Archive for November, 2010

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter I: Atlantis

Time to bring on the Awesome!


Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter I: Atlantis

Pages: 701 – 750

John Galt

Summary: Dagny meets John Galt.  Awaking from her plane crash-induced slumber, she is rescued by John Galt.  But not after describing John Galt’s physical attributes for several pages in terms that border on religious ecstasy.  It made me feel like God to read it.  God from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

“Get on with it!”

Thus opens a chapter chock full of Big Reveals, Pay-offs, and Philosophical Puffery.  Galt tells Dagny she crashed because she was fooled by a visual projection.  After helping her into a car driven by none other than Midas Mulligan, he gives her a tour of Mulligan’s Valley, otherwise known as Galt’s Gulch.  During this thinly veiled attempt at exposition, she sees other “destroyers” who left their businesses.  Now they are working menial jobs and heartily enjoying themselves.  Extracting oil from shale is also witnessed, because the looters have got their hands on Wyatt’s light sweet crude.  Dagny also sees a three-foot tall solid gold dollar sign, Francisco D’anconia’s idea of a joke.  She also sees the Mulligan Mint and the tiny solid gold and silver coins it produces.

The sequence reaches its climax when Galt shows her his power plant that runs on static electricity.  He also shows her that she cannot enter it.  This is because it has doors operating on voice recognition machinery.  Galt repeats the oath inscribed above the doors and the doors open.

Now requiring a cane for walking, Dagny attends a dinner populated by the former “destroyers.”  They give speeches that awe Dagny, even though they are basically Objectivist boilerplate.

Composer Richard Halley begins:

Judge Narragansett continues:

Midas Mulligan chimes in:

Then John Galt uncorks a speech, short, damn near microscopic by Rand’s standards:

Hugh Akston adds in:

Dr. Hendricks talks about the evils of state-run medicine:

And Quentin Daniels has his say:

In the end, each tells of a new world-saving technology or idea, but since they are on strike, they refuse to share it with the outside world.

They offer her a choice that she is free to choose.  The chapter ends, cliffhanger-like, with Galt escorting her to a room ironically named “the Torture Chamber” to contemplate her choice.


Reading Atlas Shrugged felt a lot like this.

Well, this is it folks.  We’re finally into Part III: A = A, Tautologies Gone Wild!  I understand it isn’t summer anymore.  The objective reality proves the fact.  Unfortunately, for the Objectivist True Believers, apparently we’re still fighting the Cold War.  Maybe we can send them a care package, since they are in the same ideological desert island as the Japanese soldier who still thinks he’s fighting the Second World War.  It is reminiscent of unreconstructed Communists pining for the Good Ole Days under Stalin.  Too much nostalgia is never a healthy thing.

Tea Party Patriots, Russian-style.

There will be a slight change-up in format.  While one of us will take the appropriate chapter summary, both of us will comment on the chapter.  And hopefully we can get this done by next summer.  (Potential reading selection: Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.)

After hundreds of pages, the reader finally sees the flipside to Rand’s criticisms.  A place beyond criticism.  A place without pain.  Utopia.  Rand has it both ways now, exposing the agonies and idiocies of the Looter Dystopia and the glories and pleasures of the Objectivist Atlantis.  Rand is not the first philosopher to develop a fictional paradise.  Plato wrote The Republic and populated it with a ruling caste of philosopher-kings.  Thomas More wrote Utopia in the 16th century.  A more ambivalent example is Aldous Huxley’s society of hierarchy and numbed pleasure, Brave New World.  The Scots science fiction writer Iain Banks explores the limits of post-scarcity anarchist socialism in his Culture series of novels.  And one would be remiss to neglect mentioning the strong strain of libertarian science fiction.  So when Rand is called a utopian, this is not a criticism.  A utopian setting provides opportunities for the writer to show what society would be like if her philosophical precepts were followed to a degree and with a purity impossible in everyday reality.  (Doing so in a chapter laden with zero-dimensional characters repeating speeches we’ve read before … that’s a criticism.)

Rand does succeed in one case with her anarcho-capitalist utopia.  One word forbidden in Galt’s Gulch is “give.”  Good thing, because I could give less of a crap about these characters.  Although calling them characters is too charitable by half, since they all sound like Ayn Rand.  Agitprop ventriloquism for third-rate boardroom philosophers.

