The Novel That Prevented Itself from Becoming Prophetic

Editor’s Note: My apologies for not sending out The Tracinski Letter for the past few weeks. I had a big project come up that demanded all of my time for a little while. It’s one of those things where I have been working, so far, behind the scenes, and I’m not sure when or how it’s going to come to fruition. So unfortunately, I’ll have to be very mysterious about it and promise that eventually you will hear about it one way or another. Sorry about that.

In the meantime, I’ll start by picking up with my next installment on Atlas Shrugged, following up on an earlier promise to examine whether Atlas is becoming a historical novel.—RWT

A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 3

Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.

This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.

So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.

If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT

This is Part 3 of an open-ended series.

Atlas Shrugged was not a historical novel, not at first.

Ayn Rand didn’t like period pieces, considering them an escape from reality—and in her worldview, that wasn’t a good thing. That was one of the reasons she once gave for the fact that she didn’t write another novel after Atlas Shrugged: she couldn’t bear to set a novel in the present day—can you imagine an Ayn Rand novel set in the 1970s?—and she couldn’t summon any interest in writing a novel set in the past.

It is interesting to note how that was a change from the literary tradition that inspired her. From the beginning of the history of the novel, writers liked to adopt the conceit that they were presenting a history of real events. This tradition is particularly strong among some of Ayn Rand’s literary role models in the Romantic movement. Have you ever wondered what all of those historical essays are doing in the works of writers like Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo? They were used, in part, to give a scholarly, historical atmosphere for a fictional story, as if the author had unearthed his story from among some forgotten documents in an old vault, rather than inventing it from his own imagination. Meanwhile, a generation or so before Ayn Rand, the people most dedicated to chronicling the issues and passions and attitudes of the contemporary world were writers of the Naturalist school.

This is yet another tradition Ayn Rand turned on its head. She wrote with all the big themes and larger-than-life drama of the Romantics, but set out to capture all of the realism and contemporary relevance claimed by the Naturalists.

Yet it is the fate of all novels to become historical novels, with the passage of enough time.

For all of its historical essays, for example, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was still a relatively timely, contemporary novel when it was first published. It dealt with events only a few decades old and with political issues—about republicanism versus monarchy—that were still current in Hugo’s time. But from today’s perspective it is entirely a historical drama, and its social and political issues are largely irrelevant to our era. That’s probably a good thing, because it leaves us to enjoy the novel’s deeper sense-of-life message, which is better than its muddled politics.

The passage of time can be very unforgiving to a work of fiction. I recently came across a vigorous debate over whether the forthcoming film Gravity actually counts as science fiction because the technology behind it is the Space Shuttle, which isn’t flying any more. It takes less than thirty-five years to go from being futuristic science fiction to being a period piece.

Ayn Rand’s earlier novels are clearly set in a particular time period. We the Living is very specifically set in Russia in the 1920s, in the years after the Bolshevik takeover. That made it relatively contemporary when it was published in 1936, but it is definitely a period piece today. The Fountainhead is set in America from the 1920s through the late 30s, and Ellsworth Toohey is definitely a creature of the “Red Decade.” But what really dates the story is its background in a very specific moment in the history of architecture, when the prevailing trend was flipping from historicism to modernism. All of this was still fairly contemporary when the novel was published in 1943 and even when the film was made in 1949, but it is definitely a historical drama now. Anthem is a partial exception because it is set in an indefinite future when technology is less advanced. (Nothing ages faster than an outdated vision of future high technology. Science fiction writer Douglas Adams coined the term zeerust to refer to “the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.”) Yet Anthem is still a novel of the 20th century, because it was an answer to the rising ideology of collectivism. The future society projected by Ayn Rand was taken directly from the fantasies of utopian collectivists of her day. It is a vision that did not really survive the 20th century, at least not in such a doctrinaire form.

How about Atlas Shrugged? Has it become, or is it becoming, a historical novel?

