Upon reading this chapter, I’ve become assured of two things:
1) Ayn Rand thinks that being physically tired is somehow a moral weakness.
2) Ayn Rand had undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.
On the first topic, on several occasions already in the book, Rand has pointed out characters who, through sheer force of will, overcome the physical exhaustion that comes from days of hard work and sleepless nights, willing their bodies to do as they command.
Considering that we’re only in the second chapter, the fact that this has already occurred repeatedly is a little bit on-the-nose. I’ve read a little further ahead than Chapter 2, and other characters that we’re not supposed to like, like Dagny Taggart’s brother, show signs of physical tiredness and mental befuddlement. I’m pretty sure Einstein needed a nap now and then, and even Edison had the occasional hangover. Showing these bizarre idealized ubermensches able to overcome their body’s physical needs by basically wanting it more showcases one of Rand’s more glaring faults: she’s a romantic.
Not a romantic in the “XXOOOXXXOOO” sense, of course, but in the sense that she’s not really striving to create real people, with real motivations, from a real place. Even the title, “Atlas Shrugged,” shows that. No, what she’s writing here is a legend, a fable, an epic ode to her own ideals. In her mind, in her world, there are such men as these, men who can reshape the world using only the sweat of their brow, even in the face of immutable truths of biology.
In any event, as a guy who has pulled quite a few all-nighters in his time, I can say that being able to go without sleep is not the sign of someone with more willpower… or less, really. Sometimes it’s a sign of someone who plans poorly, or makes dumb decisions about their body and will crash later at an inopportune moment. Jim Henson tried to do something similar and ended up dying from a completely treatable condition, thinking the way some great men do that they can simply power through any setback.
But I digress.
In Chapter 2, one of our other somewhat heroes, Rearden, has poured the first batch of Rearden metal for Taggart Transcontinental’s new railroad. This books preoccupation with trains is amusing in 2012, an era marked by the Republican party’s repeated attempts to squash high-speed rail. Basically, they only want trains if they can be designed by people who refuse to sleep, I guess.
Rearden pours the new metal and reflects on his life, a series of little vignettes characterized by repeatedly not-being-tired-through-force-of-will. He is exuberantly proud of this new metal (as he should be, of course) but when he comes home, his family is waiting for him, annoyed and bitchy.
This, by the way, is where I’ve decided that Rand has Asperger’s. Rearden watches the interactions of his family completely dispassionately, confused as to why they are annoyed with him.
For the record: they are annoyed with him because they came over for dinner, he said he’d be there, and he is late. This, objectively, is rude. Rand apparently believes that social obligations are waived if you have something better to do with your time. Actually, I’m pretty sure she does believe that; no one should be obligated to do anything they didn’t determine for themselves, yes?
Anyway, Rearden then expresses bafflement as to why his mother wanted to live with him, why his friends want him to work less, and treats him forgetting his anniversary to his wife as some sort of tactical victory on her part. He honestly wonders what more these people could want from him when he pays their bills and give them money.
Rand’s point here is obvious- Rearden is the only one of these people who does any work. Therefore, the rest of these people are simply parasites, draining him of his energy and funds, taking him away from the things he loves doing, and not understanding him.
Now it is true that these people don’t understand him- and that is, to an extent, their fault. And they do, to an extent, say some rather unlikeable things. But he does not, at any point, make any effort to COMMUNICATE with these people.
What I see, reading this chapter, is a man who is getting a lot of love and attention from other people who care about him, but is physiologically or psychologically incapable of returning it. Rand clearly sees the world in a similar way.
The way Rearden attempts to deconstruct their motivations, to understand that they mean well, is somewhat endearing, and reminiscent of the anecdotes written by people with high-functioning autism. He’s incapable of the empathy that enables other people to function in society, so he’s trying to create rulesets, boundaries, logical guidelines that will enable him to understand their motivations and respond accordingly. It’s like the thinking of an advanced artificial intelligence.
The thing is, I’m not supposed to find him endearing in this way. The book is portraying his bafflement with these people as being the understandable part, his attempts at getting along with them is his flaw, his sign of weakness.
What Rand fails to understand, is that MOST people have relationships for reasons other than financial gain. These people don’t want MORE than money out of Rearden, the money is simply not what they really want. They want a friend, a son, a husband, someone who is emotionally attentive.
Most people would be okay with this. Most people would derive some other pleasure from having family and friends around them, people who worry about his health, people who enjoy his company and want to talk to him. Most people would not be viewed as parasites for not simply wanting a check thrust at them once a month. It’s true that, by this point in his life, people should understand him better. People should get that he is a certain way.
But his attempts to get along with these people aren’t a weakness, they’re the only thing that makes him a human being in this chapter.
This bag comes from the store for “A Softer World,” one of the funniest webcomics out there.
