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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.

[757] All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

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” We are little flames sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. Then the muffled roar of the battle becomes a ring that encircles us, we creep in upon ourselves, and with big eyes stare into the night. ” (Ch.11, p.275)

This book is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army out of their own volition after listening to the stirring, provoking, patriotic speeches of the school master, Kantorek. Bust after experiencing first-hand the atrocity and brutality, they realize that the empty talk of nationalism and patriotism made by these so-called intellectuals, who know nothing about the constant physical terror and encroaching fear, has consumed a whole generation of young men who are disconnected from their normal lives.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow . . . Through the years our business has been killing;—it was our first calling in life. (Ch.10, p.263-4)

The young men belong to Second Company, which is soon dispatched to the front line. After the first combat with heavy shelling, only 80 of the 150 men survive. They also endure the strictest disciplinary actions meted out by the reckless Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life who has taken up bullying, Soon Paul witnesses the slow death of his friend Kemmerich, who is eaten up by gangrene after having one leg amputated. What eagerness and enthusiasm in soldiering at the first place have turned into inconsolable misery. This is exactly the aim of the novel—sets out to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory, honor, and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our booms, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down . . . (Ch.6, p.113)

All Quiet on the Western Front depicts soldier as an everyman in any given war. Despite the physical horror and carnage, the book focuses on the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers. The intense physical threat serves as an ceaseless attack on the nerves. That constant fear of death has deprived them of reasonable thought process. Along with the meager provisions, the appalling living situation, the poor sanitation, the book gives an overall effect of these conditions as a crippling overload of panic and despair. The only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions, and accepting conditions of their lives. That is the reason Paul feels there exists a thickness, a veil in place between him and his family when he goes home during leave. What makes this book so powerful is Paul the universal soldier—his voice speaks for all the soldiers, for all of humanity. Despite the military differences, regardless of the sides, soldiers are just ordinary men who have rights to live a normal life.

296 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “All Quiet on the Western Front”

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I have never been a fan of war stories. All the description of artillery, shelling, grenade, shrapnel, munition and trench confuse me. I have evaded reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school because honors English didn’t have it on the reading list.

The book is intriguing for once, it’s written in the perspective of a young German soldier, who, out of patriotism and honor, gets drafted. But after experiencing the uncompromising brutality, Paul and his classmates realize that the ideals of nationalism, so professed by these men of authority who “continued to write and talk” away from the front line.

Clothes do not make the man. Most of the authority figures in the novel are painted as one form or another of idiots, sycophants, toadies, and other lower order life forms. Kantorek (the boys’ teacher back home) and Himmelstoss (postman-cum- reckless disciplinarian in army) are core figureheads in this arena. But they represent the many others who assume their form. This type of representation is one of the things that makes All Quiet on the Western Front such a great book—it is clearly everyman’s story of the war.

[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.

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