“We do not tell – we show.”
So says the mentor of Atlas Shrugged‘s three key “strikers,” philosopher Hugh Akston … on page 735 of a 1,168-page novel, in a passage that precedes by 300 pages the beginning of a 60-page, 35,000-word monologue by John Galt that is, if nothing else, an absolute triumph of telling over showing.
I note this contradiction not merely for an ironic chuckle – though I must say, I did spend a half hour guffawing after I read it – but also to preface the peculiar challenge I’ve set for myself now that I’ve finally finished Ayn Rand’s rambling rhapsody of (supposed) rationality. I must, of course, complete the task of synopsizing the novel – which is easy enough, except for the requirement of posting the phrase “Spoiler Alert!” for the benefit of anyone who’s just now stumbling across this series and might not want to find out what becomes of Dagny, Hank, and the gang down at Galt’s Gulch. But I must also say whatever it is I have to say about the novel as literature, and about Objectivism as a philosophy, since I have no plans of returning to either topic at any length. So settle in … this is going to take a while. In this “Part One” post, I’ll cover the synopsis and the literary criticism; if you survive it, please mosey on over to Part Two for a generalized take on Objectivism as viewed through the prism of Atlas Shrugged and some other Rand-related materials I’ve sampled recently.
I am well aware that whatever summary and analysis I offer in this relatively short space will be insufficient, either for novices or for those Students of Objectivism (inside joke – we’ll discuss it later) who, if recent history is any indication, will soon be suggesting in either a pleasant or troll-like manner that I am “uncomprehending” or “lazy” or “witless,” or some such. That’s fine; to each his own. (Which, by the way, in four words pretty much sums up Rand’s philosophy.) With that acknowledgment/apology out of the way, here’s a summary of Atlas Shrugged’s concluding chapters:
Hank Rearden, when last we saw him, was fighting off a violent mob (full of government-planted goons) at his steel mills, and deciding at long last to abandon his livelihood and join his fellow industrialists in Galtlantis. Dagny now soldiers on alone, not yet ready to turn the family railroad over to the moochers and looters, and allows herself to be tricked into attending a “conference” that turns out to be a “your presence equals your support” backdrop for a well-publicized TV broadcast by the “head of state,” the no-first-named Mr. Thompson. Just as this propaganda-fest is ready to go on the air, however, the nation’s broadcast signals are suddenly jammed – and the voice that emerges is not Mr. Thompson’s, but Galt’s.
He proceeds, over what’s described as three hours of airtime, to lay out his/Rand’s ideas in frequently gripping, though too-often redundant fashion. He describes the extent to which people worldwide have turned away from the “moral choice” of reasoning and living like men, and have instead been lulled into an unthinking, rationality-free existence by collectivist governments which insist that individual will and reason are inconsequential, and which convince and/or force men to sacrifice their own interests and property for the benefit of others. (Galt calls the leaders responsible for this trend “mystics of muscle.”) He also argues that mankind has abandoned the possibility of happiness and pleasure in obedience to religious doctrines propagated by “mystics of spirit,” and in pursuit of imaginary future rewards that are available only after death. (More on this later.) Only by rejecting these false prophets of conformity and altruism, Galt says, can mankind recover his sense of self and regain the momentum that propelled us out of the dark ages and into the modern era.
Wrapping up his speech, Galt fesses up to stealing away the world’s great achievers and says that his “men of the mind” will return only upon the downfall of the collectivist states – an outcome that he suggests his listeners get to work on immediately. The broadcast ends, and the nation’s sniveling leaders quickly go into a panic – they recognize that Galt’s ideas offer an attractive alternative to their own failed course, but their first priority is the maintenance of their own power, so they decide (no joke) to find him, catch him, and “force him to rule.” Dagny unwittingly leads them straight to Galt, by going in search of him herself and finding him in a Lower East Side tenement; when they arrive, Dagny gets off by pretending to loathe Galt, and Galt is taken to the fanciest hotel in town to be kept under armed guard while one looter after another tries to talk him into running the country. Those pleas having failed, Mr. Thompson nonetheless schedules a TV broadcast (will these fools never learn?) at which Galt, dressed to the nines and with the business end of a pistol jabbing his kidney, will be forced to announce the “John Galt Plan” to the nation; after a series of pompous introductions, Galt stands before the microphone and sums up his attitude toward his captors, and toward governance in general, with one simple sentence: “Get the hell out of my way!”
