Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking Part 7


Oh, Hank!

Chapter 8

The John Galt Line

In this chapter a train goes through a tunnel.

But let's start at the beginning. Our story resumes with a conversation between Eddie Willers, who at Dagny's command is keeping her seat warm as Vice President of Taggart Industries, and a nameless worker. Because Rand is utterly uninterested in anything not Ubermensch-ish she does not bother give us the worker's side of the conversation. Instead we have a nearly two page monologue in which Eddie fawns over Dagny and celebrates her accomplishments and flair. Rand said that Dagny is herself, although more healthy and energetic, and Rand doesn't miss a chance to wallow in self-glorification. A good writer (or a good person) would show flaws as well as good traits to humanize her characters but Rand was neither. Rand needed to glorify the few at the expense of everyone else; her bad guys are uniformly repulsive and wretched and her good guys are flawless. Rand's writing began as an escape into a happier world of imagination but over time hardened into a mean-spirited attack on everyone who refused to play along with Rand's inflated views of herself.

Her greatest pleasure was inventing plots. And when the plot had been put into words, she discovered the heady feeling of living in the world of her own creation. She experienced the joy of creating a world more interesting than the world around her, of creating purposes more important than the purposes around her, of creating characters more admirable and heroic than the people around her. She was discovering, without yet the words to name it, the Aristotelian principle that the fiction writer creates the world "as it might be and ought to be."
When Rand inserted herself into her stories she, too, became greater, more important, and more interesting than anyone else. Rand Dagny takes a moment to rest in her new office, two nearly empty rooms in an abandoned building next to her old office.

[Dagny] glanced at a jagged crack on the wall of her office. She heard no sound. She knew she was alone in the ruins of a building. It seemed as if she were alone in the city. She felt an emotion held back for years; a loneliness much beyond this moment, beyond the silence of the room and the wet, glistening, emptiness of he street, the loneliness of a gray wasteland where nothing was worth reaching; the loneliness of her childhood.

...

She stood, in a room of crumbling plaster, pressed to the windowpane, looking up at the unattainable form of everything she loved. She did not know the nature of her loneliness. The only words that named it were: This is not the world I expected.

Dagny feels her body longing for someone to give her the same kind of satisfaction and joy that her work gives her. As she rubs against her desk (yes, you read that correctly), she longs for a man who can give her that kind of satisfaction. A shadow falls across the room; a man disappears into the shadows. Who could it have been? Francisco D'Anconia warned her than John Galt would come for her but he also warned her that he would behave strangely, which Dagny also ignored. She is left to wonder for another 800 pages.

Hank Reardon is faring better than Dagny. Despite the anguish of being forced to sign over most of his industries he is determined to succeed. His Reardon Metal bridge is rising and that gives him the energy to soldier on. He meets Eddie at his hotel which, despite the overall decrepitude of the city, manages to serve Reardon orange juice over crushed ice on a crisp, white tablecloth. Rand pays no attention to consistency or reality; her half-dead city has virtually no street crime and Dagny walks through the city in the middle of the night, dressed to the nines, and nobody accosts her. The city is falling apart when Rand wants it to and operates efficiently when she doesn't want it to. Reardon tells Eddie that all will be well, and to not worry about the scum.

Reardon laughed. "Eddie, what do we care about people like [Jim Taggart]?" We're driving an express, and they're riding on the roof, making a lot of noise about being leaders. Why should we care? We have enough power to carry them along--haven't we?"

Ayn Rand is balm to the soul of authoritarian leaders, who believe that rules are for the little people. But Rand's characters are stiff with a kind of honor; they don't mind supporting the scum as long as the scum leaves them alone. They loathe unearned honor or respect and glorify both natural ability and ability gained through hard work. Libertarians, that is authoritarian wanna-be leaders, try to claim superior status without actual living up to that superiority. Bob Altemeyer describes (pdf)  these "social dominators."

They thrill to power in and of itself. They want to control others, period. (Make that, “exclamation mark!”) Their name says it all. And they come bundled with a shock of nasty attitudes that completes the package.

