Monday, June 25, 2012

La Miserable

I decided to pick up Les Miserables (Ayn Rand's favorite novel by her favorite novelist) to read in my downtime this summer. I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow response series, for it's beyond the scope of this blog and I'd like to not lose another half-year of my life, but I might occasionally throw in an observation or two. Like now.

Reading the opening chapters of Les Mis after coming off of Atlas Shrugged, two facts present themselves: Rand was unusually charitable in her love of Victor Hugo, for his worldview is about as far from hers as can be imagined. We are introduced to the Bishop of Digne, Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, his life story, his home, his routines. He is an utterly selfless man, devoting every free moment and spare income to the poor. A looter and moocher, in the Randian parlance. Rand in fact originally was going to include a priest character in Atlas Shrugged, a genuinely altruistic man who toils to realize his moral vision and then comes to understand it has already come to pass and ravaged the world, but she abandoned the character because she didn't think such a creature could ever be convincing (not that an inability to craft believable characters never stopped her before). It is amazing, then, to know she could admire Hugo in spite of him standing for everything she despised.

And not only did she admire him, but she owed him certain characteristics of her own writing (one hesitates to call it style). Her first and "objectively" best novel We the Living owes much to Hugo in its panoramic view of post-revolutionary Russia, but the strongest influence I can trace--perhaps because it's so immediately obvious--is what looks to be a shared tic of anecdote. All three of Rand's full-length novels dole out their exposition of character histories with a series of vignettes, that always end with a pithy line or action or fact to emphasize a character's essence. A representative sample from The Fountainhead, detailing the rise of self-made newspaper magnate Gail Wynand:
He remained in the building, sitting on the stairs outside the city room. He sat there every day for a week. No one paid any attention to him. At night he slept in doorways. When most of his money was gone, he stole food, from counters or from garbage pails, before returning to his post on the stairs. 
One day a reporter felt sorry for him and, walking down the stairs, threw a nickel into Wynand’s lap, saying: “Go buy yourself a bowl of stew, kid.” Wynand had a dime left in his pocket. He took the dime and threw it at the reporter, saying: “Go buy yourself a screw.” The man swore and went on down. The nickel and the dime remained lying on the steps. Wynand would not touch them. The story was repeated in the city room. A pimply-faced clerk shrugged and took the two coins.
Les Mis is absolutely rotten with this kind of character building, even as it builds in the completely opposite moral direction. Here is the bishop dealing with the problem of an overcrowded hospital:
"Monsieur," he said, "How many beds do you think this hall alone would contain?" 
"Your Lordship's dining hall!" exclaimed the director, stupefied. 
The bishop ran his eyes over the hall, measuring and calculating. 
"It will hold twenty beds," he said to himself; then, raising his voice, he said, "Listen, Monseiur Director, here's what I think. Obviously this is wrong. There are twenty-six of you in five or six small rooms; there are three of us in space enough for sixty. That is wrong, I assure you. You have my house and I am in yours. Give me back mine and this will be your home." 
Next day the twenty-six indigent patients were installed in the bishop's palace and the bishop was in the hospital.
Another example of characterization-by-anecdote:
His conversation was cheerful and pleasant. He adapted himself to the level of the two old women who lived with him, but when he laughed, it was a schoolboy's laughter. 
Madam Magloire sometimes called him "Your Higheness." One day, rising from his armchair, he went to his library for a book. It was on one of the upper shelves, and as the bishop was rather short, he could not reach it. "Madam Magloire," said he, "bring me a chair. My highness cannot reach that shelf."
It's almost like telling a joke, with the point of the story, the character's defining quality, revealed like a punchline. It goes without saying that her reading of Hugo did not, alas, impart to Rand a sense of humor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going, Going, Galt

No, I'm not withdrawing my talents from an ungrateful world of altruistic parasites. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm en route to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose literary department I'll be interning with (for free!) for the next couple months. It's going to be terrific fun and a great opportunity, but the workload--I'll be helping to work on seven productions and much more besides--means I'm not going to have time to read or watch much else, and certainly not to write about it.