Thus temporarily foiled again (curses!), Mr. Thompson, Wesley Mouch, and their fellow looters decide that a bit of torture might do the trick – so that night they take Galt up to a New Hampshire science lab, attach some electrodes to his skin, and turn on the juice. While all this is going on, out in Iowa a struggle has commenced for the giant, space-age weapon the government had recently invented to keep the populace unthinkingly obedient. Dr. Robert Stadler, a onetime “great mind” who had been co-opted by the collectivists, arrives to commandeer the weapon (and thus the nation), only to find that a gang of breakaway government goons has already had the same idea. When Stadler confronts the gang’s leader and suggests he hasn’t the brains to control a high-tech weapon, the drunken lout proves him right by pulling levers indiscriminately – thus setting off a sound-wave explosion that destroys everything and everyone within a 100-mile radius, including Dagny’s beloved Taggart Bridge across the Mississippi (the nation’s last remaining link between east and west).
News of the bridge collapse finally convinces Dagny that her railroad (and the nation) are no longer worth saving, so she joins Hank Rearden, Francisco d’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjold and a few other Brigadooners in a mission to rescue Galt from his high-voltage fate. Dagny winds up killing a panicked guard who doesn’t know whether to believe her when she says Mr. Thompson sent her – in fact, she seems to kill him simply because he wouldn’t make up his mind – and the rescuers eventually find Galt shaken, a bit fried, but otherwise unharmed, his survival of the torture having left the looters (literally) at their wit’s end. Dagny, Hank, Frisco and Galt – after, remarkably, not fighting to the death over who would get to fly the plane – jet back to Colorado and Galt’s Gulch, passing over New York City just in time to watch the lights go out for good (an event which Galt earlier had suggested would symbolize their success in destroying Looter Nation). We last see them back in Shangri-La, plotting their triumphant return to rebuild the decimated country, rewriting the Constitution (literally!) with Richard Halley’s “Concerto of Deliverance” ringing in their ears.
All told, it’s a slam-bang ending to a Tarantino-worthy behemoth of a book, with its combination of Ultraviolence, kinky sex and ponderous exposition. Amazingly, I mean that as a compliment; Atlas Shrugged is, divorced from its philosophical underpinnings, at times a ripping good yarn. (If, as has long been rumored, Angelina Jolie is itching to play Dagny, why not cast Brad as Galt and beg Quentin to direct?) About Galt’s exposition, though: While I mentioned its obscene length at the top of this essay in order to poke a bit of superficial fun, it’s worth noting that in her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand herself criticized Victor Hugo for occasionally stopping his narratives cold in order to indulge in essay-writing. Should a film or mini-series of Atlas Shrugged ever come to pass, may the ultimate “mystic of spirit” have mercy on the poor screenwriter who has to pare Galt’s speech down to a manageable length, then defend the cuts to the Objectivist micro-horde!
Rand wrote The Romantic Manifesto to defend her belief that fiction writing should present not realistic protagonists, but mythic heroes; not stories of the world as it is, but as it ought to be. Atlas Shrugged is her ultimate evidence for that belief, just as she once said she intended it to be the “climax and completion” of her espousal of Objectivism. This predilection for the “romantic” apparently gave her license, in her own mind at least, to create entrepreneur-heroes seemingly chiseled out of Grecian marble and political villains more ridiculous than the Keystone Kops, and to invent a nightmare Amerika whose people and politicians willingly vote, scheme, and fumble their way into totalitarianism. Rand’s defenders, some of whom we’ve heard from over the course of this series, use that same concept of romanticism to call Atlas Shrugged something like “science fiction,” to insist that we shouldn’t take it too literally, and to demand that I not compare the characters and situations in the novel with the real world of Rand’s time or ours. (Of course, such people also are screaming that Barney Frank is the incarnation of Wesley Mouch and are carrying signs to tea parties that read “Atlas is shrugging,” but that’s another matter.)
