Saturday, February 12, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: A Book Review

No summary of Atlas Shrugged could possibly do justice to the novel's intricacies, and this is not simply due to the 1100-page length of the book. One of the longest fiction novels in English and nearly as long as the Bible, the focus of this novel is far more complex than the focus of The Fountainhead. In the latter, Rand relied on her character's personal, internal conflicts to move the story along, developing them in terms of their specific natures rather than their social relations and interactions with other characters, which were peripheral offshoots of the central theme. Atlas Shrugged, by contrast, features a heavy focus on relationships in almost every dimension of human life between characters, social structures and institutions, and it has been referred to by many as "The Bible of Objectivism."

The vast scope and complex, interwoven themes at work in this magnum opus makes it a novel that does not translate easily into a screenplay. Despite this, however, a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is now in the works with actress Taylor Schilling in the starring role as Dagny Taggart and Paul Johansson directing. The finished product should be quite interesting, and I actually look forward to watching it. The first question that comes to my mind is how much screenwriter John Aglialoro will end up cutting the climactic speech delivered by character John Galt (to be played by director Paul Johansson). In the edition of the book I have on my shelf, this speech begins on page 923 and ends on page 976, making a total of 56 pages of John Galt talking uninterrupted (which took Rand two years to write). In the screenwriting business, one minute of screen time per page is the general rule, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. This means that if Paul Johansson gives the entire speech (which is important to the plot) completely uncut, about half a movie would be out of the way before getting to any of the actual plot.

Atlas Shrugged takes place in a bleak, near-future America ("Twenty Minutes Into The Future" as TVTropes.com puts it), that is completely governed by incompetent and evil people bent on draining the productivity of the few remaining brilliant innovators in society. This intellectually-competent and productive remnant go on strike; they disappear one by one from society as public resistance to ever-increasing government control of industrial production grows weaker and weaker. A mysterious figure known as John Galt orchestrates this massive strike behind the scenes, and his name, which is spoken as a catchphrase throughout the novel, is immortalized in the form of a question among the general public: "Who is John Galt?" One of the few remaining noble and brilliant people is Dagny Taggart, a drop-dead-gorgeous and atheistic transcontinental railroad executive who struggles to live up to her ideals and keep her business afloat in a global economy plagued by increasing government encroachment. Every other protagonist in the story, including key characters like Henry Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia, are also brilliant inventors, businessmen and industrialists who alone contribute to social stability (hence the title, which refers to the Greek myth in which Atlas carries the sphere of earth on his back; the removal of the movers and shakers of society is equated to what would transpire if Atlas were to tire of the weight and shrug, i.e., upheaval on a global scale).

There are many villains in the story, far more than there are heroes. All of these villains are reminiscent of the "second-handers" in The Fountainhead; they seek to leech off the ideas and accomplishments of the movers and shakers, reaping the benefit that comes from them without having to work. It is in response to this that John Galt abandons society and founds his own hidden society in the middle of nowhere, which he calls Galt's Gulch. From this base he convinces the geniuses of the country to join him in establishing an experimental version of a libertarian utopia, which he considers to be a type of Atlantis. The world deteriorates more and more as the individualists gradually diminish in number. Galt and his society of noble heroes remain sequestered in their secret haven until society collapses entirely, at which time they emerge to rebuild the infrastructure from the ashes. The novel ends with John Galt declaring, "The road is cleared . . . we are going back to the world." He then raises his hand over the "desolate earth" and traces in space the sign of the dollar. The narrative evokes no remorse for the fate of those who experienced the crumbling of society. In fact, the message conveyed is that they all deserved it, since the vast majority of the people in the world are incompetent and needed to be "cleared" from the heroes' path to success.

The ultimate moral of the story represents one of my major misgivings about certain key elements of Ayn Rand's philosophy. This is a philosophical worldview that makes no attempt to understand the complex ways people think and behave, and opts instead to make sweeping blanket statements that portray the masses as idiots who deserve any calamity they might experience. In Rand's universe, people are stratified into three main groups: There are the geniuses, the individualists who typify the noble hero archetype. There are the second-handers, who hold back the accomplishments of the geniuses. Then there are people who are themselves not particularly brilliant or heroic, but who are not evil or stupid either. They are merely useful to the heroes; they carry out the mundane work that the heroes are too important to bother with. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny's assistant Eddie Willers is one example of a character that fits into this category. He is treated as a good person who serves a purpose for those above him.