Thus the Rand-Along is going on a hiatus for the next few months. Once I'm done I will resume, with write-ups on some of Rand's lesser-known work and Nathaniel Branden's memoir, Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand. As the election draws closer I'm going to watch and review the movies adapted from Rand's books in anticipation, if you can call it that, of the release of Atlas Shrugged Part 2. Until then, I may update my main blog periodically with links and cross-posts to the material I write for Williamstown. Should be good.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


So this might sound strange after all my complaints about how Atlas Shrugged is really a terrible crank novel, but after finishing it a few days ago, I have to say I actually sortakindasomewhat loved the shit out of its final section. The book is still bad, but awesomely so. Its wild-eyed third act shows Ayn Rand at her best, such as it is, and at her worst, which more often than not is so bad, its negativity so multiplied, that it cancels itself out and attains a masterful campiness. It is Alpha and Omega. It is some bitchin' kitschin'.

We left off with Dagny Taggart returning from Atlantis, John Galt's Colorado mountain hideaway. It doesn't take long for the book's numerous idiotic villains' scheming begins to fall apart. When they try to blackmail Dagny into supporting their policies, by threatening to expose her affair with Hank Rearden, she proudly announces it to the world. When they attempt to seize Francisco d'Anconia's mines, he goes Galt and blows them all up, leaving not a penny behind.

Just about every venal powerbroker receives his comeuppance, to which they all respond with a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hank Rearden's harpy wife Lillian is an instructive case. Here she is, after Rearden has told his lousy family--who were apologizing to him in order to get a cut of his wealth before it's seized by the government--that they can starve for all he cares:
"I have something to tell you!" cried Lillian, with the sound of that impotent rage which wishes that words were brass knuckles. "You're so proud of yourself, aren't you? You're so proud of your name! Rearden Steel, Rearden metal, Rearden Wife! That's what I was, wasn't I? Mrs. Rearden! mrs. Henry Rearden!" The sounds she was making were now a string of cackling gasps, an unrecognizable corruption of laughter. "Well, I think you'd like to know that your wife's been laid by another man! I've been unfaithful to you, do you hear me? I've been unfaithful, not with some great, noble lover, but with the scummiest louse, with Jim Taggart! Three months ago! Before your divorce! While I was your wife! While I was still your wife!" 
He stood listening like a scientist studying a subject of no personal relevance whatever. There, he thought, was the final abortion of the creed of collective interdependence, the creed of non-identity, non-property, non-fact: the belief that the moral stature of one is at the mercy of the action of another. 
"I've been unfaithful to you! Don't you hear me, you stainless Puritan? I've slept with Jim Taggart, you incorruptible hero! Don't you hear me?... Don't you hear me?... Don't you...?" 
He was looking at her as he would have looked if a strange woman had approached him on the street with a personal confession--a look like the quivalent of the word: Why tell it to me?
If you don't yet grasp the hilarity of this situation, watch this scene from Wayne's World, which plays the same dynamic a little less straight and which maps onto Atlas's "dude wants awesome hot chick but his old girl's a crazybitch" plot rather uncannily:

At this point some "good" characters die too, not just in spirit but in body, in as grandiose fashion as possible. Jim Taggart's wife Cheryl, having become herself smart and independent, finds out Taggart married her only because she was poor and her misguided hero-worship inflated his petty, shriveled ego. When she confronts him about this whole 'you're a vicious fraud' thing he can only respond by hitting her. She escapes into the streets, is stricken with panic and throws herself off a bridge.

This should be harrowing, but in Ayn Rand's hands it's simply hilarious. What finally pushes Cheryl over the edge, so to speak, is a social worker she comes across:
The social worker seized her arm. "It's a disgrace to come to such a state... if you society girls had something to do besides indulging your desire and chasing pleasures, you wouldn't be wandering, drunk as a tramp, at this hour of the night... if you stopped living for your own enjoyment, stopped thinking of yourself and found some higher--" 
Then the girl screamed--and the scream went beating against the blank walls of the street as in a chamber of torture, an animal scream of terror. She tore her arm loose and sprang back, then screamed in articulate sounds: 
"No! No! Not your kind of world!" 
Then she ran, ran by the propulsion of a burst of power, the power of a creature running for its life, she ran straight down the street that ended at the river--and in a single streak of speed, with no break, no moment of doubt, with full consciousness of acting in self-preservation, she kept running till the parapet barred her way and, not stopping, went over into space.
Another character, a boyish government inspector shot in a firefight, takes four Hamlet-like pages to die while delivering reams of exposition to Hank Rearden about the government's nefarious schemes to stage a riot at his mills in order to justify taking them over. For the boy's troubles, Rearden drops his derisive nickname "Non-Absolute" and tells him, "You're a full absolute now, and you know it." This is what passes for character development in Atlas Shrugged.

