ONE BUNCH SHORT OF A BANANA
What is presented here are hardly more than notes written in the process of reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a novel whose ideas I was more or less pre-destined to disagree with, but which nonetheless I found at times very compelling. Perhaps, one should distinguish between a work and the ideas expressed in that work. However, it is equally possible that a work given over to ideas in the way Atlas Shrugged is bound to become a propagandist vehicle for those ideas. Does the same rule apply to the novel as, according to Mallarme, applies to poetry when he said to Degas that poetry was made up of words, not ideas? I really can’t say any longer?
About one tenth of the way through Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged at the moment. It's a fascinating book, but probably not for reasons she wrote it. What she seems to be trying to do is create a mythology centred on the pantheon of go-getters, the movers and shakers of the Capitalist firmament. I can see how it will develop, but not yet how it will end. There are all sorts of mythologies about what the gods do when human beings turn their backs on them. And how they discipline humanity to bring us back into line. I think that's probably how this will develop as well. But as I said, I am only 1/10th of the way through at the moment, so it's early days yet. I need to read more to see if I'm right - another thousand pages more.
Atlas Shrugged is an amazing book from the point of view of THINGS, but less so from the point of view of individual human beings. Ayn Rand can go into ecstasies about trains and railway-lines, but the only people of note seem to be movers and shakers, i.e., the big industrialists of her time. Other people - or at least those who oppose her heroes - seem to be rather contemptible worms – not to say, quintessentially evil. At their best, they seem to be caricatures and foils for her heroes and heroines, rather than people in their own right. Karl Marx also admired 'the captains of industry' and that is Rand’s subject as well, but Marx also had some kind of vision of how capitalism might develop over time based on features of it which might come into conflict with each other at some unforeseeable time in the future. I wonder what her take would be on the world of high finance today, where what matters are not things as such or even people, but figures and calculations. I have also been trying to find out more about her actual philosophy on the internet – i.e., Objectivism. Apparently, Kant was her bête noire in philosophy, because he had the rather strange notion that subjects and objects were intertwined in this world and couldn't be separated out from each other and therefore there would always be a residue of the objectively unknowable in our quest for knowledge. Rand’s view of the world, on the other hand, was one which was totally accessible to Reason, and also one in which the world and our picture of it were somehow equivalents. Kant’s epistemology left no room for the kind of reductionism purveyed by Rand, in which the fluid multiplicity of the world has more or less been reduced to static concepts about this, that or the other thing within it. I am also given to wonder what Ayn Rand would have made of Quantum Mechanics. Objectivism seems to hold that the world is just how we perceive it, and we are not involved in giving shape to this raw material in any way whatsoever. Of course, notions such as the Quantum Mechanical idea that the observer alters what is observed in the process of observing it would be considered nonsense I imagine. And to think, I've still got more than 900 pages to go.
I am almost a third of the way through Atlas Shrugged now. Just 800 more pages to go. Ayn Rand is actually a superb novelist, but I think Atlas Shrugged is flawed by the kind of vision she tries to impose on it. She obviously wants to use her novel to say something rather than let it go in its own direction, so one has the feeling of being sold something – apart, of course, from a novel. Keats said something about readers developing a resistance to poetry which has a design on them. It's the same here. The design is so blatant at times and even quite weird. For instance, after her main character Dagny Taggart encounters someone whose business has gone bust because he had wanted to use it to implement the principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”, she "heard a cold implacable voice saying somewhere within her: Remember it - remember it well - it is not often one can see pure evil - look at it - remember - and some day you'll find the words to name its essence." Her response seems to me to be rather like that of an insane fundamentalist for whom people whose world-views do not conform to her own must ipso facto be evil. Still it's worth reading - but only if you are willing to devote a lot of time to it and swallow a lot of bullshit en route.
More on Ayn Rand. She makes this point about money. "So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another--their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun." The fallacy of this argument, in my opinion, lies in the fact that there would be no money in circulation anywhere without recourse to “the muzzle of a gun”. Without states, in other words, and their ability to guarantee money, a moneyed economy would be impossible and states, it seems to me, are held in existence by courtesy of the muzzle of a gun - to use that expression as a synecdoche for physical force in general. It's as if Rand lived in a world in which money could have some kind of independent existence of its own, uncontaminated by the use of physical force and the state. That’s the fallacy, I believe, of anarcho-capitalism. It fails to take into account just how necessary states are to the way capitalism and an economy based on money functions.
