“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.”
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I first picked up Atlas Shrugged in 2009, and despite re-reading it obsessively for several months afterwards, never gave it a full cover-to-cover treatment in the seven years since then. This summer, as I worked my way through House of Leaves, I decide that Rand’s testament to human rationality was the appropriate counterpoint to cosmic horror, and decided it was finally time.
I finished Atlas Shrugged first. Oops.
My initial impression, during those early chapters, was that the book’s spirit still endured. Despite all my jading and cynicism these last few years, I found the story still inspired optimism, ambition, and confidence in rational thought. That sentiment is ultimately why Atlas Shrugged is worth reading. The explicit message is important, but the attitude it expresses, moreso. Or to put it in Rand’s terminology, the sense of life versus the philosophical system.
But about the explicit message–that’s why I reread the book. When you’re skimming through it for fun, it’s easy to overlook important passages that deal with some of the serious philosophical issues. Rand was meticulous in crafting an expression of her philosophy, countering all sorts of criticisms before they could be made. I’ve heard many arguments against Objectivism which John Galt or Francisco d’Anconia already tackled in 1957. For this reason, utilitarians and true altruists should still read Atlas Shrugged to know thy enemy.
That’s not to say that Rand’s reasoning is entirely airtight. I had my doubts in 2009, and I still have doubts now. This shouldn’t really be all that surprising–after finishing Atlas Shrugged, she turned to writing non-fiction explanations of various specific issues, particularly relating to metaphysics and human nature. The book covers a lot, but not everything. Discussions of Objectivism have a lot of room yet for progress.
What I love about this book are the tiny details. One-off characters, like Mr. Ward, referenced in passing hundreds of pages later, reveal so much about the story’s world as a whole. Almost every sentence is crafted to precisely communicate the relevant aspect of the theme, each word to describe a specific image or idea. These aren’t apparent on first reading, or even the second in certain cases.
Nevertheless I second-guess many of Rand’s choices. The way Cherryl’s story arc ends, for instance. Or Eddie Willers’. The sheer number of Dagny Taggart’s suitors seems like overkill. At several points, issues with the pacing that overshadow important thematic elements (especially regarding Rearden’s development).
Much of this comes down to the fact that this story is, ultimately, about Dagny’s journey. Do not be confused by the shifting third-person view: this book is about her. It’s not possible to pack every idea into her life, necessitating the support cast. I think this emphasis on her makes it hard to see the ways other individuals are responding to an irrational existence. Maybe that’s not the point of an egoist-individualist story, but communicative efficiency is valuable when crafting a propaganda document.
And to be clear, Atlas Shrugged is capitalist propaganda. I rather suspect that a population adhering to Rand’s philosophy would operate much less smoothly than Galt’s Gulch. On the whole, my suspicion is that it would be superior to our own, but not perfect. Most men wouldn’t react so calmly as Hank and Francisco if their true love chose someone else. Of course, the rational(ist) thing would be going poly, but Rand doesn’t apparently consider this an acceptable solution. This probably has to do with the Objectivist conception of love, but that’s another essay.
But this is a problem you can handle, given a small enough group and good enough people. The meta-problem is that the Objectivist society modeled for us employs a conflict-resolution system that doesn’t scale well.
Going to a neutral arbiter which you’ve agreed upon beforehand is, like, the ideal justice system. Unfortunately, at least one of those components is missing in the general case, usually both. The residents of Galt’s Gulch agree that Judge Narragansett will mediate their disputes. Ostensibly he’s a neutral party. In practice this may not be the case–he may be an interested party, or biased towards one of the contestants, and therefore nonobjective in his rulings. We don’t know, because we’re told that his faculty has never been called upon. This itself seems unlikely, but suppose it’s true. How big could the Gulch get before conflicts do arise? The current population is highly rational, highly intelligent, self-driven, and not in direct competition with each other. Sure, a new striker will arrive and put an old-timer out of business, but the Gulch has a huge labor shortage and there’s plenty of things to be done instead. What happens when competition for resources, or customers, or territory arises? How about interpersonal conflicts?
I suspect Rand would have a fancy answer for this, but in the latter case I don’t think there’s a neat philosophical resolution. Personality is only partially malleable, especially in adults. Not everyone gets along perfectly.
But perhaps that’s why Ayn Rand needed to write this book. We can be better. Human beings do not meet their potential as rational, productive, self-satisfying agents, not even slightly. This is what Atlas Shrugged is trying to convey: the possibility of a world made happier, not through wishful thinking, but through intelligence and conscious decision-making.
And that’s the message I think readers should take away. The world makes sense. Our problems are tractable. A joyous existence is possible.
Atlas Shrugged is not a perfect outline for utopia, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.