Book Review: Modoc

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer

 

This is a very sweet book, an amazing story about a remarkable elephant. It is also unbelievably cheesy.

That doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. Most love stories are cheesy to one extent or another, and this is, most definitely, a love story. It’s a story about a man named Bram Gunterstein and the three loves of his life: the two women he loved, Sian and Gerdie, and the elephant, a female Indian pachyderm named Modoc. He called her Mo. Mosie.

Mo and Bram were born on the same day, in the same hour, on the farm owned by Bram’s elephant-trainer father, near the Black Forest in Germany. The two grew up together, and the pastoral idyll of this portion of the book is almost painfully innocent and sweet – it did, for me, get a bit saccharine, especially when Gerdie comes into the picture and she, Bram, and Mo spend summertime frolicking through the hedgerows and splish-splashing in the lakes. Ah, Youth. But then reality catches up and the owner of the circus where Modoc performs with her elephant family sells everything to an American circus owner. Bram is to be left behind as Modoc and the other animals are moved to America.

But Bram can’t leave Mo. So instead, he leaves Gerdie – and as sad as it is, it is clearly the right choice.

Unfortunately, when Bram and Modoc leave the pastoral perfection of their childhood, frankly, the shit hits the fan. A whole lot of shit hits a whole lot of fans, and spreads far and wide. The two have incredible adventures, most of them in some way terrible. There is suffering, war and blood and death, disease and starvation and fire and misery. There is also a tremendous amount of love, and quite a lot of spirituality; Bram believed that the way to God was through communion with nature, particularly through close bonds with specific animals as he had with Modoc. If he was right, then he no doubt found his way to God, because I can’t imagine a closer bond than his with this elephant.

In the end, I liked the book. It was absolutely riveting at times, and heartbreaking at others; though the author, Helfer, who knew Bram and Modoc both towards the ends of their lives, tends heavily towards the cheese, I would say it’s because he’s an animal trainer, not an author. I will also say he’s a much better poet: there is a memorial poem he wrote included at the end of the book which is by far the best moment of writing. But even if he was a terrible writer – which he is not – this book would be worth reading just for the story, and the characters. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark

Westmark

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I grew up reading the Chronicles of Prydain by Alexander, and I only discovered as an adult that, in fact, the man wrote several other books. It’s been a lot of fun discovering and reading those other novels, even though it makes me feel kind of dumb that I didn’t already know about them; after all, Alexander won two National Book Awards and was nominated for four more, so . . . I guess everybody but me knew about his broader legacy. I would like to blame my parents for not telling me about Alexander’s other books. And also Piers Anthony, who so captivated my youthful love of fantasy that I read every single one of his books. Including his genuinely crappy autobiography, Bio of an Ogre.

Blame and castigations aside though, this is a genuinely good book. It is more adult than the Chronicles of Prydain: it really only belongs in fantasy because it’s Lloyd Alexander. He never writes with too much magic, but this book has none; rather, it has – politics. It’s about a printer’s assistant, Theo, who goes on the run after his master Anton is killed by the military as part of an attempt to control the press. The printer’s assistant hooks up with a con man and snake oil salesman who is a mixture of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the King and Duke from Huck Finn; he’s a big, bombastic, lovable rogue who makes no bones about the fact that he’s in it for the money and will tell whatever lies he can in order to get it. He’s a lot of fun and he makes the book a lot of fun.

It isn’t all fun and games, though: the fear and anger over the printer’s death and the subsequent flight are quite serious. Theo eventually parts ways with the con man and joins up with a group of intellectuals leading a rebellion, who are a great set of characters; the last third of the book is a quite realistic portrayal of the beginnings of a revolution, including Theo’s efforts to print anti-royalist pamphlets as his own efforts to free the people. Yeah: definitely not a simple children’s book.

The book leans more fantasy in the royal aspect of the politics: although there is a definitely historical feel in the elements about revolution, the causes of the nation’s oppression come straight from a fairy tale. The king is bereft and despondent to the point of uselessness over the death, several years ago, of his beloved only daughter. An evil counselor – I definitely think of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, or Flagg from Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon – has taken over running the kingdom, and is trying to consolidate power for himself, becoming a tyrant in the process. He is overcome not by the revolution, but by the direct actions of our hero, who essentially saves the day – though there is a twist I won’t give away.

It’s a good book. The characters are well-drawn, as is the setting; the plot is a little haphazard, which I think is because of the mix of fairy tale and historical novel, but it isn’t hard to follow. And the other reason for the somewhat complicated course of the story is: this is the first book of a series of three. So there are seeds planted here, paths started but not taken to their ends, because there is more story to tell.

I’m going to try to find the other two books. I recommend this one.

One last note: the biggest downside of this book, for me, was honestly the cover. I hated this image, and the way it depicted the characters, so much that I tried not looking at it while I was reading the book, and even now I can’t stop thinking bitter thoughts. Yech. But of course, don’t judge this good book by its crappy cover.

The Complete Douglas Adams

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide

by Douglas Adams

 

I don’t think the world needs me to say that these books are brilliant and wonderful. They are brilliant and wonderful, but I hope everyone already knows that. If anyone out there within sight of these words has not already read these books, then you absolutely must pick them up as your very next piece of reading – particularly since it is summer time, and there are no better beach reads than these.

There are a few things that I will add to the conversation.

First, this Omnibus edition is probably not the best way to read these books; it’s convenient to have them all together, but it’s much too large and unwieldy; this is the kind of book that you almost don’t want to read lying down in bed, because there’s no way to hold it up without your arms getting tired. And very little in life makes one feel more pathetic than watching your arms tremble from holding up a book. Also if you are, like me, prone to dozing off while reading, this book will do real harm if it falls on your face. I will also say that the bonus story here, Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, was almost entirely pointless. Not in a wacky Douglas Adams way, but in the way that I didn’t know why I had read it.

On the other hand, while I have seen the first three books everywhere for years in small convenient paperbacks, I have not seen the last two books, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless in the same format with the same frequency. And just like Star Wars, while there are plenty of people who carp that the first three are the only good ones, I disagree; Mostly Harmless has some flaws, but So Long and Thanks for All the Fish not only fits in well with the others, but it has one of the best romances I have read in a light-hearted book. There aren’t a lot of comedic authors who can tell a good love story (Christopher Moore is actually the only one who comes to mind), but this book is a good love story. It is worth reading all by itself. Mostly Harmless probably is not, but it has some absolutely wonderful moments: Ford Prefect pulling a Mission: Impossible on the Guide central office; Arthur Dent as Master Sandwich Maker; the realm of The King; the planet of What Next. I hated the ending, predictably, as it is not funny; but it certainly puts a period on the series. I think fans of the books should read it, most definitely.

