultaneously have and not have a particular quality. But Aristotle used that logic to move beyond materialistic ends and to the metaphysical. He used it to find the first principles of things, the source and end of things, the ultimate reasons for things. Rand calls her heroes “prime movers.” But what is their basis? Where did they come from? What is their ultimate goal apart from amassing physical wealth? To repeat a line so often repeated by her characters, “by what right?” If the natural end of sex is offspring, by what right can she reduce sex to mutual pleasure seeking? If sex is just about pleasure, by what right can she reject homosexuality? Or even incest and bestiality for that matter? By what right does she condemn all forms of brotherly love and self-sacrifice? If she has really come to the world depicted in Atlas Shrugged by means of reason, as she claims, she needs to “check [her] premises!”
(My references to Rand’s personal life are derived from Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.)
There was a young Russian Ayn Rand
Whose regard for herself was quite grand
If you use analytics
To defend paralytics,
Her response will be “talk to the hand!”
There once was a man named John Galt
Who had caused the world’s motor to halt.
He had walked off the job,
Left the world to a mob
Whose excuse was “it wasn’t my fault!