Archive for September 2012
“Trouble is, Paul,” he said, thinking aloud, “that the men one has to pick for that job are such a crummy lot,”
Larkin looked away. “That’s life,” he said.
“Damned if I see why. Can you tell me that? What’s wrong with the world?”
Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”
Rearden sat up straight. “No,” he said sharply. “No. There’s no reason to feel that way.”
He paced the room, his energy returning. He looked at his family.
They were bewildered, unhappy children-he thought-all of them, even his mother, and he was foolish to resent their ineptitude; it came from their helplessness, not from malice. It was he who had to make himself learn to understand them, since he had so much to give, since they could never share his sense of joyous, boundless power.”
Oh Hank. Oh you sweet, sweet man.
Let us, for a moment, accept the story’s conceit. The other Rearden’s are helpless children. Ok. Certainly we all know someone like that, or at least know of someone like that. High society seems to have a lot of these people. Not cruel. Not even stuck up. Just so far out of touch they think K-Mart is a rap star.
Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s who I think of. Sweet, but not in the same world as the rest of us. And ok, I can work with that.
These people are unhappy and Hank wants to help them. Wants to reach out and share his largess because he’s a nice guy. I can buy that. Heck, I can even buy that they’re ungrateful jerks, because who doesn’t know a few of those?
But later, Hank gives his brother ten grand (in 1920s-ish money!) just because why the hell not, he wants the kid to be happy.
“Philip stared at him blankly; it was neither shock nor pleasure; it was just the empty stare of eyes that looked glassy.
“Oh,” said Philip, then added, “We’ll appreciate it very much.”
There was no emotion in his voice, not even the simple one of greed.”
This is where Rand begins to lose us. I would imagine you could hard Warren Buffet 10K in 2012 dollars and he’d have more of a reaction than that. Human beings are human beings, and except for the rare sociopath, we all feel pretty much the same thing. Love and hate and sorrow and anger and happiness and when someone hands you 10 large, you feel happy. You don’t just stare at them like you’re halfway through a stroke.
But I do have an alternate explanation.
Philip is high as BALLS. Seriously- Philip shot some horse about half an hour ago, and now he’s not talking to Hank, he’s talking to what he thinks is a hallucination offering him enough cash to buy an Afghanistan’s worth of smack.
The rest of the scene makes more sense, actually, if you assume that Philip has a heroin addiction he and everyone else is hiding from Hank.
“”By the way, Henry,” Philip added, “do you mind if I ask you to have Miss Ives give me the money in cash?”
Rearden turned back to him, puzzled.
“You see, Friends of Global Progress are a very progressive group and they have always maintained that you represent the blackest element of social retrogression ha the country, so it would embarrass us, you know, to have your name on our list of contributors, because somebody might accuse us of being in the pay of Hank Rearden.”
He heard Larkin’s voice crying after him, “Damn it, Hank, you shouldn’t have given it to him!”’
Tell me that doesn’t sound like a junkie. They always come up with complex and vaguely plausible reasons WHY you can’t just buy them a sandwich but need to give them money. Poor Larkin there has been spending MONTHS shepherding Philip through NA, going to all these meetings, and now Hank gives him ten thousand in cash just when Phil has a relapse. Of all the shitty luck.
C’mon- younger, passed over brother without much personality who suddenly has access to all the cash in Christendom, but only as gifts from his brother? It’d drive you to drugs too.
Bah. We skip ahead. Essentially more of the same in the next few pages. Jim Taggart has a meeting with Excuse-Making CEOs. They all agree to support “progressive social policies,” which here apparently means “communism” because those are totally the same thing.
There is more of Rand’s obsessive conflation of appearance with reality and her obsession with straight lines- everyone here is hunched, round, and soft. I’d say it crosses the line from awkward motif to obsession, but it did that about 50 pages ago. Now it’s just sort of sad. This woman has such a fascination with right angles I’m starting to think her first boyfriend was a t-square.
There are a few things that irk me though.
“”If everybody could pull for a common purpose, then nobody would have to be hurt!” [Larkin] cried suddenly, in a tone of incongruous despair.”
Rand was born in the wrong world. She would’ve made a fantastic minister of propaganda. See- most propaganda doesn’t work because its too obvious. The propagandists don’t have the patience required- real propaganda, the type that sticks, is subtle. Slowly, you associate the people you hate with weakness and negativity.
So Rand sticks meaningless, but vaguely liberal sounding bullshit into the mouths of her most irritating characters, and surrounds them with words like “dank” and “dismal” and “despair” and “flaccid” and…..