The second thing I would like to add is this: not only was Douglas Adams a creative genius and a hilarious man – probably the funniest author I know of – but he was, simply put, a hell of a writer. This is his description of the Vogon Constructor Fleet in the first book:

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the way that bricks don’t.

That last sentence is pure genius. And for a simpler, beautifully done writerly trick, this is the way he describes the actual destruction of Earth (I can’t think that’s a spoiler: it happens at the end of the first chapter, for Pete’s sake.):

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

There was a terrible ghastly noise.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

 

 

Some of my other favorites:

The first thing that hit their eyes was what appeared to be a coffin.

And the next four thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine things that hit their eyes were also coffins.

 

(Describing a paranoid military character practicing his menacing:)

Number Two’s eyes darted feverishly about the room again and then settled back on the mirror, like a pair of flies briefly distracted from their favorite piece of month-old meat.

 

From Life, the Universe and Everything:

“The dew,” he observed, “has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”

 

This, from So Long…, is a description of the woman half of the romance, and this is why this book should be read and enjoyed.

She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost somber, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.

But when she smiled, as she did now, suddenly, it was as if she had just arrived from somewhere.

 

And what may be my favorite description of all time:

If you took a couple of David Bowies and stuck one of the David Bowies on the top of the other David Bowie, then attached another David Bowie to the end of each of the arms of the upper of the first two David Bowies and wrapped the whole business up in a dirty beach robe, you would then have something which didn’t exactly look like John Watson, but which those who knew him would find hauntingly familiar.

 

The last thing I will say about these books is a personal confession: when I was 12, I auditioned for a school production of Pirates of Penzance by reading the Vogon poetry from Hitchhiker’s Guide. And when the director tried to cut me off by saying, “Okay, thank you,” I held up one finger to signal that I wasn’t yet done, and went ahead and finished the piece.

I didn’t get the part.

But you should get these books.

Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me,
As plurdled gabbleblotchits,
On a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me,
With crinkly bindlewurdles, mashurbitries.
Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don’t!

Getting Deeper into Atlas Shrugged

This is the first of what may be a new category of post on this blog. As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a follower, I’ve been moving away from the usual ranting essay type of post and more into book reviews; this is intentional. But sometimes, I have more to say about a book, and when I do, I will write one of these. I’m going to call them DustNotes. (Maybe HumpNotes? No. Definitely DustNotes.)

I will also say that this one comes from requests that I got from friends, several of whom said they were glad that I had read this book because now they didn’t have to. This gave me an idea: I have plenty of TBR books of my own, of course — too many, really — but I would be willing to take requests, if there are any books that someone wants to get my opinion on. That includes new and unpublished authors, by the way; I’m willing to read and review pretty much anything you want my take on. You can email me at writeth@tonidebiasi.com if you’re interested.

For now, here are my DustNotes.

 

Book: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Concept: While the book was being written, the working title was The Strike; that is the concept. (Gotta say: Atlas Shrugged is actually an excellent title, and a clever way to describe the theme. Godlike being holding up the world, and the weight grows too much for him, so he – shrugs it off.) The Prime Movers (as Rand referred to them in her notes, though not in the novel), the most valuable members of society, withdraw from society – they go on strike – and society collapses without them. In general, these people are the Men (and the book is bloody sexist, though maybe a reflection of the times, as it was written between about 1946 and 1957) of the Mind; most of them are industrialists – an oil man, a steel man, a copper man, a man who makes cars and another who builds airplanes. Though there is also a physicist and a philosopher, a banker, and a token few artists. They are the Men of the Mind because they are extremely intelligent, extremely capable, extremely strong-willed; they are perfect rational beings, which Rand saw as the human ideal.

The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men. We need them, but they don’t need us. Not that people couldn’t live without them at all, but rather, without the Men of the Mind to prop up the society we have built which relies on them so heavily, will inevitably and rapidly destroy itself. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.

Rather than get into a specific synopsis – which, considering how excessively long this book is, would be too dull to read – I’m going to break down the ideas in the book into the ones that are Interesting, those that are Silly, and those that are worth More Thought. I will probably not explain these too well; partly that’s because I’m trying to be brief about some complicated things, some of which I still need to think more about in order to understand and agree with or critique; partly it’s because the explication of these ideas came in the form of a novel that was too long by a factor of ten. I got tired of trying to understand, and Rand’s writing doesn’t make it easier. I will try to present them anyway. Here we go.

Interesting idea: man is a rational animal; a creature of “volitional consciousness.” The means of our survival is our reason, which is our ability to perceive reality and then act upon it and shape it through the application of our intellect. The “volitional” part is where Rand states that we must choose to use our rational faculty; if we do not choose to do so, then we are not human, or not good. It is interesting to state that our purpose is to think, and that thinking defines us; so many of our definitions have to do with chosen associations like nationality or religion or politics, or accidental ones like race or bloodline or family name. I like this idea.

Idea that needs more thought: the realization of man’s rational faculty is – production. Rand is very clear about this: because production is the means of our physical survival, it is the natural and correct result of our reason – which is the means of our survival, remember, so by using our reason, we produce, generally concrete value, preferably in the form of steel or coal or oil or a railroad. The pinnacle of our society, she says, our greatest accomplishment as a race—is New York City. This is also why the industrialists are the pinnacle of human achievement, because they are the most productive. I am not sure that everything that humans do qualifies as productive – if a scientific theory doesn’t lead to better steel or a faster car, is it productive? If not, does that make it evil or a waste of time? What about art? – and I am not sure that our purpose is to continue surviving through concrete productivity. More thought on this one, for me.

Silly idea: The United States of America is the greatest country in the history of the world because it was the only country founded on the idea that men should be free to use their reason and be independent individuals; all other countries are founded on random chance and evil institutions. Okay, sure, the Constitution is a genuinely special document, and the Founding Fathers were, in my opinion, some of the greatest political geniuses who ever lived, and we are the recipients of their genius; but that really doesn’t mean that every other country is a pile of shit, which is essentially what Rand says. Particularly not now, when a large number of modern nations have exactly the social and political structure that Rand claims is the only moral one – that is, capitalism (though of course, she wants it laissez-faire – but hell, America ain’t that, either.) and a foundation of individual rights. It’s American exceptionalism taken to an extreme, and it ignores both the flaws in this idealized nation and the successes of other nations. It’s silly. Though I guarantee that this is one of the reasons this book is so very popular among Americans. I should note that the book was written during the height of the Cold War, and Rand herself lived through the rise of the Soviet Union and suffered because of it; she was virulently anti-Socialist, and in the book, every other nation on Earth is socialist, and all of them are propped up by goods provided by the United States. So she might have been picking a very specific bone in a specific context; given the world of 2017, she might pick out a couple of other nations that are acceptable, the UK or Australia or Germany or South Korea or Japan.

