Thursday, May 05, 2011


I had a good laugh at a fellow motorist's Objectivist bumper stickers yesterday. Not the one that asked, predictably, "Who is John Galt?", but the one that simply declared "LOOTERS". I read Atlas Shrugged two or three years ago and the main enduring pleasure of it has been the epithet "looter", which Ayn Rand's stand-ins direct with the intensity and nuance of a fire hose at any character who believes in taxation, charity, or those aspects of government not deemed essential by Rand. It's a fun word to say and, being not much of an Objectivist myself, I sometimes like to use it to fake-shout-down ideas I agree with. For instance, a conversation with the girlfriend can be pleasantly derailed like so:

Kyle: The local school district is having a fundraising dinner next month...
Nate: Looters!
Kyle: Yeah, anyway, I can get tickets from work...
Nate: LOOOOTERS!! Looters are looting my loot!

You can see how this sort of thing is charming. Yesterday's bumper sticker turned out not to be an entirely simple "LOOTER" declaration: Close up, I saw it uses the Obama campaign's O logo for o's (various Zazzle offerings show off the effect), which I suppose is meant to indicate that the President brought this whole welfare state apparatus with him from a Kenyan Islamo-commune and George W., thwarted in his stewardship of a just and productive economy, has retired to a hidden mountain community where he works a steel furnace and a potato garden. That in itself makes more sense than my first half-impression of the bumper sticker's iconography, that it was playing on the Hooters logo for some obscure reason.

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The book itself is terrible -- South Park made this point aptly many moons ago, and the big weakness of its conceit is nicely illustrated by a Bob the Angry Flower comic I've always liked. The main thing worth adding to that is that it's probably the most emotionally volatile alleged defense of rational thought that I will ever be exposed to: Rand's wordy outrage spews all over the place, and she's incapable of representing the ideas she's attacking without putting them into the mouths of pathetic characters with weirdly deformed names like "Balph Eubank".

The weirdly deformed names like "Balph Eubank" were actually one of the aspects of the novel that I liked. I mean, they're a failure rhetorically, but (as I think I've proven) I really like goofy fake names.

The best thing Atlas Shrugged has going for it, though, is Rand's clunky passion. A little while ago the terrible-looking movie based on its first third came out (and went out, it seems, although the producers might be banking on DVD sales fueled by weeknight screenings by the nation's collegiate Objectivist Clubs) and the worst looking part of the trailer is its glossy anonymity. If there's one thing that propelled me through hundreds of pages of radio addresses and sluggish boardroom drama it's that I can truthfully say it was unlike any other book I'll ever read. If only because there's no fucking way I'm ever going to pick up The Fountainhead.

I'm actually curious whether two elements of the novel made it into the film, or are slated for its maybe-still-in-the-works sequels. Firstly, Rand's bitey and sometimes dubiously consensual sex scenes, which are a subject all their own but add a nifty S&M tinge to all the economic heavy breathing. Secondly, the composer Richard Halley, whose fictional symphonic works make up a minor but substantive part of the plot machinery. (If I remember rightly, Rand, for all of her cultural pot shots, doesn't mention pop music at all, instead complaining about the dissonance-minded, insufficiently heroic, academic type of composer, about which she sort of has a point, albeit not one that accounts for the George Crumbs of the world.) Alex Ross wrote a piece in the New Yorker in August 2009 about notable fictional composers and Halley didn't make the cut, although I think he deserves to: surely he's had more readers than most. At any rate I hope he made it into the movie, in part because I'm such an apologist for 20th-century classical music that that seems like it would be a win and in part because I'd like to hear a stab at the piano concertos that so charmed Dagny Taggart -- while reading I imagined the sound as a bloated, more fascistic version of Howard Hanson but I'm open to other interpretations.

None of this should be taken as mockery of the gentleman in his pickup truck on 99W yesterday evening, who probably did manufacture that fine vehicle himself according to his own singularly inventive design, or at the very least purchase it with gold coins minted by an honest banker and acquired as the hard but equitable price for his own inspired labor. My laughter didn't feel like it was directed at him, or at the bumper sticker; I think weird humor makes up most of what remains of my impression of the book, now that the exasperation of actually reading it has mostly evaporated.


Blogger Pete said...

Oh man I just wrote this long and sweary comment to this article, but the Tea Baggers that control the internet must have stopped it from being posted, because there was some kind of error. I don't know if I can replicate it, but the general complaint is the confusion that can arise in normal people between the completely awesome (and generally Marxist) objectivist school of modern American poetry (Oppen, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Moore, et al) and the completely heinous and evil Objectivism of Ayn Rand.

5/05/2011 11:48 AM  
Blogger nate said...

I hadn't heard of small-o objectivist poetry before but, yeah, that would be really annoying. I feel like there must be at least a few other movements or schools of thought that share a name with another, incompatible one, but I can't think of any cases. There are artistic styles named after an earlier movement in an earlier genre that isn't really connected to it -- impressionist music in the early 20th century so called in analogy to impressionist visual art, and new wave music named after the even less related new wave film -- but that's slightly different.

5/05/2011 12:45 PM  

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