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Apocalypse Fatigue, the Holiday Spirit, and the Battle of Stalingrad

December 22, 2012 1 comment

Statler Waldorf apocalypse

Yet Another Failed Apocalypse

 

Like the inevitable outing of virulent homophobes, we have yet another example of a failed apocalypse. The problem is not necessarily the apocalypse itself, but the frequency of these failed apocalypses has become so grating that even the jokes have become predictable and flat. In 2012 alone, we had Howard Camping’s multiple declarations of impending doom as well as the famous Mayan “apocalypse.” (Ironic air-quotes because it is a classic misunderstanding of a non-Gregorian calendar system by hysterical nutjobs. In December 2012, the Mayan calendar ends. What happens when you reach December 31, 2012 in your household? Most people usually get a new calendar.)

I won’t bother listing the failed apocalypses. Here’s a link. It’s a really long list. And in the future there will be more non-apocalypses added to that list. But people will still be hysterical, declaiming the end of the world, and getting everyone worked up over nothing. Another after-effect of all these failed apocalypses is that apocalyptic rhetoric has lost all meaning.

ApocalypseFINALImage by Allison Morris

Apocalyptic rhetoric has been trotted out whenever a poorly written cash-in reaches the New York Times bestseller list. (Because that never happens.) Until the next sub-literate hack gets a choice book deal and struggling authors continue to struggle in obscurity. All this talk of cultural apocalypse because the author of Fifty Shades of Grey sold some books seems a bit overheated. The wealth of Hollywood wasn’t built on good movies either. The apocalypse is fast becoming meaningless the same way terms “indie” and “edgy” have been eroded to vacuous buzzwords.

Do not misinterpret this post as some snarky smug “religion is dumb, hooray science!” diatribe. (The Internet has plenty of those.) I was raised in a Lutheran household and apocalyptic rhetoric wasn’t in the conversation. Yes, the theological basis for Lutheranism includes the Apocalypse, but there wasn’t any ham-fisted close readings of the Book of Revelation like certain denominations, sects, and cults do. (For examples, tune in to your local religious networks, except EWTN, since the Catholic Church isn’t apocalypse-happy as Kirk Cameron’s flock.) The Apocalypse was part of Lutheran theology, but believers were taught not to presume to know when it would happen.

Presume is the key word here. As with other things, God will determine when the Apocalypse will happen. Hence the constant empty blathering of failed prophets. This goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the Antichrist of the Week. So many people have been charged with being the Antichrist that it gets comical. Cracked.com, the reliable barometer of American opinion, published one of their most hilarious articles saying “Obama is the least efficient Antichrist ever.”

Not to belabor the point, but naming someone the Antichrist has become as politically expedient as calling someone a Hitler. The same people using the same rhetoric have called everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Saddam Hussein to Barack Obama the Antichrist. One doesn’t need a PhD to see what’s going on. Label the political opposition the Antichrist and the flock will follow accordingly. And since Obama was re-elected, American is in a state of moral depravity and God will smite us. Or something. (I live in Minnesota and the state recently voted down the Traditional Marriage Amendment. I’m still waiting for the being-caused-by-gays earthquakes and hurricanes. We did get a snowstorm on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse … in Minnesota.)

The same people who label the President as the Antichrist are the same people who allege there is a War on Christmas. Which leads us to …

The Holiday Spirit

August to December 25th annually, depending on the retailer

First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

I enjoy the holiday season. I get to home to Wisconsin, be with family, open presents, and generally have a good time. Again, this is not some garden variety anti-religious screed. Those are boring. This post is exploring the issue of fatigue. Along with apocalypse fatigue, the commodification of Christmas inevitably gives way to fatigue. Since free market capitalism is based on the premise of an ever-expanding market, the Christmas season has been incrementally expanded into more of the calendar year. While retailers and businesses are right to exploit the reason for the season, this can have an unintentional blowback effect.

Christmas is fine. Shopping is fine. But I don’t need to see Christmas trees in retailers in August! By the time Black Friday rolls around, I’m already sick of Christmas. To put this another way: I like chocolate cake, but I don’t want to eat chocolate cake for every meal every day for three months. What is happening to me and fellow shoppers is the retail equivalent of diabetic shock.

Ironically, I see myself as a traditionalist here. Christmas season should begin on Black Friday and end on Christmas (with some overlap for New Year’s). The relentless drive to have us shop, shop, shop til we drop has extended the holiday season way too far. The Holiday Season has become a calendar-eating amoeba, devouring everything in its path.

Christmas, the best seven months of the year.

The Battle of Stalingrad

July 17, 1942–Feb. 2, 1943

Nikita Khrushchev: [addressing a roomful of Soviet political officers] My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans… capture this city… the entire country will collapse. Now… I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That’s your job. As political officers… I’m counting on you.

Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Thousands died, thousands more were killed, and it was an ideological wrestling match between two totalitarian superpowers. I only mention this because, as a punchline, I have likened the annual Christmas season to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is a Stalingrad-like battle of enforced cheer and omnipresent Christmas songs. I’ll leave you with a clip of Christopher Hitchens likening the holiday season to living in North Korea. Is it really? Let me know your opinion in the comments section.

