Sunday, August 5, 2007

What is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged is a hard case. It's not clear how to even start writing about it, given the aura of political weirdness that surrounds it. By almost any standard, it's science fiction. As McGuffins, it includes an engine that runs on extracting static electricity from the air, a variant of ten-point steel (Reardon metal), a cheap process for extracting unlimited oil from oil shale, and a sonic death ray. And if those weren't enough, the book culminates in a 100+ page speech given to the nation on high-jacked airways by a spooky character who has waged an underground movement against the status quo, a character who is named in the first sentence ("Who is John Galt?"), but doesn't actually appear until Part Three of a three part book.

Then there's stuff like this:

The clouds and the shafts of the skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire still holding the glow of sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one, which it is too late to stop.

That could easily come from one of the better noir novels of the period. Its roots are clearly in Black Mask pulpitry, the offspring of Chandler and Hammet. Mickey Spillane, whom Rand admired, wrote like that on occasion, and seldom was given due acknowledgment for the craft of it.

Moreover, there was a novelistic purpose to the prose; the mood was deliberately evocative of decay, and a sense of loss. Within the context of the novel and its time, it called forth images of more heroic times, of a lost age of adventure that so appeals to those nostalgic for times from before their own births. In other words, Atlas Shrugged appealed to the dreamer children, and that is also where science fiction finds its grip.

Atlas Shrugged (as well as The Fountainhead) shows up on "The book that changed my life" polls with such regularity that it's a bit embarrassing, though I'm not sure to whom, maybe just me. Still, I'd like to get some sort of handle on it, and I think the pulp/science fiction aspect of it is a major feature of its appeal.

But, just as evolutionary theory is tested by examples where adaptation is imperfect, the appeal of philosophies are best tested by the internal contradictions that its adherents swallow. The internal contradictions of Libertarian/Randian/Objectivism have been remarked upon ad nauseum, but I'm looking to see what sort of novelistic contradictions there exist in the original text. I'm not going to waste time on the obvious gap between reality-as-portrayed and reality-as-it-is. That's too easy and beside the point. Yes, it is, in fact, very rare for the heads of businesses to be the engineering, scientific, and technical brains behind the operation. That's part of the Edison mythology, and ignores the importance of Charlie Steinmetz (even if Edison himself did not). It's also pretty clear from the boardroom scenes in Atlas Shrugged that Rand had never actually been in a boardroom (if I were a certain sort of catty person—which I am not—I would make a similar remark about bedrooms, but all evidence is that Rand knew her way around a bedroom, and furthermore, knew just how important fantasy was in that setting). Still, it's worth noting that, in Atlas Shrugged, when businesspeople make remarks about "helping the underprivileged," they seem to actually mean doing something that might have an adverse impact on their own bottom line, and that is somewhat less believable to this reader than the sonic death ray.

But this is beating around the bush, as it were, and I wish to draw attention to a very important feature of Atlas Shrugged, and that is the failure of its primary sexual narrative.

The point of view character and protagonist of the novel is female, Dagney Taggart, who is, at novel's beginning, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations of Taggart Transcontinental. Dagney is the granddaughter of the founder of the company (more-or-less modeled on Cornelius Vanderbuilt), while her brother, James is the incompetent President, whom she must always work around to make the railroad a success. James is supposedly a good "Washington man," able to get government concessions and favors from the Federal government, and, remember, I'm not going to discuss the unrealistic political economics of the book.

The first section of Atlas Shrugged, from one viewpoint at least, consists of getting Dagney into bed with the first male protagonist, Henry (Hank) Rearden, the head of Rearden Steel, who has just created ten-point steel…I mean, Reardon Metal, an unlikely (from a metallurgical standpoint) alloy of iron and copper. It's a superstrong alloy, and, naturally, everyone in the business and scientific community is against it, apparently because it's so good, and doesn't conform to theory and stuff like that. Dagney and Hank are first business partners, trying to get a railroad line to the previously mentioned shale oil fields, and to do this they have to reinforce a bridge, which is done with Rearden Metal, so there's this fantastic high-speed train ride through Denver, over the bridge, etc., into the Valley of the Oil Shale, or whatever it's called, and at the end of it, Taggart and Rearden have frenzied sex, because, well, come on now, this is Ayn Rand writing here, and both of them are rich, good-looking, talented, and very highly sexed.

