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.