Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 8: Is Ayn Rand a Better Philosopher or Novelist?

In the final installment of our discussion, Conor Friedersdorf and Garance Franke-Ruta debate the merits of the controversial book's moral.

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

Say that the longest philosophical speeches were removed from Atlas Shrugged. Francisco D'Anconia would muse on money in a brief, plausibly conversational way. Hank Rearden would explain himself succinctly at his trial. And John Galt would never even deliver his monstrosity of a speech.

Does anyone think that the change would cost the novel very many of its satisfied readers? I suspect it would have sold just as well all these years and that it would be stronger for its brevity. "It is right to focus on the speech," Jerome said in his final entry, "for, as I have previously mentioned, the novel is merely the vehicle for the message." Perhaps Ayn Rand would agree, but I don't care. I refuse to let John Galt's speech guide what I glean from the book as fully as I would object if Ernest Hemingway had inserted a didactic 30-page speech by Jake Barnes into The Sun Also Rises. I gleaned truths from that story that I'm sure Papa Hemingway would reject, and I suspect the same can be said for the vast majority of people who like Atlas Shrugged enough to recommend it to a friend: They have many disagreements with Rand, and almost all regard her as a better novelist than a philosopher, a hypothesis that can be supported by comparing the sales of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to her nonfiction fare.

One wonderful thing about novels: They can be smarter than their novelist.

Care for an example?

Ayn Rand the philosopher posits, via a character, that there need never be disagreement among men of reason -- that they can just let reality decide -- whereas the novelist in her is too skilled to manifest that nonsense in the plot. So we see Ragnar Danneskjold and Hugh Akston in disagreement about the propriety of piracy ... or to cite a more central plot point, protagonist Dagny Taggart in open disagreement with all of Galt's Gulch about the means they'd chosen to carry out their project, even after their month-long effort to persuade her that she's helping her destroyers. 

My conversation mates don't seem to like John Galt much, and I must confess that I don't either. Permitted to invite any of the novel's heroes to a dinner party, he'd be dead last on my list. The "love at first sight" way that Dagny falls for him seems bizarre given Rand's insistence that honorable physical attraction is based on an intellectual judgment about a person's worth. Her previous loves, Francisco and Hank, were both men she knew very well, and it's just never seemed persuasive to me that she would so automatically choose boring old Galt because of his motor, as if "best invention" is somehow a trump among uber-talented titans of different fields.

But the love triangle created by John and Dagny's mutual attraction does give us one of the novel's most deft moments: If you're trying to show why self-sacrifice is self-defeating, what better illustration than showing that John giving up Dagny for Francisco's sake would destroy all three? Of course, that presumes that the conventions of monogamy persist in Galt's Gulch, which they do. I wonder why. Would it somehow be inconsistent with Rand's belief system if Dagny were to spend some nights with Francisco and others with John? Why? I suppose that occurs to me because Rand breaks with convention so much it gets me interested when she keeps to it. Plus, recall Francisco's speech. "You'll always grant me the same response, even if there is a greater one that you grant to another man. No matter what you feel for him, it will not change what you feel for me, and it won't be treason to either, because it comes from the same root, it's the same answer to the same values. No matter what happens in the future, we'll always be what we were to each other, you and I, because you'll always love me." See what I mean?

Michael, I've agreed with a lot of your critiques these last few weeks, but I'm very much in disagreement with your endorsement of the notion that "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber -- go!'"

This is a novel about revolutionaries who regard the society they're fighting as irremediably evil ... and still their chosen weapons are (a) a labor strike and (b) lengthy philosophical speeches meant to persuade one another by the force of reason. As I alluded to above, the one man of arms among the group, Ragnar, says the others all disapprove of his methods, and even he explicitly says that when he steals the cargo of ships, he always lets the crew escape before he sinks them. Finally, nothing in Rand's philosophy is more sacrosanct than not being the party to initiate force, and while it might permit various moral choices that we'd regard as monstrous, forcibly rounding people up and sending them to their deaths is obviously not among them.

Stray thoughts:

  • The ahistorical rendering of the American founding is annoying throughout this book, but there is one similarity its heroes have with the Founders: They're rich revolutionaries who rebel against the existing order despite the fact that they've done rather well for themselves within it. 
  • "No private businessman or greedy industrialist would have financed Project X," Dr. Ferris said of the machine that destroys things by projecting sound waves. "He couldn't have afforded it. It's an enormous investment, with no prospect of material gain." It's interesting, isn't it, that (as far as I can recall) there never has been a private businessman that built and wielded a machine intended for wanton destruction -- even though, when you think about it, an evil businessman doing so is a trope of so many comic books and action movies. (Real businessmen don't go Batman on us either.) From where does that trope come?
  • Michael, if I had to pick the part of the book that I'd most like to see you grapple with it would be the scene with Jim Taggart and his wife Cheryl, where they're discussing love, and whether it ought to be earned or unearned. 
  • Here's a line that annoyed me: "Cheryl, what you've been struggling with is the greatest problem in history, the one that has caused all of human suffering." You'd think, reading Rand, that human suffering has never been caused by two selfish men fighting over the best drumstick. That Communist revolutions and religious wars caused great evil doesn't mean they caused all evil.
  • Dagny avers that the secret to her success is placing nothing above the verdict of her own mind. Yet she proceeds by intuition at various points: as when, for example, she retains a belief in Francisco's core goodness even when her reason tells her that he is a depraved playboy. Once again, novelist Rand, who is aware of loyalty and nostalgia, renders a more realistic portrait than philosopher Rand.
  • I rather liked this passage, when Cheryl walks in on her husband having sex with Mrs. Rearden: "Then she found herself in her own room, fumbling frantically to lock her door. She had been flung here by the blind panic of escape, as if it were she who had to hide, she who had to run from the ugliness of being seen in the act of seeing them -- a panic made of revulsion, of pity, of embarrassment, of that mental chastity which recoils from confronting a man with unanswerable proof of his evil." Isn't that a good description of that feeling?

I'd close with two requests. One is directed at everyone who hears Atlas Shrugged being invoked in American political discourse: It's been my experience that high-profile politicians and pundits almost always mangle the book, whatever you think of it, and that folks held up as an embodiment of Rand's philosophy would almost always be villains if actually in one of her novels. They certainly aren't the champions that most fans of the novel would choose to represent them.

The other request is aimed at the subset of Atlas Shrugged fans who invoke it while supporting Republican candidates. I'd just point out that for the GOP to be worthy of that support, it would have to move beyond reflecting the anti-government parts of Rand's philosophy and take up the anti-cronyism imperatives too. Several of the book's great villains, like James Taggart and Orren Boyle, are the CEOs of major corporations who've lobbied their way to unfair advantages and outsized profits. The conservative movement has a long list of punching bags, from activists like Al Sharpton to journalists like Dan Rather to bureaucrats like Janet Reno to celebrities like Sean Penn. Can anyone think of a CEO who has been called out by the conservative movement as a personification of what's wrong with America? If one of the most egregious real-life cronies were attacked and it resulted in real reform, the credibility boost would be huge and deserved.  

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

Conor suggests most people who like Atlas Shrugged enough to recommend it to a friend would "have many disagreements with Rand," and "regard her as a better novelist than a philosopher, a hypothesis that can be supported by comparing the sales of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to her nonfiction fare."

If so, I couldn't disagree with them more. As philosophy, I found her work interesting, though not convincing, but as literature I have found Atlas Shrugged a terribly written and constructed book. And we all know contemporaneous book sales are not correlated with enduring literary value. That said, I am glad to have engaged with the book, which is a touchstone in parts of the contemporary political world, though only in the same way I felt a satisfaction at having watched Field of Dreams -- because of the endless references to it in the political arena, rather than because of any qualities of enjoyment in the enterprise of absorbing it.

As to Rand's main political argument, I would suggest that America already had a major Atlas Shrugged moment. It was called the '60s and '70s. I know people who were raised in or helped create the Galt's Gulches of those days -- there was a back-to-the-land movement among educated Americans, let us recall. And you know what? Rand was just wrong. America continued as it had, largely untroubled by the absence of these exemplars of excellence. If the nation had problems in the '70s, and it did, it had more to do with the lingering impact of the oil shocks on the economy and the "turn on" part of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" culture.

Society is not a bunch of schmoes with a handful of excellent people who keep it together, something that will fall apart without them. It's a system in which every clearing out of one group allows new people to rise to excellence, or at least prominence. But we all create each other, and can recreate each other and ourselves in response to the demands of the times.

Maybe in an oppressive, quasi-fascist state like the one described in Atlas Shrugged it is possible to stop the motor of the world. But in America, and in the real world, new people step up to the demands before them. Excellence and competence are not inherent genetic qualities, but the product of training, experience, intellect, values, and opportunity. In a free society, when elites go Galt, no one misses them for long, because new people rise up to take their place. The motor of the world preceded us, and it continues to turn after we step out of society, or even out of existence.

Galt's novel is a dystopian vision from start to finish. I give her credit for sensing something oppressive afoot in the tenor of the America of her times, and for, in a way, predicting the "Me Generation" with its communes and retreats and hippie back-to-the-land movement as a response to it. But we are past that now, and those who turn to her mid-century novel to direct their political thinking today are, sadly, turning to a dated vision of an America that never was to order their thoughts about what could be in a land that is freer and more welcoming of talent than Rand recognized.