Atlas Month—Happy Birthday, Atlas!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Fri, 2007-02-02 22:04

Happy Birthday, Atlas!

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The autobiography of former Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, in which he credits her for his development, just got published with big fanfare. In recent weeks, both The New York Times and The L.A. Times have run articles about her work. Atlas Shrugged has been featured prominently in a recent episode of AMC's hit series Mad Men. A movie version of the book, starring Angelina Jolie in the main role, is slated for release next year. Meanwhile, sales of Ayn Rand titles have tripled since the early 1990s—in fact, more are being sold now than at any time in history. Atlas Shrugged sales on Amazon in the first nine months of this year are already almost double the total for 2006. As of this writing, Atlas ranks 124th on Amazon's sales charts. Compare that to The Da Vinci Code at 2,587.

—Forbes.com, "Atlas Shrugs Again," Sept 28, 2007

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On October 10, 1957, Atlas Shrugged was published by Random House. Thirteen years in the writing, including two years on the novel's key philosophical exposition, Galt's Speech, Atlas instantly alienated all elements of the establishment. It still does. Yet according to an oft-quoted 1994 US Library of Congress poll, more respondents were influenced by it than by any other book apart from the Bible. Just two weeks ago the New York Times wrote it up as “one of the most influential business books ever written.” And with sales of hard- and soft-cover editions soaring, fifty years after publication, Atlas has clearly established itself as a twentieth century classic. The book that was reviewed, variously, as "execrable claptrap," "not in any literary sense a serious novel," "written out of hate," "grotesque eccentricity," "crack-brained ratiocination," "a pitiful exercise in something akin to paranoia," "longer than life and twice as preposterous," etc., has easily eclipsed the reviewers who denounced it so apoplectically.

An analysis of the reasons it was so hated yields also the reasons it is still so loved. Atlas, far more explicitly than Ayn Rand's previous best-seller, The Fountainhead, challenges, in Rand's own words, "the cultural tradition of two thousand five hundred years." It demolishes the sacrificial ethic that permeates the belief systems of that entire period. It repudiates the proposition that man's highest purpose and duty is to sacrifice himself—be it to God, the state, society or his neighbour. It roundly condemns the equation of ethics with suffering. "The purpose of morality," says one of its heroes in a startlingly direct and outrageous formulation, "is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."

Say what?!

Thus did Ayn Rand enrage religious conservatives and secular "liberals" alike. In the latter category, Gore Vidal could write that Atlas was "perfect in its immorality"; in the former, Whittaker Chambers could lambast it for its "materialism" (this, of a book glorifying the human spirit) and insist that from every page one could hear the command, "To a gas chamber—go!" (this, of a book whose climactic speech contains the following: "So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? No man may start—the use of physical force against others ... Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins"). Ayn Rand demonstrated to all comers on the political spectrum that their fondly-held and fiercely-fought disagreements with each other were, at root, illusory—a home truth that those who heard it would rather not have. That is why the book was and is so hated.

Against their stale self-abasement and conformism, Rand urged man to rise, to achieve his proper estate: "an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads." That is why the book is so loved—by any human being who has not let his "fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all."

The title Atlas Shrugged is, of course, an allusion to the mythical hero who carried the world on his shoulders. It portrays real-life Atlases— inventors, thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, labourers—shrugging off their burdens and going on strike. Their burdens—the "looters" and "moochers" who expect their "needs" to be met through the efforts of the Atlases—are left to their own devices (prayers, snarls and demands for the unearned) as one by one the strikers repair to a safe haven, a hidden libertarian society, "Galt's Gulch," where they deal with each other rationally and voluntarily, awaiting the inevitable collapse of the collectivist cannibalism they have left behind.

The reviews quoted above, and many more like them, nearly did Atlas in. On the strength of dismal initial sales, Random House became convinced that they had a commercial failure on their hands. But some critics got it right. John Chamberlain divined that Atlas was "directed towards the creation of an entirely new mental and moral force in the world." Ruth Alexander, in the New York Mirror, proclaimed that "Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century." And then the sense of life of millions of Americans took over. As Barbara Branden writes in The Passion of Ayn Rand: "As always in Ayn's professional career, it was predominantly word of mouth that caused the sagging sales of her novel to pick up—then to soar—then to skyrocket through printing after printing and edition after edition and year after year."

