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Ayn Rand and the New Gods


Of Mad Men and madmen

In the AMC series Mad Men, Bert Cooper tells Don Draper he should read Atlas Shrugged.  The episode takes place in the first season during the year 1960.  The advertising firm Sterling Cooper, of which Bert Cooper acts as senior partner and office eccentric, later accepts the Republican Party as a client for its upcoming battle with Nouveau Riche candidate John F. Kennedy.  But the Atlas Shrugged reference is telling, especially since the series has gone on to deconstruct the Greatest Generation with an Altmanesque cynicism.

The Seagram Building: the American Mount Olympus.

Joshua Glenn, a writer for the website HiLoBrow, offered a brilliant reconfiguration of the Greatest Generation.  He split it into three generations (Hardboileds, Partisans, and New Gods).  The project also explained the artificiality of periodization in pop culture histories.  Unfortunately, in cultural institutions, the Strauss & Howe-cum-Brokaw-inspired moniker “Greatest Generation” has calcified within the popular consciousness and become as immovable as a boulder and as loaded as a theological dogma.  Glenn’s periodization offers a new perspective on the generations that endured the Great Depression and fought World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War.  This brings us back to Mad Men, Madison Avenue, and Atlas Shrugged.

Builders and Inventors

While Matt and I have given the novel a relentless critical laceration, it is worthwhile to examine the historical context.  Like literary biography, it is another key to unlocking the secrets of this doorstopper’s ongoing popularity.

In Mad Men, Sterling Cooper staffs a mix of generations.  Don Draper fought in Korea and Roger Sterling fought in World War II.  The specter of war, devastation, and tyranny hang over the series, a silent menace that could mean instant nuclear obliteration.  Ayn Rand, fitting into Glenn’s schema as a member of the Partisan Generation, influences the men in the New Gods Generation.  As Glenn says, “Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, at the age of 18, [George H. W.] Bush postponed going to college and became the youngest naval aviator in the US Navy at the time; that’s so New Gods.”  (Another member of the New Gods was President Nixon, notable for his use of the “Madman Theory” in foreign policy.)

The Marshall Plan: Sometimes the government is not the problem, but the solution.  Sometimes …

The generation takes it name from the Jack Kirby comic series.  In the Fifties and Sixties, Americans had ascended into a position that one could associate with “godlike.”  Relatively unscathed from World War II’s devastations, at least compared to Europe, the United States accumulated wealth during its feverish war production.  Following the War, Americans had money to burn, both on an individual level and on a national level.  Whites migrated to the suburbs and the US government bankrolled the military-industrial complex to protect the globe.  Meanwhile the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe, paving the way to free markets and free peoples … unfortunately, it was usually in that order.

Sometimes the government is the problem.

X: I was one of those secret guys in the Pentagon that supplies the military hardware – the planes, bullets, rifles – for what we call “black operations.” – “black ops,” assassinations, coup d’états, rigging elections, propaganda, psych warfare and so forth.  World War II – Rumania, Greece, Yugoslavia, I helped take the Nazi intelligence apparatus out to help us fight the Communists.  Italy ’48 stealing elections, France ’49 breaking strikes – we overthrew Quirino in the Philippines, Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran.  Vietnam in ’54, Indonesia ’58, Tibet ’59 we got the Dalai Lama out – we were good, very good.  Then we got into the Cuban thing.  Not so good.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Even the New Gods have feet of clay.  While the CIA did the dirty work and the US acted like the Global Policeman, the world was rebuilt, at least those portions untouched by Soviet oppression.  Atlas Shrugged, stacking the deck a la X’s black ops, is about builders and inventors.  What makes the world of Mad Men unrecognizable to younger viewers is its look of newness.  New inventions kept popping up, technological advancements, and a wealthy suburban populace ready to cash in on the decades of poverty and miserliness created by economic devastation and global warfare.  The Fifties and Sixties were a sustained orgasm of conspicuous consumption.  Only when the inflation, social unrest, and cash-hunger created by Vietnam brought things to a head, did the party stop.

“When the music’s over … turn off the lights.”

Rand glorifies the builders and inventors, written in the heady atmosphere of 1957, a hothouse mélange of capitalist frenzy, McCarthyism, and Soviet expansionism.  Nevertheless, the historical record casts a different light on the situation than the Atlas Shrugged’s ostentatious utopianism.  The government made the world safe for free markets and the government provided.  The problem with Atlas Shrugged is that it reinforces the Manichean mindset that permeated the Fifties.  Evil government looters versus capitalist industrialist heroes.  Godless Communist versus Bible-believing patriot.  Republican versus Democrat.  Coke versus Pepsi.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  The delightful thing about Manichean oppositions is that it frees the individual from thinking with his or her brain.  When X = bad, choose Not-X.  It’s reductive, it’s intellectually lazy, and it’s behavioristic.  Only addicts repeat the same acts, even though they are detrimental.  Any lab rat knows that.

