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[755-2] Atlas Shrugged (Part II) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

“…if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do? . . . To shrug. ” (Part II, Ch.III, White Blackmail)

Part II, titled “Either-Or,” focuses on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save the crumbling railway network, an artery of the country’s economy, or to give it up and grant the “looters” sanction. The middle section of the novel sheds light on the new directives that, what were meant to boost economy by encouraging competition and eliminating monopoly, actually leads to the collapse of the nation’s oil industry. Following the disappearance of Wyatt who imploded his oil fields, Rearden, refusing to cede the rights to Rearden Metal to the State, is indicted for secret sales to a coal magnate, a transaction made illegal by the equal opportunity directives.

It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch—someone, she thought bitterly, who have reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static. (Part II, Ch.II)

Equally perplexing Dagny is the continuous disappearance of industrialists for no conceivable reason. Francisco d’Anconia, heir of the largest copper core who has turned a playboy, reveals that he has deliberately destroyed his company to harm the looters who are profiteering on his abilities. He coaxes Rearden to renounce the State by quitting. By continuing to work under such dictatorial circumstances, Rearden is granting a moral sanction to the looters, a sanction they need from him in order to compromise his rights and his mind. At his trial, Rearden is unapologetic for his success and defensive of his right to produce for his own stake. His sound reason only leaves the court speechless and panicked. But it’s Rearden’s wife Lillian, upset at his affair with Dagny, uses this as a weapon to deliver him to the State.

There had been a time he had been required to do his best and rewarded accoringly. Now he could expect nothing but punishment, if he tried to follow his conscience. There had been a time when he had been expected to think. Now they did not want him to think, only to obey. (Part II, Ch.VII, The Moratorium of Brains)

Part II sees further deterioration of the railway, punishment of Rearden’s success, and a rapid, chilling assimilation of a society in which all talents and ambition are curbed and the citizens become indistinguishable. Bussinessmen use government power to loot competitors, they gain in the short run while greater losses are spread throughout the society. The “aristocracy of pull” in the book rules through access to Washington, trading favors and back-stabbing in a destructive political competition that eventually leads to economic collapse. But the most porous damage is the death of brain—gone are reason and individual thinking. The virtues that made life possible and the values that give life meaning become agents of its destruction.

[758] Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich

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” Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can. ” (357)

This is Louise Erdrich’s first book. Love Medicine opens in 1981 when June Kashpaw, an attractive Chippewa prostitute who has idled her days on the main streets of an oil boomstown in North Dakota, decides to return to the reservation on which she was raised. But en route she dies in the freezing Dakota countryside. Twice married, she is the direct link of two native Indian families—the Kashpaws and the Nanapushes. Her memory and legacy she passes on to her family provoke various relatives and acquaintances to recall their relationships with her and to reminisce their own lives.

Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears. (12)

Albertine, June’s niece and a nursing student at university (the only one who goes to college), introduces all the family members, all entangled by bloodlines and marriage, who gather at the reservation after June’s death. At the center of this novel is Grandma Kashpaw, known as Marie Lazarre before her marriage to Nector Kashpaw, who has assimilated to white culture by attending white school. In his youthful days he posted naked for painting. But he resents the the notion that whites are interested in the doom of the Indians. Marie escaped the horror of the Catholic church, where a nun attempted to oust Satan from her brain by pouring boiling water into her ear. Although Marie married Nector the tribal chairman, Nector loves another woman, Lulu, who is a flirt and is shameless about her affairs. Marie copes by raising strong, educated children and ceaselessly “peeling potatoes.”

Right and wrong were shades of meaning, not sides of a coin.

The novel trickles back and fro in time, revolving the love triangle between Marie, Nector, and Lulu. All his life Nector never makes a decision of his own, he does what comes along. In a sense, Nector is like the Indian tribe that is at the mercy and whim of the U.S. government. The love medicine in question represents an attempt by a Kashpaw grandson to assure once and for all that his grandfather will love and be true to his wife. The plan ends in disaster when corners are cut and the authentic old Indian customs for preparing the potion are circumvented.

