Atlas Shrugged was considered by Ayn Rand to be her masterpiece, the best fictional expression of her philosophy of objectivism. Dagny Taggart, a woman of intelligence and purpose, runs the railroad built by her ancestor, Ned Taggart. She runs it regardless of private or public opinion about her right as a woman, or an individual, to run the largest railroad in America. But America is being run into the ground by a group of mindless bureaucrats who are looting the inventions and businesses of individual men for the so called good of the whole. Dagny and a series of male lovers, who seem to each outstrip the other in their heroic grandeur, stand against this destruction, ultimately by putting the thinking minds of America on strike.
As a tour de force for a heroic, righteous capitalism, the novel is both beautiful and excruciating. The idea that people can deal with each other in mutual respect, on the basis of merit, promised or earned, regardless of background, is a pleasing one. But, and there are several big buts, the novel has many flaws, for me at least: Rand is far too tempted to stray off into long monologues about her political ideals and as the novel goes on I had less and less stomach to read repetitions or rewordings of arguments already stressed many times previously (I should add that the children’s story, Denver, by David McKee, aimed at the under 5s, summarises her political argument in only a few pages with a few lines of text on each page – it leaves me equally unnerved by the simplicity of its assumptions about wealth and the lack of wealth); her capitalism and her objectivism fail to allow for humans to be anything other than heroic, which is admirable, but ridiculous, given that capitalism has always worked in practice with the looters, as she calls them – I feel that she sweeps aside the moral confusions that others have tried to explore in, say Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw; whilst I applaud Dagny’s sexuality as something that best expresses our mind and body as the whole that it is, it irritates me that the language of conquest and subjugation is the one Rand chooses to use and that Dagny’s intellectual rise is met in her choice of lovers – yes, I suppose you could argue she is the ultimate conquest, that gaining her favour is the best reward for a life lived in truth, but what about other women? Why would their intellect not excite sexual passion? She endures the struggle against a failing world the longest, but why should that make her desirable as anything other than an ally?
Ultimately, I wish I had read The Fountainhead instead: it’s shorter. That sounds cynical. Atlas Shrugged is a challenging novel that asks us to expect the best in ourselves, to love ourselves and to expect that of others. That is a beautiful idea. I’m just not sure that all the rest of it is as easy as Rand makes out or as beautiful. I understand how the world she depicts is destroyed, but I can’t decide if I have more or less faith in the expectations and hopes of most people on the planet. I’m also not sure that all of her ideas are consistent, but then again did I read the novel to be convinced of a political argument? Is that what novel writing is about? I would suggest not. I would suggest it should be about raising questions and Atlas Shrugged does just that. I would be interested to see how differently her arguments are expressed in her purely philosophical works. The fact that she chose to move away from fiction after Atlas Shrugged suggests to me that she realised that literature can’t really do the work of a philosophical tract; I think it should do more. Whether Atlas Shrugged does more, I remain unsure. Simply reading this book in a week felt like a challenge. I would probably do better to climb the summit of reviewing it in another week’s time, but that’s the nature of this blog. Reflection isn’t always an option.
Next week I’ll be reading Orkney by Amy Sackville. Suggestions for future reading and comments on the blog are always welcome.