And you can’t really fight it- it’s like punching cotton wool. You cannot point at one section and go “As XYZ economic data shows, you’re talking out your ass there, Ayn.” Ironically enough, for a writer so obsessed with creation and building, she only tears down. This book is an excellent study on the slippery slope, come to think of it. She never says “libertarianism is good.” All she says is “everything else but libertarianism is bad.” At the end of this book, these characters won’t really have done much of anything- even the most intense passages full of trainz-n-brainz ‘action’ boil down too “and then Dagny did some business stuff that any reasonably competent human could bang out without too much trouble.”
See, everyone in this book is a strawman. Even the people we’re supposed to like are strawmen. And Ayn’s entire argument comes down to: “Wow! Those strawmen sure did fall apart! Clearly these other strawmen over here are vastly superior beings! You should worship them.”
Cargo cults have better backstories than that
The problem is, when you do it over the course of several hundred pages- well, you end up committed to the conceit after a while. Once you’ve spent a week or so hacking through this, you pretty much have to either go along for the ride or accept that you’ve spent your time reading the world’s most verbose and obscure strokebook.
Propaganda. Good propaganda, but like all propaganda, ultimately hollow.
Her characters struggle and pontificate, but don’t really grow or change. Their voices are set at the beginning. They may learn, like Hank does, but that learning doesn’t change them. They are as they were at the start. They move through their world and though the story tells us they make a difference, that they grow and change- we never get to see it. Because if they did change, it would be an admission that there could be a flaw in this world, that these characters were not chiseling commandants in stone.
The surest way to tell if something is bullshit is to see how it handles its own flaws and mistakes. The real world can be inconsistent, strange, and inexplicable- a good philosophy admits that. But BS will got far out of its way to paper any pinhole of dissent or doubt, because BS cannot afford the exposure. To make Atlas Shrugged a reflection of reality in the way that Anna Karenina is, would take this story from the pompous and banal into the realm of the moronic- when one imagines a Dagny Taggart in our world, she ceases to be noble and just becomes laughable. Rand made one of the classic blunders- the world informs you, you do not inform the world.
And that is, perhaps, why Rand’s staunchest devotees are usually between 15-20. Old enough to think, but not old enough to have seen enough of reality to form a true mental picture. In those years the world seems very starkly divided- understanding complexity is often a function of aging.
*flip flip flip.*
Ah. And now we come to something good. The childhood of Dagny Taggart.
This requires pondering. More to follow, but here’s something to wet your whistle.
“Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day. She stated it to herself when she stood alone between the rails, looking at the two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance and met in a single point. What she felt was an arrogant pleasure at the way the track cut through the woods: it did not belong in the midst of ancient trees, among green branches that hung down to meet green brush and the lonely spears of wild flowers-but there it was. The two steel lines were brilliant in the sun, and the black ties were like the rungs of a ladder which she had to climb.”
Oh, T-square. You’re so naughty!
So last time (oh, so long ago) we looked at Hank Rearden. Today though, I’d like to talk about Philip and Lillian Rearden. The most interesting things about these passages, is that they are the first real glimpse we get of the Randian liberals in their native environment. I remind you again of Ayn Rand’s own opinion of her writing: She believed not that she was creating fiction, or propaganda, or even a parable. She believed she was reflecting real life in her work.
Again, the resemblance to conservative, evangelical Christianity is clear. The fictional works of Tim LaHaye, the pamphlets of Jack Chick, the inane ramblings and obsessive sophistry of Harold Camping all have a common root. These deluded men truly believe, or seem to truly believe, that the fantastic scenarios they concoct are an accurate reflection of real life.
The other thing their works have in common is a strange, almost sociopathic view of human nature. In both Atlas Shrugged and ‘Left Behind,’ characters behave- inhumanly. Many times, the “heroes” of both Rand and LaHaye’s onanistic fantasies casually walk through horror with hardly a backward glance. Rayford Steele, the protagonist of “Left Behind,” walks through burning airports, plagues, and hellfire, thinking only of the inconvenience to himself. In the same vein, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, and even sweet Hank Rearden, will walk past wrecks, disasters, human suffering, with hardly a word or thought.
This common vein is simple- the dollar-sign Christ of Tim LaHaye preaches self-service above all else, as does Rand’s sociopathic Objectivism. This neatly explains why the far right has been able to preserve itself as a solid voting block. On the surface, LaHaye and Rand are fundamentally at odds with each other- on preaching submission to Christ, one the triumph of the new atheist man. (And ‘man’ is the right word- Rand has little room for women in her world.)
And yet these philosophies have at their root, a love of money that transcends all things- Christ or humanity or empathy- all fall before the dollar.
Also before we read this, here’s a piece of advice. If you have to insult your character so we know they’re the bad guys, you aren’t a very good writer. Which is not to say that insulting your characters never works, but we should be able to tell that they’re schmucks based on what THEY do and say, not what YOU do and say.