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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,” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSwriters.htm

(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 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.

Quotes:

“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.

 

Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter 7: The Moratorium on Brains

September 20, 2010 2 comments

“Now go get your shine-box!”

“That was it. No more letters from truant officers. No more letters from school. In fact, no more letters from anybody. How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bullshit.”

“For us to live any other way was nuts.  To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

Henry Hill, Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Chapter VII: The Moratorium on Brains

Pages: 567 – 607

Summary: The chapter begins with Eddie Willers again talking to the unknown worker in the underground cafeteria.  Another exposition dump bringing the reader up to date on things.  (Given the inordinate length of the novel and the static nature of the scenes, couldn’t Rand just as easily written an epic tome but with more action in it?  The exposition-speech-exposition shtick is wearing thin.)

Ragnar kind of looks like this guy.

In Philadelphia, Hank attempts to find a way to divorce his wife Lillian, provided she receive no money or property in the settlement.  Hank Rearden wanders down a lonely road and meets a man looking like a bandit.  The man reveals himself to be none other than the dread pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld.  Hank can be forgiven for not recognizing him, since Rand describes Ragnar as a blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic man in a windbreaker.  Despite the fact that a pirate raiding ships would make for compelling action and provide more illustrative examples of Objectivism at work, Rand chooses to have Ragnar uncork a Francis D’anconia-like speech on Hank.  At the end of the speech (about the usual topics: gold, lazy poor people, and the evil income tax), Ragnar offers Hank a gold bar.  The gold bar represents the profits the looters stole from him.  He also vows to give Hank what the government stole from him on his income tax.  In his lengthy monologue, Ragnar tells Hank that he’s raised funds from trading with black marketeers in the People’s States of Europe.  He fancies himself the Anti-Robin Hood, since he steals from the poor and gives to the rich.  More accurately, he steals from the undeserving poor and gives to the productive rich.  Hank, the perpetual Mary Sue, refuses the gold bar since he wouldn’t accept anything from a lawbreaker.

Kip Chalmers isn’t one for subtlety.

On a special train, that one could call The Poetic Justice Express, Kip Chalmers and a pair of looter sycophants travel across the country on their way to a political rally out west.  Chalmers, a Legislator, is part of the nomenklatura, a special caste “more equal” than the rest.  The train does not make it because it is beset with mechanical problems and Chalmers has to deal with the Byzantine bureaucratic foibles of Taggart Transcontinental employees.  Buck-passing by incompetents ensues until finally an outdated diesel engine is sent to the derailed train, trapped in a tunnel.  With ferocious relish, Rand describes each and every passenger of the train.  Each passenger (men, women, and children) are found collectively guilty because they subscribed to the looter philosophy.  Because of this, they meet their Objectivist-justified deaths.  Did I mention I find this ugly and repellent?

Observations: Thank the Almighty Dollar we’re nearly halfway done with this book.  With each successive chapter, it seems like Rand is daring the reader to throw the book across the room.  Her philosophy has gone from debatable to morally repellent.  I know what you’re going to say.  “This is just a book, man.  Chill out.”  Sure, sure.  So was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, the Turner Diaries, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Da Vinci CodeUncle Tom’s Cabin was just a book too … or so people in Kansas thought until John Brown bisected them with a sharpened broadsword.

Moving on …

I mentioned in the summary that I now find Atlas Shrugged morally repellent.  The charge requires clarification and explanation.  The anarcho-libertarian thread weaving its way through the narrative is debatable.  One can discuss the philosophy’s finer points and at least come away with an appreciation for an alternate perspective on morality and economics.  What happened in Chapter VII borders on jumping the shark.  Due to the world of Atlas Shrugged becoming more and more like a kakistocracy, the reader is left with no option but to put his or her loyalty behind the philandering, wife-beating, rough sex-having Objectivist Heroes.

Ragnar Danneskjöld espouses the usual free market mythology to Hank Rearden.  Another case of preaching to the converted, or semi-converted, since Hank agrees with nearly everything Ragnar says but refuses to take the gold bar due to his own unalloyed ideological purity.  The scene’s utter lack of drama is not my concern here.  The Republic and The Symposium weren’t that plot-heavy either and the philosophical novels of the Marquis de Sade possess characters railing off equally long-winded tirades.

“Is that crazy Ayn Rand lady still yammering on about the income tax while we die on the street?”

First, Ragnar’s appearance is a bit disconcerting, given that World War 2 ended only a decade earlier.  The blonde-haired blue-eyed athletic person is the hero.  Throughout the novel, morality has been unambiguously linked to appearance.  Ragnar looks like a Nazi caricature.  Francisco D’anconia is a Spaniard.  (In 1957 Spain was also ruled by a non-communist whose first name was Francisco.)  Hank Rearden is a muscular Nordic genius.  And the entire novel swoons when it describes technology and speed … two main motifs in the proto-fascist movement called Futurism.  When do these accumulated motifs stop becoming coincidental?  Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler were both dictators and butchers, but they were also committed anti-communists.  One of the social trends following the War was that “We had fought on the wrong side.”  One of Churchill’s crazier schemes was to continue fighting the War until the Allies reached Moscow.  It could have possibly ended the Cold War decades earlier, but it could have also seriously depopulated the Earth.

