Atlas Shrugged: Ending with the Ubermensch
So, inspired by the brilliant and talented Fred Clark, whose smackdown of the atrocious Left Behind series is both beautiful, humane, and elegant (and you should read it at: slacktivist.typepad.com) I’ve decided that someone should take on that other great book of the whackjob right, and do a page by page breakdown of Atlas Shrugged.
May God have mercy on my soul.
So the game’s afoot: follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George! (Enjoy it while you can folks, that’s the last good writing you’ll see for a long time.)
To properly understand this monolithic monograph, it is perversely necessary to begin at the end. The very end. The very last sentence, as it so happens.
“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
(Get your ass back in that chair, Jack. If I have to read this shit, you’re coming with me. )
So, ironically enough, I think most of this first post will be spent unpacking this very last line in the book. For those fortunate souls who are unfamiliar with Atlas Shrugged, here is a bit of background. The story is primarily told from the viewpoint of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive in a vaguely defined 1920-1950 world. The rest of the world has become communist/socialist/leftist (Rand seems unaware of the distinctions) and the various People’s States are reliant upon the United States for, well…everything. The world is increasingly dominated by weak and whinging men who believe in loving their fellow man above all else. This, combined with rampant corruption, means that all the things built by men of industry are slowly decaying. One of the worst of these corrupt lovers of their fellow men is Dagny’s brother Jim. He is the titular head of the company, but anyone that knows anything knows that Dagny runs the company.
That’s the damn background. Maybe the first hundred pages. This book is literally longer than the Bible, and trust me, an even semi-decent synopsis would run somewhere close to the length of a normal short story. What I’m trying to say here is that this is a fucking epic tome. And for millions of Tea Partiers, it’s better than the Bible. Probably because the Bible doesn’t have quite so much creepy sex or smoking.
So, with that background in mind, bottle of whisky on the desk and, just in case of emergency, a gun with a single bullet in the drawer–lets go.
As I mentioned before, the final sentence is the key to understanding much of the mindset of these books, and I think that most of this first post will be taken up by examining the inherent meanings of this one sentence. Don’t worry, things will speed up later.
So there is a lot going on with this sentence, but the key word is “desolate.” The entire idea behind Atlas Shrugged is that all the movers, the shakers, the competent and skilled, abandon society, apparently leaving it populated entirely with theater majors. These people left behind (oh, trust me, we’ll get into the connection between this and Left Behind VERY soon) die. YAY! But they were all worthless anyway, and they had nasty ideas. Like taking care of the sick and weak. And taxes. But they’re all dead now, so we can go back to a world of strong men who build railroads and angular women who build railroads and get off on being owned by the strong men. And they all smoke. A lot.
From what I can glean, Ayn Rand was one of those people who believed that because she enjoyed something, it meant that that something was automatically a universal good. There are heavy elements of Nietzsche running through her work and life, particularly the concept of the ubermensch, the ultimate man. In John Galt, Ayn Rand essentially creates a fictionalized version of Nietzsche’s ideal man. However, she also viewed herself as a sort of living ubermensch; whatever she did was the best thing. She was a chain smoker, therefore chain smoking was not only a personal choice, but a sign of your worthiness. On page 48, she puts this sentiment into the mouth of an old cigarette seller, a man who has been broken by this new order.
“I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind-and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
To Rand, the act of smoking was sacramental. It must be, because she smoked. The same ideas apply to her views of sexuality. Rand was apparently a bit kinky. (We’ll get there soon enough folks, keep it in your trousers.) But again, rather than doing what sane people do and simple saying “Ok, this is my kink, it’s my choice” or even having it show up in her work tangentially, she see’s her particular brand of kink as the only proper one. She is in herself the perfection of humanity, therefore whatever she does must also be perfect.
You’re starting to see the connection, aren’t you?
The other notable focus of this sentence besides, you know, Rand’s desire to let everyone who disagreed with her die of slow starvation while she presumably cackled madly and stroked a white Persian, is the almost religious overtones. Galt’s actions are overtly religious; a man who is the savior of humanity stands over a desolate wasteland and reverently traces the symbol of the concept that is most important to him. As his lover watches. It is a blatant and deliberate choice on Rand’s part; the other great theme that runs through this book is that money (Gold, specifically) and Work are holy things, practiced with sacred reverence that is only questioned by those who do not get it and are therefore evil.
It is no coincidence that Glenn Beck routinely shills this book. It is everything the modern Tea Party believes; that working is holy, that they are not merely a bunch of slightly slow people, but they are the wave of the future, the new ubermensch. That what they believe and feel is correct in its totality not because of some outside standard, because outside standards are imposed by liberals. And not by rational, introspective thought, because philosophy is a suckers game. It is correct because they believe it is correct, and they are the superior people, therefore theirs is the superior belief.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
So with that in mind, realizing that Rand and her followers believe in their own infallibility, view money as a religious sacrament with gold a sort of new and lustrous Eucharist, and that if it wasn’t for their presence, we’d all starve to death and we deserve it too…well, lets move on next time to answering that all consuming question.
Who is John Galt?