A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that was recently praised by Stephen Colbert (for its newfound popularity with beleaguered CEOs). As I mentioned in the comments of a previous post, like many other nerds I went through a brief Aynfatuation around the age of 14. Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of:
- Soviet Russia.
- The average American high school.
But it didn’t last long. Even in the midst of it, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper analyzing the rape scene in The Fountainhead as immoral and irreconcilable with the rest of an otherwise supremely-rational novel. And ironically, once I went to college and started doing more-or-less what Rand extols as life’s highest purposes—pursuing my ambitions, tackling math and science problems, trying to create something original—her philosophy itself seemed more and more quaint and irrelevant. I snapped out of it before I reached Atlas. (Or did I subconsciously fear that, if I did read Atlas, I’d be brainwashed forever? Or did I just figure that, having read the 752-page Fountainhead and dozens of essays, I already got the basic idea?)
So, having now returned to Atlas out of curiosity, what can I say? Numerous readers have already listed the reasons why, judged as a conventional novel, it’s pretty bad: wooden dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, characters barely recognizable as human. But of course, Atlas doesn’t ask to be judged as a conventional novel. Rand and her followers clearly saw it as a secular Bible: a Book of Books that lays out for all eternity, through parables and explicit exhortation, what you should value and how you should live your life. This presents an obvious problem for me: how does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?
Mulling over this question, I hit on an answer: I should look not at what’s in the book—whose every word is perfect by definition, to true believers who define ‘perfect’ as ‘that exemplified by Atlas Shrugged‘—but at what’s not in it. In other words, I should review the complement of the book. By approaching the donut through the hole, I will try to explain how, even considering it on its own terms, Atlas Shrugged fails to provide an account of human life that I found comprehensive or satisfying.
(Though on the positive side, it still makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher.)
Without further ado, here are the ten most striking things I noticed in the complement of Atlas Shrugged.
- Recent technologies. For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties). For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges. Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.” Airplanes, which were starting to overtake trains as a form of passenger travel even as Atlas was written, do play a tiny role, though it’s never explained where the busy protagonists learned to pilot. Overall, I got the impression that Rand didn’t really care for technology as such—only for what certain specific, 19th-century technologies symbolized to her about Man’s dominance over Nature.
- Curiosity about the physical universe. This, of course, is related to point 1. For Rand, the physical world seems to be of interest only as a medium to be bent to human will. When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, I found myself wondering what Rand would’ve made of academic scientists: people who generally share her respect for reason, reality, and creative achievement, but not her metaphysical certainty or her hatred of all government planning. (Also, while most male scientists resemble a cross between Howard Roark and John Galt, it must be admitted that a tiny minority of them are awkward nerds.)
In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler. It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it. Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer. (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
More important, in a book with hundreds of pages of philosophizing about human nature, there’s no mention of evolution; in a book obsessed with “physics,” there’s no evidence of any acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, or pretty much anything else about physics. (When Stadler starts talking about particles approaching the speed of light, Dagny impatiently changes the subject.) It’s an interesting question whether Rand outright rejected the content of modern science; maybe we’ll pick up that debate in the comments section. But another possibility—that Rand was simply indifferent to the sorts of things an Einstein, Darwin, or Robert Stadler might discover, that she didn’t care whether they were true or not—is, to my mind, hardly more defensible for a “philosopher of reason.”
- Family. Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957. The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it). Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters. Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).
- “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists. In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain. Whenever Rand introduces a new character, you learn immediately, after a one-paragraph physical description, everything she wants you to know about that character’s moral essence: “angular” equals good, “limp,” “petulant,” and so on equal bad. Admittedly, most movies also save the audience from unwanted thought by making similar identifications. But Rand’s harping on this theme is so insistent, so vitriolic, that it leaves little doubt she really did accept the eugenic notion that a person’s character is visible on his or her face.
- Personalities. In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits. What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark? Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism. What do we know about John Galt? He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism. Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical. Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course). Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design. But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
- Positive portrayal of uncertainty. In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right. The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil. (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).) The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe. For me, this is the single most troubling aspect of her thought.
- Honest disagreements. Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem. In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything—not merely the basics like capitalism and individualism, but also the usefulness of Rearden Metal, the beauty of Halley’s Fifth Concerto, and so on. (Again, the one exception is the disagreement between those who’ve already accepted the full evil of the collectivists, and those still willing to give them a chance.) In “Galt’s Gulch” (the book’s utopia), there’s one judge to resolve disputes, but he’s never had to do anything since no disputes have ever arisen.
- History. When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943. At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic? Atlas continues the willful obliviousness to real events, like (say) World War II or the Cold War. And yet—just like when she removes family, personality, culture, evolution, and so on from the picture—Rand clearly wants us to apply the lessons from her pared-down, stylized world to this world. Which raises an obvious question: if her philosophy is rich enough to deal with all these elephants in the room, then why does she have to avoid mentioning the elephants while writing thousands of pages about the room’s contents?
- Efficient evil people. In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue. The heroine, Dagny, is a railroad executive who makes trains run on time—who knows in her heart that reliable train service is its own justification, and that what the trains are transporting and why is morally irrelevant. Granted, after 900 pages, Dagny finally admits to herself that she’s been serving an evil cause, and should probably stop. But even then, her earlier “don’t ask why” policy is understood to have been entirely forgivable: a consequence of too much virtue rather than too little. I found it odd that Rand, who (for all her faults) was normally a razor-sharp debater, could write this way so soon after the Holocaust without thinking through the obvious implications.
- Ethnicity. Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan? Even in the 40s and 50s? For me, the issue here is not political correctness, but something much more basic: for all Rand’s praise of “reality,” how much interest did she have in its contents? On a related note, somehow Rand seems to have gotten the idea that “the East,” and India in particular, were entirely populated by mystical savages sitting cross-legged on mats, eating soybeans as they condemned reason and reality. To which I can only reply: what did she have against soybeans? Edamame is pretty tasty.