Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 2: The Emotional Life of People at Work

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The exploration continues with a dark prediction, a tribute to Ayn Rand's most subtle rendering, and reader comments.

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[Entry 1 in this discussion is here.]
Subject: Part I, Chapters 1 through 5

Oh exalted ones!

I confess that I am a first-time reader of Atlas Shrugged. The only work I have ever read by Ayn Rand is Anthem, which I was assigned in the seventh or eighth grade, deep in the Reagan years, and haven't looked at since. At the time I much enjoyed that book; in fact, it's one of the few from those junior high school English classes of which I have any real memory. I think I read that slim volume in one sitting, compelled by the sheer weirdness of the story and the tautness of Rand's prose, and to this day can recall its final, climatic moment -- the annunciation of "EGO." I don't think I was at all taken in by Rand's vision, however, and have never been tempted to pick up one of her other novels or her later philosophical works.


I come to Atlas Shrugged, then, not as a teenager but as an adult. I also come as a student of social and political thought and literature, as someone who has spent many hours reading and thinking and writing about the tradition of political theory in the West, and as someone suspicious of -- indeed, hostile to -- what I know of Rand's ideas about politics, economics, and society.

Over the past few years, as Atlas Shrugged has become more and more widely discussed in the media, I have wondered about the novel, its long popularity, and how it serves as a vehicle for and enactment of Rand's peculiar teaching, Objectivism. This is why I am so excited about the opportunity to read and discuss the book in this forum, to attempt take it seriously as a work of fiction and of theory. And I am open to Conor's suggestion that we don't have to accept or reject Rand's work completely. In reading, I will try to follow his advice. But I am discovering that this will be difficult. In fact, though we come from quite different political (and religious) positions, I find myself concurring with Michael's unfavorable first impressions. Many of my comments here will reflect his thoughts.

There is, as Conor says, a lot to discuss in these first five chapters, much of which I admit to finding somewhat slow going. I was expecting a pot-boiler, or at the very least a page turner. I am astonished that Conor has read it three or four times as a grade schooler. (I will not even pretend to think that I would have made it through the novel as a kid!) What I have gleaned so far is that Atlas Shrugged is less of a work of literature than a project masquerading as a novel. But I don't think that this is much of a revelation.

Rand's core theme, one that is hammered home on almost every page of the book, is that we are faced with a struggle between the creative, independent individual, who is "the exalted," "the heroic," against what one character calls "the human element," the interests of society, "the looters." This is a book in which "the public" is a parasite, "non-material considerations" are an illusion, and "humanitarianism" a dirty word, perhaps the most filthy of all.

Rand is not at all interested in nuance here; the theme is underscored not only in the speeches but also, as Michael has discussed, etched on the faces and bodies of her characters. It will not be too difficult to tell the heroes and the villains apart in Rand's world. Clearly, Rand does not trust the moral imagination of her readers. And it is clear, too, even in these early pages, that Rand is setting up a Manichean world of light versus darkness, good versus evil, the exalted (and those who recognize them) versus the looters. This is not a book that is interested in exploring the ambiguities of the soul or the vagaries of human behavior. (Hank Rearden may be the most complex, and conflicted, character in these pages, but in Rand's world that's not to his credit.) I'm not going to expect much character development or epiphanies in later chapters. 

It is well-known that Rand claimed her only philosophical influence was Aristotle, but given her glorification of the strong and her hatred of the weak and their resentment Rand appears to be an apostle of a crude Nietzscheanism. Though she doesn't use the phrase, what Rand is enacting with her enlightened, progressive, public spirited businessmen like Jim and even Dan Conway is the triumph of a "slave morality" over that of the master, the strong and virtuous. (To see what I mean, take a look at the first essay of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals.) I suspect I'll have more to say about this in future posts.

