Reflections: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

>>Published: October 1957

>>Finally got around to it: July 2012

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”

“I… don’t know. What… could he do? What would you tell him?”

“To shrug.”

***

This is not a review. Quite simply, Atlas Shrugged is review-proof; those who love it will defend it to their last breath, and those who don’t will condemn it for its many glaring faults, the least of which is that it is painfully overwritten. A good three to four hundred pages of crippling emotional immaturity and self-satisfactory praise could be torn from the book without even putting a dent into Rand’s overarching message.

And just what is that message? For the lucky few that have managed to avoid the shadow this book has cast, especially in recent years (as the adopted bible of the neo-con movement in the United States), let me spell it out for you: Spock was a fool. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Ha! Not in this Objectivist nightmare. Rand’s dystopian future is one of brilliant men and women being unfairly stripped of the ownership of their intellectual pursuits, be they feats of engineering or works of art (or both, given the masturbatory way Rand depicts John Galt’s incredible society-changing motor), by a government working ostensibly for the betterment of mankind—for a public that, in Rand’s perspective, is comprised of nothing more than irresponsible leeches, incapable of achieving the same heights of these gods of industry, and therefore not worth an ounce of self-sacrifice.

The industrialist as god, as the taste makers of society beyond academics, beyond celebrities and politicians alike. Rand’s idealized world is a post-capitalist extreme where luck and legacy never once enter into the conversation. It is the self-made individual who holds all the power, and is asked, always, to abandon it for a population portrayed as infantile, unintelligent, and hungry solely for the accomplishments of others. With so few being of worth and intellectual and creative ambition, Rand, through John Galt, her idealized soapbox, posits a world slowly ground to a halt when those of true value cease to give of their perfect minds.

It’s a disturbing worldview to say the least, and one wholly ignorant of the manipulation and undeserved prominence of so much ill-gotten legacy. Rand’s utopia is one built on the bones of the many, for only those of true greatness deserve to live. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest conceit taken to an unhealthy and manipulative extreme—unhealthy given the universally childish and melodramatic reasoning of those who would seek to limit the power and influence of those most deserving of it. In essence, it is pro-monopoly, anti-distribution of wealth, and in full support of an unsympathetic world that looks down its nose at anyone and everyone without the means to run a cross-continental railroad, or to build a motor to outclass every other motor ever made.

And all that without even touching upon the “romantic rape” and the utter bullshit character assassination that takes place throughout the book—how the book’s protagonist Dagny can be so strong, so completely self-reliant, until she meets the perfect man in John Galt and suddenly one-eighties into the role of an emotional supplicant.

As disturbing as it is at times, there is one thing I can say to Atlas Shrugged’s benefit: it is a genuine artistic expression. One gets the impression, while reading the book, that, however horrifying its central message, Ayn Rand believed every single word of it, right down to her core. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

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13 thoughts on “Reflections: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

    • Wow, it’s almost like you read the very first sentence! *Applause*

      Please, in the future, feel free to offer some actual independent thought on what I said, if such things stroll through on their way from one ear to the other. But dickish comments like this, with no actual intelligent content to them, waste your time and mine.

      For the record, I read all 1069 pages of this insipid, antagonistic piece of crap, and my thoughts are my own. I understand they’re nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been said before by other Rand detractors, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to them on what is a personal, not-for-profit blog.

  1. Why did you read it? I would never read such a long book that was completely antagonistic to my belief system. That must have been an agony and torture.

    Moreover, your exposition of what you hate is your exposition of what you hate. The correspondence with Rand’s actual positions is purely coincidence.

