In Defense of Flawed Things

Ross Douthat says you should read Atlas Shrugged. I agree. Its author, Ayn Rand, asserted that her insights were to be embraced wholeheartedly or not at all, which helps to explain why the novel is so celebrated by some, and loathed by others — both camps foolishly buy into her premise that fiction should be judged based upon whether it affords a comprehensive moral framework for understanding society and how best to live one’s life.

By that metric, Atlas Shrugged is a failure — and it is a flawed novel in other senses too. The prose are uneven, breathtaking in their clarity at certain moments, cloying at so many others. I’d defend certain of her characters, namely Dagny Taggart and Francisco D’Anconia, but many others aren’t believable humans at all, for though Ms. Rand was a gifted observer, she was also a Romantic extremist. “If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it,” she wrote. “But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values—and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist.”

Apply that aesthetic sensibility, and you get a hero like John Galt.

So why is Atlas Shrugged worth reading, despite its aesthetic shortcomings, if it is a self-consciously philosophical novel, and the ideas animating it are ultimately flawed? Beyond what Ross and Meagan say, I’d point out that we read all sorts of people — Marx, Rousseau and Freud come to mind — whose worldviews are disastrous if taken as gospel, but nevertheless useful for all sorts of keen insights that help us to better understand the world, so long as they are separated from the flawed frameworks of their originators.

Anyone grappling with altruism, capitalism, or the just distribution of wealth ought to read Atlas Shrugged, for although the particular philosophy its author espouses is ultimately wrongheaded, the way she grapples with those issues — originally, audaciously, intelligently and uncompromisingly — helps us to think them through ourselves, to assimilate her best insights, and to reach better conclusions than would otherwise be possible.