Monday, March 23, 2009

Has Atlas Shrugged?


“I swear—by my life and by my love of it— that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
John Galt’s oath

Atlas Shrugged.
The 1957 tome by Ayn Rand is making news once again. Recent reports show a direct correlation between sales of the 52-year old novel and the state of the economy. The lower we sink, the more of us reach for the epic, which runs in excess of 1,000 pages. They say it’s more popular than ever. I need no news article to know this. As a bookseller, I can personally attest to its rising popularity, as I place the book into the hands of one customer after another. And I can’t help grinning.

Atlas Shrugged.
The very name brings a smile to my mind. I own a first edition copy of Rand’s final novel. It’s as dog-eared and annotated as many folks bibles. I’m not going to go into depth relating her philosophy. A few strokes of the keyboard will take those interested to an abundance of links, including a recent Wall Street Journal article. And it’s easy to see how the economic apocalypse foretold in the book can be seen unfolding before our 21rst century eyes. (She even has a chapter called: The Utopia of Greed.) We watch as incompetence is rewarded and listen as the phrase “nationalize the banks” actually leaves the lips of our so-called “representatives.”

Atlas Shrugged
My relationship with the book and its author, however, is more personal, dating back to 1962 when I cracked it open. At age 16, I was already depressed and alienated from the world. Lost. I found a home between its dark green covers; people I longed to meet in her characters. I argued her philosophy with my Jesuit-trained history teacher. He presented Saint Thomas Aquinas; I countered with Aristotle. Yeah, I was one serious-minded kid. Philosophy became my minor in college. But I digress.

Atlas Shrugged.
From the now famous opening line: ”Who is John Galt?” I was entranced. (A note: When I came to investigate moving to Sarasota, I found a shop on St. Armands Circle called Who is John Galt and took it as a sign.) At first, I thought the book was historical and kept asking my mother when in the Depression these things had come to pass. It slowly sunk in as I was drawn into the mystery. The brilliant two-word title tells it all. In Rand’s world, the economic collapse is hastened deliberately by—oh, well the secrets been out for decades—the mind on strike. Those with the creative intellect propelling our world withdraw, allowing the world to become a festering economic black hole, sucking in everything.

But more than that, it’s a mondo love story. Naturally, I saw myself as heroine Dagny Taggart, a 36-year old railroad tycoon with “showgirl legs.” (It must be said here that Angelina Jolie, whose name always surfaces to play the part in the long-awaited movie, was likely not yet born.) She is adored by the each of the three male heroes and won by—you guessed it—the “perfect man,” John Galt himself. (Who, if memory serves, has hair the color of “liquid copper.” Ok, it’s been 25 years since I’ve re-read it so cut me a break here.)

I’ve never had much use for so-called “realism” in novels or film. I want to be transported—dare I admit it—uplifted by art. At the time, I had not heard of Rand and was not familiar with The Fountainhead. So I worked backwards through her works, devouring everything. Then went on to the philosophical tracts and as years passed, biographies. (The definitive being The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Brandon.)

My obsession with all-things-Rand was well known to my friends and family. I once received a 2 a.m. call from a former boyfriend informing me that she was on the Tom Snyder Show. I was just shy of 30 and it was the only time I saw her in the flesh. Like her creation John Galt, though, Rand lives on.

So instead of Who is John Galt? perhaps we should be asking:
Where is John Galt?

1 comment:

carol said...

Oh geeze - now I have to go to the book store!