Afterwards, Rearden, who is already married, has an attack of conscience and gets all moralistic and self-loathing, but Dagney laughs it off and convinces him that sex is good, which, frankly, isn't that difficult a bit of persuasion, is it? Still, it would never have been necessary with Howard Roark, the previous Randian protagonist with initials HR.

Later, Reardon's wife goes absolutely ballistic when she learns that he's having an affair with Taggart, and not, as she first thought some chorus girl or other cheap tart. Rand gets this bit of psychology almost perfectly correct, including the fact that Rearden is so clueless that he thinks that his wife would be more ready to accept his affair with Taggart, because it's high romance rather than low and tawdry, i.e. when it actually threatens his marriage, rather than being a cheap bit on the side.

Okay, we'll now fast forward over the second part of the book, Either-Or, which has its points, especially the ongoing romance/sexual frenzy between Dagney and Hank, plus the slow deterioration of the country (and our heroes' fortunes) as the evil altruistic philosophies roaming the land devour the wealth of the country's creators, and as those creative sorts slowly disappear, one by one, into some mysterious Void. Even the dull reader will, by the end of Either-Or (probably even earlier) guess that this John Galt fellow has something to do with it, and the brighter readers will have figured out that all the cool people are leaving their posts because John Galt or one of his minions has talked them into it.

Okay, let's leave that odd little point for a bit, though it is odd isn't it, that all these rich and talented folks are walking away from their fortunes and place in society? And it's a lot of them, with nary a one of them blowing the whistle, or blabbing to somebody who might take note of it.

But Part Three, A is A (for all you comic book fans, that's where Ditko's "Mr. A" comes from), finds Dagney Taggart, after crashing her plane in a small Colorado valley at the end of Part Two, waking up in "Galt's Gulch." And who should be her rescuer but the fabled John Galt?

All right, blah, blah, blah, Dagney can't yet bring herself to retire from the world and join the strikers. Yes, that's what they are, strikers. It's "the mind on strike," because, you know, businessmen are such intellectuals. Okay, there's also artists, composers, scientists, engineers, etc. Yeah, yeah, every artist I've even known knew his Schopenhauer. And read Aristotle in the original Greek. Crap, I said I wasn't going to do that.

Anyway, Galt pretty much effortlessly, I mean effortlessly, takes over Taggart's affections. Another of her former lovers, Francisco d'Anconia, is also in Galt's Gulch, but although he is damned dashing and all, he doesn't measure up to Galt. No one does, not really. Not even Hank Rearden, who later in the book, gives up the rights to Rearden Metal to save Taggart the public humiliation (!) of the exposure of their affair. Taggart then exposes the affair herself, on national radio, but Rearden figures out that she's fallen for someone else because she only uses the past tense.

Then, blah, blah, blah, hundred page speech from Galt explaining how the world really works, everyone who isn't a total asshole joins the strike, cut, fade to black and well, who knows what happens afterwards, the dictatorship of the intelligentsia? Some sort of Objectivist paradise perhaps.

Or maybe not.

Consider. You've got these two folks, Taggert and Rearden. They are as individualistic as they come. They come together (so to speak) over shared interests and passions, share triumphs and some defeats. They are star-crossed lovers.

Then this guy Galt waltzes in, Taggert swoons and Rearden lets it happen. And none of these folks, not the industrialists, the heirs of great fortune, the artists, composers, writers, the damn pirate even, none of them go against the class. All these rugged individualists join in a collective action, a strike, for God's sake.

