At around 1200 pages, Atlas Shrugged is nearly worthy of the shoulders of an Atlas. I sent Sonali Gogate, who’s read the book several times—I’m only halfway through my first read—about ten questions to think about. We were to go through them by e-chat in order but I find myself thinking about the last one: How would you persuade someone to pick up the book in these times when all we have time for seems to be quick skimming? I mean it’s so weighty…in both senses of the word.
Sonali: It might be a bit intimidating at first but I think that’s part of the draw. We like to skim but we also like to be swept into a gripping epic. And Atlas Shrugged is a quick absorbing read, right from the start.
Me: Yeah, what grabbed me at the outset was the character of Dagny, how incredibly competent she is wielding authority.
Sonali: Absolutely. A great example of that occurs very early, when she jumps seamlessly from being a train passenger inconvenienced by trouble on the line to her professional role as Operating VP of her brother Jim’s Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, fixing the problem on the line that has inconvenienced her as a passenger. Very early on, from the way she talks to the engineers on the line to later when she addresses her bureaucratic, initially merely harmless brother, we relate to Dagny—she seems to be the author Ayn Rand. The book almost begins with the author pulling the reader in with a strong female character like no other you’ve come across in life or in fiction.
Me: Dagny’s is clearly the center—the highlights of the book all revolve around her…the potential heroes are all defined by her. Speaking of heroes, tell me, from your preliminary answers you seem to think the hero is someone who for me hasn’t even arrived on the stage yet—and I’m halfway through the book.
Sonali: That’s right and that’s excusable since Dagny can carry the protagonist mantle quite capably, excusable and intentional since it adds to the mystery of the plot. It’s clear from the critical reviews that John Galt is Rand’s hero, her ideal man —though for the first half of the novel he is only a name that’s introduced in the rhetorical question, “Who’s John Galt?” meaning ‘Why ask why?’ Much later in the book Rand shows Dagny thinking about a ‘man’ she has never met, that she has always been in search of and never found. That man of course turns out to be Galt.
Me: Let’s not talk much about Galt since I haven’t even gotten to him yet and Rand seems to intend his very existence to be somewhat a surprise for readers. Getting back to Dagny—it’s amazing how despite her larger-than-life persona, she seems very real. I’m not sure I can say that about her lovers. Could you talk a little bit about them?
Sonali: Sure. As we progress through the novel, we’re introduced to Dagny’s three lovers through the three defining periods of her life. Frisco, the apparent playboy represents her past, Reardon, the industrialist, represents the present at least for the first half of the novel, and Galt the revolutionary, represents her future. Though Galt is Rand’s hero, I am sure many people feel like me, that Frisco is the real hero. He has the most to lose acting the playboy in ‘civilized’ society so he can ferret out those like Reardon, the inventor of Reardon metal, who are worthy of being saved from the ruin that will befall the villains of the novel, the bureaucrats, once Galt restores the world to its rightful owners.
Incidentally bureaucrats for Rand are almost by definition passionless, portly people who endlessly parrot mantras like ‘Money is the root of all evil’ that Rand detests, but that even today commonly pass as ethical values. Frisco, Dagny’s first love, stakes his family copper mines, even the woman he loves to restore the world to the capable men from the looters as Rand calls them, looters because they appropriate rewards rightly deserved by the ‘Atlases’ of the world who willingly exchange their abilities for those of others through the medium of money, which is really a good.
Me: Interesting you say Frisco has the most to lose…would you say someone who has the most to lose in a worthwhile struggle is almost by definition the hero?
Sonali: I think in Atlas Shrugged Rand’s hero is Galt. He is the ideal man, the perfect man who’s really been present in everything from the beginning even when he’s not present. Later you understand Rand’s logic for why he’s her hero, why he’s superior to others. Galt’s basic principle about relationships—‘non-guilt’—is Rand’s principle, hinted at in Dagny’s previous relationships in the novel.
Frisco has the most to lose but remember: Rand’s philosophy in Atlas Shrugged is not to believe in sacrifice.
Me: Could it be Galt is the hero of ideals and Frisco is the hero of the plot?
Sonali: I don’t think so. Those two things are not separate as far as Rand is concerned. Ideals—the struggle for ideals—almost is the plot.
