Sunday, February 27, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Revisited

Like many Conservatives, my gateway drug into the ideas of conservatism (writ large) was the writing of Ayn Rand--first "The Fountainhead" and then "Atlas Shrugged".  I have read each multiple times and listened to each in unabridged versions.  I am more than halfway through another listening of "Atlas Shrugged" in preparation for the release of Part I of the movie version (April 15), and I have some thoughts to share that may spur conversation.

1.  First of all, this is far and away the most important book I have ever read.  The ideas contained in it are astoundingly important, even more so when you consider when the book was written and the early years of the author. After  nearly two years of the Obama Administration, I find the ideas even more important, more clear, more meaningful--and I'm not alone as continuing blockbuster sales of the book will attest.
2.  Additionally, there is at the heart of this book a truly great story, an entertaining premise that plays out across its sweeping expanse.  What if the most productive members of society simply decided to quit?  Rand frames an awfully good story here, and I find myself as entertained in this listening as I was twenty four years ago when I read it for the first time.
3.  Ideas and story aside though, I am increasingly coming to decide that Rand is simply not a good writer.  To paraphrase Emperor Joseph II's criticism ("too many notes, Mozart"), there are too many words in Rand's writing--especially in Atlas Shrugged.  There is some of her literary bloviation in "The Fountainhead", but it reaches new heights in this book.  I'm not even talking about Galt's sixty page oration toward the end, though that is forty-five pages too long.  I'm talking about 90% of the book that does NOT occur as dialogue between the main characters.  Rand spends agonizing time describing lit cigarettes, evening gowns, and the shape of people's mouths--and don't even get me started on her writing about sex.  Or maybe you should.  No one just HAS SEX in this book--it is always some kind of mystical union of gods intertwining in glorious, parallel attempts to reach some Olympian height of self satisfaction. Rand's use of stream of consciousness is overwrought and adds little to the flow of the novel--and it adds nothing to the sex scenes. The really, really good stuff (and almost all the political philosophy) is contained in dialogue.
4.  I realize that it is easier for Rand to draw clear distinctions by creating uber-heroes (Dagny, Francisco, Hank and of course, Galt) and laughable worms (Mouch, Jim Taggert, Boyle, etc).  The problem is that the book lacks characters that resemble--oh, I don't know--REAL people.  Eddie Willers is about the closest anyone comes to being something other than a Nietzschian overlord or a detestable snake.

Again--I said this is the most IMPORTANT book I've ever read.  It's not the best WRITTEN book.  That said, if you haven't read it, I should think it is assigned reading for the next six weeks as we get ready for the movie.


"The Hammer" said...

It wasn't the Emperor who said too many notes, it was the director of the state opera house Count Franz Xaver Wolfgang Orsini-Rosenberg.
What the hell's wrong with you?

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Perhaps I can be forgiven my error, if there is one:

"The Hammer" said...

"The Hammer" said...

And don't be too hard on Rand. The novel is after all 50+ years old. Every tried reading a 19th. century novel? Same thing.
But it cannot be denied Rand describes the various liberal/leftist archetypes to a tee. And they are still with us to this very day and will be here along after we are gone.

"The Hammer" said...

Oh yeah, you are right on the "too many notes" thing. Milos Forman is full of shit.

KateGladstone said...

Those who have difficulties swallowing Rand's novel-writing style can make the task easier if they regard ATLAS SHRUGGED _et_al._ as Russian novels that happen to have been written in English.

Sally said...

Assigned reading? You never said they'd be homework.

Anonymous said...

In 1959 I was the epitome of the old saying "Ignorance is bliss".

But then I read Atlas Shrugged and my bliss was shattered and to quote someone who's name I cannot recall,” I have never been satisfied again".

Exacerbating that dissatisfaction is the knowledge that the vast majority of the American populace does not read and that an even larger number have never read Atlas Shrugged.

Thus leaving them in their blissful ignorance and us in our dissatisfaction.


Bryan said...

Rand was not the first to identify the risks that liberal democracy would present to capitalism. Thinkers from DeTocqueville to Weber worried that the levelling effects of democracy would discourage those with talent from pursuing their efforts to the fullest. With standardized tests, certifications for every job from physician to beautician, and mechanisms to give the "less-advantaged" a greater chance at success, they worried democracies would necessarily make really talented citizens less likely to stick around. Pure meritocracies, in contrast, would reward talent proportionally, but also risk eventually creating permanent castes of haves and havenots as the gifted can better educate their kids and they do better as adults, etc. We have to figure out the appropriate balance, unfortunately.

Mudge said...

I think too many people take the "all men are created equal" and then discount the fact that some of those created equally get busy right away on the rest of their lives, through study, work, sacrifice and, ultimately, achievement (fruits of labors), thereby upsetting the stasis of equality. All men may be created equal, and all men may have equal opportunities, but that in no way means that all men must remain equal. And it especially does not mean that government should include in its authorities the enforcement of an artificial "equality stasis." Applying some simple, dispassionate Newtonian physics/math: If two bodies of equal mass and equal initial velocity align at a starting line, and both experience the same force (let's call that force "motivation"), then those bodies will remain equal in position throughout their "lives." But change only the motivational force on one of them and any 7th grade student (or at least any student who was in the 7th grade before the NEA had an entire government department representing their union through a cabinet secretary, sorry, I digress) could tell you, those two bodies will no longer be equal. Ditto in life. Born equal does not equal died equal.

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