    • For the same reason I’ve read Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto. For the same reason that as an atheist I’ve read the Torah, the Qu’ran, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because we’re a society far too eager to be fearful and ignorant of what we don’t agree with, instead of investigating further. I did not go into Atlas Shrugged hoping to hate it. I go into every book hoping, if nothing else, for a kernel of insight or genuine creative inspiration. I did not find these in Rand’s work. I found work I deem, from an editorial standpoint, to be poorly written and self-congratulatory, that carried a sociopath’s disregard for the lives of the categorically less fortunate and sought to spread a certain degree of ignorance and malevolence as its message, masked beneath the broad idea of “the power of the individual trumps all.” Still, I am glad I read the book, and would recommend it as a conceptual exercise, but not as a worthwhile piece of literary fiction.

      And for the record, the only part that was agony was John Galt’s terrible, repetitive, 50-page diatribe near the end. A pox on the editor who allowed that a pass in its current state.

  2. I don’t think you “investigated it further.” You just projected onto it your belief system and reported it back out. That is your perogative, of course, but it reveals you have/had no desire or ability to look at the world through the author’s intentions, since what you did report out is alien to Rand, and did not grasp that this is not “literary fiction” in the John Updike or James Joyce mode, but rather a philosophical expiation “with illustrations.”

    • You can make whatever assumptions you’d like, but that does not mean you are correct. The simple act of reading the book constitutes investigating it further. I could have (and indeed this would have been much simpler) assumed I knew its content and gone on thinking one way or another about it, but I chose to read Atlas Shrugged, cover to cover, to judge for myself. I did not prematurely project any belief structure onto it, regardless of what you might think. My reaction to Rand’s work is genuine, and not forced through any one filter. That I do think one way or hold to a certain belief system does not preclude me from seeing something as one thing or as something else. And if what I did report out was alien to Rand, then that is a fault of her writing, as what it conveyed to me is what I reported and not the result of any preconceived expectations. You may not be aware of this, but it’s possible that someone’s honest reaction to a piece of art may differ from your own. And point of fact, yes, this is literary fiction—dystopian literary fiction that creates characters from nothing and inserts them into a possible future world extrapolated from our own. Rand certainly had a philosophy that guided her hand, but that does not make this a philosophical work. Calling this anything but fiction is to attempt to explain away the book’s faults by offering it an excuse—a way to remove itself from other, stronger works.

  3. how did you get this:

    “It is the self-made individual who holds all the power, …”

    from Atlas Shrugged?

    As long as you understand “power” to mean coercive control of one person over another, then your statement is void for Rand and her heroes.

    • Yes, from Atlas Shrugged, from the very concept of Galt’s Atlantis, of the “geniuses” of the world abandoning it to a populace seemingly constructed of mostly whiny, insipid individuals with no wills of their own to achieve what a few elite have managed to build. And power can mean many things—social change, influence, the strength to do what’s necessary, etc. It does not only stand for coercion and control. My problem stems from the perspective the book puts forth that such people are built entirely from their own strength and determination, and that any who fail to achieve such grandiose heights do so not because of luck, or social whims, or legacy, or anything of extraneous social influence that actually exists, but because they simply failed to act and/or lacked the intellect to do so. And I feel it’s the cynical person that would dare call any one of these characters “heroes.” They were petty, self-involved individuals, none of whom were sympathetic in the least.

      You seem to want to fight me on the basis of my opinion being “wrong”, or something to that effect. My opinion, however, is my opinion, as yours is yours. I’ve not claimed anything you’ve said is void or not worthy of having and holding dear, but you came into this comment thread with talons out, assuming I’d read the cliffnotes of the book with a laundry list of prejudices by my side, hoping to hate this book and yet still suffer through it. And through all your comments, you’ve not once addressed the literary problems pointed out—the borderline romantic rape between Dagny and Reardon, the fact that all people in positions of social control are portrayed as sniveling children, that my primary distaste of this book comes from how laboriously overwritten it is. No, you seem to be holding onto this conceit that I sought out to attack the book from a philosophical standpoint, when, in fact, that is the least of my complaints—I can appreciate a work that is well written and provocative, regardless of its social/philosophical stance and how it compares or contrasts with my own. This book, however (and make no mistake, this is my primary complaint), is not, in my opinion, well written, and its characters are thinly developed and wholly unsympathetic. That’s my sincere opinion. You are allowed to have your own, and your own interpretation of the subject matter, but please stop trying to denounce my opinion as if they were facts to be refuted. They’re not, and as such, I’m not interested in arguing it any further.

