Who is John Galt?

The following isn't a book report as much as it is a thought exercise. I'm nobody of importance or note, and it's unlikely I have anything interesting to say about it. Instead, I will simply attempt to capture some of my thoughts on the book and see where that leads, keeping spoilers to a minimum.

I almost put Atlas Shrugged down before I began. Sixty hours!? Wow. That is going to be a bit of a stretch. In the past I thought listening to a book from Audible was cheating. Truthfully, I still think that, but recently, I've discovered I don't care, and at twice the speed, I can journey through a book with such efficiency that I'm enjoying stories I'd otherwise leave unheard. While I have undoubtedly missed some of Rand's literary style, I could hardly miss her verbosity. Thirty hours was still a marathon listen.

Who is John Galt? This statement is used by many characters throughout Atlas Shrugged when an explanation for something is unavailable or too difficult for the speaker to procure. Like many colloquial phrases, its origin and meaning is largely unknown to the utterer. For Dagny Taggart, this was unacceptable. She believed that if language is to be used, its meaning must be understood. Miss Taggart was not interested in being misunderstood.

As an aside, my dad often comes to me with word or phrase origins. Recently, in light, or perhaps dark, of the solar eclipse, he came to me with the word penumbra, meaning:

a space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light[1]

He went on to explain that umbra, as in umbrella, means "a shaded area", pen means "almost", and insula means "island". Therefore, a peninsula is almost an island.

Throughout Atlas Shrugged, Dagny relentlessly works to keep her grandfather's Taggart Transcontinental Railroad profitable and its trains on time. This task grows increasingly difficult as each of her best suppliers and manufacturers begin to disappear. One by one, barons of industry, miners of raw materials, and makers of things vanish... no note, no rhyme, no reason. It is as if they simply gave up against the rising tide of fairness and its assault on competition. That was also something of no interest to Miss Taggart. Despite her best efforts, like a boat with more holes than its occupant's fingers and toes, Dagny's grandfather's company would sink at the hands of the destroyer. And while this is tragic for her, in the end, she finds hope.

The book is a political piece, and tends to lean libertarian. (I tend to lean that was as well, though probably not quite as far.) Rand, through her book, seems persistent in her view that fairness is something one should earn through what he produces, rather than something to be freely given. It might be said that the book promotes a capitalist agenda over a socialist one, or, if you will allow me, Galt vs Marx. As we discover, the destroyer is quoted as saying:

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine. [2]

This, in arrant contrast to Marx's:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need [3]

Rand's version of capitalism doesn't look like what we have now. From the Ayn Rand archives,

Capitalism, Rand argues, is not today’s system, with its mixture of freedom and government controls, but a social system in which the government is exclusively devoted to the protection of individual rights, including property rights — one in which there exists absolutely no government intervention in the economy.[4]

With Atlas Shrugged, Rand draws a hard line in the sand between merit and grace, and then plants it full of land mines to deter the thought of probing for middle ground. This dichotomy, the "you either love me or hate me" reasoning, I think, creates one of the book's two disappointments. The other, via Galt's manifesto, is a sort of shaming of a person's spiritual beliefs, regardless of persuasion. Mysticism or mystic, in its pejorative sense, is the term she used throughout. While her tone is discordant, as a probable atheist, it is not surprising, and provides – without overdoing it – enough offense for the reader to have an internal dialog regarding his own beliefs. These conversations, when honestly pursued, can either deepen or weaken those beliefs. It would be unfortunate to miss such an opportunity.

But frankly, despite what – in my limited experience – seems to be a reasonably accurate fictionalized representation of a culture's demise at the hands of feelings, I think there is middle ground to be had here. I like merit, and I like grace. I even like old fashioned dumb-luck. What I do not like is the expectation of grace, the acrimonious demand for grace, or the disingenuous – who can bow the lowest – doling out of grace. Nor do I like the claim of individual merit. Unless one is born and then subsequently placed in a box to survive, escape, grow, learn, and create, his merit is never entirely contained within himself, instead being built upon the preceding layers of knowledge and humanity. For me, the dichotomy is dead.

So who is John Galt? Depending on your point of view, he can either be your destroyer or your saviour. But, if you're like Miss Taggert, he may start as one and end as the other. It isn't a simple choice, but it is your choice. My hope is that you make it thoughtfully.

In the end, I liked the story, its characters, its prose, and some of its ideas. That is currently the way I see it. My mind is made up, and it's subject to change.

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