Because this chapter had a lot of material to deal with, I’ll be focusing on three specific topics with Sidebars.

Religious Sidebar

Rand spends a lot of page space describing the physical attributes of one John Galt.  For a philosophy premised on rationality and standing in opposition to supernaturalism, the opening passage came across as naked hagiography.  John Galt seemed like a combination of Warren Buffett, Thomas Edison, Alexander the Great, Confucius, Jesus, and Macho Man Randy Savage.

Throughout the chapter Rand uses terms associated with either organized religion or its close parallel, the cult of personality.  It sounds like North Korean Communists praising Kim Il-Sung.  Perhaps a paragraph or two describing Galt is an understandable fanservice, but this was ridiculous.  And contradictory.  And off-putting.

North Korean hero Kim Jong Galt.

Despite having the usual qualms about the philosophical content of the chapter, the tone was far more aggravating.  Ayn Rand writes with an unbridled preachiness that puts her with similar American writers … Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Billy Graham.

John Galt’s quest to “stop the engine of the world” seemed very similar to William F. Buckley’s famous call to arms from National Review in 1955: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

The religious tone is not that surprising, since Rand writes with the liturgical cadences found in other personality cults.  Since this novel uses all the heavy-handed pedestrian tactics of Soviet Socialist Realism, one finds that only the content has changed.  The Individual has been substituted for the Collective and trains have been substituted for tractors.  It’s a brilliant reversal of the Stalinist personality cult.

An Objectivist cathedral.

In keeping with the liturgical atmosphere, Dagny can only witness the Miracle Motor working when she says the Oath in a genuine, authentic way.  In the novel she looks upon “an ancient temple (the power plant) – and she knew what rite was the proper form of worship to be offered on an altar of that kind.”  Temple?  Worship?  Rite?  Altar?  So much for the ferocious atheism Rand espouses.

Certain religions, fraternal organizations, and political movements rely on a system of controlled access.  Dagny lacks the prerequisites to become an Objectivist Grand Master.  One only hopes the Rearden Metal Decoder Ring™ isn’t too expensive.

But like any deviational proletarian in a Communist Utopia, she requires re-education.  (Read: longwinded speeches by idealized stereotypes.)  The speeches at dinner are nothing but this.  While some would see this as a personal validation of their heroic Objectivism, it plays like a bully saying to a weakling, “Stop hitting yourself.  Stop hitting yourself.”

Ironically, in this novel that fetishizes hard work and industriousness, the Objectivist philosophy elucidated in these speeches comes across as entirely unearned (at least in the narrative sense).  The parade of straw men, the absurd storyline that bears no relation to reality, the remedial worldbuilding, and the complete lack of characterization make Dagny’s entrance into Galt’s Gulch a Pyrric victory.

The constant hammering for rationality veers towards idolatry.  Objectivism is rational in the same way the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is democratic, for the people, and a republic.  (For those playing the home game, it’s actually a sclerotic hereditary monarchy that mistakes a delusional messiah complex for Communist orthodoxy.)  Just because one parrots the line “Objective reality” enough times, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Like a religion or personality, it also tries to weave its disparate strands into a Unified Field Theory.  In the chapter, Objectivism is seen as a moral philosophy, science, personal code, and interior design aesthetic (Bauhaus meets Frank Lloyd Wright).  However, since this is a utopian text, everyone can follow this philosophy perfectly and it all works out in the end.

The final bit of religiosity of Objectivism is in the Surgical Guilt Trip.  Following the epic speeches by the Objectivist Heroes, Dagny is given a choice.  She can convert to Objectivism or not.  Technically, the characters are indifferent about the matter.  They are happy in their anarcho-capitalist commune.  It tries to have it both ways, being proselytizing and not.  (Oddly contradictory, eh?)  Given Rand’s heavy-handed methodology (see above), the reader would absolutely have to adopt the Objectivist philosophy.  This is true, since all those who oppose the strong, muscular, innovative, hardworking, attractive Objectivist Heroes are weak, flabby, college-reeking, intellectual, neurotic, nihilist, moral relativist Looter scum.  (It is a provocative and mature perspective on the matter.)

The Either-Or mindset goes berserk when Objectivism is criticized as irrational by the same people that criticize the obvious shortcomings of Soviet state planning.  (I’m one of them.  Communism is crap.  So is Objectivism.  Learn to deal with it.)

