Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, Afterword and Suggested Reading
Posted on 08/15/2009 7:44:28 AM PDT by Publius
Where does Rand leave us at the conclusion of this monumental work? Atlas has shrugged. The leadership of the revolution has filtered down from its progenitor, John Galt, through his closest circle of friends, through a class of achievers that encompasses the fields of science, engineering, construction, transportation, art and philosophy, to settle at last on the shoulders of the common citizen, who must bear the ultimate responsibility for choosing a life of mind or a life of fake reality. That choice is still very much up in the air as the novel ends. The country is in chaos as the result of the strike of the men and women of the mind, and the resolution is to be found only through the adoption of a new moral code based on objective truth and rational dealings between men and women.
Galt is so certain of his victory in the last scene that he announces the return of the strikers. The denouement of the novel took place at the beginning of winter and the coda in the spring, but which spring? We cannot tell.
Its time then for a broader perspective on Atlas Shrugged. The structure of the novel is straightforward. There are three sections of ten chapters each. The arc of the plot ascends through a desperate effort of the industrialists to reignite the countrys production, countered by moves on the part of the established powers in academia, bureaucracy and culture, descending in the final third of the book to the ravaging of the country and the escape of its creative elements. Let us recapitulate both Rands narrative and the philosophy that it is intended to illuminate.
Part I: Non-Contradiction
The first third of the novel contains an introduction to characters, both protagonists and villains, and a description of the dynamic that exists between industrialist and bureaucrat, between objective philosopher and nihilist pretender. The world it describes is very much a creation of the latter in each case. We learn this from set-piece speeches at formal parties, from radio broadcasts and the other manifestations of popular culture, and from the mouths of the principals Rand casts as villains.
This section introduces us to our heroes, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, and elaborates on their struggle to construct a railway that will support the last, best hope of the country with respect to industrial progress, resisted with an inexplicable stubbornness by those who, it would seem, would be its principal beneficiaries. It ends in triumph. Finding one anothers arms and handing the Colorado industrialists their lifeline, Hank and Dagny obtain a victory that is known to be hollow even as it is accomplished. The section ends with the dissolution of the Colorado industrialists and the last, defiant, fiery gesture of Wyatts Torch.
Within this section Rand defines the philosophical case of the looters. Economic inequities, which are the result of achievement, are, in fact, the result of theft. Profit is immoral, extra value squeezed out of the consumer of goods and services beyond the latters natural cost. This profit exists to feed the demands of greed and arrogance, and it is the rightful role of the State to control the greedy and arrogant in the interest of the collective. It is society the collective that has the ultimate claim on the fruits of the individuals labor, a claim it makes in the name of all. This culture is maintained by its promoters control of the bureaucracy, academia, journalism and popular culture, through which a steady stream of propaganda beats the citizen into acceptance.
Within this is the notion that individuals who are achievers compose a class of their own, whose interests, motivated by greed, are inimical to the collective. Within this premise is the genesis of another class in opposition, a ruling class whose task it is to rectify the theoretical theft by means of a real theft, and to redistribute the wealth to its source, the collective, taking a generous cut off the top for itself.
This is the case of the looters. Their methods are law. They are secure in the knowledge that their enemies are law-abiding. They flatter themselves that they are equal in virtue to the producers as all are merely thieves. They feel superior to the producers as they are the more successful thieves. In a world where all economic activity is theft, success in thievery is the logical summit of society and the rightful task of those who sit there.
We learn in this section that Rand regards human sexuality to be as much an expression of the mind as a steel bridge or a railroad track, the rightful property of the creative that has been suppressed and misrepresented in an effort to exercise power over them. In this sense, economic liberation is sexual liberation as well. Here Dagny becomes not simply Rands protagonist, but her surrogate, and to a remarkable degree their own sexual lives run in parallel.
Part II: Either-Or
In the second section we are shown the philosophy of the looters in action as it methodically takes the country into its grip.
Dagny and Hank discover that, just as in Colorado, the entire country is beginning to crumble under the rapacious onslaught of the ever-hungry looters. In addition, the producers who could be counted on to feed the parasites for the good of all are beginning to disappear. The host is weakening, and the parasites are growing apprehensive. They will do what they can to maintain the system, even at the cost of eliminating some of their fellow parasites and by inviting the hosts to share in their power by feeding upon themselves.
But there is organized resistance to the conspiracy of looting. It is underground and its perpetrators are damned as agents of greed. Yet it is the parasites, the looters, who truly are the greedy ones. They will not stop until they control all production so that they may redistribute its fruits in places other than the pockets of those who actually earned them. That turns out to be their own pockets, the reward of cleverness and the righteousness of promoting social justice.
