Catch 22, Seinfeld, and Ayn Rand

When I was in the States last Spring, I brought back a lot of books I had been saving on my Amazon account for the occasion. Some of them like Joseph Heller’s highly influential Catch-22 had been on my to do list for over 15 years.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand was a different story. The first time I had ever heard of Rand had been from a film enthusiast in Buenos Aires who was bragging about how he had once met up with Francis Ford Coppola in LA and advised him to make a film based on The Fountainhead.

Though the story, which ended with Coppola saying he already had a project on it, excited my curiosity, ten years went by without me actually getting a hold of any of Rand’s texts (and with Coppola shelving his Rand project…).

About a year ago I saw a Spanish copy of Rand’s We, the living at a flea market in Montevideo and bought it for two dollars. A portrayal of the evils of communism in Russia, my first encounter with Rand was not a failure altogether. I noticed that she had a talent for creating evocative settings, and her strong heroines were rather appealing. The book was a portrayal of former Russian aristocrats who had lost it all, and were left to queue out in the snow for a loaf of bread.

Given the later historical developments and the failure of communism the world over, this seemed like a novel by Rand which could better withstand the test of time, as far as political correctness is concerned. But I really wanted to read the novels where Rand had exposed her philosophical theory of objectivism.

Oddly enough, while I was in the States, someone hired me to write a piece on Atlas Shrugged. The gig never happened, but I had already ordered the huge volume from Amazon when it was called off. When I packed to return to Uruguay on the eve of the Californian summer, I had trouble fitting all those large Pamuk volumes into my luggage, and I considered abandoning Rand. But I had started reading it by the pool in Hollywood hills, and there is one thing I grant her, she knows how to create a hook. I just had to know what would happen to that Dagny Taggart and her railroads. The result was that the book was carried smoothly down South on an AA plane.

Some months of Pamuk would pass before I decided to sink my teeth into Catch 22, but something went wrong there. I believe that it is the existence of Seinfeld that ruined Catch for me. If I had read Catch some ten years ago, way before I became obsessed with Seinfeld, I would have found its tone original, the main characters’ scorn for people and the observation of social rules, and the general irony of our world as portrayed in the novel quite appealing. As things are, I had trouble getting into the thing; especially when it dwelt on planes, battles, and the like.

While I gave the first hundred pages of Catch a chance, Rand’s massive opus was sitting quietly on the nightstand, until one day I got utterly bored with all the descriptions of characters called major major major and I went back to Rand. Atlas shrugged instantly absorbed me. I read it in the sun when spring graced my terrace and on buses on the way to the spa I read it in bed, cycling in the gym, and inside the jacuzzi; and I even neglected my work to go back to it. What was happening to me? I couldn’t say that I loved it, nor that I hated it. In a way, I think I just wanted it to be over, and thus, I rushed towards its conclusion. In fact, a couple of days ago I updated my twitter state saying “Ayn Rand makes my stomach turn but I cant put Atlas shrugged down.”

Now, let me tell you a bit about Rand’s Weltanschauung: Judging by her novel, according to Ayn Rand:
Smart people are all gorgeous and slender, preferably with golden hair.
Anything that is not done based on selfish motives is wrong
It is common to see people committing suicide over philosophy
Anyone who cannot produce should be left to starve
Industrialists should be worshipped like gods
(and I could go on)

While Rand’s characters are heavily stereotyped, her passion imbues their being and they become as unforgettable as they are unrealistic. Though it would be impossible for me to acquiesce with her vision of what evil is and her ideas about right and wrong and I find her storylines too predictable; always working at the service of the advocacy of her ideas, I have to say that if one suspends judgment for a while and temporarily accepts her premises, it is possible to observe that she has created a magnificent world with the sheer power of her words.

Between Nietzsche and Hitler, her Aryan-looking superhuman hero undergoes cruel torture without flinching; all in the name of Rand’s holy grail: free enterprise.

In any case, it was a lesson learnt that the best writers are not always the most morally sound. Much of what Rand was advocating for appears utterly immoral in my eyes, but I will take a page by her over one by Joseph Heller anytime; politically correct as he may be deemed today. Cold-hearted and passionate at the same time, it is Rand’s fascinating image that emerges from her books, a woman not given to flexibility in the field of ideas, who possessed a magnificent intellectual power and who has largely influenced the most powerful people in the US, for the misfortune of the powerless of her own country and the rest of the world. And don’t get me started on Rand’s selective list of the people worthy of being saved, which only includes one woman (aside from the supersmart railroad guru Dagny), whose sole talent is to be pretty, and where everyone is white preferably blond and with green or blue eyes.

I did enjoy Atlas, but thank god the nauseating monster is over and done with! Anybody wanna borrow it? I would gladly let you take it out of my sight. It does take talent to create a character that would be turned on by Hank Rearden (a man in love with steel mills) and more talent to make love scenes between Hank and Dagny seem plausible, and even hot. Gotta grant you that, Mrs. Rand; whatever utopia of greed you may have been shipped off to after this life!

Post Scriptum: I have to say I went back to Catch 22 last night and:
1. The farmers who get money from the state for NOT growing alfalfa are way too reminiscent of Rand’s criticism of the welfare state. Those two had something in common. Who knew?
2. Major Major Major’s behavior at the office, not wanting anybody to call on him while he is in, was sooo very George Constanza. Let me drop dead if Larry Charles is not a huge fan of Catch…
3. That Yossarian saying he doesn’t wanna fly any more missions, because he “doesn’t want to die,” in a world where nobody speaks their mind; I have to say I am beginning to love the poor bastard…

So, yeah, I will probably write a blog stating the opposite of everything I said here about Catch, but hey, the world is a contradiction and there is ALWAYS a catch…

Verónica Pamoukaghlián, Los Angeles-Montevideo, June 2010

More political (in)correctness on The Wander Life:

JAPAN, nuclear tsunamis and what is wrong with progress

Realengo, Rio de Janeiro

OF PURGE AND PROGRESS, An Orwellian nightmare (Writing for ACTION)

South Africa after the world cup

Young forever, a movie project that changed my life

Orwellian vision of Cuba in 2000, revisited 2007


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6 comments on “Catch 22, Seinfeld, and Ayn Rand

  1. Maybe because I read Catch-22 in 1971 when I was 17, it absolutely has been the most influential book in my life to date. It changed my perception of military. It proved my sense that war was a ridiculous game played by kings w/pawns doing the dying. Seinfeld? Catch-22’s humor & irony is far more dark.

  2. I have to agree with you. I went back to Catch later and it did make a strong impression. I just was not expecting to be more drawn to Rand EVER.

  3. I don’t know the author but I saw this quoted on Paul Krugman’s blog

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    Atlas Shrugged was a guilty pleasure, and soon forgotten, but if you can persevere with Catch 22 it will stay with you. The tone of Catch 22 puts me in mind of Kafka more than Seinfeld.

  4. Ayn Rand didn’t write We! That was Yevgeny Zamyatin. Hers was Anthem, which some of us suspect she cribbed (and i am being euphemistic) from We.

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