Through the first 50 pages I was taken aback by how preposterous it all seemed. There's a few rigid, thrusting phallic heroes of decisive action, and millions of mealy-mouthed pathetic disgusting mortals clogging the way. Once suspension of disbelief kicks in and you accept the world, I actually found the story quite interesting and even compelling at points. There's a reasonably complex storyline going on, and I wanted to see how it would all turn out (though I already had some idea from various references to the book). The book is definitely too long, but there's no avoiding that since it's primarily a vehicle for the philosophy so the story keeps having to take a back seat so Rand can hammer away at another of her key ideas. Some of those bits were really tough to get through. The 68 page speech at the end was torture and did a great job making me hate John Galt and stop caring what happened to him. Just shut up! A few other things annoyed me about the story. There's a bunch of coincidences keeping it moving, mainly with the good guys happening to run across each other at various points. That's not very rational! Also when the train is buried under the mountain, she went to great pains to show that everyone on board deserved it, which is a completely weak copout. I think the best novels take responsibility for their actions. Lastly, the main characters are all pretty much the same dude. I suppose the idea is that they've all arrived at the optimum personality because of pure rational thought but wow, it gets pretty boring. Even Dagny is pretty much the same character except that she gets to be a big slut for the hero dudes. I may detect some wish-fulfilment on the part of the author there. Plus, I'm still not sure what the point of Eddie was. He's painted pretty sympathetically but the Prime Movers don't really appear to care what happens to him. Maybe he's just required as a sacrificial lamb for pathos. Again, that doesn't really seem to gel with the philosophy.
There's not much more to say if you approach the novel purely as literature, so what's left is all about the ideas presented through the story. The main one seems to be that you can build an entire set of values based purely on rational thought, not subject to emotion or "received wisdom". I'd be interested to know how detailed a moral system people have so far managed to build on these principles. Possibly someone's written it down somewhere. Such a list in itself might be viewed as received wisdom, but in theory you could put it out there and each rational person can challenge parts of the list until everyone accepts a particular view as the most rational. Rand seems to suggest that there's a purely objective solution to every question, and a purely rational person with the correct facts at their disposal will always arrive at it. Here's some of the problems I have with that idea.
Firstly, I think there's some unacknowledged values implied in the system. You build your values based on what rationally works toward your own happiness. However, happiness is itself an emotion which isn't necessarily rational. Dagny (Rand) may find joy in work and achievement, but that doesn't mean everyone will. That can be shrugged off as not being rational, which brings me to the second problem: who's defining what's rational? In the book, it's easy: if you agree with the author, you're right! In real life, the most deranged conspiracy theorist fully believes in their own rationality and only has their own insistence to back them up. What separates Rand's rational person from the lunatic is the kind of general consensus that Rand despises.
I don't think it's possible to separate our rational selves from our emotional selves in the way that the novel implies, or at least, it's not practical. If you expect everyone to behave in a purely rational manner and expect to be admired for doing the same, you might end up very lonely, and the fault might not necessarily be everyone else's. Rand's solution is to only associate with the other "rational" people, assuming that you'll easily be able to identify them. In the book they all find each other easily, because it's fantasy. In real life, inevitably someone dedicated to their own self-interest is going to make a decision that is good for them and not for you, and since your happiness is based on your own self-interest, why would you be happy about that? The society in the valley is based on never giving anything away except in fair trade, and I think that is a society doomed to failure. For a specific example, I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of love in this novel. There's no such thing as
marriage in the objectivist world, as it's only rational to assume that there might be someone in the world that you will like better, so any exclusive commitment would be irrational. Dagny, in fact, keeps changing partners as soon as the next one comes along, and the old one is fine with the idea because they accept that the new dude is better. I don't think real people can do that. It's not even healthy. You can't deny the way you are feeling just because it's not rational. I think what you'd end up with is all the same emotional arguments you'd be having anyway, except everything would be framed as "You're being irrational" instead. I think realistic happiness in relationships requires you to be prepared to give without expectation of return, at least sometimes.