I think I have finally found the key to Atlas Shrugged. The main characters in it are presented as 19th. Century Romantic heroes, like those identified with by Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment or Julian Sorel in Stendal's The Red And The Black, both of whom, if I recall, had a fixation on Napoleon as the ultimate Romantic hero. Ayn's principal characters – Henry Reardon, Dagny Taggart and Fransisco d’Anconia - seem to be presented as entrepreneurial Napoleons who are perfectly – and indeed self-righteously - justified in trampling on those they consider their opponents. Furthermore, they are world-saviours who are out to establish a capitalist utopia in which market-forces will magically transform the world for the benefit of everyone in it. (That is definitely an article of faith.) They know perfectly well what’s wrong with the world and how to set it aright. Trouble is neither Stendhal, nor Dostoyevsky identified with their characters in the way Ayn Rand does. There is no doubt that she sees them herself as Romantic heroes. Nor does she seem to create any kind of ironic distance from them in the way both Stendhal and Dostoyevsky do with their chief protagonists. However, I am not yet halfway through it, so she might surprise me in the end, though I am very much beginning to doubt it. Then there are all those fictional countries she creates, like the People’s State of Germany or Mexico or Britain in a world in which America is still the only capitalist country left, but is beginning to succumb to the virus of state-intervention in the economy. (Yes, Atlas Shrugged is as crudely Manichean as that!)
One of the main planks of Rand’s philosophy seems to be that selfishness is good and altruism bad – end of. Not only that, but it is moral to pursue selfish ends and immoral to pursue altruistic ones. Human nature is thereby simplistically reduced to one attribute which, however important it may be to understanding motivation at times, remains only one attribute in a whole kaleidoscope of possible attributes which change with shakes of the kaleidoscope. For instance I may be selfish in some situations and altruistic in others, depending on the networks of relationships I happen to be involved in, or simply my state of mind at the time. And certainly if it’s nature – human or otherwise - that is being invoked here, selfishness is not always the norm. Wolves will travel at the pace of their slowest members rather than leave them behind, which might, from a Randian point of view, be the sensible thing to do. But for them, the pack is more important than the individual. And anyway, how would this egoistic philosophy work in a class-society when the different classes have different conflicting interests which involve identifying with collectivities in a ‘Darwinian’ struggle with other collectivities rather than always invoking the interests of ‘number one’? Isn’t there something pathological in always invoking the interests of number one’? The world is a much more complicated place than the one Ayn Rand constructs in her mind and her novel. It is, to quote Louis MacNeice, “Crazier and more of it than you think.” However, she has it all worked out. There is a place for everything and everything’s in place according to her; it is a world in which contradictions and paradoxes are to be resolved according to the laws of logic using Aristotelian syllogisms, the law of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, because, after all, if you apply reason, everything will fall into place. It is curious that her atomistic epistemology has so much in common that of Thomas Hobbes – curious because they come to such opposing political conclusions.
Finally got more than halfway through Atlas Shrugged - or should that be Trudged? Now I know that Robin Hood was the most evil man in history. The whole question revolves round the issue of property you see. It's almost as if for Ayn Rand there is a divine right issue involved. She's an atheist, therefore, she can't talk in terms of the Divine Right of property the way one can talk of the Divine Right of Kings, so it becomes more like Dharma in the Mahabharata - a law of the universe. And, if you transgress it, you upset the balance of the whole cosmos. She's mad. But that doesn't mean to say that it's a not a great novel.
There is nothing in the rulebooks which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.
Perhaps it’s unfair to mention Celine in the context of Atlas Shrugged, since nowhere in Celine’s novel is it apparent that he is a Nazi. A nihilist for sure, but not a Nazi. Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, is more or less a vehicle for the expression of Rand’s ideas and you really can’t get away from them. They more or less structure it. Nevertheless, the whole process of reading the novel does require the suspension of disbelief if you are to get the best out of it. And Atlas Shrugged is a superb novel. I have no hesitation in saying this, even though I am 100% opposed to the ideas expressed in it and think the author is more than a little insane.
