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Blast From The Past

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Last year at this time, I was in the middle of trying to find a way to get to my 40th high school reunion.  That only partially worked out, but it put me in touch with people I hadn’t seen in forty years, and that seems to have cut loose some kind of nostalgia trip.  Or something.

I don’t want to say nostalgia.  I’m not really a nostalgic person, in the way that word is commonly and properly used.  I do have times in my life that I miss–any time with Bill in it, for instance–but for whatever reason, I don’t long to live there instead of here.  And I don’t sugarcoat, or at least not much.  That was then.  This is now.  I’ve always liked living in the now.

All that being said, I’ve found myself, over the past year, sort of stumbling over things I haven’t seen or read or heard of since high school, and sticking with them for a while just to see what they were like.  Or are like. I’m not sure you can recreate a reaction.

A couple of days ago, what I ran across was, of all things, Atlas Shrugged. 

For those of you who don’t know, Atlas Shrugged is the most famous novel by a woman who immigrated to the US from Russia between the World Wars and renamed herself Ayn Rand.  Rand was enormously popular as a novelist in her time, and still is–Atlas Shrugged alone still sells in the tens of thousands of copies a year. 

She is best known, however, not for being a novelist but for being an ideologue, the most libertarian of all the libertarians, a woman who wants to privatize the roads and do away with all social welfare programs.

And as an ideologue, Rand has been enormously influential.   Alan Greenspan, the man who served four terms as chairman of the US Federal Reserve, was a Rand disciple, and the libertarian movement that gave rise to things like the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute has been fueled by people who came to libertarianism first through Rands novels.

Rand herself started a foundation, now called The Ayn Rand Institute, specifically to popularize her ideas, and you can find it here:


But the ideas were popular enough already, and have become increasingly so in the US.

They were not, however, popular with conservatives.  She was roundly ridiculed, and worse, not only by the left by by the right, especially by Bill Buckley and The National Review, with one conservative writer dismissing the popularity of her work as being due to the “dirty bits”–the sex scenes.

These days, Rand’s “dirty bits” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on prime time network TV, and she’s still popular.  My guess is that whatever’s going on, it isn’t about the weird boddice-ripper-romance-novel-not-really-rape scenes she was so fond of giving her favorite heroes and heroines.

That said, I have a relationship to this book that I have to no other.  Sometime between junior high school and the start of college, I read it over twenty times.  I read a couple of paperback copies absolutely to pieces.  And I did it even though, even at the time, I knew for a fact that it was, on any technical level a very bad book.

Well, no.  Let me take that back. Rand was a meticulous plotter.  She could keep three dozen balls in the air at once and make sure the pieces all fit together perfectly in the end.  The idea for Atlas Shrugged is original, which is hard to do at this stage in the history of the novel.  So there’s that.

There’s also her one great virtue, which is that she wrote completely plausible, completely true-to-life villains–true enough so that, forty years on, I run into these people all the time and go, “Oh, wait, I know how that mind works,” because of her.

And she got those villains right, too.  She got them perfectly.  She understood–in a way no writer has before or since, including writers with far more talent for fiction than she had–a certain kind of mind.  Or maybe I should say a certain kind of disease of the mind in the modern world.

The drawbacks of the fiction as fiction are threefold:

First, English was not her native language, and it shows.  The writing is often stiff, and overly “proper.”

Second, the woman was a Romantic, in the sense that her sense of a human life propery lived had more in common with Byron and Shelley than with real life as we know it.  She liked significance, and striking poses, and the Great Man tortured by the stupidity and venality around him.  It was just that her Great Men were industrialists and commercial inventors instead of artists.

The result of this is that she got her heroes wrong to almost the exact extent she got her villains right.  And she got them wrong internally even when she got them right externally.  Some of her heroes hang out in old blue jeans and flannel shirts, but as soon as you get into their heads they’re thinking in terms of “bearing anything he needed to bear just to keep on going” and “glimpsing the greatness that should be possible but that the world around him would not let him reach.”

My guess is that the only Great Man Rand ever knew was herself, and that she grafted her way of thinking onto other people almost as a matter of course.  That certainly seems to be what happened in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was Rand’s friend and her inspiration for the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. 

Rand managed to get it all exactly backwards–she portrays Roark as failing all his architectural school design classes and excelling at engineering, while Wright himself was a great designer and a terrible engineer.  Still, he appreciated the appreciation, and designed a house for her.  I don’t know how it’s holding up.

The third problem with Atlas Shrugged as fiction is that too much of it isn’t fiction.  Periodically, one of the heroes will deliver the kind of monologue that really should have been an essay in a magazine or a collection than a characcter speech in a work of fiction. 

And those monologues are not minor.  There is an entire chaper in Atlas Shrugged, called “This Is John Galt Speaking,” in which Rand outlines her entire philosophy–morally, aesthetically and politically.  In the hardcover, this chapter takes up 70 pages.

