Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

The most important thing to remember about Atlas Shrugged is that it's bad. Very, very, very bad. Obviously, consistently, blatantly, incontrovertibly bad. The writing is bad, the characters are loathsome, the action is doled out as if by an eyedropper, the morality is corrupt and the Ubermensch are about as Uber as your basic mouth-breathing, mother-hating serial killer. (More on him later.) Therefore, anyone who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, or modeled his life philosophy on it, or gave herself a nom de cretin modelled after one of Shrugged's characters, is an idiot whose thoughts do not deserve a single moment of consideration. Randians have all the intellectual heft of someone who read Madam Bovary and thought it would be a swell idea to have affairs and swallow arsenic. Or someone who read Animal Farm and put on a piggy costume and overworked a farm horse. Or someone who read John Carter Of Mars and spent the rest of his life dreaming of bedding alien women. To paraphrase Neil Simon, Atlas Shrugged sucks and its fans are the suck-ees. And we have 1,168 pages of proof. Let's take a look.

Let the mocking begin.

Chapter 1 The Theme

The theme of AS, going by the first chapter, is that everything and everyone sucks except for Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon and maybe a few other people. This might not seem like much of a theme, but that's what happens in dreadful books. The theme is greed is good, or every emotion but triumph is bad, or only a half-dozen people deserve to exist despite--or because of--the fact that they are sociopaths. Sometimes you get lucky, like in this book, and all these themes are included.

The story opens with one of the Good Guys, Eddie Willers, at work in a depressed, crumbling New York City. We know he is one of the good guys because his every thought and action revolved around his job and he has absolutely no life outside of it. He is doggily and doggedly devoted to his boss, Dagny Taggart, the daughter of the founder of Taggart Transcontinental railroad, and has been since they were small children together. Rand flashes back to Willers' childhood, when the two discussed the nature of greatness and when Willers often contemplated a giant tree on Dagny's property. The tree seems to hold up the world, like Atlas himself, yet is destroyed by a bolt of lightning and its rotted and empty core exposed for all the world to see. This passes for subtlety in Rand's world.

Willers is having troubles at work. It seems that the entire world became tired of money and decided to stop trying to make it. Mine owners stopped digging ore, businessmen stopped selling steel, manufacturers stopped manufacturing, repairmen stopped repairing, salesmen stopped selling. Everyone just decided, out of the blue, after centuries of selling everything they could get their hands on, from Indian burial goods to trees to beaver to bison to cotton to cloth to everything else that the US has manufactured, to change their nature, their entire way of life, and stop buying and selling. They now want to share and be equal. They've gone and quit business-ing, and not in a good Galtian way either.

Willers decides to talk to the railroad's president, Dagny's brother James. James is a Bad Guy. We know this because his appearance, his voice, his character, his morality, and every single solitary thing he does and says is repellent. He and all the other Bad Guys are exactly alike--without a single redeeming feature.

[James] had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of this tall, slender boy, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.

Why is James so weak when Dagny is so strong and self-assured? They have the same bloodline--which Rand informs us is both noble by birth and ennobled by the blood of their boot-strapping industrialist father because Rand always wants to have it both ways. But he is missing something, or rather everything, that Rand tells us are invested in a very, very few people, a very special few people, a people of mastery and greatness, the only worthwhile people on the entire planet. You might even call these people a Master Race.

James is petulant, forced by the shape of his mouth to ignore Willers' attempt to solve the railroad's problems with supplies, workforce, and a global wave of socialism. He doesn't want to make money by running a successful railroad, he would rather everyone fail and watch his world crumble around him. He doesn't want oil man Ellis Wyatt's business despite the fact that Wyatt has magically found a way to make tapped-out oil wells spout forth in abundance. Unlike Dagny, James doesn't care if his railroad doesn't reach Colorado, which has magically been revealed to hold every resource known to man despite the fact that it had already been settled and its oil resources, for one, sold off. James tosses Willers out of his office and the action, such as it is, cuts to Our Heroine, Dagny Taggart.

Dagny Taggart is everything that Alisa Rosenbaum (Rand) is not. Rand was the unattractive, bourgeois daughter of a businessman who lost his money in the revolution, not the beautiful daughter of a rich industrialist and a noblewoman. She studied history and went to the state film school. Dagny (and Rand's alter-ego in her semi-autobiographical We, The Living) is an engineer, and obviously the rational, mathematical, precise, unemotional profession appealed to Rand. Unsurprisingly, Rand had been an unhappy child. Intelligent but combative, unappreciated but endlessly critical, stubborn and self centered, Rand was never able to be close to anyone.

Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote “a scathing denunciation of childhood,” headed with a quote from Pascal: “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”

Rand respected her father and strongly disliked her mother, whom, oddly, she called by the Russian variant of her patronymic, Borisovna. From the beginning, she and Anna Rosenbaum did not get along. The daughter viewed her mother as capricious, nagging, and a social climber, and she was painfully convinced that Anna disapproved of her. Anna considered her eldest daughter to be “difficult,” Rand recalled. It’s easy to imagine that she was. Although formal photographs from the time show a beautifully dressed, long-haired little girl with an arresting composure and huge, dark, intelligent eyes, her face is square and her features are slightly pudgy; when animated, they assume the stubborn, hawkish look of her adulthood. She had few friends and little inclination to make new ones, and she was physically inert in an era of passionate belief in physical exercise. Her mother nagged at her to be nicer to her cousins and more outgoing and athletic (“Make motions, Alice, make motions!” Anna would cry) and was exasperated by her penchant for becoming violently enthusiastic about the things she liked—certain European children’s stories and songs, for example—and immovably indifferent, even hostile, to the things she didn’t. But Anna also articulated many of the values that Rand would later become famous for expressing. In a letter from the 1930s, for example, Anna wrote to Rand, “Every man is an architect of his own fortune” and “Every person is the maker of his own happiness.”


Anna was also more broadly, and proudly, educated than her husband was. She read and spoke English, French, and German, and until the Belgian governess arrived she taught Rand and Natasha to read and write in French. Though Rand made good use of these advantages as she grew older, she viewed her mother as hypocritical and shallow, an opinion not entirely borne out by the evidence. She once characterized Anna as an aspiring member of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia whose main interest in life was giving parties, and she suspected that Anna enjoyed books and plays less than she enjoyed the appearance of talking about them at her frequent gatherings of family and friends. Anna subscribed to foreign magazines, including children’s magazines, which Rand read and was strongly influenced by as she began to write her own early stories. Still, until the 1917 Revolution changed everything, Anna seems to have been an artistic social climber (though a remarkably intelligent and resourceful one, as we shall see) who wanted her daughters to rise in the city’s Jewish social hierarchy—a project for which Ayn Rand was particularly unsuited.

Using the background of a pre-revolutionary Russia, [biographer Anne] Heller paints Rand’s early childhood as comfortable, but pained. Born Alissa Rosenbaum, Rand struggled to win her mother’s approval, as well as acceptance by her bourgeois peers. Rand asserted her intellectual ability at a young age, and constantly evaluated the inferiority of the people who circled her. This early disassociation with the people surrounding her, allowed for a later developmental flaw, which Heller catalogues as a quick rejection of dissenters. She often recounted how she valorized a fellow classmate, but when Rand the girl, she inquired about who the girl valued most. The child responded with her mother. Rand explains that this she never spoke to her again because of the banal response. In her flippant rebuff, Rand simultaneously preserves her own ego, and perpetuates her understanding of the world around her. Heller notes that Rand spent her life overestimating some people and underestimating others, and “she rarely reconsidered.” What Rand interprets as a strength in future objectivist pursuits, Heller highlights as a connection to Rand’s method of camouflaging insecurities. A compelling example of Rand’s continual re-interpretation of her childhood, Heller retells a story of Rand’s mother, Anna, cleaning out the nursery. Telling the young Alissa to sort out and de-clutter her toy room, Anna promised her daughter’s toys would be returned in a year’s time. Alissa, thinking she was outsmarting her mother, picked her favorites to put in storage. When the time elapsed, and Alissa requested her toys returned, Anna explained she gave them away to charity because she knew that Alissa did not need the toys. An adult Rand referred to this story as the moment when she understood that altruism was truly selfish, she understood her mother’s actions as spiteful. However, Rand’s adult analysis exemplifies her childlike understanding of human relationship to materials. Heller’s detailed storytelling reveals how frequently Rand misunderstood interactions with others, and perhaps, how her understanding of success evolved.

Naturally Rand's alter-ego doesn't enjoy childhood any more than Rand did, and grown-up Dagny is as emotionally clueless and stubbornly needy as grown-up Rand.

