Friday, September 10, 2010

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

With my political leanings tilting more towards libertarianism (or more specifically minarchism) than either of the morally bankrupt controlling political parties, it isn’t surprising that several of my friends and mentors have recommended Atlas Shrugged to me. What is surprising that it took me so long to get around to reading it! I’ve been familiar with the overarching themes of the novel for years, but didn’t understand the venom directed towards it until reading it myself. Gore Vidal described the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged as “nearly perfect in its immorality.” Whittaker Chambers called it “preposterous” and “remarkably silly,” going on to write that it “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.” My favorite quote about the book, however, comes from a blogger named John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Atlas Shrugged explores a frighteningly plausible United States where the most original businessmen, inventors, and artists refuse to be exploited by the government and vanish from society. The political bureaucracy responds by nationalizing more and more industries, leading to a world in complete decline with its citizens growing lazy on entitlement programs. Rand argues that when people are forced to place the wants and needs of their neighbors above their own at all costs, rewards for hard work vanish and apathy becomes inevitable. “[Robin Hood] died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. ... He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor.” In Rand’s view of socialism, the thieving poor suck the lifeblood from the productive rich, thus Robin Hood is the archetypal villain. Interestingly, Rand’s protagonists don’t try to fight the system, but instead entirely withdraw from it in a hidden community and actively attempt to speed the fall of society—the theory being that after the collapse, the concealed intelligentsia will emerge and rebuild the world.

As interesting as the subject matter of the novel is and the longevity it has enjoyed, I found the writing surprisingly juvenile and sophomoric. Rand’s characterizations are shallow and one-dimensional; the heroes are all beautiful geniuses with an unbreakable resolve while the villains are weak-willed, unhappy, and irrational. Single paragraphs often run two or three pages and individual sentences last for hundreds of words. At the climax, when the world gets the answer to the persistent question “Who is John Galt?” a single soliloquy prattles on for over 55 dense pages. Often I found myself skimming rather than reading, but don’t feel like I really missed out on anything. A more aggressive editor could easily have made the novel more accessible without compromising the message.

That said, I quite enjoyed the book. Rand’s jingoist anti-welfare, pro-entrepreneurship message sits well with me, and I often found myself cheering and booing at the appropriate times. She does an excellent job of demonstrating how socialism taken to an extreme inexorably leads to corruption, although she ignores the converse thought, that uncompromising capitalism has the same result which I also believe is true. Rand clearly favors material achievement over compassion, and if forced to pick only one I’d have to agree; I’m not a fan of every kid getting a trophy in T-ball, social promotions in school, or affirmative action in any form. However, sentiment does have its place in society—It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite movies and is a surprisingly effective counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged. In summary, while I’m not going to begin donating my time and money to the Ayn Rand Institute or evangelizing anarchy and rebellion, I do think Rand clearly gets more right than wrong here. Regardless of where your beliefs fall on the political spectrum, Atlas Shrugged asks some interesting questions you should consider.

First Sentence:
“Who is John Galt?”

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