The philosophies of both looter and producer are based on self-interest, but that does not make them equivalent, nor is actual theft the equivalent of accused theft. One critical difference is that the thief must have the producer, but the converse is not true. The producer must create or there will be nothing to steal he must live for the sake of the thief. For the code of theft that is this twisted social contract to function, he actually owes this to the thief on behalf of the collective of which they both are a part. That social contract requires the victims sanction. It will have no difficulty in procuring the sanction of the thief.
We understand in this section that someone, The Destroyer, is acting to break this social contract by withdrawing not only the sanction of the victim but the physical presence of the victim. The section ends when the principals are about to meet The Destroyer.
Part III: A is A
In this section we learn at last Rands conception of an ideal social contract, first by observing the activities of its proponents in a mini-Utopia named Galts Gulch, and later through an exhaustive rhetorical presentation. The main dramatic conflict arrives when the principals, Dagny and Hank, must run to completion the course that has caused the rest of the creative class to go on strike. The agonizing conclusion requires the abnegation of all that has kept them producing under the existing system. It is clear at last that it is the creators and producers who are the exploited and the ones who claim the exploited status, their oppressors. The things that have been earned material wealth, family, social status, and most vital of all, the opportunity to create must be rejected for the strike to have any chance of success.
In the end, they are. Dagny is admitted into the company of the strikers as the alpha female to Galts alpha male. The rest accept comfortably subordinate positions. It is not, in the end, an egalitarian society even though predicated sternly on equal rights. It is a hierarchy built on relative technical excellence and moral virtue, and its citizens compete fiercely for primacy within their chosen fields.
This, then, is the case of Rands heroes, and the foundation of a new philosophical approach to morality she termed Objectivism. We have examined its particulars in some detail, but briefly the idea is that human existence is based on reason and the recognition of the part of reason in the dealings of men and women with one another. The repository of both rights and responsibilities is within the individual, and no valid moral code may be based on one individuals right to demand that another live for his or her benefit. There are no group rights; indeed, class identification is essentially a curiosity, and social mobility is unhindered by it, driven only by individual merit.
As we have seen, these are ideas developed during the philosophical period labeled the Enlightenment, and Rand is only to be considered a conservative in that she wishes to base her new utopia upon these old ideas.
As John Galt traces the sign of the dollar in the air, we leave the novel with the knowledge that a new world is to be built upon laissez-faire capitalism and human rights, based on reason and focused on the individual. Rands case is that it is the only system ever to have developed a surplus that offers the luxury of being second-guessed, scorned and looted. For her that is its greatest testament.
We have stated that Rand has attempted to reconstruct the body of modern Western philosophy from first principles, which is mainly, but not entirely, the case. She had a formal philosophical education in Russia before emigrating to the United States, and not only acknowledges, but pays open tribute, to Aristotle as her principal intellectual model.
Here we see the divergence between Rands philosophy and the tremendous body of fictional narrative that is Atlas Shrugged, for her narrative runs very much along the lines of another philosopher, Nietzsche, with his insistence that human excellence creates a defense against nihilism and that the superior man or woman has, within certain limits, the right to make his or her own rules. This dynamic between philosophy and narrative, between reason and passion, between Aristotle and Nietzsche, runs the entire length of the novel, and in the end it is up to the reader to resolve it or not. It is that demand which takes the novel out of the category of popular fiction and into the realm of serious intellectual consideration.
Ayn Rand was the adult identity of the Russian girl named Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, for whom English was not a native language. It is a testament to her linguistic abilities that she mastered English to the point at which she could support herself as a professional screenwriter and playwright in the depths of the Great Depression. This was a signal accomplishment, and by the time she began writing Atlas Shrugged she already had one best-selling novel, The Fountainhead, to her credit. For this reason we must search for another source for those odd quirks that catch the modern readers eye, such as the use of the formal one for the vernacular you in the mouths of her least educated characters, a fondness for the more formal perish in place of the more common die, and a correct, but somewhat strained, insistence on youll in the place of you in informal conversation. Further, that even her least educated and most despicable villains tend to present their ideas in the form of logical propositions that would not be out of place at an Oxford formal dinner.
These are not fatal flaws; they are scarcely to be considered flaws at all, but stamps of the authors fiercely analytical approach to human intercourse. That analytical approach is not always happily applied, especially when it comes to the description of the vagaries of human sexual relations. Here the conflict between narrative and philosophy is most sharply defined we rejoice that Dagny and Galt have found one another but are dismayed at the strange rationalizations that attempt to bring their joyful and vigorous sexual attraction within the realm of analytical reason. Rands narrative describes the lovers with convincing verisimilitude; her philosophy struggles to account for them. If, in the end, we suspect that there is something more than reason going on here, we have Rand the story-teller to thank and leave Rand the philosopher to be furious about it.
