30 July 2008


So I finally finished Atlas Shrugged. (Although I'm not sure that 'finally' is the word I ought to be using, it only took about a week and a half and I had to fit it in around life, it just feels as if I've been reading it for ages...)

Of course now that I've already babbled about it considerably I'm not sure that I'm going to end up with anything coherent to say about it as a whole. It isn't as if I'm under any obligation to write in any kind of structured way I suppose. It's weird, because when I started university I kind of hated the way that we had to write essays. I especially hated the fact that we had to consider other people's theories in depth, long rants which only considered my thoughts on a topic (with a few throwaway nods to broad schools of thoughts perhaps) that one could get away with at A Level were so much more preferable. Now, however, I seem to have been entirely retrained. Damn degree. I feel as if I should have been annotating my copy of the book, and as if I should now be reading obscure articles about it (although that might not be too easy since my Athens account expired a long time ago).

In all honesty that 'retraining' is probably a good thing in the long run. It pushes me to at least attempt to make relatively informed statements and arguments, in addition to loudly proclaiming my own opinions. Thankfully Spam (with all of the wisdom of his sixteen years) can't reach me all the way in Seoul to earnestly inform me that my opinions are just that, and I shouldn't state them as if they were universal facts since he's off sweltering in the Namibian heat building a school. I am thankful to various teachers, lecturers, writers and friends that I have at least a basic knowledge of political ideology, some philosophy and a fair bit of social science. Most of all I think that I'm indebted to Ian Adams the author of Political Ideology Today, which is honestly one of my favourite books and I could happily read it cover to cover repeatedly. I'm probably going to miss my highlighted copy before this year is through.

I still haven't worked out who the hell Francisco reminded me of, and it's bugging the hell out of me. It was especially strong earlier in the novel when he was in the position of a tempter, luring people to go on strike. Knowing me it'll probably turn out to be a Whedon or Sorkin character, and the cogs of my brain will probably finally find the answer for me to scream out at an utterly inappropriate moment. C'est la vie. I remember that after watching Dune (which I also still haven't read) I had an incredibly strong sense that the Fremen's blue eyes reminded me of... something which I just couldn't quite grasp. I drove our poor lecturer somewhere round the bend as she listed off lots of possibilities, most of which were obscure references to science fiction films or television shows that I have no knowledge of. When I finally worked out that it was Groo (a fairly minor character from Angel), I don't think she considered it to have been worth all of that effort.

John's radio broadcast (apparently around three hours long, which I can well believe- but I didn't mind the length here since it was conceived of as a speech, and so didn't feel false) slightly reminded me of a much shorter speech. Wes Mendell's in the Studio 60 pilot. The first couple of episodes of Studio 60 had me bubbling with excitement, I'm still kind of annoyed at the way it ended up. Here is a link to the clip from the pilot which culminates with said speech (and I'd completely forgotten that Felicity Huffman had a guest spot in the pilot, please she so is Dagny, enough with this Angelina nonsense). I'll also include this link to the cold open from, uh, The Cold Open for no reason other than it makes me laugh.

On the subject of Francisco, which I'm sure that I was discussing at some point, I was immediately convinced that Frank Adams was him as soon as I read the name 'Frank'. I didn't have to wait long for that reveal, but Hank's surprise at something that was so obvious was typical of a lot of the book. Again and again the reader becomes aware of something that a character desperately wants to know or should know, the identity of Eddie Willer's confidante for example. This had the effect of making me a bit exasperated with Hank, Dagny and Eddie time and time again for being so dense (and for their inevitable gasping when they discover the truth) even when, based on the knowledge available to them, they weren't actually being intensely stupid. It reminded me of Harry Potter a little, although I don't think anyone could be quite as dim witted as Harry (or gasp as much as Hermione). Luckily I love the word phrase hyphenate 'self-immolation' (and I'd like to point out that I'm the one who came up with the 'molating Marx thing, and probably plenty of the others even if I can't remember them... firing Foucault possibly?) otherwise I'd definitely be complaining loudly about its overuse.

I very much loved, in a pretty much unqualified way, Rand's attacks on Cartesian duality; the split between mind and body. I'm a bit confused by one aspect of her philosophy though, she seems to like Aristotle (whilst certainly not refraining from criticising him), but I'm sure at some point there was an incredibly disparaging remark about Plato's student and successor. (This is why I should have annotated, I'm never going to be able to find the quote again!) I assume that she meant Aristotle by that, although I suppose she could have just meant that she preferred Plato's philosophy, although I didn't see any evidence to support that.

