Reading Ayn Rand's massive Objectivist tome, Atlas Shrugged, garnered quite a bit of commentary, from the librarian who suggested I ‘lose’ the book in an ‘accidental’ BBQ mishap to the stranger in the coffee shop who invited me to attend a local libertarian meeting, to my friends who, with expressions of shock, horror, and confusion, repeatedly asked, “but WHY?” I have to be honest…it was a contrarian impulse. I knew going into that I wasn’t going to agree with her philosophy, and that her writing style can be generously described as ‘clunky.’
There are plenty of places to find out the plot of Atlas Shrugged, but here it is in a nutshell… industrialists don’t like the rules, so they stop playing the game. And because they stop playing, everything falls apart. Yep, that’s it. Folks who make stuff decide that, because they’re being asked to do something they don’t want to do, they'll take their toys and go home.
Home, in this case, is a hidden (by holograms!) Shangri-La in the mountains of Colorado, where everyone engages in 19th century pursuits (farming, running a general store), uses only gold and silver currency, and smokes cigarettes marked with a dollar sign (Rand, a long-time smoker, believed that cigarettes symbolized man’s control over nature). But before they go off in a huff, they destroy the toys they can’t take with them. The oil baron, Ellis Wyatt, burns all of his wells. Francisco d'Anconia, the South American copper magnate, blows up his own mines. The Chicago banker causes a run on his own bank. And the brilliant thinker winds up as a pirate. And then they all go into their little, perfect hamlet in the mountains, while the world falls down around them because they aren’t there to save it. They all sit around and chat about how unfair it is that they aren’t recognized for their greatness. Eventually, they decide their little superhuman family is complete, and John Galt takes over the airwaves to explain why they decided no one else would benefit from their greatness (for 80 mind numbing pages).
And really, this is where the novel falls apart. This is a slippery slope argument gone nuclear. Reductio ad absurdam, indeed. Galt, the hero’s hero of the novel, creates an engine that, quite frankly, violates the laws of physics, when his factory is taken over by three siblings who are apparently Lenin’s long lost children, he becomes a lowly yard man at Taggart Transcontinental. Why? Because people don’t deserve his greatness. The government is a run by a cabal of whiny, self-loathing backdoor dealers (wait…Rand might have a point there…). The people who aren’t in Happy Valley are nowhere, although we see glimpses of them, mostly living in squalor, unable to care for themselves without Galt’s Gang to give them something to do. The best they can do is act like union-busters of the early 20th century, bashing heads, or create a harmonic disrupter that blows up sheep. Fitting metaphor, indeed.
The novel opens with the question “who is John Galt?” Well, quite frankly, at the end of this book, I pretty much have to answer ‘who cares?’ This may be from the concussion I got from being hit over and over with ridiculously overt metaphors (the oak tree, the clock, the statue, the map, the violent sex that verges on rape) about why regulation is bad, the individual is good, and only the industrialists are worthy of any respect. Rand didn’t make me care about any of these characters – it’s like they’ve all been drawn with the big stereotype brush. Galt, of course, is tall and muscular and blond and blue eyed. Hank Reardon is described as a cross between Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford. And Dagny. Ah, Dagny Taggert – the uberwoman.
I wanted to like Dagny. She’s a girl in a man’s world, kicking ass and taking names. But Dagny, like every other character, winds up being a victim of Rand’s relentless philosophical drive. Her sex life seems to consist of violent encounters with men she looks up to – Francisco, Reardon, Galt – that border on rape. She spends her time either feeling contempt or boredom, except in those rare moments when she is in the presence of these men she hero-worships, one of whom abandons her to go be a playboy, another of whom feels self-loathing for being with her, and, finally, Galt, who will only deign to sleep with her because she accepts his crazy-ass philosophy wholeheartedly. And only after she spends a whole month being his maid (and of course, cooking and cleaning for him makes her feel like a ‘real woman’ for the first time).
I’m not going to say this is a good book – it’s not. I’m not going to tear Objectivism apart. I’m not even going to comment on the fact that Rand thought a serial killer was a good example of an Objectivist hero. No, what I’m going to do is point out one a teeny, tiny little thing in Atlas Shrugged that should make every person who starts this book stop reading and never pick it up again (I suffer for YOU, dear reader).
This moment comes pretty early in the book, which luckily, means you’re saved some 900 pages of dreck). There’s a party to celebrate Reardon metal, and Dagny Taggert shows up “wearing an evening gown. It was a black dress with a bodice that fell as a cape over one arm and shoulder, leaving the other bare; the naked shoulder was the gown’s only ornament. Seeing her in the suits she wore, one never thought of Dagny Taggart’s body. The black dress seemed excessively revealing – because it was astonishing to discover that the lines of her should were fragile and beautiful, and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.”
Wait, did you miss it? Let me repeat that last bit, just so we’re clear: “the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.” Say what?! The assumption that women are only fully women when they are bound (although it’s not clear exactly, to what a woman needs to be chained…a man? Marriage? A bed?) is just insulting. Not only to women – and a woman wrote this! – but to humanity. And if this is the ‘most feminine of all aspects’, does this mean Rand is arguing that women can never truly be one of Galt’s Gang? Is she relegating them to a secondary role by virtue of not possessing a penis? Given the nature of Dagny’s sex life, the fulfillment she feels being Galt’s maid, and they way in which she worships the men who treat her like an appendage, the answer seems to be that yes, indeed, Rand thought so little of her own sex that she cannot see them as something besides a helpmeet. Sorry, Ayn, but once you drop this sexist bomb, anything else you have to say is pretty much moot.
Missoularedhead is the internet pseudonym of Melissa Bruninga, a woman of almosts --- almost a PhD in Medieval History, almost full time faculty -- who maintains a somewhat ranty blog and spends far too much time arguing about American politics, books, and beer.