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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.

[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!

Sequel

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If you could get a sequel for any book, what would it be?

Hands down The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand’s political view and her objectivism aside, Roark is a fictional character that I admire and of whom I am in awe, even if I’ll look back in twenty years’ time. Although I don’t think her theory taken to the extreme level works in actuality, because Ayn Rand’s all-or-nothing view is too extreme, too black-and-white. Therefore, giving in a little is not compromise but rather forfeiting one’s values and surrendering to evil. She argues that society, tainted by collectivism, has a herd mentality that corrupts individual mind. One might not meet the living counterparts of her characters in fullness, but one will recognize many a facet of them in people we know. But after all the injustice and humiliation Roark has endured silently, I would like to read a sequel in which he truly flourishes in his design. A sequel was the first thought that came to my mind after I finished the book.

[378] The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

” Why, no. I’m too conceited. If you want to call it that. I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist. ” (Part 4, VIII 608)

The Fountainhead is highly controversial because it challenges some of the most inveterate notions ever perpetuated on mankind: altruism and selflessness. It’s based on the outrageous belief in the significance of selfishness, on the provocative idea that man’s ego (and what it entails alone) is the fountainhead of human progress. It is primarily the story of Howard Roark, an architect who operates on a private, personal, selfish (in the sense of exclusiveness and independence), egotistical motivation. Indeed, since his expulsion from architecture school, no opinion except his own either disturbs or influences him. An insufferable egotist, Roark refuses to subordinate himself to the mandatory canons which generations of craftsmen and architects have proved inviolate.

The style of a soul . . . every human soul has a style of its own, also. Its one basic theme. You’ll see it reflected in every thought, every act, every wish of that person. The one absolute, the one imperative in that living creature. (Part 2, VI 270)

Perhaps Roark’s obdurate, uncompromising individualism is why he is hated and feared, because he stands above the need of using others in any manner, and to people who live “second-handedly” (Ayn Rand’s originally proposed title of the novel) on the borrowed vision of others such a man is a challenge, a threat, and a danger. Roark’s originality and creativity, by which Ayn Rand calls selfishness, are testimony of the very mediocrity of his opponents. Peter Keating, fellow classmate and architect, senses his mediocrity but fails to recognize it.

[Keating] thought of how convincingly he could describe this scene to friends and make them envy the fullness of his contentness. Why couldn’t he convince himself? He had everything he’d ever wanted. He had wanted superiority—and for the last year he had been the undisputed leader of his profession. He had wanted fame—and he had five thick albums of clippings. He had wanted wealth—and he had enough to insure luxury for the rest of his life. (Part 3, II 436)

Keating depends on Roak, who ends up ghostwriting his designs that gained him fame. Deprived of his own principle, sway by the collectivistic society, Keating only follows what has been done and hogs publicity. A mob man at heart, he shows that a selfless man cannot be ethical. Roark’s arch enemy is the critic Ellsworth Toohey, who sets his heart on striking down the egotism, the arrogance of unbridled individualism which Roark has fully personified. Toohey studies voraciously, absorbing information like a sponge. But he has nothing new to create, only acquires a prestige and influence by absorbing the works and borrowing achievements of others. He is aware of neither his inconsistencies nor the fallacy of convictions.

A blind mass running amuck, to crush you without sense or purpose . . . They recognize a man who stands alone at once. By instinct. There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him . . . They’ve got to force their miserable little personalities on every single person they meet. The independent man kills them—because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know. Notice the malignant kind of resentment against any idea that propounds independence. Notice the malice toward an independent man. Look back at your own life, Howard, and at the people you’ve met. They know. They’re afraid. You’re a reproach. (Part 4, XI 635)

Toohey represents this hegemony of men, whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions, and most unfortunately, the consciousness, are motivated by other men. Roark’s existence simply nullifies theirs. It’s no wonder that Roark, in whom the individual spirit is enshrined, clashes with journalism and religion, which are singularly responsible for imposing collectivism and altruism on mankind. Caught in this difficult is Dominique Francon, whose love for Howard prompts her to destroy him in order to save him, knowing his works have no use for a world that doesn’t exist. The newspaper tyco Gail Wynand also understands Roark’s ideals but only he values his wealth more.

Rand believes that there is only black and white in moral issues; there is no gray. Therefore, giving in a little is not compromise but rather forfeiting one’s values and surrendering to evil. She argues that society, tainted by collectivism, has a herd mentality that corrupts individual mind. One might not meet the living counterparts of her characters in fullness, but one will recognize many a facet of them in people we know. The novel is an American epic because the values and ideals she proclaims can be applied to our world today. She makes a strong case for her extreme philosophy, although it’s difficult to digest and accept in fullness. I personally settle for a middle path, where the call for individualism and acknowledgement for the needs of society are equally important. Following the life of Roark and the insidious orchestrations of his enemies is both fascinating and gripping.

736 pp. Centennial Edition/Soft cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]