As Michael has eloquently mentioned, this theme of the position of the individual against a group comes across most powerfully in Rand's suspicion of solidarity, in particular of familial relations and commitments. Consider chapter two, titled "The Chain," which narrates the inventor and entrepreneur Rearden's relations with his wife, Lillian, mother, and brother, Philip. Nearly the entire chapter is devoted to showing how Rearden is abused and exploited by his family members who fail to appreciate his virtues while living, parasitically, off his successes. Poor Rearden, Rand seems to suggest, doesn't have the wherewithal to deal with this lowly band of moochers they way they ought to be. 

Compare Rearden's family troubles with Dagny's attitude towards her grandfather a few pages later, a passage worth citing in full:

Dagney regretted at times that Nat Taggart was her ancestor. What she felt for him did not belong in the category of unchosen family affections. She did not want her feeling to be the thing one was supposed to owe an uncle or a grandfather. She was incapable of love for any object not of her own choice and she resented anyone's demand for it. But had it been possible to choose an ancestor, she would have chosen Nat Taggart, in voluntary homage and with all of her gratitude.

Well, okay. But it would do Dagny right to remember that Nat was indeed her ancestor and that she is in fact an heiress. As that other great Randian creation, the seemingly rakish Francisco D'Anconia, is an heir to a copper-mine fortune. Granted, some of Rand's heroes are indeed "self-made" men, so far as it goes (I kept wanting to shout, "You didn't build that!"), but it is indeed curious that her two protagonists just so happen to be born into the families they would chose if they could. How fortunate for them indeed!

And then there is the idealistic young Eddie Willers, Dagny's loyal assistant, with whom the novel opens. So far in the novel, Eddie seems less a character than a type; his role, I suspect, is to display the kind of deference that the masses should show to the great. (I also suspect that he may be madly and impossibly in love with his "childhood friend," Dagny. We'll see if that suspicion is borne out. I kind of hope so, though it would be too bad for him for he is clearly not her type.) Eddie, of course, is not a brilliant individualist, but he knows one when he sees one, and is respectful of such power. He is the good company man, competent, knowing his place, and committed to his master. Consider what Eddie ponders as he walks into Jim's office: "Taggart Transcontinental, thought Eddie Willers, From Ocean to Ocean -- the proud slogan of his childhood, so much more shining and holy than any commandment of the Bible." Really, Eddie? Comparing the slogan of the railroad to the Bible? Regarding it as shining and holy? Here is a man who spends his nights sitting in the employee cafeteria baring his lonely thoughts to an anonymous railway worker. I suspect that many young readers like this novel because they fancy themselves like one of its heroes. The fact, however, is that their true role model is Eddie Willers.

Yet, I think we should watch out for this Eddie. On the first page he has already shown himself susceptible to the sin of charity. Could he be tempted over to the dark side? Young idealists sometime fall hard.

Anyway, we'll just have to wait and see. But as I alluded to earlier, this is a novel with an ideology to promote. That it does so threatens to make the work didactic and tedious, which does not bode well for the next 1,050 pages. Oh, well. As any of Rand's characters might say, Who is John Galt?

****

From: Garance Franke-Ruta
To: Michael Brendan Dougherty, Conor Friedersdorf, Jerome
Copulsky
Subject: Part I, Chapters 1 through 5

I come to Ayn Rand having heard and read of her for many years through the voices of those she has influenced, but without ever having read her books previously. Within the first pages of Atlas Shrugged, I felt immediately plunged back into eighth-grade literature class. There is something about her prose that is fantastically mid-century, like an old painting you find in a thrift store that's been rendered interesting only because painted in a style that has passed out of fashion -- at once all visual cliches and ones no one uses anymore, indelibly and forever of its vanished moment.

Rand is at her most interesting in describing the emotional life of people at work. She is a scholar of the office and displays the mid-century fascination with bureaucracy and the malign power of large institutions to suppress the extraordinary individual (although in her rendering the extraordinary individual is not an ethnic minority, but an intellectual one -- none too surprising a topic given what intellectual elites suffered at the hands of totalizing governments last century, and what she saw as the Bolshevik Revolution upended her native Russia). Though acts of management and creative obsession are much chronicled from the outside in literature, very little I've read quite describes with the skill she does the difficulty of paying attention to other people that attends being completely wrapped up in a project, when bringing yourself back to the mundane matters of daily existence feels like trying to keep a helium balloon under water.