Interesting idea: industrialists are the greatest contributors to our modern productivity. Through innovation and economic leadership, they add more to our productive capacity than anyone else, and therefore create more wealth and save more time, through freeing up people from menial labor, than anyone else in history. For this we should be grateful; instead we tend to castigate them as greedy, soulless robber barons. I hadn’t thought of industrialists this way, and I think there is validity to it (Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being, just as NYC is the ultimate achievement. I’m not there, but I can appreciate the things that industry has done for us. I’m glad I don’t have to spend my life behind a plow.). I know I have been hard on capitalists and industrialists and corporate men in the past, and this has made me realize I shouldn’t have been. Sure, of course some of them have been and are vile people; but just the fact of being a successful industrialist isn’t a crime, and shouldn’t be seen as morally reprehensible.

Needs more thought: the individual is better, in all ways, than the collective; altruism, which for Rand means sacrificing something of value for the sake of another person, is evil. This is the fundamental piece of the book’s philosophy that I have the most trouble with. The leader of the Men of the Mind has them all take an oath: “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The book argues that any gift is a sin, that the only moral interaction between people is voluntary trade, with value given for value and the consent of both parties. It is very clear that charity is evil: not only for those who ask for help, but also for those who grant help, unless it is part of a trade. Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch. She grants marriage the status of a trade largely because of sex; she says nothing about raising children. I don’t see how raising children can be anything but a gift from parent to child; I know I certainly can’t repay my parents for what they gave me. I suppose the possibility that I will care for them in their old age as they cared for me in my youth, but what if that doesn’t happen? Certainly it isn’t a debt that can be called in except under specific circumstances, and if it isn’t called in – isn’t that a gift?

Rand is also clear that only the person who owns a thing, a thought, an invention, a piece of property, should be permitted to judge what to do with it. Having any form of government or social control over an individual’s property is always theft. Only an individual can decide what to do with his mind, or the product of his mind; any attempt to coerce that individual is a denial of that individual’s rights, and also, interestingly, a denial of the coercer’s basic humanity: because when I claim that I need someone else to do something for me, to make a decision for me, then I am saying that I can’t make the decision for myself. I am denying my own rational capacity, which is, Rand says, what makes me human. (One of the unfortunate corollaries of this in the book is the idea that anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal. It gets a little tired.) The Men of the Mind in this book are always absolutely sure of their own individual decisions; everyone else can’t make a decision even when their lives depend on it. This theme is repeated so often that it turns first into a parody, and then into just repetitious drudgery. After 1070 pages of the non-awesome-people saying, “I don’t know what to do! I can’t decide! You decide for me!” and the awesome people lifting their mighty chins and saying, “No,” I wanted to freaking decide for them just to shut them up.

Point is: the idea that I have to choose what I do, that only I can choose for myself, that I must trust my own judgment over all others’; interesting idea. The argument that taxes, therefore, for any purpose other than police or courts or national defense are only theft of an individual’s property at the barrel of a gun – the libertarian ideal – still needs more thought for me, though this book did make me move a bit more libertarian and a bit less liberal, at least at the moment. The idea that this also means that I can’t ever give anything to anyone, that altruism is suicide, that EVERYTHING must be traded value for value – pretty freaking questionable.

Silly idea: All of the Men of the Mind are tall. All of them are slender, and all are white except for one Argentinian. Who’s pretty danged white, since he only speaks English, never spends time with anyone who isn’t a white American (Not when he’s in the actual narration. He does go back to Argentina, where he talks, presumably, to other Argentinians, but we never follow him there.), and has blue eyes. All of the Men of the Mind have light-colored eyes, blue or gray or green. A lot of ’em are blonde, though they are mostly tan, so not all white. But that doesn’t matter; we’re concerned with their abilities and their actions, not their appearance. Still, the book talks a whole lot about the good people being slender and the evil ones all being either pudgy or scrawny; the pattern is too consistent to be accidental, or anything other than specific intentional symbolism. And as a member of the House of Pudge, I found it annoying and distracting. Though I will note that Rand would have thought me evil. So maybe she was onto something.

Interesting idea: Happiness is the moral purpose of life. Our purpose in existing is to experience joy, the complete, fulfilling, guilt-free joy that comes with actually doing what we are meant to do. Now, this gets a little tangled around the idea of “purpose.” Our purpose as living things is to keep living, but that’s not enough for happiness; our means of living as humans is reason, but just thinking isn’t enough for happiness; our purpose in living is happiness. I’m not really sure how to parse those all out, but I like the idea that we exist to be joyful. Rand claims that our joy comes from the realization of our individual values, which I find more questionable – because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people – but still: joy good. Rather than “sacrifice to a greater good” being our source of true fulfillment, or a specific thing like raising a family, living a good Christian life, whatever – we should live to be happy. There are interesting implications of the idea, but mainly, I just like it.

Needs more thought: Existence exists, reality is real, A is A. This comes apparently from Aristotle, so isn’t properly Rand’s thought; but it is a major theme of this book, because the book claims repeatedly (exhaustingly, just like everything else in this book) that contradictions cannot exist, that when we think we see a contradiction, we are mistaken in one of our premises – and I am very glad that I don’t have to read, again, about the Men of the Mind emitting some manly condescending chuckle and saying, “Check your premises.” Buncha know-it-all smug-butts. Apart from that, though, this is the foundation of Rand’s epistemology, and apparently has a lot to do with her criticism of modern society. It seems we make shit up a lot, and act as though it is real; in so doing, we create contradictions, and then either ignore them even as they break down our ability to progress, or use the contradiction we have created as evidence that there is nothing absolute in life, that everything is relative, which leads eventually to nihilism.

It isn’t so much that I question this tenet. It’s more that I question the converse which Rand is criticizing. It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought – the idea of Original Sin, the doctrine that knowledge of good and evil led to man’s fall from paradise, the idea that suffering in life leads to bliss in the afterlife, and the basic sundering of spirit from body – and I don’t agree with any of that. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.

I also question the idea that there can’t be contradictions. I think maybe there can be. I get the idea that it is probably because of a mistaken assumption; when I teach paradox, I generally point out that most paradoxes rely on a specific perspective, and if you change the perspective you eliminate the paradox, which is that “Check your premises” shtick. But there are contradictions that, even if we know it is a mistake in perspective, we can’t resolve. Modern physics, for instance: Schrodinger’s cat leaps to mind. Telling me to check my premises isn’t going to fix that problem. So this one needs more thought.