As I’ve noted in previous columns, I reject Rand’s claim of romanticism as an excuse for creating caricatures of the people and ideas she opposes, on the basis that she quite openly was using fiction (the medium in which her theories were most widely read) to offer evidence for her real-world ideas about reason, religion, regulation of industry, taxation and other matters. Her “romanticism” allowed her to invent straw-man villains and preposterous situations (related to politics, business, romance and family relations alike) that practically force the reader to sympathize with her self-reliant heroes. Those heroes are vaguely relatable as timeless “ideals” for human thought and behavior; how sad, then, that her theories of fiction (which she claimed to base upon Aristotle, though some of her critics say she was misreading Aristotle in the first place) forbade her from placing those heroes in a real-world context and attempting to convince her audience that her ideas were simply better than an honestly portrayed alternative.
(Or was her “aesthetic” really just a convenience? Considering that, for whatever reason, she didn’t dare to actually use the words “religion” or “Bible” or “atheism” anywhere in Galt’s speech, one can be forgiven for assuming that she would have had a great deal more trouble successfully making her arguments in a more realistic scenario. John Stossel’s pathetic attempt to do so last week, on his thoroughly pointless Fox Business Network show about Atlas Shrugged, ended up wallowing for 15 minutes in one Northern-Virginia entrepreneur’s complaints that the government of his state is trying to regulate or ban the service he provides: fish pedicures. I’m not kidding.)
That tension between “romanticist” flights of fancy and real-life concerns, not to mention her frequent interruptions of one to engage in the other, have led many Rand critics (and supporters as well) to wonder whether she should be considered a “novelist” at all, rather than a polemicist who trafficked in fictional scenarios to put across her arguments. I don’t find a need to take a stand in that argument, especially considering how much more entertaining it is to note the contradictory stances of various Rand haters – some of whom label her a decent theorist who wrote lousy fiction, while others say her plots were terrific (shame about the philosophy). I will say this: I found her ideas, to the extent she laid them out in full, to be far more persuasive as they were expressed during Galt’s soliloquy than they were as depicted through the novel’s well-developed plot and not-so-well-developed characters.
That’s not to say that Atlas Shrugged’s plot was perfectly developed – indeed, some key questions are left hanging at the end. For example, what will happen to Dagny’s childhood friend and business consigliere Eddie Willers, who at the end of the novel was left, abandoned and sobbing, on a broken-down train in the Arizona desert? I have failed to mention poor Eddie much, if at all, even though he represents in many ways the middle-management conscience of the novel – a guy who sympathizes with Dagny’s struggles, and who unwittingly passes along vital information about her and the railroad to Galt in the Taggart cafeteria. Does Eddie have reason to believe he might someday be received in Galt’s Colorado Graceland? And how, exactly, is the populace expected to respond when Galt leads his army of anti-altruists out of the mountains and back into society? How will they feel when Galt proclaims, “Hey, folks! We’re back! We’ve got this nifty motor that will solve all your problems … and oh, by the way, we’ve re-written your Constitution so you can’t control us!”
And what of Hank and Francisco, who seem doomed to a sex-free existence in Shangri-La now that the only woman they’ve ever loved, Dagny, has Gone Galt? They’ve clearly been smitten with one another, in an intense (if platonic) fashion, ever since they met — might they now find Virtuous Love … with each other? Just substitute “Objectivist” for “cowboy” here.
Hmmm … perhaps not. Rand told an audience in 1971 that homosexuality “involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises … is immoral, and more than that; if you want my really sincere opinion, it’s disgusting.” Any Rand acolytes who wish to pick up that ball and run with it are encouraged to do so in the comments.
For a broader discussion of Objectivism – and maybe even an explanation why I titled this pair of columns as I did – please proceed to Part Two … but please do so only if it fits within your rational self-interest. See you there!