In October 1957, author & philosopher Ayn Rand published her last and most ambitious novel. Atlas Shrugged was destined be one of the most popular, influential and controversial books of the twentieth century.
Set in what Rand called ‘the day after tomorrow,’ Atlas depicts an American society driven to the edge of collapse by over-zealous government regulators and their business cronies. Besides having penned three previous novels, Rand had already written for the movies and had success on Broadway and knew how to capture an audience’s attention. Atlas was an old-fashioned page-turner – a stylistic throwback to 19th Century classical romantics in the manner of Tolstoy, Jane Austen and Victor Hugo. But 20th Century critics, accustomed to a regular diet of naturalistic prose (Kerouac’s On the Road was published that same year), failed to appreciate the novel’s archetypal characters, operatic themes and melodramatic sensibilities. Atlas was panned and even ridiculed for what some critics called its ‘unlikely plot’ and ‘black & white’ characters.’
But questions of literary value had little to do with the controversy that has followed author and novel ever since. Atlas is at its heart a morality play illustrating Rand’s conviction that America had lost touch with her core values of individualism and freedom and was marching blindly toward the collectivism that had ravaged her native Russia. The only hope, she said, was for American to turn away from the concept of altruism – living for the sake of others – that had represented ‘morality’ in this country since the late 19th Century. Loving thy neighbor is killing us, she said. The solution and salvation lay in selfishness.
This eyebrow-raising theme – along with the ’cause and effect’ philosophy Rand introduced called Objectivism – was received with open hostility by philosophers, religious groups, politicians and intellectuals of every ideological stripe. Rand, they said, was a nut, a loony, a fascist! But even as author and novel were intellectually marginalized, Atlas Shrugged found a popular audience, made the bestseller lists and remained there for half a century.
During that time, like religion and politics, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged were dangerous topics to bring up at a dinner party – unless your intent was to start a food fight. So, for years you didn’t hear much about Ayn Rand or Atlas Shrugged. Even as the book stayed on the bestseller list, year after year after year.
Then came the financial crisis of 2008. In that single year Atlas Shrugged sold over two hundred thousand copies – an all time record. The following year over half a million books were sold. Perhaps even more surprisingly – in the media and public discourse, you heard the names Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged again.
Maybe it was the countless new laws and freedoms-limiting regulations Washington was churning out in the wake of 9/11. Or maybe because people couldn’t see the upside of the foreign conflicts in which their young men and women were sacrificing their futures, bodies and lives. Or around the time that the government-built Mississippi River Bridge collapsed. Or when Hurricane Katrina destroyed a major American city because incompetent cronies had been left in charge. Or when the housing bubble burst… and the brokerage houses went under….and the banks collapsed….or when the auto industry was nationalized and the stock market crashed and the jobs went away.
Somewhere in there – during that tumultuous first decade of the 21st Century. That’s when you heard people talking about Atlas Shrugged. Because people remembered that all that had happened in the book. And how spooky was that?
When I first read Rand in college, I was oblivious to the controversial or political aspects of the novel. It’s not that I failed to grasp Rand’s ideas – she makes them abundantly clear. But at that tender age I couldn’t imagine them being controversial. Wasn’t she talking about individual rights, creative freedom, self-sufficiency? Atlas for me was just a good read – a page turner (if you don’t count John Galt’s 57 page speech near the end).
Nor did I recognize much connection between the world of Atlas Shrugged and the world I lived in. I saw no chance that the America I knew would soon or ever deteriorate into anything resembling the bleak dystopia depicted in the novel.
That’s why I was surprised to discover that Atlas and Rand were not universally admired. In fact, quite the opposite was true. “You can’t be serious. You actually liked that book?” Rand was an elitist, a fascist, an atheist, a Darwinist. She’s all about greed. She calls selfishness a virtue. She wants corporations to rule. She wants to exploit the poor!
Was this true? How could I have missed that?
What did Ayn Rand know and how did she know it? That’s the question I looked to answer when I began the documentary Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged.
My documentary is not intended to be a defense of Ayn Rand or the ideas contained in her epic novel. Indeed, I’ve come to believe that Rand’s ideas don’t require defending. But they ought to be removed from the rancor and ad hominem attacks in order to be heard and understood. Most Rand detractors I’ve met confess to having never read a single page of her work.
Nor does it offer a doc version of a TV-pundit-style shouting match – although, I confess to having spent a lot of time persuading prominent figures with opposite views to Rand to go on camera. But they demurred – probably because they were no more interested in appearing in a philosophical reality show than I was in moderating one.
Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged is a biography of a book and an idea. Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged – about as dire an illustration of America as could be imagined at that point – in the post-war late 40’s and mid-50’s. We usually think of that period as one of the most benign and prosperous eras in American history – certainly in the 20th Century. Yet that’s when Rand decided that we were on a slippery slope to dystopia and devoted the next twelve years of her life to showing us how and why.
How did she know where it would all lead? The author once said that, if you can identify the dominant philosophy of a society and you can predict its course. What Rand perceived as America’s dominant philosophy – and fatal direction – provides the jumping-off place for this film.
Here’s just a bit of what I’ve learned over the last two years: Contrary to what you may have heard or believe: Ayn Rand was not right wing or fascist or elitist or even conservative. The intellectual she most despised was William F. Buckley! She would likely have seen little distinction between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Ayn Rand and her ideas – if they must bear comparison – are similiar to what once was known as classical liberalism – unequivocal belief in the individual’s rights to lead his own life or – as Jefferson phrased it – the pursuit of happiness.
Rand championed small businessmen – independents. Didn’t much care for corporations, thought they promoted groupthink and limited individual creativity. As for the ideas that greed is good and selfishness as a virtue – she enjoyed throwing those bombshells around simply to get a rise out of people and to get them to think about the difference between earning something on your own and stealing it or having it handed to you. In that sense, even a liberal stooge like – well – me, has to admit that, given that choice, greed is the more desirable trait. Incidentally, despite her strong endorsement of capitalism, Rand herself didn’t care much about money or any material things in general. While writing Atlas and for the rest of her life, she lived simply in a little apartment on 34th Street in Manhattan with her husband and a cat. To make ends meet, she took in laundry. (Okay, that last sentence is false.).
As for the prophecy of Atlas Shrugged? I’m a glass-half-full guy and am still hoping that the similarities between the book and today’s headlines are all just coincidence. What do you think?
Mad Universe Presents A film by Chris Mortensen. Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged. Executive Producer John Corry, Associate Producer Fawaz Al-Matrouk, Camera Al Broderick Mark Simon, Editor Martin Singer. Produced, written & directed by Chris Mortensen. Run Time: 85 minutes Genre: Documentary Rating: This film is not rated. Adult language. Distribution Mad Universe, LLC.