This outlook is very characteristic of cults. Like John Galt and his followers, they cut themselves off from the rest of the world and declare themselves to be a chosen few who are far more intelligent and far more deserving than everyone else. To the Objectivist who would deny that Ayn Rand thought in these terms, a particular passage from Atlas Shrugged should make them uncomfortable. About halfway through the novel, we are treated to a sequence involving a train wreck that leaves no survivors. This is shown to be the end result and natural consequence of sustained negligence and incompetent workers over a period of time. On the receiving end of the tragic consequence is a train filled with random people who are merely going about their daily lives. Still, in setting up this train wreck scene, Rand goes out of her way to convince the reader that every single one of these random people deserved their fate. This is how she does it:
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men.

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion "for a good cause," who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others - to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder - for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of "a good cause," which did not even have to be an idea, since he had never defined what he regarded as the good, but had merely stated that he went by "a feeling" - a feeling unrestrained by any knowledge, since he considered emotion superior to knowledge and relied solely on his own "good intentions" and on the power of a gun.

The woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly school teacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that a majority may do anything it pleases, that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing. (p. 558).

There are two whole pages of this listing exercise, in which Rand progresses through various sections of the car, describing the passengers as she goes. We are introduced to thirteen more people in all as Rand points out the terrible ideas each held to. Her style and method is strikingly reminiscent of the act of placing public figures under a microscope, such that one can always find something wrong with anybody under scrutiny. Rand forgets, ignores, or denies that we are all in fact flawed in some way, shape or form, and concludes with this:
These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth. (p. 560).

In setting up this disaster, Rand does not hide well the delight she takes in killing off a train full of people whom she deems worthy of death. The indelible impression left is a promotion of oligarchical ideas, and this promotion is obvious throughout the novel. The intelligent are in a class of their own and alone enjoy the right to rule society, as illustrated by the ultimate victory enjoyed by the separatists at the end of the book. While I do support the argument that society will always be better off if the more intelligent people operated in government, I also object to oligarchy in any form. Rand makes no distinction between intelligence and qualification, which I argue is a necessary and important distinction. Just because Person A happens to be much more intelligent and knowledgeable in one area than Person B, this tells us nothing about whether or not Person A is equally knowledgeable and qualified in another area, which Person B might be more qualified in. For example, if a brilliant student were to graduate from a prestigious university with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and then placed in the position of President of the United States, that electrical engineering genius would end up looking far more stupid than she really is, and vice-versa. Thus, what we need to concern ourselves with is placing people in various positions that fit their qualifications.

Rand's approach is a black-and-white one that disregards such complexities and stratifies society into the homogeneously intelligent and the homogeneously daft. The character of John Galt is a perfect example of this. The impression given by this character is that he is the best at everything. He is not a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, or an electrical engineer. He is a scientist. He is a super-genius who knows how to invent and engineer, and he is the world's most powerful demagogue. He also emerges the victor of the love triangle, getting the beautiful girl (Dagny) in the end. He has no specific qualifications, he is simply qualified at everything. At the same time (or perhaps because of this) he gives the impression of having an abrasive and haughty personality; whatever his qualifications might be, his is not the sort of character most people would want to be overseeing the world. For one thing, he does not do anything particularly beneficial to society with the resources he is privy to. He is predisposed only to benefiting himself, which he must be if he is to be a hero in the Ayn Rand universe. But here we run into another inconsistency that destroys the credibility of the story. The notion that an individual working towards his own self-interest is likely to benefit him in the long run is simply an unjustifiable notion. The social sciences suggest very strongly that an individual working toward the self-interest of the group as a whole (to which that individual belongs), is more beneficial to the individual in the long run. This by no means precludes the possibility of an individual working toward his own self-interest in conjunction with exercising an active social awareness. This, of course, Ayn Rand flatly denies. Her heroes are the type of people who hoard money. Her villains are the type of people who invest parts of their money to social causes in hopes of receiving meaningful returns on it. Her ability to carry out the mental gymnastics necessary to make long-term victors out of the hoarders is one truly impressive aspect of her fiction, and one which kept me reading all 1100 pages.

Among the several themes that emerge over and over again in Atlas Shrugged (and in Rand's other fiction) is the concept of a society being completely taken over by stupid, lazy and altruistic people. In fact, this premise is utilized in almost every single work of fiction she produced. Of course, one might reasonably argue that this is a device applied to a fictional, future society that is taken to an extreme, and that science-fiction authors do this all the time. But this is not just one work of fiction we are talking about. When nearly every novel Rand ever wrote involves the premise that the vast majority of people in the world are incompetent leeches who hold back and drain the life and production out of the few intelligent people, it ceases to be simply a device any longer. And it becomes less and less credible and convincing as a plot device with increased use. Did Rand ever stop to consider the likelihood that characters who are stupid and lazy could take total control of the world's infrastructure? Apparently not, because in Atlas Shrugged, the intelligent, greedy and ambitious protagonists struggle in a losing battle against the incompetent and lazy, forcing them to flee the world stage and establish their own secret society. This internally inconsistent concept is impossible for any thinking person to buy into, and the "suspended disbelief" that science-fiction stories often ask the reader to employ simply cannot drown out this inconsistency.