How is this possible? I can come up with only one, plausible within the context of science fiction, answer.

John Galt is a Slan. Maybe he doesn't have tendrils, but slans don't have to have tendrils. But he's super-smart, capable of inventing a fantastic new energy device all by his lonesome. He's super-attractive, because, well, slans are like that. And he obviously has some sort of mind control power, just like Jommy Cross developed in Slan. Galt may not be an exact van Vogtian slan, but he's obviously some sort of telepathic mind-controlling mutant. It's the only reading of Atlas Shrugged that makes any sort of sense.

Because otherwise, all these rugged individualists would have had to have taken up exactly the same political ideology and exactly the same course of collective action in support of that ideology. And that's too implausible to believe. It's just ridiculous.


TStockmann said...

Credit for that prose? Are we supposed to like adolescent fustian now?

James Killus said...

Then I assume you don't like these either:

The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.

* * *

The Buyer spreads terror throughout the industry. Junkies and agents disappear. Like a vampire bat he gives off a narcotic effluvium, a dank green mist that anesthizes his victims and renders them helpless in his enveloping presence. And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor. Finally he is caught in the act of digesting the Narcotics Commissioner and destroyed with a flame thrower -- the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justified in that the Buyer had lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species and a menace to the narcotics industry on all levels.

* * *

The two cops dragging the little guy out stopped dead still. The other one washing the bloodstains from the seat quit swishing the brush over the wicker and held his breath. Nobody ever spoke that way to Dilwick. Nobody from the biggest politician in the state to the hardest apple that ever stepped out of a pen. Nobody ever did because Dilwick would cut them up into fine pieces with his bare hands and enjoy it. That was Dilwick, the dirtiest, roughest cop who ever walked a beat or swung a nightstick over a skull. Crude, he was. Crude, hard and dirty and afraid of nothing. He'd sooner draw blood from a face than eat and everybody knew it. That's why nobody ever spoke to him that way. That is, nobody except me.

You either have a taste for pulp or you don't. Apparently you don't. You have my sympathy. It's a bit like being color blind; you'll never know what you're missing.

TStockmann said...

You don't honestly believe those passages are anything close to equivalent, I hope.

James Killus said...

You don't honestly believe those passages are anything close to equivalent, I hope.

Equivalent to each other? Equivalent to the passage from Atlas Shrugged?

I think all four passages are valid examples of pulp prose. If you are using other critical measures, well and good, but you'll have to be specific about what you find attractive or unappealing before I can comment further.

I might also ask whether or not you checked on the sources prior to forming a judgment.

TStockmann said...

It's an honor system not to Google, but I haven't. Let's see -the frist sounds like The Big Sleep, but I'm only judging from the movie since I never read Chandler. On the second the bestguess I could make on subject matter would be Burroughs; I read Naked Lunch but don't remember much and of course I could be wrong. The third doesn't generate even the slighest tinge of a memeory, but it seems particularly unfortunate.

Summonned but will be back in a sec, because I find this interesting.

TStockmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TStockmann said...

Anyway, your first example in the comments strikes me as by far the best of the four bits - the language is much more crisp and original, the atmosphere limned is tendentious, but not in the repetitive and moral-lesson as in the Rand, with both the "masterpiece" and the hokey pf dying fire, and the concluding pompous phrase "Which is is too late to stop" isn't syntactically correct. In my book, Rand couldn't write for beans. A teenage friend who otherwise liked her stuff pointed out to me that she never made a point, she beat it to death with a sledgehammer.

I guess I'd lump the inability to appreciate this variety of pulp with my inability to appreciate pork runds and American Idol. You'd havbe to be a little better acquainted with the range of joys and pleasures I have compared to yours before you offer sympathy on missing out one you have. It's true I've always missed out on reveling in a whole range of prose histrionics, from Wuthering Heights to the Great Gatsby, but there is - or was - much else. Cry for me instead my waning ability to love a novel.

