Friday, December 5, 2008

Atlas Sat & Atlas Shat

And so it begins. We'll start with a few words that will be repeated at the top of every subsequent post in the series, so as to spare me from finding ways to constantly rephrase a point which will hold true throughout.

**Holy shit this is bad writing. It's as if Rand decided to replace every word in her first manuscript with its extended dictionary entry, or it was written in German then translated too literally. And the constant hamfisted imagery and analogies suggesting obvious and repugnant underlying theory make my inner editor weep. That people enjoy Ayn Rand's work is unfathomable to me, much like Dane Cook's success. I understand, theoretically, the allure of being a selfish asshole objectivism, but I don't understand how someone could find 1000+ pages of this crap to be a work of art. You have to be inherently twisted, which is why I think Rand's most analogous contemporary is L. Ron Hubbard, though he was a marginally better writer.
In any case, it's a huge steaming load of crap I decided to read in public, and it's time once again.**

I've debated how much homework to put into this, but the problem is extra preparation would involve reading even more by Ayn Rand and/or one of her acolytes and/or Megan. There's only so much punishment I can take, so we're going in cold. You all seem to be academics or autodidacts, so if you want more background you're perfectly capable of finding it. I vaguely recall Megan trying to wiggle out of the seeming endorsement of Rand that is titling your website/blog "Jane Galt", but the underlying ideological affinity is too obvious to deny. Megan tries to disguise her belief that the rich are entitled to eat the poor a little, so that Matt and Ezra and the like will continue to be free press agents for her, but that's their problem, not ours. Our problem is Atlas Shrugged, so let's get to it.

Part 1: Non-Contradiction
Chapter 1: The Theme
Subclause 1a: Sign here, initial here.

"Who is John Galt?"

Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. Hardboiled pulp detective novels, the stuff of film noir, were an established genre by this time. Opening a 'serious' work of art with the equivalent of "Who is.... the Red Bandit?" is like beginning a full classical orchestra performance with Yakkity Sax. And yet, it is the perfect opening, in that it captures the tone of the book in microcosm; false depth. On one hand, this is supposed to be a catchy opening, one that draws you in. "I don't know, who is John Galt?" And on the other hand, it suggests the question "who is John Galt really" so immediately that you don't have to already have read the book to know he's a perplexing sort. And that's it, that's as far as the "depth" goes, but it's enough of a pretense for shallow idiots to mistake their own mirror image for wisdom from the depths. "Call me Ishmael" it is not.
And, of course, we don't get John Galt for a while, so as to build anticipation. First we get Eddie Willers and his overwritten ennui, and a nameless bum we'll call Hack Literary Device. Hack asks the opening question to Eddie, and the magic begins. Even Eddie doesn't know why Hack asked that, but Hack is just there to set the stage (and show that bums are just losers who gave up on themselves. "The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent"), so he doesn't answer. Eddie may have pages of overwritten ennui and hack metaphors for industrial decay to struggle with, but he's not a loser like Hack; he has a job and can at least cheer himself by looking at stores full of things that he can buy. The sad thing is Eddie is, it would seem, supposed to be troubled but likable. Rand all but screams to her reader "You're supposed to identify with Eddie" and then begins the underlying attempt at ideological conversion that this text is really about. I'm no kind of expert on cults, but I find them very interesting, and AS instantly reads like an attempt at indoctrination. Something is deeply wrong in Eddie's life, it's clear, but he's not a total loser like the cynical bum. Eddie still has a chance in life, so maybe his potential redemption can be ours. (Or so Rand is obviously hoping her reader will feel.)
Or maybe Eddie just needs a more energetic and charismatic boss to bask in the glow of. Eddie works for a dying railroad company and has bad news for its president, the comatose James Taggart. Taggart is a tired aristocrat running the business into the ground based on quaint notions of loyalty to established partners and not necessarily jumping at every loose dollar on the ground. Business ethics are thus summarily dismissed as slow suicide and almost buffoonish, probably not for the last time. Taggart even says there's more important things than money, sealing the deal that in Rand's world, he's an idiot. Taggart lives in a bizarre fantasy world where a business is measured by more than simply its profits, where its place in society and effect on it are considered in its practices and motivations. Rand, Eddie, and the competition, the Phoenix-Durango line, know this is childish, and are just in it for the money. Rand portrays the decisions to be made that would change TI's fate as blameless and harmless except in forcing old business partners to face competition, which is just the nature of business.
Eddie and all right thinking people understand this, but James Taggart is, by dint of birth, in charge, and the company is his to ruin. This, apparently, is the root of what troubles Eddie, as opposed to something legitimate. The scene having served its purpose, Eddie leaves, whereupon he notices a similarity between an ancient clerk and Hack the bum and spares the old man a few words of disdain. This, of course, is heavy with symbolism, because poor people aren't really people in their own rights, but only have value insofar as they can momentarily mean something to their betters. Then the old man concludes his babble by asking who John Galt is, scientifically proving the question is deep and important.

From here we shift to a new character, which gives me an opportunity to pause. I'll be back with a post on the second half of the first chapter later tonight, but this is already long n I need to eat.
And feedback is welcome and wanted. I'm going to try to transition away from just recapitulating the plot as soon as I can, but right now it's kind of mandatory. Hopefully things will streamline a little as we progress.


M. Bouffant said...

"You all seem to be academics or autodidacts"

I was an autodidact until I needed glasses.

Susan of Texas said...

I can understand Dagny's frustration with her brother; I would want my business run efficently and effectively too. But Rand undercuts the effect by having her world divided between the weak and the strong, the intelligent and the stupid, the contributor and the parasite. The world is divided into winners and losers based on good people and bad people, which has little to do with reality.

Also, someone should have told Rand that using phrenology as a basis for the characters' physical appearance is juvenile, although it seems to be very satisfying emotionally for Rand.

I wonder if McArdle realizes that Rand would have considered her a James Taggert, not a John Gault, depending on connections for her job and doing shoddy, harmful work.

dsquared said...

This is all rather broad satire on New Deal politics, and it's quite funny once you get into it. Note that whether or not James Taggart is a good or proper person to run this railway, he's got the job because he inherited it from his Dad, and although Rand wants us to be outraged about him, in fact her politics are heavily committed to allowing bold, renegade railwaymen to bequeath their businesses to their idiot sons, free of tax.

In the current environment, I'd note that there are clear parallels here to Ford Motor, and the "So, Prince William episode.