THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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An elegy in an Aston Martin

Why does the devil have all the best tunes? (Musings on Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged")

the new adventures of juliette: Atlas Bugged.

I smiled to read the recent comments on Atlas Shrugged by one of my favourite bloggers, Juliette. Click on the link above to read why Ayn Rand's writing infuriated her so much that she wanted;

"...to attack her cast of smug, annoying assholes with a length of two by four..."

I sympathise entirely. I have been reading the book for months, which is a sure sign of its imperfections. Yet it is a hugely important book, which everyone should read.

Juliette correctly summarises the attractions and the irritations of reading Rand;

"First, the good. Ayn Rand's prose style is way, way better than I was expecting. In fact, I'd say that she is, technically, an extremely good writer."

That's true, but she's a hopeless novelist, and for precisely the reason Juliette nailed in the first quote. Rand cannot create a convincing character. Having slogged painfully through 1168 pages, I admire her as a thinker but I cannot begin to imagine why she chose this vehicle for her thoughts. In truth her heroes are all her and therefore sound exactly the same. Give me a piece of dialogue from Atlas Shrugged in a year's time and I will not be able to tell you who said it. If Rand had chosen to express her ideas in music, the result would have been a new police siren.

Great writers create living, breathing characters. Sherlock Holmes is as real as you or me and will outlast both us and his author. Dickens populated a small town with his characters, each of them - even the minor ones - a recognisable individual. John Irving is the greatest living author in English precisely because he creates magnificent characters we can love, hate and care about. Rand should have written philosophy books or, dare I say it, pamphlets. I can praise her no more highly than to say she could have been the Tom Paine of her era, rather than a failed Dickens. The world needed another Common Sense far more than it needed Atlas Shrugged. Had she written it, she might have spared millions in the 20th Century the horrors of oppression and poverty.

Why, dear reader, do I recommend above (with unaccustomed emphasis) that you should put yourself through this literary torture? Why, for that matter, does this book continue to sell so strongly (about 600,000 copies a year in America) for all its defects? Because it is unique. It is missing the founding assumptions underpinning every other book I have read. 

Cheerybles_smallThe intellectuals of our civilisation are nurtured on anti-capitalism, from the noble characters who sneer at "trade" in the classics, to the Marxist slant of much modern literature. Even my beloved Dickens was also beloved by Lenin. His industrialists are only good men when, like the Cheerybles, they are providing deus ex machina solutions to social problems. They are never good for what gave them the power to be good. They are never good for what they are truly good at. If a novelist portrays a capitalist or industrialist sympathetically, it is by way of making excuses for him, which - of course - implies there is something to excuse. Ayn Rand sees no need for excuses. Quite the contrary. Her heroes are, startlingly, heroes for being great industrialists. The book is a hymn of praise to the contributions made to civilisation by those its intellectuals most despise; the ones who create the wealth and leisure which make an intellectual's life of the mind possible.

If you really can't face, like Juliette, the grind of reading the whole thing, I have a solution. Read a summary of the plot. The book opens with the question, "Who is John Galt?" Cheat. Find out who he is from Wikipedia. Then turn to page 1009. At that point John Galt hijacks a Presidential broadcast to deliver a three hour speech (which, implausibly, the nation listens to, understands and acts upon). Forget about how unrealistic this is as a plot device. Just read it for what it truly is; an exposition of Ayn Rand's political philosophy. Even that will involve some work, but I promise it will be worth your trouble.

It was hard to read Atlas Shrugged, but I am very glad I did. I commend it to you.

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