Social dominance scores correlate very strongly with [...] answers to the Power Mad scale. High scorers are inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful. They love power, including the power to hurt in their drive to the top. Authoritarian followers do not feel this way because they seldom have such a drive to start with.

[...]

In a similar vein, remember those “group cohesiveness” items in chapter 3, such as, “For any group to succeed, all its members have to give it their complete loyalty.” We saw that authoritarian followers endorse such sentiments. But social dominators do not. Oh sure, they want their followers to be super loyal to the group they lead. But they themselves are not really in it so much for the group or its cause, but more for themselves. It’s all about them, not about a higher purpose. If trouble arises, don’t be surprised if they start playing “Every man for himself” and even sell out the group to save their own skin.

[...]

Empathy. Here’s an easy one. How empathetic, how compassionate do you think dominators are? Not very, right? You got it, for they agree with statements such as “I don’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for people less fortunate than me,” and “I have a ‘tough’ attitude toward people having difficulty: ‘That’s their problem, not mine.’” And they disagree with, “I feel very sorry for people who are treated unfairly” and “I have a lot of compassion for people who have gotten the bad breaks in life.” For high social dominators “sympathy” indeed falls, as the saying goes, between “ship” and “syphilis” in the dictionary. (Well, maybe that’s not the exact saying, but this is a family web-site.)

Altemeyer says that social dominators don't believe in equality.

Given all of this, do you really believe the social dominator who says people should have to earn their success in life? He’s quite willing to let the children of the rich get rich merely through inheritance. Do you trust him when he says he’s in favor of a level playing field? He’s against programs that would give the disadvantaged a better chance. Does he really believe the poor can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or is he content to let them face an uphill struggle that very few can overcome? It doesn’t bother the social dominator that masses of people are poor. That’s their tough luck. And some racial groups are just naturally inferior to others, he says. Justice should not be applied equally to all. The rich and powerful should have advantages in court, even if that completely violates the concept of justice. Who cares if prejudice plays a role in the justice system? He certainly doesn’t. The “right people” should have more votes than everybody else in elections. And so on.

If you stare deeply into the souls of social dominators, they believe “equality” is a sucker word. Only fools believe in it, they say. And if people took equality seriously, if society did try to provide equal opportunity for all, and if the playing field really were made level so that bootstraps could be pulled up and multitudes of lives bettered, the social dominator knows he would get less. And he very much dislikes that notion. He says so.

This is how social dominators can tell us that insider trading is no big deal, that we live in a meritocracy instead of a country with third-world levels of economic inequality, and that if workers are permitted to retire instead of working until they die, they will get lazy and greedy. They genuinely believe that rules are for the little people and do not hesitate to take advantage of every opportunity for personal profit while lecturing the poor on morality and humility.  Some sheep are a little smarter than others, however, so the elite and their servants dress up their greed and callousness with pretty bows and ribbons, calling them a philosophy and their adherents people of principle. Think tanks are formed, magazines are financed, fellowships are handed out with great ceremony, large prizes are awarded. But in the end it's nothing but propaganda to disguise greed and exploitation.

In Atlas Shrugged, however, it is the scum and lice who collaborate on propaganda that attacks the Ubermensch. Libertarians routinely use tactics that their heroes looked upon with disdain and disgust, such as making excuses for failure and using propaganda.  The tactics used to fight Reardon are very familiar to those who read libertarian and conservative propaganda. Facts are useless, the people are told. Magazines, newspapers, pundits and radio hosts all spread the message that Reardon metal is unsafe. The unions refuse to let their men work on the John Galt Line so Dagny calls for volunteers, who line up for the honor of working for her. When the work is nearly completed, Dagny calls a press conference.

The reporters who came to the press conference in the offices of the John Galt Line were young men who had been trained to think that their job consisted of concealing from the world the nature of its events. It was their daily duty to serve as audiences for some public figure who made utterances about the public good, in phrases carefully chosen to convey no meaning. It was their daily job to sling words together in any combination they pleased, so long as the words did not fall into a sequence saying something specific.

