Archive for December, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays from Coffee is for Closers.

And who can forget the Chipmunks singing those Christmas melodies?


Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed

Basil Exposition: Austin, the Cold War is over!
Austin Powers: Finally, those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Exposition: Austin… we won.
Austin Powers: Oh, smashing, groovy, yay capitalism!

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

Reflections: I want to focus my attention on Richard Halley’s speech and an attempt to divine the concept of Art within the Objectivist ideology.  Furthermore, the speech can be read as Objectivist Camp, since, like the many speeches that pepper this tome, it can have unintended hilarity.  Any piece of art that takes solipsism and earnestness to such an exaggerated degree offers oodles of yuks for fans of Camp and Kitsch.  If the Matrix movies ushered us into the Desert of the Real, then Atlas Shrugged brings us the Keane paintings of neo-liberal economics.

A few questions before we proceed into the Hellmouth:

1. What is Art?  (Similarly, what is propaganda?)

2. Is interpretation a matter of free will?

3. Is Atlas Shrugged camp?

4. What is the difference between Objectivist fiction and Socialist Realism?

5. Are my individualistic reactions to this book simply another flavor of individualism, since following the philosophy of Objectivist groupthink involves sacrificing a degree of my individuality?

If you’re not an Objectivist, it’s probably because you’re a loser, loser!

She just wants to be pretty, popular, and rich.  That doesn’t make her shallow.

The famous composer Ayn Rand Richard Halley addresses Quinn Morgendorffer Sue Sylvester Ayn Rand Dagny Taggart in a speech that explains Objectivist philosophy in terms of art:

That is the payment I demand.  Not many can afford it.  I don’t mean your enjoyment, I don’t mean your emotion – emotions be damned! – I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgment of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it – I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.

Emotions be damned! An odd opinion for a composer to espouse, considering that non-verbal music (not opera or Frank Sinatra, etc.) works because it effects the listener on some emotional level.  This can be expanded to nearly ever medium of art (music, literature, film, etc.).  Effective, not necessarily great, art effects people on an emotional level.  One of the reasons Atlas Shrugged fails as art is because the reader is emotionally uninvolved with any of the characters.

9 out of 10 North Koreans like this poster for the same reason as the artist.

I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.

Therefore, as per Objectivist philosophy, I shouldn’t let my emotions get involved with art appreciation.  Fair enough.  Now I have to appreciate said art in the same way as the composer/author/etc.?  What’s individualist about that?  I’ll appreciate Halley or Rand the way I want without some Cultural Commissar telling me what to think.  Go back to Russia, Halley!

Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: the inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes – which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification – which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.

A rational identification?  Really?  Objectivists probably don’t like the Surrealists, since that art movement openly catered to exploring the irrational and subconscious.  North Korean murals with heroes and machinery is far more preferable, since it is a rational identification with the proletariat.

Halley goes on a bit comparing artists to industrialists, saying artistic vision is similar the inventiveness of an industrialist.  Both require creativity and drive.  Advantage: Rand.

This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth – as against the sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his work is or means, he’s not restrained by such crude concepts as ‘being’ or ‘meaning,’ he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit from a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel – he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!

Personal Reaction: I really loved this passage.  The novel went from being plain tedious to becoming So Bad It’s Good.  It was gloriously, shark-jumpingly camp-tastic!  I imagine hardcore Stalinists reading this passage to each other.  “First one who laughs drinks a shot!”  This passage, and Francisco’s previous monologue about drunken beatniks having more power than CEOs, makes this book unintentionally hilarious, in the same way the jovial Proletarian Heroes™ singing about their tractors in Socialist Realism films.  I was disappointed that Richard Halley didn’t kick Dagny down a bottomless pit and then shout, “FOR SPARTA!”

This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth – as against the sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic[.]

Rand accidentally describes herself, since the writing in this mess is sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.  Probably had her editors blacklisted for questioning her perfection.

Charlie Parker improvises during his songs.  What a moron!

because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his work is or means

Ergo, All Art Requires a Message.  Thus, Patch Adams is a much better work of art than, say, Inland Empire.  As the Dude would say, “That’s like your opinion, man.”  A piece of artwork with a clear message isn’t necessarily better than a work without one.  Not all art requires it operate on a didactic or educational level.  Agitprop needs a message to work, art doesn’t.  I’m sure there’s a Soviet poster that would correct my views.

he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why

So is Halley saying he’s against improvisation?  Everything from jazz to ComedySportz to writing requires some level of spontaneity.  The Beat Movement espoused a more notorious philosophy, embracing “spontaneous prose” and the dictum “First thought, best thought.”  The fact that Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs are held in higher regard as writers than Ayn Rand is ironic and hilarious.

it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit from a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel – he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!

