Sunday, March 11, 2012
To the right is the cover of the first paperback edition of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged that I read while still in high school in 1962. The print of my hand with my thumb pushing up through the word "Atlas" can still be seen. As a slow reader in high school, it took several months to read it, carrying it with me through all my classes. I savored every word and soon embraced the philosophy Rand espoused.
My father, who read this very same edition before me, said Rand's novel was an allegory, but I was overpowered by it. I even had the experience of asking Ayn Rand a question during a lecture she gave in late 1962 in Philadelphia. I couldn't help but to notice how many in the audience dressed to emulate the characters in her novels, how many women dressed to look like Dagny Taggart and how many of the men fancied themselves to look like Howard Roark. My question was a simple one about cinema. Many in the audience snickered openly at my question, but Rand gently admonished them and, having begun her career in cinema as a screenwriter and extra in Hollywood, and patiently answered my question and left a lasting impression. Later when I became a student of cinema I found her answer to my question valuable for my own assessment of the films I later viewed.
As I continued to live my life I attempted to embody Rand's philosophy to my own life, using it to address my personal problems and shortcomings. Over time I found Rand's philosophy in this manner an utter failure. Coupled with my father's comment that Atlas Shrugged was an allegory, the epiphany provided by my participation in the Vietnam War, the Counter Culture and reading Marx, Engels and Lenin revealed the central allegory of her novel.
Time and better understanding had caused her philosophy to fade from my mind, but I still relished the fact that Atlas Shrugged is a marvelously written work, which contributes to its power as a great piece of American literature that remains in print. However, the notion of allegory, of looking at Atlas Shrugged as a literary work, led me to discover a fatal flaw in Rand's use of it to promote a faulty philosophy.
In Atlas Shrugged is found the refrain, uttered during critical points in the narrative, "Who is John Galt?" We don't really meet John Galt in Rand's novel until near the end of the story. However, the reader learns little details about him throughout the earlier parts of the novel, the main one being that John Galt is an inventor who has invented a kind of perpetual motion machine.
In spite of the literary device of delaying the appearance of the novel's prime character, John Galt does make appearances throughout Atlas Shrugged. He is a worker for Dagny and her brother James's Railroad Company. Anonymously, Galt occasionally engages in coincidental conversations in the company's lunchroom with Eddie Willers, who is one of Dagny's underlings. Willers conveys the essence of these conversations to Dagny Taggard, who is conflicted as to whether she should join the strike of all men of mind—and presumably some women—who have brought the economy to its knees by disappearing or withdrawing from the world and hiding out in a secret location.
Hindsight had exposed the ultimate literary allegory, embedded in the very nature of the prime character of Atlas Shrugged, that of John Galt. It occurred to me that the only perpetual motion machine engaged in production of all sorts, the only thing that produces wealth itself is the working class. It would be fitting and appropriate for Rand to originally portray the "inventor" of the perpetual motion machine as an anonymous worker. Near the end of the novel, John Galt commandeers the world's broadcast system and imparts his—and Rand's—tome to the individual with all its allusions to human value and secular morality. It is the philosophy of "objectivism" in a nutshell. At the end of the novel, almost like a benediction, Galt traces the sign of the dollar in the air. We need to remember that the dollar is not wealth in and of itself, only the means of exchange, called "currency,” by which labor, which in the parlance of "labor power" is the commodity we exchange for the commodities we produce as that perpetual motion machine called the working class. By tracing that sign of the dollar in the air, Galt reaffirms the true exchange of wealth from those who produce it to those who use it, and from those who use it to those who produce it, a notion dangerously close to the axiom, "From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs."
One wonders if Ayn Rand had not been spinning her wheels in order to avoid her aversion to the a socialist model of human endeavors, which we as a species have not completely worked out in spite of all those stops and starts, setbacks and experiments and later perspectives. After all, one might argue that Rand, who as a girl, may have been traumatized at her young age from her family's escape from the travails of the Bolshevik Revolution. As time went on in the midst of an American capitalist orgy, her faith may have been bolstered in the notion of an ultimate efficacy of capitalism tempered by a kind of idealized libertarian anarchy. In the end we might come to the conclusion, in the case of Ayn Rand's considerable literary contribution, that the most durable and efficacious truths may be embedded less in her philosophy and more in her literature.
After 50 years, I still remember Ayn Rand’s answer to my question. She told me how some filmmakers use texture in their conveyance of image and subtle emphasis to certain details to reveal intent. She suggested that these devices could transform image into what is beautiful, and that by the end of the film help certain truths to emerge from the mind of the filmmaker. After 50 years since I plodded word for word through the texture and details in Atlas Shrugged, certain truths, perhaps unavoidably, have emerged from the fertile soil of experience and knowledge as well as from the literature, not the philosophy, of Ayn Rand.