My Relationship with Atlas Shrugged

April 17, 2009

The news headlines of recent months have been reminding me of one of the most memorable books I have ever read in my life: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  In the book, the economy starts to collapse as the government inserts itself to the free market.  The whole system falls apart from there: banks collapse, scrutiny falls on CEO’s of large corporations, and pirate attacks become a frequent occurrence on the high seas.  The last set of Somalian Pirate attacks really made me think back to a time when I read that book and analyze the impact it has had on me.

With the recession hitting, I apparently wasn’t the only one thinking about the clairvoyance of the Russian-born author’s 1,200 page epic.  The bookshelves at Borders have been consistently bare under that title.  A 1991 survey of the Library of Congress found that Americans ranked Atlas Shrugged number two (behind the Bible for God’s Sake!!!) as the work of literature that most influenced their lives.  The interesting thing about this statistic is that the books could not be more different.  The Bible is the textual foundation for the leading organized religion in the world today, while Atlas Shrugged is an indictment on anything that jeopardizes the individual being, namely government and organized religion.

I was initially exposed to the book in the middle of my college career.  Nearly everyone in my family had read it with mixed reviews.  My aunt loved the book and recommended it strongly.  My Grandma thought it was long-winded drivel.  And my parents both thought it was interesting but almost not worth the Herculean time investment required (it took my Mom 5 years to finish the book reading just a few pages each night).

I needed to find out for myself.  During my junior year of college, I decided that I would take the plunge.  It took me quiet a while to read it myself, just under 1 year.  Think about it though, with a stressful academic schedule, an increasing involvement in the Judo club, and my 21st birthday, I was lucky to be averaging 5 pages a night!

I think I was originally attracted to the book because of the intellectual ammo it would give me.  I’ve always desperately wanted people to think that I am smart.  This book was basically a philosophy presented in the form of fiction, something all smart people supposedly should have read.

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 35th anniversary edition.

Does that not sound like a wonderful belief system?  Productivity, happiness, reason?  I found myself drawn to all of these things.  So while the philosophy hooked me in, Rand’s writing style kept me on the line.  Each sentence was an artfully crafted assemblage of nouns and verbs.  For the first time ever, I found myself highlighting sentences that I aesthetically liked or that I found particularly meaningful.

The characters were easy for me to grasp.  Dagny Taggart, Fransisco d’Anconia, John Galt, and Hank Rearden were all one-dimensionally heroic, just like the characters on the X-men cartoons or The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles except more attractive.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who want to read it, but I have to share the most important part of the book.  Basically, after the government sticks its grubby fingers and swirls and smushes Laissez Faire capitalism as we know it, the true leaders of the world, the important people, the ones who produce, start to disappear.  The founder of the largest oil company, the owner of a Copper mining syndicate, a world-renowned actress, and others all start evaporating into the mist without a trace.  As a result, the cogs that drive the world’s machine begin to fall off.   Chaos ensues.  As the government tries desperately to right the sinking ship, the mysterious John Galt, a man who is more legend than man, addresses the nation through a hijacked radio transmission.  He rightly blames the government for the current state of affairs and admits responsibility to the disappearances of the producers, but he did not force them into exile.  He convinced these leaders to abandon their endeavors, so that the World will crumble and people will finally realize how important they are.

It’s easy to see why Rand’s protagonists are so anti-government.  She and her family fled Russia shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, where the notion of “the greater good” led to the Soviets confiscating her father’s pharmacy and crippling their livelihood.

John Galt’s homily also takes on a bigger enemy: God.

“The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive- a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence.” – John Galt

“What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his [Mankind’s] Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being.”  – John Galt

Whoa.  So by seeking the means of enlightenment, we were punished by our Creator?

Overnight I shook the oppressive yoke of Christianity that I had worn for so many years.  I became an overnight atheist.  And you know how annoying those born-again Christians are immediately after they find their faith, always bringing it up, even when it isn’t germane to any particular situation?   I was doubly annoying after losing mine.

