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Atlas Shrugged: Ending with the Ubermensch

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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?

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Written by newscum

July 7, 2010 at 3:18 am

20 Responses

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  1. Well, now. I’m a new reader here and a longtime follower of Mr. Clark’s LB dissection. I’d been curious about the LB books but unable to get past the dreadfulness of the first few pages, and I’m in a similar place with Rand. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this series, good luck! And be strong!

    RobW

    July 7, 2010 at 4:48 am

  2. 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.

    Hee! I think you’re off to a good start. Just remember to pace yourself–this is going to be the Bataan Death March of literary criticism.

    Consumer Unit 5012

    July 7, 2010 at 5:11 am

  3. I’m not quite sure nietzche deserves to be compared to Ayn Rand. Are you going to talk about the Ayn Rand cult, pretty important part of the context of the book

    JE

    July 7, 2010 at 10:08 am

  4. Fire at ones fingertips, in a novel full of symbolism, one might ponder if that was also the case with cigarettes.

    Larry

    July 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

  5. Here via Fred’s blog–break a leg! This sounds like it could be fun. What’s your planned schedule for these? Can we have an LB Monday and an Ayn Rand Friday?

    Re the idea of work as holy, I often recommend this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Work-Ethic-Industrial-America-1850-1920/dp/0226723526

    as the best written to date about understanding the meaning of work in the American psyche. In pre-industrial America work WAS holy, for four perfectly sensible reasons that are no longer true in the post-industrial world.

    Carolyn Dougherty

    July 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  6. weak and whinging men who believe in loving their fellow man

    What I recall from reading the book about 25 years ago was that Rand so utterly and completely stamped her little cutout characters with the “weak and whinging” label that “loving their fellow men” was something they would *say* from time to time, but they never actually did anything about it. As personified by Jim Taggart, the “altruists” had no reason or rationale for helping anyone and derived no satisfaction from it.

    Good luck with the new project!

    jackd

    July 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm

  7. You’re a brave, brave man, and I don’t envy you this journey. Good luck!

    Michael Mock

    July 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

  8. I agree with the above comments; I salute you as you begin your journey. :O

    apocalypsereview

    July 7, 2010 at 11:06 pm

  9. Before you get into this too heavy, Jameson’s Special Reserve is on sale – perhaps you should stock up.

    A 1000 pages worth.

    paleotectonics

    July 8, 2010 at 1:27 am

  10. Oh Lordy! I hope you know what you’ve let yourself in for! I had (and I emphasize *had*) to do a book report on “Atlas Shrugged” in High School (The Lit teacher was an unrepentant Randroid himself, and apparently made *every* student write at least one Rand-centered report during the school year) and I found it incredibly depressing (especially the concept that selfishness and anti-intellectualism are *good* things!), boring and painfully propagandistic. (Gave me a *vile* “aftertaste”! If I’d had anything to use as brain bleach, I would have read it; but my time and reading resources back then were quite limited.) I was actually pleased that my report — basically a point-by-point refutation of Objectivist philosophy — got a D- . (Ironically, it got an A- on it’s technical merits.) Turned me off of Rand forever.

    Also; while you’re engaged in this project, you might do well to remember the famous quote by the above-mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters lest you become a monster; for when you stare into the abyss, the abyss is also staring into you.”

    (P.S. I post as “Reynard” on Slacktivist.)

    reynard61

    July 8, 2010 at 4:51 am

  11. I thought it was “He who fights monsters must be careful that he not become a monster”…

    Anyway…Rand? Anti-intellectual? So how does one divine HOW one’s life can be better? Engineering doesn’t strike me as something that doesn’t require intellect, in any case.

    Not to mention that Rand regarded philosophizing as a GOOD thing. Mostly as she derived, yes, but the point remains.

