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October 1, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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Atlas Shrugged

On October 10, 1957, Atlas Shrugged was published by Random House. Thirteen years in the writing, including two years on the novel’s key philosophical exposition, Galt’s Speech, Atlas instantly alienated all elements of the establishment. It still does. Yet according to an oft-quoted 1994 US Library of Congress poll, more respondents were influenced by it than by any other book apart from the Bible. And with sales of hard- and soft-cover editions rocketing (see amazon. com), fifty years after publication, Atlas has clearly established itself as a twentieth century classic. Just two weeks ago the New York Times wrote it up as “one of the most influential business books ever written.” The work that was reviewed, variously, as “execrable claptrap,” “not in any literary sense a serious novel,” “written out of hate,” “grotesque eccentricity,” “crack-brained ratiocination,” “a pitiful exercise in something akin to paranoia,” “longer than life and twice as preposterous,” etc., has outlived the reviewers who denounced it so apoplectically.

An analysis of the reasons it was so hated yields also the reasons it is still so loved. Atlas, far more explicitly than Ayn Rand’s previous best-seller, The Fountainhead, challenges, in Rand’s own words, “the cultural tradition of two thousand five hundred years.” It demolishes the sacrificial ethic that permeates most of the belief systems of that entire period. It repudiates the proposition that man’s highest purpose and duty is to sacrifice himself—be it to God, the state, society or his neighbour. It roundly condemns the equation of ethics with suffering.

“The purpose of morality,” says one of its heroes in a startlingly direct and conventionally outrageous formulation, “is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”

What?!

Thus did Ayn Rand enrage religious conservatives and secular “liberals” alike. In the latter category, Gore Vidal could write that Atlas was “perfect in its immorality”; in the former, Whittaker Chambers could lambast it for its “materialism” (this, of a book glorifying the human spirit) and insist that from every page one could hear the command, “To a gas chamber– go!” (This, of a book whose climactic speech contains the following: “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? No man may start—the use of physical force against others … Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”)

She demonstrated to all comers on the political spectrum that their fondly-held and fiercely-fought disagreements with each other were, at root, illusory. A home truth that those who heard it would rather not have. That is why the book was and is so hated.

Against their stale self-abasement and conformism, she urged man to rise, to achieve his proper estate: “an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads.” That is why the book is so loved—by any human being who has not let his “fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.”

The title Atlas Shrugged is, of course, an allusion to the mythical hero who carried the world on his shoulders. It portrays real-life Atlases— inventors, thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, labourers—shrugging off their burdens and going on strike. Their burdens—the “looters” and “moochers” who expect their “needs” to be met through the efforts of the Atlases—are left to their own devices (prayers, snarls and demands for the unearned) as one by one the strikers repair to a safe haven, a hidden libertarian society where they deal with each other rationally and voluntarily, awaiting the inevitable collapse of the collectivist cannibalism they have left behind.

The reviews quoted above, and many more like them, nearly did Atlas in. On the strength of initial sales, Random House became convinced that they had a commercial failure on their hands. But some critics got it right. John Chamberlain divined that Atlas was “directed towards the creation of an entirely new mental and moral force in the world.”

Ruth Alexander, in the New York Mirror, proclaimed, “Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century.” And then the sense of life of millions of Americans took over. As Barbara Branden writes in The Passion of Ayn Rand: “As always in Ayn’s professional career, it was predominantly word of mouth that caused the sagging sales of her novel to pick up—then to soar—then to skyrocket through printing after printing and edition after edition and year after year.”

To this extraordinary work—happy birthday! To its author, a posthumous salute.

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