© 1957 Ayn Rand
Sometimes the chains that bind us are made by our own hands. Dagny Taggart knew as a young girl that she wanted to grow up to be the master of her family’s railroad system. She began working for it in her youth, and so poured her heart and soul into it that the transcontinental system was an extension of her own self. Regardless of what problems she faced – from suppliers, with labor, or bungling rules from above — she was determined keep the trains moving so long as there were trains to move. The rails were her pride and joy, and she could keep them alive no matter who tried to strangle them – even if her enemies were getting more use out of the rails than she was. Atlas Shrugged chronicles her fighting defeat as her peers resolve to go on strike – to let a society which hisses in contempt for them even as it enjoys the comforts they created – go to ruin.
Atlas Shrugged has achieved notoriety in the decades since its release; people loved to hate Rand, even those who sympathize with her ideas. I was certainly no fan of her when I decided to try Anthem for its dystopian theme, and then The Fountainhead so I could experience her ideas first-hand — the latter novel made me realize Rand’s thinking was more interesting than my prejudices. It was my prejudices, however, that led me to Atlas Shrugged in great excitement. I loved the idea of triumphing over the state through civil resistance, loved the idea of characters telling the establishment what it could do with itself. So, even though Atlas Shrugged had some of the same creative problems as Fountainhead, and I don’t regard Rand’s philosophy of life as attractive in full, I had a terrific time reading it.
A book review of Atlas Shrugged is not the place for an essay on Objectivism’s virtues and flaws, although given how philosophical this novel is, that’s an easy way to drift off course. The Fountanhead focused on egoism and integrity; Atlas Shrugged is more expansive, and much of the content is characters debating one another. It’s less a novel than a philosophical argument in novel form, something like Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, but with Rand’s ideological enemies playing the part of Simplicio, the slobbering troll. Throughout the book, Rand and her characters defend the primacy of reason, the all-importance of the individual, and the real value of money. Linking them all is the human mind, which alone creates value and determines truth; for Rand, it is impossible that material things can corrupt a man. Only a man’s mind can corrupt him, and only in making choices can he be flawed or perfect. (“Perfection” for Rand is not arriving at some ideal state, but never failing to act or decide on the best discernible choice.) For Rand, material things have no inherent value: a rail system is only as good as the people who created it, as the people who sustain its operations through their ideas and energy. Rand’s philosophy covers metaphysics, aesthetics, economics, politics, and..sex, apparently. What surprised me is Rand’s idealism: although an atheist, she regards the modern academy with the same contempt as she does traditional beliefs. She despises those who say that humans are only animate goo, that nothing we do matters — that nothing we think is real, because logic and reason are an illusion, that everything is relative. This entire book is pregnant with arguments over the Meaning of Life, and the glory of being a thinking being in it.
As a novel, Atlas Shrugged has its problems. The characters aren’t as off as they were in The Fountainhead, but I suspect that’s me getting used to her style. The villains all carry their cards, and unless one is in a vicious mood — a mood delighted in politicians being berated — the way they’re depicted scuttling about, alternatively whining and scheming, might grow tiresome. I was delighted by the plot, however — intrigued by the pirate, curious about Who Is John Galt. I liked the building tension as the beating heart of the American economy slows, as the lights wink out by one, as Dagny’s rivals, suppliers, and buyers keep ominously disappearing. Perhaps the best part is the slow torture of Dagny and her supplier-friend, Hank Rearden: both are sympathetic but reluctant about the strike. Dagny loves her rails more than principle, and Hank is saddled with those “family” people who keep him from being a solitary uberman against the world. They both have their moments of realization, but the moments have to build and build on one another before they snap into place and reveal the futility of running in place. While the United States has not (and may never, I hope) succumbed to all of the legislation here, I am not surprised Rand has remained popular in the decades that followed. Who could not think of Atlas when Nixon began playing with wage and price controls? Not to mention the TARP deal, in which bankers and auto manufacturers survived not by producing value, but by exercising “pull”. Throughout Atlas Shrugged, we see the laws of economics corrupted and dominated by politics, so that those who succeed are the ones who play with the political machine. Rather reminds one of how the same banks funded Obama and Romney — maintaining their pull no matter who won.
Having now read both of Ayn Rand’s epic novels, my opinion of her has improved from the initial revulsion of hearing her praise selfishness on the radio. I realized in The Fountainhead that her use of the word was misleading. Her characters are not decadent playboys; they’re workaholics who enjoy functional luxuries, like a fast car and a warm coat, but for them the goal of life is to do, to create, to produce — not to consume, to spend. I think most people ultimately find more value and meaning in their connections with one another, and I’m not particularly surprised that none of Rand’s main characters, nor she herself, had children. When objectivist sex is a philosophical drive and not a biological one, it’s only natural that the only thing born are ideas to debate. However Rand misjudged the character of man in society, in general I found her ideas about individual integrity bracing.
Thanks for your excellent review of one of my favorite books. I appreciate your recognition that Ayn Rand is not a hedonist, but rather an advocate of rational self-interest. I would describe this as a novel of ideas in the same class as The Brothers Karamazov or The Magic Mountain.
Your review of this (and The Fountainhead) definitely intrigues me. It sounds like it would be a good candidate for journaling; at least, I find it helps to keep an ongoing log while I read long, philosophical books. I might start with The Fountainhead, though, not just because it's shorter (slightly!) but the focus on creativity is an interesting angle.
The Fountainhead is definitely more user-friendly, I think — not as many speeches, far fewer important characters, and a more universally appreciable story. There's also a movie version which Rand did the screenplay for…it has Gary Cooper as a strangely old Howard Roark.
Thank you for your advice last year in regards to reading The Fountainhead first. I hope to visit The Brothers Karmazov with in the year.
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