Personally I feel that there's never been a proper free-market Capitalism experiment, just as there's never been a proper Communist one. Maybe it's because they only really exist as ideal types, and life is a lot more messy, but its certainly (also?) because they haven't been allowed. Dagny (and the others) look towards an idealised past (where Nat Taggart roamed around) of perfect laissez-faire capitalism. I'm pretty sure that that didn't exist. The free market has never truly been free, I'll come back to Benjamin Tucker for example: he argued that the four main monopolies (money, land, tariffs and patents) would need to be broken down first before a truly free market could be set up. We see examples of it all the time, the US government cries that the market ought to be free! Except for pharmaceuticals. Importing cheap Canadian drugs would hurt American producers, and that would be wrong. Repeat ad infinitum with whatever it is this week.

I'm sorry, but I'm coming back to Marx again. I just feel that Rand (and she's certainly not alone) misinterprets his views on Capitalism. He didn't hate it. He didn't want to destroy it. He thought that it was excellent, in a limited way. It unleashed enormous productive power, and allowed for innovation in a way that previous epochs had not. He didn't provide a moral criticism of Capitalism in his work, and he in fact explicitly argues against trying to bring about the untimely end of Capitalism. He simply believed that Capitalism was beset by inherent contradictions (just like the previous socio-economic systems), and as a result would eventually collapse and give way to a new social system.

Needless to say, he wasn't exactly right about how it played out. I'd definitely be interested in finding out if Rand ever explicitly discussed her attitude to Marx's writing. In Atlas Shrugged she doesn't, but I feel (perhaps wrongly) that some of her criticisms are directed that-a-way. There's a lot of stuff in Marx's writing that I think Rand must have agreed with, not least his emphasis on rationality and of course that famous sentence from Theses on Feuerbach, " The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it".

Of course I suppose that her criticisms were actually directed more at the Russian governement then at their (claimed) ideological underpinnings. It's hard to work out when the novel's supposed to be set, since it's futuristic in some senses but also rapidly retreating into the past. Combined with that is the fact that the characters are often looking to an idealised industrial past, which often permeates their world and time, especially as the setting of the railroad (and to a lesser extent the mines) has a distinctly nineteenth century quality to it. In my head I kind of split the difference and seem to be imagining something vaguely 1930s-esque (I suppose I can partly blame this on Carnivale too). I get the impression that Rand was explicitly critiquing Roosevelt's policies, and I can understand why her ideas would clash with his "make work" philosophy. However, at the same time I can see similarities between his New Deal and the great minds of Atlas Shrugged trying to rebuild the world after its destruction... (Of course it also makes me think of Toby's revulsion at the idea of including "the era of big government is over" in the speech in He Shall From Time to Time in which I don't think the name "Roosevelt" is ever spoken, but I swear that you can actually see what Toby's thinking. I love Richard Schiff a little too much.)

Well maybe the real problem with a university education is it creates the desire to identify fleeting similarities and synthesise ideas?

I also felt that the arguments against the 'mystics of muscle' seemed to be more of an argument against the Functionalist school of thought than anything else (especially with the organic analogy). I suppose Rand wouldn't particularly like them, but it felt a little weird in a rant that seemed mostly against altruism and collectivism. I also wondered if the fact that both John and Ragnar raise the issue of income tax as important was construed as an explicit reference to Thoreau. I'm glad that there was a reference to the fact that paper money is assumed to be worth the same as gold, I think people should pay more attention to the fact that the world's economy is basically held together by a mass delusion. No one's on the gold standard anymore, and there might very well come a time when you don't really care how many flimsy pieces of paper you're holding or how many zeroes are at the the end of the number on the computer screen. Hopefully by then I'll be back in London with my pumpkin patch and fruit trees though, so I won't really care.

I would have liked to see religion addressed more. Rand dismisses religion (and I personally don't have a problem with that), but it wasn't really dealt with much within the novel, there weren't really any religious characters. After reading the introduction I'm a tad annoyed that the Father Amadeus character was cut, but I might have had to spend some time trying to work out where his name fits on the awful/awesome axis if he hadn't been.

Rand belittles the sociological/interpretivist-style criticisms of science. I will freely admit that sometimes these criticisms can be take way too far. I love Bruno Latour, he has an immense and respectful appreciation of science and he acknowledges that there are such things as objective facts. However, he points out that science in the process of occurring isn't a series of objective facts, and argues that stating this isn't a rejection of science. I'd also like to add that Rand actually endorses one of those criticisms of science without acknowledging it, she's disgusted by the idea of state funded science, and that's something which many of the sociological criticisms of science have highlighted, as well as investigating other ways in which the production of scientific knowledge is effected by other (subtler) factors.