There are certainly a number of superficial ways in which the novel is dated to a specific time period. Its language, and particularly its slang, dates it to the mid-20th century. Contrary to Ayn Rand’s critics, the language in the novel was not dated when she wrote it. Anyone who has watched a lot of old black-and-white movies will recognize that the colloquial American English of Atlas Shrugged would have been considered perfectly normal any time from the 1920s through the early 60s. It was Ayn Rand’s bad luck that she wrote the novel just before one of America’s great linguistic shifts, in which the “counterculture” of the 1960s wiped out and replaced most of the slang of previous decades. In Atlas, for example, it is normal American slang for characters to refer to each other as “brother,” as in Francisco d’Anconia’s famous sign-off, “Brother, you asked for it!” “Brother” was the equivalent of referring to a stranger as “buddy” or “pal” or—what would be the contemporary equivalent? “Dude”? But after the 1960s, in the wake of the “black power” movement, “brother” became an oddly racialized term, used mostly by black men to refer to each other, and it was largely dropped from the wider culture.

Ayn Rand could not have anticipated this kind of change, and imagine what a disaster it would have been if she had tried to keep up with the latest slang. Surely, Atlas would be even more dated if its characters used phrases like “groovy” and “far out.” Or imagine Francisco’s sign-off updated to: “Dude, you, like, totally asked for it!” Better yet, let’s not imagine that.

When critics deride Ayn Rand’s language, by the way, what they are actually targeting is not her mid-20th-century slang, which is used sparingly anyway. What they are really complaining about is the absence of slang and the fact that the heroes of her novels talk in complete, complex, grammatically correct sentences. They use “whom,” and they use it correctly. They talk that way because they are men of the mind, and that is what the Naturalists consider unrealistic: the existence of serious thinkers who are capable of articulating their thoughts.

There are a few minor bits of science and technology that date Atlas Shrugged. I was struck by references to an “inter-office communicator,” a term that had not yet been shortened to “intercom” before being dropped altogether. Or the way a character makes special reference to a “long-distance telephone call,” back in the era when there was a forced separation between local and long-distance calls, and long-distance calls were very expensive and required assistance from a live operator.

Just as technology marches on, so society marches on, and one of the most noticeable cultural differences in the world of Atlas Shrugged is the fact that everybody smokes. If you want to adapt Atlas Shrugged to the present day (as in the recent movies), you would be surprised at how big a problem this creates, because smoking wasn’t just a flourish Ayn Rand added to her characters because she liked it. She also gave it a role in the plot that is difficult to replace. When Dagny is pursuing the inventor of the motor, she reaches a dead end with Hugh Akston, and her one remaining clue is the cigarette with a dollar sign that Akston gives her. It’s a clue that pops up again at Ken Danegger’s office when he quits, and when Dagny runs into Owen Kellogg on the frozen train. Just try to find a way to replace those clues.

Then there is the one major subplot in Atlas Shrugged that has been rendered hopelessly obsolete, not just in its stylistic details, but in its essential theme: Hank Rearden’s sexual repression and his struggle to reject the premise that sex is evil. In subsequent decades, the Sexual Revolution has swept through the culture and pretty thoroughly defeated the influence of Puritanism. It survives only in a kind of photographic negative—the same image, but with all the colors reversed. You can see this in the more lurid corners of our popular culture, which accepts in detail the old puritanical view of sex and simply reverses its evaluation. Sexual desire, in this view, is crude, animalistic, purely physical, and promiscuous—and they’re for it!

But that just shows that we have flipped so completely to the opposite side of the coin that you simply cannot translate that aspect of Hank Rearden’s story to a modern setting. And yet this subplot is thoroughly connected to the rest of Rearden’s transformation. His acceptance of guilt for being a businessman and his willingness to support his vicious, freeloading family are connected to his acceptance of the puritanical view of sex, and Ayn Rand specifically emphasizes the connection. As Rearden says at the end, after he has figured it all out, “If some man like Hugh Akston had told me, when I started, that by accepting the mystics’ theory of sex I was accepting the looters’ theory of economics, I would have laughed in his face. I would not laugh at him now.” So Rearden’s pre-Sexual Revolution story line is a very big part of his character development and of the philosophical theme Ayn Rand was using him to dramatize.