Me: I guess like the Mahabharata, in Atlas Shrugged also there will always be debates about who’s the hero. At present I like Reardon. I’m not far enough along to like Galt or relike Frisco beyond his initial ‘nature’s child’ like depiction in Dagny’s growing up years. Do you want to talk about your favorite part of the book next?
Sonali: Well as I told you, I have three main favorite parts and I refuse to pin myself to just one. Chronologically the first great part is Dagny’s growing up years. There we see Frisco’s pure intellectual curiosity and aptitude for how things work, for doing them better than others though he never says it. We see his and Dagny’s potential, which makes Frisco’s playboy act that much more tragic when you read it both for you and for Dagny. The growing up years is also the part where Dagny and Frisco share their dreams, their aspirations about the future as they fall in love.
Me: That reminds me of one of my favorite parts, where Dagny, probably just to be provocative, says that maybe she should try and get bad grades in school so as to be popular with other girls. Frisco slaps her real hard, enough to make her lip bleed. He tries to explain why but she has already understood why. And she goes home wearing her cut-lip like a badge of honor…there is something very erotically charged about that scene—I’m not sure why. Maybe because the violent slap—what would normally be the result of irreconcilable anger—, here prefigures a deep mutual understanding.
Sonali: Well anger against someone you love and respect is always profound. That part IS interesting because it’s not clichéd at all. The romance between Dagny and Frisco as well as much later between Dagny and Galt is some of the most passionate writing I have read. With Reardon it’s also gripping but not as intense as with Frisco or Galt.
Anyway, chronologically the next great part for me is the construction of Dagny’s rail-line with Reardon’s metal, the ‘miracle metal’ as called later by the looters. In the construction of the John Galt line as Dagny tongue-in-cheek names it—though at that point you’re not even aware John Galt is a real person—you see the struggle Dagny has to go through to make their vision a reality, the way she keeps finding solutions to different problems that come her way is, to say the least, inspiring.
This part culminates in the first run of the freight on the John Galt line, how, despite the newspapers and public opinion makers’ decrying it as unsafe, drivers and engineers defy their unions to be in on the first run of freight on rails made of Reardon metal. Reardon and Dagny ride in the engine on that run in an erotically charged scene that prefigures Reardon’s extramarital affair with her.
Then my absolute favorite part is Frisco’s words to Dagny when he meets her at Galt’s house in the valley. He’d already accepted that he’d lost her to Reardon. At this point we know, but he doesn’t, that he’s lost her again this time to Galt. What’s tragic is his words make it clear that she’s the love of his life. He’s glad she knows about the cause and knows why he made her suffer the way she did when he changed. He says that even though he has lost her, he has also won her if she becomes part of the cause, which makes you feel very sad for him and admire him even more, if that’s possible.
Me: Well I haven’t gotten to your absolute favorite part. But re the first run of the John Galt line, what’s really inspirational and I think realistic is the impotency of forces in society traditionally conceived as powerful, like politicians, media, unions, etc. For me one interesting minor character who exhibits this resistance to the so-called shapers of public opinion is Dagny’s sister-in-law, before the wheeling-and-dealing bureaucrat Jim Taggart makes her his wife. I haven’t read far enough to know but is the independent-mindedness we see in her when James first courts her—or should I say manipulates her—developed to any great extent…perhaps under Dagny’s guidance? I mean it would be nice to have some not-larger-than-life characters who are sympathetically portrayed.
Sonali: Yeah, she is an interesting character but in the end she appears just as a pathetic figure. I guess Rand is showing how difficult it is—it still is—for women to achieve anything remotely like Dagny. More generally, Rand may be showing that people who start off with great spirit, if they do not have an inner strength, can end up in the worst possible way. She may also be making the point that society is not yet ready to nurture someone like Jim’s wife. Dagny’s exceptional but you can’t minimize the role luck plays in her development, though I’m sure Rand didn’t believe in such things. Dagny is who she is because of the relationships she’s had in life, the people she’s had the good fortune to encounter. The dominant influence in Jim’s wife’s life is Jim, who’s a pretty despicable fellow.
It’s true nearly all Rand’s sympathetic characters are larger than life, people of exceptional abilities, though one notable exception to this general rule is the character we meet first: Frisco and Dagny’s childhood friend Eddie. But you’re right: the novel is about the prime supports of the world, those who bear it on their shoulders like Atlas.