They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth . . . They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink. (326)

In poetic language Erdrich portrays the culture and traditions of Native Indians that are under attack of mainstream assimilation. The bloodlines might be confusing by Erdrich stresses that people all stem from one giant tree. The book is a folklore, through the collected first-person narratives, that depicts the fundamental human capacities for love, jealousy, devotion, greed, generosity, and endurance.

367 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Louise Erdrich

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Love Medicine is like One Hundred Years of Solitude all over. A multi-generational story spun around two Native Indian families. Family chart should be kept at arm’s legth the whole time the novel is being read. Once reader gets over the complicated relationships, the reading is a magical realism of the native land and traditions.

Love Medicine opens in 1981 with the death of beautiful but broken June Kashpaw. June stumbles from a truck cab and runs from a stranger who calls her by another woman’s name as he makes love to her. She sets out for her home on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation, following her instincts through a later winter storm. But her sharp survival skills, honed in a lifetime of living out-of-doors, cannot overpower the snowstorm or keep her warm in a pair of jeans and a thin jacket.

It is challenging to keep straight the shared bloodlines and histories. I believe later editions contain a family tree of sorts. But Erdrich explains these connected lives in a way that you realize they are like the root system of an aspen tree—one tree, standing alone, is really part of a vast forest.

[756] A Raisin in the Sun – Lorriane Hansberry

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” MAMA: My children and they tempers. Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again. (She turns from the window.) What’s the matter with you this morning, Ruth? You looks right peaked. You aiming to iron all of them things? Leave some for me. (Act I) “

The story of A Raisin in the Sun is simple but epic. Published in 1959, it’s about a family living on the south side of Chicago struggling with poverty, striving to maintain dignity, and dreaming of a better life. One of the central conflicts was loosely based on an event from Lorriane Hansberry’s own childhood. In 1938, her family, in violation of a restrictive covenant that was legal at the time, bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. The fight that ensue, against both legal system and hostile neighbors, deeply affected young Hansberry.

RUTH: Shoot—these here rich white women do it all the time. They don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and—swoosh!—they gone, child.
MAMA: Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman. (Act I)

The Youngers have been living in a “rat-trap” that has become too small and crowded for their needs. Mama’s grandson Travis has to bed down in the living room that also serves as the dining room. The family has to get up earlier in the morning so the bathroom, shared with neighbors, would be available. In receipt of insurance money of her recently-deceased husband, Mama buys a house in an all-white neighborhood to provide a home for her family. Mama is cutting edge in trying to defeat segregation, for she believes “there is no such thing as white folks neighborhood except to racists and to those submitting to racism.” (Act I) She is the meek protector of the house, tending her children, though grown-up, like plants.

The play explores significant themes in American literature: dreams, identity, power, and race. Every character has a very specific dream, and they struggle to cope with oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. Mama dreams of a house for her family. Walter dreams of success in business enterprise. Ruth dreams of a place for her family and a baby. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. These dreams both spur the characters on and frustrate them. They become consumed by their dreams and make decisions they might not ordinarily make because they are so frustrated by their lack of fulfillment.

MAMA: Then isn’t there something wrong in a home—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? (Act III)

This play revolves around the conflicts within and between characters. Each one of them is a representation of something generational, a gender or race issue, and it’s a testament to Hansberry’s writing that her characters don’t come across as mouthpieces of the story. They are living, breathing human beings who have obstacles. What finally brings their inner conflicts to a boil are the demonstration of power through what one can achieve based on one’s race. Despite the myriad manifestation of racial discrimination, the core of the play is the human condition—how human beings struggle against oppression, struggle for individual fulfillment.

152 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[755-1] Atlas Shrugged (Part I) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

” Thought—he told himself quietly—is a weapon one uses in order to act . . . Thought is the tool by which one makes a choice . . . Thought sets one’s purpose and the way to reach it. ” (Part I, Chapter VII, The Exploiters and the Exploited)

Tremendous in cope and gripping in suspense, Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel set in dystopian People’s States of America. Titled “Non Contradiction”, Part I confronts two prominent business executives, Dagny Taggart of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway and Hank Rearden of Rearden Metal. The main story line concerns Dagny’s quest to understand the cause underlying the seemingly inexplicable collapse of her railroad and simultaneously, her search for a man who invented a motor that could not only save her railway but also benefit the nation’s economy.