Silly idea: all smart people think alike. Okay: Rand was trying to make a philosophical point about the ideal Man. Her ideal Man is an industrialist, an extremely productive person. Okay, sure. The thing is: none of the Men of the Mind are drunks. None of them are teetotalers. All of them smoke. (There is a TON of smoking in this book. Pretty funny, really.) None of them are bipolar, or manic-depressive, or have traumatic pasts. None of them are cantankerous, or impolite, or smelly; none of them habitually refuse to wear pants or eat nothing but cornbread. None of them are even gay, which would seem like the simplest way to have some variety in the characters, if you don’t go for the equally obvious choice of having a couple of them not be honkies. They all love classical music – not a jazz fan, or a blues fan, or a country and western fan in the bunch. They all believe in the value of money, and in the essential goodness of capitalism, and of productivity. They are all rationalists. When the leader tells them his secret, none of them disagree, or refuse to join the strike. (I should say: one of the real main characters, probably the most important character in the book, does refuse to join the strike. But she does it while agreeing with everything the strikers believe. Even she doesn’t think differently; she’s just more optimistic, or less beaten up by the world, than the rest of them. She’s also pretty much the only woman. Coincidence?!?) None of them are vegetarians. None of them have pets. All of them are open-minded about the same things. All of them feel the same way about everything. Now, that level of conformity follows logically from an ideal based only on a couple of very simple tenets – A is A, man is rational, only trading can be moral – but it really undercuts the message of individualism. I think it’s pretty well exemplified by the fact that at least four of the Men of the Mind are all in love with the same woman, the one female main character, the railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart. (By the way: Rand has some spectacular character names, particularly among the bad guys; but a lot of her heroes have really dumb names. Midas Mulligan is one of the dumbest. Ragnar Danneskjold and Francisco d’Anconia are fine, but a bit of a mouthful. Ellis Wyatt and John Galt are good. But Dagny Taggart? Yick.) And even though she chooses only one of them in the end, they are all perfectly happy for her, and perfectly at peace with all of their rivals for her affection. Come on: not one of them is petty? I mean, we’re all rational beings, sure, but we’re still human.

Idea that I want to label as silly but Rand seems really damn sure of it so maybe it needs more thought: compromise is evil. When John Galt speaks at the end of the book and reveals an encapsulated version of Rand’s philosophy which this book is supposed to represent, he talks about morality and right and wrong. And he says that the people in the middle of a moral argument are the worst people, the greatest evil. Someone who takes the wrong side is at least taking a side, even if they are wrong about it; people who want to compromise are the real villains. So for me, this is complete bullshit; compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other. But this book is one large slippery-slope argument; the looters – like me, with my support for taxes and public welfare – have survived as long as we have while leeching off of the Men of the Mind because the M.o.t.M. are willing to compromise with us. They give us a little; then we ask for a little more. They give us more; we ask for the rest. They give us the rest; we ask for their lives. The book depicts this as inevitable, and the only solution is what the M.o.t.M. do in this book: they stop it dead, they walk away, they say “No more!” and go on strike. Leaving all of us looters to die in chaos and bloodshed, whining pathetically that it’s all their fault.

Now, as a public school teacher, I understand the danger of a slippery slope. My school is always asking me for a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. It does seem as though taxes just keep going up and up; the American Revolution was fought over a tax burden of about 1-3% of total income. But the fact that compromise shifts you off of your extreme position doesn’t mean that you can no longer make a stand: it means you have to select a new position somewhere more towards the middle, and stand there. Whether you stand on the far side or three steps in from the edge makes no difference; in either case, the strength of your stance is the same, whatever determination you can muster to maintaining that position. The difference is that a position somewhere in the middle acknowledges that other people have minds, as well, and probably have a point in their argument; believing Rand’s argument that I must trust my judgment above anyone else’s doesn’t mean I never listen to anything anyone else says, ever. And it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to get along with other humans, which requires compromise. Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.

Since I have to take an extreme position, though, I’m going to call this idea silly.

 

In the end I think there are better ways to get the same set of ideas, rather than reading this book. Then again, the book is still selling, still being read; maybe this really is the best form of the argument. Maybe there’s something good here that I missed, or didn’t appreciate. I will note that if you happen to be a tall, thin, money-loving independent American businessman, then accepting the ideas in this book would make you the pinnacle of humanity and the source of all good things in the world: that is a very attractive reason to think Rand has a point. If you are one of those.

But as a liberal, moderate, government employee, and member of the unproductive bourgeois, I guess I’m not one of the Men of the Mind. That’s okay: I don’t want to die, as every other character in the book does when society collapses and returns to the Dark Ages; but I also wouldn’t want to hang out with those people. They don’t read enough. And clearly, I read too much.

 

COROLLARY  DISCUSSION:

After I posted a link to this on Facebook, a friend and former teaching colleague of mine, who has spent far more time reading and thinking about Rand’s work than I have, commented on that link about this review/explanation of Atlas Shrugged. Her comments came in two parts because of the permissible size of Facebook comments (I had to do the same thing in my reply to her); I responded to the first half but not the second, and then she replied to me. All of that discussion is below; I’m appending it because her explanations of Rand’s thoughts and the corrections she made to my above explanations are both important and useful. There are still some things I disagree with, and still things that require more thought; the second half of her initial response requires more reading of Rand’s non-fiction, which I plan to get to eventually, and until I do there’s no point in continuing our discussion of compromise — but it’s going to end up being a sticking point, I think. At any rate, if you read this post, please do go on and read this discussion: it is very helpful. Any further discussion is entirely welcome in the comments.

The only formatting change I’m going to make is to mark quotations we both used. All her quotations are from me; I quoted myself and her response, and marked it as such. The name-links lead to our respective Facebook pages.

 

Jessica Porter Dusty, I enjoyed reading your take on Atlas Shrugged. Your review is more thoughtful than many I have read. I first read Atlas Shrugged about three years ago and have spent a considerable amount of time since then mulling things over and sorting through the different pieces of Rand’s philosophy to see if they stand. Your review is fair in some areas but off in others. There are several places in particular where the book’s big ideas are not quite accurately represented—and since many people are never actually going to read Atlas Shrugged but will look to reviews like this for a summary instead, I think it’s only fair to push back on a few things.
__________________

 

“The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”

-This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

“Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

-This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

“The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

-No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

“Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

-It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

“Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

-Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Jessica Porter

“Because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people “

-A valid question, yet this overlooks the fact that rationality and reason are absolute requirements for true happiness. Galt sums it up well when he says, “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.” I am no expert on Jeffrey Dahmer, but I doubt very much that Dahmer’s actions fall into the category of non-contradictory, non-destructive joy. I suspect one would find a great number of contradictions in Dahmer’s personal philosophy.

“It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought …. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.”

-If you don’t think that Rand’s label of evil applies to you, then why are you sure that throughout the entire book, she is saying you are a horrible person? I don’t think Rand’s criticism is so much against Christianity as it is against the altruist morality, which is 100% not exclusive to Christianity. Rand’s background was an atheist dictatorship rather than a Christian one, and as far as I know, she reviled and wanted to destroy socialism much more so than she did Christianity (although she hated Christianity as well). What makes you think that her philosophical criticisms are targeted primarily at Christian dogma?

“Compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other.”

-I recommend that you read the essay, “The Anatomy of Compromise” by Rand.

“Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.”

-Where does Rand say that life should be a constant competition and that if you aren’t a winner, you should get the hell out of the way? That is not an idea I have encountered in my readings of Rand. Where are you getting this? She definitely does not shy away from judging people, but nowhere does she advise against thinking through other people’s ideas, having friends, acknowledging that other people have minds, and pursuing the values that are unique to you personally (not everyone is a steel magnate). You frame this as if Rand is some sort of non-human Nazi with a riding crop incapable of living any sort of thoughtful life with other human beings. That, I think, is a bit of a caricature. You have to take the whole of Rand’s philosophy into account, where there is plenty of room for love, connection, and thought. Compromise, not so much, but again, you should read “The Anatomy of Compromise” for more details.

 

Theoden Humphrey

Me in blog:'”The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”‘

You: -This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

Me now: You’re right, I should have included the concept of justice and injustice; it is critical to Rand’s explanation of this situation. I don’t know that I agree with her description of society’s treatment of producers, that the injustice of a trade imbalance, as you describe it, leads to contempt, derision, and threats; I suppose that is the distinction, that it is evildoers like Taggart who take us from – can I say “mere injustice?” I don’t mean to belittle the problem, but I do see a distinction between the injustice involved in taking the production of people, and doubling down on that injustice by offering them contempt, derision and threats. Taggart and his ilk take it to that point. Society – “only” – steals from the producers. I should have talked about the theft.

I don’t know that I saw that critical distinction about thought and focus being enough to earn Rand’s approbation. Yes, Taggart seeks non-thought, I saw that; but I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable. There is a set of evildoers who are the real villains – but the workers at the 20th Century Plant, and the citizens of Starnesville who return to savagery as a result of what Jed Starnes’s heirs do, are not good. They are not as villainous as those heirs, and the guy at the end, the drifter with the clean collar – is it Jeff Allen? – whom Dagny gives a job to, is clearly one of those people who has done wrong by participating in the corruption of the 20th Century plant, but is trying to do better now, and he receives positive treatment from Dagny and from Rand. So I see what you’re saying. But he seemed the exception. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general. It seemed like ignorance was not much of an excuse. Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.

Me in blog: “Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

You: -This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

Me now: I was confused by the idea of purpose in this book. The achievement of personal happiness comes from achievement of values, which requires some form of production; doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it? I got lost in the idea of what is good and what is purposeful and what is valuable. I’m not explaining my confusion well, I know. I do understand that industrial production is not the key, but it is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art. She has a doctor character in Galt’s Gulch, so it isn’t that industrialists are the only good men – but it seemed like they were the best men. I see your point about Galt’s various qualities, but there is also the point that he specifically avoids academia to go work for a commercial, industrial concern; isn’t there a higher value, then, placed on that sphere of activity? You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?

Theoden Humphrey Me in blog: “The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

You: -No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

Me now: Okay, yes, but if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift. If it is better for me to use the word “sacrifice,” so as not to taint the idea of gift-giving, then sure; I’m not trying to critique Rand by saying “She’s against BIRTHDAY PRESENTS!” I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.

Me in blog: “Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

You: -It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

Me now: Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?

I think I’m having trouble understanding the distinction between trading value for value, and acting in a kind way in order to receive emotional rewards – or rather, I think there’s a distinction there that Rand maybe wouldn’t make. Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings. Like that last sentence: I see it as wrong because I said “to feel incorrect.” I know, happiness is the goal, and so if parenting brings true happiness, then that is value returned for the sacrifice (But it isn’t a sacrifice if it makes me happy. Still confused about which word to use.). But it doesn’t come from the kid, it comes from the existence of the kid; the kid doesn’t return value specifically. It’s not a trade. I think I see your point, but it is confusing.

Me in blog: “Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

You: -Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Me now: What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?

You’re right about Eddie Willers, and Cherryl Taggart is another one. I do not think that it is simply a dichotomy of John Galt and James Taggart. But Eddie and Cherryl both die when everything falls apart, so I dunno – didn’t seem like they were all that positive as role models for the reader. I had trouble discerning where the criticism of the looters ended and the – what, the pity? – for the regular folks who weren’t either the villains or the victims began. I wasn’t sure how much the regular folks should have been working to avoid the villainy of the looters. Are they villains to some extent because they allow the looters to control the government? Because they vote for the government officials, because they believe the propaganda, and they are not always properly grateful to the men of the mind? Because they don’t understand what the men of the mind understand?

And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it? I have no idea how to answer that, in any case. Don’t know how to step out of my own perceptions and critique them. I will say I have no idea how Rand would have seen me (I’m pretty sure I’m not a villain, but I am not a hero. I do not know if Rand would have seen me as rational. Please don’t answer that for me; I am going to continue reading Rand and figure it out for myself.), and that probably contributes to my overall confusion here. I did say a lot of this needs more thought.

Jessica Porter

1. “I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable…. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general….Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.”

I agree with you that the book is not centered around lazy, weak, incapable people seeking to be better who are painted as noble. You are right about that. But Rand’s book is primarily a novel with a plot, and just because she doesn’t place many characters like that within this particular plot, that doesn’t mean anything in any moral sense about those characters. Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel; it doesn’t seek to answer every question of Objectivism, cross every T, and refute every objection that could ever exist. There is much that goes unaddressed. Weak people trying to be better would be one of those things that Rand does not focus on in this book, although she addresses moral questions related to that in her other writings. But mostly, my point here is that just because Rand’s world in this particular novel does not include a specific thing that you are interested in or an idea that you want to see doesn’t mean that her philosophy rejects that thing. You probably wouldn’t write a pirate novel, for example, with large chapters focused on the pirate captain’s many children growing up alone without a father on an exotic island somewhere if their story didn’t contribute to the book you were trying to write. As a side note, Rand expressed in her theory of aesthetics that in any work of art, absolutely every element is and must be essential. And this, I think, is why weak yet noble characters are de-emphasized in A.S. They are just not relevant to the story Rand wanted to write, and I don’t think it’s useful to draw moral conclusions from their absence.

Also, you are right that characters like Eddie, the train hobo, and Cherryl are exceptions and that Rand expresses general criticism toward most of the Joe Schmos in the book. I think this is because Rand’s view of the average person is that most people just kind of go with the flow while the leaders set the tone for a society. Rand thought that most folks take their philosophical and political cues from the leaders and repeat whatever the leaders emit. But if the moral leaders of the day are James Taggart and his ilk and are setting the tone for the millions under them, people will likely behave badly. But that is more a tragedy of circumstance than it is a moral failing, I think. To what extent it is a moral failing, though—that is not addressed in A.S. as far as I can remember. I think the resentment you are reading in Rand’s tone has more to do with the worldview the common people have accepted from their leaders than with the fact that they are not industrialists or producers like Galt. There are two classes of people that I think you might be conflating: actual looters (people who actively contribute to and participate in stealing from the producers and create moral justification for doing so) and low-level producers (who don’t participate in politics and just do their low level jobs every day). It’s the first group, the people who forward along the looting meme, that Rand really has a hard time with.