Interestingly enough, here's a snippet from Ayn Rand's wikipedia page:
Ayn Rand wiki page wrote:After several years, Rand's close relationship with the much younger Branden turned into a romantic affair, with the consent of their spouses. It lasted until Branden (having separated from Barbara) entered into an affair with the young actress Patrecia Scott, whom he later married. The Brandens hid the affair from Rand, and when she found out, she abruptly ended her relationship with both Brandens and with the NBI, which closed. She published a letter in The Objectivist repudiating Branden for dishonesty and "irrational behavior", never disclosing their affair. Both Brandens remain personae non gratae to the mainline Objectivist movement, particularly the group that formed the Ayn Rand Institute.
Some more assumed values - it's assumed that rational self-interest will ensure that the industrialist's workers will get the conditions and pay they deserve, because it makes sense to do that if you want the best workers. As soon as you can get away with less than this though, what's to stop you? It's assumed that an industrialist will not lie or cheat because rational people don't do that, but I think some motives besides self-interest are being assumed here. Why would an objectivist ever have children? That's a prime example of giving with no expectation of return. I think the idea is mentioned once in the book and passed off as a different sort of exchange going on but it's never explained beyond that. It seems that any such exchange would be based on values that objectivism rejects. Why would an objectivist be an environmentalist, or indeed to care about the future at all? That would require compromising your own happiness for the sake of people in the future, who won't be giving anything back to you. Freeloaders! It's implied that making money produces things for the benefit of society in general. What would have happened to Colorado if all those industries had taken off? If Wyatt's new method for improving oil shale yields happened to involve shearing off the tops of the mountains and pouring toxic slag into the catchments, would there be any problem with that?
It seems to me that Rand's philosophy has a lot in common with some of the world views it's most in conflict with - she calls them mystics and muscle but we might as well call them religion and communism. Most religious systems would work great in theory if only everyone would embrace them. Communism would be great if people would stop being so self-interested. Objectivism is fantastic if everyone would stop being so irrational. Her reaction to the problem is the same as that of the Pilgrims - run away with the "true believers", start over and THIS time everything will be perfect! Also, for someone who is so against religion, especially manipulative religion, she sure paints a convincing picture of heaven and hell - in this lifetime, no less. It's good to know those irrational bastards will get what they deserve, though of course I have no emotional investment in the matter. Also, she's unable to accept any but the worst motives for her "destroyers" - deep down, they want everyone to fail. It's inconceivable to Rand that there's such a thing as a sincere believer, or someone who truly works for the good of others.
Here's what I see as the central paradox of the book. The consistent theme is that A is A, that what you perceive, is, and that it's foolish to base your actions on anything else. Yet the entire novel is a deliberate and admitted distortion of reality to present a heroic ideal (and its implied opposite). This complete fantasy is meant to inspire your hard-headed commitment to facts and judgement. Next time you see a social worker, you might see someone who appears to work for the benefit of others, but in fact they're a self-hating parasite who hopes to destroy the world and themselves with it. A is B!
A few other random thoughts. There's a wonderful point made by the benefit of hindsight, which is that people are going to make massive mistakes regardless of how rational they are. The dollar-sign cigarettes symbolise life and hope throughout the book; Ayn Rand suffered significantly from lung cancer later in life. Whoops! Also, The book really doesn't succeed as a dystopia for me, since I can't imagine any of it ever happening. By contrast, 1984 still scares the shit out of me. Similar totalitarian scenarios have already occurred and are occurring, and even objectivism shares some of the hallmarks of the belief systems that allow it to happen: strong identification with a group, demonisation of everyone outside the group and an inability to accept that they have anything to say worth listening to. There's lip service given to the idea of non-violence, in that they'll only use violence in self-defense, but it's not always held up: Nat Taggart is implied to have killed an official that got in the way; Dagny herself kills a man for the crime of indecision. You could say that anyone that does not actively support the "rational" viewpoint is an obstacle that affects your own self-interest and is therefore a candidate for violence in self-defense. Another one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is the insistence that there's no moderates - you're either for or against, and you'd better pick a side (hellooo, modern politics). It's this kind of thinking that I personally blame for "all the wars in the world", rather than religion specifically. I'm in favour of more wishy-washiness.