Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Problem with Atlas Shrugged, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

You know the standard ignorant claim that Objectivism - Ayn Rand's philosophy - is a philosophy by and for assholes. It is true, there are assholes in the Objectivist movement, but not, I have found, at any higher rate of incidence than the percentage of assholes in the population at large. The charge of asshole-ism is leveled not on the basis of the actual (sound) content of Objectivist ideas, or on the basis of the thoroughly non-asshole ideas of The Fountainhead. (Roark is just an architect, wanting to create according to his own standards. That's all. He's actually very cheery and friendly about it all. Just read the damn book and see for yourself.) No, the asshole-ism charge is based on the characters in Atlas Shrugged.

"But John Galt isn't an asshole!" Well, duh, he actually isn't one. Ayn Rand's intention is that John Galt be another fictional incarnation of the Ideal Man (more or less, Frank O'Connor with Ayn Rand's philosophical chops). So Roark and Galt are meant to be essentially similar applications of the same theme. Roark dynamiting the housing project he designed, and Galt going on strike and "stopping the motor of the world," are meant to be expressions of a man's right to exist for his own sake, to have exclusive right to the product of his own mind, whatever the needs or demands of the masses. This idea is absolutely and thoroughly sound. Galt, however, comes off as more of an asshole in how he goes about proving his point.

My main beef is not at all with the underlying philosophy in Atlas Shrugged, but in the execution. As Ayn Rand stressed the crucial importance of theory-practice integration, Atlas Shrugged, to work as a novel of ideas, needs to succeed in this integration if it is to succeed as a novel. Every element requires seamless integration with the others. A novel could feature a masterfully-orchestrated plot but that relates to form and technique, in distinction from the content. If the premises upon which the plot of a novel is built don't hold up, then the novel fails in its mission.

First off, let's have a look at The Speeches. I'm not talking just about the 3-hour radio address. (It actually runs to 3 hours and 20 minutes in the audiobook version. The amount of time it takes to sit through The Godfather, Part II - that's how long it takes to sit through Galt's radio address. It had better be as riveting, wouldn't you say?) Let's just take Francisco d'Anconia's "money speech." Now, this was not in the nature of a prepared address, like "This is John Galt Speaking." There, you needn't presume that Galt had given that address off-the-cuff; like Ayn Rand, he might well have taken two whole years to compose the text of it. We just don't know the details there. But with Francisco's money speech, you have something most definitely off-the-cuff.

What to say about the money speech? It's all fine and good in content, but what about the presentation of it? Have you seen the length of this thing on paper? It goes on for several pages. And it's spontaneous. It's spontaneous, and it arises out of a conversation at a party, and he goes on . . . and on . . . and on. This observation is not new to me at all. However, it is an observation that very few Objectivists and Rand-admirers want to come to grips with. If a character monologues for several pages on end, then so much the worse for literary tradition, so the argument goes. (One facepalm-moment in Leonard Peikoff's otherwise awesome Understanding Objectivism lecture course is a Q&A response where he says that the speeches were barely long enough. Facepalm facepalm facepalm. I'd dig up the exact reference but I don't have $300 and 20+ hours to spare right now. I think it was one of the later lectures.)

You'll notice that in The Fountainhead, the small number of lengthy speeches are confined to where they are most appropriate and realistic. Howard Roark gave his speech at just the right point in the novel, and with a crucial plot-purpose served. (The first trial in the novel, he produces his designs for the Stoddard Temple and says, "The defense rests." The second time around, he needed to make a speech.) The issue isn't so much a speech showing up in a literary work of fiction; it's whether it does the work it's supposed to do to advance a storyline. The Francisco "money speech" seems only like an opportunity for a character to become a mouthpiece. Again, I am not making any original observation or criticism concerning the "mouthpiece" nature of Atlas's characters. What I am doing is calling for Objectivists and Rand-admirers to check their premises about this "wonderful" novel, because ideas are that important. Ideas have consequences. If the underlying idea of a 15-minute money monologue almost right out of the blue is that This is how heroes behave, then we are potentially in for a heap of trouble.

