Monday, June 11, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Reading Tips...

... which shouldn't be necessary, but unfortunately most of the primers to the book people read are telling them exactly the opposite, and telling them what to read in it.  So.

As heavy-handed as Rand can be laying out the philosophy, she has an -extremely- light touch laying down how you're supposed to -feel- about everything.  Literature which tells you how to feel is, put bluntly, trash.  There are some events in the book which you'll recognize as tragedies.  She doesn't tell you how you should feel sad about them.  Indeed, it might seem like she's telling you that it's not a tragedy.

First, if find that you feel that way, it's clear you've never read any of the great tragedies, and think "tragedy" means "senseless tragedy" - they're distinct concepts.  The great literary tragedies are defined by the flaws of the characters who encounter them.  "Hubris" is a big word in literary circles for a reason.  Second, if you feel that way, maybe you should do some serious soul-searching about how -you- feel about -your- political enemies, because you're almost certainly projecting.

Next up, as mentioned in the prior Atlas Shrugged post, her villains are based on real people.  If you find the philosophical divide laughably one-sided, and you feel like she's setting up strawmen to knock down - well, the philosophical divide WAS laughably one-sided, and the strawmen only seem that way because of Atlas Shrugged.  The impact it has had on the political scene over the last fifty years is difficult to overestimate.  It was staggeringly popular when it was released in part due to the sharp way it decimated some of the political culture in its era.

Her characters are flawed.  Forget what you've read about "Randian heroes," her "heroes" have very real personal problems, and a large part of the book is them working through those issues.  If her characters seem like emotionless machines, it's because, to start with, they are.  Probably the most important evolution in the book is not the political evolution happening in the background, but the personal evolution permitting her characters to find happiness, to find their emotions, as the book proceeds.  If you have difficulty empathizing with them, it's entirely possible the book isn't for you.  It wasn't written for everybody.  I'll come out and say it: Eddy Willers is the everyman in the book; that's his purpose.  If he seems the only person "like" you, the only character that you can relate to, there's a reason for that.

Finally, in addition to having faults, her characters also make faulty decisions.  As they work through their personal flaws, they also come to recognize their own complicity in creating the self-destructive society they rail against.  It's not a book of the Upper Classes against the Lower Classes; the only people who see this in the book are those who think the politically empowered represent and in fact -are- the Lower Classes.  The villains in the book are -not- the laborers, the heroes -aren't- the rich capitalists.  The heroes are those who produce, regardless of class - the villains aren't simply those who "live off the government dole," the villains are those who create a society in which such a parasitic existence becomes not merely possible but -necessary-, and impossible to escape from.  I'll say it in advance: every villain in the book, every single one, is politically empowered.  That is the defining characteristics of the villains.  There's a union boss; he's among the villains, but if you miss the point that he, by all rights, should be among the heroes, you've failed.

It's not a book about the wealthy opposing those who would restrain their power.  It's a book about the politically disempowered opposing the control the politically empowered are exercising over their lives.

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