Of course, in a book that’s 1168 pages long, that’s a drop in the bucket.

I don’t really want to bitch about the monologues. They taught me some things that I didn’t know and that have been very useful to me, not least of which is the necessity of understanding how people are defining the words they use.

And I always read every word of those monologues, because the ideas were (and are) interesting.  It’s just a terrible way to write a novel. 

You can get the monologues separately, by the way–they’ve been reprinted in collections of her work, along with the many nonfiction essays she wrote at the end of her career.

It’s odd, though, to read it again after all this time.  It still comes closest to what I believe both politically and philosophically, even though I’m now sure that she got her heroes not just wrong but perversely wrong–and that getting the heroes right is important.

Of course, getting the villains right is also important, so there’s that.

Written by janeh

July 2nd, 2010 at 7:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Blast From The Past'

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  1. At this point I can’t remember much about Ayn Rand, except that I just bounced off her books. I can’t remember at this late stage whether I tried ‘Atlas Shrugged’ or ‘The Fountainhead’ or both, but she was, as you say, very famous, so it was almost inevitable that I’d hear about her and give her a try, probalbly in my mid to late teens.

    And I didn’t get it. I thought it was just a bad, boring book – whichever one it was. I found the characters so completely unmemorable that I can’t now remember who they were or which book they were in. I didn’t pick up on the political ideas at all – I must have dismissed references to them as meaningless. While I admire endurance, I don’t think I’ve ever much been drawn to characters “glimpsing the greatness that should be possible but that the world around him would not let him reach.” It sounds too much like making excuses, and in any case, greatness is, to me, something people actually achieve in the world, not some kind of golden ring you can grab if you aren’t trapped in the bog of everyday life.

    I may have been vaguely puzzled about why so many people seemed to like this stuff, but that’s a fairly common sentiment for me, and the puzzlement wasn’t strong enough – as it was with other books, other ideas – to keep me hammering away until I was satisfied that I had figured out what it was other people saw in the work, and what I thought about it.

    I’m glad you enjoyed getting in touch with your old school friends. I have never felt the slightest desire to get in touch with any of mine (except for the one or two who are still part of my life), but I know many people enjoy that.


    2 Jul 10 at 8:08 am

  2. My own copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED has a lot of miles on it. (Does anyone out there know how many readings the various orders of books are expected to endure?) And Signet/NAL made a lot of money off me by printing pretty much all of Ayn Rand back in the days of cheap paperbacks.

    I would not have said Rand’s command of English was a problem. There is the odd turn of phrase–“preparing a hamburger sandwich” for instance–but by the time she wrote ATLAS SHRUGGED she’d been speaking and writing in English for 30 years. I could, but won’t, name native English speakers who have a harder time getting their meaning across and still make a living as writers.

    If being a romantic is a fault, it’s a common one in novelists. You either show how the world ought to be or ought not to be and how people should or should not behave, or you’re in some danger of marketing potted sociology or psychology texts as fiction. By the time of ATLAS SHRUGGED Rand knew Wright and a number of film moguls–more “heroes” than she had ever met “villains” of the same level. If her villains are dead-on lifelike–and they are!–and her heroes are not, perhaps she’s showing people how she believes people ought to think and behave. No bad thing.

    As for the monologues as a fault–well, I get someting similar with Tolkien. In both cases I’m told that the one of the best-selling works of the previous century is such despite this or that flaw. Given decades of sales and influence, I lean toward the idea that both Rand and Tolkien knew what they were doing, and that things not normally recommended in writing classes worked in these instances, These are the exceptions that prove–in the old meaning of “test”–the rules. In Rand’s case, the monologues are integral to the story. They’re not asides or comic relief, and many of us have read them carefully.

    And if WFB was wrong about the sex, he was perfectly right to understand that libertarianism isn’t conservatism any more than it’s liberalism. It’s sideways to both, with a different set of priorities than either. Buckley, I think, appreciated libertarianism as a serious ideological rival. The left, believing that Marx was the seal of the prophets, never has been able to figure out what to make of libertarianism. There just isn’t supposed to be anything new under the sun.

    And yet there is.


    2 Jul 10 at 5:54 pm

  3. Well, just to be clear.

    I didn’t say Rand was “a romantic,” I said she was “a Romantic,” capital R. I’m talking Goethe and Young Werther, Rousseau and company, Byron and Shelley, Heathcli8ff on the moors.

    She was in love with the same Prometheus myth that everybody from then to the Council for Secular Humanism now is in love with, and it always has the same problems for me.

    It’s self consciously posey and artificial.

    If she was writing about the way she wanted people to be–then she was wrong. Striking attitudes and feeling intensely are not much less tiresome if you’ve invented a motor than if you’re just writing poetry in Greenwich Village coffee shops.

