Friday, February 19, 2010

Let's Discuss Atlas Shrugged

I’m not sure on the policy of writing a précis on a piece after a Thursday meeting, but Atlas Shrugged is a text I really wanted to write about, pending completion of reading the book (I failed). Regardless, I offer up these thoughts so that hopefully we can generate our first real, compelling, discussion on a text online, especially one of such extraordinary influence, so that it receives the attention it deserves, not on its merit as a work (I say this to appease the Rand-haters), but for our purposes of studying rhetoric and the power of words.
The argument, which a brief glance at Wikipedia has shown me to be known as “objectivism”, is a philosophy embedded in Rand’s novel (and fantasy land). We discussed this in class so I hope I don’t need to give too much of a “gist” of her argument, but essentially the themes in the book can be found in the “This is John Galt Speaking” speech. Rand presents her argument as saying that not only would we be wrong to disagree with her, our fundamental way of thinking, our entire view of reality would be proven flawed. As Francisco loves to say, “There cannot exist contradictions. If something does not make sense, check your premises” (I am entirely paraphrasing here). This is reflected in Rand’s step-by-step philosophy, starting with “existence exists”. Men are alive. Their consciousness is a reflection of the fact that there are objects in the world to be conscious of. Life implies certain virtues. Man is the sole animal with the choice to live and how to live. Every choice deviating from a rational course of action is to be living in a “state of walking death”, as a brutal, savage, ghost, spider, neither man nor animal (to paraphrase Dale).
We scoff at her in class. Dale asks, “isn’t this passage hyperbole?” We respond, “isn’t the whole book hyperbole?” Laughter ensues. Yet I am left after class with no clear answer, nor a compelling attempt at one, to Dale’s very important, perhaps most important, overarching question, “what is compelling about the text—how does this thing operate?”
We can hack at Rand’s arguments. Sure it is ridiculous to assume the entire fate of the working world rests on the shoulders of a select class of super-intelligent meta-humans. It is impossible to think that the fairy tale coincidences Dale mentioned (learning of the train accident from the phantom radio at the exact perfect moment) truly happen in a real, “objectivist”, Rand-ian world. How can we have an objectivist “A=A” when we can dip a burning hand and a freezing hand into a lukewarm bucket of water and feel two different things (hot water=cold water?). This is like dismissing Hayek for using a slippery slope argument. It works. Very well.
What do I feel is the magical appeal of Rand’s shoddily written, philosophically flawed, immensely bandwagon-ly loved novel? I can’t begin to offer the answer. Yet the answer may lie in the question (ha! I can write like Ayn Rand!). The feeling I had during the discussion was that perhaps we were addressing the text with a system that did not apply. This text is radically different from everything we have read so far, in the same way that Polanyi was different from Hazlitt and Hayek, in the same way that they were different from the Fireside Chat. We can bash her clumsy, unoriginal literary moves, pick apart her philosophy and contradictions, and do it all in the same way that we happily tore apart “Economics in One Lesson” together, as a wolf pack. The thing is that “Atlas Shrugged” is first, a novel, and second, a polemical, philosophical text. We have mentioned several times so far the importance of considering the audience—this audience is the same that would only read the Reader’s Digest version of “The Road to Serfdom” (and more likely, the comic). The weaknesses we saw in the text were likely it’s strengths.
The book is a fairy tale, with unambiguously evil villains, and superheroes with superpowers, who are super powered enough to overcome the villains, but not have an easy time doing it. When I talk to English majors (I am one as well) about the novel, general comments I get were, “I wish I could be Dagny Taggart and not worry about stupid things, and love my job” in the same way that you might hear, “I wish I were Harry Potter and live in Hogwarts”. Dale was not lying when he said people, if not assigned explicitly, would skim over the John Galt speech (if a statistical sampling of two readers is enough to make an inference). I found myself loving the book initially, loving the surreal feeling of the dystopia, rallying behind the ineffable Francisco D’anconia and Hank Rearden as they overcame the “fools” with mad problem-solving skills. The “who is John Galt” lends itself to creating a mystery—clearly not meant to be subtle or clever, but obvious enough to let us feel that we know what’s up, and to feel clever ourselves as well as wait in anticipation. Dale mentioned the glaring obviousness of the “your days are numbered” subtext of the giant calendar, but come on, how many of us realized this instantly, or even until we read the sentence in “The Aristocracy of Pull” that read, “Your days are numbered, it had seemed to say”. Was it that insultingly obvious, or a result of a speedy second-reading that jumbled the first and second reading experiences (not to doubt your cleverness Dale)? Ayn Rand is giving us the subtext, quite un-subtly I admit to everyone, but nevertheless she is giving us the undercurrent of “heaviness” twinging at the fringes of our consciousnesses that gives the story a dimension of “woah that’s deep” with a little “something compelling is happening between the lines!” Why else do we think it’s so cool or envious that Dagny and Rearden/Francisco can communicate with no words, just by the “sudden tightening of his jaw skin” like the best friend/lover you were told to dream of and always wished you had?
In the same way that we are a class full of rhetoricians that would gleefully rip apart rhetorically manipulative texts (hey! I spot reductio ad absurdum here! No! It’s Godwin’s Law!), clamoring under the eye of our benevolent and powerful instructor (Hail Dale!), Ayn Rand gives the opportunity for any old schmo to be the light of rationality by recognizing the stupidity of Pritchett, of Ferris, of Mouch, of Bertrand, of Balph, etc. We are a wolf pack taking the higher moral, intellectual, philosophical task of reducing every argument and author we read into, “ha I see what you’re doing there. You’re just the sum of the same old tricks—gotcha!” The power in Rand’s novel is exactly the same in the novel that Ferris panders to the masses (“the man who doesn’t see that, deserves to believe all my statements”). We are sucked in through classic literary moves, by fantasy, by sexual desires (Dagny/Hank’s only weakness? Another question to ask), by villains, and by utopia. The philosophy starts as a novel but trickles through the lines, where fans and know-it-alls can take up the mantle of objectivism and the, as Dale put it, “castle in the sky” that it creates (I agree with Dale on this).
Am I taking the low-brow approach to this answer? Is my English major background prevailing over an analysis of rhetoric? But if rhetoric is the “how we communicate” and English is the “what we communicate”, then isn’t the approach to “Atlas Shrugged” as a best-seller-intended novel rather than intellectual, philosophical manual closer to the “how we communicate” way? I’m not sure if I’ve answered any questions, but this is just what I’ve been thinking and figured it would take too long to say if I just raised my hand and gave a Francisco-at-a-cocktail-party-style rant in class. I’m still curious about the questions I mentioned in a comment previously. I’d love to see a discussion on this even while we “move on” because I like this book (the whole thing, not just the philosophy). There, I said it.
-Eddie Lee


