Friday, February 24, 2012

Dismember the Titan

So I'm about 130 pages into Atlas Shrugged. The scene is a party celebrating two characters' wedding anniversary. There's a brief exchange over philosophy and literature--because that's all these people ever talk about, in the blandest terms possible--between a "young girl in a white dress" and a gasbag novelist Balph "not Ralph" Eubank, who responds to the girl's insistence that books should have good plots by saying "Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature."

This a the photo negative snapshot of what's wrong with Atlas Shrugged. There is plenty of plot at work, but little else of substance, enough that for awhile I've been kind of at a loss at how to respond to it. Rand wasn't fooling around when she wrote that immortality means never changing. Fourteen years passed between the publication of The Fountainhead and that of its follow-up, yet everything about it feels like they could have been written in tandem. It's rather dispiriting, and not conducive to insightful, inspired criticism. Atlas Shrugged is repellent, most anyone could have told me this (and did!), but I'd like to figure out why it's so much worse than everything that came before. In the meantime, however, I badly need to vent.

The plot, I should think, does not need much introduction. In a world eerily like our own (cue the ominous violins), civilization is beginning to crumble. Train lines are deteriorating, industry is collapsing, several of the most industrious company heads are mysteriously withdrawing themselves, and people are asking "Who is John Galt?" with shrugs of resignation. Amid this Dagny Taggart, Vice President in Charge of Operations at Taggart Railroad who's GREAT at running a rail company, has to save said company from her INCOMPETENT and ALTRUISTIC brother James, who gives contracts to his INCOMPETENT friends and dines with WORTHLESS INCOMPETENT government bureaucrats. She starts by making a deal with Hank Rearden, who's GREAT at steelworks, to purchase rails made of his new "Rearden Steel" alloy. And and and....

Anyone who's heard of the Tea Party knows what's really going on, that the captains of industry have gone on strike at the behest of superman John Galt because society, with its taxes and regulations, is ungratefully leaching off their greatness. Knowing all this in advance feels like that, along with stopping the engine of the world, John Galt stopped the engine of the story. Maybe this would read better being completely in the dark about what's coming, but probably not.

The conflict basically boils down to, 'the greatest human beings alive are being held back by their helpless, parasitic inferiors--when will they say, 'enough!' and throw off their chains?' The book holds to this theme with a consistency that's almost fractal--the largest and smallest plot lines can be summarized thus, from John Galt vs. the world to Hank Rearden vs. his awful, awful family. And they are awful. My god, are they awful.

A decade ago I saw the first Harry Potter film, having not read any of the books, and was tremendously annoyed by (among many other things) how cartoonishly evil Harry's adoptive family was, so much that it beggared belief. Well Harry's foster folk are Marine 1 helicopter parents next to Rearden's wretched relations. There's brother Phillip, sickly and shiftless but for his membership in various ineffectual charities; their mother, a harpy who he supports and lives with him seemingly out of pure spite; and Rearden's wife Lillian, a castrating bitch who hobnobs with vapid cultural elitists and doesn't care anything of what her husband does.

Here's how they respond to Rearden giving a gift to his wife:
"I brought you a present, Lillian."

He did not know that he stood straight and that the gesture of his arm was that of a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love, when he dropped a small chain of metal into her lap.

Lillian Rearden picked it up, hooked on the tips of two straight fingers, and raised it to the light. The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.

"What's that?" she asked.

"The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal."

"You mean," she said, "it's fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?"

He looked at her blankly.

She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. "Henry, it's perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and--what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?--soup kettles?"

"God, Henry, but you're conceited!" said Philip.

Lillian laughed. "He's a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn't the gift, it's the intention, I know."

"The intention's plain selfishness, if you ask me," said Rearden's mother. "Another man would bring a diamond bracelet, if he wanted to give his wife a  present, because it's her pleasure he'd think of, not his own. But Henry thinks that just because he's made a new kind of tin, why, it's got to be more precious than diamonds to everybody, just because it's he that's made it. That's the way he's been since he was five years old--the most conceited brat you ever saw--and I knew he'd grow up to be the most selfish creature on God's earth."
Now Rearden's family's badness isn't in itself damaging to the book; hissable villains can make for terrific melodrama, but they need an actual heroic foil. The thing is, a lot of the nasty things his wife and mother says are true. He really doesn't care about them:
He had never had a desire to hurt them, but he had always felt their defensive, reproachful expectation; they seemed wounded by anything he said, it was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost... almost as if they were wounded by the mere fact of his being. Don't start imagining the insane--he told himself severely, struggling to face the riddle with the strictest of his ruthless sense of justice. He could not condemn them without understanding; and he coudl not understand. 
Did he like them? No, he thought; he had wanted to like them, which was not the same. he had wanted it in the name of some unstated potentiality which he had once expected to see in any human being. He felt nothing for them now, nothing but the merciless zero of indifference, not even the regret of a loss. Did he need any person as part of his life? Did he miss the feeling he had wanted to feel? No, he thought. Had he ever missed it? Yes, he thought, in his youth; not any longer.
So here's the problem, stated plain: Rand, in true cart-before-horse fashion, fundamentally mistakes plot as the driver of great literature, and modernism's abandonment of it as a literary heresy. She never understood that style and especially characters are what make a book, and that a good yarn will unspool itself thereof. Great literature forces its characters, or at least its readers, to grapple not just with external conflict, but conflicts within themselves. Its most memorable figures--Oedipus, Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Gatsby--are all deeply flawed. Their greatness is not in their virtuousness, which is often greatly lacking or else turned toward self-destructive ends, but in the dignity they maintain in trying to transcend their vices (or, barring that, the way they illuminate them).

Atlas Shrugged, in its scope and ambition, wants to be great literature. It is categorically not. Fourteen years after her last novel, Rand's has not matured in the least; her prose, once tolerably plain, now seems merely parched. Her dialogue remains atrocious, with people talking in ways no one actually speaks about ideas no one actually holds. Her jaundiced, barren view of humanity holds that great people are so because they really are better than everyone else, and their only problem is that they put up with their inferiors instead of just walking away and letting them starve. It's a rancid, shallow, petty worldview that amounts to a lot of preening peacocks waving their tail-feathers in everyone's faces. It's a temper tantrum dressed up as an argument, a scream for a song. It is, in Rand's own words, "primitive vulgarity."

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