The book definitely contained far too much of an Orientalist attitude, an extreme overuse of the word 'savage' and an apparent damning of everything 'non-American'. I don't have a problem with the novel's pro-American sentiment (nor do I have a problem with it in anything penned by Aaron Sorkin), even if I don't endorse it. I do appreciate passionate feeling like that, and basically anyone who subscribes to the Granny Weatherwax school of philosophy:

"...well, you wouldn't catch me sayin' things like "There are two sides to every question," and "We must respect other people's beliefs." You wouldn't find me just being gen'rally nice in the hope that it'd all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin' sword."

I know that Rand's views on race and gender (and other things too of course) are a product of her time. I expect some things to crop up that I dislike but can understand as a result of this. I think it's just a bit too much though. I have to contend that in some areas she was just a bit of an idiot, and I'd be interested in reading Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, especially Brownmiller's 'Ayn Rand: A Traitor to her Own Sex'. I assume that that title is there for shock value, at least to some extent, and that there is some appreciation of Dagny's character (and indeed Cherryl's, although it would have been nice to see her develop a bit more before her death). I assume that there's plenty of criticism of the (relatively?) sexually submissive role that Dagny randomly gets cast in, which I'd definitely be interested to read.

I've never understood why someone would think that I would want my cake if I wasn't going to eat it too. Claiming that one can't eat one's cake and have it too at least makes sense.

It's a good thing that John was the one who started the movement, if people were wandering about asking who Francisco D'Anconia or Ragnar Danneskjold were all the time the book might have been a lot shorter. Certainly it might have taken the government a lot less time to track John down at the end if he didn't have such a common name. I felt worried that things were going to take a tragic turn when Dagny led them to John, and I'm glad that instead there was a happy, hopeful ending. (And that Dagny wasn't punished for being a silly, emotional woman.) I felt kind of sad for poor Eddie though. I liked the idea of the torture machine- it was really gruesome (and the idiots torturing Galt almost to the point of death because they were adamant that he had to help them were captivating), the machine itself kind of reminded me of the torture device in The Princess Bride. The idea of trying to torture someone with the sound of their own heartbeat was effective, and it reminded me of the horror that one of Doc Benton's victims in the Supernatural episode Time is on my Side who has a heart rate monitor still attached to him from when he was jogging suffered.

The idea that it's impossible for the nasty bad guy politicians to step aside at the right time idly made me think of F.W. de Clerk.

I know that it's silly, but I think I would have liked a bit more science. I know that Ayn Rand wasn't a scientist. Partly it's just because the refractor rays made me roll my eyes and laugh out loud. It felt like an episode of Johnny Quest, especially with the whole Shambhala feel to Galt's Gulch! I would have loved some science geekery (even if it was complete and utter nonsense) to provide a bit more of an explanation to Galt's super awesome motor, rather than the constant solemn assurance that it was something amazing that would have made the world better, without details to flesh it out and make it sound more realistic.

I think I've come round to the idea of Rand the novelist more. When I first started reading I thought that I was reading a novel designed as propaganda of, or at least promotion of, a specific view point. On completion I can say that it does (mostly) feel like a novel. I've also become convinced that she wasn't engaging with philosophical or political theory (other than her own anyway) as much as I thought she would.

Sadly there was no orgy finale. There was a mention of orgies towards the end, but they're discussed in a very disparaging way. I can at least console myself with the not stated (but clearly implicit assumption) that Hank and Francisco were walking off into the world together. Obviously.

I didn't clock that Ayn Rand was Russian until I read the biographical information in the reader's guide. I guess that explains some of her anger a little bit. It makes sense that Rand wasn't her real name, I think it would be too much of a coincidence if her surname actually was a currency! I'd kind of had her pegged as a Catholic what with all the emphasis on guilt. I should have paid more attention to The First Wives Club where Brenda explains that she's half-Catholic, but that its the Jews that really own guilt. Unless that was actually in another book, which is possible. My brain is addled. Maybe that's why I think that there should be a cartoon of Atlas' shrug (as in the item of clothing). That logically seems like one of those things that only sleep-deprivation makes funny.


Vermont Law (Somewhere Near the Border) said...

I was just thinking to myself about Ayn Rand and Aaron Sorkin... So I used Google to search blogs and found this. You make a good comparison between the two.

I think that Sorkin and Rand are similar because both their characters are sure of themselves. They are beyond reproach in their minds and another their circles.

Miss Anne Throp'ist said...

Wow, what a random way to stumble across my babbling. I'm sorry that I've only got my initial impressions of the book rather than a detailed comparion.

I definitely agree with you about both Sorkin and Rand created similar types of characters who are considered to be super-moral and incredibly intelligent.

I think that Sorkin's characters are probably more believable however because there is much more dialogue and criticism, like Toby saying of, and to President Bartlet, "Let the poets write that he had the tools of greatness, but the voices of his better angels was shouted down by his obsessive need to win".

Blog Archive