“Paul Larkin was looking at him with the devoted eyes of an inhibited dog.
“Hello, Paul,” said Rearden. “When did you get in?”
“Oh, I just hopped down on the five thirty-five from New York.” Larkin was smiling in gratitude for the attention.
“Who hasn’t got trouble these days?”
Larkin’s smile became resigned, to indicate that the remark was merely philosophical.
“But no, no special trouble this time. I just thought I’d drop in to see you.””
Charming. You know, this could actually be good- if the point of this scene was to show how Rearden, as a total douchebag, saw the people around him. As an honest reflection of supposedly normal reality, it stinks.
“”Henry, you work too hard,” said Philip.”It’s not good for you.”
Rearden laughed. “I like it.”
“That’s what you tell yourself. It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”
“Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice.””
Oh those silly psychology obsessed liberals with their silly ideas about brains! Everyone knows that Hank Rearden just punches his pain in the face with his big manly fists. Or whatever it is men are supposed to do with their problems.
And of course, Lilian:
“Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”
Ultimately, the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is empathy; the ability to FEEL for their characters. Even the bad ones. I have no objections to a Liberal as a villain, liberals do bad things all the time. I have objections to strawmen, to false and lying creations who are so devoid of sympathy as to be unbelievable.
The example that always springs to mind is nonfiction, actually. Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, is a long, intimate portrayal of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich’s ruling elite. When I first read it many years ago, I was struck by how drawn I was to Hitler. He was portrayed as charming, funny, caring and intelligent. I felt the same sort of draw to him that one might feel reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography. And that feeling frightened me at first. I knew intellectually that Hitler must have been charming, magnetic, and so on, but actually experiencing it was deeply disturbing. I liked this sorta nuts but ultimately sweet man who cared about his employees and loved his dogs.
However, what Speer is doing is good writing- very good writing. To take the ur-villain, the official Worst Person Ever, and make him likeable, requires a great deal of skill. And it is here that Rand’s most fatal flaw is revealed.
She has no Empathy. None at all.
Empathy is a good thing, despite Glenn Beck’s claims. Empathy is what allows us to care for our friends when they suffer. It is what makes the human experience not one of ‘I’ but “we.” More practically, it is impossible to be a writer of any skill without empathy. It may be possible to be a good painter with no empathy- one need not feel for the light to be a Rembrandt. It may be possible to make good music, beautiful sculptures, or strong bridges without caring about people. But writing, the art and craft of writing, is getting inside of someone else’s head. Presenting the inner self of another being with such feeling as to seem real. Fundamentally, as far as Rand is concerned, Philip and Lillian know they’re the bad guys. Which misses a rule of humanity so basic it is often missed- everyone thinks they’re the good guy. The worst people to ever live had a mile long list of justifications, and we are no different- we walk through life spreading small graces and petty cruelties almost unconsciously. Who among us doesn’t know at least one right bastard of a human being- and who among us hasn’t been one, at least once? Even when we acknowledge our wrongdoing, it is rarely through our own observations, and never in the heat of the moment.
Yet Rand’s villains are- cartoonish. The most direct example is not from this book, but from “The Fountainhead.” Ellsworth Toohey often brags about his badness in a false psudeo-villiany. He talks about how he enjoys tearing down better men then he, how much he enjoys destruction for the sake of destruction. He is aware of his badness as if he were his own psychiatrist.
In contrast, look at another villain- Tony Soprano. He spends six years in therapy, and at the end, still justifies his evil, his transgressions as necessary. As excusable. As not so far different from what other people do. Or “Breaking Bad” where chemistry teacher Walt justifies his murderous avarice as being all for his family. Or Scarface, where Tony Montana is just trying to make his way in a hard world.
Everyone has a reason, even the bad guys. Rand does not understand that. She is so subsumed in her own truth that she is incapable of seeing that others hold other truths just as dear. And in her total lack of comprehension, she is incapable of making her characters real. Real people who have real arguments and real reasons for what they do.
Another sign you’re a bad writer is when you are forced to create strawmen to serve your plot. When moving your story forward requires characters to act not only in an unrealistic but an inhuman way, it is time to reconsider your plot. No person has ever talked like this, no person has ever acted like this. The Roman playwright Terence wrote “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” We can recognize in ourselves the love of a Gandhi or the hate of a Hitler- we may not have felt so strongly but we have so felt. . But what Rand creates is nothing human and it is, therefore, something alien to ourselves, and has no power over us.
Rand’s failure of empathy means that she is not moved. And in not being moved, she cannot be moving. No tricks of language, no elegance of composition, can substitute for that.