George Saunders understands what Rand fans won’t: Objectivism is more young adult fantasy than political philosophy
David Sirota hits on many of the themes I have explored around Rand and Atlas Shrugged since 1996, when I discovered that Alan Greenspan was a disciple of hers. I first read Anthem when I was around 15: my sister had a copy and I was reading a lot of science fiction and she fit into the genre (although it has been more accurately redesignated “speculative fiction”). That summer, I began reading her copy of Atlas Shrugged, but abandoned the effort at the point where James Taggart is having lunch with the mysterious stranger in the employee cafeteria: it was so transparently John Galt that I lost interest in what promised to be a long slog. Instead, I read Capital by Marx, more or less out of duty and in preparation for a military career. It, too, was a long slog.
I have never understood the essentially emotional commitment Marxists have for Marx, but it is very similar to the emotional commitment libertarians have for Rand. The difference being that the sexual component of Fountainhead Shrugged as a major valance is fairly blatant.
Sirota has it exactly correct, that is, that Rand’s system of thought, as a reflection of her values, is for children. Rand, herself, revealed that she consciously sustained the value system she had prior to menarche (a term she did not use but can be inferred from the context of her writing: it is my conjecture that her mother never warned her of the coming advent of menarche and she was totally repulsed by the whole process and blamed it, among other things on her mother). The character of John Galt is based on a character from an adventure story she read at about that time. Again, from the context, I gather the story was at about the maturity level of the Hardy Boys.
The people who love Atlas Shrugged get hooked by the sexual allure of Dagny Taggart, who truly reflects Rand’s genius as a novelist. Dagny is possibly the most vivid character in my limited literary vocabulary. By and large, I am not particularly susceptible to women’s literature, Andre Norton from my youth being an exception. I read AS in 1996, when I was 49, and her charms were evident to me but were not as enchanting as they might have been at 15 and before 35 years exposure to far more explicit erotica. But Dagny is an authentic literary success and AS deserves to be read for her characterization and as a mechanism for drawing the credible reader into the ideological cartoon Rand creates. If you are serious about creating an compelling narrative, especially for the emotionally immature, Dagny Taggart is hard to beat.
But, in the final analysis, AS is clumsy polemic disguised as a Harlequin novel. The fact that it continues to register as a best seller reflects more the lack of literary sophistication of her audience (and the dumbing down of the American academe under Reaganomics) than the universal truths her enchantments reveal to her groupies. The fact that people like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul see Fountainhead Shrugged as “public policy manual” is what has made Grover Norquist the leader of the Conservative majority of the majority in the US House and the high priest of Reaganomics.