And finally: “Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy.” In Rand’s universe, unlike in the Christian moral universe, for example, people don’t necessarily get what’s coming to them in the moral sense. There is no karma (although her heroes always win—but that’s a different topic, I think). Rand’s point is not that what happens to people is what is just. I think her point is more that what happens to people is a combination of their personal effort, luck, their environmental circumstances, and the kind of society that they live in. So, when good people like Eddie suffer and die, Eddie doesn’t suffer because he is ignoble, he suffers because the society of Atlas Shrugged is impossible to live in.

2. “Doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it?”

Well, yes. It is. I thought that you were trying to say that industrial production in a sterile, pre-selected, universal sense, is the collective purpose of humanity, and that industrialists are morally superior to every other kind of person in Rand’s view. I guess it really just depends on what you mean by production, and I was not sure what you meant. For Rand, production really just means, “the application of reason to the problem of survival.” Or, to quote her further (this is one of my favorite quotes on this subject), “Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes—which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification—which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.“ So, yes. Production in this sense would be a necessary component of any full, human life.

3. “It is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art…..You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?””

Rand’s point in A.S. is not that industrialists as human beings are morally superior to doctors and artists; rather, her point is that society does not recognize the enormous value that innovators have added to the world. In Rand’s view, all rational people are equally moral, but in a purely quantitative sense (entirely removed from the realm of morality) industrialists and innovators have been humanity’s greatest benefactors (after philosophers and perhaps artists). But people already know that philosophers and artists provide us with great ideas and inspiring works. Philosophers and artists are much less controversial than industrialists, who are painted as greedy, exploitative, unfeeling robber barons who love to watch children go hungry if it pads their wallets. Because of the efforts of a few great innovators (great in the sense that what they did was extraordinarily helpful to the lives of others, not great in the sense that they are more moral than any other rational person), the world is exponentially easier and more pleasant to live in. This is just a matter of economic fact, and it is a fact that was particularly important to Rand, as she saw society as completely overlooking this. Take for example, the person who invented modern agronomy: Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s contributions, and others made billions of lives possible at the most basic level: he made it possible for them to eat. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand is trying to dramatize the millions of people starving that we in our non-Atlas Shrugged world didn’t have to see because of contributions like Norman Borlaug’s. So, yes, she does elevate industrialists, but she does so in order to reveal them as benefactors, not to christen them as the moral gods of humanity. And she does this because people do not commonly see it.

Jessica Porter

4. “But if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift…. I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.”

Really? Then is it not a gift if I treat my mom to a tour of the Japanese Gardens on Mother’s Day and then give her a gift card to the gardening store? I get a huge return of value from that—I love to see my mom feel loved and happy. Creating a situation where I get to make my mom’s life a little happier brings a lot of value to me because a world where my mom is happy is a world I want to be in. If I hated my mom, though, and if I bought her flowers for Mother’s Day even though I resent her for every moment of my childhood, would that be a proper gift according to your definition? If I were to take my mom to the Japanese Gardens and then say, “But you have to pay for lunch so that we are even,” then I would agree with you that that is not a gift. But in Rand’s world, it’s not that there is some God of Value-for-Value Payments hanging out in the sky calculating who owes what to whom. It’s more that each individual should act for her own benefit. She should do things that make the world more like a place she wants to live. If giving a gift to someone makes the world better for you, then giving that gift is not a sacrifice. It doesn’t matter where the “payback” comes from or what sort of currency it’s in. All that matters is that you receive some value from giving the thing and that you aren’t trading a higher value away to the universe for a lesser one. It does not matter where the value comes from (whether it comes from the exact person you gave the gift to or not).

5. “Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?”

I am a bit confused by your confusion. First you say that you don’t see how love-based relationships can be fundamentally selfish rather than altruistic. But then you say that you disagree with the definition of altruism in the dictionary, and you think of altruism as meaning something other than what Rand is saying that it means. (“Kindness” is not at all what Rand is talking about when she talks about altruism, just like a stingy lack of regard for others is not what she means when she talks about selfishness.) And then you say that people do enter into relationships because people gain rewards from relationships. And then you ask whether Lillian Rearden is a realistic character. I am not quite following. Rand is pretty clear about what she means by altruism and what she means by selfishness. And if people enter into love relationships because they gain rewards and they want to be kind to their loved one….then isn’t that an internally consistent way of framing selfishness? Why would the existence of a non-abusive, non-value-for-value marriage be relevant here?

6. “Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings.”

It’s not acting on feelings that Rand condemns, but acting on feelings as a primary. Emotions are supposed to be the shortcut to knowing how to respond to the world; there’s supposed to be reasoned-out values bolstering them from below. Rand condemns those who respond to the world from feelings that they themselves do not understand and do not want to understand. Feelings themselves are not being criticized. What’s being criticized is irrational action based on unexamined emotion.

7. “What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?”

Non-sacrificial charity would be the same thing as taking your mom to the Japanese Gardens and paying for lunch because her happiness makes you happy. Or giving money to a cause you believe in because doing so contributes to the world becoming more of the place you want it to be. It is giving away a value in order to receive an equal or greater value without expecting something in trade from the person who receives the gift.

8. “And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it?”

I don’t mean that you should not read the book with your concerns and worldview in mind, and I especially don’t mean to say that you must be expressing your own feelings of guilt. Not at all. I do mean that the concerns you (or anyone) brings to a book this challenging can obscure what Rand is actually getting at. If we take for granted, for example, that altruism is just kindness based on a sort of vague, culturally absorbed definition, then Rand’s treatment of altruism will probably seem contradictory or bizarre, but it isn’t either of those things. But it can be difficult to see what Rand is talking about at times if a person is not able to set aside the culturally-absorbed definition of altruism, for example. I say this after having personally struggled a lot with my own concerns clouding my ability to really follow some of Rand’s ideas all the way to the end at first. So, I did not mean any insult. If I offended, it was not intended.

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

by Ayn Rand

 

My god.

Now: I’m a word guy, a writer and a literature teacher, so I read quickly. I enjoy it, so I dedicate a lot of my free time to it. I’m a high school teacher and it’s summertime, so I have a lot of free time. I’ve been averaging about a book a day since school ended.

Until I hit this one.

1070 pages of some of the smallest print I’ve seen outside of User Agreements. 562,000 words, according to the Indefeasible blog. For scale, that is 25,000 words less than War and Peace by Tolstoy, and 400,000 words more than The Grapes of Wrath, the longest book I’ve ever tried to teach. It is equivalent to 12.186 Fahrenheit 451s.

