Book Reviews

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

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Set in a dystopian United States, the 1957 novel is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, a beast of a novel containing elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance, and it contains Rand’s most extensive statement of Objectivism in any of her works of fiction.

In the book, many of society’s most prominent and successful industrialists abandon their fortunes and the nation itself, in response to aggressive new regulations, whereupon most vital industries collapse. The title is a reference to Atlas, a Titan described in the novel as “the giant who holds the world on his shoulders”. The significance of this reference appears in a conversation between the characters Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Rearden, in which d’Anconia asks Rearden what advice he would give Atlas upon seeing that “the greater [the titan’s] effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders”. With Rearden unable to answer, d’Anconia gives his own response: “To shrug”.

The theme of Atlas Shrugged, as Rand described it, is “the role of man’s mind in existence”. The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop Objectivism. In doing so, it expresses the advocacy of reason, individualism, capitalism, and the failures of governmental coercion.

I loved the characters. I loved their dedication to their passion, to their work.
Henry Rearden is an industrialist – thinking of new inventions, of how to make lighter planes, lighter train tracks of alloys, more efficient alloys. He is rich and he loves his family and wife. But they don’t seem to love him back or are only there for the money he makes. They are making snidy comments, they hate him and they don’t like the fact that they feel in shackles – can’t leave him and can’t live with him.

“Is it an inferiority complex or a superiority one, Henry? Do you believe that nobody can want to see you just for your own sake, or do you believe that nobody can get along without your help?”

My second favorite character was the heir to the fortune of d’Aconia, a millionaire playboy and mostly misunderstood through the book for his frivolous ways. He speaks with Henry during a soiree hosted by his wife and I loved the way he answers the curious Henry about his motives:

“No. I don’t like people who speak or think in terms of gaining anybody’s confidence. If one’s actions are honest, one does not need the “predated confidence of others, only their rational perception. The person who craves a moral blank check of that kind, has dishonest intentions , whether he admits it to himself or not.”

Any investment he makes turns into gold and when he invests in Mexico, others flock to help the under-developed country grow. The starry eyed socialists, in hoping of helping the people of Mexico and making their profits grow, they invest in creating the San Sebastian Mine and creating the rail tracks to and from it. They are talking about the distribution of wealth and property in a way that shows they never worked a day in their life to earn money.

“When the masses are destitute and yet there are goods available, it’s idiotic to expect people to be stopped by some scrap of paper called a property deed. Property rights are a superstition. One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it. The people can seize it at any “moment. If they can, why shouldn’t they?”
“They should,” said Claude Slagenhop. “They need it. Need is the only consideration. If people are in need, we’ve got to seize things first and talk about it afterwards.”

The investment flops when the Population Government of Mexico nationalizes the rail and the mine for the good of the people. Millions lost and suddenly massive companies are sitting on the brink of bankruptcy. When the mines turn out to be empty and the people of Mexico are in a riot, Francesco gets accused of having stages this coup.
I loved his come-back:

Francisco answered courteously, “It is not advisable, lames, to venture unsolicited opinions. You should spare yourself the embarrassing discovery of their exact value to your listener.”

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The romance between Francisco d’Aconia and Dagny is the third thing I loved in this book. Their discussions and the way they grew up, their desire to be productive members of society:

It was days later, when they were alone, walking through the woods on the shore of the river, that she asked: “Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?”
“The man without a purpose.”
[..]
Dagny, there’s nothing of any importance in life-except how well you do your work.

Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value. All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard. When you grow up, you’ll know what I mean.”

The world keeps spinning and people are changing. The new socialist move is getting stronger and the discussion between a previously bankrupted cigarettes factory owner and Dagny shows what’s happening in their world … and ours too to be honest.

“I don’t like the thing that’s happening to people, Miss Taggart.”
“What?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve watched them here for twenty years and I’ve seen the change. They used to rush through here, and it was wonderful to watch, it was the hurry of men who knew where they were going and were eager to get there. Now they’re hurrying because they are afraid.
It’s not a purpose that drives them, it’s fear. They’re not going anywhere, they’re escaping. And I don’t think they know what it is that they want to escape. They don’t look at one another. They jerk when brushed against. They smile too much, but it’s an ugly kind of smiling: it’s not joy, it’s pleading. I don’t know what it is that’s happening to the world.” He shrugged. “Oh well, who is John Galt?”

The difference between men is visible in the way they walk, they talk and even in the way they smile.

Francisco smiled; it was a smile of radiant mockery. Watching them, Dagny thought suddenly of the difference between Francisco and her brother Jim. Both of them smiled derisively. But Francisco seemed to laugh at things because he saw something much greater. Jim laughed as if he wanted to let nothing remain great.

But not only the men are great. Dagny is fantastic. She is strong, smart, beautiful and powerful. There are lessons she can teach women in business and Forbes made a beautiful top 10 list.
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Taggart may be beautiful, but her appearance isn’t something she gives much thought to—her interest lie in building her business more than, say, trips to Elizabeth Arden for a blowout—but when she gets done up for a party, the surprise appearance of her femininity throws a nemesis off-kilter:

Lillian moved forward to meet her, studying her with curiosity. They had met before, on infrequent occasions, and she found it strange to see dagny taggart wearing an evening gown. It was a black dress with a bodice that fell as a cape over one arm and shoulder, leaving the other bare: the naked shoulder was the gown’s only ornament. Seeing her in the suits she wore, one never thought of dagny taggart’s body. The black dress seemed excessively revealing – because it was astonishing to discover that the lines of her shoulder were fragile and beautiful, and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.

Who is John Galt

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, loosely stated, promotes rational self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism. John Galt epitomizes all that is glorious of capitalism in its purist form — innovation, self-reliance, and freedom from government interference.
How would my fictional friend view the current state of Greece, the Euro and the EMU’s intervention, or the more activist policies of global central banks? I have no idea. My, admittedly, scant knowledge of Objectivism is similar to my view of Ron Paul’s platform: Some aspects appeal to me, but not at a price that I’d be willing to pay.

As a fictional character, John Galt isn’t burdened with forming a plan of action to address the realities that define the non-fiction world we live in (as a creation of Rand’s imagination, he also wasn’t burdened with the realities of 1957). Speculating on his views is nothing more than a Rorschach of our own conflicted and ambivalent, economic views. Would John Galt be more disturbed by the plethora of governmental regulations, or the government’s bailout of too-big-to fail institutions? Would he have greater disdain for the “Occupy Wall Streetmovement, or the “moochers” who “earned” huge bonuses shortly after their banks were bailed out? I also suspect that, for both different and similar reasons, he would have very little respect for the realities and stark compromises within both US political parties.

It’s too bad that the set of solutions to today’s highly complex and intertwined economic challenges aren’t quite as binary as those of the fictional characters we create. So “Who is John Galt?” That’s a question for each of us to answer as we so choose.

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