The Nazis had awesome technology that could have been used to fight the USSR.  The USSR and the USA both used Germans to build their space programs.  (Then again, FOX News has numerous blonde-haired female news readers.  I’m probably just overreacting.)

But does the ideological carpet match the drapes?

Second, Ragnar’s monologue is at once a hyperventilating rant against the status quo and a fatuous attack on the income tax.  World events provide a degree of context.  In 1956, the Soviet Union sent troops and tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution.  The Korean War ended less than five years after Atlas Shrugged was published and World War 2 remains real and raw in the memories of every American.  So while Hungarians were dying at the hands of brutal Soviet oppression and American troops were dying at the hands of Korean and Chinese Communist arms, Rand expounds on the most profound evil imaginable: the income tax.  (NB: The income tax is in the US Consitution.  Article 1, Section 8 reads as follows:

“The Congress shall have power To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”)

The income tax reached very high levels, especially for the wealthy, in the Fifties and Sixties.  Following the Soviet incursions and real threats of nuclear annihilation, how else was the US government going to finance its military-industrial complex?  Rand and Objectivism were indeed popular, but could the free market warriors raise the funds to purchase, say, a wing of B-52s or an aircraft carrier, without the income tax?

How many Objectivist bake sales would it take to purchase a B-52?

Ironically, the libertarian philosophy espouses replacing the income tax with the flat tax.  (The income tax boils down to “the more you make, the more you pay” whereas the flat tax means “everyone pays equally.”)  Given what’s been said in Atlas Shrugged, the flat tax seems oddly egalitarian and therefore suspicious.  Only looters and second raters want to be treated equally.  That said, the US tax code should be radically reformed, since it is an incomprehensible Byzantine labyrinth and used as a mechanism for social engineering by condescending nitwits from both the Right and the Left.  It doesn’t matter which major party controls Washington, DC, the idea that the government knows what its doing is laughable.  Most politicians will slavishly adhere to whatever the polls say or whatever will garner them more votes for their inevitable re-election.  However, I don’t need Ayn Rand to tell me the government is full of crap.

But why would anyone trust his advice?

Third, Ragnar characterizes himself as an Anti-Robin Hood, since one has to justify a hatred for economic redistribution somehow.  While his characterization is typical Rand purposely misreading a common text anyone could understand, this relates to Ragnar’s anti-tax, anti-regulation anarcho-capitalist philosophy.  Rand blames the misreading on the looters (obviously), having propped up a false mythology of the needs of the poor over the proper moral of the legend, which is restoring property.

Since the world of Atlas Shrugged is such a miserable kakistocracy, a kleptocracy founded on the presumption that the government knows what’s good for the people, it allows Ragnar to justify his sleep-inducing ideological purity.

Let’s compare Atlas Shrugged to Robin Hood.

Robin Hood aka Robin of Locksley: Prince of Locksley who “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” or more accurately returned the wealth stolen from them by the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham.  (Since the Sheriff was both a law enforcement official and a tax collector, Rand has to misread the Robin Hood legend to oppose it.)

King John: A greedy incompetent boob who stole the throne from Richard, the rightful heir.  Sounds a bit like James Taggart, friend to the looters and incompetent fool.

Maid Marian: Dagny, although she’s hardly a maid as Lillian aptly noted, since she’s been laid by half the section hands of Taggart Transcontinental.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Patron Saint of Snark, “If you laid the graduates of Patrick Henry University from end to end, you wouldn’t be the least surprised.”  Atlas Shrugged is like Chasing Amy, but with more minutiae about trains.

Richard the Lionheart: The saintly heroic king who had his throne stolen from him while he fought in the Third Crusade.  In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden seems a likely parallel.

The Sheriff of Nottingham: The corrupt chiseling sheriff, who extracts the earnings of the peasantry, then throws the indebted in jail.  The looter government of any people’s state seems an obvious comparison.  The Sheriff as both a law enforcement official and tax collector is representative of the libertarian concept of “limited government.”  King John was a moron, but at least he had one person doing both tasks.  The Sheriff also puts a crimp in the Objectivist mythology of limited government, since Objectivists are anti-taxes but pro-law enforcement.

Little John: Robin’s right hand man.  In Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers fits the bill as omnipresent sidekick.

Friar Tuck: A goodhearted friar who helps Robin.  No equivalent in Atlas Shrugged, since Ayn Rand thinks religion is for irrational stupid people.

Ragnar’s misreading of the Robin Hood legend is based on the premise that all rich people are industrious and all poor people are lazy thieves.  Since Rand deals in easy caricatures, it only follows her philosophy should be built on the bedrock of generalizations.  Suffice it to say, all rich people aren’t evil and all poor people aren’t lazy.  How ironic for a philosophy that fetishizes the individual to traffic in these generalizations.  Karl Marx, in his critique of free market economics, attacks this misguided premise at its root:

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as sin does in theology.  Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.  Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past.  Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, the lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living.   …  Such insipid childishness is every day preached in the defense of property.  …   In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.  In the tender annals of political economy, the idllyic reigns from time immemorial.  …  As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.”