How can one even begin to take this seriously?  What began as a rational appraisal of the artist ends in a rant one usually finds in the Monty Python “Argument” sketch.

Mr Barnard (shouting) What do you want?

Man Well I was told outside …

Mr Barnard Don’t give me that you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

Man What!

Mr Barnard Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke! You vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert!

Man Look! I came here for an argument.

Mr Barnard (calmly) Oh! I’m sorry, this is abuse.

Because Rand can’t hide her disgust at the opposition, she equates anyone who disagrees with her aesthetic philosophy as a vomit-spewing drunkard.  Sure, honey, like all those CEOs slugging back martinis back in the Fifties never chundered into the corporate restroom.  Girlfriend, please!  Well, in the book, the Objectivist Heroes are all muscular, whitebread, teetotaling, and austere.  Wonderful, a society full of Arnold Rimmers.

22. Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being campy).  An example of the latter: Wilde’s epigrams themselves.

“It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious.” – Lady Windemere’s Fan

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.  Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp.  Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.  The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.  (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” the standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)

Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” [1964]

I’ll just leave you with this:

In 1934, the Union of Soviet Writers adopted the theory of Socialist Realism. Approved by Joseph Stalin, Nickolai Bukharin, Maxim Gorky and Andrey Zhdanov, the theory demanded that art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic. The doctrine considered all forms of experimentalism as degenerate and pessimistic.

The doctrine of Socialist Realism was propagated by the union’s newspaper, The Literary Gazette. If writers rebelled against this policy their work was criticized in the newspaper. If writers did not conform, they were expelled from the union.

Emphasis added.

“Union of Soviet Writers,”

(8) Nikita Khrushchev was critical of Stalin’s cultural policies implemented by Andrey Zhdanov.

I think Stalin’s cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can’t regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can’t lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don’t deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.

Emphasis added.

“Rand did have an extremely unfortunate tendency to moralize in areas where moral judgments were irrelevant and unjustified. … especially in … aesthetics and sexuality.”

Arthur Silber

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed

December 2, 2010 1 comment

Atlas Summer: Part 3: Chapter 2: The Utopia of Greed

Summary: The next morning, Dagny has barely had time to wipe the crud from her eyes before she’s face to puffy, sleep-encrusted face with everyone’s favorite reverse Robin Hood, Ragnar Danneskjold.  As a law-abiding citizen, she has a similar instinctive revulsion to the pirate’s brigandry as Hank Rearden did, but she’s also struck by his supernatural beauty.  Ragnar tells Dagny that his naval raids have netted millions of dollars in gold, all kept in escrow for the captains of industry who were unjustly taxed.  Dagny herself has a sizable account waiting for her if she stays at the Gulch.  It’s a good thing too, because she’ll be expected to pay for her room and board during the month she’ll be there making up her mind.  She’s not going to need any of her 24 carat tax refund, though, because she wants to work to earn her keep…as John Galt’s housekeeper.  Anything to spend some time sleeping near that hunk of Objectivist man-candy.

John, I made you a white pizza and a pot roast.  I just think you’re, so amazing.  Look at me playing house!  My god you must think I’m out of my mind!  Do you?  You just looked away when I said that.  I saw you.  Kiss me, I know your lips will be honest!”

Three days later, Owen Kellogg shows up, gobsmacked to see Dagny alive.  When her plane disappeared, the rest of the world assumed she’d died…including poor old Hank Rearden.  Dagny wants to sneak a message to Hank to let him know she’s still alive, but Galt forbids it.  Before Dagny even has time to process this, Francisco shows up, also stunned to see her.  To show his elation that the love of his life is miraculously still alive, Francisco…makes a big speech about looters and their looting ways.  I hope you weren’t expecting anything else at this point.  Eventually, he gets around to assuring her that he doesn’t mind that she’s been banging Hank Rearden: their love is a ecstatic meeting of minds and abilities that transcends mere physical affection.  I’m sure that’s what he tells himself when he’s rubbing one out in the woodshed.

The Friend Zone: Population, One sad Argentine bastard.

