Saturday, August 03, 2013

Atlas Shrugged: What have we learned?

OK, so to summarize what I have learned about Ayn Rand and her last novel, Atlas Shrugged these past couple of months:
  • Ayn Rand was mentally scarred at age five when her mother gave away her mechanical chicken to an orphanage. This caused Rand to devote her life to preaching against giving your stuff away to other people. The chicken incident itself shows up in Atlas Shrugged as one example of the little people going Galt after being inspired by John Galt's long-ass speech: someone assaults a mother for making her 5-year-old give his "best toy" to a neighbor's child.
  • Ayn Rand maintained on many occasions that nobody ever helped her, most notably in the Afterward to Atlas Shrugged in which she states: No one helped me, nor did I think that at any time it was anyone's duty to help me. Both the Heller and the Burns biographies make it clear that Rand had lots of help throughout her life. But the most deliciously ironic help she received was from the Bolsheviks, as the Heller biography notes:
...she benefitted from the Bolshevik regime, since Lenin had adopted Kerensky's policy of offering educational opportunities to Jews and women, while doing away with tuition fees and reducing the full term of study to three years. These changes were meant to help factory workers, but they made it possible for her to get the kind of education, and degree, that her parents could have only dreamed of.
  • It seems probable that Ayn Rand had Asperger's Syndrome, she had many of the hallmarks: she found it difficult to relate to other children growing up; collected rocks and later stamps; could not make small talk; was obsessed with mechanical things; had very little empathy; and was a monomaniac, especially about Objectivism. Her work reflected her predilections: she is utterly incapable of writing small talk, even when trying to demonstrate how stupid and useless the society people are in Atlas Shrugged. The best she can do is have the society people lecture each other on the latest postmodernist idiocy - or have one of her Supermen like Francisco d'Anconia hijack the conversation for pages of hectoring on the superiority of selfishness and the gold standard.
  • Because Rand's The Fountainhead had sold so well, Bennett Cerf of Random House wanted her next novel for his publishing company so much that he agreed to allow Rand's work to proceed with virtually no editing, except for some minor word-tweaking. And it shows:
    • Rand re-writes the Prometheus myth, making it completely illogical: d'Anconia suggests that John Galt is like Prometheus who got tired of having his liver pecked out by vultures (eagles in the original myth) and withdrew his fire until humans call off their vultures. The absurdity of humans punishing a god for gifting them with fire (Zeus punishes Prometheus in the original which makes a hell of a lot more sense) is second only to the absurdity that in Rand's version, Prometheus can apparently get away from the vultures any time he wants. Which means that he was voluntarily allowing "vultures" to peck out his liver every day. Possibly in some kind of kinky S&M way. 
    • When a train full of rotten produce from California arrives in New York, Rand has the produce dumped into the East River. Which would entail having the produce transported from the Hudson River, where the railroad terminals were located, on the west side of Manhattan, all the way across town. The most appalling aspect of this mistake is that Ayn Rand lived in Manhattan, at 36 East 36th Street, six blocks away from the East River when she was writing Atlas Shrugged.
    • Hank Rearden can't figure out how Francisco d'Anconia heard his speech, since he wasn't there in the room where Rearden made the speech, even though two pages earlier someone told Hank they heard his speech on the radio.
    • Although he works as a track laborer for Targart Transcontinental, John Galt is able to take month-long vacations and can afford to travel all over the country, using his proselytizing skills to convince the world's richest men to follow him to Colorado.
    • The sheer, mind-boggling repetition: several Random House personnel suggested to Rand she might want to cut some things down. She refused.
  •  Rand's understanding of the cause-and-effects of human societies and behaviors is simplistic in the extreme. She will accept no explanation for the existence of collectivism and altruism except that this is what people have been taught to believe by parents and especially by college professors. And when a wealthy family collectivize their own factory, the ultimate explanation that Rand provides is that the leading family member, Ivy Starns, is simply a sadistic monster who enjoys denying money to hard workers. And it is this - the self-collectivization for the goal of sadistic pleasure - that is the basis of John Galt's "stopping the motor of the world" and thus the basis of the entire novel. Rand believed that her ideological opponents were insane sadists. That is the ultimate premise that Objectivism rests upon.
  • The most prominent feature of Atlas Shrugged is its extreme binary view of the world - it is the most common criticism of the novel: the good guys are uniformly physically attractive and skillful and smart, the bad guys are uniformly unattractive (even Lillian Rearden who is constantly described as having "dead eyes") and stupid and incompetent and cruel. It is this extreme dichotomy that renders the novel ridiculous to so many people. Atlas Shrugged has been jokingly compared to The Lord of the Rings, except, the punchline goes, that LOTR "involves orcs." But I would argue that Rand so dehumanizes her ideological opponents that in fact Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings both involve orcs.
  • Sexuality in Atlas Shrugged has two basic modes: violence-infused melodrama or decade-long celibacy. Of the four main heros: Dagny, d'Anconia, Rearden and Galt, all except Rearden go for at least a decade, in the prime of their youth, without sex. And Rearden is married for nine years to a woman he decided he despised after one month of marriage. And in spite of that, except for Dagny, has never apparently had sex with another woman.
  • The homoeroticism of Atlas Shrugged is undeniable, in spite of Rand's own stated revulsion towards homosexuality. It is the result, I would suggest, of Rand's inability to take any point of view except her own. Each of her heroes represent her own personal taste in men, and so why shouldn't they enjoy each other's beauty, or long to see each other? And since it is narratively convenient for Rearden and d'Anconia to step aside when Dagny decides she prefers John Galt, they do so immediately and without a single complaint; and soon after Rearden and d'Anconia end up together on a sofa murmuring each others names. 
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity -- myself especially -- are in a state of shocked disbelief," 
In Atlas Shrugged, this is how Rand has John Galt explain how rational businessmen do things:
"...there is no conflict of interests among men, neither in business, nor in trade, nor in their most personal desires - if they omit the irrational from their view of the possible, and destruction from their view of the practical. There is no conflict, and no call for sacrifice, and no man is a threat to the aims of another, if men understand that reality is an absolute not to be faked, that lies do not work, that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given, that the destruction of a value which is, will not bring value to that which isn't. The businessman who wishes to gain a market by throttling a superior competitor, the worker who wants a share of his employer's wealth, the artist who envies a rival's higher talent - they're all wishing facts out of existence, and destruction is the only means of their wish. If they pursue it, they will not receive a market, a fortune, or immortal fame - they will merely destroy production, employment and art. But men will not cease to desire the impossible and will not lose their longing to destroy - so long as self-destruction and self-sacrifice are preached to them as the practical means of achieving the happiness of the recipients."
There is nothing quite so fantastical as this in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Let us check Rand's premises:
  • Only irrationality causes conflict of interests among men.
  • Lies do not work.
  • The unearned cannot be had.
  • When businessmen "throttle" a superior competitor they are "wishing facts out of existence.
  • People desire the impossible and long to destroy because they've been preached into self-destruction and self-sacrifice.
It should be pretty self-evident why all of these are wrong. But they also beg so many questions: if a businessman is able to "throttle" a superior competitor - and we don't know exactly what throttle means, but let's assume she's not talking out-and-out murder - is the other really the "superior" competitor?

