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Books: Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 60

My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.

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But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.

Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.

Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.

I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.

In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.

OCON in Chicago

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Chicago at night, seen from the top of the John Hancock Tower. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved.

Filling up on arts and philosophy at this year’s Objectivist Conference (OCON), I enrolled in courses and general lectures by favorite teachers and intellectuals and I attended a screening of Love Letters (1945) with commentary by one of my filmmaker friends, who, appropriately, wrote and directed an Academy Award-nominated movie about Objectivism’s fountainhead, Ayn Rand. This was the first OCON in Chicago, Illinois, near where I grew up, and I attended shortly after my article on Ayn Rand’s life in Chicago was published. Combined with visits to the John Hancock Building, The Drake Hotel and Taliesin, I enjoyed every minute.

Chicago Reach for the Stars: Milgram, Siek and Hoenig

OCON was held at the Westin Michigan Avenue across from a skyscraper, so my favorite general session, “Chicago Reach for the Stars,” turned out to be an appropriate title for what was an innovative approach to communicating to a general audience, though I have to admit I was skeptical of the title at first, despite being well acquainted with the session’s instructors, English professor and Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram, arts scholar Stephen Siek and hedge fund manager Jonathan Hoenig. They each valiantly and breathlessly presented a condensed series of what were really like vignettes – the session was too short and it felt rushed – and their trio of presentations were excellent.

Dr. Milgram, a friend whom I had interviewed for my article, explained in her instruction on Ayn Rand in Chicago that in the summer of 1926, the refugee from Soviet Russia was immersed in films, family and fiction. 21-year old Ayn, not yet known by that first name, kept a movie diary, had done some film writing and saw more movies per day in Chicago than at any other time in her life. We learned that she saw the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney on March 26, 1926, at Chicago’s Roxy theater and that she’d rated it “not even zero”. I liked knowing of course that my favorite writer was reviewing movies before she was assigned to write movies – Dr. Milgram said that young Rand had especially liked The Volga Boatment (it earned a five plus rating), which she thought was a sexy melodrama directed by Cecil B. DeMille about an aristocratic heroine and princess who meets a strong, handsome peasant named Fyodor. They’re alone together and in conflict with their political loyalties, which sounds to me like a compelling plot premise, when they must take shelter as newlyweds, with the princess disguised as a peasant, because she is engaged to Prince Nikita. Things take a darker turn, and Dr. Milgram explained that the movie is neither political nor philosophical but it is dramatically tense. Young Ayn Rand saw the motion picture at Warner’s Orpheum theater in Chicago.

There was more, about three sisters – Anna, Sarah and Minnie – who sold dry goods, helped with Ayn Rand’s English skills and they all used to get together on weekends. Our teacher said that the future author of Atlas Shrugged would never forget what her relatives had done for her, inscribing a copy of her first published novel, We the Living, to one of them, and that while in Chicago she wrote four original screen treatments and a short story, “The Husband I Bought” (The Early Ayn Rand). Ayn Rand would soon be on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, where she’d spot her future husband, Frank O’Connor, by chance on the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie about Jesus Christ and, as we learned from Dr. Milgram, she’d soon meet DeMille himself by chance, too. She impressed The Ten Commandments filmmaker enough to spark his interest in her work but his story editor did not like young Ayn Rand’s stories – she denounced Rand’s story, “The Viking’s God”, as the work of “an erotic mind” who will “never become a writer of any ability.” DeMille hired Ayn Rand anyway as a junior screenwriter. Shoshana Milgram’s talk on the first part of Ayn Rand’s life in America was an exciting glimpse into the bustling city life of a vivacious young intellectual who became Ayn Rand, the person who made the books, movies and philosophy we were gathered to study and apply to our own lives.

