So recently Elana found (and was delighted by) this trailer for the long-awaited adaptation of Ayn Rand’s monumental (in the sense of being large and heavy) Atlas Shrugged:
There are indeed many delightful things about this trailer, the best one being that this is part one of three, which sort of suggests a business plan along the lines of: “After having once been bamboozled into plunking down his $14 to see the first movie, the American consumer will be dull-witted enough to fall for the same gag two more times.” Although people did pay to see all three of the X-Men films, so maybe the producers are onto something.
The movie also appears to be largely a vanity project — sort of like those terrible Left Behind movies, only for self-important adolescents instead of dispensational premillenialists. It’s being financed by businessman John Aglialoro, whose Wikipedia page seems to have been created for the sole purpose of explaining his role in producing the film:
A businessman, film producer, and poker enthusiast, John Aglialoro is on Forbes Magazine’s list of people to watch in 2011…. After almost two decades, and several attempts to persuade studios, Aglialoro launched Atlas into production independently through The Strike Productions.
Well, fine. 67-year-old businessmen have passions, too. At any rate, I am not going to see this film, because, as Chuck D would say, “You know how I feel about giving these movies my money.” I’m also not going to buy or read the book, because I see no reason why I should give money to the greedy estate of an unpleasant woman, and also because it’s over a thousand pages, which translates into (at a minute a page) at least 18 hours of time (a) spent being annoyed, and (b) that I will never get back. (I know it to be true from my experience reading The Fountainhead and Anthem. Consider this rule for living, which I impart to you out of grace, that you may not follow in my path: it is never worth your time to read Ayn Rand.)
So what I will do here — and this will, I promise, circle back around to the main topic of this blog — is offer a few brief thoughts on why I think Atlas Shrugged is not worth my time, based on some stuff I’ve read about it on the internet.
The first problem with reading Atlas Shrugged is that it would be, most certainly, absolutely awful as literature. You can tell that just from reading the synopsis: In a dystopian near-future America, the government has become more and more intrusive, most people are totally willing to be infantilized by the nanny state, and a few great thinkers, genius creators, and intrepid businessmen decide to bring the whole rotten system down by “going on strike” — i.e., withholding the fruits of their brilliant minds from the rest of society. We’ll come back to whether that makes sense, but for now, let’s look at some writerly nuts-and-bolts.
The most famous part of the novel, of course, is John Galt’s 60-page radio address, which is a sort of core-dump of all Rand’s musings on the state of the world. Galt “takes over” the airwaves to deliver this address, thereby essentially adopting the dictatorial techniques of the totalitarian states he claims to be fighting, and harangues the American people for three hours. One assumes that nearly everyone — even someone initially sympathetic to Galt’s libertarian ramblings — would eventually turn off (or destroy) his radio after, say, an hour of this:
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence-and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not; it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and-self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it does; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.
The entire speech can be found at the first site returned by this search. (I’m not going to link to it, because it’s a site run by right-wing crazies1, and I don’t want them following the pingback here and flooding my comment-inbox with the kind of enlightened commentary Objectivists are known for.) Please go read as much of it as you can; you can come back here when you are convinced that there is no way in hell you’d read this novel. (If you get as far as the hysterical raving about the “barefoot bums of Asia” you’ve got a strong stomach for this stuff, and should consider teaching high school English.)
But my point is not simply that the speech is bloated and terrible. My point is that Rand is in no way interested in the fact that the terrible, bloaty length of said speech would have caused people to turn off the radio long before John Galt would have delivered his famous last line. Which is to say, she is not interested in how real people behave. Which means she lacks the single quality necessary to be a good novelist. Her protagonists are fantasy projections of the qualities Rand admires, and everyone else is either a villain or — in the case of Galt’s purported radio audience — simply inert.
