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)

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