Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Atlas Shrugged Trail

Having visited the Upper West Side, to track down the creation points of Human Action and Man, Economy, and State - to be described later - I caught the Manhattan redline subway down to 42nd Street, then hopped on the purple line to Grand Central. I decided that if this time I was going to get the correct address for the creation point of Atlas Shrugged, I should walk to it directly from Grand Central, to pay homage in the appropriate manner.

This time, unlike Rand's later home at 120 East 34th Street, the building matched my initial expectations; it looked classy, it possessed a fine fluted limestone phallic architecture thrusting up the central column, and a 1930s art deco red brick exterior. The apartment building looked like it had been created by an architect who cared, rather than by an architect knocking out another trading position for groceries. All in all, as I stood across the street taking in the beautifully proportioned stance of the building, I could only question why Ayn Rand had moved to her later sad sack of bricks on 34th Street, once the Atlas Shrugged millions started to roll in; here was a building, on 36th Street, that even today breathes energy and virtue. Today, behind its italicized maroon street awning, it is full of eye surgeons, but like a well-fondled lady at Ascot, it still looked in its prime.

I'm afraid I had the rather mischevious thought that the only reason Ms Rand moved to 34th Street, was because it enabled her to drown in the cheaper flattery of all her acolytes who couldn't afford the grander appointments of this more magnificent edifice. Oh I know I shouldn't mock, but for a woman who professed such an admiration for sculpture, 120 East 34th Street is an early Henry Moore Earth Mother up against this far more pristine Michaelangelo's David at 36th Street.

What made the difference even clearer was the walk back to Grand Central. I really felt like I was in the heartbeat of something important. As I walked along the left side of Park Avenue, I felt like a King, a Wolfian Master of the Universe, as the grand columns of Dagny Taggart's imperial reserve marched towards me.

Striding through the clear cool air of a Manhattan evening, just to the right I caught an inspiring glimpse of the silverine arched rainbow of my favorite Manhattan skyrise, the Chrysler Building, before the classical elegance of Grand Central overwhelmed me.

Yes, Atlas Shrugged may be full of one-dimensional characters, but it is still stronger than a hatful of plutonium, and I feel sure that much of this strength comes from its creation at 36 East 36th Street. The building is full of energy, even now, and I'm sure this radiated into Rand's Remington-Rand typewriter as she pushed out the book's pages, all those long years ago.

The other horrible place she moved to, on 34th Street, is a dispiriting pile of out-of-date mince in comparison, and now I'm unsurprised she stopped writing novels and simply descended into a self-obsessed love myriad with all of her strange Canadian minions.

Having seen and compared the two buildings, her complete cessation of fiction creation now makes much more sense; Stephen King is a great believer that the place you create your fiction is centrally important to your work, and that if you find a great spot where the words flow, you should do whatever it takes to spend all your time there.

Yes, I know we could argue that the internal contradictions at the heart of Rand's statist libertarianism may have prevented her writing a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, but maybe the answer to this strange retirement from fiction is simpler; she should have stayed in the same apartment where she discovered the creative genie who helped her generate her masterpiece. Football managers don't change winning teams. Writers shouldn't either.

If ever you get the chance to visit New York, visit these two buildings yourself and see what you think. I'd be glad to hear your opinion if you do.

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