In summary, for a novel so adamantly against the irrationalities and superstitions of religion, it comes across as really preachy.

Technological Sidebar

Almost makes the annexing Poland thing and the David Hasselhoff thing forgivable.

This brings us to the VW L1, a futuristic concept car with ridiculously good fuel economy.  One of the fascinating aspects of Atlas Shrugged is its look at technological change.  Despite its clunky name, Rearden Metal signifies how technological progress can become a society-changing activity.  In 2002, Volkswagen released the L1 (meaning 1-litre) concept car.  This compact vehicle was made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber, but also boasted incredible fuel efficiency (1.36L/100 km or 208 mpg).  It will go into limited production in 2012.

Then again, Germany has socialized health care and strict environmental regulations.

This is instructive, since Atlas Shrugged has the characters whining endlessly about regulations and losing money.  In the real world, Germany has spun the straw of environmental regulations into the gold of automotive innovation.  (Additionally, since the company wasn’t saddled with paying employee health care, it had more money to invest in research and development and employee salaries.)

Not to be outdone, Japan recently introduced the Nissan Leaf, a car boasting similar fuel efficiencies.  The United States, half a decade behind in hybrid car technology, will probably react by rebooting another nostalgia brand a la Mustang or Camaro, accuse consumers of anti-Americanism, and ask for another bail-out.

Military Sidebar

Another thing Galt’s Gulch lacks is a military or a police force.  Since Rand’s anarcho-capitalist utopia is full of well-behaved and industrious citizens, neither police nor military is necessary.  But considering how much stress is placed on Galt’s oath of individuality, one wonders how long this community will last if there is an invasion?  The military ethos is about protecting your fellow soldier.  Galt’s oath is “Every man for himself.”  It remains difficult to square that circle.

If it’s one thing the Greatest Generation has taught us, it’s “Every man for himself!”

It is a truism that an army marches on its stomach.  This feeds back to the Technological Sidebar.  The individual soldier remains well fed with MRIs, but the modern demands of the military have involved the US military going against the truism.  Instead of soldiers marching on foot, the truism should be applied to the vehicles in which the soldiers travel.

Military planners and weapons designers need to make energy efficiency part of their design brief.  This is not because of any environmental issues per se, but because efficient weapons win wars.  A military without a dependency on oil is a staggering prospect.  Apart from small-scale weapons like unmanned drones, energy efficiency has only had limited application.  Two cases are nuclear powered ships and the turbine engine in the M1 Abrams main battle tank.  One of the main memes throughout the War on Terror has been the primitivism of Afghanistan.  The same can be applied to the US military’s overreliance on outdated and inefficient transportation technologies.  While the spy satellites and communications systems are new and effective, our vehicles have gas mileage as bad as a 1954 Chrysler sedan.  Maybe our foreign policy would be a lot more useful if our weapons systems didn’t get 4 miles to the gallon?

Another aspect of militarism espoused during the Cold War was that all military innovation occurred in industrial democracies.  The truth is our missile and space programs benefited from the Germans we used.  Likewise for the Soviets who used their own Germans for the same purposes.  One should remember that Nazi Germany invented jet technology.  Military innovation isn’t a democratic monopoly.

The free market isn’t the only route to technological innovation.  Tyranny and conquest work too.

During the twilight years of the Soviet Union, military designers came up with the ekranoplan.  A massive vehicle with similarities to seaplanes and hovercrafts, it hovered above the water and traveled several hundred miles an hour.  It flew just below radar height.  Some versions even possessed missile launchers.  A nightmare to Pentagon military experts.  Luckily, the Soviet Union withered and died before these frightening things could ever be used offensively.  Luckily, the free market Russian Republic is now able to sell ekranoplans to any international terrorist with enough pocket change.  (Unfortunately, the Cold War kept things simple.  A worldwide free market and fragmentary political alliances have made things trickier.)

“It’s a boat!  It’s a plane!  It’s a — are those missiles?”

“You just don’t get it, do ya Scott?”

