Fun isn’t What it used to be

JMR Higgs isn’t the first person to notice that The Illumnatus! Trilogy and Atlas Shrugged are both novels with cult followings among undergraduates. He’s probably not the first person to blog about his “discovery” either. But his is the blog entry that Noah sends, so it’s what I have to work with.

In it, he does one of those chart comparison things where you purport to show how similar two things are by listing all the characterisitcs they have in common, but you’re actually promoting one over the other because of slightly different parameter settings for each of those characteristics. And as is usual for people who complain that Ayn Rand is too serious/uncool, there are good signs he hasn’t given Atlas Shrugged a fair reading.

Exhibit A:

Portrays the proletariat in ways utterly removed from how the proletariat actual[sic] act.

Really? Because I don’t remember much portrayal of the proletariat at all. Working class characters make appearances here and there, but none of the main characters of the story – good or evil – are working class. To the extent we hear about the proletariat, they’re generally favorably portrayed as hard-working types who want a decent wage for a decent day’s work and otherwise to be left alone. Much is made of the fact, for example, that Rearden Metal has no unions because Hank Rearden (hero) pays them well. The ex-employees of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, by contrast, are all bitter about how management’s meddling in their lives led the company to collapse, taking their jobs with them. But … well, that’s about it. We see workers working, taking breaks, being tired, eating lunch – are these things “utterly removed from how the proletariat actualy act?” Maybe if you’re talking about Bruce Springsteen’s make-believe proletariat.

Exhibit B:

Portrays individual liberty abstracted to the point of absurdity, although some readers find that absurdity plausible.

Again, when? Possibly in Galt’s Glutch, but then Galt’s Glutch was a select bunch of like-minded people, most of whom moved there after it became obvious that civilization would collapse. Those of us who’ve actually read Atlas Shrugged remember that most of the book was about just the opposite of that – a steady increase in government control, with the ironic unintended consequence that things spin ultimately out of control as a result.

Exhibit C:

Portrays powerful men as utterly pivotal due to their influence on world history.

Again, where? Well, OK, this isn’t as egregious as the others. That’s a fair, if shallow, reading of Rand’s novel. But I don’t think that was the real point. Rand was fond of saying “ideas matter,” and the book was about ideas mattering. It wasn’t the person of John Galt so much as the ideas in his head that stopped the motor of the world. It wasn’t the person of Wesley Mouch so much as the ideas in his head that ruined the world economy. More accurately, John Galt and Wesley Mouch, as characters, are literary vehicles for particular sets of ideas. They’re not “powerful men” in the everyday sense of the term. No one can read Rand’s novel closely and credibly think that she believes that anyone currently alive wields that much influence. She means that the consequence of large numbers of people adopting a mystical collectivist philosophy is the collapse of civilization. She means that the consequence of large numbers of people adopting a rational individualist philosophy is general prosperity. She doesn’t mean that one person can decide to stop the motor of the world and do it all by himself. It was a general strike of productive people.

So, I’m not conviced he gave Atlas Shrugged much more than a glance.

As for the Illuminatus! Trillogy, I wonder how many of its readers actually enjoy it? I found it tedious and pointless myself – yet another data point, as though we needed one, in the case that not all good ideas need to be turned into novels. In this case, the “good idea” was just the observation that conspiracy theories are absurd. Don’t believe me? Try a simple thought experiment. Imagine that all of them are true. Absurd, right? And it’s a quick trip from there to “most of them probably are not true.” And reading my paragraph-length explanation of it is pretty much as effective as Shea and Wilson’s 900-page opus, which was just 900 pages of impossible-to-follow absurdity.

Illuminatus: Author never makes things simple for his readers.
Atlas: Author never makes things difficult for her readers.

Well, the second one is true – Atlas Shrugged is not subtle! But believing the first requires me to believe that Illuminatus! had something complicated to say, and it just isn’t so.  It had practically nothing to say.

Illuminatus!: It is seemingly impossible to find anyone who knew the author who has a bad word to say about him.
Atlas: *shudders*

Ah yes, this again. Rand was an intense person with many enemies, therefore her novel must be bad? Actually, I believe the opposite of that. Most good novelists are intense people. I have no reason to doubt that between Rand and Wilson, Wilson is the one you want to take to a baseball game, but why would the fact that a person is a known people-pleaser recommend him to me as a novelist? Thanks, but if we’re extrapolating from personality, my money’s on the friendless misanthrope being the more interesting read.

So, chalk this up as yet another time the cool kids got it wrong. Yes, the Illuminatus! Trilogy is a safer thing to take to a hip coffee shop, but all you’re going to get out of it is hipsters boring you to death with inside jokes. If you want to learn something about life, read Atlas Shrugged.

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