I’m not going to lie, this is proving to be a tough read for me. Blogging about it makes it tougher, because it prevents me from being able to just rush headlong towards the end, skipping parts here and there as they slow me down. Maybe it’s because it’s from another era, maybe it’s because the themes don’t resonate with me, and maybe it’s because Ayn Rand isn’t very good.
I’ve been putting this off for a few weeks, as some of you have noted, and then yesterday, it happened:
I was speaking with a customer at work, who said:
“Sean, are you an avid reader?”
“I try to be.”
“Do you like incredible novels?”
For a moment I thought it was a brand or line of books, Incredible Novelsor something. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.
“Because I am reading a book right now… I’m two hundred pages in, and it’s absolutely riveting. It was written in 1957. Have you ever heard of a book called Atlas Shrugged?”
Okay, I get it, I’ll get back to reading. In fact, I’ve read Chapter II now, entitled “The Chain,” and I’ll cover that later.
This funny fellow has decided to compare Atlas Shrugged to The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a hefty tome that I read in high school. The comparisons are pretty hilarious, and it also points out how rather silly it is to let a novel change your life.
Not me, though. Only book that’s changed my life is “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”
“Struggz,” Intransitive verb. To be in the process of struggling. Coined, as you would expect, by a 20-year-old girl I know.
This blog, then, documents my struggles with Atlas Shrugged. I am struggling, incidentally, this week, but primarily because I’m supposed to be finishing the much shorter, far more entertaining “Catching Fire” from the Hunger Games series before I have to give it back to someone else this weekend.
Renowned purveyors of overpriced yoga-wear, lululemon started branding some of their stuff with the quote “Who is John Galt?”
Something nagging and admittedly little that’s been getting to me while reading this book is Ayn Rand’s perspective problem.
Now, do remember this post because I’m sure I can reference back to it later and make some truly snarky cracks about her underlying philosophy if the mood strikes me, but that’s not what I’m actually getting at.
Atlas Shrugged, so far, seems to be written in what us English nerds call a “Third Person Limited” perspective. That means, for example, that for the duration of the time that the book is following along with Eddie Willers, we know how he thinks and feels and know what he’s doing and why. The bum that asks Eddie for a coin on page 1, however, remains inscrutable, a mystery as much to us and the narrator as it is to Eddie.
It’s not a “First Person” book, however- though we know all that’s going on in Eddie’s head, the narration of the book refers to what “he” thinks and how “he” feels, rather than “how I feel,” etc. With the exception of a few cases on Seinfeld (i.e., “GEORGE IS GETTING VERY UPSET!”) First-person narration very rarely employs third-person language.
The problem, however, is that for about ONE sentence in Eddie Willer’s portion of Chapter one, the narrator hops over to James Taggart’s shoulder just long enough to point out that James does not like the way Eddie looks him straight in the eye. This observation is made from James’ perspective, not Eddie’s. As far as we can tell from reading, Eddie is wholly unaware of James distaste for Eddie’s innocent honesty.
Likewise, in Dagny Taggart’s portion of the book, when she starts bossing around the train folk, they pull a similar trick- the narration hops over to the Engineer’s head for just long enough to point out that he doesn’t like the way this woman is so comfortable acting in a position of authority.
Those momentary lapses of perspective do pull of the interesting trick of linking Eddie and Dagny together in the narrative- other people don’t like them for qualities that we, as readers, would normally consider to be pretty uniformly good qualities for a person to have. It leads us to believe that there is something wrong in this world our characters inhabit, and it connects the characters together long before we find out that Eddie works for Dagny.
But the problem is that it opens this narrative door- the book is, at least a little bit, third-person omniscient. The narrator in this instance is more like God, or Q- someone who can be everywhere at once and knows all. The narrator shows us this by temporarily granting us the ability to see what other characters are thinking. The fact that most of the time we don’t get to see that starts to feel like an intentional limitation, a chafing frustration as we realize that the narrator is withholding information from us in order to lead us down towards a conclusion.
“Who is John Galt?” The characters want to know, and so do we. In a third-person limited, we understand that we are riding alongside these characters in a journey of discovery. With the introduction of third-person-omniscient elements, however, we realize that the narrator already knows the answer, and is going to spend the next seven hundred pages or so dangling that information out of reach.
I’m not saying that omniscient narration can’t be used to increase tension. But when you feel like the narrator is starting to have fun at your expense, stuff gets frustrating. See also, later seasons of “How I Met Your Mother.”
“Ayn” rhymes with “mine.”
“Your letter inquiring about the origin of my name has been forwarded to me. In answer to your question, I must say that ‘Ayn’ is both a real name and an invention. The original of it is a Finnish feminine name… . Its pronunciation, spelled phonetically, would be: ‘I-na.’ I do not know what its correct spelling should be in English, but I chose to make it ‘Ayn,’ eliminating the final ‘a.’ I pronounce it as the letter ‘I’ with an ‘n’ added to it.” Letters of Ayn Rand, page 40
I stumbled across this I think in high school, so long ago that the only thing I knew about Ayn Rand books was that they were long. It took some Googling to recover the thing, and the website’s design looks to have fallen on crappier, more broken times since then. Still, a funny little trifle.
