(Author: Ayn Rand) + (Year: 1957) + (Goodreads)
This is probably going to be one of the reviews I’ll have the hardest time writing. The reason is that while Atlas Shrugged is a blatant piece of philosophical propaganda and a manifesto of Rand’s views, and as appalling it might be as such in certain moments, it is not fully without merit and I am not 100% opposed to her ideas.
I am not even sure why, but I’ve had Atlas Shrugged for years, and for some insane reason, I thought that this was one of those must-read contemporary classics that everybody loves. It was only after I had read a chapter or two, that I actually decided to read the reviews on Goodreads and I realized that I was sadly mistaken, and on the contrary, this book has many fans, but is also deeply hated by many.
As an overview of the actual story, Atlas Shrugged is set in an undetermined time period in which most of the countries of the world have been destroyed by wars and very few are still producing anything, mainly the ones in the Americas, while Europe is poor and devastated and relies on the charity of the States. At such a time, the big industrialists of America are trying to keep their companies afloat among many ridiculous laws, which force them to equalize their production with smaller companies. Suddenly, most of the biggest and brightest minds of the country start disappearing one by one and the last stand against all of this destruction is made by the owner of a metal company, Hank Rearden, and a train company heiress, Dagny Taggart.
Right, so far so good. This story, however, takes place in over a thousand pages, and for the most part, not much happens. Now, you have to keep in mind that Atlas Shrugged is a manifesto. Therefore, there’s an insanely large amount of preaching, and a much smaller amount of things happening. The entire first part of the book is train schedules, train rides, pouring of metal, arguing over rails and trains, and laying rails for trains. This made the book very hard to get into, and ultimately, it remains just as hard to finish. I imagine that getting through Atlas Shrugged feels kind of like swallowing sand.
So, why weren’t the characters more appealing, or interesting enough to drive the story and make it more engaging for the reader? Why, because:
- All of the characters are black and white manifestation of Rand’s purpose for them. Industrialists are good, we like industrialists. Therefore, they are attractive, well-dressed, well-behaved, rebellious, clever, intelligent, creative. The enemy, let’s call them the leeches, are ugly, stupid, lacking talent, don’t have a creative bone in their body, don’t have any idea what they are doing, aside from giving orders which are bad for the industrialists and the future of the world.
- Women are usually weak, stupid and manipulative. The only exception is Dagny Taggart, who is also the prize female for all of the smart capitalist men. Aside from a pretty actress, Dagny is the only female who earns a place among the capitalists in their Atlantis, and most certainly the only one who does it because she is also smart and hard-working.
- Capitalist men, however, are all dashing, ridiculously smart, and capable of saving the world. They, therefore, deserve to own everything in the world, including women. Sex, in that case, is owed, rather than simply desired. And since selfishness is the highest of all virtues in Rand’s world, sex is also done in a selfish, almost forceful way. More so, since Dagny is the only woman worthy of standing by the side of the great capitalist men, she is to be passed around between the best of them, because the purpose of her existence is to be with the strongest and most intelligent man and form no attachment or affiliation with any other.
From the point of view of Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, the worst thing that a person can possibly do, is make a sacrifice. In such case, giving anything to anyone and taking something from your own self in the process, is a sin against human nature. Also, any person who comes up with an idea, therefore has the right to abuse the control they have over their own idea and do with it as they may. Therefore, a capitalist who manages to create a product, has the right to offer this product in a way that no one but the richest of the world can buy.
Now, here comes the moment where I can both agree and disagree. My issue with the philosophy of the book is that it goes from one end of the spectrum to the total opposite one. Pure evil vs complete good. There is no place for modification and moderation. So, I would not support the right of the government to confiscate anything it wants and steal it from its owners. Taking control over all patents, for example, would be something I would not agree with. However, using patents to make products and gain ridiculous amounts of money while not allowing the poor access to the product, is also something that I don’t think is right. For example, if a doctor develops a vaccine against cancer and the doctor decides to sell it at the price of 100 million dollars, therefore, making it available to only the richest, I would think that that’s a form of evil on its own. In Rand’s world, however, that would not only be acceptable, but also be the most logical decision, firstly, because it was the doctor’s idea and it’s therefore his own right to decide the price, and secondly, because it is such a big contribution to the world, that it should only be shared with people who can match it in value.
According to Rand, there should be no social security, no charity, no welfare, nothing, that is common to all. I, too, don’t think that, for example, people who have never contributed to society and don’t want or plan to do it in the future, deserve to live comfortably, while someone else is breaking their back from work and paying taxes honestly. I do think, however, that if a person is temporarily out of a job, because of events out of his or her control, they should be allowed to receive money from the government while looking for another job. See, the difference between these two situations is in nuances. And nuances are something that Ayn Rand doesn’t accept or see: If you don’t make millions, you might as well go and die somewhere, because you sure as hell don’t deserve to live off the back of the noble capitalist heroes who are the pillars of the society.
Simultaneously, while I think that Atlas Shrugged is the epitome of a misguided, materialistic philosophy, I can’t help but admire Rand’s ability to write such a manifesto. The book might not be the most exciting one and I might not agree with the author’s ideals, but she is, undoubtedly, a masterful writer who has the ability to make an impression, and more so, do that in a language which is not her native. To me, that is the most admirable part of her writing talent. The book was probably heavily edited, but nevertheless, for a Russian emigrant in the first half of the 20th century, Ayn Rand managed to master the English level in an amazing way.