  4. I never stated nor insinuated that you had read only “cliff notes.” That is a smarmy smear. Secondly, there is no “romantic rape” between Dagny and Reardon. Third, your opinion is that it is poorly written. Millions know otherwise.

    That’s all.

    • 1. Your very first post: “So……….not a review; just a Jump Off The CliffNotes?” So yes, you did.
      2. Apologies—I meant to write Galt in place of Reardon in my initial post. Reardon and Dagny is merely unsettling. With Galt is is disturbing how close to rape it reads.
      3. “Millions know otherwise.” Again, this is opinion, not fact. Millions can think otherwise, but that does not make it a known quantity. My opinion is that it is terrible, yours is that it is not, but in no way, shape, or form does fact enter into the conversation of its literary merits or lack thereof. Time for you to learn the difference.

      • For being so well-read, you appear extremely close-minded.

        I do think everyone is entitled to opinion, however what one may try to point out is that your opinion may be founded upon a flawed perspective or interpretation. Perhaps rather than lashing back to shout louder about your opinion, you could reassess your thoughts and explain your point of view more clearly and without all of the angst that I have read above. It’s a chance to change your opinion or strengthen it that much more, which I believe is why you wrote this page to invite discussion and not to simply invite people to shout at.

        My own opinion after having just finished this book, is somewhat unformed. I would agree the book vastly oversimplifies things at times, but I found it was better to get the message across and should not be taken at face value. I find that the story, at least for me, was about living with unbridled energy and confidence in oneself, and for the value in achieving the rewards of one’s own hard work. Of course, I do not think that unrestricted capitalism would work for a nation of millions.

        I also especially loved Francisco’s speech on money being the root of all evil, which I found very eloquent (and thankfully not as long as Galt’s later one).

        Cheers.

  5. Disagreeing with someone else’s perspective, Dennis Smith, does not make someone close-minded, and being well read does not mean I need to be uniformly accepting of all sides of an argument. I am not close-minded about this book. For the record, believe it or not, I went into it wanting to like it. I don’t know why anyone would embark on a 1,069 page journey without hoping to enjoy it. What I came out of it with is an opinion formed by my history and yes, by what I’ve read.

    My opinion is my opinion. It is not flawed or wrong, because it is OPINION. I’m not writing an essay on Atlas Shrugged, and I’m not citing my feelings on the book as being fact. What I’m offering is my emotional response, which can be neither right nor wrong, but is in fact, exactly right for me.

    I did not, in fact, write this page to incite response. Point of fact, this blog is not for you, nor is it for anyone else. I do not get paid for my review work here, and I did not start this blog to garner publicity for my writing. I started this blog solely because I was reading books and putting them down without taking the time to think about them afterwards. And though you may think otherwise, I did think long and hard about Atlas Shrugged after I’d finished it. This was the opinion I came to. If you or other responders feel as if I’m just trying to pull in people to shout at them, you are wrong. Frankly, I enjoy intelligent discourse. The first responder, however, came in with fists up ready for a fight.

    Remove all politics and ideology from the argument and you still have, in my opinion, a terribly, embarrassingly awful book. The writing quality is soap operatic AT BEST, and several hundred pages could have been edited from this title in service to it, not against it.

    I did not get the message you put forth, but then, to me, there were no heroes in this book—just a lot of self-interested, romantically stunted children. It’s poor characterizations and writing were anger inducing, and whatever political allegiance Rand or her followers have, those elements, to me, stand above all others as the reason I would never recommend this book to another. There is no speech, no chapter in this mess I’d waste my time with again.

    But hey, opinion’s are a bitch, aren’t they?

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