The machine is a defining cultural element of the 20th century. The machine and mass production influences man’s view of himself, his evolving notions of beauty and form, what his very world is. Today we enter the postindustrial era, where machines are more nostalgic than futuristic, more virtual than real; man is being transformed by technology, though now by software and networks which are not so readily depicted but whose influence creates as much uncertainty as ever. Imagine for a moment a world without machines... A world where you don’t have a truck that can drive you up the Sierra Mountains for skiing... A world where you can’t pick up a phone and ask a friend for advice... A world where you have to take cold showers because the great old machine pumping hot water to your house is dying out of neglect and incompetence... Well this is sort of a world I grew up in. I was born in what was still communist Poland in a great old industrial city of Lodz. We didn’t have a car and there was only one phone in our building and it wasn’t ours. Every summer the city stopped hot water service for 2 months because the one and only power plant had to shut down for temporary maintenance. This was the 80s and we learned to keep candles all around the house because the power often went out at night... Poland was gray and sad and our industry was dying and there was no innovation to be seen anywhere around. But we knew, we all knew about a different sort of world... a world where...
Part 3—Hortense Briggs and Rita Eksler Dreiser’s Hortense Briggs and Rand’s Rita Eksler are both femmes fatales, but whereas Dreiser seethes with resentment that such a girl exists, Rand admires her and gives her her due. Hortense Briggs is Clyde’s first love interest. The courtship is short-lived, but it gives Dreiser the opportunity to set up and knock down the pretty, sensuous, and hard Hortense. Hortense is an energetic thrill seeker—“Gee, I’d die if I had to stay in one night”—who tries to make the most out of her youth and situation, “You gotta have a little fun when you work all day” (American Tragedy 72). Hortense, Dreiser complains, likes to look nice, likes to go out on dates, thinks highly of herself, and likes to draw attention to herself. Readers of Ayn Rand might wonder what the problem is. For Dreiser, the problem was that the ego was a fiction, and Hortense’s self-interest is a fiction too. Hortense’s actions have nothing to do with ego and everything to do with pathology, in keeping with Dreiser’s view of human nature—“an insignificant, will-less machine, buffeted in an inexorable complex of nature along with billions of other heedless machines” (Swanberg 61). Hortense, Dreiser insists, is no better than anyone else, regardless of what she thinks. Hortense cares about her appearance, a trait that Dreiser ridicules. He describes her efforts to look nice not as a sign of self-esteem but as a sign of conceit. For example, on a date with Clyde,...
Part 2—Esta Griffiths and Lydia Argounova The story of Esta Griffiths, Clyde’s sister, and the Griffiths’ elder daughter, is Hobbesian. From the start, Dreiser makes clear that there isn’t much to say. We get details about her character, but not a fully formed individual. While she is musical and plays the organ and sings at the revival meetings her parents hold, she is not interested in music. She does not study it or plan for a career. Dreiser does not give her a mind or afford her a purpose at all. As he sees it, she merely reacts, like a trained seal, to “the attention and comment her presence and singing evoked” (American Tragedy 5). She is not so much a character, Dreiser assures us, as a mood: “[I]n spite of her guarded up-bringing, and the seeming religious and moral fervor which at times appeared to characterize her, she was just a sensuous, weak, girl who did not by any means yet know what she thought” (American Tragedy 14). Esta is impressionable and romantic. She daydreams a lot, but the plot of her story is smugly conventional. Dreiser derides her interest in clothing and other finery, complaining that she drifted along with “a vague yearning toward pretty dresses, hats, shoes, ribbons and the like” and for “some bright, gay, wonderful love of some kind, with some one” (American Tragedy 15-16). Instead of finding love, however, Esta is seduced, deceived, betrayed, and abandoned by a young man “who scarcely cared for her at all.” As Esta is...
Part 1—Antipathy It is difficult to think of two American authors more antithetical than Ayn Rand and Theodore Dreiser. According to his 1965 biographer, W. A. Swanberg, Dreiser firmly believed himself morally and intellectually superior to most Americans, especially those in the middle class, which he held in contempt. He was a lapsed Catholic who condemned religion although he remained essentially religious and in a state of continual agonized doubt. He was both morbidly oversexed and tortured by performance anxiety. He idealized women but was in fact a liar and a womanizer. Ambitious, lazy, unscrupulous, and cheap, he was a social climber who complained that American society failed to appreciate his genius (Swanberg 15-41). He became wealthy under capitalism at the same time that he openly defended Russian communism. When Ayn Rand began her career as a novelist, she was already what she would later conceptualize as an Objectivist. She consistently defended American business men and women and the American middle class. A matter-of-fact atheist, she had a theory of sex based in self-esteem. An immigrant from communist Russia, she expected nothing from America but the freedom to use her mind to achieve. She was a free-market capitalist, with a strong work ethic, and a determination to write best sellers. For a young Ayn Rand, chomping at the bit to be a novelist, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, would have been particularly goading, a literary...
Douglas Den Uyl is vice president of educational programs for Liberty Fund. Douglas Rasmussen is a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University . They co-wrote Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Pennsylvania State University Press). It has often been said that markets are led “as if by an invisible hand” to bring about order and cooperation among people....

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