30 April 2011

Atlas Shrugged Sunday: The only plebian in a world of patricians.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't read the book, this may spoil the ending for you. But you're not missing much.

We are now entering the world of Ayn Rand, so hold onto your hats and send your children from the room. It's a crude and dark place, and not particularly well-made. Rand's world is very little like our own, because hers has the sole purpose of illustrating her bizarre ideas about life and morality.

First, some basic principles.

Ayn Rand wrote in 1957, and set the book in the near future. She was mostly spared the difficulty of conceiving new technology, because the Randverse is a world that's gone backwards, technologically speaking, as it succumbs to apathy and altruism. So it's not too foreign to us. But it does present the quaint vision of a country where railroads are the primary method of shipping. The only future-tech comes from the innovating supermen of selfishness, and not until much later.

One guiding rule is that appearances are everything. There are no ugly good guys, and there are no beautiful bad guys. From the very first description of anyone or anything, we will know their nature. There is no room for ambiguity or character development. If someone has strong cheekbones, then they are a moral paragon.

The aesthetic rules are Rand's own, which value thinness and sharp definition. If something or someone is good, they are strong and rigid and they have clean lines about them. You might ask about such things as the soft nurturing crook of a mother's arm, or the placid rotundity of a benevolent monk. But you won't find those things in the Randverse: softness and roundness are ugly and evil.

Additionally, everything is a metaphor. I am exaggerating slightly, because after several hundred pages there is a chair that is only a chair, and not a lazily slouching armchair of decadence or a rigid wooden bench of powerful oak. But everything else is a shallow and clumsy metaphor, crammed down our gullets with all the hyperbolic expressions of moral judgment that a frenzied chainsmoking Russian immigrant could manage.

So, with these cautions fore in your mind, let's embark on this journey together.

We start Atlas Shrugged with Eddie Willers. Now, most characters in the book are unrealistic - they're personifications of one ideal or another, and heavily symbolical of some principle or another of Ayn Rand's. In Eddie's case, he is the unfortunate Plebian.

Eddie is an average guy. He's the secretary to the Operating Executive of a national railroad in New York City, which is a demanding job but not a difficult one. He's not too stupid or too smart, he's pretty good at his job but not so great that he could run the company. He is thoroughly average-looking. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be too bad. But unfortunately for Eddie, he bears the terrible burden of being the only average good guy.

In Atlas Shrugged, your virtue is almost exclusively dependent on your skill. The good guys are terrific at their jobs: inventing new super-alloys, organizing national companies, writing music that can bring a tear to your eye. The good guys are all very pretty and awesome at everything and very virtuous in Randian terms.

Likewise, the bad guys are sneering, slovenly slobs who can't do anything right - except whine and beg. They're terrible at their chosen professions. The evil metallurgists can't turn out a decent batch of pig iron, the evil executives couldn't manage a Burger King, and the evil musicians write ugly derivative tunes. Their lack of virtue is directly proportionate to their lack of skill.

Not Eddie. Alone in this world, Eddie Willers is a good guy who's only average. He recognizes that virtue and skill are related, and that the brilliant people are better than him and should be in charge. He will be abandoned and confused and unhappy, and he will consider his position proper and just. He knows his place, and it's that of a feudal serf. Poor Eddie Willers.

Eddie starts off the book with a brief conversation with a bum, who asks him, "Who is John Galt?" after begging for a dime. This phrase is the central catchphrase of the book, answered in various ways throughout the text. When used in a commonplace manner like this, the question is one of weary resignation.  The bum is just being a jerk.

Eddie Willers doesn't know who John Galt is. Eddie is just headed in to work and he's all causelessly uneasy.

"Who is John Galt?"
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still-as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
"Why did you say that?" asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
"Why does it bother you?" he asked.
"It doesn't," snapped Eddie Willers.
He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum's particular despair.
"Go get your cup of coffee," he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face.

Eddie has problems, you see. He's been desperately in love with his boss since he was a kid, he's working for a railroad that's losing money hand over fist, and he has a real problem with the whole idea of metaphors.

Actually, that last one might be his biggest problem. Eddie walks down the street on these first couple of pages, going to his office, and he is confronted time and time again with ponderous metaphors that could guide him. If he understood them, he could immediately generalize to what is wrong with the world around him, and figure out what to do. But Eddie can't ever quite grasp the metaphors that bludgeon down on him. And it is a serious bludgeoning.

The clouds and the shafts of 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 a 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 the 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.
No, thought Eddie Willers, there was nothing disturbing in the sight of the city. It looked as it had always looked.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect a fictional character to recognize a narrative device being deployed around them in description. I mean, to us it reads like a gruesomely thick layer of symbolism, slapped down in thick shovelfulls on Eddie's head. But maybe it's not so obvious to him. He's just Rand's character, and maybe we can't expect him to pop his head up in sudden awareness and declare, "Wait a second! This is crap!"

Because it is crap. It's a pattern of crap that will reveal itself time and time again. Rand probably knew she was highlighting a central theme right from the start, with this litany of Terrible Things That Are Wrong, but she probably thought she was just listing some examples of a world that had begun to decay. Her intention was to start off from the beginning with a depiction of a New York and a world that was run-down.

But the theme that Rand is actually beginning - and to which she will adhere throughout the book - is one of repetition. It's not enough for Rand to have two or three examples. She has to have five or six, like the five in that first bludgeoning: the browning ruined masterpiece, long streaks of grime from the pinnacles, the motionless lightning, half a spire of gold leaf, and the dying fire of the remaining gold.

This is a pattern that begins now, and is actually representative of the whole book. Atlas Shrugged is mostly just an enormous set of identical examples of her central metaphor: that the capitalist producers of the world are virtuous, and everyone else is not. Over and over, she will give us lists and examples of this.  The plot is repetitive to the point of being silly.  Rand is getting the crap started immediately.

Why, Eddie? Why can't you see it!?  Run, Eddie Willers! Run!

Our tolerance for Eddie's refusal to recognize a metaphor (even when it's clubbing him across the face) has to come to an end soon. Because we next get this gem:

He did not know why he suddenly thought of the oak tree. Nothing had recalled it. But he thought of it and of his childhood summers on the Taggart estate. He had spent most of his childhood with the Taggart children, and now he worked for them, as his father and grandfather had worked for their father and grandfather.
The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot of the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree's presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.
One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside-just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.
Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal-the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.

Poor Eddie Willers. The Plebian has problems. Chief among them is that he can't understand the most obvious of metaphors, even when they're his own. This will be a great hindrance to him in a book as filled with loathsomely palpable metaphors as Atlas Shrugged.

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