And certainly the unearned is had all the time. That's what inheritance is all about. Does Rand mean "had" not in some material sense but in some cosmic metaphysical sense? That would seem to be a contradiction of her entire worldview.

And who is it that is preaching "self-destruction" and "self-sacrifice" and why would people be so quick to accept those values, if indeed they do, when those values are such obvious roads to unhappiness?

Actually, we do know who is preaching self-destruction and self-sacrifice - the collectivists like Ivy Starnes, who, as I've already discussed, do so purely out of sadism.

So this fantasy of how men should behave - with an absurd concept of "rational" self-interest - is how Alan Greenspan apparently expected lending institutions to behave.

And if Rand's premises aren't convincingly contradictory and implausible enough, consider that Galt's speech here is delivered to Dagny Taggart as an explanation for why Francisco d'Anconia, who has been celibate for the past twelve years, has stepped aside so that Galt can have Dagny for himself in a monogamous relationship, without so much as a word of complaint. For as John Galt continues:
"No one's unhappiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy. You should have had more respect for him and for me than to fear what you had feared."
What Dagny had feared was the d'Anconia might behave as virtually anybody who is jilted might behave. But as d'Anconia is one of Rand's Superman Objectivist businessmen, of course he would give Dagny up: d'Anconia realizes that John Galt is objectively superior to himself and thus more deserving of the most perfect woman in the world.

Ayn Rand herself could not live up to the "rational" Gulcher lifestyle - when her married boyfriend left her for another woman she had a complete meltdown.

And this eccentric, un-self-aware novelist was a huge influence on Alan Greenspan. The more you think about it, the more baffling it is.