Monday, February 22, 2010

My first reading of "Atlas Shrugged"

My friend Michael Robbins gave me a paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged" at the end of freshman year at SMU -- 22 years ago. I had been reading Sagan and such since I was 12 or so and always arguing against the religious nonsense in North Texas. He thought I'd like it.

I hated the first page.

I disliked the first 50 pages.

I was tolerant of the next 100 pages.

Somewhere around the running of the Galt line I started reading paragraphs out loud to family. By the end of the first week the remnant motor was found, the oil fields were on fire and I was angry at the world and confused about adults and what they were up to -- terrified at what seemed to be the hopelessness of the situation. Shortly after I was sad as a grey pall fell over the characters -- as doom seemed to crowd in and the motors were turning off. In the second week I was dreading turning the next page -- the book seemed a litany of disaster, of collapse -- people were dying, tunnels were collapsing, incompetence ran the world. Dagny and Hank seemed to be doomed last flickers of a dying light. I hated the book again.

Then in week three the light of a sunrise struck the wings of a mysterious fleeing plane, I was thrust into a completely different universe. I started part Three of the book with the feeling of -- as Rand describes Francisco's laugh -- the first sight of spring among glaciers. I was meeting giants. I was meeting heroes. I was in a world that was real, that was possible, that was mine. And I began to UNDERSTAND.

Not just the many inscrutable mysteries that had hounded the plot and the characters to that point. I started to understand why I had been the person I was for as long as I had been. I started to understand years of questioning, arguing -- I started to realize that the thousands of questions I had been asking my entire life were not random scattershot things but my systematic response to an irrational world. I started glimpsing answers to questions I had given up on. Like Quentin Daniels at the blackboard when Galt sweeps the equations away and writes a few symbols -- it was not the answer I was seeking but a whole new realm of potential inquiry i'd never glimpsed.

By the time Dagny stood on a obscure runway watching the cross of that plane disappear back into the darkness of sunset, I felt that she and I were on a journey together that would set the course of a lifetime's thought.

I despaired, became angry, became appalled as the world of the novel became dark again. But i saw the darkness as a necessary prelude to a new beginning.

And then I got to THE SPEECH.

The speech was too long -- too hard -- too much. The author started giving me answers to things I hadn't even questioned yet. Answers to things I didn't even know were problems -- too many answers -- too much information. But what I could grasp of the speech changed me as a man and as a citizen.

By the time I staggered to page 1100, I was worn out. I felt as though I had been taken like Dante to heaven and to Hell -- to Purgatory and Paradise- and then dumped back into life at the end. Like some prophet given a vision out in the desert -- left only with the message and a burning desire to tell people what I knew.

I don't think everybody would have this reaction. My mom didn't. My sister didn't. Most people don't. I think the difference is this: if in ancient times you gave a Mac with photoshop to a merchant in Brittany or Germanica he would be delighted with such a tool to do banners, signs, the occasional illustrated Bible, etc. But if it happened to find someone who was already burning with dissatisfaction, who wanted to change art, who was stymied by having only tempura and oil and stretched canvas with which to express himself... To that man you give the unmatchable gift of a flexible and unparalleled technology with which to become the artist he already longed to be. Objectivism, for me, was the mental technology I had been waiting for to answer the questions I had already spent a lifetime fighting to answer.

For that gift, and for the person I was able to become thanks to it, I will always be thankful to Ayn Rand and her innovative achievements.

-Richard Gleaves
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  1. Thank you for this. I have always struggled over trying to understand why it is that people can read her work and still not 'get it'. I think the merchant in Brittany parallel really helps to express the chasm in worldview that is going on right now. People are, in effect, still sacrificing their goats to a gibbering caveman god and Rand presents us with interstellar travel by comparison. It's like putting physics next to astrology. But the person who truly believes in astrology will never comprehend the special wonders of the world made comprehensible through the disciplines of science. To them it is dry, soulless and without inspiration. But to the devotee of physics, how stale and amateur the fragile constructions of the witch doctor. The true grandeur of reality is so much more fascinating than our imaginations. But most people haven't learned to see it yet. And are comforted by temporal artifices and fits of emotional distraction, like paint thrown on a canvas and labeled art.

  2. 'Mental Technology'...

    "It was as if he had been struggling to find the secret combination of a lock and felt, at those words, a faint click within, as of the first tumbler falling into place."

  3. It really is true that one has to be an independent thinker first and an Objectivist second. It's not only true in general hierarchy, but also in time-- you have to be an independent thinker already before you pick up Atlas or Fountainhead if you expect them to make an impact. This is the appeal to the young -- they haven't given up hope for answers and are still looking. People who've given up their curiosity won't be 'changed' by Atlas, only annoyed by it. Which is why you see so many people bragging about how they threw it against the wall or even burned their copy. Says more about them than it says bout the book.

  4. Mental technology is such an apt description. I feel almost as I have been given an unfair advantage over others - but also the self esteem in knowing that I recognized it for what it is while so many others discard it as a trifle - or worse dismiss it with disgust. For me reading this at the age of 30 was like having lifelong questions that had mattered enormously to me - answered all at once. Many of these questions I had abandoned because I felt that the realm of ideas was a dead end - and that nobody really knew anything - and worse - that things were unknowable. Great article.