By John E. Dick © 2017
Atlas Shrugged, by novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, turns 60 years old this year, 2017, published so many years ago in 1957. I read Atlas Shrugged for the first time 40 years ago as a very young man, just out of my teens. As with so many others who have read it, the impact of its story and ideas changed my life forever.
While most acknowledgments of the impact of Atlas Shrugged focus on the philosophical and intellectual components, agreeably both fundamental and essential in the story, I would like to, nonetheless, point out the great impact of the psychological elements of Atlas Shrugged.
The human being is an integrated being of reason and emotion, but fundamental to our basic nature as individual living entities is that unique quality know as volition (or free will). The emotional component of any individual acts like a barometer, making us aware that something seems good or bad. However, since this “barometer” is only a reaction, and could be right or wrong, we require as individuals that our emotions be understood and guided by reason, that is, by rational and logical thought.
But, the use of rational thought is directed by volition, as a choice: volition is part of our basic nature, but we must choose to be rational or irrational, to face facts or avoid them, to understand our emotions or ignore them.
Yes, some unfortunate human beings can have certain physical or medical conditions that may hamper and limit the use of their volition, but I think most human beings exist in a normal state capable of exercising their free will. It’s just that many individuals choose not be rational, and so their emotions take center stage. This choice affects our psychology. Also, the fundamental concepts and ideas we each hold as individuals drive and affect our psychology.
I am by no means an expert in psychological or mental studies and professions, but one cannot ignore the fact that Ayn Rand understood, with amazing clarity, the impact and relationship of ideas and psychology in creating and developing the characters in her novels. Yes, incorporating “consistent character psychological development” is essential for any serious and good writer, and there are other authors who do achieve this, both in heroes and villains.
However, I think Ayn Rand goes a step further in showing how volition and ideas drive psychological elements in her characters, with equal attention paid to psychological developments as she does with intellectual and philosophical ones. Her development and inclusion of the psychological part is brilliant and genius. Here are but a few examples, both positive and negative (I include one from Rand’s novel The Fountainhead) with my observations:
- From Atlas Shrugged: “The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt.” (Part Two, Chapter Nine) Even the title of one of the book’s chapters reflects emotional states, that is, psychological states. By the end of the novel, we discover which ideas create such a look, that is, such a “psychological portrait,” and which ideas do not. Another reference to this “portrait” occurs when the heroine, Dagny Taggart, crashes her plane in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains, and she survives yet is injured and dazed (Part Three, beginning of Chapter One). Not being totally conscious of her surroundings, Dagny opens her eyes to see the face of the stranger who finds and rescues her, and her first thought is “But of course.” I quote, “She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this is what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or quilt.” Not aware of herself, yet remembering all the ugly and senseless struggles she’d had to endure over the past years, Dagny whispered to this stranger, “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” The stranger replied “No, we never had to.”
- From Atlas Shrugged: “The Room” at John Galt’s house in Mulligan’s Valley (Part Three, end of Chapter One). This is the room that all strikers must stay their first nights in order to be ready for Mulligan’s Valley. The room represents that particular psychological breaking and separating point for all strikers from their past. I quote John Galt: “This is the room where they spent their first night in the valley. The first night is the hardest. It’s the last pull of the break with one’s memories, and the worst. I let them stay here, so they can call for me, if they want me. I speak to them, if they cannot sleep. Most of them can’t. But they’re free of it by morning…. They’ve all gone through this room. Now they call it the torture chamber or the anteroom – because everyone has to enter the valley through my house.”
- From Atlas Shrugged: The total mental breakdown of the villain character James Taggart (Part Three, Chapter Nine). Because of his continuous and purposeful avoidance of reality and the consequences that follow, James Taggart has a massive and complete psychological breakdown during the event where the hero, John Galt, is captured and tortured. Taggart wants to break Galt, even kill him. But Taggart also realizes that Galt’s death will mean his own death. Taggart’s mental capacity to handle even the simplest of cognitive functions is completely wiped out. He has to be dragged away by his fellow villains, they fearing to be close to Taggart’s mental demise themselves.
- From The Fountainhead: “The courage to face a lifetime,” (Part Four, Chapter One). Architect Howard Roark meets a young man on a bike at one of Roark’s building projects. Roark does not know the man, and unaware to Roark, the young man has a passion to compose music. When the man sees Roark’s architecture and stops to ask Roark who built these buildings, Roark replies “I did,” and the man says “Thank you.” Roark had no idea he had just given this young man “the courage to face a lifetime,” for if Roark survived to build this architecture, then this man could also survive his life to compose music his way. This is a very personal and crucial psychological launching point for the young man. Courage is a very complex psychological state, and it can involve a mix of all kinds of emotions and ideas: competence, love, passion, drive, loss, fear, anger, one’s convictions, etc. And, the psychological and emotional courage necessary to follow your dreams for a lifetime is supreme.
This is just a touch of the rich psychological elements in Ayn Rand’s writings. There are dozens of examples, both in her heroes and villains. As with good fiction, so in real life. No matter how wise a sage we may become, or how far we may take our intellect, or the level of expertise or celebrity we may rise to, we also take our psychology with us on the journey – all the way, to the end. We have no choice in the matter. But, what we decide to do, or not do, with our individual intellect and psychology along the way is a choice, and counts in the end. Ayn Rand understood this explicitly.
Happy 60th Anniversary, Atlas Shrugged.
–P.S. For an insightful article on how psychology affects social structure, please see Dr. Edith Packer’s The Psychological Requirements of a Free Society, found here in pamphlet form: http://www.capitalism.net/edith.htm. I highly recommend reading it. –JD