Dagny is smart, rich, beautiful, successful, and ostensibly utterly without weakness or flaw. She's Dagny Sue. She's rich but doesn't care about money, beautiful but doesn't care about make-up, clothes and jewels, passionate but doesn't care about (almost all) men, and owns a penthouse with only two rooms--one of the more amusing contortions Rand goes through to make her characters both culturally glamorous and spiritually pure. She is confident, decisive, always makes the right decision, and never meets a challenge that she cannot overcome. Like the rest of Rand's Ubermensch she is utterly perfect, and just as much a fantasy as Edward Cullen and the rest of the Cullen vampire clan in Twilight. Edward can't just be a sexy vampire, he has to be a sexy vampire that **sparkles**!! And Rand's Ubermensch can't just be superior, they must be perfect, just as everyone else without exception must be base and depraved.

Meanwhile teenage Alisa Dagny Sue is riding the rails, deciding and improving all over the place, making sure her trains run on time. She meets or discusses a few other Ubermensch along the way, although some seem to be Lesser Ubermensch like Eddie, faithful and supercompetent servants who are happy to spend their lives doing their smaller jobs superlatively, in the service of their UberMasters. Dagny returns to New York and again we are gifted with another scene of someone tapping James on the forehead and shouting, "Hello! Anybody home?" before staking off in disgust. Dagny notices that the Ubermensch seem to be disappearing around her and is puzzled. Before she makes a Decision, however, we are introduced to Our Hero, Businessman Ken Hank Reardon.

Chapter 2 The Chain

We meet Hank Reardon as he is watching the first pouring of Reardon Metal, a new metal that is stronger, lighter, and cheaper then steel, although strangely it includes a lot of copper, a soft metal. Naturally nobody wants the metal or even wants to test it at first, and they all hate and envy Reardon for his competence in the face of their weakness. Reardon is tall, very slender, a blue-eyed blond. He had boot-strapped his way from starting work in a mine at 14 to working at foundries and steel mills, to owning mines (who knew mining paid so well?), foundries and mills of his own. Reardon has a bracelet made of his new metal and we follow his long, triumphant walk home to his family of wife, mother and assorted relations and hangers-on, all of whom are, of course, repellent.

Reardon's family exist so Rand can show us how pure and perfect Reardon is by contrast, and so Reardon can meditate on his inability to respond to them emotionally. Every word his wife utters is a passive-aggressive, veiled or not-so-veiled insult. Every word his mother says is a passive-aggressive, whiny complaint or bout of self pity. Reardon despises them yet treats them with respect and civility, because he is perfect.

What did they seek from him?--thought Reardon---what were they after. He had never asked anything of them; it was they to wished to hold him, they who pressed a claim on him--and the claim seemed to have the form of affection, but it was a form which he found harder to endure than any sort of hatred. He despised causeless affection, just as he despised unearned wealth. They professed to love him for some unknown reason and they ignored all the things for which he could wish to be loved. He wondered what response they could hope to obtain from him in such manner--if his response was what they wanted. And it was, he thought; else why those constant complaints, those unceasing accusations about his indifference? Why that chronic air of suspicion, as if they were waiting to be hurt? He had never has a desire to hurt them, but he had always felt their defensive, reproachful expectation; they seemed wounded by anything he said. It was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost...almost as they were wounded by the mere fact of his being.

Reardon habitually speaks coldly to anyone if he condescends to speak to them at all, withholds affection, and has no interest in anything or anyone but himself and his achievements. He cannot understand others' emotions and expresses very, very few of his own. His only source of joy is the triumph of success and the only characteristics he admires in other people are the ones he holds himself. In fact----

Hare's Checklist and other mental disorders
Psychopathy, as measured on the PCL-R, is negatively correlated with all DSM-IV Axis I disorders except substance abuse disorders. Psychopathy is most strongly correlated with DSM-IV antisocial personality disorder.

Factor1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"

Glibness/superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Pathological lying
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
Callous/lack of empathy
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

It's not a perfect match, but it's close. Rand's heroes exhibit all the characteristics of deeply disturbed individuals; they are unable to relate to others, unable to feel emotions, monomaniacally focused on their own glorification and success, and are also filled with self-pity because nobody appreciates their superiority. And those are the good guys.

The rest of the chapter consists of people standing around saying cruel things to each other, asking Reardon for money, and saying cruel things to Reardon about money, while Reardon wallows in self-pity, wondering to himself why nobody cares about him.


Mr. Wonderful said...

Let the mocking begin.