Even as the proceedings grow more hysterical, the book does on occasion manage to be good on its own terms. I speak specifically of the chapter depicting the collapse of the entire Taggart rail system, and with it America's agricultural distribution network, without which the country is doomed to mass starvation. It hinges all on a scarcity of copper wire, beginning in a train station in California, which is bailed out with half the supply in Montana, which in turn runs out and is bailed by Minnesota, which runs out in turn. The country is depending on Minnesota's wheat in order to survive the winter, and so they receive half of the wire of the Taggart Terminal, the central command of the entire railroad.

You see where this is leading:
On the night of October 15, a copper wire broke in New York City, in an underground control tower of the Taggart Terminal, extinguishing the lights of the signals. 
It was only the breach of one wire, but it produced a short circuit in the interlocking traffic system, and the signals of motion or danger disappeared from the panels of the control towers and from among the strands of rail. The red and green lenses remained red and green, not with the living radiance of sight, but with the dead stare of glass eyes. On the edge of the city, a cluster of trains gathered at the entrance to the Terminal tunnels and grew through the minutes of stillness, like blood damned by a clot inside a vein, unable to rush into the chambers of the heart.
(As it happens, Minnesota and the wheat crop were lost anyway--the freight cars they were supposed to receive were diverted towards a pet project of the mother of Kip Chalmers, the bureaucrat who died in the Taggart Tunnel disaster. Her plan was to grow and distribute soy beans in Louisiana to teach the country about the noble ways of the Orient. The soy beans, however, were harvested too early and all rot. Rioting ensues in Minnesota.)

Putting aside the characteristically preposterous behavior of the various characters, the series of cascading catastrophes does a fairly excellent job of generating tension and excitement. It's similar to the earlier Tunnel disaster sequence, but on a grander scale.

The success of the two scenes has to do with Rand's weird psychology. She and her heroes only value human beings insofar as they are creative and productive--they are judged by their discoveries, creations, and inventions, which she really does value more than 'lesser' human beings. What
else are we to make of how, on learning of the Taggart Tunnel's destruction, "Her scream sounded like the screams that had rung out in the one last moment in the darkness of the tunnel"? Or, for that matter, her insistence that it would be better for the majority of humanity to die of starvation, famine, and violence rather than for the best people in the world to accept some compromises? Rand's lack of interest in relationships and her outsized love of man's intellectual and material creations explain why these disaster scenes have the kind of tension the rest of the book so sorely lacks.

Nothing demonstrates the aforementioned misunderstanding of drama more than the 60-page speech John Galt gives to the American people at the book's climax. It regurgitates, at great length, everything Rand and her characters have been saying to this point, and ties it all together with the mantra of "A is A." This is Aristotle's Law of Identity, which is a simple premise of deductive reasoning, and which Rand mangles and elevates into a final truth that existence exists, what we see is real, and anyone who disagrees is therefore fooling themselves and wants to die and so they should. Basically.

I went into this project fairly certain I would devote a post to The Speech; it's the most famous piece Ayn Rand ever penned. But there isn't much to say that I haven't said already. It took Rand two years to write (and, so goes the joke, it takes two years to read), and shows in its slapdash quality. The climactic speech's of Randian heroes past were always long-winded, but there was always some sense of structure, some point they were building toward.

The Galt speech by contrast runs all over the place; just when it looks like he is wrapping it up and offering a choice, an ultimatum, he drifts back into more ranting about human parasites. Structure was one of the few things Rand did well in her writing--logical organization being something of an obsession for her--and the speech is, not unsurprisingly, the greatest grind. That Rand spent two years in writer's hell trying to make a 60 page speech sound less philosophical and more believable, is both ridiculous and a little sad.