The Faults of Atlas Shrugged
Its too long, for one thing. Each of the protagonists has his turn before the podium, but because they are of an identical philosophical stance, their various expressions of it tend to blend into one another. In fiction there is no need to hear the same idea expressed in many different ways in the mouths of sundry proponents. In philosophy, or more accurately in the teaching of philosophy, there is.
Lest we lose sight of Rands objective here, it is not simply to give the reader a rousing adventure ride, but to teach. If the same philosophical or moral point takes various shapes, it is the teachers hope that the student will apprehend one of them. For a novelist this is wasteful; for a didact it is indispensible.
There is, of course, the matter of The Speech. As a literary construction it is disastrous, an enormous, immobile rock of idea placed in the middle of a stream of plot. It is, despite Rands best effort to make it accessible, dense, complicated and challenging. It does not advance the plot, but it is the reason for the plots existence.
The Speech is the finish of the novel of ideas; the ensuing three chapters compose the resolution of the narrative. It is a unique and somewhat clumsy construction, but it does appear to serve its purpose.
Like many novelists, Rand has been accused of being cruel to her minor characters. We have seen the Wet Nurse mocked nearly up to his last breath, Cherryl Taggart hounded over a precipice and into a watery grave, and most poignant of all, the abandonment of the loyal, able and virtuous Eddie Willers along a deserted track in the Arizona desert. The elite protagonists bask in their perfection and seem to shade their eyes against the glare of a glorious future while standing on a mountain of bones of those who did not live to make the journey. One understands that such a monumental project will have its victims; one waits in vain for the heroes of the piece to acknowledge them.
Atlas Shruggeds Place in Modern Literature
Flawed as it is, Atlas Shrugged succeeds brilliantly as a novel of ideas. It has an acknowledged appeal to young people in that it presents a clean, workable system of ideals on which to base a moral approach to the world. Its coherence, its certitude, and its outrageous political incorrectness appeal to the rebel in young and old. In it the complications of parenthood do not arise; the difficulties in accommodating ideals that in practical application, eventually conflict, are nowhere to be found. It is not necessarily a young persons novel, but it is an idealists novel.
If Atlas Shruggeds critics tend to accentuate its flaws and ignore its message, they do so at the risk of echoing the absurdities of Rands villains: the collectivist, the nihilist, the person whose education and reputation exceed his or her actual intelligence. Most timeless about Atlas Shrugged are the culture and character of its villains. Five decades after its publication, their voices still sound in the mouths of its detractors and of public servants who solemnly repeat the platitudes without considering their sources. They need to check their premises.
15 August 2009
For its time Atlas Shrugged was a unique admixture of philosophy and politics, and it is difficult to begin an understanding of Rands great work of synthesis by going straight to the original sources. Fortunately there is a more graduated approach available, for many of the same issues and influences that crystallized in Atlas Shrugged were the topic of one of the great philosophical popularizers of the late 20th century, Mortimer Adler. Through a lengthy career he touched on nearly all of the constituents of Rands magnum opus.
By Adler and recommended in the area of philosophy:
And toward religion, a personal favorite:
For the reader already acquainted with the ideas illuminated by Adler:
These can also form a foundation for the consideration of Rands primary sources:
This isnt a laundry list each of these has a direct hook into the immense intellectual currents that swirl underneath the surface of Atlas Shrugged. It would be an easy task to triple its length; far more difficult to cut it.
We especially want to thank those FReepers who forced us on occasion to check our premises, which forced us to change both narrative and questions. When it comes to peer review, FReepers rock!
Thank you for making this such a wonderful experience.
Ping! The thread is up.
FReeper Book Club: Introduction to Atlas Shrugged
Part I, Chapter I: The Theme
Part I, Chapter II: The Chain
Part I, Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom
Part I, Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers
Part I, Chapter V: The Climax of the dAnconias
Part I, Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial
Part I, Chapter VII: The Exploiters and the Exploited
Part I, Chapter VIII: The John Galt Line
Part I, Chapter IX: The Sacred and the Profane
Part I, Chapter X: Wyatts Torch
Part II, Chapter I: The Man Who Belonged on Earth
Part II, Chapter II: The Aristocracy of Pull
Part II, Chapter III: White Blackmail
Part II, Chapter IV: The Sanction of the Victim
Part II, Chapter V: Account Overdrawn
Part II, Chapter VI: Miracle Metal
Part II, Chapter VII: The Moratorium on Brains
Part II, Chapter VIII: By Our Love
Part II, Chapter IX: The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt
Part II, Chapter X: The Sign of the Dollar
Part III, Chapter I: Atlantis
Part III, Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed
Part III, Chapter III: Anti-Greed
Part III, Chapter IV: Anti-Life
Part III, Chapter V: Their Brothers Keepers
Part III, Chapter VI: The Concerto of Deliverance
Part III, Chapter VII: This is John Galt Speaking
Part III, Chapter VIII: The Egoist
Part III, Chapter IX: The Generator
Part III, Chapter X: In the Name of the Best Within Us
Thanks to you and Billthedrill! It has been a very interesting series. You two sure put in much thought!
