Pulp Fiction, Politics, and a Whiff of Rachmaninoff

I should have heard that name long ago. It has frequently come up in headlines about the surge of the political right in the US; occasionally, in the European context.

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Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist and philosopher, and a powerful influence, apparently, on neoliberal and libertarian mindsets. Her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged  has sold nearly 9 million copies, according to the Ayn Rand Institute that takes an aggressive part in its promotion. Pulp fiction with spurious philosophical pretense, according to the vast majority of critics. For a coterie of cultish followers, however, “the greatest novel ever written”. I quote Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion (2007, p. 5), a publication that deceptively resembles a scholarly volume — until one starts reading.

Atlas Shrugged. I have repaired my ignorance and worked my way, hopping, skipping and jumping, through its 1200 pages.

Admittedly, it has an ability to hook into the mind. A certain stickiness, like a tune that you can’t get out of your head, which doesn’t mean it’s good or likeable (or bad). The question is what makes this novel sticky. To my mind, it is above all the contradiction between the work’s intended rational vision and its core sentimentality.

Sentimentality: it’s all about infantile, magical wish-fulfilment. Magic has to fill the gaps in the author’s vision of the blessings of laissez-faire capitalism, a kind of hero-economics, in which the producer is inventor, the inventor producer, and in his rigorous pursuit of self-interest automatically — that is, magically — benefits society, clashing only with his inferiors, never with his equals (never mind the masses).

This hero-entrepreneur makes no attempt to enter the arena of political debate. Instead, he “shrugs” and withdraws into a mutual admiration society. At best, or worst, he sermonizes. With his sixty page radio speech the novel’s superhero John Galt beats notorious bores such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez (and loses the reader).

Magical wish-fulfilment is present in the secondary story line, which is a kind of Lover’s Progress. With three heroes to one heroine (railroad executive Dagny Taggart), the choice is hers, and nibbling a bit off each of them she finds the next superior to and more excitingly violent than the former. From playing mate (Francisco) through working mate (Rearden) to superhero and Redeemer (John Galt).

Its ethics should clearly ban Rand’s ideology from the broad christian base of American conservatism; but as for inconsistency, there seems to be no limit to what people are willing to live by. Just as Rand has concocted her philosophy by inverting christian and socialist values (greed is good; altruism is evil), the imagery of her fiction reflects and inverts socialist and christian iconography.

Rand defies christianity by projecting inverted features of Christ onto John Galt, who, stretched out naked on an electric torture-bed, laughs at his torturers. (Laughter, in Rand’s world, has nothing to do with humour, which is mercilessly absent. It expresses feeling superior.) To make the message quite plain, in the closing sentence the dollar sign replaces the symbol of the cross in a blessing of the earth:

He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
(2007 Penguin ed., p. 1168)

(I wonder whether those in the Rand cult “dollar themselves” at rituals.)

In appearance, the hero-industrialist-entrepreneur resembles the worker-hero or heroine of socialist realism. Physically perfect, muscular, backlighted, hair waving in the wind.

He saw a girl standing on top of a pile of machinery on a flatcar. She was looking off at the ravine, her head lifted, strands of disordered hair stirring in the wind. Her plain gray suit was like a thin coating of metal over a slender body against the spread of sun-flooded space and sky. Her posture had the lightness and unself-conscious precision of an arrogantly pure self-confidence. (p. 562)

(Hair, by the way, is almost an obsession. Disheveled hair, a strand of hair across the face, “their hair mingled like the rays of two bodies in space that had achieved their meeting” (p. 750), and so on.)

Underground, unacknowledged sentimentalism explains much of the stickiness of this novel. On a more positive side, the author manages to guide the reader through its excessive length by using well-proven mystery devices. The gradual revelation of her superhero John Galt and his entrepreneurial conspiracy is of these the most obvious, but least interesting. More attractive, almost subtle, is the introduction of the composer Richard Halley and his Piano Concerto No. 5. Dagny first hears it in her imagination, during a train ride, unaware of the fact that she is mostly imagining it herself, prompted by someone whistling the theme in another compartment.

She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.

Somewhere on the edge of her mind, under the music, she heard the sound of train wheels. They knocked in an even rhythm, every fourth knock accented, as if stressing a conscious purpose. She could relax, because she heard the wheels. She listened to the symphony, thinking: This is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going. (p. 13)

She recognizes it as Halley, well knowing that she has never heard it before, and gets a hint of its identity by the whistler’s admission that it is Halley’s unknown Concerto No. 5 (not a symphony). As she later learns, it is subtitled Deliverance (an allusion, obviously, to christian “Redemption”). The composer has “delivered himself” by withdrawing from concert life and joining John Galt’s secret mutual admiration society. That’s where the story line stops holding interest.

Meanwhile, the reader may try to find real world references for Rand’s fictional music. Halley’s fourth concerto

was a great cry of rebellion. It was a “No” flung at some vast process of torture, a denial of suffering, a denial that held the agony of the struggle to break free. The sounds were like a voice saying: There is no necessity for pain—why, then, is the worst pain reserved for those who will not accept its necessity?—we who hold the love and the secret of joy, to what punishment have we been sentenced for it, and by whom? (p. 67)

The four piano concertos suggest an allusion to Rachmaninoff. And despite his very different emotional world, tainted by melancholy rather than rebellion and triumph, Rachmaninoff’s surging and soaring melodies and intense emotionality may well have been an inspiration for the author’s descriptions. Unsurprisingly, the older fellow Russian emigre was among the author’s favourite composers (though not, it seems, acquaintances). So, the reader is well justified in imagining something Rachmaninoff-like.

(Rachmaninoff, by the way, was as fond of fast cars and boats as Dagny Taggart is of fast trains. The chapter about Dagny’s first ride on the John Galt Line — at a record 100 MPH — stands out from the rest of the book in effectively conveying her exhilaration.)

The musical-literary leitmotiv of Halley’s Concerto No. 5 might function very well as a cinematographic device, as so much in this novel brings to mind movie clichés. Its setting is presumably contemporary (1950’s), but situation and characters seem rather to belong to the thirties, the age of rail and radio. It was also the time when Rand started to become critically engaged with US politics. Roosevelt’s New Deal was too reminiscent of the communism which had come down hard on her family. This retrospective aspect is ignored in the recent (2011-2014) mediocre and unsuccessful movie version, set in 2016. I can more or less imagine what the Coen brothers might do with the novel. Transposed to the screen in a fairly literal manner, in 1930’s black and white, it would almost automatically turn into satire.