Differing Reactions to Ayn Rand’s Novel Atlas Shrugged

by | Feb 10, 2011

It’s hard to get your mind around this, but a lot of people are really put off by Atlas Shrugged.

It’s hard to get your mind around this, but a lot of people are really put off by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I read a fair amount of web-chatter about Ayn Rand and Atlas, and even allowing for the dishonesty, I find a number of people who find Atlas . . . well, let one of them say it, not I. Here’s one of the more polite, less venomous reports:

“I’m 450 pages in, and have yet to encounter a character I give a st about.”

I never met characters I cared more about. As others have said, the characters of Atlas sometimes seem more real than the people around me.

What’s behind this blogger’s non-caring? What does he care about? He tells us: the characters of two notoriously socialist novels: Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

“Ask me about Ma or Tom Joad, or Jurgis Rudkis, and a very clear picture springs to mind. . . . the main characters really feel real to you, the way your friends or co-workers feel—like you could gab to someone on the phone about them, and have the person on the other line go, “Really? They said what?”

I haven’t read either novel, but via Amazon’s “Look inside the book” feature, I can give you a randomly selected bit of Tom Joad dialogue:

Joad laughed scornfully. “You don’t know Pa. If he kills a chicken most of the squawkin’ will come from Pa, not the chicken. He don’t never learn. He’s always savin’ a pig for Christmus and then it dies in September of somepin so you can’t eat it. When Uncle John wanted pork he et pork. He had her.”

(I “looked inside” The Jungle but couldn’t find any dialogue longer than a sentence or two for Jurgis. It was stuff like this, in response to a potential employer asking Jurgis if he had any references: “No, sir. I’m just an unskilled man. I’ve got good arms.”)

So you get the combination: a “we is jes’ plain folks” attitude plus socialist politics.

Overall, the common denominator is a strong preference for the familiar and ordinary over the challenging and innovative, plus a desire to feel sympathy with the helpless rather than admiration for the heroic. And I don’t know what could be, in turn, the explanation of that psychology other than plain fear. A confident man is bored by the ordinary; he actively seeks out challenges: he thinks he can meet them.

But those who lack confidence—basic confidence in their ability to cope with life’s demands—don’t feel comfortable with things beyond “gabbing on the phone” about friends and co-workers.

I think Dominique has the best description of this kind of attitude:

“You’ve met Mr. Roark, Mrs. Jones? And you didn’t like him?… Oh, he’s the type of man for whom one can feel no compassion? How true. Compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread-you know, like taking a girdle off. You don’t have to hold your stomach, your heart or your spirit up-when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It’s much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. It justifies suffering. There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion?… Oh, it has an antithesis—but such a hard, demanding one…. Admiration, Mrs. Jones, admiration. But that takes more than a girdle…. So I say that anyone for whom we can’t feel sorry is a vicious person. Like Howard Roark.” [All ellipses were in the original.]

Substitute “You’ve read about Dagny, Francisco, and Galt?” for “You’ve met Mr. Roark?” and Dominique could have been speaking to this blogger.

A given work of literature either confirms or contradicts a reader’s metaphysical value-judgments. I don’t know this blogger in particular, but his post captures the attitude of a wide class of people who seek in art a confirmation of two things: the malevolence of “the system” (by which they mean some woozy blend of reality and society) and the “injustice” of holding anyone accountable for who he is, what he does, and how he lives.

Feeling fundamentally inadequate and guilty, they seek the security of home and the automatic forgiveness inherent in determinism. And they don’t find that in Atlas Shrugged.

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at: HBLetter.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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