Me: We talked about some of the characters. Do you have favorite lines spoken by your favorite characters?
Sonali: Frisco has some of the best lines. My favorites: “I’ll give you a hint. Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong”; and “There are no evil thoughts, Mr. Reardon, except one: the refusal to think”. I also like his long speech about money made at Jim’s wedding. I don’t think I thought about what money is and why we need it till I read this the first time. Also great is when he tells Dagny that those who’ve been called “materialists” by the killers of the human spirit are the only ones who know how little value or meaning there is in material objects as such, because they are the ones who create the value and meaning.
Me: What would you say are some of the weak points of the novel?
Sonali: Well, there are not many, but I would say it would’ve been better had there been more strong female characters in the book. I mean Dagny’s the only one. Of course, in the world the book is talking about—the late 1950’s—there would have been very few if any strong women characters running businesses or taking decisions. Still few other characters that are shown could’ve been more elaborate.
Me: True Dagny’s the only strong sympathetic female character but isn’t there a strong unsympathetic female character in Reardon’s wife, Lilllian?
Sonali: Lilian, I think is extremely manipulative, not strong. If a person is strong, he/she does not need to be manipulative.
Me: Interesting… A problem for me was the depiction of some of the male characters that are not intended to be cookie-cutter stereotypes. As exceptional as Dagny is, she seems real. But as a male, I can’t really relate to Frisco and Reardon. An ‘inside-the-head’ perspective of either one seems to be missing. I guess it’s as hard for a woman to write male characters as it is for men to write realistic female characters. James is the most real seeming male character though he is for me the most love-to-hate character. But ultimately he is a cookie-cutter stereotype of Rand’s perception of bureaucrats in general.
Sonali: You may be right about women writer’s depiction of male characters and vice-versa but some of the unrealism may be because Rand’s characters are supposed to be larger than life. Speaking of love-to-hate characters, for me Dr, Stadler fits that bill because he is a person with tremendous talent and capability who aligns himself with the looters rather than live up to his true potential. Frisco initially also seems like another example of someone else who has fabulously squandered his potential.
Another unrealistic part for me was how comfortable Dagny is walking away from Reardon as well as Frisco. I mean there is Galt’s basic ‘non-guilt’ principle, but I don’t think walking away from people is that easy. Rand may be like her in some ways, though the physical characteristics are different. But Dagny clearly speaks Rand’s language to the hilt.
Me: Well we’ve talked characters, favorite lines, favorite parts and less favorite parts—let’s close with some words about how Rand’s themes are relevant today.
Sonali: The issues raised by Rand are about morality and ethics—those will always be relevant in every society and every time.
Me: Do you think Rand would like how the struggle between capitalism and communism has turned out?
Sonali: She would definitely like to have seen Russia moving away from communism. She was a Russian who immigrated to the United States; her first novel We the Living was based in Communist Russia. But while Russia has moved away from communism, neither is the west as capitalistic as it was in Rand’s day. I don’t think she would like what’s happening presently, for example, what Obama is trying to do. His policies remind me a little of the novel’s “Anti-dog-eat-dog bill”. On socio-economic policy, Rand is definitely more republican than democrat, though as an avowed atheist, she would be dead-set against the Christian right wing of the republican party.
By the way, I should mention there is an Ayn Rand Institute (www.aynrand.org). They had stood up for Microsoft when it was embroiled in the anti-trust mess. They also proclaim that “Buy American is anti-American”. Also with Rand’s view that cream should rise to the top wherever it’s from, I don’t think Rand would’ve tolerated the current moves in the U.S. to reduce outsourcing. All this comes from Rand’s basic philosophy.
Re other current developments, I also thought about Hilary Clinton and Dagny. An interesting thing about Rand: she liked to see very capable women but she thought that the highest authority has to rest with a man. I don’t think she would’ve liked the idea of having a woman president.
Me: Interesting. You seem to know a lot about Rand beyond what’s revealed in Atlas Shrugged—personal research?
Sonali: That and I’ve also read other books by her like The Fountainhead, which has many of the same ideas, though not as well defined, though as a novel that too is very good.
Me: Well, I think that wraps up all the questions I had. Thank you Sonali for a most insightful review.
Incidentally I should mention if any of our readers has a philosophically relevant book he’d like to review for the journal, write to editor@punejournalofphilosophy and we may be able to work something out.