12 April 2008

Here's the second rant about Ayn Rand and her nice little booklet Atlas Shrugged. Today we'll discuss how its combination of epic tale and intricate philosophy works really well, but also shoots itself in the foot here and there.

Where it succeeds is in making a 1000+ page story both delightful to read and rich in depth. The adventures of Dagny Taggart -intrepid heir to the Taggart Transcontinental railroad empire- are peppered with poignant moments of self-reflective discovery and a gradual explanation and acceptance of the book's philosophy. As she sees the world's best and bravest disappear and society crumbling under the inept leadership of what's left, you really feel the frustration, hate the guts of the people who are making it all fall apart and cheer at every fleeting instance of victory. As a book it works tremendously well and what it has to say makes sense in its context and lifts it up to be more than just a story.

But there are places where it falls apart. As a philosophy, it is often hindered by the restrictions of a story -which necessarily needs a coherent plot, heroines and villains, dramatic conclusions and unforeseen twists. Some of these fall into place with the overall message, others hurt it.

The book is full of wonderful role models: people displaying sheer perfection in all facets. After all, a philosophical novel needs paragons of its specific virtue; people who are shining beacons for that particular kind of life. Their morality is flawless; their steadfastness inspiring in a world that sinks away into a morass of values clusterfuck. But they also provide the story with some all-too-convenient cheats. At one point (without spoiling too much), Dagny finds herself in love with two perfect men at the same time. In every other story, this would form a dramatic core of the tale, with bitter resentment as the inevitable result. But this would hurt the philosophy (we wouldn't want the utopia to collapse under inner strife, now would we?), so what happens is that -and let me pause for maximum effect- the losing side of the love triangle is so perfect that he doesn't mind. He understands and accepts completely that the other party is more perfect than he is, feels no regret or the slightest pang of loss, and goes on with his life. Crisis averted!

A bit too perfect, eh?

From a bigger picture, there's something very suspicious about the philosophy when you regard that the only way Rand is able to make it work as a reasonable alternative to 'standard capitalism with some social aspects' is to make the latter into an utterly despicable abomination of rambling socialism. From a story perspective this works, because it's dramatic and interesting to read about extremes. But from a treatise viewpoint it undermines Rand's own ideas on how society should be constructed, because incredibly abstract evils are created to offset the ideal of the book. Hell, when one is confronted with the loathsome society created in Atlas Shrugged by the feebleminded inepts of the world, anything becomes a reasonable alternative. It doesn't speak for the strength of any one ideal, but rather for the weakness of the construction that needs to be replaced.

Worse, perhaps, is that it's not even the inherent aspects of the dystopia that make it fall apart, but the sheer idiocy of its leaders. There's no reason a society like the one proposed for outside the utopian Valley of Trade wouldn't be able to work under the leadership of a reasonable mind who keeps the balance between free market forces and socialism in check. You know, someone who treats his citizens like actual people and doesn't try to extort the top businessmen in its industries. In fact, this is exactly the sort of society that a lot of countries nowadays are successfully practicing; not in the least the Netherlands, my own. A healthy balance is found between companies able to practice liberal free trade and a socialist welfare state that catches those who fall between the cracks. There are obviously parasites and leeches, but not to the extent that they threaten the system. Let's cut back to Atlas Shrugged however, where we see this system spearheaded by probably some of the least likeable, short-sighted, thick-headed and comically pathetic nincompoops ever conceived. Under the guise of socialism they allow the system to take on a horrible form of need-before-greed and eventually to crash and burn down by their own unchecked stupidity. Notice that the only reason the system fails is because of its corrupt top, not because it is flawed from within or because its subjects are automatically lead to a state of self-destruction. This, again, while providing for interesting drama for a novel, undermines the validity of its philosophy. We don't need a rigorous new way of living, because the old one only failed because of a few chance bastards coming into power and driving it to a silly extreme. That'll wreck anything. Their doctrine wasn't broken; they were just bungling fools.

Now, maybe all of this could've been averted by molding the book in some other shape, but I'm glad that didn't happen. As it is, it's a work of sheer genius, flaws and all. Next week, there might be more on this, but don't hold me to it. I might feel the need to squeeze everything out of this, but maybe what's left isn't interesting enough. Regardless, I hope some of you enjoyed this one!