    Skyknight

    July 8, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  12. Actually, as regards the “weak and whinging men who believe in loving their fellow man,” well, one: The key phrase there is “believe in.” They may believe in loving one’s fellow men, but that doesn’t mean they actually love them. It’s a bit like RTCs belief in belief. Two: Rand paints them as a pack of hypocrites with a death wish. And no, I’m not kidding; it’s there in the text. Her straw leftists are truly caricatures.

    Quick question: Does your edition have the notes about her early outlines of the book? The ones that mentioned that she’d wanted to include a priest as someone who sincerely exemplified what she called “the ethics of mercy,” but dropped him because she couldn’t get into the mind set?

    Frankly, that part tells you all you need to know about her views.

    Inquisitive Raven

    July 11, 2010 at 2:50 am

  13. Rand’s desire to let everyone who disagreed with her die of slow starvation while she presumably cackled madly and stroked a white Persian

    nice!

    I only ever read the Fountainhead, at age 15, and even then was left going, huh? A hero who is a rapist, terrorist and fraud? A villain who is going to take over the world through … a newspaper? Cardboard cutout women who only want to be oppressed and slapped around and submissive?

    firefall

    July 12, 2010 at 4:25 am

  14. And as Rand put it, rape by engraved invitation. One wonders what happened to her in Russia to make her like what we see…

    (Where was the fraud bit, by the way?)

    Skyknight

    July 13, 2010 at 1:18 am

  15. Wait, WHAT? Holy shit. D: *Looks at the Fountainhead with renewed trepidation at the thought of even touching it on the bookshelf at the bookstored*

    apocalypsereview

    July 14, 2010 at 3:43 am

  16. […] comments Kevin may be spending Tuesdays reading the Bible, but via commenter Dan M, we see that someone else has taken on a much more painful assignment. Categories: Agnostic Reads the Bible, Books, Libertarian Problem Solving Comments (0) […]

  17. Like many people here, I’ve come over from Slacktivist. And it looks like I’ll be staying a while (since picking this tome apart promises to be a monumental task. I’m so grateful you’re doing it for all of us).

    >>Rand was apparently a bit kinky. (We’ll get there >>soon enough folks, keep it in your trousers.)
    I’ve often theorized that all of Objectivism stems from the fact that Rand was probably masochistic, or at least heavily submissive (in the D/s sense), and really, really wanted to write about the kind of man she’d love to date. Namely, a dominant, sadistic jerk.

    Therese A

    September 7, 2010 at 2:20 am

  18. The thing most of the libertarians/Tea Party types/etc. fail to recognize is that modern capitalism would not even be possible were it not for liberal thinking (case in point: Jeremy Bentham, the first major philosopher in the English-speaking world to espouse the repeal of usury laws, making possible the modern banking and credit system). Thomas Paine saw the development of law and regulation as inevitable and necessary to the development of a modern state; Patrick Henry in writings *other* than his ‘Liberty or Death’ speech espoused public welfare. Whether they’re wrongheaded or not is a matter of debate (in some things, they may have a point) but to fail to understand–or even to seek to understand–the philosophical underpinnings of your own belief system is beyond ignorance.

    Steve

    April 1, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  19. It would be more accurate to call Rand “anti-sdomeintellectuals’ Nieztche gets the occasional grudging respect, Locke got a positive mention in he incomplete work on epistimology, she loved Aristotle and liked Aquinas. Pretty much everyone else could go to hell. Oddly for a champion of capitalism Adam Smith got nary a mention.

    As for Rands sexuality it’s weirder than you think. From what I can tell (I’m a former Objectivist and have read most of everything she wrote plus two biographies) she was a dom who thought that she should be a sub. Everyone who knew her and her husband had no doubt as to her being the dominant partner yet she apparently believed the opposite.

    tricksterson

    October 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm

  20. “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.”

    The word Tea is never uttered in 2016 but the anti-philosophy, the belief that surpasses all philosophy, lives on.

    pwlsax

    November 21, 2016 at 2:27 am


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