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867)

What is fascinating is that Ragnar’s tirade in favor of the powerful comes close to another atheist philosopher:

“Destruction being one of the chief laws of Nature, nothing that destroys can be criminal; how might an action which so well serves Nature ever be outrageous to her?  The destruction of which man is wont to boast is, moreover, nothing but an illusion; murder is no destruction; he who commits it does but alter forms, he gives back to Nature the elements whereof the hand of this skilled artisan instantly re-creates other beings.”

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), Marquis de Sade.

Which brings us to the end of the chapter, where Rand, with relish, describes a variety of individuals on the train?  In the end, they all die from inhaling toxic fumes from the old coal burning train.  Since the accident was caused by the incompetence of those following the looter philosophy, not only do the passengers die, they deserved to die.  It isn’t said so explicitly, but one can hardly misinterpret the scene.  Unfortunately for any reader of the novel, the kakistocracy is now in power and the reader has to swallow that these deaths were a good thing.  Granted, it’s just a novel, and not a well-written one at that, so my repulsion is more with the principle of the thing and not its artless inventory of caricatures traveling on the train.  So soon after World War 2 and the Holocaust, the death via smoke inhalation just didn’t sit well with me.

Quotes:

  • “That is the horror which Robin Hood idealized as an ideal of righteousness.  It is said he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.  He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor.”
  • “It is the foulest of creatures – the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich – whom men have come to regard as the moral ideal.”  This is reminiscent of another Ragnar: “Socialism, Christianism, Democratism, Equalityism are really the whining yelpings of base-born mongrel-multitudes.  They howl aloud for State intervention – “protection for suffering humanity” – regulated mill-grinding, as it were, with the State to be their Supreme Idol, their God and Master, their All-in-All, their Great Panjandrum.” (from Might is Right, Ragnar Redbeard [1896]).

  • “If men like Boyle think that force is all they need to rob their betters – let them see what happens when one of their betters chooses to resort to force.”

  • “You’re one of them, Mr. Rearden.  I cannot compute all the money that has been extorted from you – in hidden taxes, in regulations, in wasted time, in lost effort, in energy spent to overcome artificial obstacles.”  Granted the laws and regulations enacted by the looter government in the novel are profoundly stupid, this is not real life, nor should it be interpreted as such.  These generalizations simplify the novel’s drama – what little there is – but paper over complex government and corporate issues.  Living in the Great Recession, nearly two decades following the collapse of the USSR, one can see how both a totally planned economy and a totally deregulated economy can fail.  With proper regulations, the economy can be disciplined into thoroughbred performance.  With no regulations whatsoever, the economy is about as stable as a meth lab.  What makes for proper regulation?  It’s best decided on a case-by-case basis and with a non-politicized regulatory body.

Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter 6: Miracle Metal

September 12, 2010 1 comment

Chapter VI:  Miracle Metal

A gathering of Satan’s minions, or the House subcommittee  on Agriculture? You be the judge!

Summary: Chapter Six opens on a Witch’s Sabbath in Washington.  The high priest of looterdom himself, “Head of State” Mr. Thompson presides over a collection of public and private criminals as they plot the final government takeover of the economy.  There’s Orren Boyle and Jim Taggart and Wesley Mouch and union kingpin Fred Kinnan and the chief propagandist of socialism, Dr. Ferris.  They’ve gathered to prepare for the declaration of Directive Number 10-289.  This set of laws will make it illegal for people to quit or be fired from their jobs, or for companies to go out of business.  All patents will be turned over to the government and all future inventions will be banned (?).  Both manufacturing production and consumer purchasing will be fixed by a “Unification Board.”  Dr. Ferris and James Taggart try to justify the new laws on philosophical and political grounds.  It’s left to the comically vernacular language of the gangster Kinnan to lay out the reality of the situation.  “I know that I’m delivering the poor bastards into slavery, and that’s all there is to it.  And they know it too.  But they know that I’ll have to throw them a crumb once in a while, if I want to keep my racket.”  He’s a tough guy, see?

Jimmy Hoffa ain’t got nuttin’ on Fred Kinnan

Dagny is hard at work at Taggart Transcontinental, rerouting trains and cannibalizing old lines to temporarily fix new ones, when the news comes over the transom about Directive Number 10-289.  She promptly quits and escapes to the Taggart family cabin in the Berkshires.

At the Rearden foundry, all the competent engineers have fled, leaving Hank increasingly alone and beset by government vampires intent on expropriating Rearden Metal.  Dr. Ferris shows up to blackmail Hank’s patent from him: proof of his affair with Dagny, provided by James Taggart, who got it from Lillian Rearden.  Sitting across from Ferris, Hank has an epiphany.  He has treated his affair with Dagny as a sordid, dirty failing instead of the radiant celebration of life it was.  As a result, Hank refuses to punish Dagny by allowing their affair to become public.  He signs over control of Rearden Metal, the product of ten years of arduous work, to the government by way of penance.