Stray quotes taken out of context by someone who doesn’t get it:

  • “The angular planes of his cheeks made her think of arrogance, of tension, of scorn – yet the face had none of these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it.”  “Ruthless innocence”?  WTF?  This movie clip has lots of ruthless innocence.
  • “[T]he place had the primitive simplicity of a frontiersman’s cabin, reduced to essential necessities, but reduced with a super-modern skill.”  Objectivism as an interior design aesthetic.  Like feng shui, but with more innocent ruthlessness.
  • “He had brought an object she had never seen before: a portable X-ray machine.”
  • “But that tractor has cut an eight-hour workday down to four –”  Know any farmers with four-hour workdays?
  • “I merely got fed up with the job of running a slaughter house, where one drains blood out of healthy living beings and pumps it into bloodless half-corpses.” – Midas Mulligan.  Um, that’s not how a slaughter house works.  That’s how a blood bank works.  Er … “My business is blood transfusions.” – Midas Mulligan, at the beginning of the paragraph.  If you want to know how a slaughter house works, ask this architect:
  • “What we are now asked to worship, what had once been dressed as God or king, is the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the Incompetent.” – John Galt.
  • “I saw him lying at the foot of an altar, with his blood running down into the earth – and what stood on that altar was Lee Hunsacker, with the mucus-filled eyes, whining that he never got his chance …”  How Lovecraftian in its overwrought awfulness.
  • “The purpose for which I had chosen my work, was my resolve to be a guardian of justice.  But the laws they asked me to enforce made me the executor of the vilest injustice conceivable.”  — Judge Narragansett.  Judges do not enforce the law; they interpret it.  The unpleasantness during the Civil Rights Era erupted because the Southern states refused to enforce what the Supreme Court interpreted as the law.
  • “Please tell me your reasons,” she said, with a faint stress of firmness in her voice, as if she were taking a beating, but wished to take it to the end.  (“Baby, hit me one more time.” – Objectivist American Princess™ Britney Spears.)

I guess I wasn’t put on this Earth “to get it” …


Atlas Summer: Part III: A = A

Atlas Summer: Part III: A = A

All propositions of logic are of equal rank; there are not some which are essentially primitive and others deduced from there.

Every tautology itself shows that it is a tautology.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), 6.127

“Circular logic is where one bullshit argument is proven by another bullshit argument until your original argument is proven by itself.”

Encyclopedia Dramatica

“You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”

L. Ron Hubbard

The idea that America (or any country) values individuality as the highest ideal is a cheap mythEverybody’s an individualist, but they don’t like individuals.  Perhaps in simpler times it was true, but no modern industrial deathkulture can really afford a population of unpredictables.

The Book of the SubGenius by J.R. “Bob Dobbs”

Tobias: You know, mother Lucille, there’s a psychological concept known as denial that I believe you’re evincing. It’s when a thought is so hateful that the mind literally rejects it.

Lucille: You are a worse psychiatrist than you are a son-in-law, and you will never get work as an actor because you have no talent.

Tobias: Well, if she’s not going to say anything, I certainly can’t help her.

Arrested Development

Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter Ten: The Sign of the Dollar

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter Ten: The Sign of the Dollar

Summary: Chapter Ten finds Dagny making her way across the country to intercept Quentin Daniels, on his way to Colorado.  Along the way, the conductor finds a tramp hiding in Dagny’s quarters and Dagny makes the very un-Randian decision to let him ride for free.  You’d think that someone as hostile to looting in all its forms as Dagny would never offer a free ride to some hobo, but because of the way he grabs his bindle (he has a “sense of property!”), she shows an uncharacteristic amount of sympathy for a downtrodden transient.  It’s a good thing, too, because in a wildly improbable turn of events, this homeless gentleman, Jeff Allen, was present during the catastrophic reign of the Starnes siblings at Twentieth Century Motors.  Not only that, he was at the company meeting when a defiant young engineer named John Galt walked away for society, vowing to “stop the motor of the world.”  Wow, it’s a good thing that guy happened to find Dagny’s train car.  Unless Allen is some sort of agent of Galt’s, sent to prepare her for the revelation of his grand design, that is unforgivably lazy plotting, especially for a book that has twelve hundred pages to work with.

Jeff Allen, gentleman of the road and anti-looter.