I remember laying in a hotel room with my parents and sister in New York City; we were taking a vacation in the winter in lieu of the traditional Christmas presents.  I don’t remember what brought up the conversation, but at a late hour, with the lights out and most of us starting to drift of to sleep, we became engrossed in a religious debate.

I presented the arguments I had memorized from the book, bringing all the pretensions and perceived superiority of intelligence of a newly formed atheist college student.  My Dad was asleep, not wanting to get involved at all, my sister was screaming at me, and my Mom laid awake quietly, taking in the discussion.

“Why would God kill his son to save the worst people on Earth?  We were sinners; we were bad people.  So here comes Jesus, and he brings a light into the world.  He tells us to love and to share and to be humble.  And God’s plan is to kill him to save us?  He sacrificed the good to save the rotten.  What kind of logic is that?”

“What are you some type of atheist or something?” my sister asked, fearing that she already knew the response.  Her concern was legitimate.  She had always been very spiritual in a meaningful way.  You could tell that being a good person was always on her mind, and she recognized when she came up short.  She didn’t want her own brother to hell-bound for blasphemy.

“I don’t know.  Maybe I am.”

My mom finally decided it was time to chip in.

“It’s obviously hard for us to perceive God.  I don’t think God is a man, or that he wrote the Bible or any of that dogmatic stuff.  I doubt He exists in the explicit way that it’s presented most of the time.  But to deny that there is a loving-power that binds us together and touches all people is just plain silly.  I just happen to call that thing God.  And you’re right.  It doesn’t make sense that Jesus died, but guess what…sometimes things don’t make sense.  Sometimes things are unreasonable or unfair.  That’s the way the world is.  Nothing in this world is ever just in black and white, Jeff.  Nothing.”

That conversation was one of the myriad of times my already lofty respect for my mom went through the roof.  She planted a little kernel of belief back into my brain.  Still though, I enjoyed being an atheist.  I felt smarter than everyone and I remained attached to Atlas Shrugged because it said that a person’s self-interest is the highest ideal as long as it doesn’t impose on the happiness of others.  The reason I was attracted to the book, I realize now, is because I was selfish (and still am to a point).

So I joined the Objectivist club at school.  It was pretty lame, but I enjoyed the idea of like-minded individuals trying to convert the world.  But the first meeting I went to was unsettling.  People in the club projected an air of haughty, but lonely isolation.  “I’m right, but I’m not happy,” seemed to be painted on their faces.

I saw a girl there who I thought was pretty cute too. But in Atlas Shrugged and Objectivist philosophy, even love is looked at without any complexity.  It is merely a transaction.  Love is reduced to a reciprocal payment, another thing I found myself disagreeing with.  Love is complicated, unreasonable and sometimes terrifying.

And despite all of these attributes, it’s still great.  Love is the only thing that matters in the world.  Without it we would be a very lonely bunch.

And I started to realize that this isolation is not for me.  The main tenant of Objectivism is that no man should rely on you, in the way that you should rely on no man.   Well, nuts to that.  I need people around me.  And I think that everyone does.  I have leaned on so many people over the years.  Family and friends and teachers and coaches have all lent a hand and helped me out in one way or another.  To deny the fact that they have influenced me and been a force in shaping my life, for good or bad, is to deny reality.

And as stressful as it is to have people depend on me, it still feels good.  I’m here and I’m a part of something bigger than just my little existence.

Eventually, I realized that Rand’s philosophy should be taken with a huge boulder of salt.  She presents her characters as though they were cardboard cut-outs, never conflicted in their resolve and never questioning their own ideals.  I found that too disenfranchising.  I frequently question my ideals and my convictions.  That’s why I loved Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.  This Russian author instead presents the more realistic look at humans, as irrational and silly beings who are capable of making the right decision but often can’t, won’t, or don’t.

I will agree that Atlas Shrugged is one of the most influential books I have ever read.  Not so much that I live by the codes of ethics presented by the author.  But rather that it has forced me to ask uncomfortable questions and find the answers to life for myself.  I am still figuring things out, and perhaps will never get a good grasp on what makes life worth living, but I have learned one thing:

“Nothing in this world is ever just in black and white.  Nothing”  – Robin Konkle

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