Reflections: After spending 500 pages depicting the government as a shadowy cabal of corrupt, power-drunk moochers with vague to opaque motivations, Rand finally puts the puppeteers of the vampire state front and center.  The reader gets to marinate in the hellbroth of cynicism, greed, arrogance and, above all, jealousy that drives the looters.  There’s an interesting tension in the Washington meeting scene between the professed views of the political elite and their true motivations.  Union boss and laughable attempt to represent working class argot Fred Kinnan is completely cynical: he recognizes the essential injustice of the current order but figures that he’s got a better chance to improve his own position and, to a lesser extent, the position of his union brothers, by pissing outside the tent.  Dr. Ferris clearly relishes his role as intellectual architect of the governing ethos, but there’s a degree of sophistry in his bloviating: he embraces radical relativism because it allows him to argue anything. Crooked industrialists like James Taggart are driven by an opportunistic desire to cash in on croney capitalism and a burning jealousy of brilliant producers like his sister and Hank Rearden.  The upshot is that none of the rulers of the new order truly believe that they are bringing happiness or justice to the people of the land.

It’s a good thing for Michael Savage that Ayn Rand didn’t go with her original title.

Once again, Rand refuses to credit her intellectual opponents with good faith.  The truth of Objectivism is so self-evident, so goddamn objective, that the only reason anyone would deny it is their own deformed moral sense. This is in sharp contrast to the conventional view of politics in liberal democracy,  where ideological conflicts are seen as powered by a conflict between interest gropus.  In the Randian universe, there are no interest group conflicts: all humanity should rightly defer to the meritocracy and find their place in a free labor marketplace.  “Interest groups” are the product of market distortions created by the government and the demagoguery of venal opportunists.  This view is strongly reminiscent of the holistic view of politics found in fascism.  It’s enough to make you tremble for the fate of any mediocre individual who tastes the fruit of Randian utopia and finds it bitter.

Would Rand have been cool with the Nazis if Hitler had been a better painter?

Quotes:

“Mr. Thompson, the Head of State, was a man who possessed the quality of never being noticed.”  This sentence has never applied to a single American president…except maybe Gerald Ford.

“There’s been enough invented already–enough for everybody’s comfort–why should they be allowed to go on inventing?  Why should we permit them to blast the ground from under our feet every few steps?  Why should we be kept on the go in eternal uncertainty?  Just because of a few restless, ambitious adventurers?  Should we sacrifice the contentment of of the whole of mankind to the greed of a few non-conformists?” –James Taggart.  When Rand DOES go to the trouble of articulating an opposing thought, she doesn’t bother with providing even a patina of coherence.  Yes, yes, Ayn, anyone who disagrees with you is, by definition, irrational and/or idiotic. I bet they smell bad, too.

“There’s my resignation, Jim. I won’t work as a slave or a slave-driver.” –Dagny Taggart.

“But I damned my body’s capacity to express what I felt, I damned, as an affront to her, the highest tribute I could give her just as they damn my ability to translate the work of my mind into Rearden Metal, just as they damn me for the power to transform matter to serve my needs.” –the internal monologue of Hank Rearden.  Gotta love a unified field theory.

Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: Chapter 2: The Aristocracy of Pull

August 11, 2010 5 comments

Chapter II: The Aristocracy of Pull

Summary: At the offices of Taggart Transcontinental, Dagny is hard at work trying to reverse engineer the Magic Static Electric engine that she found in Wisconsin.  To that end, she hires a sharp young engineer named Quentin Daniels to fiddle with the device after he shows during his job interview that he’s clearly a man of ability and, most importantly, contempt for the looters.  In another episode from the life of Dagny Taggart, Girl Detective, Dagny gives the mysterious dollar sign cigarette to the old man who operates the news stand at the Taggart terminal.  He’s also a collector of cigarettes from around the world, and according to him, no such cigarette has ever been manufactured on earth!

I wonder if they’re low-tar?

Meanwhile, poor Hank Rearden is conspiring to sell Ken Daneggar an illegally large amount of Rearden metal and, if that isnt’ enough to deal with, his awful wife Lillian demands that he attend James Taggart’s wedding.  Because Hank feels so guilty about cheating with Dagny, he agrees to go along.

Yes, James Taggart has tricked poor, good-hearted Cherryl Brooks into marrying him.  She thinks he’s the man who built the John Galt Line, and he wants the social plaudits of marrying below his station.  Rand’s description of James Taggart’s wedding reception is the closest she has yet come to displaying a sense of humor or insight into human nature.  She describes the army of sycophants panting for a moment of favor from Taggart, who now holds such influence in Washington that anyone looking to get ahead during the economic collapse had better stay on his good side.  Lillian brings Hank along mostly to give the Washington crowd the impression that Hank came to show respect to James.  As a result, these wheeler dealers think James has power over Hank, even though Hank is just there to assuage his guilt over his affair. Every interpersonal relationship in the room is based on emotional or professional blackmail.  Rand actually makes some good observations about the corrupting nature of bureaucracy: when influence substitutes for ability, the only currency worth anything is shameless ass-kissing.