The scene where Rearden comes back to his house after having overseen the first pouring of Rearden Metal, the stronger, lighter-than-steel material whose production stands as testament to his whole career, displays her keen sensitivity to temperaments focused to the point of distraction -- something I suspect is also her describing the writer's temperament. Her description of Rearden's walk home in the dark from the plant and his buoyant sense of accomplishment along the way show a gift for describing the pleasures of achievement, and is very subtly done. But his clash with his wife and mother and ne'er-do-well brother once he arrives at home had me feeling I'd been plunged into a scene from The Women, or some other stagey black-and-white theatrical drama featuring female characters as anachronistic and stereotypical (in retrospect) as her portrait of the Rearden metalworks themselves. Perhaps her background as a Hollywood screenwriter is on display in this passage -- it's certainly written like a period parlor scene.

I want to focus on this domestic tableau in particular, however, because within it we see revealed something I am starting to find fascinating about Rand's work: her horror of domesticity and femininity, and her revulsion towards the weakness and softness that have so often been seen as feminine characteristics. All things evil in Rand's book are shapeless, soft, sagging, formless, loose, and baggy. All good things are angular, hard, decided, firm, outward-oriented. As well as, so far at least, clear-skinned, square-jawed, and blond. Her writing is so clearly the writing of a woman in rebellion against everything feminine and small and tame, it's really quite extraordinary. She writes from within and yet does not name what is one of the central problematics of contemporary womankind -- woman's struggle to wrest herself from the downy discomforts of expectation and will herself into a world that fails to grasp her as she sees herself.

Rand's vision of the misunderstood hero is of course appealing to adolescents -- but it's also the central narrative of women of action in novels from the late 18th century on.

****

To: Atlas Shrugged Book Club
From: Various Readers
Subject: Reader E-mail

What I am most grateful for in Atlas Shrugged, when I think about having read it as a teenager, is Dagny Taggart's departure from the traditional female sex role. Her role model of independence, and of setting & striving for her own individual goals, was a breath of fresh air. Such role models were in short supply during my childhood and teenage years, growing up female in the 1950s.

****

The writing is more philosophical than I recall from when I first tried to read this. Both Dagny and Rearden are compared to the Old Testament God: Dagny repeatedly says "I am" (Ex 3:14) when asked if she is willing to take responsibility in Chapter 1. Rearden's factory in Chapter 2 is introduced with "It began with a few lights," recalling the first three verses of the Bible's "In the beginning... let there be light." No messing around here: they are the Creator.
I remember the contempt for government, but I didn't remember the contempt for business executives. The idea that engineers like Dagny could run the world better without "suits" is common. It is wrong, and it is discussed in detail in the book The Geek Gap. In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden and Dagny, an inventor and an engineer, go ahead without the executives: they make decisions and put together a contract in Chapter 4, without anyone else. That is a common fantasy among technically-minded workers. From The Geek Gap: it's... hard for geeks [read: engineers] to see the skills involved in raising money or managing. "Oh, it's all about who you went to prep school with and how good you are at golf," they say.

****

With Rand's recent increased visibility I have watched with interest so many efforts to write about her ideas without being marked by the taint of association with them. Just as so many essays and columns in late 2001 began with a recitation of the formula, "Though I decry the
tragic fate of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, still ...", any writing about Rand must, it seems, begin with a ritual of denunciation. 

One must not be mistaken for "one of THEM."

****

One basic, quick observation: To understand Rand's fiction, you must understand that you are reading Cold War polemic, written by a survivor of collectivism, at a time when it was not at all clear that capitalism was going to be the winning system.

Thanks for everyone who has written in with comments so far. Next week, we'll be tackling Part I, Chapters 5 through 10. Send yours thoughts on those chapters only to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com -- and remember, no spoilers!

From: Jerome Copulsky
To: Michael Brendan Dougherty, Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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