The Atlas Shrugged Book Club Begins, Polarized but Polite

More

In this inaugural edition, one reader is inspired to quit Catholicism; another yearns for a book burning and inquisition; and a third is shocked to discover that the novel was published in the late 1950s.

as dyptic full.png


Read the introduction to the Atlas Shrugged Book Club here.

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

Subject: Part I, Chapters 1 through 5

Michael, Jerome, Garance:

As a kid, I read Atlas Shrugged three or four times, starting in sixth or seventh grade, all while attending Catholic schools in Orange County, California. It was one of my favorite books, and although it moved steadily down my all-time list as I discovered Tolstoy, Hemingway, Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, and many others, I retain a fondness for it. In fact, I'd recommend reading it once to anyone. Like the Bible, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, Atlas Shrugged offers a radically different way of looking at the world that's worth grappling with at least once. For many, the extremity of its vision is off-putting. Ayn Rand herself always insisted that her work wasn't amenable to partial concurrences. Either embrace it wholeheartedly, she said, or reject it outright.

What I'll never understand is why sycophants and critics alike so often comply. That isn't an approach that I ever took. I like to think that if you read Atlas Shrugged and attend Catholic school, taking the best insights from both, you emerge at the end with a healthy relationship toward guilt.

I've always been surprised by how polarizing the book's early chapters are. Readers meet Dagny Taggart, her unsavory brother, James, her childhood friend, Eddie Willers, and Francisco D'Anconia, my favorite character. The most controversial ideas in the novel all come later. I've nevertheless known people who love this section more than any other, and as many who stop reading after 80 pages, incredulous as to how anyone could press on. It's hard to know how I'd react to Part I, Chapters 1 through 5, if I'd read them at age 33 for the first time. Re-reading, I enjoyed them. And I remember why certain passages appealed to me as a younger man.

Eddie Willers's innocent idealism appealed to me: "It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren't. He knew that they weren't."

His confidence in his convictions did too.

When I first read the book, I was being pressured to get confirmed into the Catholic Church, which I refused to do. I remember speaking at length with a youth minister who hoped to change my mind. He seemed like a phony. There's a passage where Eddie describes a conversation with Jim Taggart, president of Transcontinental Railroad. "He spoke for an hour and a half and did not give me a straight answer," Eddie observed. I remember thinking to myself, "That's the affect my campus minister has!" I didn't need a novel to intuit that he was dodging my questions. But I'd never encountered that sort of manipulation, even on TV or in literature, until chapter one of Atlas Shrugged. Reading it reassured me, as all my peers were preparing to be confirmed, that I wasn't alone in perceiving a certain kind of evasiveness that I was right to mistrust. As I read on in the book, I was somehow reassured that I shouldn't feel guilty about refusing to affirm things I didn't believe, even if it would upset a family member or a priest.

Perhaps reading any radical dissent from prevailing social norms at that age would've broadened my notion of what was possible in the world. But I read Atlas Shrugged. And what I took from it wasn't Rand's philosophy so much as a feeling of empowerment to formulate my own.    

There's so much to discuss in the first five chapters:

The relationship between Hank Rearden and his wife Lilian. The notion of being starved for competence and delighting in finding it. Dagny's reaction -- a noble one, I would argue -- when Dan Conway is put out of business, a passage that refutes the weakest critique of Randian selfishness. Dagny's reaction to her first ball: "The lights and the flowers. Do they expect those things to make them romantic, not the other way around?" The dubious claim that "indiscriminate desire and unselective indulgence were possible only to those who regarded sex and themselves as evil." And how ought we judge the morality of the San Sebastian mines?

(Harshly, I think -- all those "noncombatants" harmed -- though Rand would obviously disagree.)

For now, I'll stick to the themes that have meant something to me personally.

Only once have I frightened myself by thinking like James Taggart. I was a college senior, pondering law school for all the wrong reasons. I hadn't a clue what sort of job I would get after graduation; I'd always excelled in school, gone to a competitive college, graduated with good grades. If I failed at life, what excuse would I have? If I ended up unemployed, living at my parents' house, what would that say about me? The course I thought I'd take up until that moment -- trying to be a newspaper reporter -- suddenly seemed terrifying. What if no one hired me? It was a career path without guarantees. Whereas going to law school suddenly seemed so ... safe. I may go deep into debt and embark on a career that feels more like a chore than a passion, but I'll guarantee avoiding a certain kind of failure, I thought. Or as Jim Taggart would put it, "No one can blame me for what's happened. I attended one of the best law schools, a career path generally considered to be worthy of esteem." To which an exasperated Eddie would reply, "Jim, who the hell cares if anyone can blame you? This is your life!"