Of course, then she ruins it by introducing the first in what promises to be an endless series of long-winded speeches by her heroes.  Francisco d’Aconia shows up and, after messing with puzzled old Hank Rearden for a bit, overhears Bertram Scudder say that “money is the root of all evil.”  Francisco responds with a four-and-a-half page rejoinder that boils down to the idea that money is an objective measurement of worth, and as such the only medium of determining the value of human endeavor.  Hank is understandably confused at such rigorous, morally-upstanding sentiment coming from a man he’d written off as a worthless playboy.  The real icing on the cake comes when Francisco reveals to the collection of rent-seeking plutocrats who had put most of their money into d’Aconia Copper (seeing as how it is the only reliably profitable company left in the world) that their piggy bank is about to get smashed.  d’Aconia Copper stock is about to crash, taking the fortunes of the assembled looters with it.

Ayn, this Mr. Show sketch got across the whole of your 1200 page book’s argument in two minutes. Brevity truly is the soul of wit.

Reflections: Francisco’s big speech, the heart of the chapter, isn’t notable so much for its shoddy reasoning, although there’s plenty of that.  It’s hard not to think about George W. Bush and Paris Hilton when he says that “if an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroy him.”   No, more interesting to  point out is the complete failure of imagination on Rand’s part that the monologue represents.  After a twenty minute harangue, the only response the assembled worthies can muster is one bubble headed debutante saying “I don’t have any answers, my mind doesn’t work that way, but I don’t feel that you’re right, so I know that you’re wrong.”  This is in a room filled to bursting with heavy-hitting acolytes of the looter ideology.  It’s really Rand whose mind “doesn’t work that way.” She can’t project out of her ideological cocoon to even attempt an oppositional argument.  There’s nothing wrong with having a strong point of view, but failing to give any sort of tension to the conflicting viewpoints at war in the book drains all the drama out of the proceedings.  It’s not only a  failure of empathy or imagination, it’s BORING.  Intellectual combat this lopsided is inherently dull, dare I say OBJECTIVELY dull.  There’s never a moment’s doubt as to which side is right and, more importantly, which side will triumph, and doubt is the engine of drama.

Quotes:

“Well, I’ll just say that ‘Governmental scientific inquiry’ is a contradiction in terms.” –Quentin Daniels. Yeah, Quentin, what has government research ever accomplished…other than building the atom bomb and PUTTING A MAN ON THE DAMN MOON?

Big Government can’t do nothing right…

“Can’t you give me this much, at the price of a few hours of boredom?  Can’t you be strong enough to fulfill your obligations and to perform a husband’s duty?  Can’t you go there, not for your own sake, but mine, not because you want to go, but only because I want it?” –Lillian Rearden.  Lil, that’s pretty much the worst possible appeal to make to ol’ Hank. You’re lucky he’s cheating on you.

“There were men whose presence signified a special protection extended to James Taggart, and men whose presence confessed a desire to avoid his hostility–those who represented a hand lowered to pull him up, and those who represented a back bent to let him climb.  By the unwritten code of the day, nobody received or accepted an invitation from a man of public prominent expect in toek of one or the other of these motives.  Those in the first groupwere, for the most part, youthful; they had come from Washington.  Those in the second group were older; they were businessmen.”

“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence.  Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper.  This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values.  Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced.  Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it.  Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims.  Watch for the day when it bounces, marked: ‘Account overdrawn.'” –Francisco d’Aconia.  Now we know why Ron Paul has such a hair up his ass about the Gold Standard.

Glenn Beck says, call the good people at Goldline, and they’ll hook you up with the only objective determiner of worth!

Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: Chapter One: The Man Who Belonged to Earth


Image: Never Trust a Fox in His Green Meadow and Never Trust the Oath of a Jew by Julius Streicher

Text: “The German and the Jew.
Take a good look at the two
In the picture drawn for you.
A joke – you think it is only that?
Easy to guess which is which, I say:
The German stands up, the Jew gives way.”

“Yet another strategy is Manichaeism, which makes much of the need for fateful decisions but stacks the cards.  In effect, we are asked to choose between an evil-tasting, poisonous dish and one that tastes good and is good for our health: all good is on one side, all evil on the other, and the choice makes itself.” – Walter Kaufmann

Part II: Either-Or

Chapter I: The Man Who Belonged to Earth

Pages: 339 – 378

Summary: The first chapter of Part II encompasses comedy, tragedy and romance.  The chapter opens with a discussion between Dr. Robert Stadler and Dr. Floyd Ferris.  Dr. Ferris published a book entitled Why Do You Think You Think? that amounts to a veiled attack on rationalism.  Dr. Ferris, who Rand describes as “severe” and “that a movie producer once said he would cast him for the part of a titled European gigolo,” published the book for the “general public” that Dr. Stadler equates to “a drunken lout.”  (Seriously, when do gigolos ever look severe?)

The conversation goes on a bit, with each side lobbing righteousness-grenades at each other.  Dr. Ferris plays the part of the cynical nihilist and Dr. Stadler the part of a benighted rationalist.  Rand also includes excerpts of Dr. Ferris’s unintentionally hilarious book.  Since this is a Rand book, the excerpts run for two pages.  (One could get the gist after two or three examples.)

