Friday, December 3, 2010

Libertarians III Atlas Shrugged (Part A) 92


Perhaps for the first time, anywhere, after over 50 years, this blog presents a balanced and unbiased review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The Wikipedia analysis of this book is not really a review but achieves a pastiche that, overall, is unbiased. The reviews on are often interesting, and, at best, funny.

But what you're going to read here trumps them all. And that is easy to do. All I have to do is put on my auditing hat as a certified public accountant and tell you what I see, hear, observe and conclude. I merely have to type a review in a fair-minded state of mind. For half a century, reviewers have failed to do that with this book. Atlas Shrugged is a nemesis and artistic mirror for reviewers; it shows all of them at their worst. Those who like it write about it like shills. Those who hate it write about it as madmen. It's easy to win that race.

My review is in four parts

Part A: What Ayn Rand Did Right
Part B: The Mistakes of Atlas Shrugged
Part C: The Fatal Errors of Atlas Shrugged
Part D: Conclusion

Part A

What Ayn Rand Did Right

Reviews talk about Rand's past or her subsequent formal philosophy or The Fountainhead. They should be talking about the ingenious screenplay for Love Letters. We could almost relabel this book as “The Love Letters from Francisco d'Anconia.”

Frisco is the man who tells Hank Reardon that Atlas ought to shrug. Frisco is the man who loves Dagny all his life and gives her away to the man she is more infatuated with. Frisco risks his life to spring his friend (and Dagny's subsequent lover) from indefinite detention without trial by the National Government. Frisco treats the whole statist world as a surreal joke and smiles about it. Frisco is melancholy and not ashamed of it. Frisco could have invented differential calculus had it not already been invented. Frisco pretends to have affairs to make fools out of the tabloids. Frisco easily upends the railroad of an inhuman fool, Jim Taggart, over a simple scam that Taggart should have seen through.

And we know him. As a boy, this is Freddie Bartholomew as Little Lord Fauntleroy. As a young man, this is Dick Powell. As an adult this is Cary Grant or Tony Franciosa or Tom Hanks or Matt Damon. This is the charming genius so confident of his intelligence and social position, so proud of his family, that he is modest about all that. He asks respectful questions. He avoids any cruelty. He doesn't ever ask anyone to cheer him up, though he is a moody and melancholy soul.

And he is the source of the greatest vignette in the book. Young d'Anconia is visiting Dagny Taggart at the family estate and some old social lions are present. They observe the handsome young genius. One says that d'Anconia doesn't realize the disappointment and despair that lie ahead of him.

That's a perfect and absolutely wise observation that should have been expanded and followed up on. It almost carries the entire weight of the book with it. Frisco, a man deservedly born to the purple, is the hero of Atlas Shrugged. Even those who hate the book gingerly avoid demeaning him.

Dagny Taggart is another great accomplishment of this novel. She is a schoolgirl who concentrates on her schoolwork and on her love of engineering rather than on makeup and appearances. She doesn't even realize how beautiful she is. She only has three lovers: Frisco (of course!), Hank Reardon (whom she genuinely admires and respects in spite of his miserable marriage), and the ultimate limerence of her life, John Galt (who already loves her and has been spying on her – shades of the plot for Love Letters). Her genuine and honest sexual loneliness is not a surprise to us, now, reading this in the third millennium, but it was a shock at the time; Dagny has also kept the feminists off the backs of Ayn Rand and Objectivism:

               Through Dagny's associations...Rand illustrates what a relationship
               between two self-actualized, equal human beings can be...Rand denies
               the existence of a split between the physical and the mental, the desires
               of the flesh and the longings of the spirit."
                  -- Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance

Camille Paglia refers to Dagny as a “fiercely independent – and unapologetically sexual” heroine in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.

Dagny also runs the railroad that her lazy, stupid, arrogant older brother Jim pretends to manage.

Jim Taggart is another triumph of this book. He's a cad, a bumbler, a social climber and an example of the foolishness that oftentimes accompanies inherited wealth. His inability to appreciate his sister's competence is ungrateful and unwise. His priggish and downright snotty dislike for Francisco d'Anconia is comical and ultimately self-demeaning. He is the villain given the most copy in this book and he is painted deftly and thoroughly. His despicable sexual affair with Lillian Reardon is a masterpiece of petty human evil, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey.

The dialog of this book sometimes crackles with brilliance (again harkening to Love Letters). The description of the antiquated wood-burning locomotive heaving along the rickety tracks in Mexico is genuinely hilarious. Frisco's shock that Dagny is naming her railroad's Colorado spur “The John Galt Line” is another short masterpiece. The description of the opening of the spur, with radio and television coverage, and the exchanges between Reardon and Dagny as the train approaches a delicate-looking bridge made of Reardon Metal, are splendid writing, a short story that would work unedited on its own. The treachery of lobbyist Wesley Mooch and the self-serving hypocrisy of Washington politicians ring true.

Atlas Shrugged is a long, thick book containing several central elements that are accomplished with artistic genius. That should be recognized and saluted.

But it isn't enough to carry the whole tome.

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