Thank you both for sticking with this project. I know you were getting frustrated as the numbers of posts went down, but I know a lot of the members were reading faithfully even if they didn't post.
The insights you offered and the discussions that were generated made me look forward to Saturday mornings.
If I may suggest another book, “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer.
parsy who is just sobering, er waking up.
I’ve enjoyed this venture though Atlas Shrugged almost as much as the book itself. Your analysis is excellent and very instructive.
This has been a very timely venture and it’s obvious that this was no small effort on your part.
Bump, and thanks for the effort!
Although I only posted once or twice, I found the commentary to be excellent.
I suppose the moral of the story for me in the end was if you don’t choose to be a John Galt, you will end up an Eddie Willers.
Well done, good and faithful Freeper. Among other positive qualities of Free Republic, it is efforts such as this that make FR stand head and shoulders above the alternatives.
The work and thought that went into this should not be lost. I would hope that it might find a more permanent form.
For the frequently astonishing insights toward the book that would have passed me by completely I have the rest of you to thank. That's why we do this sort of thing, I suppose. Let's do it again.
I also thank you both for the information, review and discussion. The insight and added information provided has extended my understanding of Atlas Shrugged.
What has amazed me as much as anything else is how relevant this is today, as we see our country moving to the left, using the same reasoning and excuses Rand used in her book.
Hear hear! Thanks to Publius and Billthedrill for the great series, something I looked forward to each Sat morning. I didn’t always post, and started in on the book club a little late, but always took away new insights from your stellar work.
I would add to the suggested reading list Thomas Sowells The Vision of the Anointed
I have read Atlas Shrugged a number of different times, the last time being the summer of 2008. Throughout the Freeper Bookclubs examination of AS, we have noted the similarities of the events in the book to modern times. As has been well documented in our discussions, the villains of the novel are more interesting and better developed than the heroes and their actions and attitudes more closely equate to events happening now.
I recently finished The Vision of the Anointed and it gave me some interesting insight into the thinking of the real world villains of the liberal elite.
The Vision of the Anointed examines the thought processes of the modern elites and documents the fallacies in their vision.
A synopsis from The Education Resource Center:
Most contemporary social and political discourse in the United States takes place within a particular framework of assumptions. The rise of mass media, mass politics, and massive government means that an elite group of articulate people have great leverage in determining the course of the whole society. This book examines the vision of the country's elite intelligentsia, the anointed, and explores how their vision consists of a set of self-congratulatory assumptions that are rhetorical assertions rather than critical thinking. The prevailing vision of our time holds that those who are not in agreement are on a lower plane morally, inferior to the benighted [I think he meant the anointed here] who hold other views. When social policies favored by the anointed fail, a pattern of crisis, proposed solution, results, and response that does not acknowledge failure ensues. The contemporary vision of the anointed treats reality as highly malleable and handles unpleasant experiences as readily preventable. The self-flattering and self-centered vision of the anointed makes assumptions that empirical evidence cannot confirm. The nine chapters in this book are entitled: (1) "Flattering Unction"; (2) "The Pattern"; (3) "By the Numbers"; (4) "The Irrelevance of Evidence"; (5) "The Anointed versus the Benighted"; (6) "Crusades of the Anointed"; (7) "The Vocabulary of the Anointed"; (8) "Courting Disaster"; and (9) "Optional Reality."
I too have looked forward to this every Saturday morning. Thanks to both of you for providing explanations and insight into a book I thought I knew well — but now know much better, as a result of your excellent efforts.
Thanks to both of you for all your hard work for the last eight months. I admit I struggled with a lot of the discussion questions but they led me to appreciate the book, and Rand, a lot more. And I reiterate once again what I said before, that a lack of posting doesn’t imply a lack of interest.
Though the time invested in this effort was substantial, the return was even more so.
Great job, everyone.
Thank you! Whats next?! :)
It occurred to me that this has been a LOT of work for Pub and Bill. They might prefer to let someone else “lead the read” for the next book, or at least to take a break in between.
I suggest you read “Destructive Generation” as a companion to “The Vision of the Anointed.”
“Destructive Generation” is hair raising in spots, because it shows how a lot of the groundwork for our current society was laid.