Dagny has a contemplative moment, musing on the disappearance of Ellis Wyatt, in some of the most hilarious prose I have ever read.  She fears that the government might subsidize the oil industry and there are few oil men who have men in Washington.  She muses on some economic matters, especially about drilling heads rising in cost from $100 to $500 given the recent passage of looter legislation.  (Granted, the book was published in 1957, but when did a drill bit for oil exploration cost $100?  Things cost less in the 1950s, but this strikes me as ridiculous.)

Anybody got $100 and a few pounds of Rearden Metal handy?

Dagny converses with Dr. Stadler about the motor.  Dr. Stadler agrees to recruit bright minds from the State Science Institute to help her research the Miracle Motor, but has to decline since he interviewed a few candidates and found only dithering dolts.  He also reveals that he knew John Galt once as one of his students, but presumes he’s dead.  If Rand had any talent as a fiction writer, this would have come as a surprise, not as something I saw coming one hundred pages back.  Or is artful foreshadowing the hallmark of a second-rater?

Hank has an infuriating conversation with a weasely government man (given the nickname the Wet Nurse).  The Wet Nurse philosophizes about there being no absolutes (yeah!  Another Nihilist Strawman!), then promptly tells Hank that the Government absolutely needs Rearden Metal for Project X.  Hank refuses and tells the Wet Nurse to simply steal the Metal he needs.  Or arrest him.  The Wet Nurse balks at Hank’s ultimatums.

Hank Rearden valiantly battles the encroaching looter hordes.

The chapter concludes with Dagny and Hank engaging in a whirlwind romance.  Hank, giving Dagny beautiful jewelry for his selfish enjoyment, finally gets his groove back and does not feel so guilty anymore about cheating on his wife.

Observations: The second part of Atlas Shrugged is titled “Either-Or,” a kind of Manichean call to arms.  Either you are a free market hero-god-genius-industrialist or you’re looter scum.  Again to echo Matt’s comparison of Rand to Pynchon, Pynchon’s works repeatedly buck the “either-or” binary opposition, since his novels deal with anarchy, entropy, and chaos.  However, since this is 1957 and the Cold War rages against the godless Communist menace, the title is fitting … at least until Henry Kissinger shakes up the bipolar world with détente and “opening China.”

Ironically, the binary opposition Rand sets up harkens back to the Manichean worldview of Middle Eastern monotheisms (and most religions).  Rand detested religion as irrational, but her dividing the world into a binary opposition seems irrational and reductive.  Because this work was written as a cudgel to beat the Communist ideology to a pulp cheapens the artistic merit of the work.  It is so obviously and specifically reactionary.  Similarly, the work of Ezra Pound, maybe the greatest Modernist poet, becomes dry, pedantic, and boring whenever he raises the issue of economics.

“Want to hear my Canto about American troops walking over a mine field?  Il Duce would love it!”

The tragedy of this chapter is that the budding romance of Dagny and Hank sours amidst the shrill self-righteousness.  For a while, it seemed like the characters would break free from their ideological straightjackets.  It is understood that the book operates like a morality play, but if Rand was the gifted novelist her fans misguidedly attribute to her, then she would have soft-pedaled the ideology for a few pages and allowed to Hank and Dagny to flower as human beings.  Unfortunately, when one deals with idealism, the human factor gets buried in abstractions and utopian dreams.  It would have been nice to see Dagny and Hank as fully formed persons, not merely Objectivist-delivery devices.

Additional Random Thoughts:

  • While Project X remains unknown and the set piece between Hank and the Wet Nurse illustrates the thuggish nature of looter government, one wonders if any industrialists refused to participate in the Manhattan Project?  The government gave no details about the project, not even to Vice President Truman, and the project required vast quantities of materials and man-hours.  What about businesses that had dealings with hostile regimes?  What is Rand saying, that we owe the dollar greater allegiance than the state?

Atlas Shrugged would be greatly improved with the addition of space monkeys.

  • One of the major issues with this novel is that the Enemy is altogether invisible.  We either see representatives of the system (the Wet Nurse, etc.), but not the government itself.  For a novel this epic and grandiose, some scenes in Washington, D.C. might add to the believability factor.  The scenes in New York City have a certain decayed glamour to them, so why not D.C.?  I think I know the answer to this.  To show government representatives would humanize the opposition.  Since Objectivism like other utopian schemes needs to weight the deck in their favor, any representation of the opposition would weaken the argument.  Best stick with straw men and tedious monologues to reader-surrogates.
  • I’m not sure how to square the circle Rand presents us in Part II.  The section is called “Either-Or.”  This name makes Objectivism seem less like a philosophy (something that can be argued and discussed) and more like partisanism (Party X is better than Party Y) or organized religion (“God decreed for us to kill everyone different!”).  The shrillness of the delivery, the cavalcade of exaggerated straw men, and the absurdity of the setting expose the utter weakness of Rand’s arguments.  This contributes to the effect of making hardcore Objectivists as fanatical, immune to evidence, and reason as any Creationist, Scientologist, or suicide bomber.  One can’t argue with those kinds of people.  Ironically, Rand turns reason, the cornerstone of Objectivism, into an idol and the idolatry becomes totally unreasonable.  (Look at the Catholic Church’s constant talk of poverty and charity, meanwhile the Vatican Bank keeps raking in the filthy lucre.)