    The people who actually do the things she admires, and live the way she advocates–are not like that. They tend, on average, to be less, not more, formal than your average bureaucrat, for instance–and most would consider the emotional approach of Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart to be rather silly.

    The second thing, of course, is this–I’ve never spent a single day in “writing school.” I did take ONE creative writing program in college–but it was in poetry, not fiction, and I nearly got kicked out.

    And I was fairly clear about a lot that I like in Atlas Shrugged, including its structure and its originality.

    But no matter how integral a statement of principal may be to a novel, seventy solid pages of type is one whacking hunk all in one place.

    And characters who can spout lectures on the virtues of money or the right kind of sex so that they sound like they’re reading the manuscript they just handed in to The New York Review of Books are not believable as characters.

    But those are mistakes she never makes with her villains.

    Which is an interesting point.


    2 Jul 10 at 7:24 pm

  4. Ouch! I never accused you of attneding a writing course. I was actually thinking of a script writer for the movie version of THE TWO TOWERS explaining how Tolkien never have sequenced part of THE LORD OF THE RINGS as he had if he’d attended a writing seminar. In your case, I thought it was telling that you both regarded her speeches as a flaw and read every word. Not every deviation from strict realism is a mistake.

    Nor had I accused you of disliking the book. You were quite clear. I can only say I did not find the Galt’s Gulch crowd excessively formal, and missed the “Young Werther” vibes. Francisco d’Anconia destroying the assets the state would steal and leaving a note is not striking a pose. He’s displaying panache. There’s a difference. Nor are Rand’s geniuses solitary. Rotate the novel about 30 degrees, and it’s about community–the three college classmates whose friendship remakes the world as they are joined by more and more of their peers. It’s precisely her villains who live isolated in fear and suspicion of one another.

    And the New York Review of Books would never have published any of those speeches.


    2 Jul 10 at 11:12 pm

  5. I agree with Robert about FA’s stylish act of destruction. That’s not what I meant by “posey.”

    It’s things like this, from page 562 of my edition:

    “She was looking off at the ravine, her head lifted, strands of disordered hair stirring in the wind. Her plain gray suit was like a thin coating of metal over a slender body againbst the spread of sun-flooded space and sky. Her posture had the lightness and unself-conscious precision of an arrogantly pure self confidence. She was watching the work, her glance intent and purposeful, the glance of competence enjoying its own function.”

    It goes on from there–and on and on and on. And that’s hardly the one one, a character (a hero character) caught motionless just embodying competence, goodness, arrogant self-assurance, whatever.

    It’s very bad writing. And it’s posey.

    As for Young Werther–take any of Hank Reardeon’s interior monologues about his desire for Dagny Taggart–ANY of them, before or after he figures out what he really thinks about it.

    Or, while you’re at it, the entire section on the first run of the John Galt line, with everybody standing in the cab facing the future or standing in the engine core feeling the throb of the motors…

    For God’s sake.

    And the NYRB was the only publication I could think of that would print ANY 70=long essay on political, moral and aesthetic philosophy.

    Never mind putting it in the middle of a novel, where it’s fine for you and me, who read that kind of stuff anyway, but a disaster for somebody like Matt, who forced himself through it the first time he read the book and has skipped it every time since.

    There’s a reason you’re supposed to show and not tell.


    3 Jul 10 at 7:03 am

  6. OK, that I’ll concede. If someone handed me the manuscript of ATLAS SHRUGGED it would probably be about 200 pages shorter–not losing a scene or a character, but trimming just that sort of description. (Of course, then Rand would refuse to deal with me.) But it is her description, not really the characters striking a pose. They’re too busy getting things done, whether they’re suffering at the time or not–which sorts them out from a lot of Romantic types.(And yes, I paid great attention to Rand’s THE ROMANITC MANIFESTO.)

    Galt’s big speech comes up every time in discussions. I’d have said reading it carefuly the first time and skipping or skimming thereafter was a sensible solution. But Galt–and the plot–NEED that speech, and one of the things I intensely dislike about Austen and Scott is the habit of writing “and then our character gave a rousing speech”–or an amiable one. (Watch scriptwriters trying to fill in the scene at Pemberly in which Darcy meets the Gardiners. It’s critical, but Austen doesn’t give us a word of dialogue from the meeting. She just says Darcy was amiable and it went well. ARRRGH!)

    And Rand had a real problem. You’re right that only the NYRB would have printed something that long on those subjects–and I’m right that the NYRB wouldn’t touch a non-leftist approach to such subjects. That left Rand hard-pressed to get her message out–unless she could so embed it in a work of fiction that, to this day, tens of thousands of copies are purchased and read every year. I suppose you might have people listening to bits of the speech and move the full text to an appendix, but I’m not sure it would be an improvement. Some people don’t even read Tolkien’s appendices.


    3 Jul 10 at 8:48 am

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