Stephen Siek, a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who recently wrote a biography of England’s piano sage Tobias Matthay, spoke eloquently about the Windy City as a magnificent treasure trove of architecture. Calling Chicago the “birthplace of distinctly American architecture” where some of the greatest architects trained, Dr. Siek took us swiftly and gracefully through the late 19th century, showing photographs on slides from 1858 and forward in time to the Great Chicago Fire, which he told us burned for 36 hours, melted sidewalks and destroyed 18,000 buildings, and taking us to the time when young Frank Lloyd Wright, apprentice to architect Louis Sullivan, said ‘we’re building on the prairie here’. Chicagoland was remade on soil which is very soft clay – even softer closer to the lake – that’s perfect for making buildings that stir the imagination, inspire the soul and make history. Tapping Chicago’s once indomitable spirit of strength, he told the powerful story of a Chicago real estate entrepreneur who had survived the great fire but lost his home. The real estate salesman was soon seen again offering to sell private property after the fire, Dr. Siek solemnly told us, posting a sign that read: “All gone, but wife, children, and energy.” No city, Siek explained, was more vital than Chicago.

Chicago had the first iron-framed or steel-framed skyscraper, he said, introducing us to Daniel Hudson Burnham, public face of an architectural firm (he got the clients), and to John Root, who, according to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, is the engineering mastermind behind a building Wright loved, and later updated, named the Rookery (it’s still there; Siek urged everyone in the spellbound audience to visit). Taking one’s breath away with a picture of the Rookery’s lobby, which is Root’s design, I marveled at the cantilevered staircase, which Siek described as something out of a Jules Verne story. Wright later put his office at the Rookery. Dr. Siek, who is also a friend and an amazing artist in his own right – I enjoy listening to the beautiful music he plays which I have on my iTunes recordings – brought the lecture to a climax with tales of Sullivan and Wright, lumber magnates, debating architectural scholars and, finally, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, which hired the greatest architects in the world and gave us the only World’s Fair building that remains standing on earth: an art museum which is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a place of reverence for me when I was a child. Siek closed his lecture – and promptly introduced the next speaker – with a word about Wright’s masterpiece, the prairie styled Robie house. The exhaustive talk concretized architecture’s abstractions, applying this fine art to reality, in a way that was made easier by Shoshana Milgram’s portrait of a relentless and ambitious young writer Ayn Rand. The final installment cashed in, giving everything a brash, Chicago touch.

The last talk, titled “Chicago: City of Traders”, was by Fox News guest and hedge fund (Capitalist Pig) manager Jonathan Hoenig. He reminded the Objectivist audience, which needs reminding despite loosening up over the years, that capitalism and freedom – and life – are not always tidy; like Dr. Siek’s story of the real estate salesman after the fire, and Dr. Milgram’s tales of Ayn Rand’s ruthless pursuit of happiness, the trader principle may be activated in blunt, abrasive action that requires people to get up and at ’em. Never has this message been more relevant than now, when Objectivists (and others who claim to want to live in freedom before we die) can and do tend to be rationalists, pretentious academics and ivory tower intellectuals.

Hoenig, donning a vest and explaining in often disjointed fragments how futures trading works in Chicago, demonstrated that Chicago is a financial center of the world; a bold city of big shoulders, as Carl Sandburg once wrote, that bought into the concept of an exchange before New York City (theirs came later after New York and Boston wanted nothing to do with commodities markets). Tellingly, in sync with Drs. Milgram’s and Siek’s themes of hardworking middle-class people, Chicago trading was made initially and primarily by producers who were booksellers, farmers, grocers, tanners, druggists and hardware merchants. Yelling and booming and gesturing in live action for the audience what it means to trade in raucous signals of buying and selling – the requisite being assertiveness, as in life – Hoenig quoted Ayn Rand from her essays in Philosophy: Who Needs It, observing that the Chicago Stock Exchange was founded in 1972 with influence by economist Milton Friedman – the exchange was created by a Nazi concentration camp survivor – and explaining speculation as essential to capitalism and, by implication, to life.