The next morning, Dagny wakes to find the train stopped and deserted by its crew. She happens to meet Owen Kellogg, her former co-worker, who offers some enigmatic words and taunts her by displaying a pack of the Dollar Sign brand cigarettes.  After a punishingly long phone call with an incompetent railway worker that reads like a deeply unfunny Abbott and Costello routine, Dagny walks to an airfield, buys a plane and makes her way to Afton, Colorado. There, she’s informed that she just missed Quentin Daniels, who had been picked up by a different airplane a mere few hours previously.  Dagny is not the type to give up easily, of course, so she takes off again in search of the mysterious ship carrying Daniels.  Somehow, she manages to catch up to it and follow the plane into a mysterious valley.  Upon sight of the valley, Dagny is hit with a blinding light and her engine dies.  The chapter ends as her powerless airplane tumbles toward the ground.

Keep up with the positive waves, Dagny!

Observations: This chapter is dominated by two devices that would get most people laughed out of a freshman creative writing seminar: insanely long monologues and ridiculously convenient coincidences.  Dagny’s chance meeting with Jeff Allen, who holds the key to John Galt’s origin as well as an eye witness description of the evils of a command economy, strains credulity.  It doesn’t help that Allen’s five page screed simply reiterates every criticism of Communism Rand has been making for seven hundred pages.  There is not a single new observation in the entire Allen soliloquy.  It’s excruciating to read, but it sheds light on how Objectivists deflect criticism by claiming that their critics don’t “get” their philosophy.  There are only a few key points, but they’re larded in so much unnecessary verbiage that only the true believer would ever slog through it all.  As such, it’s a snap to dismiss anyone who isn’t masochist enough to read every work Rand ever wrote as being insufficiently informed to make a judgement.  The philosophy may be wooly-headed nonsense, but expressing it in such a way as to gives its followers an unearned sheen of intellectual sophistication while also rendering itself invulnerable to criticism…you’ve got to give Rand credit for that trick.


“He had pulled himself up on his feet, he was looking indifferently at the black hole open upon miles of uninhibited wilderness where no one  would see the body or hear the voice of a mangled man, but the only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small, dirty bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train.  It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions —the gesture of a sense of property—that made her feel an emotion like a sudden, burning twist within her. ‘Wait,’ she said.”  Wow, it’s a good thing the dude kept his collar spiffy or Dagny (and the readers) would never have known about Twentieth Century Motors’ employment policies!

‘Do you know how it worked, that plan, and what it did to people?  Try pouring water into a tank where there’s a pipe at the bottom draining it out faster than you can pour it, and each bucket you bring breaks that pipe an inch wider, and the harder you work the more is demanded of you, and you stand slinging buckets forty hours a week, then forty-eight, then fifty-six–for your neighbor’s supper–for his wife’s operation–for his child’s measles–for his mother’s wheel chair–for his uncle’s shirt–for his nephew’s schooling–for the baby next door–for the baby to be born–for anyone anywhere around you–it’s theirs to receive, from diapers to dentures–and yours to work, from sunup to sundown, month after month, year after year, with nothing to show for it but your own sweat, with nothing in sight for you but their pleasure, for the whole of your life, without rest, without hope, without end…From each according to his ability, to each according to his need…”  –Jeff Allen.  So, the buckets of water are paying for wheelchairs? And measles?  I lost track of the metaphor about half an hour in.

“There is no rate of exchange, Miss Taggart.  No amount of physical –or spiritual–currency, whose sole standard of value is the decree of Mr. Wesley Mouch, will buy these cigarettes.” –Owen Kellogg.  Again with the goldbuggery. Owen demands five cents in gold for a cigarette pack, but who the hell decides what five cents worth of gold is?

“You’re going to help now.”

“Nobody told me to.”

I’m telling you to!”

“How do I know whether you’re supposed to tell me or not?  We’re not supposed to furnish any Taggart crews.  You people were to run with your own crews.  That’s what we were told.”

“But this is  an emergency!”

“Nobody told me anything about an emergency.”

Third base!

“Her arms pulling at the wheel, with no chance to know whether she could succeed, with her space and time running out–she felt, in a flash of its full, violent purity, that special sense of existence which had always been hers.  In a moment’s consecration to her love–to her rebellious denial of disaster, to her love of life and of the matchless value that was herself–she felt the fiercely proud certainty that she would survive.”  I’ll give it to Dagny: I don’t love myself nearly enough to think anything like that during a plane crash.