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The Rapture of Ayn Rand

August 9, 2011

How many copies of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, have been sold is hard to determine. It doesn’t appear on Wikipedia’s list of best-selling books, which ranges from 10 to 200 million copies. But surely it has sold in the millions, and its influence is clearly much stronger than many of the books on the Wikipedia list (Valley of the Dolls, God’s Little Acre, etc.).

Atlas Shrugged resembles a nineteenth century Russian novel (and Rand was born and educated in Russia): dozens and dozens of characters, a plot that sprawls over with epochal (albeit fictional) events, a long philosophical speech as its centrepiece.

But Atlas contains science fictional elements absent in its Russian predecessors: Rearden metal, a strong and reliable but mysterious alloy; Galt’s motor, which runs on static electricity; the government’s Project X. However, the story-line of Rand’s book does not follow science fiction, which introduces mysterious beings or artifacts, and whose plot revolves around revealing the properties of these things. The typical science fiction story tantalizes the audience with some wondrous or horrific entity (a blob from outer space has come to earth, say), inducing audience curiosity about its properties (what can it do? how can we stop it?); and the story-line is largely a revelation of those properties. In Rand’s novel, Rearden metal and Galt’s motor mainly serve as McGuffins for the human conflicts that are the book’s principal subject.

Atlas Shrugged may not fit the formula of science fiction, though there is another pattern from mass art it does exemplify. This is a certain Christian end-of-times story, the best known of which is the “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – 16 instalments so far (1995-2007). (By the way, the 16 “Left Behind” books do end up on the Wikipedia list at 65 million copies sold.)

Let me quote the Wikipedia plot summary: “Based on dispensationalist interpretation of prophecies in the Biblical books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel, Left Behind tells the story of the end times, in which many have been ‘raptured,’ leaving the world shattered and chaotic. As people scramble for answers, a Romanian politician named Nicolae Jetty Carpathia rises to become secretary-general of the United Nations, promising to restore peace and stability to all nations. What most of the world does not realize is that Carpathia is actually the Antichrist foretold from the Bible. Coming to grips with the truth and becoming born-again Christians, Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, their pastor Bruce Barnes, and young journalist Cameron ‘Buck’ Williams begin their quest as the Tribulation Force to help save the lost and prepare for the coming Tribulation, in which God will rain down judgment on the world for seven years.”

And, also from Wikipedia, the plot summary of Atlas Shrugged: “The book explores a dystopian United States where leading innovators, ranging from industrialists to artists, refuse to be exploited by society. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry (including Taggart Transcontinental, the once mighty transcontinental railroad for which she serves as the Vice President of Operations), while society’s most productive citizens, led by the mysterious John Galt, progressively disappear. Galt describes the strike as ‘stopping the motor of the world’ by withdrawing the ‘minds’ that drive society’s growth and productivity. In their efforts, these people ‘of the mind’ hope to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where people are slaves to society and government, and that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society.”

In Left Behind, many (not all) true Christians are raptured into heaven, leaving a small number to form the “Tribulation Force” to oppose the unbelievers and especially the “Antichrist” (not the pope this time, but the secretary-general of the UN). Chaos reigns; and things blow up. In Atlas Shrugged, the best minds secretly migrate to “Galt’s Gulch,” leaving Dagney Taggart and some allies behind to fight the socialists. Chaos reigns; and things blow up. In both Left Behind and Atlas Shrugged the populace is divided along clearly-marked lines of good and bad – Christian versus nonchristian in the former, creative capitalists versus ”looters” and “moochers” in the latter.

Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind are not simply stories of good versus evil. They are stories in which armies of good face off against armies of evil. In this, they resemble Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, not to mention Paradise Lost. But what makes me want to join Atlas Shrugged with Left Behind and to separate these two from other armies-of-good-face-armies-of-evil stories is the “rapture” elements in both works: the good simply disappear, with a few exceptions, leaving the evil to suffer in their own self-created messes.

The popularity of both Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind is partly explainable, I think, as an appeal to the believers’ desire for revenge on the unbelievers. However, the revenge in these books is a specific kind in which evil-doing unbelievers suffer from self-inflicted wounds: they became collectivists (wrong) or refused to accept Jesus as their saviour (really wrong). Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. And, boy, do these evil-doers reap. As the Objectivist or Christian makes his way through these books, waves of self-justification wash over him. See how right I am! Randians, in fantasy, see themselves as the creative producers of society. The Left Behind crowd see themselves as true believers in Jesus.

This is not to deny that Objectivism and Christianity have an appeal on their own, as philosophies in their own right. But some emotion needs to fuel the machine that gets readers through these massive books.

