Posts Tagged literature
At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”
Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.
The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.
So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COM, then make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.
*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.
So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.
First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.
Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?
Our story begins with Eddie Willers, who will be playing the part of The Average Man, as he hustles across Manhattan in twilight. His destination is the Grand Central-like headquarters of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company, where he must inform company president James Taggart that there has been a crash on their Colorado-bound line.
Eddie passes a bum on the street who blankly mutters ‘Who is John Galt?’ at him. Eddie should get used to this question by the way, because Galt is basically Jacob from Lost in this book: he makes lists of his favorite people and everyone will be cryptically overhyping him for like 800 pages. Anyway the question freaks Eddie out. He feels ’causeless uneasiness,’ ‘dread without reason,’ and ‘immense, diffused apprehension.’ He just can’t seem to shake the feeling that the world is going down the tubes (what with the bums and all), and now he’s got the unsettling impression that this particular bum can read his mind and tease him, knowingly, with cryptic non-explanations.
This sends him on a reverie about an oak tree on a hill from his childhood, which he saw as a symbol of strength until it got hit by lightning and exposed as hollow and rotted inside. That bummed L’il Eddie out, existentially speaking. Plus it’s a metaphor for society. But Eddie brushes all that off as he gets to the Taggart Transcontinental offices, where the art deco majesty…
…and row upon row of Peggy Olson typists…
…give him a raging hard-on for his job again.
Stirred to purpose once more, Eddie strides into James Taggart’s corner suite. Taggart is not exactly a born leader of men cut straight from granite. He’s almost 40 but he looks over 50. He’s a schlub and, as we will see shortly, a weasel. Eddie tells him about the crash. Taggart — the company president, remember — could give a shit. Accidents happen all the time! Cost of doing business! Cartoon villainy, etc. Eddie tries to point out that they need to reinvest in that track to compete for the freight business coming from some newly opened oil fields.
Taggart scoffs, “Who cares? The guy who runs those fields is an asshole! I’ve got friends I’m used to working with, we’re just gonna stay the course.” But Eddie knows which market players are thriving and which are withering and he cannot comprehend what Jim could be thinking. He and Taggart have known each other since childhood, when Eddie was the patrician Taggart family’s token bourgeois friend, but now it’s like they’re always talking past each other!
As if to prove the point, Jim keeps obfuscating the issue of good corporate policy with defensive rants about how just because Ellis Wyatt (the oil man) churns out a lot of commerce doesn’t make him good for society. Think of all the jobs lost as he saps business from established companies! That economic dislocation hurts people! Taggart has apparently never heard of creative destruction, while pure simple Eddie just wants to know if they’re going to fund repairs in Colorado or not. He is, after all, personal aide to the VP of Operations.
Taggart: ‘It’s touching–your devotion to Taggart Transcontinental. If you don’t look out, you’ll turn into one of those real feudal serfs.’
Eddie: ‘That’s what I am, Jim.’
Damn, that’s a harsh self-evaluation, Eddie. If that’s supposed to be your ‘everyman’ character being humble, Ayn, that is some seriously rough humility. But Eddie can take it because he’s loyal and obedient. And really into industrial aesthetics. And blonde-haired and blue-eyed… wait wait wait, is Rand suggesting that The Average Man would make a good Nazi? Ayn, you are one subversive bitch, and I respect it.
Taggart officially informs Eddie that he wants to keep their resources focused on a track into Mexico he’s had built to reach the San Sebastian copper mines. Eddie has this whole vision of the continental map as a living organism with railroads as arteries and fossil fuels as blood, and James’ plan seems like some piss-poor anatomy to him, but Eddie doesn’t have the wherewithal to talk back to his superiors any more than he already has. He knows his place. And so he leaves.
On his way out he passes a Wise Old Clerk, who’s tinkering away on his busted antique typewriter and lamenting how everything nowadays is cheap crap and he’s never buying a typewriter again because they don’t make ’em like they used’t, grumble grumble fart. I think e-mail would piss this guy off just conceptually, but Eddie sizes him up as having the same ‘cynical indifference’ in his eyes as the bum, and then Wise Old Clerk even asks ‘Who is John Galt?’ again, in a sort of “Oh well what’r’ya gonna do” way, then out of nowhere there’s a violin sting and ominous opening credits.
Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and promptly received a critical panning, because as a piece of literature it has the poetic sensibility of an instruction manual. But as a parable designed to promote a specific philosophical argument it is undeniably gangbusters.
Atlas, of course, is unlike most parables in that it’s as thick as a phone book instead of living comfortably as a short story. It is like most parables in that it isn’t known for its complex characterization. Taken together, these two features make the book pretty lame as an aesthetic endeavor. This has not at all stopped it from becoming a perennial bestseller and ideological bible for millions of impressed readers.
With that in mind, the novel and the philosophy it espouses are clearly inseparable. That philosophy is Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s personal invention, and I will briefly synopsize it now in categorial bullet points. For those without any philosophical background, don’t worry about the jargon here, it’ll all come up far more organically as we go:
* Metaphysically, Objectivism is atheistic and materialistic.
*Epistemologically, it rejects the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon and opposes epistemological skepticism (this bullet point is where I fundamentally disagree with Rand, by the way).
*Ethically, it promotes rational selfishness as the highest moral good and vilifies altruism as counterproductive, which is delightfully counterintuitive if not a little overboard.
*Politically, it is radically libertarian.
*Aesthetically, it provides what I consider a necessary but insufficient definition of art, “a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” which, by the way, means that Atlas Shrugged is an artistic tour de force by its own author’s definition. Seriously.
And honestly I think I could have just put that last bullet point at the head of the page and called it a day, because for good or ill that nicely sums up everything you need to know as you sit down to crack open Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.
Welcome to Atlas ‘Clubbed, a lone blog in the wilderness where I, a “liberal-tarian” 20-something male, will spend the next several months reading and recapping Ayn Rand’s 1000+ page philosophic allegory Atlas Shrugged so that you don’t have to.
If you’ve already read the book, well, so have I actually, and I think you might enjoy this project even more than newcomers. As this is nominally a book club, I welcome and encourage stories in the comments about how this novel is a brilliant intellectual masterpiece and/or an endless brick of inert prose. Whichever. But said comments, if they come to exist, are to remain 1) substantive; and, 2) civil with some discretionary leeway for well-played ball-busting. I will readily block any moochers, leeches, and trolls.
The plan is to cover one chapter every week for 30 weeks, which takes us through the end of July 2012 excepting personal delays and global psycho-spiritual apocalypses. Factoring in a couple of weeks for such Murphy’s Law scenarios puts the conclusion of the project somewhere in the vicinity of the Republican National Convention in August (speaking of psycho-spiritual apocalypses…). So we’ll see how that goes.
First, though, some context. In late 2008, following the financial crisis and the climax of the last election cycle, I picked up Atlas Shrugged with the explicit intention of becoming more fluent in the language of conservative ideology, but for primarily rhetorical purposes. I’m politically disinclined to like Rand’s work (I voted for Obama and intend to do so again), and yet I was surprised by how provocative and compelling I found it — at least, in its premises and ambitions if not its execution. While I still regard Ayn herself as a stone-cold bitch monster, I have a begrudging respect for her ideas that I did not have when I knew her by reputation alone. There is written proof of this reaction, no less, which can be perused here at my old, defunct blog.
Which is to say I want this site to appeal to Rand fans as well as Rand detractors, even though — don’t get me wrong — I will snark on her writing. A lot. But I will take the ideas she presents seriously while I do so, irreverent editorial voice be damned. Consider it a friendly ribbing.
I think that covers all the preamble. There will be a new chapter recap posted every Monday. Today, in addition to this preface, I have posted a short bio of the author and a general overview of the book itself. “Chapter 1: The Theme” will roll out in two posts on Wednesday and Friday, with “Chapter 2: The Chain” kicking off the regular schedule on Monday the 9th. Every few weeks I’ll also throw in a short essay of a post where I review thematic issues about which I find myself (or you, hypothetical readers) having a lot to say.
And oh my should there ever be a lot to say. It’s 2012 and the very philosophical underpinnings of America are the subject of the national debate, with a big vote at the end and everything! May Galt have mercy on us all…