Monday, February 14, 2011

The worst review

A review of Whittaker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged .

Chambers' review of Atlas Shrugged is perhaps the worst review in the history of literature. I do not mean by that that is it the least complimentary (although god knows it's not a love letter) but that it is the least accurate. Generally when a review misreports a work it is perceived as innocent incompetence, but this is hardly likely here. Atlas Shrugged is not a complex work by the standards of a nationally known reviewer and some of the “mistakes” he makes are obvious to anyone of average intelligence who actually read the book. Some of the claims he makes about AS and Rand are merely unsupported, but others are directly contradicted by the work itself. I am forced to conclude that the review isn't just nasty, it's dishonest.

“It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. “ 

 This is perhaps just an exaggeration based on the reviewers limited memory of the work, but it is the first claim that can be factually verified or denied by reference to the work, the latter occurs. Is he seriously saying that Hank Reardon, who betrayed the productive class of a whole country so his girlfriend wouldn't look bad, is “only the whitest white”? Or how about “non-absolute”? If he is only the whitest white or the blackest black which is he? And at which stage of his character development*?

“The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. Insofar as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in boardrooms. “ 

 Right, so Dagny Taggart is a “curmudgeon”, yeah because she hated socialising with her friends. What Chambers seems to misunderstand, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, it that it is not “ curmudgeonly” to not what to socialise with people who you don't like or trust. That is the extent of the “curmudgeon” tendencies of the heroes of AS.  Note also that he is already inserting the impression that the heroes of AS are all millionaires and that we only need to consider whether they might be known in real life to “the business community”, not the arts or philosophical community. I will come back to this.

“All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. “ 

 Midas Mulligan is breathtakingly beautiful? Ken Dannager too? Really? There is no accounting for Whittaker's taste.

“Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. “ 

Chambers here seems surprised that a woman who wants to become chief of a transcontinental railroad and has sex at lot has mastered birth control. “You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. “ No Chambers, you speculate that. I speculate that she knew little about how to raise children and spent little time with them and so didn't consider it a good idea to write a lot about them. Just as Jane Austen never wrote a scene with no women present so Rand didn't write a lot of scenes with children in them. As for AS depicting a world that isn't a good place for children, it's a dystopian novel, it's not a good place for adults. “How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. “ Apparently he thinks naming a character “Midas” means that the author hates children or something, only his bile is clear in this case.

“Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. “ 

Note here that he leaves out completely the fact that plenty on the Right also qualify, as do plenty of religious people. The idea that the bad guys in AS are unbelievable caricatures is simply wrong. There are many people who are as bad or worse as the average Ayn Rand villain. I'm looking at you Krugman. In fact the response to one section of Atlas Shrugged perfectly mirrors the response to the statements of one of the characters in that section. You will no doubt have heard of the train wreck where Rand goes through each car and details how someone in that car endorsed the disastrous philosophy that led to it. Francisco comments on this fact and the outrage is greater than the outrage at the wreck itself. What Rand was doing in this piece was talking about a much larger train wreck, which similarly killed people who, by and large, endorsed to a greater or lesser extent the philosophy that caused it. And just like Francisco the torrents of abuse came down on her far more than on those who caused the wreck. The train wreck by the way was the 20th century. How absurd is it to be condemned for writing unrealistic characters by people who are doing what you have your characters doing? 

“This spares her the playguy business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.” 

 Actually the entire book is about how these people came to exist and become powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. I suppose she could have gone into greater depth, but if Chambers really wants this he is the only person I know who thinks AS should be longer.

“Robin Hood is the author's image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). “ 

Here Chambers simply substitutes “Strong” for productive and “Weak” for unproductive hoping we won't see the difference. In fact the heroes in AS are consistently overpowered in almost everything they want for most of the book. To describe that as “Strength” is just a trifle disingenuous. The character arguably depicted as the worst in the book is Dr. Robert Stadler, who is intellectually strong and even brave. It is not strength but willingness to deal with others through consent only that separates the heroes from the villains.

“I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, “ 

 Note again he gives the impression that al l the heroes are businessmen.

“Happily, in Atlas Shrugged (though not in life), all the Children of Darkness are utterly incompetent.” 

Dr Robert Stadler is utterly incompetent?

“In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. “ 

 Except that they don't intend to “repossess” anything, simply to deal consensually with those outside Galt's Gulch. There is no hint that the Gulchers even want to take back what was legally there's let alone “repossess” the whole world.

“More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, “ 

 Much of the book is about how dollars mean you don't have to submit to anyone. That Chambers pretends to misunderstand this after over 1000 pages is breathtaking. The whole point is that by trading consensually nobody needs to submit to anyone's will. If Rand had only mentioned this once I could excuse Chambers, who no doubt was distracted by guilt at being a pawn of socialist murderers, for missing it. But as we all know saying something once isn't really Rand's style. The point is hammered home repeatedly, and anyone who pretends not to get it is dishonest either right on the surface, deep down or both.