Incidentally, this is one reason that I’ve come to think that the most faithful way to adapt Atlas to the screen might be in a “future of the past” setting, projecting what the future would have looked like if the political and economic collapse projected in Atlas Shrugged had started in 1957—if all forward development in technology, economics, and the culture had stopped cold then. So you could make the film with the fashions, the slang, the technology, the manners, and yes, the cigarettes of roughly the late 1950s and early 60s.

But this raises the question: why didn’t this collapse begin in 1957? Why did the dystopian future Ayn Rand projected as being possible not actually come to pass?

This is the one aspect of the novel that most fundamentally dates Atlas Shrugged to the mid-20th century: it projects the unchallenged march of statism, supported by a monolithic media and politics at home, and the forward march of socialism over the rest of the globe—in Europe, Asia, and South America—in the form of tyrannical and impoverished “People’s States.”

The global march of socialism was a mid-20th century phenomenon, though it’s interesting to note that the version of it in Atlas Shrugged is not merely historical. It is different from the real history of the 20th century in one key respect. The People’s States are Ayn Rand’s indirect reference to global Communism, yet there is no reference to the Soviet Union. You can see how omitting the Soviets is necessary to the novel’s plot on a practical level: there can be no credible threat from a geopolitical rival, or else John Galt’s plan to cause the collapse of the existing government would clear the way, not for the strikers’ return, but for a Soviet invasion. Ayn Rand had to project a future in which the world’s various socialist regimes—she never refers to a People’s State of Russia—are not strong enough to threaten the United States from the outside. You can see how this also serves a philosophical purpose: she wanted to emphasize that collectivism was spreading, not by conquest or outside subversion, but by our own acceptance of the altruist morality.

How much have things changed? Recently, the journalist Michael Totten launched a campaign to raise money to visit and report on the only five countries in the world still ruled by Communist parties: China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and Laos. The first two are no longer quite Communist, having transitioned to an ungainly hybrid of capitalism and statism. The last three, he notes, remain as “living museum pieces, frozen in the brutal mid-20th century when totalitarianism held sway over whole swaths of the planet.”

As for the domestic political environment, Ayn Rand was writing before the creation of a whole alternative right-leaning news media. (At the time Atlas was published, William F. Buckley had just started publishing National Review—which arguably didn’t count as an alternative, because it was far from friendly to Ayn Rand’s individualist ideas.) She was also writing before the Goldwater campaign in 1964 mobilized a grassroots pro-free-market movement in opposition to the “me-too” liberal Republicans. At the time she was working on Atlas Shrugged, starting in the late 1940s, she probably had in mind the media and political environment of the 1930s and the New Deal era, when a politician who kept demanding “wider powers,” Franklin Roosevelt, managed to get re-elected for four terms, facing largely ineffectual political opposition.

If you think that this isn’t all that different from today, then, brother, you don’t remember how awful things used to be, particularly in the two decades after publication of Atlas Shrugged. The political environment of the 1960s and 1970s made Atlas Shrugged look restrained in its dystopian projection of the future. There were riots on college campuses and at political conventions, a wave of political assassinations, race riots in inner cities. There was the creation of a vast new entitlement state, followed by the final abandonment of the gold standard and the imposition of wage and price controls—under a Republican president. There was runaway inflation and 20% interest rates. Overseas, there was the steady march of Communism from Vietnam and Cambodia to Cuba and Nicaragua. A recent history of Soviet subversion in what we used to call the “Third World,” based on the archives provided by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin, was titled The World Was Going Our Way, expressing the outlook of the Soviet leadership up to about 1979.