What protection does society have against the arrogance, selfishness, and greed of two unbridled individualists, whose records are conspicuously devoid of any public-spirited actions? These two, apparently, are willing to stake the lives of their fellow men on their own conceited notions about their powers of judgment . . . (Part I, Chapter VIII, The John Galt Line)

Part I presents a mystery and it thickens with the increasing failure of the railway, and with the disappearance of able men like scientists, engineers, oil producer, motor manufacturer and banker. While Dagny struggles to salvage the dying branches of the crumbling system, from her brother, the president of the company, she gets a bewildering evasiveness and a vague resentment toward men of achievement. In response to the oil industry boom in Colorado, Dagny decides to replace the crumbling track with new rail made from Rearden Metal, Hank Rearden’s untested but revolutionary new alloy. Every step of the way Rearden he meets obstacle, opposition, and humiliation of his values and achievement. His lobbyist in Washington abandons him. A rival steel tycoon uses his political pull to pass laws that will crush a competing regional railroad to Colorado, and eventually cripple Rearden’s steel operation with equalization opportunity measure. This leaves the oil man Ellis Wyatt , whose oil fields fuel the whole nation, with no choice but to ship with Taggart Transcontinental, whose track is in total disrepair.

When Rearden refuses to see all rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, they retaliate with a public statement questioning the safety of the new alloy. Still, despite enormous opposition and obstacles, Dagny and Rearden complete the John Galt Line (in defiance against the widespread despair that this catch-phrase entails) and demonstrate its safety by riding in it. Their victory over adversity and irrationality is short-lived, as political pressure groups are clamoring for more dictatorial directives that punish success and productivity, in the name of public welfare.

On the surface the novel lambastes greed and exposes manipulation to one’s gain, but it lays the philosophical foundation for what is to come. All the mysteries and strange events of Atlas Shrugged proceed from a single philosophical cause, obscure at this stage, revolving reason and individual mind. To Dagny there is this mysterious force, seems purposefully bent on luring away from society its most talented people—a destroyer who is “draining the brains of the world.”

Reading Atlas Shrugged: “Selfishness”

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This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth. You are asked to sacrifice your intellectual integrity, your logic, your reason, your standard of truth—in favor of becoming a prostitute whose standard is the greatest good for the greatest number. (Part III, Ch. VII, “This is John Galt Speaking”)

Ayn Rand advocates for a “selfishness” that is not the same as what schools teach children to share toys and supplies. She further elaborates on this seemingly outlandish concept in another book, The Virtue of Selfishness. In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions. There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.

In the context of Atlas Shrugged, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Reading Atlas Shrugged: John Galt vs. Prometheus

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John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire—until the day men withdraw their vultures. (Part II, Chapter V)

Prometheus was the Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel who was entrusted with the task of molding mankind out of clay. His attempts to better the lives of his creation brought him into direct conflict with Zeus. Firstly he tricked the gods out of the best portion of the sacrificial feast, acquiring the meat for the feasting of man. Then, when Zeus withheld fire, he stole it from heaven and delivered it to mortal kind hidden inside a fennel-stalk. As punishment for these rebellious acts, Zeus ordered the creation of Pandora (the first woman) as a means to deliver misfortune into the house of man, or as a way to cheat mankind of the company of the good spirits. Prometheus meanwhile, was arrested and bound to a stake on Mount Kaukasos where an eagle was set to feed upon his ever-regenerating liver (or, some say, heart). Generations later the great hero Herakles came along and released the old Titan from his torture.

In Francisco’s comment, Prometheus (personified by Galt) represents the great industrialists who have provided men with prosperity and improved their lives with their inventions and products, but have received only condemnation and government interference in return. These men, led by Galt, have disappeared and taken their prosperity-generating minds (the “fire” they had provided) with them. They will no longer allow themselves to receive torture as payment for their talents, and they will only return their talents to the world when they are no longer punished for bringing them.