It seems likely that the film version will actually ameliorate some of Rand’s sloppiness as a novelist. I can’t imagine the entire speech will make it into the film. Even the most mediocre film producer would recognize what a staggering bore it is, and that it would make any fool moviegoer (who somehow stumbled into (presumably) part three of this epic ham sandwich) storm out to the box office and demand his goddamned money back. But this inevitable
trimming pruning wholesale evisceration is, itself, proof that Rand’s horror of an original is not merely ethically vile2 — it’s also self-indulgently overwritten. Every line that the screenwriters successfully remove is a line that Rand, herself, could have removed to make Galt’s radio address sharper, smarter, more convincing, and less apocalyptically dull.3
So Rand’s utter incuriosity about human behavior in the real world makes for lousy literature, then, and no good movie is likely to come from such a book, either. Fine. Ms. Rand is not here to entertain you — she’s here to open your mind, you cowardly half-man! She’s preaching philosophy first and economics second and damn your effete aesthetic prescriptions!
But her complete lack of interest in anything real people do makes her a poor philosopher and economist, too. It leads to all sorts of hilarious assumptions, the kind of thing aliens who had heard of humans might make up. E.g., that the voluntary self-removal of a few thousand artists, inventors, and businessmen would make more than the slightest dent in the workings of even the sick and degraded modern society Rand imagines. She is infatuated with a sort of Great Man theory of social functioning: she believes, as far as I can piece together, that there is an elite class of wealthy doers who make everything possible for the (parasitic) rest of us. Remove the host, and the nasty little parasites will all die.
But of course this is exactly untrue. CEOs and industrialists do not power the wheels of commerce or make civil society possible. You can make a better case for engineers (and Rand, to her credit, makes some of her heroes inventors and scientists: man-god John Galt double-majored in philosophy and physics!), but let us suppose, for a moment, that America’s great titans of computing innovation (a modern equivalent to Rand’s steel and rail magnates) decided to “go on strike.” Imagine that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all resigned their posts tomorrow to go work minimum wage jobs at Wal-Mart or hole up at George Lucas’s ranch. So what? Does Zuckerberg personally keep the servers at Facebook running? Unless he convinced the vast majority of the software engineers and network administrators to go on strike with him, his gesture would be largely meaningless. The stock market would be wobbly for a few days as the vice-chairs and board members of Apple and the rest decided what to do… and then everything would be fine. The companies would go on, and so would the making of money. This is what the corporate structures Randian “free-market” advocates lose so much spit and sweat defending are designed to do — to perpetuate economic growth long after the lone “genius” entrepreneur is gone.4
In other fields, of course, the idea of a “strike of geniuses” becomes even more laughable. If every A-list screenwriter in Hollywood got eaten by sharks tomorrow, executives would waste exactly zero seconds on grief before calling in the B-listers. And if Hollywood is basically completely replaceable, you can imagine the resounding lack of public interest that would follow the decision of a composer of modern operas to retire and deny us the light of his splendor.
Which is not to say that going on strike is useless. Hollywood writers are, in fact, a good example, because when they all band together — the A-listers, the B-listers, the people who got a pilot bought once and never got hired again, but they’re still hoping! — and agree not to write, the industry grinds to a standstill. But the thing that everyone in the Writers’ Guild is keenly aware of, that Rand seems almost comically oblivious to, is that the power of an effective strike comes from… wait for it… collective action.
Is it possible to disrupt society by organizing a strike of the intellectual class? Probably, but such an action is not the action of Rand’s romanticized “free individual” — it’s the collective effort of thousands of free individuals acting for the common good. I personally have a hard time imagining John Galt’s moist, supervillainy mouth-breathing inspiring anyone to join in such a collective endeavor, but he leaves no doubt that what he’s doing is organizing:
While you were dragging to your sacrificial altars the men of justice, of independence, of reason, of wealth, of self-esteem — I beat you to it, I reached them first. I told them the nature of the game you were playing and the nature of that moral code of yours, which they had been too innocently generous to grasp. I showed them the way to live by another morality — mine. It is mine that they chose to follow.
All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.
Well all right, then, Mother Jones.
Which brings me to my final point — and the one that brings us back to the general theme of this blog as promised. Rand’s romantic portrait of wealthy, brilliant individuals simultaneously (but certainly not collectively!) shrugging off their parasitical hangers-on is conveniently set in a world of childless adults. As Wikipedia drily notes in its description of Rand’s theory of sex,
Rand portrays [sex] as the highest celebration of human values, a physical response to intellectual and spiritual values that gives concrete expression to what could otherwise be experienced only in the abstract. Sex for purposes of reproduction, however, goes unmentioned. Ayn Rand’s characters do not have families.