Fifty years on, in real life, Atlas has yet to shrug anywhere in the world. During the question period at the end of my University of Virginia lecture, Antipodean Altruism, I was asked: "Is Atlas shrugging in New Zealand?" My response was: "In New Zealand, Atlas doesn't even know he's Atlas." The business community in New Zealand, I explained, is cowardly, conformist, submissive, apologetic, anti-philosophical. It gives money even-handedly to every political party—except the one that stands up for it. It puts up with GST, OSH, the Employment Court, the RMA, the brutal tax penalty regime and all manner of such abominations meekly, while its leaders cravenly try to persuade the likes of Michael Cullen that they are more altruistic than he. And even then they speak in muffled voices. For who among them would dare to point out the obvious truth that if "benefit to others" be the criterion of virtue, Bill Gates, acting in his self-interest, is infinitely more virtuous than the selfless Mother Teresa?

As has been demonstrated comprehensively by free market economists, the "collective" benefits of self-interested action are real—but they are a consequence, not a primary (a point usually lost on said economists). Self-interested action is good because it is the expression of rational judgement. Rational judgement is good because it is by this means that human beings live (even those who don't exercise it are dependent on those who do). And life is morality's only defensible standard of value, the only possible criterion by which we can meaningfully designate anything as "good." By that standard, happiness—one's own, individual happiness—becomes one's highest moral purpose. In that discovery and all that flows therefrom lies the moral revolution of Atlas Shrugged. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the book is perfect in its morality.

To this epochal epic—happy birthday! To its amazing author, a posthumous salute. She was, quite simply, the KASSiest gal in history.


( categories: )

"going backwards"

gregster's picture

Linz your Salient column: Well spotted - maybe we think alike.

I've noticed this one -"Going forward".

A person with a greenstone hanging from a leather strap around her neck as if to say "Please go easy on me I'm sensitive", will attempt to gloss over all errors committed that month by starting "and going forward..".

It's a variation of another expression - "in terms of .. " - which 99% of the time is used by similarly inadequate types in futile attempts at oral grandstanding.

One person at a time

Prima Donna's picture

In order to change a culture, I think the most critical component needed is the conviction to live by your values each and every day, and *never* to compromise them. That will have the greatest effect in the long term, as it addresses individuals one by one, in your interaction with them -- just as word of mouth has led to Atlas' place on the best seller lists. Whatever efforts we make as individuals, whether it be sending out press releases or running a multinational company, will make a difference.

I have now had many occasions to put these ideals into practice with my company, and in some pretty intense negotiations, and have been pleasantly surprised by people's reaction to them. When reason and complete conviction meet random ideology, it's very hard for people to refute those who embrace reason (and if they don't, I know to run, not walk, away.)

Jennifer

-- Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

I'm going to be at the

Bosch Fawstin's picture

I'm going to be at the celebration this Saturday, who else from SOLO is going?

A shortened version ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... of this salute is my Salient op-ed this week.

Linz

James S. Valliant's picture

Well, no -- I've never been shy about voicing an opinion, but CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT, man! (And I appreciate the disclaimer.)

Michael

Lindsay Perigo's picture

No argument from me. Nothing to stop any SOLOist or any Objectivist embarking on such projects. I'm not sure what your criticism is. There's way more to SOLO than press releases, which are a recent innovation for us; I just mentioned it because you seemed to be suggesting we were ignoring or eschewing the mainstream. I might add that if you scroll back you'll come across a series of daily editorials broadcast twice on each of my breakfast session broadcasts on a mainstream nationwide radio network up until just two weeks ago.

Parade-pissers do piss me off, including when they come after me in private. Someone recently told me he had better things to do than debate with Nick Otani, as though that were all SOLO offered! I didn't respond, other than to print that message out and blow my nose on it. Smiling

I think we tend to forget what an unspeakable struggle Ayn Rand had. We've seen her babies and forget about the labour pains. Yet not once did she flinch, abandon hope, or compromise. Hell, she'd go ballistic if someone changed a line in her play! She got turned down by—how many, 12?—publishers before The Fountainhead was accepted. "Too intellectual, not a 'mainstream' proposition," she was told. Yet she never changed a thing.