The anti-government hatred inspires both a hero like Hank Rearden and a domestic terrorist who flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS building.  On the other hand, the regulatory mandate of the Federal Government needs to adapt with the times.  When times are flush, the individual investor needs the freedom to take more risks.  When times are tight, investment should take an ancillary role to a more pressing need, that of personal savings.  That said, regulations are useless when legislators rubber stamp bills written by their lobbyist friends (and future campaign contributors).  Not all regulations are good and not all corporate behavior is beneficial.  The best perspective should be nuanced, examining legislation and corporate behavior on a case-by-case basis.  As the joke goes, “All generalizations are false.”  The burger-flipping philosopher Hugh Akston says that a contradiction exists when one of the premises is false.  Rand’s tendency to generalize everything (evil looters vs. Objectivist heroes) renders the novel into one huge contradiction.

Going Galt … right into a building.

The United States has yet to fully shake off the Manicheanism of Rand’s novel and the Cold War mentality.  While the polar world of the Fifties and Sixties explains why Atlas Shrugged became so popular, we do not live in those times.  Back then, there was a single enemy: the Soviet Union.  The foreign policy of today reflects a multipolar world with no center.  Instead of Soviet Party Chairmen stampeding across the Iron Curtain and imposing tyranny, our enemies are different.  Religious fanatics with dirty bomb dreams, yachting BP executives, and those whose political opposition to things stems from a fanatic adherence to ideological purity rather than common sense (this goes for nitwits who populate both the Right and Left).

Atlas Shrugged remains unique in literature for its depiction of industrialists are heroes (Cf. Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Zola, and others) and a woman engineer as a main character.  It inspired many to rail against government regulations (some of which was probably detrimental to business).  The sub-genre of “libertarian science fiction” owes a debt to Ayn Rand and her philosophy.  But freedom, liberty, and business can be taken too far (just read the works of D.A.F. de Sade to explore the outer limits of personal freedom).  Both capitalism and government regulation work well when they work within certain specific limits.  What those limits are and where they fall remain points that will be debated for eternity.

The Gods Will Have Blood

The title is from a novel by Anatole France.  The quotes below are from two very different movies, both on the New Gods gone too far.  When things go too far, the gods will demand fealty.

General Corman: Well, you see Willard… In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Ace Rothstein: [voice-over] Before I ever ran a casino or got myself blown up, Ace Rothstein was a helluva handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good that when I bet, I can change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I’m serious. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run: The Tangiers, by the only kind of guys that can get you that kind of money. Sixty-two million seven hundred thousand dollars. I don’t know all the details.
Nicky Santoro: [voice-over] Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should have been perfect. I mean he had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend watching his ass. And he had Ginger, the woman he loved on his arm. But in the end, we fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin’ valuable again.

Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

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Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Ten: Wyatt’s Torch

July 24, 2010 1 comment

Chapter X: Wyatt’s Torch

Summary: This chapter operates as a detective story, as Dagny travels the country searching for the erstwhile owners of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Along the way, she meets a rogue’s gallery of simpering weaklings, including a couple of grotesque failures in Lousiana, the vile progeny of automotive genius Jed Starnes. The brother and sister tell Dagny, to her horror, of their attempt to institute a communist regime at their father’s factory, paying the same salary to all employees and making decisions by majority vote. Of course, the experiment failed miserably, destroying the company and scattering the engineers (including the inventor of the Magical Static Electricity Engine) to the winds. The reader also learns the story of Midas Mulligan, a super genius investment banker who never lost a dime and never invested in anyone who invoked their personal need for help. Like several other stupendously talented captains of industry, Mulligan closed his bank and disappeared seven years earlier.

Even Warren Buffett had a bad day, Midas

Back in Manhattan, Jim Taggart tells Dangy about a host of new laws on the verge of passage in Washington. The looters want to cripple the Colorado renaissance by limiting the number of cars on John Galt Line trains and their speed, as well as limiting the number of trains running to Colorado to not exceed those running to neighboring, lamer states. They want to limit the production of Rearden Metal to equal output of steel. They want to give every customer in the country equal access to Rearden Metal. They want to forbid companies based in the East to relocate West (to, say, Colorado).  They want to impose a special tax on the state of Colorado (how would that even work?) Most ominously, they want to invest Wesley Mouch’s Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources with “emergency powers.” Of course, Jim is down with all this, while Dagny insists that these measures will mean the death of Wyatt Oil, Rearden Metal, and Taggart Transcontinental.