Of course they don’t. Sure, Dagny Taggart has a brother (a slimy, weaselly brother, presumably so we can see how useless the bonds of family are) and Hank Rearden has a wife (a slimy, weaselly wife, presumably so we can see how useless etc.), but nobody has kids, and the work that off-screen parents put into raising Taggart and Rearden and the lot presumably was… what, exactly? How does Rand write off the period between birth and, say, pubescence during which each of us is, essentially, a very real parasite on our parents (or, if they refuse the task, society)? Even the mighty Galt left home when he was twelve, which means he has six fewer years of barbaric non-self-reliance to answer for than the rest of us — but answer he must.
Or not. One of the great things about real life, so unlike Ayn Rand novels, is that it’s possible to be weak, to need others, to depend at various times on one’s parents, one’s spouse, the state, a religious community, or friends without being a scheming, vicious lout who’s trying to tear down the strong and the able. One of the great things about real life is that you don’t have to go around feeling inadequate because you don’t live up to an inhuman standard of independence:
After the book’s publication… [Rand] fell into a deep depression and chided herself for not being more like her ideal man. “John Galt wouldn’t feel this,” she wrote. “He would know how to handle this. I don’t know.”
Rand, of course, was not particularly independent — she was raised by a well-to-do family, and though her father’s wealth was largely stripped away by the newly-formed Soviet government, that same government also sent her to university. After moving to the U.S., Rand lived with and borrowed money from friends and family in Chicago until she could support herself. Later in life, her dependencies were sadder and more poignant: amphetamines, adulation, and a doomed affair with a younger man. Finally, in old age, she accepted help from the very social programs she had railed against — justifying it as merely taking back what was stolen from her, though in truth someone Rand’s age would probably have received far more in benefits than she put into the system.
The point is not to nail Rand for inconsistency; the point is to say that Rand lived a pretty average life of economic and personal ups and downs, and that in difficult times she leaned on supports, just as we all do. And the most terrible thing about both the terrible book5 I’m not going to read and the terrible set of movies I’m not going to see is that it’s possible they may inspire people living ordinary, foolish, disheveled lives to believe that they are — or should be — above it all, watching coolly from Olympian heights, free from the disgusting, helpless symbiosis of human interdependence.
But as Nietzsche noted, “The belly is the reason man does not easily mistake himself for a god.” Our weakness defines us as human6; lets us know who and what we are, and frees us up to enter into loving and charitable relations with one another. What makes me sad in all this is that Rand had a perfectly ordinary belly on which she painted the image of Davidian abs, and that her many followers are doing the same thing to themselves even now.
1. Apparently even the most hardcore Randian promoter of individual property rights doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about Ayn Rand’s own intellectual property rights. Which is fine if you’re an anarchist-capitalist, but this is precisely what Objectivists always claim not to be.1a
2. Whittaker Chambers, in his famous and elegant takedown of Atlas Shrugged, noted that Rand’s strident materialism led her to the same immoral conclusions that her much-hated Soviets had derived from their own “scientific” view of history. Meanwhile even Rand’s more admiring biographers have pointed out her adoring praise for William Hickman, a serial killer who shot to fame in 1927 with some pop-philosophy-inspired murders of young girls.
3. The producers of the film version could always prove me wrong, of course. If they include the entire speech in the film, and if viewers do not riot and throw their tubs of soda at the screen, I will eat this entire post.
4. That corporations are constructs of the state, chartered by it to provide certain useful social functions, ought to go without saying. Ought to….
5. For a really excellent book that includes a very funny plot strand about all the doers and builders getting rid of all the dull and unproductive members of society, check out Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. Adams serves up the whole thing in just a couple of very jolly pages — it might even be shorter than this blog post.
1a. Is it fair that I’m linking to the speech for my own purposes and then criticizing the (somewhat obliquely) linked site for illicitly providing me the text? I could make an elaborate fair use argument here (criticism, short excerpts, blahblahblah), but it’s more fun just to pretend that I’m a communist and have confiscated John Galt’s speech for the glorious People’s Democratic Republic Of My Blog.