Ayn Rand’s O. Henry – and Ours: Ingenuity, Optimism and Warmth

Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D. taught a course (I’ve previously attended her courses on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, Victor Hugo and Sinclair Lewis) on one of my favorite writers, O. Henry, and it is a personal conference highlight. Starting off with a reference to a line from one of O. Henry’s stories that neatly contains his trademark twist – “He is dead and I killed him …” – she offered insights into his work, which requires more than most short story writing that one check one’s premises, and she provided the life story of the man who’d once been William Sidney Porter. We learned, for instance, and with a bittersweet twist befitting one of his surprising tales, how becoming O. Henry was an ultimately painful, tragic journey (as a writer’s life often is) that began with his writing for the Houston Post, turned on a series of dark, mysterious choices relating to a criminal charge and time in prison and culminated in an extraordinary nine-year writing binge and exceptional career that leaves a legacy of stories based on a benevolent universe premise and O. Henry’s post-penitentiary view that disaster is not inevitable.

rgzpTZibContrasting Thomas Hardy’s Tess, in which people can’t change their stories (Tess is doomed), Milgram showed how O. Henry, whatever his crimes, created fiction that expresses the idea that what might be is what ought to be and that what ought to be is what might be. Citing a short poem as evidence that O. Henry held that happiness is possible here on earth, she noted that O. Henry also did not take domestic failings lightly; in more than a couple of stories, he writes about men who abuse their wives. And O. Henry’s fictional rich people are not automatically villainous – he “does not curse the dollar” – and the poor people are not automatically virtuous. At the time of her death in 1982, Milgram said, Rand owned 11 volumes of O. Henry’s works. Reading from another source, Milgram observed that his style and structure contain compactness and swiftness of resolution with a distinct ability to divert and amuse.

Shoshana Milgram suggested with good reason that, for young Rand in Communist Russia, O. Henry may have offered the hint of an un-Soviet world. Tracing Rand’s interest in his work to her writing, Milgram notes that two early Rand stories bear similarity to his work and may constitute an influence: The Night King and Escort. In Rand’s stories, as against O. Henry’s, people do not tend to get away with the crime. Neither did O. Henry, if in fact he did commit a crime as accused at the National Bank of Austin when he worked as a teller (it doesn’t help that he skipped town upon indictment). He’d been trying to launch a start-up publication called the Rolling Stone and the enterprise wasn’t going well, so he was working at the bank and he wound up in an Ohio prison after fleeing to Honduras (which had no extradition rules) and returning to the U.S. to visit his dying wife. One of his ideas before the legal trouble had been to move to Chicago for a writing job. Jumping bail when he was told to report for trial in Austin changed his life.

The class read and studied several stories, including Friends in San Rosario, The World and the Door, A Retrieved Reformation, which evokes Hugo’s Les Miserables, and, of course, Gift of the Magi about two “foolish children” who turn out to be newlyweds that are rather wise. It’s his most famous story, and Ayn Rand had a negative view of the tale, which she described as dramatizing “the futility of altruism.” Milgram wonders whether there might have been a problem in the Russian translation in some version that Ayn Rand might have read – certain Russian versions showed that the couple’s love is based on admiration and shared joy, not sacrifice, though both versions erroneously had gifts not gift in the title – and in any case Rand pegged it as a “sadistic horror story” in the December, 1976 Objectivist calendar. We discussed Gift of the Magi, which I liked, and other O. Henry stories such as An Unfinished Story, The Ransom of Mack and, briefly, Cabbages and Kings. Though it wasn’t assigned for class, I’d also read The Last Leaf at the suggestion of my mother, a retired English teacher who’d enjoyed the story as a girl, and it was pointed out to me that it seems clear in retrospect that O. Henry’s tale of a dying artist who might be saved by one, final masterpiece involves a same-sex couple.

