One thing that perplexes me about the novel that we touched on and Eddie also brings up again is the radical implausibility of the characters. I focused in class on the implausibility of the protagonists -- pointing out that one can have a romantically heroic protagonist without actually going so far as to make characters literally impossibly brilliant, as Francisco d'Anconia is made to me, literally the instant and effortless winner at everything he tries without fail, re-inventing calculus as a child, being handsome and athletic, and so on and on, or Hank Rearden being not only an incomparable entrepreneur, but also a master prospector for a whole diversity of resources, and also a master metallurgist, and also just happening to be a paradigm-shattering engineer/architect, and so on.
But it also seems to me that the bad guys in the novel are also quite flabbergastingly implausible, apt to declarations of the most absurd things imaginable, twisting at their villain mustaches and propounding Dr. Eeeevil conspiracies about their hostility to anything that might be construed as an accomplishment or about their unslakable lust to obliterate anything that might be construed as beautiful and so on.
Rand takes real pains to insist on the actual factual reality of her heroes:
"About the Author: 'My personal life' says Ayn Rand, 'is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence 'And I mean it. I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books and it has worked for me, as it has worked for my characters... I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this book has been written -- and published -- is my proof that they do."
Needless to say, writing Atlas Shrugged no more proves Ayn Rand the equal of John Galt than the publication of Harry Potter novels (works of fiction in every way -- including philosophically -- better and preferable to Rand's hackneyed hyperbolic bodice-rippers in my humble opinion) makes J.K. Rowling the equal of Albus Dumbledore.
Setting aside the curious evangelical sales pitch slash motivational speaker flim-flam artistry of Rand's punchy little bit of self-promotion there (change your life! -- it worked for me, it'll work for you! -- just mail in the handy card included in the novel to contact the Ayn Rand Institute and we'll turn your life around!), it seems to me that Rand is insisting on the literal reality of her superlative characters in a way that makes it difficult to treat them merely as "artistic" or "stylistic" conjurations of every person's capacity for greatness or independence or what have you. I mention this in answer to a few complaints about my emphasis on Rand's endless implausibilities by some who wanted to rationalize their own identification with the castle she has built in the air here.
I also think it is not accidental that conventional Movement Conservative discourse -- arising out of the ferment of works by Mises, Hayek, Hazlett, Rand, Friedman, Heinlein, and others -- many of whom we are reading in this class -- very typically declares humanities departments in universities to be cesspools of relativism, typically dismisses modern art as infantilism, typically declares any concern for the exploited or the vulnerable as expressions of envy, and so on. All of these facile mischaracterizations directly echo the villainous portrayals in Rand's potboilers, treated as literally truthful quite as much as she demands we take her heroes as accurate portrayals of human possibilties (and I might add that there is a cottage industry of lionizing corporate CEO biography/memoir literature that seems to want to declare that the titans of Atlas Shrugged roam the world among us even now -- even if they might strike the everyday on=bserver as rather more flabby sordidly unimaginative crudely opportunistic jackholes than Rand's heady prose would lead one to expect).
I want to be clear that in saying this I actually do not mean to deny that there are exceptionally brilliant and creative people in the world -- among them some I happen to reverence myself, as it happens -- nor that there are fairly appallingly idiotic dangerously deceptive people in the world -- among them some I happen abhor for their crimes and their their schemes and their lies (nobody who reads my blog, for example, would doubt that for long). However, I really think both the heroes and the villains in the novel are caricatural in ways that say something important about the way the novel is functioning and what its project amounts to.
I think this reliance on radical hyperbole and caricature treated insistently as literal truth surely connects to the radical underdetermination of actually rationally warranted beliefs by the recognition of the vacuity "existence existence" or "A is A" and also the correlated radical underdetermination of actually efficacious moral/ethical norms by the recognition that "[i]t is only the concept of 'life' that makes the concept of 'value' possible."
On my page 1018 Rand has Galt declare: "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists -- and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these."
Needless to say, I think that nothing much proceeds from these vacuities at all, that they are at best foundations in quicksand.
Certainly "existence exists" is a near-vacuity incapable of grounding the host of highly idiosyncratic Randian factual beliefs -- most of which do not square with actual experience of the world, experience of the way technoscience actually functions, industrial and commercial concerns actually function, the way artists and art promotion actually plays out in the world, and so on.
Nor does "the single choice: to live" provide anything like a groundwork for her highly idiosyncratic conception of "flourishing" -- which, again, does not square in the least with actual human concerns, histories, or hopes as far as I can tell, our awareness, for example, of our reliance on the common heritage of accomplishments and knowledges, our awareness of our interdependence on our peers for our survival and flourishing, our awareness of the ineradicable diversity of stakes, ends, capacities, situations, perspectives that suffuse the plurality of peers with whom we share, contest, and collaborate in the world, our awareness of our precariousness on earth, or vulnerability to humiliation, misunderstanding, our openness to being changed in ways we cannot imagine by the vicissitudes of history, love, conflict, differing perspectives, and so on.
Rand thought of herself as a "philosopher novelist" and of Atlas Shrugged as a philosophical novel. And I think that the false substantiation of Rand's highly idiosyncratic views both of what is and what ought to be through her endlessly reiterated recourse to the nearly vacuous assertions that "existence exists" or "A is A" on the one hand and that we must "choose life" or else "deal in death" on the other hand is a rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) philosopher that is directly correlated to the rhetorical gesture of Rand the (abysmally terrible) novelist in soliciting our identification and dis-identification with her flabbergastingly ridiculously hyperbolized heroes and villains.