Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cogitations on "Atlas Shrugged" - Still Controversial After All These Years

When I was in junior high, my science teacher started a book discussion group which was open to anyone in the school. I had a crush on him, so I signed up. The book he wanted to introduce us to was Atlas Shrugged* by Ayn Rand. I had never heard of it and it sounded like it was a little heavier than the Nancy Drew books that were my favorites, but the group provided an extra hour a week for me to gaze adoringly at my teacher, so I was in.

I can't remember how many kids participated. I think it was not more than a dozen, mostly girls (the teacher was really handsome) and a few nerdy boys from the rocket club (which was also mentored by same teacher). The others in the group participated little in the discussions except for one of the rocketry nerds (who liked to hear himself talk, whether he knew what he was talking about or not) and me. I read the entire 1200 pages, while neglecting homework in all my subjects. I asked a lot of questions in the group, and the teacher seemed thrilled to elaborate. I am sure that I didn't understand more than a fraction of what I read or what the teacher tried to explain to me, but I found the exercise thrilling. At some point during that school term, I sublimated my crush on the teacher and fell in love with the process of pondering and discussing ideas. That passion has never diminished.

Recently, I watched a documentary about the "prophecy" of Atlas Shrugged*.   I turned it on mainly because the juxtaposition of "prophecy" with the name of a committed atheist hooked me. It turned out to be a very interesting show. I had forgotten most of the story, however, so I felt I wasn't getting the most out of the documentary. I found the parallels the filmmakers drew to contemporary politics chilling, and wanted to read the novel again.  The next day, I downloaded the book to my Kindle and spent a week tearing through it during every spare moment. After I finished, I watched the documentary again.

The experience left me reeling. For one thing, I realized as I read the book that, while I had forgotten most of the details of the story, I had adopted a great deal (but not all) of the philosophical foundation on which it was constructed.  I also found that I agreed with the documentary that a lot of what we see in contemporary news seems to be right out of the pages of Atlas Shrugged: the sense of "entitlement" to government handouts; the lack of a sense of personal responsibility on the part of too many people; the tendency of the people to blame "the rich" for their own lack of success; etc. etc. etc.

Perhaps the thing that resonated most of all was the sense that the people who make up the government are parochial, small-minded people out for what will benefit them, without regard for the welfare of the country:
"He was seeing the enormity of the smallness of  the enemy who was destroying the world. He felt as if, after a journey of years through a landscape of devastation, past the ruins of great factories, the wrecks of powerful engines, the bodies of invincible men, he had come upon the despoiler, expecting to find a giant -- and had found a rat eager to scurry for cover at the first sound of a human step."
Atlas Shrugged is not great literature. It is far from the kind of fiction that is supposedly what contemporary readers want. It is, however, a gripping story, with larger-than-life characters who live heroic lives, but are still somehow human. In too many ways the story world parallels the world we live in today.  That is particularly chilling because there is no Galt's Gulch filled with geniuses to come to the rescue after we finish wrecking our world.

One of the comments made in the documentary was that Rand's books had never been well-reviewed by literary critics, but Atlas Shrugged has never been out of print -- since 1959.  Recently it has had a resurgence of popularity. That gives me a little hope that there are people of integrity and responsibility "out there." People who refuse to participate in the divisiveness and cowardice that has paralyzed our government, the rampant avarice of too many (but not all) in the business community, or the sense of entitlement to handouts on the part of financially irresponsible businesses and individuals, all of which are destroying our economy.

I  hope that there are enough of that righteous remnant to put the U.S. back together again after the crash that seems to be heading our way. It would be even better if courageous leaders would emerge and marshal the rational people to take back our country, and prevent the disaster that appears to be the logical conclusion to our current course.

Maybe the question for our time should be: Where is John Galt?

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