Descending now into the world of the "ordinary" and "commonplace," what is the initial reaction a non-Objectivist reader has to this kind of speech in the middle of a novel? A question such an "ordinary" reader is almost certainly inclined to ask is: is this how people actually behave in real life? Can you seriously imagine someone going into a 15-minute monologue about how awesome money is, and not triggering a negative reaction? In ordinary parlance, the word that comes to such a reader's mind is: "Asshole."

And that, my friends, is how you get the standard swipe that "Objectivism is a philosophy for self-important assholes."

(to be continued)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Problem with Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

In the last few days, I created a list of essential philosophy books. There is a lot of Ayn Rand-related material on there, but the most I can do Atlas Shrugged-wise is to include the CliffsNotes version by Andrew Bernstein. One person I showed this list to asked, "What about Atlas Shrugged?"; this posting is prompted in part by that query. Here's the deal: I really don't like Atlas Shrugged. Now to explain why.

First off, I should briefly summarize my intellectual context: when I first encountered Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, in junior year of high school, it was a life-changer. Overnight, I went from (primarily) a student of economics to (primarily) a student of philosophy. The moral certainty she displayed - and the moral certainty about principles that are true - is almost unheard-of in the history of ideas. There was nothing of this sort in the writings of Milton Friedman, my biggest intellectual "hero" up to that time.

Shortly thereafter, I read The Fountainhead, and didn't "get" it at its fundamental sense-of-life level. I was not versed either in fiction or in the arts. (My interest in the arts would emerge years later out of other life-changers: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the adagio movement to Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, Op. 73.) I promptly went onto other books and thinkers featured in the Laissez Faire Books catalog at the time, most especially Murray Rothbard, whose own radical moral certainty was, I thought at the time, the logical extension of the principles I first encountered in Rand. So for a time, I delved into anarchistic theory and, eventually, found that there was so much left-anarchist theory out there that I soon lost interest in the subject of what an all-out dismantling of the State might lead to. My principles were firmly capitalistic, see.

It was around this time that I was taking my first college-level courses in philosophy (under the tutelage of a leading proponent of Intelligent Design theory, as it happens). At this time my thoughts were increasingly focused on the moral foundations of individual rights as distinct from the questions the Rothbard-types were preoccupied with (in short: how to apply rights theories to such questions as whether the State is legitimate, or whether libel ought to be legal *facepalm*). It was at this time that I followed promising leads in the LFB catalog to the works of Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. I noticed at the same time that much of their work pointed back to . . . Ayn Rand. (Yes, I had read Jerome Tuccille's It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand during my Rothbardian-anarchist phase, and - like with the one-sided accounts of Rand presented by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden in their memoirs - I bought into the book's negative depictions of Rand and the "Collective." More on the nature of the "Collective" as we proceed....) And, so, I become familiarized with The Virtue of Selfishness and arrive at the essential moral-philosophical worldview that I hold to this day. (It was also right around this time that I encountered Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia which I also dug, though he was doing more "well, duh" kinds of leftist-ass-kicking without getting into the important issue of the foundations for rights themselves.)

What happened shortly thereafter was another "life-changing" event, and one that, in long-term retrospect, had profoundly negative effects on the course of my life. That event, occurring during the summer after graduating high school, was reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time.

Now, what we have in Atlas is one hell of an intellectual construction. At the time I was, to use a cliche, "blown away." Here we had, on virtually every page, a literal deconstruction of the hate-filled premises of the enemies of capitalism and individual rights. When Ayn Rand said that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged, she wasn't kidding! Rather than more subdued aesthetic cues, we get page after page of the most heavy-handed didacticism that a highly-intellectual young student of philosophy - particularly individualist-capitalist philosophy - eats right up. For the month that I was reading it, it was like I was in heaven. I was now ready to go out and emulate the heroic characters in this story.

Big fucking mistake.

(to be continued)