I know the "why not law school?" logic I've described sounds insane.

But I've known a lot of people who felt something like that same anxiety -- who were afraid to really try because they might fail. Like a lot of people, I overcame it. I certainly don't give Ayn Rand all the credit. But I definitely thought about that aspect of the novel as college ended, and I pursued the career path that required a bit more courage, foolish idealism, and egoistic confidence that I'd somehow be among the minority of jobless 22-year-olds who'd "make it" in a volatile field. The book offered the negative caricature of the man who wouldn't take responsibility for himself, showing the shamefulness of that attitude. And it romanticized these ambitious characters who believed they'd succeed if they just worked damn hard. There's a Jay-Z line, "World can't hold me, too much ambition, always knew it'd be like this when I was in the kitchen." Wherever you get it, having some of that spirit when you're starting out is important.   

There's a variation on the personal responsibility theme later in this section. A railroad crew comes upon a broken signal and halts the passenger train they're running. Dagny happens to be on board:
"If you know that the signal is broken, what do you intend to do?"

"Lady, I don't intend to stick my neck out," he said.

"He means," said the fireman, "that our job's to wait for orders."

"Your job is to run this train."

"Not against a red light. If the light says stop, we stop."

"A red light means danger, lady," said the passenger.

"We're not taking any chances," said the engineer. "Whoever is responsible for it, he'll switch the blame to us if we move. So we're not moving until someone tells us to."

"And if nobody does?"

"Somebody will turn up sooner or later."
You'd be a fool to glean wisdom on romantic love from Atlas Shrugged -- not in a world with Anna Karenina. But buck-passing is a phenomenon in this world too, and Rand's dramatized  treatment of that subject conveys a truth (even if it doesn't ring as true as the treatment of The Wire's David Simon, the only other person I can think of who has attempted to address it so directly; he prized verisimilitude, whereas Rand had unusual theories about why artistic realism wasn't for her).

My least favorite passage from this section? The description of Nat Taggart, Dagny's grandfather, who "pledged his wife as security for a loan from a millionaire who hated him and admired her beauty," with her consent. Later when I discuss what I don't like about the book, I'll return to it. For now, I cede the floor to you guys -- what did you think about chapters one through five?

Best,

Conor

****

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

Fellow Looters,

What's the most depraved type of human being?

I come to this exercise having never read a single word of Ayn Rand's. I remember when I was in college and began calling myself a conservative people began asking me whether I was going through a Randian phase. So I read a little conservative criticism of Ayn Rand. Easy enough to dismiss, I thought. I accepted Conor's invitation gratefully because I thought perhaps that Ayn Rand can surprise me. And in the first five chapters, she has.

As I began reading, my first thought was that Atlas Shrugged was quite like a comic book. The characters were broadly and boldly drawn. They gave you their essence almost immediately. Virtuous characters and things are described as being angular, made of straight lines, tall, and long. The "shape of" Dagny's "mouth clear cut, a sensual mouth." Unvirtuous characters, like her brother, have "shapeless apprehension" or "muscles evading the responsibility of a shape." But by the end of the fourth chapter I had the disturbing thought that I had been reading a parody of an Ayn Rand novel. I double-checked.

Dear God! This really is Ayn Rand's novel! And reading it has filled me with what Rand would doubtlessly call a "shapeless" fear. Conor refers to the "extremity of its vision" as potentially "off-putting". Extremity does not get at what I've found so distressing about Atlas Shrugged. "Plainness" is part of it. There is something so insanely simple-minded and affectless about the dialogue and the ideas in this book -- "Francisco, what's the most depraved type of human being?" Dagny asks the young man with whom she is smitten -- that my mind is put instantly into sympathy with the prosecutors of the Inquisition. For the first time in my life I want to burn a book, and the word "Randianism" is now followed in my mind by the phrase, "should be remorselessly suppressed." This book will destroy souls. It provokes in me the most un-libertarian thoughts. Give me Brecht before another word of this! Perhaps the extremity of my reaction is off-putting.

