Wednesday, May 30, 2012


C.S. Lewis once defended the use of metaphor and anthropomorphism in the Bible--the Garden of Eden, God the Father--as the least worst way of conveying something that lies beyond the perception of the five senses. God being beyond human comprehension, so his logic went, it is only by metaphor, by reference to already tangible phenomena, that a picture, if incomplete, of God could emerge.

I would make a similar argument for conveying the unique badness of Atlas Shrugged, whose back cover bills the novel as "unlike any other book you have ever read." True, every novel is unique, but one as absurdly ambitious as this is especially so. One cannot grasp the totality of its oddness without actually reading it. Since 1,000+ pages is large investment for a book that's largely awful, however, the need arises to find a proper frame of reference when describing it to lesser masochists. (Thus the previous comparison of Ayn Rand's characterization to trashy horror movies.) With all its talk of "the murder--and rebirth--of man's spirit," Atlas Shrugged is best viewed, in keeping with the C.S. Lewis thread, as (ir)religious, apocalyptic literature, an eschatology of the anti-christ of lit.

The book's religious angle may not be immediately apparent. The setting, a near-future America ruled by morons, is a dystopia, the premise a mystery story: who is responsible for the disappearance of Teh Best on Earth? Who invented--and abandoned--the brand new motor that could power the world? Who is John Galt? Yet consider this appraisal:
Atlas Shrugged cloaks itself in the conventions of ordinary airport thrillers, but it does far more than just provide an Objectivist alternative to decadent mainstream entertainment. It creates an Objectivist theory of everything, one that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to rational specifications. It’s an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs — especially liberals....

I did modify that excerpt a little. The book in question is actually Left Behind, the first installment in the mega-selling fundamentalist Christian book series that imagines the events of the Book of Revelation following the Rapture, in which all the world's Christians are taken to Heaven, while the handful of those who remain and become Born Again must contend with a world of nonbelievers and nefarious internationalists. Even as Atlas Shrugged sets itself squarely against Christianity, to stake a claim to its feelings of exaltation and transcendence, it can't help but mirror it in many crucial aspects.

One of these is, perhaps not so surprisingly, is the idea of a paradise. This comes to the fore with the unraveling of the book's mystery, starting with its third section, "A is A." Dagny Taggart has charged Quentin Daniels, a young and typically brilliant physicist, with attempting to figure out how the mysterious motor she discovered in a scrap heap at the Twentieth Century Motor Company works. When Daniels tells her he is quitting because of government interference, she fears that the Destroyer--the name she's given to the man who is making off with the best and brightest--will snatch him away too, and so dashes off to Utah to reach Daniels before it's too late. Her train breaks down and so she happens upon an airfield and buys a plane that she conveniently knows how to fly. She lands in Afton, Utah, just as Daniels and a mysterious stranger are taking off, and pursues their plane into the mountains of Colorado, where it disappears. In trying to find their aircraft her own runs out of fuel and she makes a crash landing with a comically defiant cry of, "Oh hell! Who is John Galt?"

Her awakening is described in language of unearthly serenity:
When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man's face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world she had expected to see it at sixteen--and now she had reached it--and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: But of course. 
She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud..... 
This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence--and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone's senseless joke. She smiled at him, as at a fellow conspirator, in relief, in deliverance, in radiant mockery of all the things she would never have to consider important again. He smiled in answer, it was the same smile as her own, as if he felt what she felt and knew what she meant. 
"We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?" she whimpered. 
"No, we never had to." 
The man is John Galt. He is the redeemer of Ayn Rand's godless Calvinism, Objectivistly perfect, the man who will restore light to a benighted Earth. He is not the first such creation of Rand's. Howard Roark of The Fountainhead had his Christ-like aspects, but he was still only an architect; he would live in Galt's Gulch, but not lead it. Galt is Rand's √úbermensch, proud of pride rather than King of Kings. So great is Galt that he discovered a new physics, with which he used to build his motor, which he then abandoned on a junk heap when he left the communist Twentieth Century Motor Company, just as he would lead the captains of industry to leave their factories to join the junk heap of greater humanity. (There is no such thing as subtext in an Ayn Rand novel.)

The valley in which Dagny crash-landed is Galt's Gulch, a hideaway for all the departed which has at its entrance a prominent statue of the dollar sign. Dagny had viewed the genius' sudden disappearance with increasing dismay, for the loss of intellectual capital they represented, and to see them all again in one place is, for her, to walk among the heroes of Valhalla.
[Philosopher Hugh] Akston smiled. "What does this look like to you, Miss Taggart?" He pointed around the room. 
"This?" She laughed, suddenly, looking at the faces of the men against the golden sunburst of rays filling the great windows. "This looks like... You know, I never hoped to see any of you again, I wondered at times how much I'd give for just one more glimpse or one more word--and now-now this is like that dream you imagine in childhood, when you think that some day, in heaven, you will see those great departed whom you had not seen on earth, and you choose, from all the past centuries, the great men you would like to meet." 
"Well, that's one clue to the nature of our secret," said Akston. "Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves--or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth."
Not just Heaven, but Hell as well is considered in relation to the here and now:
"Shale oil?" 
"That's the process which you were working to develop while you were on earth?" She said it involuntarily and she gasped a little at her own words. 
He laughed. "While I was in hell--yes. I'm on earth now." 
"How much do you produce?" 
"Two hundred barrels a day." 
A note of sadness came back into her voice: "It's the process by which you once intended to fill five tank-trains a day." 
"Dagny," he said earnestly, pointing at his tank, "one gallon of it is worth more than a trainful back there in hell--because this is mine, all of it, every single drop of it, to be spent on nothing but myself."
 The language here recalls the Bible's parable of the rich man in Hell, found in Luke 16:
The Great Teacher makes the rich man cry out, "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame." --Why did he not ask for an ocean of water, or a pail-full at least, or a pitcher-full; why restrict himself to the least drop? Plainly he knew himself to be placed beyond all good. He knew this was the utmost he could ask, and even this is denied him! What could our Lord have designed but to teach this? How irresistibly is this taught and with what overpowering force! What remarkable facts are these! How obviously and how forcibly is the truth taught here that saints at death pass into a state all joyful, but the wicked into one of unutterable torment!
In the Christian Hell, the rich man cannot purchase even a drop of water because it has become priceless. In Objectivist Hell, the rich man can produce a trainful of oil, but it has become worthless.

Lest one think I am coloring my interpretation of all this with my own biases, consider Rand and her disciples' treatment of Atlas Shrugged and Galt. Rand famously balked at editor Bennett Cerf's suggestions to make changes to the unwieldy tome with the retort, "Would you cut the Bible?" Following the publication of Atlas Rand fell into a deep depression, weeping in response to the savage reviews it received, for which she would chastise herself that John Galt would not feel this way.

Nor was Galt the only point of reference in the Atlas framework of viewing the world. When Nathaniel Branden grew wary that Rand might find out about his affair with the decidedly not intellectual Patrecia Gullison, he described her as an Eddie Willers, Dagny's right-hand man at Taggart Transcontinental, who is rational and competent but without any distinguished gifts. This is to say nothing about the Collective, the cult that grew up around Rand.

The religious mode suits Atlas Shrugged. The Galt's Gulch chapters are immensely dull--as perfection, even a morally inverted perfection, can only be--but the action picks up fiercely afterward, as Dagny opts to rejoin the world in a doomed attempt to save it from self-destruction. The book's version of America falls apart before our eyes, its numerous villains deform themselves into complete and irredeemable monsters, and its heroes bloom heroic in utterly ridiculous grandeur. The third and final part of Atlas Shrugged, is a book of revelation.

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