Meanwhile, Hank discovers, unsurprisingly, that Phil Larkin is screwing him, diverting iron ore to more “needy” customers and shipping the ore on railroads instead of the faster Lake Michigan water route as a favor to Jim Taggart. To make matters worse, Hank then has to contend with his tiresome, shrewish wife. Lillian Rearden has the audacity to demand that her husband of many years actually give some sort of indication that he cares about her in some way. Of course, Hank is revolted by her neediness, but he can’t truly hate her, because he knows that he has betrayed her with Dagny.

Dagny’s search for the inventor of the Magic Static Electric Engine eventually leads her to a mysterious older man in a diner in Wyoming. He’s a short order cook, but we know that he’s also one of Rand’s Elect because the hamburger he makes for Dagny is the BEST HAMBURGER OF HER LIFE. Turns out, he’s actually the famous philosopher Hugh Atkins, the one-time teacher of Franscio d’Aconia, Ragnar Dakkersjold, and a third mysterious genius, as well as an acquaintance of the brilliant young Twentieth Century Motor Company engineer who invented the Magic Static Electric Engine. Atkins doesn’t give Dagny much in the way of actionable intelligence, or explain why a world-famous philosopher is flipping burgers in Wyoming. Instead, he offers a bunch of oblique hints; just the sort of thing to help push this sucker of a thousand pages.  He also gives her a mysterious (and DELICIOUS) cigarette emblazoned with a gold dollar sign.

Dollar Bill Cigarettes: they’re toasted!

While waiting for the train Colorado, Dagny overhears that all of the dreaded economic laws earlier discussed have been passed. Dagny fears the reaction of the mercurial Wyatt, and rushes to meet him. At Wyatt Junction, she sees the brilliant fires of Wyatt’s oilfields, set ablaze. Wyatt fired them, leaving behind a board nailed to the ground marked with the words “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.” Wyatt himself has disappeared.

Dick move, Wyatt.

Reflections: Something, besides the cardboard characters, overt sermonizing and overheated prose, has been bothering me while reading this book that didn’t come into complete focus until this chapter: Atlas Shrugged should have been a science fiction novel.

I know why Rand probably didn’t want to go in that direction: science fiction is considered kiddie stuff in a lot of quarters (even moreso in the 50s, the apex of middlebrow literary fiction) and she sure wanted this book to be taken SERIOUSLY.  Also, putting her looter-driven dystopia in the distant future would made it seem like the road to serfdom will be traveled at a relaxed saunter.

More This.

But there are so many story elements of Atlas Shrugged that would be easier to accept in a sci/fi setting.  Starting with the most obvious: the damned trains.  Train travel was already obsolete when this book was first published: if it was Taggart Interstellar, with Dagny commanding a fleet of spaceships delivering people and cargo from Earth to its many colonies, that central premise would already be more acceptable.  The same goes for the breakthrough inventions that power the book: Rearden Metal and the Magic Static Electric Engine.  The mind rebels at this sort of corner-cutting in a realist setting, but takes such techno-MacGuffins for granted in science fiction.  Finally, there’s the matter of Colorado.  Rand doesn’t seem to have too firm a grasp on the relationship between state and federal governments, and the way that Colorado seems to exist as some sort of libertarian oasis in a sea of looterdom doesn’t ring true.  How is it that the federal government has snuffed innovation and achievement everywhere in the country except Colorado, letting it exist as a Wild West zone of freedom and capitalism for years?  The anti-Colorado laws that are passed in this chapter are truly odd: especially the mysterious “special tax” on the state.  You could write it off as a byproduct of the increasing power of the federal government in Rand’s dystopia, but, again, why did it take so long for the wicked feds to exert their power?  All of these questions would disappear if the center for Objectivist dynamism were some distant colonized planet in the Andromeda galaxy.  And the engine powered by static electricity would feel like much less of a reach.

Less This.

Quotes:

“If you kill Colorado, what is there going to be left for your damn looters to survive on.” –Dagny Taggart

“Midas Mulligan had once been the richest and, consequently, the most denounced man in the country. He had never taken a loss on any investment he made; everything he touched turned into gold.” He also read minds and could walk through walls. One of the appeals of Rand’s work is that it flatters the reader by putting him on the side of these sort of mega-competent heroes, but their comically oversized accomplishments often make it hard to take them seriously.  No serious, long-term investor has EVER avoided losing money once in a while.

“Dagny heard a cold, implacable voice saying somewhere within her: Remember it–remember it well—it is not often that one can see pure evil—look at it–remember–and some day you’ll find the words to name its essence…She hard it through the screaming of other voices that cried in helpless violence: It’s nothing—I’ve heard it before—I’m hearing it everywhere—it’s nothing but the same old tripe–why can’t I stand it?–I can’t stand it—-I can’t stand it!” –Dagny Taggart, losing her mind with rage while listening to Rachel Starnes talk about her failed attempt to socialize the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Dagny eventually snaps and starts slapping Starnes around until she finally gives up the name of one of her engineers who quit after the imposition of shopfloor Communism.

Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Nine: The Sacred and the Profane


Chapter IX: The Sacred and the Profane

Pages: 253 – 291

Summary: The chapter opens with Dagny and Hank giving speeches to each other.  Dagny refuses to tell Hank about her past lovers, but Hank, overcome by his primal Rearden Metal-like urges, eventually has sex with Dagny.  But Dagny avoided her true Objectivist mission, since she neglected to charge Hank any fee for their coitus.  If only she could be the virtuous hero like Bunny Lebowski.

Meanwhile, perpetual sad sack James Taggart wanders into a dime store and is forced to talk to people.  A salesgirl named Cherryl Brooks talks with James, ebullient about the success of the John Galt Line.  Cherryl, inspired by the recent events, tells James her life story.  She left her small town, filled with depressed do-nothings, and headed to the Big City for adventure and excitement.  James, not really listening, uses her presence as an excuse to whinge on endlessly about how nothing means anything and that happiness is immoral.  It turns out that Dr. Simon Pritchett asserted this philosophy in his book, The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. It’s exhausting.

In another scene, Mr. Mowen and an unnamed worker have a conversation involving the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.  Companies are leaving the East Coast and heading to Colorado, a state possessing a “primitive government” characterized by having only a police force and law courts.  (Very subtle, Miss Rand, tell us how you really feel.)  He complains about how companies fail to show any loyalty to the states they are in.  (Is this guy for real?  Well, this is before NAFTA, off-shoring, out-sourcing, and downsizing.)

Back in New York, Dagny contemplates the loss of her John Galt Line to Taggart Transcontinental, due to an agreement James made her sign.  Rearden, the metallic Nordic superhero industrialist awesome guy, remains unmoved, even amidst handing over bits of his industrial empire to incompetent looter doofs.

Dagny and Hank eventually go on vacation, wanting to escape the daily drudgeries of corporate life.  They eventually wind up in the backwoods of Wisconsin.  Dagny is horrified at the sight of a pregnant woman and a failed economy based on the barter system.  The chapter ends with the pair discovering an abandoned factory belonging to Twentieth Century Motor Company.  The company appears like it had been … wait for it … looted.  (Oh noes!)  Upon closer inspection, Dagny finds engineering plans for a motor based on static electricity.  All they need to do is find the inventor of this miracle motor.

Hello Wisconsin!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have ourselves a Quest Narrative!

[addressing the complaints about the “improper” libretto for “Figaro”]
Mozart: Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)

Observations: There’s a lot of marble-shitting in this chapter.  Lofty speech followed by lofty speech (and the occasional bit of Objectivist rough sex).  The book could have possessed a campy quality if it weren’t so damn slow.  At times, it reads like a parody of anti-communist literature.  Unfortunately, the tedious speechifying and glacial pacing kill the camp quality outright.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’d think a faster paced plot would put fewer readers to sleep.  Then again, maybe one has to be an Objectivist fanatic to find an ounce of excitement in this gray prose.

That does not mean that the content is unworthy.  Unfortunately, Rand stacks the deck is such an irritatingly obvious way, it robs the credibility of her arguments.  The reader can only see her bias, not her arguments.  The superior genius of the protagonists and the evil machinations of the enemies end up making the book dull.  No one has any depth.  Hank Rearden’s tortured-ness functions as nothing more than a pretentious contrivance.  He’s tortured, but he possesses no personality, no interior consciousness, and no inner conflict.  His philandering just comes across as comical.  Hell, the Inanimate Carbon Rod from the Simpsons had more characterization and depth.

Atlas Shrugged is worse than Plan 9 from Outer SpacePlan 9 has its own demented genius.  It is too much of a cinematic fiasco to take your eyes off it.  Poorly edited, acted, written, and directed?  Definitely.  However, the film is not boring.  Atlas Shrugged is the literary equivalent of Manos: Hands of Fate. Matt and I will do our best to act like Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, since the book is incredibly long and boring.

Torgo: This … book … is really … boring.

Did this book even have an editor?  It probably did, but Ayn, the authoritarian at heart, would have ratted out the uppity editor to the HUAC for being a Leftist.  The editor at the publishing house deserves an equal share of scorn and derision for green lighting this literary abomination on the public.  There is a decent story, full of romance and adventure, buried beneath tons and tons of pretentious speeches delivered by cardboard cutouts masquerading as characters.  The premise of Atlas Shrugged might have worked for a three hundred-page book.  It fails completely as a thousand-page doorstopper.  Page count does not equal profundity.  Not unless you’re William T. Vollmann or Norman Mailer.