I thought I would save the above reaction for a later time, for fear of sinking this conversation before it is started. But there it is. Also for the first time, I feel the temptation to psychoanalyze the author. More on that later.

This book really does evoke religious thoughts in me. There is a Gnosticism about it. Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Ellis Wyatt, Francisco D'Anconia -- they all spend time speaking to each other in words and concepts that only they seem to understand and accept. Everyone else is completely oblivious to the idea of the profit motive or the appeal of financial success. They are invincibly ignorant in Rand's telling.  And our protagonists hold the dupes, moochers, and looters around them in contempt.

Holding people in contempt is a virtue itself, it seems:

"Don't show that you're scared Jim," she said contemptuously.

Reardon felt contempt for the groups of that kind and saw no reason for a closer inquiry of their nature.

But an almost unendurable contempt made him close his eyes instead.

When called upon he moved with contemptuous slowness.

She had shrugged, contemptuously amused...

Dagny lived in the future -- in the world she expected to find, where she would not have to feel contempt or boredom.

She was talking to a couple of helpless young men, her face contemptuously empty.

Dagny thought of the party and shrugged in contemptuous reproach at her own disappointment.

[Francisco:] "I am not committing the contemptible act of asking you to take me on faith"


That's just the first five chapters. And of course, it isn't just the word. Wyatt accuses Dagny, "You expect to feed off me while you can and to find another carcass to pick dry after you have finished mine. That is the policy of most of mankind today."

Well, jeez, when you put it that way. I guess I'm no longer surprised that the Randian sub-culture of libertarianism is unreflectively hawkish. Bomb a moocher, save the world.

In the abstract there would be something admirable about the determination of the heroes.  But it is interesting that Rand sees familial attachment as the enemy of capitalist progress. Of course, historically, capitalism is a kind of acid on tribal societies. But to my mind, the most memorable scene of all in these first five chapters is the scene after Hank Rearden has poured his first round of his new super-metal; his life's work finally hitting the market. He is sitting with his family, and they are entirely uninterested in it. In fact, they hate him. They nag him constantly. They criticize him even as they live off the fruits of his labor and genius. They do not understand him and he does not understand them. They are obstacles and enemies. He almost pities them. In this way, even the simple bourgeois family is made into an enemy of the creative genius of the capitalist.

And this is where my moral differences with Rand seem to be peaking out most violently. Her novel is right that man's creative power is worthy of honor and that this honor is often impugned by the merely self-interested and lazy. What I find so nasty is that she only recognizes man's creative power and his ability to "take responsibility" (notice how everyone but the heroes scrupulously and explicitly avoids responsibility) in these über-capitalists, who bend and shape the world through commerce. That almost all humans are creating all the time -- small things, mostly, but real nonetheless -- seems to be beneath her Olympian notice. And that she contrasts the freedom and potency of demi-god capitalists with the stultifying confines of family is the most perverse from my perspective, because for the bulk of humanity, we most clearly imitate God as creative agents by making children together, and taking responsibility for those children. We co-create souls and have the awesome responsibility of shaping them. The family is the great fiery furnace in which people are forged. The place in my moral universe that is occupied by the manger and the Holy Family is in Rand's world occupied by a bank vault and a teller.

When Dagny is thinking of Nat Taggart, her long-deceased relation, she resents the idea that she owes him something just for having a biological tie to him, but believes that for his virtues as a (presumably Gilded Age) baron she would have chosen him freely as a family member. Rand really can't resist putting that fine a point on it.

And again, there is something adolescent about this worldview that exalts human agency by obliterating all other factors of human life. Dagny, Rearden, Wyatt are all the beneficiaries of their biology, their talents, their intellect, their families, their nations. The text of this book reacts petulantly at the suggestion that property and wealth are a trusteeship, a bundle of resources that others (living and unborn) have a claim on. As a conservative, I suppose I reject the way socialists claim others' property, but as a conservative it is obvious to me that property, the land, and the nation are given to us by law, custom, circumstance, and (yes) some of our own talent at work. That we have a responsibility to use it for our good, the good of our families, and the good of our nation, and to pass it on better than we found it is blindingly obvious and intuitive to me. Even when I've overcome some obstacles, even those put up by members of my own family to achieve success, I tend to feel grateful for what I've been given, not this pervasive Randian contempt at those who through normal human fault incidentally or temporarily impeded my plans.

