BEAST philosopher-at-large Michael Caigoy reads Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so you don’t have to
It’s important in Atlas Shrugged to vilify Rearden’s wife, Lillian, so his betrayal can be rationalized. For an author like Rand, who has little interest in the pathos of female characters (Dagny hardly counts), shortcuts must be taken in undermining any sympathy the reader might develop. To this end, Rand picked through the literary trough and found frigidity — the gimmick wheeled out by Orwell to justify Winston’s separating from his wife, freeing him morally, to later bone Julia and brew coffee out in an old peeping-tom’s loft space.
No, fuck the Orwell reference. That’s too easy — libertarian easy. The irony of Nineteen Eighty-Four is its frequent use in reinforcing emotional narratives — the very purpose of the author’s own maligned Newspeak. So, fuck Orwell. His apocalyptic prophecies have been looming on the horizon since day one, and never come to fruition. He was talking about something specific (the spread of nationalization into western Europe and North America, and the development of an all-encompassing police state), and it didn’t fucking happen. Today’s tyranny is passive-aggressive and mundane. Deal with it, nutcases.
I’m getting distracted here. Stupid Orwell.
To celebrate Hank’s infidelity, he and Dags take a road trip to more of the middle states — only natural, since Rand and provincial xenophobes go together like metal and rape. Dagny wanted to take a side trip, as no good vacation is complete without an inexplicable visit to an abandoned factory.
Along the way, they rattled through some piss town, distressing the emotionally-taut Rearden. He all but sobs at the sight of it: a stretch of road without billboards.
Rearden: “I don’t like the looks of this.”
Dags: “I don’t either.” Then she smiled. “But think how often we’ve heard people complain that billboards ruin the appearance of the countryside.
Rearden: Well, there’s the unruined countryside for them to admire.”
And there’s your “second most influential book of the Twentieth century.” If you’ve ever used a VCR or TiVo to skip ads, you’ve made the list, as Dagny finally says of the billboard averse: “They’re the people I hate.”
Here, too, the evils of something — greenery — are too obvious for explanation. I have to ask, has anybody actually read this book?
In the hallowed factory ruins, the philanderer and the floozy find the remnants of a fabled motor powered by static electricity. Dagny goes on the hunt for the guy that built it — presumably in his garage, with a sweet welding montage.
She sniffs at the breadcrumb trail of previous owners, all of them corrupt and incompetent, of course! She asks them if they know anything about the original owners, engineers, etc. They uniformly reply that their ineptitude isn’t their own fault, that they care about the common man, that all people care about is money, that they’ve never made a profit, and that they love puppies. She asks the same question, they moan some more — ad nauseam.
This thread of non-sequiturs goes on for several paragraphs, with a procession of characters again too similar and nondescript to name.
For some reason, an exasperated Dagny ends up in a greasy spoon, where she observed a fry cook that impressed her with his poise, precision, and cognizant glare. It turned out he was the philosopher, Hugh Akston. The greatest of all time, Dagny gasped — and what a coincidence he sounded exactly like our lovely author! I glanced at the book in astonishment! (Get used to that phrase if you plan on reading this book. In which case, I wish you luck.)
Now, I’m not suggesting a lot of philosophers don’t end up fry cooks, but how metaphysical masturbation translates into a mastery of the spatula is a secret I’m not privy to.
Then Atlas Shrugged finally throws me for a loop; it said something not totally idiotic. It wasn’t an original idea, or even well-said, but it at least reminded me that at some point, before this marathon through neck-deep horseshit, I was once acquainted with remotely good ideas. Not just ones following a self-contained internal logic disconnected from reality.
Dagny talked up fair wages for Taggart Transcontinental’s engineers — specialists, in other words, not necessarily skilled at water polo and sexual assault. I’ll admit, I’m naively basing that assumption on reality rather than some explicit remark, which is at best a 1/99 bet against my being right. Dags hired on a Quentin Daniels to reverse engineer that static electricity-powered motor she plucked from the Twentieth Century Motor Co. ruins in Bumfuck, Wisconsin.
She wanted to pay him well for his task. It’s no small thing making a transportation company heiress, and professional delegator (not to mention a loyal S&M gimp) look irreplaceable. But, being a righteous capitalist ascetic, he deferred compensation (none of the heroes in this book need money, remember?)… so he could later ream Dagny if he succeeded.
There’s no mention of the innumerable workers without whom neither starched suits like Dagny, nor their pious technical counterparts like Quentin, could realize practical applications — or even perform the research necessary to determine a product’s viability. The working class (you) evidently remain a faceless, silent, interchangeable, and expendable sludge bubble.
Still, it’s a conspicuous contrast that, here on planet Earth, Americans from all levels of education and qualification are feeling the economic decline. Businessmen long ago realized that fairly compensating even white collar employees, and making quality products, was but one way to enhance profit margins and competitiveness. In the short term, they decided it wasn’t even the best way, and that by undercutting the economic health of their native country through aggressive outsourcing, creative bookkeeping, lobbying, etc., their highest ranks could stuff their pockets more quickly, at the expense of everyone else.
Meaning that ultimately, no matter how antisocial Rand’s economic hallucinations were, her followers managed to fuck that up, too.