Objectivist Hadith:

  • “When he threw her down on the bed, their bodies met like the two sounds that broke against each other in the air of the room: the sound of his tortured moan and of her laughter.”
  • “Somebody with a vision to see beyond his own pocketbook.”
  • “There are no absolutes – as Dr. Pritchett has proved irrefutably.  Nothing is absolute.  Everything is a matter of opinion.  How do you know that bridge hasn’t collapsed.  You only think it hasn’t.”  (Sounds like Ken Ham attempting to disprove evolution, cuz fossils and Carbon-14 dating are, like, opinion and junk.)
  • “Uncoiling from the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees.”
  • “An old woman came shuffling out at the sound of the motor.  She was bent and swollen, barefooted, dressed in a garment of flour sacking.  She looked at the car without astonishment, without curiosity; it was the blank stare of a being who had lost the capacity to feel anything but exhaustion.”  (I think I see the perfect candidate for Vice President!)

Ayn Rand contra Roy Zimmerman


Your ball, Dagny!

Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Eight: The John Galt Line

July 17, 2010 3 comments

“AMERICA LOVES SPEED. HOT, NASTY BADASS SPEED.” –Elenore Roosevelt

Chapter VIII: The John Galt Line

Summary: Eddie Willers pours his heart out to the anonymous, silent worker at the Taggart Cafeteria. These little chats are a tidy way to lay out expository dialogue with (relative) subtlety: The John Galt line is coming along well, but there’s a shortage of diesel engines, because the United Locomotive Works is bankrupt. The reader is also treated to some more of Eddie Willers’ patented self-loathing and worshipful Dagny love.

Dear Dagny, do you like me? Check ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘maybe.’  -Eddie

Dagny sits in the tiny, decrepit office of the John Galt Line, savoring the simple pleasures of railroad building and, in a weird little interlude, pining for the rough embrace of a perfect male specimen, more perfect than Francisco d’Aconia or even Hank Rearden.

Speaking of that strapping Iron Monger, Hank has to deal with the massive logistical nightmare of complying with the Equalization of Opportunity Act. He’s selling off his ore mining concern to Phil Larkin, his weak-willed and clearly untrustworthy “friend.” It’s supposed to be a paper transaction, but Hank is fully aware that Larkin can screw him over at any time. Rearden needs ore to make the Rearden Metal for the John Galt Line, and now Larkin controls his supply of ore. Larkin simpers and wheedles and whines his way through the transaction in such a way that you know with absolute certainty that he’s going to screw over Hank. After stoically handing over his ore mine, Hank has a meeting with Eddie Willers, who confesses that Taggart Transcontinental is on very shaky financial ground, and might not be able to pay Rearden on time for his Metal. Rearden instantly agrees to delay all payments until six months after the opening of the John Galt Line. Eddie is ashamed at having to ask for charity, while Hank reminds him that there’s nothing charitable about it: the success of the John Galt Line is going to prove the viability of Rearden Metal to the world.

IronMonger.jpg Iron Monger image by Zaraxion1021

“Rearden Metal Monger” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

There’s some more expository business about Orren Boyle and his government handmaidens rallying public opinion against the John Galt Line, James Taggart wetting himself in terror because of the bad publicity and the unwillingness of the engineer’s union to let their members drive trains on the Line. Dagny tells James to suck it, because every engineer at Taggart Transcontinental is volunteering to take the first locomotive into Colorado.

Dagny and Hank hold a press conference where they trumpet the imminent opening of the John Galt Line, brag about all the money they’re going to make, and pretty much tell everyone in America to suck it.

Dagny Taggart addresses the press.

And this brings us to the biggest setpiece of the book so far: a panting, delirious, near-mystical description of the maiden voyage of the John Galt Line, with Dangy and Hank riding in the engine. It’s a rapturous celebration of human achievement that’ll make you want to hug a piston.

After the inevitably triumphant arrival at Wyatt Junction, Ellis Wyatt holds a celebratory dinner at his spartan home. Afterwards, Hank and Dagny, flush with victory, succumb to their desires and have some more of that patented Ayn Rand rough sex.

Observations: The centerpiece of this chapter is the multi-page description of Hank and Dagny’s triumphant journey on the John Galt Line.  It’s a piece of writing that illustrates why the book has managed to maintain such a following over the years, and also why it’s such a punishing slog to read if you’re not on Rand’s wavelength.

Given all the grueling obstacles Rand has placed in the paths of Dagny and Hank, their successful trip to Wyatt Junction is a moment of pure triumph.  If the reader identifies at all with Rand’s protagonists at this point, it’s impossible not to feel some the giddy rush of accomplishment Dagny and Hank feel.  Especially considering the torrent of prose Rand unleashes in describing it.  Five plus pages of churning engines, billowing smoke, thrumming rails, screaming whistles; it’s a raw poetry of speed, power and action.

“Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Ayn Rand, you better watch your speed.”

