Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Asperger's Shrugged - chapters 6 & 7

Atlas Shrugged makes so much more sense if you don't read it as a pro-capitalist screed  crossed with an ubermenschen romance but rather as someone with Asperger's Syndrome expressing her incomprehension and hostility towards a world dominated by neurotypicals.

That's the only way I was able to get through chapters 6 and 7 of the damn thing this weekend.

So what are the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome? Well according to the Mayo Clinic web site these are some:

  1. Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject
  2. Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
  3. Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes
  4. Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others' feelings
  5. Having a hard time "reading" other people or understanding humor
  6. Speaking in a voice that is monotonous, rigid or unusually fast
  7. Moving clumsily, with poor coordination

Certainly items 1, 3, 4 and 5 all seem to apply.

This is how Rand describes the relationship between d'Anconia and Dagny, who are the love of each other's lives:
She did not question him about the university. Days later she asked him only whether he liked it.
"They're teaching a lot of drivel nowadays," he answered, "but there are a few courses I like."
"Have you made any friends there?"
He told her nothing else.
Mind you, these are Rand's superheroes - this lack of curiosity in each others' lives isn't just an odd trait of characters in a novel - as with all aspects of the Rand superheroes (aka "prime movers") this is supposed to be the ideal mode of behavior.

Dagny learns from d'Anconia's old professor in chapter 6 that his two friends were Ragnar Danneskjold, the Norwegian terror of the high seas (no lie), and John Galt.

One of Ayn Rand's traits according to Ayn Rand Fun Facts is that she despised small talk. This comes as no surprise because she absolutely cannot write small talk. Neither the superheroes nor the looters in Rand's simplistic dichotomy make small talk. Ever. At the excruciating party thrown by Hank Rearden's wife for their eighth wedding anniversary the conversations of the looters are entirely dominated by two blowhards who make the standard anti- "selfishness" and pro-modern art proclamations, peppered by questions from random no-name characters.

In another scene where Dagny is having coffee in a greasy spoon, the conversation proceeds thusly:
Her head fell down on her arm on the counter.
"It's no use lady." said the old bum beside her.
She had to raise her head. She had to smile in amusement at him and herself.
"It isn't?" she asked.
"No. Forget it. You're only fooling yourself."
"About what?"
"About anything being worth a damn. It's dust lady. All of it, dust and blood. Don't believe the dreams they pump you full of, and you won't get hurt. "
"What dreams?"
"The stories they tell you when you're young. About the human spirit..."
And on and on. That's why reading Rand prose is so tiresome - you never get a moment's rest from the proselytizing. Except when Rand is expressing her truly creepy views on human sexuality. In a passage where Rand is writing about the Dagster looking superfine in her ladywear at the Rearden party she says:
The black dress seemed excessively revealing - because it was astonishing to discover that the lines of her shoulders were fragile and beautiful, and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.

And then later on... well but first let me say that the contemporary New York Times review was right on the money when it said of the book:
It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds...
And here is an example from chapter 7:
"What about your brother Jim's Board of Directors?"
They're all scrambling to get statements into the newspapers to the effect they have no connection whatever with the John Galt Line, and how reprehensible an undertaking they think it is. They agreed to everything I asked."
The line of her shoulders looked taut yet thrown back easily, as if poised for flight. Tension seemed natural for her, not a sign of anxiety, but a sign of enjoyment; the tension of her whole body, under her gray suit, half-visible in the darkness.
Let me say here that Rand is always inserting these little bits about muscles in the face or thrown back shoulders or whatever in the middle of a narrative. It wears you down almost as much as the incessant hectoring. But let's skip ahead a few paragraphs...
"Will you be safe?"
"Safe from what?" Then she laughed, startled. "Why Hank, it's the first time you've ever thought I wasn't a man. Of course I'll be safe."
He was not looking at her. He was looking at a sheet of figures on his desk. "I've had my engineers prepare a breakdown of the cost of the bridge," he said, "and an approximate time of the construction required. That is what I want to discuss with you." He extended the papers. She settled back to read them.
A wedge of light fell across her face. He saw the firm, sensual mouth in sharp outline. Then she leaned back a little, and he saw only a suggestion of its shape and the dark lines of her lowered lashes.
Haven't I? - he thought. Haven't I thought of it since the first time I saw you? Haven't I thought of nothing else for two years?... He sat motionless, looking at her. He heard the words he had never allowed himself to form, the words he had felt, known, yet had not faced, had hoped to destroy by never letting them be said within his own mind. Now it was as sudden and shocking as if he was saying it to her... Since the first time I saw you... Nothing but your body, that mouth of yours, the way your eyes look at me, if... Through every sentence I ever said to you, through every conference you thought so safe, through the importance of all the issues we discussed... 
And on and on for the next half a page until this:
...To watch you as you are, as you face the world with your clean, proud strength - then to see you, in my bed, submitting to any infamous whim I may devise, to any act which I'll perform for the sole purpose of your dishonor and to which you'll submit for the sake of unspeakable sensations..."
Please note that the looters don't really care much about sex, at least the women. We do finally get to meet Dagny's mother, in chapter 5, but she has no life outside of Dagny's - she's there to serve and to be pleased by how ladylike Dagny looks for her debut.  We don't even get to know her first name - she's always Mrs. Taggert. Other than her mother Dagny has no relationships with any women so far - although I think I found a potential friend for her, working right in Hank Rearden's office:
...Gwen Ives, his secretary, had acted as his finest lieutenant. She was a girl in her late twenties, whose quietly harmonious impenetrable face had a quality matching the best-designed office equipment; she was one of his most ruthlessly competent employees; her manner of performing her duties suggested a kind of rational cleanliness that would consider any element of emotion, while at work, as an unpardonable immorality.
I'm sure her face had the quality of the best-designed angular office equipment.