This took me eight days to read. I spend at least 3-4 hours a day reading, too. It was a tough slog, too; because it is a philosophical treatise as much as it is a novel, I had to concentrate on the ideas harder than I would on, say, a book from The Wheel of Time or Harry Potter. I did it because the book was recommended as an important first step in understanding a former colleague and debate opponent’s worldview, which he describes as Aristotelian and bears a lot of resemblance to Rand’s philosophy, which she called Objectivism. I wanted to understand his worldview because his ideas are different from mine, and he is very, very sure of his positions and opinions; so I wanted to know from whence came his surety, and if I could and should be thinking along the same lines. So I read the book.

It made me think lots of interesting things. It really did: it made me realize that there are some things that I have done (like mock and castigate industrialists – in my case my favorite target was Bill Gates) that I shouldn’t have done, some things that I do that I shouldn’t do (like use words ambiguously, or symbolically, with little concern for their actual meaning), and some things that I haven’t done that I should do (like think about what my purpose in life really is, and why). There are some parts of the philosophy espoused and exemplified that I find interesting, and that I plan to investigate further and perhaps even adopt, if I can verify that they work for me.

However: reading this book was not worth it. Even with my personal interest in knowing what it has to say, I got so bloody tired of reading it that for the last three days, I had to work twice as hard to pay attention – and since I had to work twice as hard as normal to pay attention in the first place, this has been a mentally draining task. I did it, though, and now I’m here to tell you: don’t do it.

Rand was not a good writer. I’ve read three of her books now, and while this one was leagues better than Anthem, that’s like saying that shaving with a chipped-flint spearhead is better than shaving with sandpaper: you still wouldn’t want to do it. I read The Fountainhead in high school, so I don’t remember it well; once I’ve recovered sufficiently from this one, I may read that one. I dunno, though. It’s only 311,000 words, but that’s still two Grapes of Wrath.

That’s the biggest problem. She used too many words. And I say that as a wordy writer, which I am; my first book was 200,000 words. But she repeats things too many times, unnecessarily, as though using five words to describe something makes up for the fact that she is telling and not showing; and when she explains them, she uses too many synonyms and appositives. As a random sample from a page I just flipped to:

The scream of an alarm siren shattered the space beyond the window and shot like a rocket in a long, thin line to the sky. It held for an instant, then fell, then went on in rising, falling spirals of sound, as if fighting for breath against terror to scream louder. It was the shriek of agony, the call for help, the voice of the mills as of a wounded body crying to hold its soul.

So there was an alarm, then. You know, just the word “alarm” implies that it was bad, and “scream” implies fear; you could basically say this same paragraph in three words:

An alarm screamed.

Now of course repetition creates emphasis, which is presumably the point of the extended description; but there doesn’t seem to be anything in this book that Rand doesn’t want to emphasize – which means, of course, that nothing is really emphasized, because all of it seems almost like – well, like a screaming alarm siren fighting for breath, crying to hold its soul. By the end of this book I was very tired of being yelled at. I can’t imagine how fatiguing a conversation with this woman must have been.

In addition, the level of rage leveled at people like me – political liberals, that is, which means Rand saw me as a looter, a moocher, a liar, a coward, a fool, a murderer, a thug, and the destruction of humanity – was just as exhausting. I knew going in that there was a critical speech at the end, when John Galt speaks (No spoilers – that’s the name of the chapter, “This is John Galt speaking.”), which explained the whole worldview being dramatized in this book; but the problem was that most of what Galt says had already been said by the narrator or one of the other characters. I probably could have just read Galt’s speech and skipped the rest of the book. I would have been happier, too, because Galt carries the deepest anger, the most righteous condemnation of anyone who would support, you know, taxes and welfare and stuff. So I had to read that after reading another 900 pages of pretty much the same stuff, just not quite as angry as when Galt says it. I got really tired of being insulted so many times, and with such bile.

I will also say that, while the story itself is interesting (though much too long) and, I think, disturbingly realistic, the characters are not. Not that I think Rand’s idealized hero-industrialists are absurd; I mean, they are, but they are absurd the same way that Tom Brady or Michael Jordan is absurd, or William Shakespeare, or Isaac Newton, or Michelangelo or Mozart: nobody should be that good at what they do. But as all those names (Just the first few to come to mind. Of course there are many more examples.) show, people really are that good at what they do. It is possible. No, these characters are unrealistic in the way they read each others’ expressions. Like this:

The suggestion of a smile on Mrs. Hastings’ face held sadness, but the face had no imprint of tragedy, only a grave look of firmness, acceptance and quiet serenity.

Picture that face, that smile, in your mind. Okay, that’s good, just the suggestion of a smile . . . No! No imprint of tragedy. That’s better – but it needs a little more firmness in that look of quiet serenity. Got it, now? Or this:

There was the faintest coating of mockery spread, like shellac, over the smooth notes of her voice.

I mean, I like that, it’s a nice phrase – but what the hell does that sound like? And how would someone pick up on it?

These aren’t the best examples, the best examples are when someone heroic looks into the face of one of the villains and sees what they intend to show, along with what they’re hiding, and also what they are unaware they are really feeling; but I didn’t want to spend the time looking through the book to find one. It took me long enough to find these examples.

There are thoughts worth thinking in this book. I intend to spend more time thinking about those ideas. But good grief: I have already spent enough time reading this book. No more.

Book Review: The Naked Ape

The Naked Ape

by Desmond Morris

I’ve been carrying this one around for a while, never sure how much I actually wanted to read it; the cover talks about how explosive and controversial the book is, and that’s cool, but it was published in 1967, so it’s unlikely the controversy would still feel controversial, and might not even feel interesting. I had no idea what to expect from a book about human sexuality and interpersonal relationships from an evolutionary standpoint.

Turns out it was what I should have expected: this book (I’m sure it’s not the only source) was where the ideas were codified that people still repeat in terms of the evolution of humanity. This is where you can read about how men are hunters, while women are caregivers, so that humans have created pair-bonds of unusual strength so that the men can go out and hunt while the women stay home and care for the children, and both can trust that the other won’t go out pair-bonding with some tramp or the hunter next door.

This is where you can read about everything about humans is designed specifically for sex: we have tiny hair (Despite the title, we actually aren’t less hairy than other apes; it’s just that our hairs are mostly really tiny – at least for Caucasians like me. Africans, Asians, and Native Americans are indeed less hairy than monkeys. Maybe instead of Honkies, we should be Hairies. Heh.) so that we can enjoy touching each other more; we have earlobes so that we can enjoy more variety of erogenous zones; women have breasts because men can’t see their butts from the front, and poofy red lips because – never mind. He also comments (and this little factoid is repeated in the Wikipedia article on the book —  can’t imagine why this one should be the one people pick out in describing the book) that humans have the biggest penises out of all the primates. Fancy that.