All of this rhapsodic description is interspersed, however, with long, dry reflections on the part of Dagny, while she ruminates on the nature of human achievement and the symbolic importance of machine power.  It’s not so much the sentiment that’s tedious as the presentation.  Rand’s protagonists don’t interact with the world, or each other, in any significant way.  They simply observe, and then expound to themselves  (and the unfortunate reader) in long internal monologues.  I guess this is appropriate given the radical solipsism of Rand’s philosophy, but there’s no denying that it makes for objectively bad fiction writing.  The characters simply bounce off of one another, isolated globes of self-righteous certainty.  I don’t care if you think every word is a bolt of pure truth, it’s still boring. It lacks the fundamental interpersonal frisson that powers compelling literature.  I’ll admit I have a hard time taking Objectivism seriously, but at least it approximates the form of a coherent life philosophy.  Anyone claiming that Atlas Shrugged works as a novel, on the other hand, get’s instantly put on the shelf with people who think Battlefield Earth is one of the great works of world literature.

The difference between L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand: Hubbard’s cult controls Hollywood, Rand’s cult controls Washington.

Quotes:

“To find a feeling that would hold , as their sum, as their final expression, the purpose of all the things she loved on earth…To find a consciousness like her own, who would be the meaning of her world, as she would be of his…No, not Francisco d’Aconia, not Hank Rearden, not any man she had ever met or admired…A man who existed only in her knowledge of her capacity for an emotion she had never felt, but would have given her life to experience…”–

“Eddie, what do we care about people like him? We’re driving an express, and they’re riding on the roof, making a lot of noise about being leaders. Why should we care? We have enough power to carry them along–haven’t we?” –Hank Rearden

“Miss Taggart says—quote–I expect to make a pile of money on the John Galt Line. I will have earned it. Close quote. Thank you very much.” –Dagny Taggart

“Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?–she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”–like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshiped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.”

In honor of Ayn Rand, all wood-based erectile euphemisms should be replaced with metallic ones.

Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Seven: The Exploiter and the Exploited


Someone read Anthem and loved it.

Eddie Valiant: So that’s why you killed Acme and Maroon? For this freeway? I don’t get it.
Judge Doom: Of course not. You lack vision, but I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Chapter VII: The Exploiter and the Exploited

Pages: 162 – 216

Summary: Back out West, Dagny has to deal with more business things.  Working with Rearden Metal gives Dagny no end to her troubles, since Summit Casting of Illinois has gone bankrupt.  It was the only company willing to work with the allegedly controversial metal.  Finding supervisors to work with the metal proves another stumbling block.  But she will find a way.  Oh, yes she will.  Nobody puts Dagny in a corner.

In Colorado, she meets Hank again and they have another business meeting.  Since Dagny has been having trouble building her bridge with Rearden Metal, Hank agrees to build the entire bridge out of the metal.  Not only would the bridge be stronger, it would also be less expensive.  Then he gives her a ride on his private plane to New York, since Dagny has to attend a business meeting with the perpetual screw-up James, her brother.

James Taggart

Dagny and James argue on their way to the New York Business Council meeting.  James tells her how public opinion is against the use of Rearden Metal because it might pose a threat to public safety.  Then he tells her how she’s going to debate Bertram Scudder, the topic: Is Rearden Metal a lethal product of greed?  Dagny, indignant, walks out on James.

She ends up in an automat and has a philosophical discussion with a bum.  Meanwhile Hank has a heated discussion with Dr. Potter from the State Science Institute.  He argues that the economy, since it is in a delicate state of equilibrium, would not be able to withstand the introduction of Rearden Metal.  Since Hank’s innovation would cause competing steel companies to lose business and by extension feel bad about themselves, it would be a bad thing.  (Ironically, in reality, businesses said the same thing when the State had the gall to mandate against the use of child labor.)

Dagny then heads to New Hampshire to meet Dr. Robert Sadler.  Dr. Sadler and Dagny argue, much like Hank and Potter, with Sadler unable to give a definite opinion on the goodness of Rearden Metal.  Dr. Sadler is a scientific genius who wrote a treatise on cosmic rays when he was twenty-seven.  He said to a student: “Free scientific inquiry?  The first adjective is redundant.”  He also said men are greedy, vicious dollar-chasers, but Dagny tells him she is a greedy dollar-chaser.

If you consider Atlas Shrugged a philosophical novel, I bet you believe in unicorns too.

During this conversation, Dr. Sadler tells Dagny he had three brilliant students when he was professor at Patrick Henry University: Fransisco d’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjöld and a “third one” who achieved no distinction.  (Gee, I wonder who that could be?  Maybe the anonymous guy Eddie Willers keeps talking to in the Taggart corporate cafeteria?)

So much for foreshadowing.

Dagny Taggart, sick of the run-around with Taggart Transcontinental, decides to resign, leaving Eddie as Acting Vice-President, to start her own railroad line.  She decides to name it the John Galt Line.  Instead of despair, the line will symbolize hope.

