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BOOK REVIEW: Edward W. Younkins, Editor, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion (Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, Hampshire, UK 2007) 431 pages, $24.95 (paperback).
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a collection of thirty-six essays on Rand’s monumental novel and its meaning. The essays range from basic primers and plot summaries—competent book reports, more than anything else—to romps by scholars exercising their favorite theoretical hobby horses. Most of the writers are not literary scholars, nor is the editor: Edward Younkins is a professor of accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. So the book is not a piece of literary scholarship as the term is currently understood—most of the essays focus on political economy, philosophy, or practical psychology. And though a kind of love for the novel is present in all the essays, the result is a big, mixed bag.
The best essays in the collection offer insightful analysis: They accurately represent Rand’s distinctive worldview while bringing something new to the table, such as a fresh perspective or a connection between Rand’s work and other literature, philosophy, or social theory. In this way, they allow people familiar with Rand’s work to approach it anew, and they encourage those who don’t know Rand well to inquire further.
In “Forced to Rule,” philosopher Roderick Long looks at how Atlas Shrugged may have been in part a response to Plato’s dialogue the Republic. The Republic portrays a collectivist utopia where material life and education are sharply controlled by the government. All must act from duty, not self-interest—even the rulers, who should be wise men forced to rule against their inclinations. Long points out that this is strange, since Plato’s ethics appear to focus on individual flourishing. How can there be individual happiness without any freedom? But Plato was a dualist, holding that real knowledge, truth, and virtue proceed from a realm of Ideas only dimly reflected in material reality, and this made him pessimistic about practical affairs. Long shows how Ayn Rand strikes back at this conception of man in Atlas Shrugged and details implicit references to Plato in the text. Ayn Rand rejected the dichotomy of mind versus body and its attendant splits of spirit versus matter, love versus sex, and art versus engineering. In the climax of Atlas, Rand put Plato’s doctrine to the test as the villains try to torture John Galt—the best and wisest of men, “an engineer and philosopher”—to make him rule them. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work.)
In an essay subtitled “Virtuous Sexuality in Atlas Shrugged ,” anthropologist Susan Love Brown argues that Rand’s view of sex developed over the course of her career. Rand always presented sex as channeled violence and a dance of dominance and submission. But in Atlas, Brown says, we see a philosophical view of sex as a “celebration of life” that was not fully present before. It’s an aspect of the novel’s theme of mind-body unity: Sexual desire should be a response to the whole person one loves—physical traits, of course, but mental traits, too, such as intelligence and virtuousness. Also, sex should be based on particular knowledge of the loved one. In Rand’s earlier novels, the characters make full sexual commitments based on a love-at-first-sight perception. In The Fountainhead , hero Howard Roark sexually assaults his lover Dominique Francon, certain that’s just what she wants—though she doesn’t know it herself. Contrast this with the sexual affairs of heroine Dagny Taggart in Atlas: Dagny knows each of her lovers well before sleeping with them.
In a related meditation, “Friendship in Atlas Shrugged ,” avocational Rand scholar Peter Saint-Andre puts some of the friendships in the novel under critical scrutiny, bringing to bear a wide reading of the psychological and philosophical literature on friendship. Like several of the writers in this book, Saint-Andre finds Rand’s ideal man, John Galt, too much like a god, and he finds Galt’s friendships unbalanced. Even his two closest friends seem to worship and follow him. That doesn’t sound healthy. But one of those strikers, Francisco d’Anconia, has a “more interesting and instructive” relationship with “scab” industrialist Hank Rearden. Their friendship is a relationship of equals founded on shared values and mutual esteem. Saint-Andre accurately describes Rand’s theory of friendship, imports insights from Aristotle and others in a clear and intelligible fashion, and has us looking at the novel afresh.
Let me also mention economist Bryan Caplan’s “ Atlas Shrugged and Public Choice: The Obvious Parallels.” Public-choice theory is the economics of democratic policy-making: It posits that “politicians maximize votes, just as firms maximize profits.” Caplan ties together a variety of plot developments distributed throughout the novel that show public-choice effects at work. For example, when businessmen use government power to loot competitors, they gain in the short run while greater losses are spread throughout society. The “aristocracy of pull” in Atlas Shrugged rules through access to Washington, trading favors and back-stabbing in a destructive political competition that eventually leads to economic collapse.
A problem with the book is that many of the essays are nothing much to write home about. If the book is intended to serve as (among other things) a resource for teachers and students, it needs basic textbook material that identifies main themes, structural elements, and characters. An example in this volume that does the job nicely is philosopher Fred Seddon’s tour through the chapter titles. Ayn Rand chose every one purposefully, and Seddon shows why and how. But few of contributions of this type are really rock-solid.
Editor Younkins writes an overview essay that reads like a mash-up of the various extant surveys and studies of Atlas. Summaries crash into summaries, and we zig-zag over deep issues. Because I’m a Rand scholar, I know what Younkins is getting at, but I doubt that most readers would be able to fill in the needed details and connect the dots. Fortunately, the next essay, by researcher and editor Chris Sciabarra, offers a comprehensible overview of Rand’s view of man and society.