But back to the Asperger's theory. Characteristics that the looters generally share is emotional volatility and a strange craftiness. Their motivations are always a mystery to the superheroes. Here's a passage where Mother Reardon has been haranguing Hank to give her other son (the probable spawn of the postman) Phillip a job at his company, and he of course refuses, so she says:
That's your cruelty, that's what's mean and selfish about you. If you loved your brother, you'd give him a job he didn't deserve, precisely because he didn't deserve it - that would be true love and kindness and brotherhood. Else what's love for? If a man deserves a job there's no virtue in giving it to him. Virtue is the giving of the undeserved."
He was looking at her like a child at an unfamiliar nightmare, incredulity preventing it from becoming horror. "Mother," he said slowly, "you don't know what you're saying. I'm not able to ever despise you enough to believe you mean it."
The look on her face astonished him more than all the rest: it was a look of defeat and yet of an odd sly cynical cunning, as if, for a moment, she held some worldly wisdom that mocked his innocence.
Those looters - they go on and on about love, but they are sly, cynical and cunning. Besides everybody knows that real love is getting the loved one to submit to infamous whims for the sole purpose of dishonoring them.

It's funny that Mother Rearden busts out a philosophical treatise on the subject - I'm guessing that nepotism isn't normally justified with a big to-do about virtue for the undeserving. People just do it, all the time. Of course both Dagny and d'Anconia each inherited their family business. Which they would have whether they were "deserving" of it or no, as in the case of Dagny's (possibly half-)brother.

The premise that Atlas Shrugged is foremost a revenge fantasy against neurotypical world dominance by someone with Asperger's is bolstered even more by this essay Defending Capitalism Against Ayn Rand which demonstrates convincingly that many of the motivations of Rand's heros were in fact anti-capitalist:
In Part II, Chapter 3, Francisco asks Rearden: did you want the rail you made for the John Galt Line used by your equals, like Ellis Wyatt, and by men such as Eddie Willers, who do not match your ability but who “equal your moral integrity” and “riding on your rail — give a moment’s silent thanks”? Rearden answers Yes. Francisco then asks, “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters?” Rearden answers, “I’d blast that rail first.” Francisco then explains that by "whining rotter" he means “any man who proclaims his right to a single penny of another man’s effort.” But no economy, whether socialist or capitalist, could function for one day if producers acted in this way. In Part II, Chapter 10, Dagny says that Nathaniel Taggart, supposedly the archetypical capitalist, “couldn’t have worked with people like these passengers. He couldn’t have run trains for them.” But no one running a train line, even in a socialist economy, could possibly consider the moral worth of its passengers, or any consideration besides their paying for the ride.
And this was published on a libertarian web site. Although I have to say that the author's perceptiveness fails when it comes to literary assessments:
Nearly all readers of Rand’s novels, even those who disagree with her philosophy, recognize that she was a brilliant novelist.
Um, yeah. I'd like to see some supporting evidence for that statement.