“by Miss Rand's ideas that the good life is one which 'has resolved personal worth into exchange value,' 'has left no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest, than callous cash-payment.' “ 

The idea that Rand thought that only cash should come in to a relationship is similar to the idea that Marx thought laissez faire was a great idea. Throughout Atlas Shrugged the heroes sacrifice material well-being for abstract values like friendship, integrity and pride. Henry Reardon refuses $20 million dollars for the rights to Reardon metal, far more than he could possible gain from selling it (in fact it's not clear that he ever makes a profit from it's sale). His justification? “Because it's good.”. John Galt gives up far more by not patenting his motor, which conservatively would be worth $50 million given the power/weight ratio and feul economy. Quentin Daniels gives up the chance to own a considerable percentage of the profits from making the same motor, just so he can work as an apprentice in Galt's power station. The refusal of Halley to take payment from Dagny for the concert because her satisfaction and it's source are enough is minor in comparison but still significant. It is certainly less impressive than having 40 men ready to die to rescue someone they love. Death of course would make money pretty meaningless. So much for the idea that Rand favors “no other nexus between man and man... than callous cash payment”.

“It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. “ 

Materialism has two meanings “ 1. preoccupation with or emphasis on material  objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values. 2. the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material  agencies.“ ( based on the Random House dictionary) Chambers says “philosophic materialism” which means the second, but he's talking about the first. He either doesn't know or doesn't want us to know the difference. With regard to the first meaning Rand was specific that she did not chiefly value material things. Hell the only reason you read John Galt's speech was that she gave up material things to get it printed. Again the heroes of AS gave up material things repeatedly in AS, and not small ones either. Akston gave up salary and tenure and became a sandwich hand. Galt as previously mentioned gave up his rights to his motor, possibly the most valuable possession on the planet at the time.

“Henceforth man's fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand's words, 'the moral purpose of his life.' Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. “. 

Yes Rand thought about what it means to pursue pleasure and how it can affect the will, intelligence and spirit. She even wrote about it, chiefly in the voice of Francisco d'Anconia. The claim that the pursuit of happiness tends “automatically” to 'the pursuit of pleasure' which of course Chambers doesn't define , let alone differentiate from happiness is obviously wrong. Not everyone who pursues happiness spends their time getting drunk and laid. That the forms of pleasure seeking are only effective if they have the content of achievement is mentioned at least twice, firstly by Dagny as a comment on her social debut, then by Francisco as he comments on his fake “playboy” lifestyle and the sort of man who would actually seek it and why. It's OK if Chambers doesn't believe what Rand says about pleasure here, but to pretend she hasn't said it just to justify smearing her philosophy is just plain evil.

“For, if Man's heroism (some will prefer to say: 'human dignity') no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche's anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity." 

Again this is something that Rand specifically dealt with in AS and to just skip over it to pretend that she did is the work of a propagandist not a reviewer. I guess once you learn from the Trots you never forget.

“So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, “ 

 Interesting choice of words, “ruling caste”. Note that none of the heroes ruled or sought to rule anyone. The closest any of them came to doing so was Judge Narragansett, writing a constitution, which would give him as judge less power than he had under the previous one. But the word “caste” is even more revealing, since it refers to a class that is determined by birth and impossible to get out of. Given that every one of the heroes in AS changes “caste” and that the only two sibling pairs in the story end up in completely different circumstances how is this word justified? It's not. It's simply another attempt to imply something untrue about AS, in this case that those who triumphed would have some sort of inescapable hold on the world. In fact not only do they not seem to want this but at least one specifically rejects having an inescapable hold over his employees, hiring only those who will quit and become his competitors.

“For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, “ 

 Right, because AS has nothing to say about how politics works and what it means. God how did this guy not get laughed out of the literary profession.

“In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. “ 

Here we come to the real objection, the crux of the matter, even more important than the god stuff. Rand thinks that philosophy should actually be applied to real life. My god doesn't she know that philosophy is to be kept in the drawing room of effete professors and never taken out in public? The relevance of philosophy to our “highly complex society” being “everywhere in a high state of instability” apparently escapes Chambers. 
 “And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them. “ 
 So naturally we must abandon all philosophy in politics, all attempts to find underlying principles for understanding the world. No instead we must simply base our politics on, what exactly? Not ethics for that is a branch of philosophy? Not logic for that too is a branch of philosophy Nah let's just keep spewing out range of the moment, “pragmatic”, whatever seems to work right now politics, it worked so well for Weimer Germany. Oh no I've done the Godwin's law thing, oh well, at least I didn't start it.

“Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, “ What the hell does he mean here? Rand had nothing against socialising, and did it constantly. She had nothing against people being “socialised” in the sense of treating people decently either. Neither of these conclusions is in any way justified by AS.

“calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). “ I don't see how a sculptor and a musician count as part of the “industrial-financial-engineering elite”. Although the sculptor did run a foundry for a while. Again he uses the word “caste” to falsely imply that this group is both monolithic and permanent. Nothing in AS even remotely suggests this, in fact one of the main antagonists seem to regard themselves as having a right to be in an elite not the protangonists. Nowhere do any of the protagonists suggest being given the powers of a Big Brother, in fact John Galt specifically rejects the offer, considering it absurd even to command men to be free.

“When she calls 'productive achievement man's noblest activity,' she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. “ Actually she means and says she means whatever expands a man's life. That someone could be ignorant of this is startling but I guess when you're mining a work for things to slander it with it's easy to miss the little stuff. “She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. “ Yes she can object but we'll simply make a baseless assertion and that takes care of that.

“And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). “ 

How exactly is not using force against others going to lead to a dictatorship? The only restraint he talks of is the initiation of force, which yes, I do think it should be in practice criminal and in morals vicious. The idea that a group whose only demand was “stop stealing from us” is dictatorial is bizarre, but only if you don't consider the “conservatives” who make it. To them sacrifice to the “greater good” is a god, worshipped far more reverentially than the god they claim to worship. What, we can't extort money from you to enslave your sons to die on a distant field? You dictators!

“I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship. “ 

Wow, that's scummy even for him. Note how he goes from a claim (not supported by any textual evidence naturally) that she is for “an aristocracy of talent” and then sleazily transfers from that sort of “aristocracy” to a political one, which she never argued for. He is again trying to plant the seed of a group that controls all and that is difficult or impossible to get into if you aren't born into it. This despite 3 of the central characters being almost literally as different in backgrounds as It is possible to be. The origins of the Gulchers range from heirs to a multi-million dollar fortune, the son of an aristocratic bishop, left an impoverished home at 14 and son of a garage attendant (maybe). And those are the ones we know about. From this we can judge one of his early claims that this book is about a “class war”. This is literally true and yet a lie. There are “classes” of people in the philosophic sense at war in AS. But we know he meant us to take it in the sense of “Haves vs. Have-nots” “Aristos vs. the hoi polloi”. This is as untrue as it could possibly be. Brothers and sisters are born into the same class, but the only two sibling pairs mentioned end up on opposite sides of the “class war”.

“Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. “

Actually she has “brooded” or rather thought about it. That's part of the reason why she suggests a system radically different from either. Of course to Chambers the fact that both systems are allegedly “materialistic” means there are no other relevant details.

“Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. “

This is said of a book in which the vast majority of the heroes resist the message and the resistance forms a large part of both the page count and the interest of the book. Without resistance to the message by characters presented as morally good AS would be a pamphlet. Seriously this guy is evil, through and through.

“There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!' “ 

Now you see what I mean about not being the first to invoke Godwin. Chambers is hearing voices. Unfortunately they aren't the voices of those slain by his former comrades, so I guess I was wrong about the whole being distracted by guilt thing. Let us look at what the characters in AS actually do about such wickedness. Nothing. Literally nothing. The closest they get to hostile action is blowing up their own property. Nobody is punished for obscene thefts and blackmails. They don't shoot anyone except in legitimate defence of others or to reclaim property that has been stolen (and only 1 named character does the latter). They don't even hold a grudge much, Hank Reardon being willing to forgive decades of emotional abuse, ingratitude and humiliation for less than a minute of actual fellowship. He doesn't even get that.

“mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. “ 

 Maybe I'm wrong about this guy, maybe he's not lying maybe he just comprehensively missed the point of everything she wrote. Nope, he's evil. But here we see that he's stupid as well. What would be the point of AS toned down? If Rand isn't right that what she says is wrong with philosophy and society is disastrous then she's wrong that it's wrong. There is no middle ground and saying there is, that this plague that has killed millions (many of them while being cheered on by Chambers), would be seen as blatantly dishonest and brain-dead. What Chambers wants is for someone who believe something passionately to write as though she believed it somewhat. The only reason to want someone to do this is if you disagree with them.

“We struggle to be just. “ 

 Always hard for a Trot, but really he doesn't. He struggles to be a lying sleazy, traducing scumbag, or rather he finds it easy.

* It should be noted here that the character development of “Non-absolute” is the most detailed and convincing in the entire work, yet it consumers at least an order of magnitude less words than other characters. What this says about Rand is significant, but I don't know what it is.