I'm way ahead of you. Invest 99 cents in this. You'll thank me later. (You're its ideal reader, believe me.)

Mr. Wonderful said...

Therefore, anyone who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, or modeled his life philosophy on it, or gave herself a nom de cretin modelled after one of Shrugged's characters, is an idiot whose thoughts do not deserve a single moment of consideration.

This is exactly what I tell people when I say I'm glad I read it. "You need never take seriously, ever again, anyone who likes or admires it." It's that extreme.

And we haven't even gotten to William Hickman...

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Actually, the first ERB Mars book is Princess of Mars.

Look, I just got an iPad, and the iBooks dealio has some free books, and ERB's stuff is on it, so I am reading it.

Yeah, it's simple and stupid and unlike Atlas Shruggles, it is short and to the point.

UncertaintyVicePrincipal said...

"it was almost...almost as they were wounded by the mere fact of his being."

I think if you tossed out the entire rest of the book that fragment would be enough to summarize every Objectivist I've ever read, spoken to, or heard of, including the ones who claim that they're no such thing. Actually it would describe MM perfectly whether she were or not.

Anonymous said...

Shit. I never thought this would happen but after reading the links about Rand's life I actually sympathize with her (which I'm sure she'd approve of). It's probably mostly my own dealings with mental illness and love of amphetamines but I think I can relate to a lot of what she said and did. On the other hand whenever I have written something expressing my world-view I very quickly realized how fucked up it was and destroyed all the evidence. And I like to think that no matter how egotistical and superior I feel toward other people I can recognize that they aren't just pathetic parasites.

Aside from all of that I think this idea is awesome. There's no way I'd ever touch this book but I'd like to know what goes on in it and there's no way I'm sitting through the movie.

fish said...

What Rand interprets as a strength in future objectivist pursuits, Heller highlights as a connection to Rand’s method of camouflaging insecurities.

Sounds like a certain blogger we all know.

Anonymous said...

Gonna go with borderline personality disorder here, though Asperger's fits well also.

Downpuppy said...

Reardon & the boys went to an engineering school in Cleveland.

There's only one such U, CWRU - The Big Screw. I went there. There were no Ubermensch.

What really gets annoying fast is the tonedeafness of Rand to how corporate leeches talk. She has them using socialist rhetoric, when they've always talked her language of Profits & Industry while sticking their hands in the public purse. Always. Especially when railroads were getting built. Every railroad built in the US was a public land deal with rails attached.

A total lack of understanding of her subject.

Anonymous said...

You know what's something you never hear:

"I don't agree with any of Rand's politics, but I really enjoyed reading her book" - in a non-ironic fashion.

Anonymous said...

This was awesome. It made me feel strong enough to attempt to read the actual thing, but it's $18.99 on kindle (wtf?) so I'll just stick to the recaps!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

...but it's $18.99 on kindle (wtf?) so I'll just stick to the recaps!

You have chosen wisely, nonny.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to breast the tide here: Reading Atlas Shrugged can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience on one condition: Keep firmly in your mind the image of it being performed by Monty Python.

I've long thought that she was drawing on her Hollywood screenwriter experience to craft something with the Marx Brothers (joined by Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, and the Three Stooges) in mind, but I find the Pythons sufficient.

Susan of Texas said...

Downpuppy, that might be the biggest weakness in the book, beside the general awfulness. Rand utterly ignores why countries became socialist; she wasn't poor so why should the peasants revolt? So her Movers and Shakers stop moving and shaking for no reason but that they want everything to be fair. That's not how rich and successful people think. Charity is all well and good but their business is making money and very often their pleasure is gaining power.

Zombie, I like to read old adventures books too; I love Verne and I've read H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anthony Hope and many others.

Anon, I have some sympathy for Rand as well, but it's pretty clear that her personality contributed greatly to her general misery. She appears to have been a belligerent, unkind person.

Mr. Wonderful, I'm looking forward to reading it.

Fish--heh, Rand is god's gift to insecure and/but egotistical youth.

DL--it's amazing; you think you know how bad the book is, but it's so much worse. How can people look at the characters and want to be like them or approve of their philosophy? They are devoid of humanity; how can people think that that's a good thing? Are they so terrified of people thinking they are weak that they must eliminate their humanity?

To love and be loved in return is a gift, a privilege, not something to be avoided at all costs.

Lurking Canadian said...

Susan, I think you answer your question at the end. Suppose you are unloved, or perceive yourself to be unloved. For most people, I'm sure it's more palatable to conclude that you are unloved because those people don't appreciate my specialness! than "maybe there's something I'm doing that I should change".