  • The romantic scenes with Dagny and Hank reminded me of Tamara de Lempicka paintings.  Lempicka synthesized Futuristic lines with classical elegance to create luxurious artworks.

Quotable Quotes:

  • “If a drunken lout could find the power to express himself on paper,” said Dr. Stadler, “if he could give voice to his essence – the eternal savage, leering his hatred of the mind – this is the sort of book I would expect him to write.”  (Atlas Shrugged?  Stadler nails the Ayn Rand’s mental state pretty much exactly.  She wasn’t a drunk, but she did speed with the same ferocity of a street-corner wino.)
  • “By what right did you use my work to make an unwarranted, preposterous switch into another field, pull an inapplicable metaphor and draw a monstrous generalization out of what is merely a mathematical problem?”  (Kind of like how Rand turns Marxist philosophy and any legislation aimed at the economic redistribution of wealth into an epithet by using the term looter.  It reduces the incredibly complex problem of neo-classical economics into a theological spat.  Every time Rand uses the term “looter,” substitute the term “heretic” or “Kulak.”)
  • “Now, you see, Dr. Stadler, you’re speaking as if this book were addressed to a thinking audience.  If it were, one would have to be concerned with such matters as accuracy, validity, logic, and the prestige of science.  But it isn’t.  It’s addressed to the public.  And you have always been first to believe that the public does not think.”  (No wonder Rand is so popular with the Tea Party movement.)  Ferris continues: “So they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking.”
  • “Then the boys in Washington granted subsidies to the oil operators, but not all the oil operators had friends in Washington, and there followed a situation which no one cared to examine too closely or to discuss.”  (This is when I realized Atlas Shrugged was one of the most unintentionally hilarious books I’ve ever read.  Rand lived in New York City, how did she think Rockefeller Center got built?  Magic beans?  Big Oil and Big Government have had a centuries-old relationship in this national, just like … wait for it … the railroads.)
  • Some classic dialogue:

“But I’m a luxury object that you’ve been paid for long ago,” she said; she was not smiling.

“How?”  [Hank]

“By means of the same values with which you paid for your mills.”

(“By means of the same values.”  Warms the cockles of my heart.  Go suck on that, Margaret Mitchell!”)

  • This is the world and the core of it, this is what made the city – they go together, the angular shapes of the city and the angular shapes lines of a face stripped of everything but purpose – the rising steps of steel and the steps of being intent upon a goal – this is what they had been, all the men who lived to invent the lights, the steel, the furnaces, the motors – they were the world, they, not the men who crouched in dark corners, half-begging, half-threatening, boastfully displaying their open sores as their only claim on life and virtue – so long as he knew that there existed one man with the bright courage of a new thought, could be given up the world to those other? – so long as he could find a single sight to give him a life-restoring shot of admiration, could he believe that the world belonged to the sores, the moans and the guns? – the men who invented motors did exist, he would never doubt their reality, it was his vision of them that had made the contrast unbearable, so that even the loathing was the tribute of his loyalty to them and to that world which was theirs and his.”

This passage exposes the contradictory style of Atlas Shrugged, a combination of heady Romanticism and cold pro-Enlightenment philosophy not seen since the writings of fellow atheist D.A.F. de Sade.  The style of de Sade actually works and still shocks readers to this day.  The style of Rand comes across as out-Hugo-ing Victor Hugo and simultaneously anti-Hugo in its complete lack of sympathy in its alleged protagonists.  Instead of emotionally identifying with the benighted inventor heroes, the passage exposes Rand’s ham-fisted deck stacking.  Fine, inventors are good; looters are bad.  I get it.  But any writer with even an inkling of talent knows not to stack the deck in front of the reader’s face.  This deck stacking is so blatantly obvious one can see it from space … kind of like Deepwater Horizon, or better yet, one could call it Hayward’s Torch.

  • “What she felt in that moment contained, as one nameless part of it, the knowledge of the beauty in the posture of his body as he held her, as they stood in the middle of the room high above the lights of the city.”  (Is this supposed to be erotic or am I putting together an IKEA table?  Overly convoluted sentences bespeak an utter lack of writing talent.)

Quotes from Why Do You Think You Think?

  • “Thought is a primitive superstition.  Reason is an irrational idea.  The childish notion that we are able to think has been mankind’s costliest error.”
  • “That gray matter you’re so proud of is like a mirror in an amusement park which transmits to you nothing but distorted signals from a reality beyond your grasp.”  (That explains the Tea Party signs rather well.)
  • “The entire history of science is a progression of exploded fallacies, not of achievements.”  (I didn’t think that was an either-or proposition, since the history of science easily encompasses both.)
  • “Do not expect consistency.  Everything is a contradiction of everything else.  Nothing exists but contradiction.”