Another very interesting consideration that is occasioned by a reading of Atlas Shrugged is that the novel may represent more of a venture into pure escapism on Ayn Rand's part than she would ever want to admit, even to herself. In my review of her earlier bestselling novel The Fountainhead, I pointed out that Rand's characters in that novel are avatars of certain key ideas, personifications of concepts whose participation in the plot is a device to illustrate a philosophical system. Atlas Shrugged continues this treatment of characters, and takes it even farther. The characters here are not only avatars of ideas. A few of them (especially John Galt, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden) are idealized versions of Ayn Rand herself. This is not surprising or unusual. After all, the people that Rand idolizes in her novels and elevates as the truly great and noble heroes of the world are inventors, businesspeople, engineers, industrialists, etc. But unlike this class of characters, Rand never contributed anything brilliantly innovative or tangible such as Rearden's miracle metal, Dagny's Transcontinental railroad, or Howard Roark's architecture. Instead, she wrote a lot of books. One can easily imagine why Rand might want to fantasize about fitting in with the class of people she most admired.

In the entertainment world, there is a name for the concept of writing a character who is basically a stand-in for the author, only much more idealized and perfect in every way. TVTropes.com, a comprehensive wiki site that catalogues thousands of devices and conventions that fiction writers rely on to tap into their audience's expectations, uses the term "Mary Sue" for this particular device. This term, as the wiki entry explains, originated in fan fiction circles and referred to writers who inserted versions of themselves as characters in another author's universe.
The name "Mary Sue" comes from the 1974 Star Trek fanfic "A Trekkie's Tale". Originally written as a parody of the standard Self Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always Female Author Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good For This Sinful Earth. (Or space, as the case may be.)

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their nakama, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author's favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

In other words, the term "Mary Sue" is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

(http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue).

Although "Mary Sue" refers specifically to female characters, both John Galt and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged possess almost all the attributes of an author-written Mary Sue. These characters actually fit more into the closely-related subcategory of this trope, known as the "Purity Sue," which can be male or female without too great a difference, although there is a strong tendency towards the latter in all but its earliest incarnations. A "Purity Sue" is a character that is intentionally made by the author to possess overwhelmingly positive traits with little to no flaws that that affect them in any significant way.

According to the Purity Sue entry on TVTropes.com,
Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged is a somewhat scary example of a fully grown Mary Sue in a serious, influential piece of work. She is and has everything Ayn Rand could ever hope for, a total personification of her values — she's a brilliant though underestimated businesswoman, more beautiful than anyone else in the room without even trying - even the simplest of dresses seems 'indecent' on her. She is the linchpin of all the important changes in the world, the last and most important part of the puzzle, the one everyone wishes they could reach, the one everyone looks to. She has multiple lovers and moves on from one to the next without any warning or explanation given — or needed, as each of these lovers peacefully acknowledges the others without the slightest surprise or jealousy, with the impression given that they're going to quietly bear never-again-requited candles for her indefinitely.

Technically, John Galt is a closer fit. It's Dagny's failure to embrace the Objectivist Ideal until the very end that moves the plot along and causes her and everyone else a world of misery and trouble. Galt faffs about with his sunny-shiny hair, and everyone confesses their love and adoration to him at every turn, and Dagny falls in love with him before first sight. Then again, this is Ayn Rand; she never denied that this was the case.

(http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PuritySue).

The TVTropes page devoted to Atlas Shrugged is definitely worth reading in its entirety, as it provides a helpful and comprehensive overview of what works and what does not work in the world of the novel. Other important tropes listed for this novel that are used liberally throughout include the Author Filibuster (As the page itself says, "Eventually the question you ask stops being 'Who is John Galt?' and becomes 'When will John Galt shut up?'" This trope is seen both in John Galt's 56-page speech and in other, shorter filibusters scattered throughout the book), and Anvilicious which is defined as "a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head." Whether or not the reader may agree with the anvils in the book, it is clear that without them, Atlas Shrugged would be a completely different book and probably not as successful. Unfortunately, the reliance on anvils to make the story what it is detracts from its value, both artistically and philosophically, in a number of irredeemable ways.

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