Or did they?
After Constantine decided he needed support from the semi-literate multitudes, Christianity saw a rapid transition from the religion of hicks to a mainstream institution. And why not? Its followers were encouraged to shun worldly possessions, exhorted to deprive themselves of comfort and enjoyment. They considered poverty a virtue, strife a condition of salvation. They condemned themselves to hardship, and embraced a disenfranchised loserdom — which the powerful were more than happy to oblige.
Not only were the pious driven toward their paradise through a gauntlet of misery, but they were smug in the assurance that it was a reward of which their masters would be deprived. I’m sure the wealthy cried themselves to sleep, on their featherbeds, next to their mistresses.
It suits our modern ownership class that the average, the mediocre, should aspire to an opulence as distant and unlikely as a magical afterlife, while undercutting themselves and the rest of us in the interim. Affluence is the new Heaven, and for most it’s as much a fiction as the old.
Nietzsche recognized the problems of Judeo-Christian religions, and he wanted to reaffirm life. Rather than worrying about the substance of things hoped for (i.e. Jack squat), he brought focus back to the immediacy of things present; in the practicality of science, and the contentment of physical self-worth.
Materialism/monism is the antithesis of dualism, the latter of which posits an undemonstrated immaterial realm (AKA fuck all) as commonly accepted as it is inane and ontologically bankrupt.
Rand took “materialism” all literal and shit, conflating it with the materialism condemned by ridiculous hippies and other transcendental jerkoffs. In Atlas Shrugged, she doesn’t just portray it as a personal preference, but the only “rational” priority (as in, “no one comes to the Father but through Me”). The most “moral” characters in the Randverse find salvation through haplessly accumulating money they, by their own admission, don’t need — just to support principles consistent with her one-note precepts. They sound like the most wretched people in history, trying to make sense of the Objectivist vision of happiness.
Rand takes the derisive straw-man leveled against materialists by dualists and other spiritual rabble, and adopts it as a moral imperative. It’s like the difference between an atheist and a Satanist. One disregards religion, while the other accepts its premises, then deliberately sides with the comic relief. Rand’s materialism is pure slapstick.
In one episode, incompetent straw-man, Jim Taggart, dips into a shop and is mooned over by a transportation groupie (Cheryl Brooks). Hey, I can’t make this shit up. She goes home with Jim, and obligingly repeats the cant spurted in some variation across every other page of this porno-prop, about the morality of being a greedy refugee from an airbrushed Wehrmacht recruitment poster. She credits Jim with the implementation of an untested bridge design, built from an unproven material, and he doesn’t bother to dissuade her.
While the girl, Cheryl, is clearly gagging for it, Jim is distracted by his obligation to discredit himself for the Rand audience, and starts rambling about benefitting society or something, saying, All they think about is money, blah dee blah blah. I believe in a higher purpose, bleep blorpitty blop.
His sympathy for humanity ruins the moment, and she falters on her resolve to bang a railway executive. Yep, empathy is a turn-off in the Randverse. Bear in mind that none of the characters in this book seem to have, or mention children — outside of a pregnant hillbilly Dagny all but spat on during the road trip.
A perfunctory explanation of a courtship between the two whizzes past. It doesn’t involve rape, so as in the earlier Jim and Cheryl sequence, Rand opts for the convenience of neutering him altogether. He’s not driven by love, lust, etc., but a craving for the rare admiration the insecure chick lavishes. How this creepy master-slave relationship is different from Dagny’s commitment to being Hank’s submissive blow-up doll is Rand’s to know and mine to lose interest in.
At the Taggart wedding, there are more lectures. Jim takes a moment to rant about his spiritual nature, citing metaphysical fall guy, Dr. Pritchett; and thus combining vague religious allusions with epistemological nihilism. I once got into a drunken argument with a postmodernist at a Korean restaurant. It happens. They move the goalposts. So I understand the psychic trauma of dealing with radical relativism. It doesn’t explain why this marginal outlook looms so large among her shadowy antagonists. It’s not popular — like, at all.
Regardless, the lesser Taggart complains again about his sister, etc., being all about money, while he answers a call that evidently precludes any competence as a businessman.
“If I acknowledge their superiority in the material realm, why don’t they acknowledge mine in the spiritual?”
Jim Taggart delivers his appeal pre-digested. He’s already conceded the entire physical world. Presuppositions like these compose the false dichotomies so key in Rand’s conclusions — with which the reader is bludgeoned in literally every chapter. Material success and spirituality are mutually exclusive for Rand; this straw-man spirituality is then used to ridicule any desire for a fair society. Social justice is also caricatured; conveniently closing a gulf between basic welfare programs to keep people alive and off the streets, and a state of fully nationalized industries, where merit can neither be exercised nor rewarded.
It’s easy to draw a line between her views and a demographic unwilling to see the brutality of an American Social Darwinism in practice today.
Whatever the validity of spiritual ideas (i.e. little to none), it’s telling to see that Rand’s either too inattentive to present them accurately, or lacking the confidence to rebut any realistic portrayals of them. Which is odd, considering real spiritual arguments are self-parodying.