After reading “War And Peace” earlier this year I finally decided to give Ayn Rand’s Big Book “Atlas Shrugged” a try. I had read “For the New Intellectual” a few years back and was pretty familiar with her philosophy so none of that came as much of a surprise to me. Some things about the book did surprise me though. I am not going to summarize the book. That’s what Wikipedia is for.
She says about the book that she wanted to make the characters starkly drawn and ideal to illustrate her point. She definitely succeeds here. There are characters in Dr Seuss books with more nuance and surprise than any of the characters in this book.
Its a world where the Mind rules. Spirituality is nothing more than a synonym for weakness. Sensuality (sexual or not) is only valid in the proper philosophical context. Unless you are Dagny (or sleeping with her) there is no real pleasure to be had in anything except beating down —Im sorry, Improving upon— nature. What other possible kind of fulfillment can there be for man? Its pretty clear Ms Rand has never gone surfing.
That’s not to say the book doesn’t cover some heavy topics but it covers them in a very black and white way. Ms Rand’s world is one of perfect Giant Men (Dagny not excepted) whose major inner strife is how to best apply their perfection. Success is all about industrial production from an idealized capitalist perspective, where worker’s rights, environmental impact and safety concerns dare not tarnish the rapturous beauty of the blue green sheen of Rearden Metal.
In the larger context I don’t feel qualified to judge her philosophy er, philosophically, but I do think some of her arguments become much less convincing because of the fact that she seems to need such extreme examples and circumstances to make her point. In over 600,000 or so words Rand finds no room for grey. She calls her philosophy Objectivism, and seems convinced that all other modern thinkers are saying that everything is Subjective and therefore not real or has no real meaning. I am uncomfortable with either and prefer to see the world not as Subjective but very Complicated/Textured and therefore not a good fit a Fairy Tale presentation of the world as she would like it to be.
Still I do see why the book is so attractive to many people who would call themselves engineers of one kind or another, myself included. We have all sat in meetings and felt the life force or money sucked right out of us by the moochers and the looters. Its not hard to see the world as a place were some people create things and everyone else lives off of them. I do think that she is right about many of these points. I understand why the choir listens when she is preaching. Lots of people want to believe they are Henry Rearden when in reality they are James Taggert.
Another thing I didn’t expect is that despite all of the above, its a pretty good story. It reads pretty fast for being over 1000 pages and even has a “hard to put down” kind of feel at least in the first 700 or so pages. I love Tolstoy more but it took me much longer to get through his book despite it being shorter. Towards the end of Atlas though I began to tire of the preaching and the details of each new way the railroad is falling apart and was just waiting to see if something interesting is really going to happen at the end. I won’t spoil it.
I would say overall the most important take away I have from the book is a better working definition of what a Libertarian is.
Its a person who doesn’t understand that Atlas Shrugged is only a novel.