Your average objectivist got stuck in the first conclusion. Of course they sympathize with Hank Reardon. They think they are Hank Reardon.

Anonymous said...

Have to say, after reading Rand's biography, she, the original "Objectivist," sounds like she was just thoroughly pissed at becoming déclassé. In that light, all Galtists sound like they're afraid of same.

In other words, their problem isn't that they're sociopaths (though they are that) but that unfortunately they're all too human. Objectivism: a feudal ideology fit for modernity.

Dr.BDH said...

If only all the adolescents like Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson (to pick two of my state's Randboys) had chosen "Robinson Crusoe" to base their life vision on, instead of "Atlas Shrugged." I would gladly contribute to the purchase of an island where they could pursue their dream...

Anonymous said...

I came expecting McMockery, but this was more like watching someone turn over a rock and poke the grubs that wriggle there. It makes me feel both pity and disgust for the needy, angry Rand and her emotionally crippled fans.

Thor said...

Thank you thank you thank you!!

Daniel Harper said...

I haven't read Ayn Rand since high school. (Like many smart teenagers, I believed every word Rand wrote. Unlike some, I quickly came to realize how ridiculous I was being.) Your excellent post (and the promise of future installments) has convinced me to pick is up for a re-read.

Very well done. If you keep this up, this project will be the equivalent of Fred Clark's Left Behind series (which, from me, is high praise indeed). Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"a businessman who lost his money in the revolution"

Left it in a taxi, did he?

thomas said...

I was told i had to read this book because it was so deep and serious. The people discussing it said it was very difficult to figure out and i wouldn't get it until i was way deep into the book. I figured out the garbage in the first chapter. The plot repeated itself over and over well past the point of absurdity. Hedious book and anyone who claims to think it is a great book is simply identifying themself as a brainless moron.

Frank said...

Writing and publishing Atlas Shrugged was an act of bravery on the part of Ayn Rand. Who else would have the balls to use 1200 pages to show the world their ignorance of engineering, government, economics, manufacturing, construction, contract law, politics, dialog, human relations, the legal system and especially the railroad industry and how trains actually work.

Did I miss anything?

Wild Clover said...

Okay, I'll take the bait. I enjoy Ayn Rand's novels as fiction-poorly written as they may be, I'm also one of those rare masochists who liked "Silas Marner", but have no use for Obectivism. I tried reading some of her non-fiction and decided it had no relationship to the way the real world works.

So here's your one person who says they enjoy her novels without irony. Until I tried to read "The Virtue of Selfishness", I had assumed her cardboard characters were archetypes rather than fully human people. No, she thought they were human people. Scary thought. Though reading about her childhood and looking at her social cluelessness, I will go with autism spectrum- obsessive, socially unable to connect or empathize, rigid world view...

JP 3 said...

I share similar views about Rand and her work. They started quite a discussion last weekend: Intrinsic Gratification

anon said...

Unlike others (?) I actually enjoyed that Fountainhead movie because it was so camp. Also, Gary Cooper was sexy as hell, and I'd be content to watch him eat a bag of potato chips. Finally, it's an old-fashioned Hollywood film, which means that we might just be able to classify it as art, despite the objectionable content.

This new film, however, is without Gary Cooper and King Vidor, and therefore, presumably, without redeeming qualities (maybe someone's made a drinking game out of it... I dunno). And so I turn to your blog, Ms of Texas, to guide me in understanding this inexplicably very influential piece of American literature because there is no fucking way I'm going to put myself through 123242323 pages of the fantastic ideology of a sociopath. I assume that's why you've given up as well.

Anonymous said...

To everyone accusing Rand of being autistic, that doesn't fit. Autistics lack cognitive empathy--they cannot easily recognise the emotions of others. If you explain your emotional state to them, however, they can empathise. What Rand and her characters lack--emotional empathy, the ability to understand the emotions of others--is a trait of antisocials and narcissists, not autism or asperger's.

Susan of Texas said...

I gave up because it takes several days to write about one chapter, and while I can face McArdle's dreadful writing, trying to read McArdle and Rand at the same time was painful. I always meant to go back to it, however, so I might have more misery for everyone to experience in the future.

D. said...

Just saw these and was in the mood.

Great fun. (I read AS many years ago and the Branden bio some 20+ years back.)

Maybe McArdle will take a sabbatical someday.