Atlas Again

2004-09-07

For the first time in twenty (!) years, I'm re-reading Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Long-time readers of this blog know that I was a huge Rand fan in my teenage years and that I've written a number of essays about her novels and ideas. I'm on the hook to write an essay on the topic of friendship in Atlas Shrugged for a book that's due out next year, so I figured I'd better re-read the novel. So far the purely literary aspects of the story have impressed me more than I expected -- Rand builds up the suspense quite artfully (even though I know how things turn out, having read the novel five times before), and despite the periodic vitriol her writing style is, I think, vastly underrated (as I've argued in an essay that's forthcoming from the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies).

Unfortunately, I can't be as positive regarding her portrayal of human relationships. There are some exceedingly strange aspects to the friendships and romantic relationships in Atlas Shrugged, most of them occasioned by a monumental lack of communication between those involved. While I realize that much of this is introduced by the author in order to maintain a sense of mystery (we couldn't very well have Dagny meet Galt through Francisco during their college years), the resulting picture of close personal relationships is seriously skewed in some rather unhealthy directions. More on that in my essay-to-be.

Coincidentally, I'm currently also reading a book entitled The Revolt of the Engineers by Edwin T. Layton, Jr. (Case Western Reserve University Press, 1971). I'm reading this book because Carl Malamud's reference to it in his recent report on restructuring the administrative functions of the IETF piqued my interest. In chapter 3 (pp. 53-78), Layton explores what he calls "the ideology of the engineer", which he characterizes as a kind of "philosophy of engineering" grafted atop the ethics of Herbert Spencer. The result is a creed that values professional excellence, practical rationality, rugged individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism. That combination probably sounds suspiciously familiar to readers of Ayn Rand, because it pretty well describes her ideas, as well.

Then I got to thinking: the plot of Atlas Shrugged is, in essence, the revolt of the engineers! The main characters even cover the founding engineering disciplines: Galt is an electrical and mechanical engineer, Francisco is a mining engineer, Rearden is a mining and metallurgical engineer, and Dagny is a civil engineer. Most of the strikers are engineers, too: Calvin Atwood runs a power company, Dan Conway runs a railroad, Ken Danagger runs a coal mine, Quentin Daniels is a physicist and electrical engineer, Lawrence Hammond and Ted Nielsen run automobile factories, Owen Kellogg and Pat Logan are railroad engineers, Roger Marsh builds electrial appliances, Dick McNamara is a civil engineering contractor, Dwight Sanders builds airplanes, Andrew Stockton runs a foundry, and Ellis Wyatt runs an oil company. Sure, there's a composer and a philosopher or two, but the vast majority of the good guys are engineers. And even though most of them own their companies, they are engineers first and businessmen second.

Is this coincidence? I think not. Somehow, Rand imbibed the ideology of the engineer and gave it extended expression in her magnum opus. The Herbert Spencer connection (mentioned by Ron Merrill in his book The Ideas of Ayn Rand) is especially worthy of further investigation, I think -- though not necessarily by yours truly, since I find it hard to sustain an interest in Rand these days. Besides, I've got to leave some fun research projects for others. :-)


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