O. Henry was probably an alcoholic. He died at the age of 47; he’d been drinking and had neglected his health and he was admitted to a hospital with cirrhosis of the liver and the most dilated heart his doctor had seen. O. Henry had diabetes, too. The writer known to his friends as Will Porter is said to have said “turn up the lights; I’m afraid to go home in the dark” before he died. Shoshana Milgram read from a play by Upton Sinclair in which a ghost character of Will Porter’s wife encourages us to remember O. Henry as a storyteller who was the voice of the forlorn.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Poetics-9780486295770Philosophy professor Robert Mayhew taught a course about one of the great works of literature, which has survived in fragments. Dr. Mayhew was emphatic that Aristotle’s Poetics be studied with caution, as book two is essentially lost and, as he put it, we are lucky for what we do possess. Even the one text that has survived, he instructed, is not all that it could be; it’s “the least well transmitted” and it’s in the worst shape – one has to fill in gaps – because Aristotle wrote these texts in the fourth century. That, he explained, complicates everything. So how what we have of Poetics is itself complicated, with scribes making copies of copies moving from magiscule to miniscule, raising problems (i.e., moving all CAPS to no punctuation, no accentuation, etc.) and this applies to any ancient work. These are textual corruption issues and Poetics was neglected in a way that most of Aristotle’s works were not. Also, there was a radical change from papyrus to codex manuscripts, so it’s likely that only a single copy of Poetics survived. The upshot: Poetics is an imperfect text.

We owe much to scholars, he said, explaining that Poetics likely consists of Aristotle’s lecture notes which are often elliptical. According to Dr. Mayhew, Aristotle’s Poetics are likely to mean literary creation, which includes epic, tragedy and comedy. So, the title really means something like expertise in literary creation and, while Poetics is broader than poetry, it does include poetry. The first part is a general introduction to literary creation as a kind of mimesis; a type of imitation, as a representation, and Dr. Mayhew suggests that Aristotle is talking about representational art, with detailed discussions of tragedy, epic and comedy that would have been handled in book 2. Again, he warned that the text is tough.

Yet, as one goes through the table of contents, one sees in Poetics the importance of plot and this – the primacy of plot in literature – is what Ayn Rand and Aristotle have in common.

On background, Dr. Mayhew (editor of Rand’s The Art of Non-Fiction and several studies of Rand’s fiction) said that there are two contexts important to understanding the meaning of Poetics: 1) Aristotle is not projecting all possibilities in literature, and 2) Plato had an extremely negative view of what we know as representational art. In Republic, for example, he sought to ban art. Plato argued that art is a product of inspiration and mania, not a rational skill, so it doesn’t involve knowledge and, since art is representational, it is twice removed from reality (remember, reality for Plato is the forms) and art is therefore a copy of a copy and thus worse, less significant, less a bearer of truths than physical concretes, Finally, Plato asserted that art is dangerous because it is emotion and emotion, he argued, must be repressed; in other words, art is emotionally evocative so art is dangerous. Plato also said that art is not conducive to proper moral development, so representational art should not exist; we should have only background music or Spartan marching tunes; Homer is acceptable only if heavily censored. Mayhew observed that this is why Friedrich Nietschze dubbed Plato an enemy of art.

Aristotle answers each of Plato’s points in Poetics, asserting that literature is a skill with certain principles which can be learned by reason; he proposed that literature is an imitation of reality but said it’s a useful one from which we can learn; it’s not removed from universals – in fact, it deals with essentials – and literature is more philosophy than history. It moves us closer to reality. Aristotle also responds to Plato with the view that literature does arouse emotions and there’s nothing wrong with that and he insists that literature can be and often is conducive to one’s proper moral development which is, in fact, necessary. So Poetics is in part a response to Plato and Aristotle thinks the ability to produce art is related to reason; it’s not something that comes from the outside with those consuming it as some type of passive vessel. Aristotle asserts that the ability to create literature, sculpture, architecture, etc. are the product of reason – not divine intervention or madness – and that there are good ways and bad ways of making art. Aristotle sees art as a body of knowledge and he says that there are limits and rational standards that art must live up to in order to be art. Furthermore, Dr. Mayhew explained, Aristotle held that poetry is not just meter; there is literature that doesn’t have meter and there are two main modes of literature: narration and dramatization. Aristotle, Mayhew maintains, holds like Ayn Rand that art is the product of reason, though he does not sufficiently stress the difference between fine art and utilitarian creation (Mayhew added that this is what Aristotle scholar John Herman Randall claims – that Aristotle makes no distinction at all).