At Francisco’s smartly appointed “frontiersman’s shanty,” accented with pimped out silver goblet from Sebastian d’Aconia, Francisco tells Dagny that d’Aconia Copper is on it’s last legs and on the verge of being seized by the Argentine government.  It’s no big thing, though, because he’s refounded the company at Galt’s Gulch.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Francisco has found a rich seam of copper in the nearby mountains and is digging it out.

Back at casa de Galt, Dagny works herself into knots over her untrammeled lust for John Galt.  She cleans his house, cooks his meals, and watches as he studiously ignores her and spends evenings mysteriously absent.  One night, she asks him where he’s going ever night, and he reveals that he’s been lecturing on physics to his fellow Alphas (ten gold dollars at the door, of course)  Turns out, all of the Gulchers spend the time they’re not doing menial-but-fulfilling labor working in their fields of expertise. Then, they gather together to share their craft, provided that none of their findings reach the outside world.  It’s reminiscent of Marx’s view of the post-capitalist utopia, just with a higher cover charge.   Dagny spends the rest of the evening finding out that Galt has spent the past decade checking up on her, watching her from afar. From his, she infers that Galt might be as hot for her as she is for him.  This gets her all atingle.

Ain’t no lecture like a John Galt lecture, cuz a John Galt lecture costs ten dollars in pure gold!

Richard Halley plays his legendary Fifth Concerto for Dagny,  then gives a long speech about art.  It turns out that real artists are just like successful businessmen, real art is produced by the rigorous application of intellect, not emotion, and art appreciators can only truly be referred to as such if they appreciate art for exactly the same reasons as the artist.  Rand apparently never heard of the intentional fallacy.  Or she did, and condemned it as the work of anti-life relativist scum.  Probably that.  The actress Kay Ludlow gives a luminous performance.  Dr. Akston tells Dagny the story of his titanic struggle with Dr. Stadler for the souls of their prize students, John, Francisco and Ragnar.

At d’Aconia Copper Number One, Dagny finds herself instantly caught up in a plan to build a one track railroad to transport the copper through the mountains.  Francisco tells her she could easily set it up, but her heart is still with Taggart Transcontinental.   It’s thoughts of her beloved railroad, as well as Rearden (she might be falling for Galt like a sack of bricks, but she at least owes Hank a farewell handy), that compel her finally to decide to leave the Gulch and return to the collapsing ruin of civilization.  She shares all of the values of Galt and company, but she has not yet given up hope that humanity at large can still awaken to their essential truth.  At the end of her month in the Gulch, Dagny is blindfolded and led to a Taggart terminal.  Galt also leaves the valley, on a secret mission that may or may not have to do with keeping tabs on Dagny. She certainly hopes it does.


You’d think that the chapter directly following a chapter full to bursting with long-winded monologues might be a bit more concise, just as a favor to the reader.  You would be mistaken.  It turns out Rand doesn’t have to do her readers any favors: if they aren’t enthralled with every perfectly crafted prose nugget, it’s THEIR problem.  Rand apparently rejects the idea that a text can have multiple readings.  The genius creator has a design, and it’s the reader’s duty to discover it and conform to it.  This chapter actually shed some light on the curious habit of Randians to dismiss critics by claiming they “don’t get it.”  Now I realized just how damning that statement is meant to be.   To “not get it” is to fail on a fundamental level as a human being and aesthete.

You’d think after the panting, outrageously over-the-top description of John Galt’s physical perfection, the worst of Rand’s bizarre lookism would be behind us.  You would be mistaken.  After all, Dagny had to get a load of Ragnar Danneskjold, who is apparently even more beautiful than Galt.  I get that all these perfect male specimens are meant as reflection of the bold and beautiful spirit of such Objectivist heroes, but I do wonder what the pasty, pale chub-monsters who make up such a significant portion of the right-libertarian world make of such Adonis worship.

Let’s cast the hunky male leads for a film version (shudder) of Atlas Shrugged.

Hank Rearden

Left-wing propagandist George Clooney…


Libertarian stalwart and Liberal Fascism-fighter Jonah Golberg?

Hey, you might say, that’s not fair! Golberg is a writer! He can’t be expected to spend as much time on his physical appearance as a matinee idol like Clooney! Okay, we’ll level the playing field.

John Galt

Nobama voter and simpering altruist Brad Pitt…


Noted Hollywood rightist James Woods?