But before my palate died, I did rather enjoy stuff like:

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure, although the village of Gavrillac had long since dispelled the cloud of mystery that hung about it. Those simple Brittany folk were not so simple as to be deceived by a pretended relationship which did not even possess the virtue of originality. When a nobleman, for no apparent reason, announces himself the godfather of an infant fetched no man knew whence, and thereafter cares for the lad's rearing and education, the most unsophisticated of country folk perfectly understand the situation. And so the good people of Gavrillac permitted themselves no illusions on the score of the real relationship between Andre-Louis Moreau - as the lad had been named and Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac, who dwelt in the big grey house that dominated from its eminence the village clustering below.

(sorry I had to report._

James Killus said...

Ah, good. At least you finally noticed (or finally reported on) the syntactical infelicity in the last paragraph of the Rand piece. That's much better than "this is bad stuff."

The Chandler quote is pretty famous, and was, indeed given in voice-over in the movie. There was a similar, though much terser paragraph in a Black Mask story that Chandler "canibalized" for The Big Sleep, and I'm really annoyed that my Chandler collection seems to have migrated somewhere unbeknowst to me. The comparison between the two is interesting.

Burroughs is, of course, not pulp, stictly speaking, but he draws on the pulp sensibility. Philip Jose Farmer did a magnificent send up ("if Tarzan had been written by a different Burroughs") entitled "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod."

The quote I actually wanted to use for the third was this:

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

Nice lean prose that makes the Chandler (and the Sabatini) look overwritten by comparison. But there are places for both. And it was Spillane, the third author, who I noted seldom got "credit" for his writing style. I daresay that Rand gets too much credit from her fans (your friend notwithstanding), and her critics try to even things out by giving too little.

I am unable to detect a "moral-lesson," as such, in the Rand paragraph. The imagery is certainly "repetitive" in the sense that it's all about coveying a sense of decay, but "a crack in the shape of motionless lightning" is evocative, and hands the image over to the "jagged object cutting the sky" almost effortlessly. A writer can learn a thing or two there, whether you like that notion or not.

As for the rest, emotions are not the same as morals, and the description in the Rand passage carries far less moral weight than, for example, "stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men." Chandler was also a moralist, of course; he just had the sense not to label himself a philosopher.

Finally, the awkwardness of "not an active fire, but a dying one, which it is too late to stop" is greater than "the village clustering below" but neither is great enough to bring a reader up short, I think. But I will note that the Sabatini paragraph contains almost no sensory cues whatsoever. Whether this assists the imagination or hinders it is an interesting question, one I judge on a case by case basis.

TStockmann said...

"Masterpiece" is center of the morally tendentious Rand in the passage - the kind of work her unplausible Atlases do, and the passage can be unravelled by that thread. Re both that and the last line you mention - I don't usually do textual analysis of *what is to me* worthless (although other types of success-just-missed are often very interesting.) I'd have stayed in that side of academia if so inclined.

Was the second really Burroughs? that was a shot in the almost-dark. If the third was Spillane, the substitute you offered is indeed much better. I was a little worried at first that it was your own. Even Homer nods.

James Killus said...

"Masterpiece" is an aesthetic judgment, not a moral one. While it's true that Rand was of the (almost endlessly repeated) opinion that the two are the same, she also knew better, as, for example, shown by the fact that she thought that Nabokov wrote beautifully, but she found him horrible reading. She called it his "sense of life," but it was actually those parts of humanity that he found interesting and which she wished to pretend did not exist.

But your assumption of moralizing in the passage is reasonable--provided you are thinking of it in the context of the entire novel. And that is the problem that I was refering to, that the subtextual comes to dominate the textual, so the writing, as such, is ignored. Everyone is so concentrated on "the philosophy" that the specifics of how Rand wrote gets ignored. But, as a writer, I'd like to know how she did it, because her books are very popular, and I don't think it's because the philosophy (which is actually a muddle) is so attractive; I think it's the other way around. The appeal of the books is what carries the philosophy.

