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Books: The Solid-Gold Dollar Sign

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ATLAS SHRUGGED (1,168 pp.)—Ayn Rand—Random House ($6.95).

Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman—in the comic-strip or the Nietzschean version? During the book’s opening passages—for 300 or 400 pages, that is—the reader cannot be sure. Then the truth emerges: Author Ayn Rand, a sort of literary Horsewoman of the Apocalypse, is smashing the world with half a million words in order to rebuild it according to her own philosophy. And that philosophy must be read to be disbelieved.

The time is the near future; the place, the U.S.; the heroine, beautiful Dagny Taggart, a stainless-steel executive who runs a transcontinental railroad with the same chilling efficiency she displays in bed with various deserving tycoons. But dauntless Dagny is having troubles. Her railroad keeps breaking down. The best businessmen begin to vanish mysteriously. Oilfields flame in the night, copper mines are destroyed, docks blow skyhigh, steel mills collapse in chaos. Finally Dagny catches on: her fellow capitalists have gone on strike.

Capitalist Shangri-La. Bitter over high taxes, Government interference, the scorn of intellectuals and the reproof of religious leaders, the really tough-minded tycoons gradually withdraw from society to a hideout in the mountains. There, under the leadership of a mysterious physicist named John Gait, they await the fall of the old, Socialist-crippled, soft and degenerate order, so they can build a new society. The mountain-ringed capitalist Shangri-La sounds like a prospectus for an exclusive, upper-middle-class suburb in Westchester, and is dominated by a slim granite column upholding a solid-gold dollar sign. (Readers who may suspect at this point that Author Rand’s intention is satire could not be more mistaken.)

Author Rand’s world shares many characteristics of science fiction—the blue-tinted fluorescent light of literary unreality; the dogged logic with which the illogical is propped up; the melodramatic simplicity that requires no score cards to tell heroes from villains. Such paladins of power and profit as Physicist John Gait, Steelmaker Hank Rearden, Billionaire Francisco d’Anconia all have noble, proudly lifted heads, clear blue (or green) eyes, frank, open expressions. Such blackguards as traitorous Businessman Orren Boyle, Bureaucrat Cuffy Meigs, Parasite Philip Rearden have eyes that are “pale and veiled” or “small black slits” or “blurred brown”; they can never meet anyone’s gaze; they have hangdog expressions and poor postures. In fact, the struggle is so unequal that it is a wonder it takes the capitalist underground twelve years and more than 1,000 pages to win it.

Materialist Morality. Author Rand’s philosophy, hammered home in endless hectoring and lecturing, seems based mostly on Nietzsche’s inversion of all Christian values, with an admixture of Adam Smith economics and David Hume ethics, both carried to absurd extremes. The greatest sin is following the Sermon on the Mount. Selfishness is the highest good, the spirit of sacrifice the worst evil. In shrill outcry against government and religion, Author Rand defines taxes as “protection money” paid to “gangsters,” and the doctrine of Original Sin as responsible for destroying Man’s “reason, morality, creativeness, joy.” She frenetically tries to spiritualize materialism—to set up a kind of materialist morality in which “money is the root of all good” because it stands for man’s creativity. The best man is “a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Russian-born Author Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand, 52, left the Soviet Union for the U.S. in 1926, rehearsed for this weird performance with The Fountainhead (1943), in which she rhapsodized the lone genius and his fight against the common herd. She deserves credit at least for imagination; unfortunately, it is tied to ludicrous naiveté. There could have been something exhilarating about the capitalists’ revolt—except for the fact that what Author Rand presents is not so much capitalism as its hideous caricature. In fact, if her intention were to destroy faith in capitalism, she could not have written a book better suited to the purpose. At the end, the lesser men have been beaten to their knees and John Gait, the Moses of the moneybags, is about to lead his flock out of the mountains. ” ‘The road is cleared,’ said Gait. ‘We are going back to the world.’ He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”

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