When asked about recommending an English language translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, he said that he doesn’t have a favorite, but Richard Janko’s translation is good, and Penguin’s edition by Malcolm Heath is good, too. Mayhew concluded that Aristotle agreed with Ayn Rand that art is as rational as technology and that Aristotle would have disagreed with Rand that industry is as spiritual as art, though, to Aristotle’s credit, he regarded shipbuilding as similar to art. But it is clear that Aristotle holds that plot is the primary way in which the poet or fiction writer recreates reality; Aristotle thinks you can’t separate thought and character completely in a good play. Dr. Mayhew said that Aristotle wrote that literary structure is more important than what you’re structuring; that well-constructed plots should neither begin nor end from a random point and that the middle of the play is the intensification and climax and the end is its resolution. In fact, plot parts should be presented in order and in magnitude, neither too small nor too large. Length should make the work easy to remember. With regard to an artist being selective, Aristotle praises Homer for trying not to include the entire Trojan War in his epic. So it seems clear that the father of logic sees a plot as an integrated series of events – he criticizes episodic tragedies as events that do not follow logically – and Aristotle notes that nature is not merely a series of episodes like a bad tragedy. In chapters 10 and 11 of Poetics, Aristotle refers to the best kinds of plots, which “present a story in terms of action [which] means to present it in terms of events…”

On the last day of the course, Robert Mayhew brought Aristotle’s Poetics back to Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged is based on Aristotelian ideas, noting that she probably discovered that it was Aristotle’s principle that we should portray men “as they might be and ought to be” (which he said she referred to nine times) sometime between 1944 and 1945. Rand encountered this reference in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock. But does Aristotle think people should be portrayed as they ought to be as Ayn Rand means? Mayhew says the answer is a qualified Yes, though he said that he thinks she should have left off quotation marks which Mayhew says he thinks she included because she was relying on Nock’s translation. Certainly might be and ought to be are not the same to Ayn Rand as to Aristotle; she states her literary goal as the presentation of the ideal man; Aristotle says the tragic playwright should present a great person who is brought down by error or morality. To Aristotle, some breach or error brings down an otherwise good person (Aristotle describes this person as an intermediate of the good and the bad).

So, to Aristotle, we shouldn’t see wicked men going from bad to good – nor should we see great men becoming bad – because it doesn’t produce pity or fear and that is the purpose of tragedy. This way, Dr. Mayhew suggests, they’re not hit by a bus out the blue; their demise is based on a character flaw, like newspaper magnate Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead, whose ending is tragic, not caused by some accident, and Aristotle writes that the second best structure is that which some would say has a double structure like Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the suitors go from being good, to living it up, to ending up dead, while Penelope and Telemachus go from being virtuous to a good life. Aristotle’s purposes of literature are contained in two passages that give us a lead into his viewpoint: he says that music (which includes literature) should be part of an education which is appropriate to a free and noble man. There are three core, character requisites, according to Aristotle: education, catharsis and amusement or realization. These arc toward the child’s moral development.

Aristotle says the young are not yet ready for the study of ethics because they are still guided by feelings and require an education. So, he says, the young should not be exposed to malice and depravity. Most important with regard to education, Aristotle says, is education that can take on a certain quality, such as when we see a play or hear a piece of music and certain tunes evoke certain feelings. Mayhew said that Aristotle’s remarks on the role of art and moral development are good – he reminded the class that Ayn Rand wrote that “art is not the means to any didactic ends” – and Mayhew said that, while he used to think that Aristotle thought that art held a didactic function, he doesn’t think that anymore.

While it is not clear what Aristotle thinks is the purpose of art, moral education is certainly part of it, Mayhew argued, and we have more to learn about his views on catharsis. In Greek, catharsis means purgation, in a medical sense; a cleansing of disease and purification in a religious sense. There is one mention of catharsis in Poetics (so maybe Aristotle says more in book 2, which is lost) and Robert Mayhew suggests that this interpretation of catharsis – the moral development of children, with catharsis aiming at moral purification – might well be true: In other words, art can contribute to the habituation of moral virtue as a release and reduction of excessive emotion. Robert Mayhew’s thesis is something to think about, especially for and among those who choose to think.