There's no question that a large part of the appeal is what drives a lot of other science fiction and other genre fiction: the power fantasy. That is, after all, the point of "What is John Galt?"--to show the connection between Atlas Shrugged and other similar science fiction narratives. People buy the totally implausible narrative because they've already bought so many just like it.

Concerning the quoted pasages, I did consider using a quote from one of my own works, but that seemed a little uppity, placing myself alongside Chandler and Burroughs. Besides which, I'm too much of a literary chameleon to be a good exemplar.

I also considered quoting Hunter Thompson, who few have noticed as being a Burroughs imitator. When I borrow from Burroughs, it tends to slide away from pulp sentence simplicity into old Beat stream-of-consciousness:

Outside the street crowds swirl, twilight near Christmas, people caught in consumer gimme-gimme frenzy. He suddenly imagines he's been dosed with telepathine, legendary drug that let's you have other peoples' hallucinations. Sound track goes hollow, CalBerk Sprawl Plaza bang jam, old gratched Brian Eno, laughing gas waka waka, dentist drill on super slo- mo, it's a jangle out there.

Or words to that effect.

Patricia said...

If you want amusement, read a biography of Ayn Rand. This defender of rugged manliness would not brook disagreement from her followers. They either agreed with her, or they were kicked out of the fold. She chose as her long-time lover a man who ignored her flagrant affairs with others.

James Killus said...

I've read both the Branden's biographies of Rand; of the two, I prefer Judgment Day, mostly because I think it offers more insight.

Rand was a writer, with higher pretensions, but if you look at her essays, her opinions on every subject that she tried to absorb were strongly characterized by the other members of "The Collective" according to the expertise of each. So her writings on economics were strongly influenced by Alan Greenspan, on psychology by Branden himself, and on philosophy by Leonard Peikoff. That Peikoff was a mediocre little dweeb has a great deal to do with the ultimate vapidity of Rand's formal "philosophy."

The economics was pretty standard "Chicago School" stuff, which, at that time, had not degenerated into the sheer mindlessness of supply side rubbish that is now the case. There were some fairly good descriptions of "regulatory capture" in some of the stuff in The Objectivist in the 60s, as well as some material on the Agency Problem, in part because Rand actually took C. Northcote Parkinson seriously, maybe showing that there are some advantages to lacking a sense of humor.

Branden, however, was a good psychologist (and managed independent success on his own, after being cast from The Garden), and there is a natural affinity between the psychologist and the novelist in any case. But Rand was poor at self analysis (most people are), and it is, in any case, very difficult to maintain a clear self image when there are people about who are intent upon flattery and deception. I've seen many people succumb to the adulation of fans, even to far less flattery than Rand experienced, and it's not that surprising that an insecure, aging woman fell into that particular trap.

Which, I guess, is a very long way of saying that I didn't find the biographical material all that amusing. She paid a pretty high price for her fun, and if not for the lingering cult and the connection of her works to some fairly pernicious ideas, her story would be merely another cautionary tale. I, for one, do not blame her for those who claim to speak in her name. One might as well blame it on Caine, to quote Elvis Costello. It just seems to be her turn.

Jeff said...

tstockmann you are the man on the fence, and you will get what you are afraid you want, a mindless world of ruin! You sound like the same kind of people and ideology that Rand thrashes in Atlas! Think a little deeper than a thimble!

Anonymous said...

A commenter says: "So [Rand's] writings on economics were strongly influenced by Alan Greenspan.... The economics was pretty standard 'Chicago School' stuff..."

Um, no. Greenspan started as a Keynesian and pretty much returned to that mode, it seems. It was the Randians who persuaded him to be more free-market during the period of the 60s, not the other way around. And Rand was most influenced by the Austrian school of economics (Mises et al.), not the Chicago school.

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