Discussing Part II of Ayn Rand's dystopian novel
From: Jerome Copulsky
To: Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty
Subject: Part II
After slogging through nearly 700 pages now, I've come to the conclusion that Atlas Shrugged would have benefited much from the services of a good, ruthless editor. If something is worth saying once, for Rand it is worth repeating again and again. And again. And, what the heck, again again. Even the casual reader cannot fail to get the point. And there is, Michael, not nearly enough good sex in this thing! In short, I'm finding it overwrought and an overbearing read. Rand particularly enjoys having her characters speechify, which may be a way for her to express the details of her ideology, but in a work of fiction -- one which purports to be a romance and a mystery -- it is increasingly tedious. As I suggested, it appears that Rand doesn't trust her readers to draw their own conclusions from her characters and narrative. They must be told, over and over, about the virtue of the self-interested industrialist and the evil of the looters and their system.
Francisco D'Aconia might be fun to run into at a cocktail party, Conor, until he got you in a corner and delivered an interminable lecture on the nature and glories of money. At that point, I wouldn't blame you if you excused yourself to get another gin and tonic. I like him better in his guise of "worthless playboy" than as a sincere (and chaste, as it happens) apostle of Randianism.
But these ideas are what the novel is all about, so in Part II we get treated to a number of disquisitions, particularly on the notion of the sanction of the victim, which Francisco explains to Hank at length, and which Hank then goes on to repeat to the court. According to Rand, it is the capitalists who are the world-historical victims, and they have willingly participated in their own destruction by giving their sanction to the morality of their oppressor. And now things are coming to a head. As Francisco tells Dagny later on as he tries to convince her to join the strike, "Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish -- we the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world -- but we let our enemies write its moral code."
Unite, boys! You have nothing to lose but your chains.
But such is the nature of Rand's world, where it is the producers who are exploited and the unappreciated and meek have already inherited the earth. Frankly, I am astonished by the level of resentment that Rand's heroes express, not only about their current economic situation, but also about what they regard as the debased condition of capitalists throughout history.
I mean, really, Francisco. Your people have had it pretty good. Buck up, man. (As a side note, I'm struck by how often Rand's characters, too, are "astonished" in reaction to something or other -- when they aren't feeling contempt or indifference, of course. It strikes me as a kind of tic, a go-to word -- disclosing I think, a kind of laziness of psychological imagination.)
Yet, as one ponders this Randian complaint, one wonders if things are really all that simple. Sure, in Atlas Shrugged Rand has created a dystopian world, full of crony businessmen, power-hungry bureaucrats, and "People's States," where the virtuous capitalist finds him or herself always on the defense, hated, oppressed, and abused. But is it the case that the moral code of the world has always been stacked against him, against production and commerce? I'm more than a bit skeptical. At some point in my reading, I really wanted to tell Francisco to shut up for a moment and hand him my copy of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for starters. Clearly, he should have steeped out from under the clouds of Professors Akston and Stadler and taken a broader set of courses at Patrick Henry University, perhaps a few in modern history.
Francisco's (that is Rand's) own lack of historical awareness comes across in passages of uncritical celebration of America. For example, in his sermon on money, Francisco exclaims that "to the glory of mankind, there was, for the first time in history, a country of money -- and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man's mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being--the self-made man -- the American industrialist."
Later on, another character remarks to Dagny that the United States "was the only country in history where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade, the only country whose money was the symbol of man's right to his own mind, to his own work, to his life, to his happiness, to himself."
Rand's characters imagine an America born pure and pristine, without violence, without seizure, without slavery. This is simply a delusion of the first order. Ms. Rand, I have a few books for you to take a look at as well.