I wrote earlier that I've been tempted to now psychoanalyze Rand after just starting her book. And perhaps here is where I will finally soften to her, and perhaps this is my gateway into enjoying the rest of this book apart from the above extremities. Critics of Rand famously point out that she accepted government assistance as she became older and ill. This is often reduced to a cheap rhetorical point about her, but it actually makes me sympathize with Rand.

Knowing her circumstances, I'm inclined to believe that Atlas Shrugged is a kind of comic book after all. And that Rand's capitalist heroes represent something deeply aspirational for her. And that is one thing I do share with Ayn Rand. I very often daydream of amassing great wealth, of living in luxurious circumstances that demonstrate my superior taste. I suppose my fantasies differ from hers in that I'd also use great wealth for philanthropic causes and try to buy the impression that I'm moral and generous too. I think part of it is that I've often felt economic distress, the humiliation of unemployment and failure without a safety net. So the idea of having not only economic security, but real power and agency is so tempting and so deeply comforting. I can imagine becoming a monster while trying to achieve it and justify that achievement. I'm afraid Rand has become that just in the wishing.

What am I missing?

****

To: Atlas Shrugged Book Club
From: Kenneth J. Devries
Subject: Reader E-mail
 

Before I begin, I know journalists like disclosure so here is mine:  My wife, Donna Kossy, wrote a book called Kooks, about people who are driven to share their Big Idea with the world.  I live in the Kooks Museum and our library holds hundreds and hundreds of books by such people. I have read about half of them and tried to read most of the rest, and the fact is that I have read more of that kind of book, and more different kinds of books, than anybody I have ever met.  I will not be viewing Atlas Shrugged with the same eyes as a person who has read only popular fiction, or nothing at all, and abruptly encounters a Novel of Ideas.  I think much of the positive emotion Rand's work engenders is a first encounter effect, a realization that there are books full of things you never thought could even be in a book.  That effect may account for the cult status of such works as On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Stranger in a Strange Land, Catcher in the Rye, etc.

My very first thought on reading a few pages of Atlas Shrugged was surprise that people can come up with so many bad things to say about Rand as a writer.  The book is a melodramatic fantasy, the protagonist is an ideal and other characters are types and symbols, but it is not poorly written. 

I have been reading Pride and Prejudice this month and by comparison Rand's characters are no more "laughably shallow" (as they have been described) than Austen's. James Taggart is a type, as are Mr. Collins and the Bingley sisters.  The difference is that in Rand the secondary characters are mostly one type -- moral cowards whose main motivation is to avoid taking responsibility for the results of their actions. While Austen seems utterly unable to write a clear visual description of any kind, Rand's descriptions are vivid and striking, her language strongly emotional and poetic. I am a painter, and the first pour of Rearden Metal filled my mind with burning color.  She depicts the characters' inner state with clarity and intensity. It is only in the extended dialog scenes that my attention wanders.

I doubt that Rand had much of a sense of humor but she does show a skill for fierce satire in her descriptions of character and behavior, and I chuckled with glee at the "most expensive barroom in New York .... built on the roof of a skyscraper,"  made to look like a dingy cellar, and its bartender whose "manner was that of an embittered quack ministering to some guilty disease."  I laughed aloud at the "pyramid of slabs in brownish-purple jackets, inscribed: The Vulture Is Molting."

I didn't research this book before I started, so after reading a few chapters I was startled to learn its publishing date because it seems so much to be addressing the social and technological concerns of the 1930s, not the late '50s. Rearden mentions air freight as a distant future threat to the railroads, and I get more an overall feeling of the anti-technocracy and Bolshevist attitudes of the '30s than the Red Scare '50s when there really wasn't much fear of new technologies.  Notably, "The Atom" as a potential source of power or threat doesn't seem to appear at all, unlike almost all other speculative fiction of that day. In the movie in my mind, the gowns are by Adrian, not Edith Head.

So far, a fairly well written, slightly simplistic and anachronistic, melodramatic bit of Social Science Fiction.

Best Wishes,

KDV

On Tuesday, Jerome Copulsky and Garance Franke-Ruta reply, plus more reader comments on Part I, Chapters 1 through 5. Send yours thoughts on those chapters only to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com  -- and remember, no spoilers. The reading schedule for the next part will be announced Tuesday. 
Jump to comments
Presented by

Atlas Shrugged Book Club

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In