Then there’s the problem of the “book reports.” The volume has several essays that summarize what happens to a single character, such as Cheryl Brooks. A good character study, however, not only gives an overview of the character and his role in the novel but also sheds light on the author’s choices by bringing in comparisons with other characters or relating the character’s behavior to heroic models or psychological truths. The character studies here don’t do that, by and large; instead, they are just summaries: what the character did and why, in terms internal to the novel. As a promoter of Ayn Rand ’s philosophy, I’m pleased to see these accurate summaries, but I don’t think they add much that an attentive reader couldn’t notice on his own.
By contrast, consider psychologist Robert Campbell’s study of Eddie Willers. It’s the best of the character studies in the volume. Campbell surveys the main role of Willers in the plot and theme (he is a decent, mediocre Everyman who comes to a tragic end because he lacks the ability to survive independently). Campbell points out a fact that I had never much considered: Willers is well-known to three of the heroes, and yet they never offer him the chance to join their strike and enter their hidden utopia. Did Rand bar him from salvation consciously, or sub-consciously? And what does that mean for most Rand readers, who, Campbell points out, are more like the decent-yet-unremarkable Eddie than they are like his companions, the world-beating achievers Dagny Taggart and John Galt?
So this is a hit-and-miss collection, with a few really wild pitches to complete the mix. For example, did you know that Sundays in Massachusetts induce lassitude and a neither-here-nor-there attitude—universally, across the state, every Sunday? Well, novelist Karen Michalson seems to believe so—or at least she takes a whimsical notion much, much too far in her memoir “Dagny and Me.” In this appalling piece of self-indulgence, Michalson offers thoughts on those Sundays, followed by some snarky recollections of her first meeting with some ardent Rand fans (on a Sunday). Then, on to Dagny. Michalson admired Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged , but has since given up comparing herself to the character now that she realizes Dagny “had inherited her position” and thus is not a model of a self-made woman. But that’s just an inaccurate reading of the novel. Michalson claims to be a literature scholar, but she can’t discern that a woman wouldn’t rise to the head of operations at a big industrial firm in the 1950s—or even today—no matter how much stock she owned? Yet that’s what Dagny does. And, er, “Sundays” are a man-made institution; they don’t have metaphysical effects.
In “The Non-Fictional Robert Stadlers: Traitors to Liberty,” anarchist economist Walter Block indulges in a petty exercise of rationalistic nit-picking and movement in-fighting. Using hyperbolic language, he lambastes the few figures who actually made a case for greater freedom in our times, like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Alan Greenspan. Since these folks studied free-market theory, he claims, they should have known better than to compromise it. Well, too true. But Stadler isn’t just a compromiser: Over the course of the novel he betrays everything good he had stood for, abandoning even his own reason in the end. These men aren’t Stadlers; they all made substantial efforts to increase our political freedom. Even Block admits as much in the conclusion of his essay, so what was the point? The reader has learned little about Atlas and less about how its principles should be put into practice.
Many of the essays use Atlas Shrugged as the occasion for their authors to retail theories of their own that are not really an analysis of Rand’s work. An entertaining example is Roger Bissell’s presentation “My Music: Why It’s Romantic, and Why I Write It That Way,” which purports to be a lecture given by Richard Halley “on the 25th anniversary of the Great Strike.” This sounds like a fun fan-fic idea: Halley is a minor character in Atlas, a composer of heroic music who joins the strike against the mystic-altruist-collectivist culture that dominates America. But this isn’t Halley’s speech, it’s Bissell’s, retailing his own theory of how melody functions in music. I know that Bissell’s theory is one of several that try to develop esthetic ideas along Randian lines. But you wouldn’t know that from reading this disguised essay. Like many of the ingrown and self-referential essays in this book, the Halley “speech” is less than it could have been.
I’ve not discussed many of the essays in Younkins’ volume, though for someone well-versed in Rand’s works and Rand scholarship, there are many juicy tidbits to pick up. I must mention philosopher Douglas Den Uyl’s investigation of Ayn Rand ’s view of America—had she become more pessimistic since writing the paean to the American sense of life in The Fountainhead —and also another essay I enjoyed, literature professor Stephen Cox’s discussion of “Ayn Rand’s Debt to Isabel Paterson.” Cox is Paterson’s biographer, and his essay is more about Paterson than Rand. But it calls attention to one of Rand’s mentors and reminds us that her biographers still have work to do tracing her intellectual development.
In the end, whom is this book for? I couldn’t imagine college students getting much out of it; they might benefit from Sciabarra’s overview, I suppose, and Seddon’s study of the chapter headings. Most of the other essays are too idiosyncratic, too “in-movement,” too scholarly, or too much like a paper that a college student would write. Ayn Rand fans may find many of them stultifying, though I’ve tried to indicate some that had gold in them. Philosophers, I suspect, will find something to root around in, but again, they will have to be choosy. Still, I must admit that reading these essays got me thinking about Rand and Atlas. It’s a useful volume for anyone who would enjoy a hunt around the attic of Rand scholarship.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.