So the speech is terrible, and yet the fevered, operatic excess of it all serves as an appropriate kick-off to Atlas Shrugged's deliriously gonzo endgame. The cabal of bureaucrats and lazy businessmen not-running the show kidnap John Galt and beg him to save the country. Then, after exposing their attempts to blackmail him into publically supporting their John Galt Plan--which with its promises of entitlements and no taxation sounds more like a modern day Republican party tax pitch--the whole leadership collapses into factions, two of which end fight over Project X, the government's secret soundwave weapon, and end up blowing a 100-mile-wide crater in Iowa. Galt is sent to a secret bunker to be tortured into leading the nation, and is rescued by our protagonists, now all badass and assembled like the Avengers, if the Avengers had four asshole Robert Downey Jr.s instead of just one. Once Galt is freed, they escape to Atlantis as panic-crazed New York City goes dark beneath them.

If the third part of Atlas Shrugged ever gets turned into a movie, it absolutely needs to be directed by Roland Emmerich to do justice to both its wide-scale destruction and its exuberant trashiness. The plot is high comedy, and so is the writing. Here's bureaucrat Chick Morrison begging Galt to save the world.
"...Deep down in my heart, I can't believe that you're a total egoist who feels no pity for the people." He pointed to a pile of papers he had spread on a table. "Here's a plea signed by ten thousand schoolchildren, begging you to join us and save them. Here's a plea from a home for the crippled. Here's a petition sent by the ministers of two hundred different faiths. Here's an appeal from the mothers of the country. Read them."
Here's evil scientist Dr. Ferris, being evil:
"Get this straight," said Dr. Ferris, addressing him for the first time. "We want you to take full power over the economy of the country. We want you to become a dictator. We want you to rule. Understand? We want you to give orders and to figure out the right orders to give. What we want, we mean to get. Speeches, logic, arguments or passive obedience won't save you now. We want ideas--or else. We won't let you out of here until you tell us the exact measures you'll take to save our system. Then we'll have you tell it to the country over the radio." He raised his wrist, displaying a stop-watch. "I'll give you thirty seconds to decide whether you want to start talking right now. If not, then we'll start. Do you understand?"
Here is Francisco d'Anconia, delivering, in Ayn Rand's version of dry cool action hero wit, my absolute favorite line in the entire book, which I've italicized for effect:
"Who are you?" he cried at the sight of Francisco entering as if he owned the place. "Nobody's supposed to come in here tonight!" 
"I did," said Francisco. 
"Why did Rusty let you in?" 
"He must have had his reasons." 
"He wasn't supposed to!" 
"Somebody has changed your suppositions."
And at last we have the book's closing passages, in which the death of most of humanity (or its liberation, depending on how you want to look at it) is commemorated with a triumphant concerto from composer Richard Halley. In which banker Midas Mulligan makes an inventory of the now mass graveyards of U.S. cities which will be his new investments. In which pirate Ragnar Danneskjold returns to his old habit of reading Aristotle. In which wise Judge Narragansett crosses out the "contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction" in the U.S. Constitution and adds a new amendment in which "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade." In which Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden, who have both slept with Dagny Taggart and were in love with her until she met John Galt, have a jolly laugh about how "She will probably try to take the shirt off my [Rearden's] back with the freight rates she's going to charge, but--I'll be able to meet them." In which Dagny and Galt stand, looking out on the land they are going to reclaim:
"The road is cleared," said Galt. "We are going back to the world." 
He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
Atlas Shrugged is frequently attacked for its idea that humanity owes everything to its greatest minds and deserves to starve for its monster ingratitude. In the real world, of course, things are much more complicated than that, and so this is a fairly repugnant worldview to the real world. In Ayn Rand's hermeneutically sealed universe, however, the people who don't agree with her really, really, really deserve to die, and it's very satisfying when they do. Straw men burn most bright.

Rand was wrong, egregiously wrong, about a great many things, but in this case her idea that evil prospers only by the sanction of the victim is only too appropriate. Liberals tend to respond any mention of her and Atlas Shrugged with snide dismissal if not disgust, which gives Rand, who set out to antagonize them and get under their skin, exactly what she wanted. Yes, the book is a travesty of philosophy and literature. But the saving grace of travesties is the humor they provide! And Atlas Shrugged, especially towards the end, is a very funny book. Ayn Rand never intended that (mostly; the idea of a Buddhist soy bean cult is too self-evidently funny to be accidental), and would cry and howl in despair to learn a bleeding-heart liberal managed to enjoy her self-described masterpiece. But so it goes. A good time is a good time. A is A.