In Chapter X, The Sign of the Dollar, Dagny Taggart encounters a tramp who had been involved in the experiment mentioned in section 3 of running a factory on the principle of “from each according his ability to each according to his need”, which she described as “evil”. It is a powerful account of what might happen were such a regime to be implemented in the running of a factory employing 5000 workers. However, it is presented as an example of the principle in general, a kind of microcosm of what would happen outside the specific context in which the experiment was conducted. I would like to see how this imaginary experiment compares, for example, with what happened during the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona in 1936 when, under the auspices of the anarchist CNT, the revolutionary workers took over the factories and ran them for themselves, employing the former management on their own terms. By all reports, the factories ran more efficiently than they previously had. Of course, the experiment was cut short as a result of the Civil War, but it did reveal a potential for industrial self-management which is not reflected in Ayn Rand’s account. This is one of the flaws in running an experiment like that purely on paper in which all the parameters are set by the author’s own imagination. Isolated within the context of a capitalist society, where it is run almost by fiat and imposed on the workers by an idealistic management it was rather bound to end up a failure. Rand’s account of this whole incident tends to be one of those gross caricatures which are in many ways the stock-in-trade of Atlas Shrugged, especially when it comes to things which the author has a bee in her bonnet about.
“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.” This is the maxim by which John Galt in Atlas Shrugged lives. Isn’t it the maxim by which we’d all like to live? But how does it address the actual reality of living in a class-society in which one class, by its ownership of the means of production, can make another class work for it? Rand admires capitalism for having ended slavery; what she fails to see is that it has in fact only ended one form of slavery – chattel-slavery - and replaced it with another form of slavery, namely wage-slavery – a form of slavery which depends not on physical compulsion, but economic compulsion. So the maxim only works for those who possess the kind of property which enables them to force others to work for them. What is this if not asking, and not just asking but making, others live for their sakes. So all these movers and shakers that Rand admires so much, are moving and shaking at other people’s expense. And she calls herself an Objectivist!
There are those who will read Atlas Shrugged without any critical distance at all and say it has changed their lives, that Ayn Rand is a visionary and the book is the equivalent in their world-view to the Koran in a Muslim’s or the Bible in a Christian’s. I know; I’ve heard them say it. Others that - to invert the term of a well-known expression - she is one bunch short of a banana, and no-one should bother to read her. But I wonder how many will read it and say’s it’s a great work of fiction, with the emphasis on fiction, and go on to say that her being one bunch short of a banana – i.e., mad - is the reason why it’s a great work of fiction. We must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time I think. Contrary to Rand’s own belief, Reason has helped no-one create a great work of art, whereas its opposite, madness quite often has. And there is something else about this Cult of Reason. Was not the Age Of Reason also the Age of Bedlam? And then there are all the poets, like Christopher Smart, who in the Age of Reason, were ‘one bunch short of a banana.’ Where do they fit in?
What Ayn Rand has given us is a product of her obsessions carried to their logical conclusions. But she is also, paradoxically, one of the great mythmakers of the 20th. Century, reproducing a view of Heaven and Hell no less effectively than Dante or Milton – nor for that matter Tolkien. Atlas Shrugged is a poem, a poem about demons and gods. But we have seen what happens when people take certain poetic texts – the Bible, the Koran – to such literal conclusions. In the third part of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart appears to die and go to her version of heaven to receive the ministrations and messages of the 'angels' there - John Galt in particular. Even the myth of Atlantis is invoked. The work is saturated with such mythic archetypes. However, some Randians have seen Atlas Shrugged as a blueprint for a future society in which capitalist greed is no longer frowned upon, but worshipped. And these people today occupy important positions in certain political, economic and financial institutions promoting the disastrous policies of Neo-Liberalism. And all in the name of Randian Reason.
Which brings me to my final point. Somehow it is Reason that will save the world. But Rand never seems to consider that if madness has a logic it is often the logic of Reason taken to a point where it no longer simply regulates thought, but begins to constitute it too – that is to say takes over and banishes everything else to the margins of thought – emotion, imagination, feeling, instinct, intuition and so on - in short Rand doesn't believe in integrating all the elements of the psyche holistically, but in privileging one of them above all the others, relegating the rest to some kind of limbo - much like her view of society as a whole. But the mind is not a reasoning machine. In Rand's world-view, Reason is not simply a critical adjunct of thought - as it was for Kant - but is instead its be all and end all. What Deleuze once wrote, “It is not the sleep of reason which engenders monsters, but a vigilant and insomniac rationality.” is true. As someone told me before I started reading the book, Atlas Shrugged is a monster and it is a monster because the 'Reason' in it has abandoned its purely critical function, and become the only value worth having. That way really does lie madness, but it is this very madness that makes Atlas Shrugged such a superb work of fiction. And that, I think, is how we should leave it.