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No Big Deal

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand

reviewed by Terrell Clemmons

Who is John Galt?" That's the enigmatic question in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's final novel and magnum opus. The phrase is the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders: "Who knows?" or "Who can say?"

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged has never been out of print, and by 2010 total sales were approaching seven million copies. Sales accelerated in 2009 after an essay entitled "'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years" appeared in the Wall Street Journal. "Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957," wrote Steve Moore. And finally, Atlas Shrugged is coming to the screen, with Part One of a trilogy scheduled for release on April 15, 2011, tax day for Americans.

Atlas Shrugged dramatizes the contrast between two antithetical constructs: economic free enterprise and a government-controlled economy. It also demonstrates why only free enterprise (capitalism) can generate prosperity and why state control (socialism) inevitably squanders it. Rand had earned the right to speak on the subject. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg, she was an eyewitness to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, in which Lenin and the Soviets seized control of Russia, paving the way for the USSR and decades of crushing Communist rule. She saw her father's pharmacy confiscated and endured periods of near starvation before emigrating to America in 1926, where she became a citizen in 1931 and remained until her death in 1982.

Atlas Shrugged contains brilliant insights into human nature, politics, and economics. Unfortunately, some of these insights are buried among tedious stretches of sermonizing, as she articulates her personal philosophy, which she called Objectivism. The essence of Objectivism, according to Rand, is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." The "work of achieving one's happiness is the purpose, the sanction and the meaning of life."

Right On & Dead Wrong

Ayn Rand got things right when it came to economics and politics. Free markets do foster prosperity better than command-and-control ones. But she was dead wrong about the purpose and meaning of life, and her own disintegrated life could be Exhibit A as to why. She did live for productive achievement and clearly attained it, but she was often depressed, and was known to be unkind, cruel, and imperious. She engaged in a prolonged affair with her protégé, Nathaniel Branden, until the relationship blew up amid bitter accusations and recriminations. Her personal writings, according to Rand devotee and apologist Jim Peron, reveal an isolated, confused, and tormented woman in "searing pain," to whom "nothing made sense."

Rand lived and died an atheist, so it follows that her philosophy would be humanist and that her life would end badly, for a self-exalting, self-absorbed life is a perfect recipe for misery. Any philosophy that dismisses God will inevitably deify something else—in her case, man (or self). Though man is capable of great heroism, he cannot bear the weight of "Godhood." To ennoble selfishness leaves him as immature as a toddler, producing a conflicted, confused world in which nothing makes sense. "Who knows?" "Who can say?" 

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