With Atlas Month now upon us, it's timely to contemplate her awesome integrity. When the Rand-diminishers from O-Lying were over here recently being pressed for an example of Rand's knowingly breaching her convictions, they couldn't supply one. Neil Parille was reduced to saying there just had to be one because, human nature being what it is, she just must have breached her convictions at some time! I savoured that moment. Smiling

Linz

Linz

Michael Moeller's picture

Ah, fair enough, my misread. I wasn't disparaging Solo's efforts. If you can get press releases to major media outlets, that's a good thing, of course. (As well as your own influence in the mainstream media.)

My criticism, whether Coatesian or not, I think is a fair one. In studying the law, very few with even similar voices get into mainstream legal theory. And NO Objectivist voices (and I bet James could back me up on this). Personally, I would like to see more attempting such an effort, because articles written for Objectivists or press releases are not going to have any affect on mainstream legal theory. I think the same is true of all the other fields.

Consider that Brandeis wrote a Harvard Law Review article in 1890 setting forth the basis for the "right to privacy". This was before the rise of Progressivism and well before he became a Supreme Court justice. Now, his conceptualization is EXTREMELY flawed; nevertheless, this article set the stage for privacy torts and the "right to privacy" becoming part of constitutional law.

My point is this: if Objectivists want mainstream influence, these are the type of efforts that have to be made--and there is not much of it so far. I am not sure what role Solo or other Objectivist organizations can play, but there needs to be a greater presence. A fair point and observation and not "parade-pissing", I think.

"Now let's not quarrel—we've a birthday to celebrate!"

Indeed!!!

BTW, James

Lindsay Perigo's picture

That "google" comment was not directed at whom you may think. That particular person and I have talked about his situation and I fully understand.

But believe me there are others! Sometimes folk ask for all evidence of their having been on SOLO to be removed lest it undermine the SASSing (thanks Grace!) they imagine they're about to have to do. I know one who has turned into a card-carrying pomowanker just to get on in academia. Not pretty.

Nope, James ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Are you arguing for some kind of positive "duty"?

But those who let others do the fighting should not trash those others' efforts.

If all this "discretion" stuff had prevailed in the Founding Fathers' day ... well ...!!!!!!

I haven't had a discreet day in 20 years, and I'm still here! And PARC was scarcely an exercise in discretion!! Smiling

Why not give my essay a read? Could be an enjoyable five minutes! Smiling

Oh, and then write one yourself. Smiling

Michael

Lindsay Perigo's picture

You've misread me. I didn't say "becoming part of the mainstream": I said "becoming famous in the mainstream," meaning for the sake of the fame, on the mainstream's terms. Heck, I'm reasonably "famous" in the mainstream here myself, and had a very successful career in the mainstream media. I am fighting for the mainstream, through the mainstream as often as I can, and there's no need to disparage SOLO's efforts. I don't need a Coatesian lecture on why Objectivism hasn't stormed the mainstream. Read the Credo—"We seek nothing less than to change the world."

Now let's not quarrel—we've a birthday to celebrate!

Linz

James S. Valliant's picture

I very much admire the courage of those who don their fatigues and enter the combat zone of debate and activism, but saving the world is no one's moral duty. We are egoists, right? The pursuit of happiness takes many equally ethical forms.

Under most circumstances, one has no positive obligation to reveal one's thoughts to another -- and, given the amount of blood on the floor, one can hardly criticize silence around here -- and discretion is often the better part of valor in an academic or professional setting. Biding one's time can mean emerging at the other side a FAR more powerful activist for one's beliefs.

But -- depending on the context -- the choice of retiring to Tahiti can perfectly moral. That is certainly not the ultimate test of "integrity."

Are you arguing for some kind of positive "duty"?

Linz wrote

Michael Moeller's picture

"So many folk who could be great advocates are afraid of a google search! All they want to do is emulate Keating and be famous in the mainstream."