I suspect there is a significant overlap between readers of Atlas Shrugged and readers of Left Behind. I wonder if readers at the intersection know there is an inconsistency between Randian sex-and-atheism and Christian puritanism-and-theism. Possibly not; “such is the sweet influence which [mimetic art] by nature has” (Plato).


From → Philosophy

  1. I tried reading Left Behind. I thought it was a terrific idea for a plot, but the book was terribly written, and I found it impossible to finish.

    Atlas Shrugged is a much more successful book, and does deserve to be credited with real strengths as a work of imaginative fiction and as a collection of philosophical arguments. Rand really invents and uses the idea of the imaginary “initial position” before Rawls and more persuasively than Rawls.

    I don’t think one needs to be a believer in Randianism in the cultic sense to read Atlas Shrugged through. Doubtless millions of people have and few have become full cult members. My wife and I re-read, and much enjoyed, Atlas Shrugged again recently in connection with the release of the film version, first part. Did waves of self-justification wash over me? I don’t recall noticing. It seems to me that one enjoys Atlas Shrugged in much the way one enjoys The Lord of the Rings. You have a complex story of good versus evil, and many of us identify with the good guys. I don’t know that waves of self-justification wash over readers when, for instance, Eowyn stabs the Nazgul, but we do tend to be on her side.

  2. I won’t gainsay your emotional response.

    I don’t see the point about the initial position.

    One thing about Eoywn and the Nazgui: Lord of the Rings isn’t a ideological book – there’s no philosophy to become convinced of. The characters don’t represent or embody any theses.

  3. The “initial position” is a philosophic argument which invites the reader to picture himself in a position prior to actual existence of human society theorizing about the form the social contract would need to take before he would be willing to become a member of that society. Rawls, of course, claims that, since one is unable to know one’s future condition, one would insist on a liberal welfare state safety net. Rand used the argument of the initial position, years before Rawls, to support traditional Natural Law concepts of rights of life, liberty, and property. Her pro-a-property-right argument is really the best ever offered.

    I think you are mistaken about LOTR being an unideological book. Look at Edmund Wilson’s indignant reaction.

  4. For that matter, Locke used “state of nature” years before Rand.

    I took the “initial position” to refer to the specific thought experiment – especially the “veil of ignorance” which is missing in both Locke and Rand – which Rawls employs.

    “Atlas Shrugged is a much more successful book, and does deserve to be credited with real strengths as a work of imaginative fiction and as a collection of philosophical arguments.” Certainly AS is a much better book than “Left Behind”. Its strengths as imaginative fiction are on a par with Pearl Buck, James Michener, and Edna Ferber, to mention some of Rand’s contemporaries; though its philosophical arguments put it in a different category.

    You seem to get Edmund Wilson backwards: “Certainly it [LORT] has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.” He objects because it’s “an overgrown fairy story” marketed to adults.

    There are books I enjoyed when I was much younger, including AS and LORT, which I can’t imagine enjoying now. It makes my toenails curl when my undergrad students cite LORT as the greatest film ever made.

  5. But Wilson abuses Tokien precisely on ideological grounds: racism toward Orcs, inegalitarian treatment of females, monarchism,
    and so on.

    I acquired in recent years a large library containing an early edition of ULYSSES, which I first read in early high school. My father actually found the Modern Library Giant edition of ULYSSES discarded on a street in Westchester in the rain and brought me home the swollen, red-dye-soaked book (knowing my unlimited appetite for books).

    Reflecting on the difference in the experience between reading that former copy and a valuable Shakspeare & Company printing, I thought I’d sit down and give it another read. Opening ULYSSES reminded me exactly how difficult I found it to overcome my childhood sensitivity to obscenity and to slog through the dense experimental prose anyway. The difference, I found in my late 50s, is that I’d already read ULYSSES a couple of times, and I knew what was in it, and I now possessed more than adequate self confidence to recognize that I would never willingly associate with the likes of stately, plump Buck Mulligan et. al. in real life or listen to their vulgar talk, and I simply tossed it aside after a few dozen pages.

    I still re-read books I find more sympathetic with enjoyment every so many years. I’ve undoubtedly read ATLAS SHRUGGED and LOTR each more than a dozen times, and hopefully will read them again. I even read SEGAKI every few decades.

    The veil of ignorance is essentially, I think, implicit in the idea of the initial (pre-social contract) position. In Rawls’ case, of course, it figures particularly with respect to neediness and social inequality, issues which do not come to mind to people resembling Ayn Rand philosophically. Rawls has always seemed very easy to refute to me, as I know plenty of people who would be eager to wager on a positive personal fate from the other side of Rawls’ veil.

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