So, Chapter One of our beloved doorstopper is called “The Theme,” and it’s pretty obvious that the title is twofold:
But first things first.
The first chapter opens on Eddie Willers, who is on his way to do some important work. As he walks through the city, it’s obvious that the New York our boy walks through is, well, kind of shitty. A prosperous street is one that only has 25% of it’s businesses shuttered. Bums are everywhere, and they’re honest-to-God bums, no less- the sort of 1930’s-archetypal bums who have crinkled faces, wear tattered clothes, and ask you for a dime so they can get a cup of coffee.
(To a modern sensibility, that kind of poverty almost seems cute. Like, I could imagine a twisted Walt Disney World region where bums come up and proposition you for dimes. No bindle sticks, though. Darn.)
While Eddie walks, he thinks about a tree he loved as a child. It was really thick and really strong looking and looked like it would stand forever. Then, it was struck by lightning and it turned out it was rotten on the inside, rotten and hollow. He doesn’t know why, walking through the impoverished shell that was once New York city, he would think of the tree all of a sudden. I sort of think he might be dumb, or at least critically lacking in self-awareness.
He then comes to the headquarters for the railroad where he works, Taggart Transcontinental. He thinks about how it looks as though it will stand there forever, in no way noting that he thought the same thing about the tree.
He goes to see James Taggart, who is in charge of the whole railroad. No mention is made of who owns the Boardwalk or Park Place in this reality. Willers informs Taggart that this whole southwestern line is craptacular, and that something needs to be done about it immediately.
Taggart, a weasely idiot, spends this conversation lashing out at anybody who seems to be smart, dynamic, ambitious, or creative. It’s made apparent from the text that this hostility is derived from jealousy. He only wants to do business with other idiots, ones who make inferior products that cost more, because “they need the help.”
It’s pretty obvious this is a suicidal business philosophy, and Willers gets nowhere.
Meanwhile, Dagny Taggart, Jim’s sister, is actually riding the craptacular railroad. The train is almost late because a light says “Stop,” and even though everyone working on the train knows the light is broken, nobody wants to take responsibility for going.
Dagny swaggers into the locomotive and tells everybody what’s what. The train gets moving, the train arrives on time, but Dagny has decided things need fixing.
She fires the dude responsible for the red light, and then places an order for “Reardon Metal,” a new, experimental product that’s supposed to be cheaper and stronger than steel. All of the professors and experts out there say this stuff doesn’t work, but Dagny uses “her judgment” and determines that the stuff works. I imagine this gets excerpted a lot by climate change deniers, even though things like this don’t happen in real life. Don’t listen to scores of experts, sheeple! Go with your gut!
The downside for Dagny in this chapter, where we see her taking a bunch of aggressive action, is that the dude she tries to offer this big, important job to ends up turning her down, won’t tell her why, won’t tell her what he’s doing instead. All he’ll say in exchange is, “Who is John Galt?”
There are, of course, multiple themes in any book this long. One of them is the question I mentioned in a previous post, “Who is John Galt?” That question is, quite likely, going to be kicking around the book for quite awhile. In the first chapter, this question is asked four times. It’s become a sort of colloquial expression in the world, one which means, essentially, “Who knows?”
Another theme is the theme of things rotting out from the inside, while still looking strong on the facade. It takes a special sort, it would seem, to see the rot, while everyone else sees the facade. When it comes to the railroad, for example, Dagny and Willers see the rot, while James sees the facade. When it comes to Taggart Transcontinental as a whole, however, Willers is seeing the facade.
Responsibility is another theme. Several characters- the train employees, James Taggart, etc. express a desire not to be responsible for things. They’re sheep, more or less, and want/need someone else to be responsible for who does what. Ignoring safety warnings while driving a multi-ton passenger train full of people is supposed to be a sign of Dagny’s self-reliance, though boy would her face be red if it turned out there actually was an oncoming train.
The Fifth Concerto, the “theme” of the title, is another thing that I think will be popping up a lot. It was a fifth concerto written by a guy known by all to have only written four, though Dagny, genius that she is, can tell the music she hears on the train must be one of his. Much like an actual theme in a symphony, look to see this popping back up at other significant points of Dagny’s story.
Eddie Willers is clearly meant to be our viewpoint character. He’s squishy and and somewhat weak, but stands up to Taggart at the beginning and works for Dagny faithfully. We’re supposed to like him, as an audience, and agree with his way of thinking. He is constantly thinking about doing what is right, and I’m sure that over the course of the book Eddie is going to be swayed into thinking that doing what is right is wrong, in a manner of speaking.