  1. Thanks for posting this, Eddie. I hope you get your wish, and that discussion of the novel continues here on the blog, both in comments to this post and others (Ryan's recent post is also interesting, for example).

    The point you raise about the relations of literary and argumentative conventions remain relevant (though in different ways/measures) in upcoming texts, next week's Report, the memoir later in term Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and in the films at the end (providing a Randian coda, btw). I think there is plenty more to say about that, for one thing.

    So, I agree with you that there is a lot more than can and ought to be said about how the novel is functioning... but I noticed that most of the things you mentioned in this regard in your precis were actually brought up in class discussion already. Are there other avenues you want to suggest, or are you hoping folks will dig deeper into the observations we already took up?

  2. Thank you for your comment. I agree that many of the things I mentioned were brought up in class, and while I can say that it was to provide the "summary" requirement of the precis, I also feel that the approach itself to the details we discussed in class was, unless I was missing something during class, entirely different.

    For example, when I mentioned the calendar metaphor, I was reminding people that we bashed it in class, and decided it was an example of shoddy writing that seemed at odds with the implication, due to the social significance of this book, that it was in fact, a "good" book. "This and other things are why it's a bad book--what, despite this, makes it a good book?" we seemed to be asking. I tried to say that it is a bad philosophical text, but a fine book. The repetitiveness is tedious and enraging, at times, but how many readers has this book attracted by its size? I'm sure the sense of challenge and achievement perpetuated it's status as an intellectual text. The romance gave the book another plot dimension, and no one will deny sex sells. I asked in an earlier comment about the significance of the role of sex and relationships and how the sexual animal can be contained within these ultra-rational beings, and I am convinced now that it was all just a cheap way to spice it up a little bit. This is how I feel the novel is functioning--cheaply.

    It convinces us never to live our lives for the benefit of others, to never go along with a system if ever you need to pretend or lie to yourself; this statement comes from an artist, an author who put these words in Halley's mouth, "there's only one passion in most artists most violent than their desire for admiration: their fear of identifying the nature of such admiration" (782). This book is a lie, invented for our benefit, and Rand is living for our intellectual approval of her book. I understand we are rhetoric majors ready to tear everything we read apart, but I think the mistake we made in class, and the distinction I tried to make, was that Atlas Shrugged is just a cheap vehicle for her thoughts, and when we deconstruct that cheap machine and wonder how it ever held power, we forget that it was meant to be read with a cheaper mind. Dale, I believed you said you liked it when you read it for the first time in high school, before you looked at it maturely as an adult. But it is that first, visceral liking that is the point of any good book. The predictable plot, the overused literary conventions, despite her contradictions and despite her pretense of not pretending--if they can knock down our intellectual defenses and let her philosophy trickle on through, she has succeeded in her wish. We are too "smart" for that, and the class atmosphere makes us try to think and defend our intelligence by actually proving we are too "smart" for that. But for however many thousands/millions of people read the book alone, in the middle of the night by a solitary lamp, going "yea. i hate stupid people too!", that is the power of the book--deception and disguise.

    Am I missing a big point here? Is it too ignorant to be saying we are ignorant to the power of the book because we are not addressing it in an ignorant-enough way? I look at this last sentence and feel embarrassed that my whole point could be summarized as such but something I'm having trouble crystallizing in words is telling me that this is part of the truth.

  3. No, these are good points. I think they are relevant for other texts we are grappling with in the course as well, actually.


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