This book explains everything. Unfortunately, almost every single word of it is speculative. It’s funny, because there’s a point in the beginning when Morris scoffs at one particular theory which was made without direct evidence; and then he proceeds to spin theory after theory without even a scrap of direct evidence for any of them. (Because I thought it was interesting: the theory Morris scoffs at is the explanation that we lost our coarse body hair because in between the fruit-eating monkey we once were and the savannah-living hunter/gatherer hominid we became, there might have been a coastal/aquatic stage, when the monkeys discovered the abundance of rich food at the seashore. This might explain the evolution of hairlessness, as a means of streamlining in the water; this fits because the body hair that remains actually mimics the pattern of water flowing over a swimming body. It also explains our hands being wide and flat and paddle-like. It’s an interesting theory. It’s a better one than “We have earlobes so we don’t cheat on each other when we’re out hunting!”) Morris has a fair amount of negative evidence that he derives from the animals he knows so well (Morris was a zoologist and zookeeper); so the explanation that human women’s breasts don’t need to be large for the sake of nursing, because chimpanzees breastfeed but have essentially flat chests, makes sense; but the idea that they are therefore specifically erogenous because breasts, nipples, and areolae swell during sexual excitement, and particularly the idea that they are meant to imitate the buttocks because humans mate face-to-face, are entirely speculative and really pretty ridiculous. (I have to recommend this song, particularly the last verse; beware, it is not safe for work.)

Probably the most amusing thing in reading this book – other than the smutty dirty parts, which are always fun to read (and this book talks A LOT about sex) – was the glib way Morris plays up his own ethnocentrism. He mocks other ethnologists and anthropologists who study small, extraordinary populations, claiming that the real information should come from a study of the mainstream, “most successful” version of humanity – which, he assures us, is clearly the Western European and American culture. Just look how many of us there are! Obviously we’re the best and most normal human. (And again there is a remarkably oblivious hypocrisy in this, because Morris goes on to talk several times about rare and unusual ape behavior or traits as analogous explanations of human behavior; the breasts-as-front-facing-buttocks thing comes partly from one particular type of baboon that has a similar adaptation. One type of one species of ape. “Who would think it was a good idea to study small and atypical populations to understand a whole species? Ridiculous!”) It was fascinating because I know that at the time, the book was seen as incredibly radical and liberal and offensive, arguing as it did that our tendency to pick a single mate for life is evolved, not set down as right and good by Almighty God, et cetera; but now, the stances it espouses are become almost entirely conservative: American is the best kind of human; the family should stay as a single unit; the man should work outside the home (modern version of hunting, Morris tells us several times — and describes how men are always competitive, seeking “the kill” in their business lives because we don’t hunt mammoths any more. Not sure what “the kill” is for a high school teacher…) while the woman raises the children; the best sexual position is face-to-face, probably missionary style – “Good old-fashioned, man-on-top-get-it-over-with-quick,” to quote George Carlin. I wonder what Morris would have made of the current ideas about gender. Since he talks about how homosexuality is an evolutionary failure and therefore anomalous, I have a guess.

Overall, it was more interesting in terms of what it said about the author and the culture he was writing in, than in what the book actually purports to explain. As an ethnologic artifact, it’s not bad; as an explanation of humanity, I wasn’t impressed.

Book Review: My Man Jeeves

(Note: this is not the cover of the edition I read; but this one is awesome.)

My Man Jeeves

by P.G. Wodehouse

This is the second Jeeves book I’ve read. I liked it, but not as much as the first. If you don’t know P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, then here’s the basic setup: Jeeves is a butler who works for a – toff? Is that the word? – an upper-class British gentleman by the name of Bertie Wooster. Bertie is a lovable dolt who has a tremendous amount of money and even more friends; because he has all this money, he has no need to do anything with himself other than buy new clothes and attend social events, which is pretty much all that happens in these stories. Unless one of Bertie’s friends gets in trouble: then Bertie springs into action. Because Bertie has a heart of gold, which is one of the charming things about these books; as much of a dolt as Bertie is, he really is a lovable one. More important for the stories and for Bertie’s friends, Bertie has a secret weapon: Jeeves. When I say “Bertie springs into action,” I mean he turns to his butler and asks him what he thinks they should do. Jeeves is a genius, and no matter how delicate or intractable the problem is that Bertie brings to him, Jeeves inevitably finds the solution. The stories work because Bertie is more appealing than all of his doofus friends, who are dolts without the golden tickers; because Jeeves is fantastic, both in his unflappable-British-butler demeanor and in his solutions, which all rely on common sense and logic more than a Sherlock-Holmes-ian insight. They also work because Wodehouse was a fantastic writer, a splendid craftsman who writes some of the best dialogue I know, and who can use slang better than anyone I can think of – which is hilarious, because it’s Jazz Age upper-class British slang, and it’s fabulous. They’re basically the lightest-hearted mystery stories I know, with the mysteries being things like, “Jeeves, my chum Reggie has to convince his rich uncle that he is married, but not to his actual wife,” rather than “Who killed that family of four” or “Who stole the Hope Diamond?” Basically, they are adorable. They are also an amusing commentary on the worthlessness – but also the essential harmlessness – of the bourgeoisie, and the wisdom of the working class, the value of street smarts, so to speak. Though it is very clear in the books that Jeeves is the only one of these two who reads.

As for this book I read, I’m not actually sure if this is an original publication; it’s an on-demand printing, with absolutely no extraneous information; no back cover, no book jacket, no author bio, no list of other works by Wodehouse or titles in the Jeeves series. It’s possible this is like a book club knock-off collection, in some way, or one of those Hey-the-author-died-but-here-are-half-a-dozen-obscure-stories kind of “new” title in a classic series.

Because that’s what this is: a half a dozen short stories by Wodehouse. Three of them aren’t even Bertie Wooster/Jeeves stories, which was a bit disappointing. They were still Wodehouse, so they were good, and the character – one Reggie Pepper – was almost exactly like Bertie in that he was an upper class idler with a trust fund and not a whole lot of brains. But without Jeeves there to bring about resolution, the story becomes a bunch of upper-class dolts fumbling around until something happens, which is not nearly as fun. The Jeeves stories in this book were great, but I do wonder if there is some other edition or title that has these same stories out there; in which case, don’t worry about getting this particular one. But do go out and read you some P.G. Wodehouse. I highly recommend it.

 

**Note: Having looked at some Amazon reviews of this book, turns out these are the very first Jeeves stories, when Wodehouse was still working out his characters and style and all; Reggie Pepper was an early version of Bertie Wooster, and not nearly as cool as the final product. These stories were re-written later, and re-published in a different book. The fact that this is the first Jeeves book is, I now remember, entirely why I got this one. So I’d recommend giving this edition a miss and looking for something else. I have a few other Jeeves books; I’ll read them and figure out if it’s important to go chronologically. I doubt it.