So the world of Atlas Shrugged was a pretty straightforward projection of the trends of Ayn Rand’s era. But not of ours. The past decades have seen a rebirth of the pro-free-market right, with access to an alternative right-leaning media. Particularly in recent years, we have seen a grassroots revival in the study of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Overseas, we have seen the collapse and global repudiation of Communism and the spread of global capitalism. As a consequence, we are in the middle of a vast historic event: the global conquest of poverty and the emergence of a global middle class that already numbers in the billions. A number of Asian countries are arguably more free than we are, and the latest big growth story is the rise of Africa, for crying out loud—which is starting to make Ayn Rand’s offhand references to the poverty and backwardness of places like Africa and Asia seem especially dated.

There are new evils, to be sure, such as Islamism and authoritarian “state capitalism.” But even now, in the middle of what I call “20th Century Lite”—a shorter and shallower rehearsal of all the ideological disasters of the 20th century—there is a much greater reserve of the good in the world and a much greater potential for recovery from temporary setbacks.

So just as We the Living cannot be pulled out of its historical context (the consolidation of Communist dictatorship in Soviet Russia), and The Fountainhead cannot be pulled out of its context (the rise of modern architecture in the early 20th century), so Atlas Shrugged has a historical context in which it belongs. It is a novel of the 20th century. In fact, it is the novel of the 20th century. It is the novel that tells that century’s essential story: the world’s flirtation with altruist-collectivist philosophy, its disastrous consequences—and the beginning of an ideological rebellion against it.

That brings us back to the question: why did the spread of collectivism not play itself out all the way to collapse as it did in the novel? The answer is: because of the other part of the novel’s story, its depiction of the rise of ideological opposition, both from a genius who originates a new philosophy, and from those who are inspired by these new ideas. In the novel, the genius is John Galt, and he influences the strikers and some of those who listen to his speech. In the real world, the genius was Ayn Rand herself, and she influenced the readers of Atlas Shrugged.

That is a big part of the reason why don’t we have a monolithic statist culture, and why we have a popular Tea Party backlash. Ayn Rand is not the only influence behind these cultural changes, but her role has been pivotal and irreplaceable.

Not long ago, I was talking to someone about the recent attempts to adapt Atlas to the screen, and one of the concerns I raised was that, in trying to simplify Ayn Rand’s message, some of the characters could end up sounding more like standard-issue conservatives, like a generic Fox News contributor, and that they would lose the distinctiveness of Ayn Rand’s message. The person I was talking to agreed and cited a specific example—but the joke was on us, because when we looked at it, we realized that the line he cited was not rewritten in the adaptation, but was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s original words. It was a reminder that if Ayn Rand’s heroes are at risk of sometimes sounding like Fox News contributors, that’s because Fox contributors sometimes sound a little like her.

Come to think of it, the best evidence for the influence of Ayn Rand is the reception for the first of these recent film adaptations. It was an opportunity for right-leaning commentators to come out of the woodwork expressing their interest in and admiration for Ayn Rand’s ideas. It was the moment that officially installed Atlas Shrugged as a centerpiece of the intellectual canon of the mainstream right.

Ayn Rand once said that the purpose of Atlas Shrugged was to prevent itself from becoming prophetic. To a substantial degree, it succeeded.

No work of fiction can escape eventually becoming a historical period piece. The only question is whether its themes are big enough to make that period piece still seem relevant, important, and inspiring to readers in a far-distant future. The continued, unprecedented longevity of Atlas Shrugged, which sells about as well today as it did 50 years ago, gives us the answer to that question. It is still keenly relevant, not least because we are going through 20th Century Lite and need a refresher course in the lessons we should have learned from Atlas the first time around.

The aging of the novel’s context is counteracted by the timeless universality of the big ideas Ayn Rand grappled with, and her incisive observations of human psychology. This ensures that we will always be able to recognize characters, events, and ideas from Atlas in a contemporary context. In fact, it strikes me that it would be a worthwhile exercise to catalog the themes and subplots in Atlas Shrugged that hold the most relevance today, the parts of the story that are the least historical and most current—which I will do, in a future installment of this series.


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