Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Know Who John Galt Is.

In April of 2000, just after my grandfather passed away, I sat down and compiled a list of 100 things I wanted to do in my lifetime. One of them was "Read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged." Mind you, I had absolutely no idea what either of these books was actually about at the time, but as long as I was setting my life goals I figured I should strive to read at least a handful of impossibly long books before I'm eventually eaten by a bear or something. (Moby Dick, Les Miserables, and War and Peace are also on my list.) It's an interesting goal to set for yourself, and I challenge/encourage anyone reading this to try and read at least one mammoth-sized book every 2 or 3 years. Anyway, the point is that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have been on my things-to-do list for almost a decade. And shortly after the recent unpleasantness (i.e. the 2008 election) I decided the time was right to go ahead and dive on into them. If you keep up with this blog, you know that I finished The Fountainhead in May of last year. And today I'm blogging once again to say that I've finished Atlas Shrugged.

I won't go into a lot of detail about the plot. You can read about it on Wikipedia, or - even better - just read the book for yourself. Instead, I'd just like to mention a few things that set it apart from most other novels, and then say a few words about its place in the greater political scheme of things.


Speaking strictly on a literary level, I'd give Atlas Shrugged 2.5 or 3 stars out of 5. Ayn Rand is incredibly skilled at outlining and organizing a narrative -- as with The Fountainhead, the dialogue in Atlas Shrugged moves swiftly, and nothing seems accidental; every minor detail eventually becomes a major plot point. However, the tone becomes a bit preachy from time to time, and whenever her characters aren't talking, Rand's prose style frequently dips into that repetitive sort of descriptiveness that characterizes old movies. If she were writing a nature book, for example, it might read like this: "On the bough of this tree we see a caterpillar, a caterpillar bursting with the promise of one day becoming a butterfly, a caterpillar struggling against the elements towards its true nature, a caterpillar colored a deep shade of green like the color of money, the color of virtue and of voluntary transaction." It can really be a bit much if you're not in the right mood for it.

BUT - and this is what most fans of the book will offer in its defense - what Atlas Shrugged gets right, it gets really right, and the ideas it presents run completely counter-clockwise to the ideas found in most American literature of the early 20th century. A quick list:

  • Most writers at that time were focused on the struggles of the ordinary people on Main Street and trying to connect with the common man. Rand's attention was focused on the extraordinary individuals whose creativity has shaped the modern world. Her heroes are not the people scraping together a living at McDonald's; they're the people who conceptualized McDonald's, developed its business model, built franchises all over the world, made cheap food available to everyone, and turned a profit in the process.
  • Most writers depict businessmen as greedy opportunists; Rand worships them.

  • Most writers depict money as an instrument of oppression, which the rich use to enslave the poor. Atlas Shrugged offers an entire speech in money's defense.

  • Most writers present characters who are either struggling through difficulties or whose existences consist almost entirely of suffering (think of the characters in The Sound and the Fury, for example, each miserable in their own special way). Rand's characters espouse a desire for unfettered joy.

  • Most writers - and this is especially true in Hollywood - depict attractive, well-adjusted, successful people as shallow, selfish, and villainous. (Ever notice how the villain/asshole in all those teen movies is always a rich popular kid with a hot girlfriend? How the only thing business people did in most '80s movies was threaten to tear down community centers that the main characters had to somehow raise money to save? How bosses in movies are rarely, if ever, nice people?) Rand sees them as heroic and condemns those who try to tear them down as parasitic and weak.

This is not to say that she offers a blanket support for every rich/successful person in existence. Not at all. Contrary to a popular misperception, she is not saying "Make all the money you can, by whatever means necessary, and screw everybody you have to step on to get it." She wouldn't have approved of Bernie Madoff, Jerry Falwell, or even Wal-Mart to some degree. It's a fact few people ever call attention to, but in addition to its arguments against public education, socialized medicine, state-funded science, Marxism, irrationality, religion, and paper money, Atlas Shrugged takes a decided stance against what most people now call crony capitalism. (This is epitomized in the character of Orren Boyle: he's rich, and he's an industrialist, but he's not one of the good guys. Everything he owns or achieves comes with help from Washington.) Instead, what Rand argues for is a system of laissez-faire capitalism, a completely open market where people and companies are free to fail or succeed on their own merits. Quick bit of history: Benjamin Franklin was also a strong proponent of laissez-faire. In Rand's world, there would be no tax-funded bailouts for bankers and car companies. In fact, there'd be few, if any, taxes at all. "But without taxes, how could the government keep doing everything it does?" The answer: maybe government shouldn't be doing all those things.

The Other Right...and Yes, There Is One

This firm disapproval of government situates Rand's thinking, and by extension Atlas Shrugged, squarely on the political Right. But not this Right.

And certainly not THIS Right:

No, Rand is a fixture of the Old Right - commonly called the Alternative Right, the Intellectual Right, or the Non-Religious Right. Classical Liberals, Libertarians, Objectivists, Anarcho-Capitalists, Agorists, Minarchists, Ron Paul Republicans, and even a good many science fiction authors are situated in this category of political and economic thought. Its basic focus is on individual liberty, economic freedom (the right to keep what you earn), non-interventionism (largely anti-war), and human excellence. You can see its influence in works as diverse as Watchmen, The Incredibles, Thank You for Smoking, Election (Reese Witherspoon's character, Tracy Flick, is a genuine rarity in modern film), and even Chocolat. And if you've read this far and you're still interested, you might also be interested in the following:

For the record, I do not consider myself an avid Ayn Rand devotee or an Objectivist. However, as my interest in many of the ideas found on her side of the political fence increases (because, let's face it, Republicans and Democrats are equally worthless in their present incarnations), I've come to see The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as rites of passage. Like the title of a popular libertarian book says: It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. So mark the date, kids. I've now read them both.

And if you ask me "Who is John Galt?" I can give you an educated answer.

"John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire - until the day when men withdraw their vultures."


Blogger Unknown said...

I think what I got out of both books being read about two years apart are the following.
1. Renewed love for Mary Sue Veal for giving us Anthem to read in high school.

2. A desire to finaly decide what i wanted to do and not be ashamed of being absolutely the best at it.

3. I also have to say I liked Fountainhead better. I won't say it is a better novel I will say I just liked it better personally.

4. And I think that sex in the book bears a lotta discussion

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

""But without taxes, how could the government keep doing everything it does?" The answer: maybe government shouldn't be doing all those things."

Exactly! the Nature of Man tells us that the only proper role or function of government is to protect our individual rights and not to provide our basic needs. -John Galt

5:10 AM  

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