Monday, January 21, 2008

B.W.'s Book Report: Atlas Shrugged

When she entered the room, she knew immediately that he had finished reading the book. His eyes surveyed the lines of her dress approvingly, as if remembering his glorious exploration of the underlying body and recognizing its perfection, content in the knowledge that he knew and understood every contour. As he looked around the room, she could tell he saw the furniture, the appliances, the ashtray full of crushed stubs with the telltale dollar sign, in a way he could not have seen fully unless and until he had read and absorbed every page into the core of his being.

"I want you to stand there quietly for a few minutes," he said, without greeting, getting straight to the point, his eyes still meeting hers with an honesty that said, we are equals among equals and human in a way mere humans cannot bear to know. "Because what I have to say must be said completely, and you must hear all of it, because I have earned this and, well, I know I shall never be able to say it again after tonight."

She nodded, granting him the right to make an interminable speech even though she knew what he was going to say, by the way he held his chin, by the panther-like tension in his shoulders, and by the way every mannerism declared he knew who he was and his purpose in being.

"I don't need to tell you I have finished the book, because so much has passed between us that I know you know I know you know I have completed the journey," he began evenly, the smoke from his last cigarette hanging in the air, mingling with the confident assurance of his smile. "It has been an exhilarating trip at that. While walking vicariously in the shoes of Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardan, Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastián d'Anconia and John Galt, I revisited all those pivotal days of my life when I chose between the excellent and the good-enough, between the very best my mind could offer and the quotidian. I knew with certainty the days when my path diverged from the best my life could be, and I resolved never again to shrink from that path. I resolved that my life would be a celebration of exultation and exaltation, that I would exult in the act of exalting and comprehend the difference between the words.

"However," he said next, and her heart jumped because she knew in the way he hesitated before saying the word that this would be the last time they would speak together. Then, as if to extract the dagger and plunge it once again into her heart, not out of spite but because it represented his highest purpose and, she knew, he knew she knew, he repeated the word before he continued.

"However, I am troubled by the author's conclusions and the dénouement of her fable. Can it truly be that the unclouded mind, seeing reality as fully and clearly as reality truly is, would willingly stand by while those of lesser mind and the practitioners of non-thought lead the world to its inevitable destruction, then triumphantly return to rebuild from the ashes? As these superhuman thinkers and doers walk freely among the lesser lights again after withdrawing their services, do they truly expect that the survivors crawling up from the destruction will welcome them back with open arms, eager to go to work for them and help them build their superior products and exchange value for value and live happily and triumphantly ever after? Perhaps that is why she ends the story before they actually go back.

"It has been said that no matter how successful a workers strike has been, the workers will never gain back the wages and the quality of life they could have been earning while they were gone. In an especially bitter strike, the lingering animosity and loss of trust is never fully overcome, and while the two sides may finally settle and begin to work together again, they are cautious and more wary of each other from that point forward, never quite trusting each other to the extent they did before the strike. How much more wary and untrusting, then, will be the survivors of a strike that was the catalyst of the complete collapse of civilization as they knew it?

"As brilliant as the story was — and I do not deny its brilliance; I have spent every available moment of my leisure time for these three weeks engrossed in the story — in the end I found myself as puzzled as I was by the conclusion of the author's previous novel. In writing that previous book, did she really believe that the power of her philosophy was such that, having heard that philosophy proclaimed, a jury would find a man innocent of a violent act that left a woman injured within an inch of her life? In writing this novel, did she really believe a dying nation was best left to die, and many thousands and millions dying with it, and that those who stood by and permitted that death were best equipped to lead the subsequent rebirth and renewal? Did she really believe that, having heard a dry and scholarly dissertation on the reasons why the best and brightest should stand by and allow civilization's collapse, that the survivors would comprehend and welcome the return of the best and brightest as the opening fanfare of a new and better utopia?

"I find her stories inspiring and thought-provoking, but her end scenarios — if I may use the word — illogical. But I see I may not use that word here."

The gun fit in her hand so naturally that she almost was surprised to find it there, even though she had known she would draw the weapon from the moment she entered the room. Now, she met his gaze and exulted to see the look of peace and comprehension on his face. "Is that all that you wished to tell me?"

"Not quite," he said with an understanding smile. "I found the author a bit too willing to rationalize the initiation of force when her heroes committed violence."

"Her heroes never initiated the use of force," she said quietly. "They only killed in response to the force initiated by others."

"No," he said with calm assurance. "That's not true, especially in the novel's closing pages. For so much of the author's fable, A is A. But her heroes did not wait to use violence until it was their only remaining resort, and therefore it appears to me that A is not A."

"Check your premises."

"I did, and in this case I believe the author checked her own premises at the door and neglected to cash them back in. I believe that after all of that struggle and all of that angst, Dagny Taggart, John Galt and their friends jumped the shark. And that is why I am finished here."

"Yes, you are," she said, holding her voice steady and emotionless as she struggled for control of her emotions. "I love you and all that you have been to me."

Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

Oddly, she did not live happily ever after.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous lewlew said...

Wow! Much to ponder....

11:09 PM  
Blogger Kirsten said...

I got through Chapter 10 of that book and it has been sitting on the floor of my bathroom with a spider smashed between Part I and Part II. This post is inspiring me to possibly pick it back up- or at least get another copy so I can finish it.

11:51 PM  
Anonymous summer said...

I LOVE THIS.

9:07 PM  

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