You've got it wrong, Linz. Wanting to influence the mainstream is NOT the same as becoming part of the mainstream. Imagine Objectivists getting published in major news outlets the NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, or becoming a member of the Supreme Court or a top business leader or an influential writer like Rand herself--wouldn't that make a big difference in the culture?

These areas are where major battles can be won for Objectivism. How does the above compare to publishing press releases, which do not distinguish themselves from the other millions of groups and pundits doing the same thing daily?

Sadly, an Objectivist who wants to influence the mainstream is treated as a sellout or a "Keating". The most recent example being Tracinski.

Good article overall, Linz, but I am disappointed you see the fight for the mainstream as some sort breach of integrity. How do you expect to win the culture if nobody is willing to go into the mainstream and do just that? That is, in part, why Objectivism has not gripped the culture.

Regards,
Michael

If only, Marcus!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Fact is, it's not a matter of confidence so much as one of integrity. So many folk who could be great advocates are afraid of a google search! All they want to do is emulate Keating and be famous in the mainstream. Trust me, I'm not making this up. They've told me so themselves. Not for them Roark's "Not this way." For them, to Toohey: "You asked me to jump? How high?"

Yaron is certainly right—Ayn Rand never went away. But folk who should know better went away from her.

I personally can count the people of integrity I know on one hand—and that's not using all digits!

Linz

Age of Crap? Not now.

Marcus's picture

Great article Linz. Great article from Forbes magazine too. Remember Steve Forbes was running for the Republican nomination against Bush in 2001 and had only one main policy - cutting taxes? Shame he lost.

Remember the following explanation of Rand's new popularity from the article makes me think that the "age of crap" was actually in the 60's and 70's and we have now thankfully come out of that. All the residues of crap still around all emanate from that time in history. These are more reasons to be cheerful Smiling

"Why this sudden interest in Ayn Rand? Brook gives two reasons: "First, she never really went away. Many who read the books when they were young, in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, are now confident enough to say that Ayn Rand is their favorite author, and they have the means to donate to the institute. That's enabled us to promote objectivism more aggressively."

Second, Brook cites what he calls a cultural vacuum: "Today's left doesn't have anything positive to offer to young people. When they were socialists, there was at least something they were fighting for, and they believed in a right and a wrong. Today's leftist agenda is negative and nihilistic--focused on stopping industrialization, capitalism and even Western civilization. But young people want positive values. That's why religion is so strong today, because many view it as the only thing that promises a brighter future."

More popular than The Road Less Traveled and Lord of the Rings

William Scott Scherk's picture

There is no denying the impact and strength of Rand's opus, Atlas Shrugged. Critics, even the most wild and deranged, haven't managed to affect its force. It's a perennial, a phenomena, a book that rolls out its message year after year.

So, good on you, Lindsay, for the rousing anniversery shout-out for the lady and the book.

One quibble. You write of "an oft-quoted 1994 US Library of Congress poll [in which] more respondents were influenced by it than by any other book apart from the Bible." Is this correct?

Results of an accurate poll conducted by the US Library of Congress have a certain heft to them, and the first time I heard this it kind of gave me a thrill down my spine. Woo Hoo. Ayn Rand Rules, Baby! Keerazy or not, She RULES, Baby. Right up there with the danged Bible, Baby, I imagined myself shouting in the face of some stupid non-O person who insisted she was crazy.

Anyhow, I've read a note on Wikipedia that suggests there is less heft than the telling entails. Jessica Amanda Salmonson reports that this was actually 2,000 mail-in surveys sent back by 'Book of the Month Club' customers in 1991, for a reading promotion campaign co-sponsored by BOTMC and the USLOC. These were the top five big boys of the list (no stats were published in the promotional materials):

*1. The Bible
  2. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  3. The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  5. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Of Solmonson's take, Wiki says "Although the author appears to have a strong dislike of Rand and her supporters, her conclusions about the 'Book of the Month Club' survey appear to be supported."

See also the Atlas Shrugged FAQ for survey details.


WSS



* From the sidebar to a 2002 USA Today Money article "Scandals lead execs to 'Atlas Shrugged.'" The list was rounded out by the likes of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Gail Sheedy's Passages, says Solmonson.

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