Meanwhile Hank argued with his mother about giving his no-account screw-up brother a job.  Hank thinks it would be a fraud while his mother wants Philip to have a job so he can feel better about himself.  (Reminds me of the movie Tommy Boy.)

Philip Rearden: brother, looter, jackass.

Hank Rearden then has a conversation with Mr. Ward of Ward Harvester Company of Colorado.  During the conversation, his secretary, the calm Gwen Ives, tells them that the Equalization of Opportunity bill passed.  (What next?  Death panels to kill grandma?  The government providing up-armored Humvees for soldiers?  The gall of these assholes!)

Historical Note: Brown vs. Board of Education legalized integration in 1954.  Atlas Shrugged came out in 1957.  The Brown case wanted to equalize opportunity for students regardless of skin color.

Observations: In the previous post, Matt mentioned that Ayn Rand was like Thomas Pynchon in her ridiculous character names.  Pynchon’s fiction is concerned with entropy and randomness (among many other things), yet in Atlas Shrugged we get a world where economic entropy has become the norm.  Money has stopped moving, at least from consumer to producer, and this has spilled over into the consciousness of man, creating an apathetic creature unwilling to work.  It should be noted that the Great Depression was both an era of economic devastation and a psychological experience.  Many people had no jobs and no food along with a feeling of depression and despair.

Encouraging laziness among the looter class or saving capitalism from itself.

But Atlas Shrugged is not reality.  Far from it.  While Rand wrote about creating a novel that focuses on idealized versions of mankind (the industrial awesomeness of Hank Rearden, the railroad genius of Dagny Taggart, etc.), the novel is not so much about philosophical ideals as much as a modern fable.  The problem is: fables tend to be a little shorter than 1100 pages.  The characters in fables are also more subtly drawn.  Characters in fables tend to have at least two-dimensions.  Rand gives us straw men and caricatures and less-than-one dimensional heroes.  While Atlas Shrugged can be read as a takedown of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (another epic), it comes across as a poorly executed and highly overwrought screed.  The arguments lose their power due to the shrillness.  When the demands of an extended philosophical critique and a fable collide, it comes across as, ironically, a train wreck.

Math problem: Patch Adams minus jokes equals Atlas Shrugged.

Another telling feature is how the state-sponsored institutions and the legislature sound like a caricature of today’s Corporate America.  Rand waxes rhapsodic about how innovation, invention, and daring create better, cheaper products for consumers.  General Motors and other American car companies have created their own anti-dog-eat-dog mentality, crushing innovations as far back as Tucker’s safety features and the electric car.  With our crumbling infrastructure, inefficient motor vehicles, and government-corporate collusion, rail may be a means of liberation.  Unfortunately, in the real world, creating a decent rail system will take a creative partnership between private corporations, the government, and labor.

How big corporations kill innovation and then use those same innovations decades later.

Another solution to our oil addiction and poor foreign policy decisions is the adoption of the electric car as a regular mode of transport.  One of the more fascinating companies producing electric cars is Aptera.  Personally, I would love to see the roads filled with Apteras, Priuses, and Teslas.  Too bad Big Oil’s strangehold on Big Government – remember all those Ayn Rand-lovin’ pro-business conservatives defending British Petroleum? – will prevent electric cars from becoming a common reality.  At least for now.

Fuel cost: $1.  Car cost: $25 – 30K.  Ending our foreign oil addiction: Priceless.

Quotes from Scripture™:

  • “Down the track, she could see men working, their arms stiff with the tension of their muscles as they gripped the handles of electric tie tampers.”
  • “Do you know that the stuff [Rearden Metal] won’t melt under less than four thousand degrees?”  (Steel melts at 2500°F.  Apparently, plasma cutters weren’t included in the operating budget, since they weren’t invented yet.)
  • “She saw the disjointed notations he had made, a great many figures, a few rough sketches.”  (A good capsule review of this attempt at narrative.)

  • “Damn these streets!”  James Taggart.
  • “You are using ugly, unnecessary words, Mr. Rearden.”  State Science Institute man to hero Hank Rearden.  He’s also describing Ayn Rand’s writing “style.”
  • This classic exchange:

“They are greedy, self-indulgent, predatory dollar-chasers who –”
“I am one of the dollar-chasers, Dr. Sadler.”

(When does Sauron show up?  Seriously, the last black-and-white, good-vs.-evil battle I read that was this earnest at least had some orcs thrown in.)

Ayn Rand’s capitalism is sort of like this.

  • “To reduce you [Dagny] to a body, to teach you an animal’s pleasure, to see you need it, to see you asking me for it, to see your wonderful spirit dependent upon the obscenity of your need.”  Hank Rearden thinking to himself.  (Ewwww …)

Marty DiBergi: “This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within.  The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted.  They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”
Nigel Tufnel: That’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?

Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Six: The Non-Commercial

July 12, 2010 2 comments

Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial

Poor, henpecked Hank Rearden is being forced to attend his own wedding anniversary party by his awful wife, even though he’s got a bunch of metallic problems to deal with and a recently proposed “Equalization of Opportunity” bill, which would ban any person from owning more than one business, to worry about.  But Hank is so devoted to pretending to give a toss about his wife and her pathetic life that he slaps on a tuxedo and a grimace and goes out to glad hand with her friends.  And of course, these people are a singularly vile bunch of pompous, life-hating weasels, all of them dripping with scorn for Hank’s business prowess and the very notion of success, achievement or basic human decency.  These characters, like the “philosopher” Dr. Pritchett, the literary mountebank Balph (seriously?) Eubank, and the anti-corporate muckracker Bertram Scudder, are walking mouthpieces for every modern philosophical and literary idea that Rand hates.  Well, they’re mouthpieces for a comically distorted versions of said ideas, anyway.   After running this gauntlet of looters, Hank finally meets Francisco d’Aconia, whom he despises for his playboy fecklessness.  Francisco offers some cryptic evidence that his image may be hiding something deeper. He also seems to be assessing Hank’s character and worldview.  Dagny is also at the party, hoping to spend a little quality time bantering with her crush, but Hank is having none of it.  Mrs. Rearden makes a big show of denigrating the Rearden Metal chain Hank has made for her and claims that she would gladly sell it if anyone on earth would want to buy it.  This gets under Dagny’s skin and she trades her diamond bracelet for the Rearden Metal one.  Hank is not pleased.

After the party, Hank spends a few awkward moments in his wife’s bedroom (they sleep in separate rooms) and reflects on his horrible marriage.  He doesn’t know why she married him, given her clear hatred for him, but he does know why he married her: his base, animal need for sex.  Hank has some hang-ups in the bedroom, it seems, and feels like a slave to immoral pleasures of the flesh.  At the same time, “(h)is hatred of his own desire had made him accept the doctrine that women were pure and that a pure woman was one incapable of physical pleasure.”  Yikes.

Observations:

Chapter Six is basically just a bonfire of straw men.  There’s a bit of plot advancement, what with the introduction of this ominous “Equalization of Opportunity” bill as well as some information about the dread pirate Ragnar Danneskjold, who has been terrorizing the People’s States of Europe.

Ragnar the Pirate, Scourge of the Looters


The main purpose, though, is to give voice and body to all the evil, corrupt intellectual and literary ideologies that have paved the road to serfdom.  As usual, Rand stacks the deck by putting the words of her enemies in the mouth of a collection of lumpy, preening jerkwads, foremost among them the absurdly named Balph Eubank.  At the Rearden’s anniversary party, Eubank endorses the idea of a literary equivalent of the proposed “Equalization of Opportunity” bill, by which authors would be banned from selling more than ten thousand copies of a given book.  He also thinks that the only thing to live for is ‘brother-love.’  It’s difficult to take this chapter seriously as a critique of post-modernism since Rand’s contempt shapes her characterization of these views.  Rand’s Manichean worldview prevents her from even trying to credit her opponents with good faith.  These villains deny the reality of “morality,” but at the same time demand the expropriation of the rich for the good of the poor.  Using what rationale?  None is offered, because Rand doesn’t think such views deserve the kind of scrutiny that would put such views in a meaningful context.  But for the record, we should definitely NOT limit the number of books an author could sell.  Although John Grisham should probably give it a rest already.

From the Devil’s Own Mouth:

“The literature of the past was a shallow fraud.  It whitewashed life in order to please the money tycoons whom it served.  Morality, free will, achievement, happy endings, and man as some sort of heroic being–all that stuff is laughable to us.” –Balph Eubank.  Okay, SOME of that stuff was probably considered passe by the literary lights of the post-war era, but “morality” and a term as nebulous and loaded as “achievement?” Only if your name is Balph.

“Hunger won’t wait.  Ideas are just hot air.  An empty belly is a solid fact.  I’ve said in all my speeches that it’s not necessary to talk too much.  Society is suffering from lack of business opportunities at the moment, so we’ve got the right to seize such opportunities as exist.  Right is what’s good for society.”  –Claude Slagenhop, president of Friends for Global Progress.

Slagenhop? Balph?  This raises a question: who wins in the ridiculous-character-name-off, Rand or Thomas Pynchon?

“Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature.” –Balph Eubank

“Just as logic is a primitive vulgarity in philosophy.” –Dr. Pritchett

“Just as melody is a primitive vulgarity in music.” — Mort Liddy

Lines like these don’t serve to establish an opposing ethos, they just tell the reader what constitutes a virtue in the Rand-iverse.  These moral and intellectual charlatans hate plot, logic and melody; you know what side Rand (and Objective reality) is on.