Reading Atlas Shrugged

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I’ve been having a nose in Atlas Shrugged, which I read in conjunction with several book bloggers. One quote has been recurring throughout and I have only begun to realize its significance:

But what can you do when you have to deal with people? (Part I, Chapter VII)

This question is uttered on many occasions by Dr. Stadler, first in Part One, Chapter VII. Dr. Stadler on the government’s behalf asks the exclusive rights to “Rearden Metal”, a new metallurgical compound invented by Hank Rearden. The blue-green metal is tougher than steel and would be an asset to the railway industry. Rearden refuses and the government proceeds to indict him for violation of directives. The quote in question demonstrates Dr. Stradler and the looters’ (people gang up on successful industrialist like Rearden) belief that people are generally irrational and must be dealt with in a manipulative or repressive manner. Stadler believes most people are incapable of rational thought and must be told what is best for them. He believes they will support pure thought only if it is government-sanctioned, and this is why he has supported the creation of the State Science Institute. As the story progresses, this view of people becomes a justification for the increasing power of the government and its adoption of brute force. The question is also stated by Dr. Floyd Ferris at the unveiling of Project X. While coercing Stadler to deliver his speech praising the monstrous machine, Ferris reminds him that at a time of hysteria, riots, and mass violence, the people must be kept in line by any means necessary. He underscores his message by quoting the question Stadler himself is known for asking.

Does this sound relevant to some of the governing bodies nowadays?

“Who’s John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged Read-Along

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I kick off second half of 2015 with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reading in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter. Here are the mechanics:

Runs from July 1-Aug 15, 2015
Use #AtlasRAL to talk about it on Twitter.
Tina hopes to write an update post on my blog after each part (I, II, III) just to see how we are doing.

Schedule:
Part I by July 15 (approx 300 pages)
Part II by July 31 (approx 320 pages)
Part III by August 15 (approx 450 pages)

First published in 1957, it’s a huge book with a tremendous scope. It is a dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential. It explores the pursuit of profit and success against individualism. It probes the relation between faith and reason. Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt?

I started this morning and I’m riveted at it already, despite the daunting size. The famous opening line “Who is John Galt?” is a mystery. Nobody knows where the expression comes from. The mystery of the plot certainly hinges on this bizarre question. Thank you Tina for calling the shot to read this one!

[754] We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

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” I want you to remember there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing. ” (Part VI, Ch.8, 594)

A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. It’s no secret that this long debut, taken ten years to write, deals with a suffering mind. Spanning six decades from early 1940s, We Are Not Ourselves follows the history of a family, from the impoverished childhood of Eileen Tumulty in an Irish-American household in New York, through her marriage to Edmund Leary and the birth of their son, Connell.

There was something romantic about that, but living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating. (Part I, Ch.9, 70)

Scarred by alcoholism of her family in childhood years, Eileen is determined to break away from the turbulent upbringing and lives a life of prestige. She keeps her emotions at bay. Deep inside of her is a sensuousness that she safeguards at all times. his protectiveness makes it difficult for anyone to feel for her. She justifies her existence to herself through tireless work as a nurse, and the equally relentless pursuit of a better life for her family. In a way, she is a character-in-the-make, slowly being refined and polished in the face of tough times. She is angry and frustrated at her husband’s frugality, and, although she wants to show her son affection, it never occurs to her to try to be Connell’s friend. Sometimes her lack of warmth can be appalling. Her great trial will reveal the strength of her uncompromising nature and her capacity for love.

It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness. (Part IV, Ch.57, 382)

Ed Leary is a scientist whose ambition has never been for fancier titles and fatter paychecks—he’s for something unquantifiable and philosophical which, after his passing, becomes a legacy for his son. A sentimental education from a father who seems dorky. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son. The novel’s account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life, wrecking a brilliant mind, is unsparing, but never cold. The illness renders Eileen’s awakening to her senses and values in life. The luxury, perfect home she always lusts after is at best only second to her husband’s heart. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.

We Are Not Ourselves maintains a ponderous pace with very lyrical prose. While the narrative can be slightly sluggish at times, it is rich in detail and scrutiny. It’s one of the most nuanced portrait of a contemporary family in the face of challenges that can befall us.

620 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]