“As she listened, she kept seeing the perfection of his face–and she kept thinking that this was the head on which the world had placed a price of millions for the purpose of delivering it to the rot of death…The face she had thought too beautiful for the scars of a productive career–she kept thinking numbly, missing half his words–the face too beautiful to risk…Then it struck her that his physical perfection was only a simple illustration, a childish lesson given to her in crudely obvious terms on the nature of the outer world and on the fate of any human value in a subhuman age.”  Is this some kind of fourth-wall-breaking post modern motherfuckery?  Who is “giving” Dagny this lesson about the nature of the outer world?  Rand?  God?  Is Galt also a brilliant plastic surgeon?

“‘And then I saw that the whole industrial establishment of the world, with all of its magnificent machinery, its thousand-ton furnaces, its transatlantic cables, its mahogany offices, its stock exchanges, its blazing electric signs, its power, its wealth–all of it was run, not by bankers and boards of directors, but by any unshaved humanitarian in any basement beer joint, by any face pudgy with malice, who preached that virtue must be penalized for being virtue, that the purpose of ability is to serve incompetence, that man has no right to exist except for the sake of others…'” –Francisco d’Aconia.  This little nugget is a great example of why this book is such a chore to read.  The incantatory list of business accoutrements (cables! offices! stock exchanges!) might be effective if it didn’t come smack in the middle of a two page monologue.  Then you’ve got the manifestly incoherent claim (drunk beatniks have more control over the economy than CEOs), coupled with some more of that truly odd and frankly indefensible aesthetic fascism (the drunkard HAS to be pudgy-faced, doesn’t he?).  It’s truly a crap feast.

“‘You wore an evening gown.  You had a cape half-slipping off your body–I saw, at first, only your bare shoulders, your back and your profile–it looked for a moment as if the cape would slip further and you would stand there naked.  Then I saw taht you wore a long gown, the color of ice, like the tunic of a Grecian goddess, but had the short hair and the imperious profile of an American woman.'”–John Galt.  I think Dagny’s gonna get a new boyfriend pretty soon.  Poor Hank.

“‘That is the payment I demand.  Not many can afford it.  I don’t mean your enjoyment, I don’t mean your emotion–emotions be damned!–I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgement of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it–I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.'”–Richard Halley.  Seriously?  I mean…seriously?

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter I: Atlantis

December 1, 2010 2 comments


This chapter is chock full of risible content.  You’ve got the comically overheated description of John Galt.  There’s Dr. Hammonds’ rather insane notion that medicine should concern itself first and foremost with the healthy rather than the sick.  If it weren’t for the sick people, who the hell is Dr. Hammond supposed to operate on?  I get that the point is that whiny sick people wouldn’t get better if it weren’t for the genius of genius genuises, but the doctor/patient dynamic is pretty much the definition of a symbiotic relationship.  Every person, even the most brilliant doctor who’s ever brillianted, has to willingly submit themselves to the ministrations of a medical professional, and they only do that because they trust their well being is their doctor’s top priority.  If Dr. Hammond gets appendicitis at Galt’s Gulch, somebody else is going to have to cut him open.  Sometimes we need other people, and the inherent vulnerability of placing yourself in the hands of someone with a scalpel in their hand cannot be ameliorated by reminding yourself how much money you paid him. What’re you gonna do if he kills your ass? Ask for a refund?

Dr. Hammond makes House look like Patch Adams

There’s the fact that Rand creates a frictionless plane of Objectivist society: a society peopled entirely by genuises in every conceivable discipline, all of them completely committed to the same ideology, a near autarkical economy, and not a looter or hobo to be found for miles, and she STILL needs to invoke a magical power source to make the thing viable.

Unless Lisa Simpson moves to Galt’s Gulch, those dudes are SOL.

I think the most irritating thing is still Rand’s obsession with the idea that gold is some sort of “objective” currency.  She seems caught up on the fact that paper currency was originally intended to represent a fixed amount of gold.  But even when gold was the preferred medium of exhange, it was still a representative of value, not a thing of value in itself. You can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, you might be able to build a house out of it, but it would be drafty as hell.  Society agreed to place a value on gold and use it to facilitate transactions. It’s value is less volatile than that of paper currency, but it’s not an absolute constant, and that value does not exist at all outside of a social fiction.  The Ubermensch of Galt’s Gulch have agreed to give gold a set value and to honor that value. In a closed economy like theirs, they could just as easily have chosen wampum, or seashells or, dare I say, a paper currency.