Substitute "corporate good" for "public good" and you will have every Koch or Bradley-fed libertarian magazine that exists. The newspapermen are shocked that Dagny and Reardon state they are in business to make money; in RandLand money is a dirty word. Dagny invites everyone to witness the first train run and tells them that she (and Reardon) will be riding along. When the day arrives she is swept away with joy at her success, the only joy in life, according to Rand.

Only if one feels immensely important, she had told [Reardon], can one feel truly light. Whatever the train's run would men to others, for the two of them their own persons were this day's sole meaning. Whatever it was that others sought in life, their right to what they now felt was all the two of them wished to find. It was as if, across the platform, they said it to each other.
...

She looked at the crowd , and she felt, simultaneously, astonishment that they should stare at her, when this event was so personally her own that no communication about it was possible, and a sense of fitness that they should be here, that they should want to see it, because the sight of an achievement was the greatest gift a human being could offer to others.
Rand describes how the train's crew gathered to make this first run to Denver and Ellis Wyatt's oil fields, with contemptuous, indifferent looks of superiority at the rabble. For Rand, these qualities are both natural and right; who could not feel contemptuous, indifferent and superior when looking at scum? It's no more than they deserve for their inferiority. The newsmen are caught up in the excitement despite themselves; the sight of all that superiority makes them wish to be superior as well. As the train flashes across the countryside at 100 mph, Dagny sees old men and boys lining the track, guarding it against sabotage. The stations they pass are covered in decorations as railwaymen celebrates Dagny's great accomplishment and Ellis Wyatt is there to help her down when they make their triumphant arrival. He welcomes them to his home and that night she and Reardon have sex in the spirit of mutual triumph and contempt.

It was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash encircling her body; she felt his arms around her, she felt her legs pulled forward against him and her chest bent back under the pressure of his, his mouth on hers.... He was not smiling; his face was tight, it was the face of an enemy; he jerk her head and caught her mouth again, as if he were inflicting a wound.

She felt him trembling and she thought that this was the kind of cry she had wanted to tear from him-this surrender through the shreds of his tortured resistance. Yet she knew, at the same time, that the triumph was his, that her laughter was her tribute to him, that her defiance was submission, that the purpose of all of her violent strength was only to make his victory the greater-he was holding her body against his, as if stressing his wish to let her know that she was now only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire-and his victory, she knew, was her wish to let him reduce her to that. Whatever I am, she thought, whatever pride of person I may hold, the pride of my courage, of my work, of my mind and my freedom-that is what I offer you for the pleasure of your body, that is what I want you to use in your service-and that you want it to serve you is the greatest reward I can have.
Reardon tears off Dagny's clothes and give her more looks of contempt. Dagny gladly gives herself to him and rejoices that he takes what he wants, which is the only way for proper Ubermenschen to live.

... [T]hey had moved by the power of the thought that one remakes the earth for one's enjoyment, that man's spirit gives meaning to insentient matter by molding it to serve one's chosen goal.
The world and its people exist to fulfill the needs of the Special, and when the lice and scum forget that, it is time for them to be eliminated.

9 comments:

KWillow said...

Does Rand give any explanation of why these Supermen are building trains and bridges and skyscrapers?
If its only for money, well, big Wow.

If its to improve the welfare of everyone, that's cool.

If its an impulse of driving creativity, of vision and imagination- which serves Humanity and makes money (for a lot of people, not just a few), well that's the best, isn't it?

Susan of Texas said...

In the book Rand appears to believe that making machinery and running a business are the highest achievments of mankind, and the only proper way to achieve greatness, which should be mankind's only goal. She is indifferent to any other values or priorities. Serving mankind in any way is disgusting to her.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

When Rand inserted herself into her stories she, too, became greater, more important, and more interesting than anyone else.

It's a pity that the world isn't run by devotees of Paula Smith rather than Randroids.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

She's a whackjob, and it's terrible writing.

But it serves the plutocrats, and so here we are...Ruled by two parties, one of which accepts this novel as its bible, and the other which doesn't dare challenge them.
~

DocAmazing said...

One accepts this novel as the Bible, or at least accepts the Bible as novel--there are a couple of strains on the Right, though you might not think so , so well do they work together these days.

Mr.Wonderful said...

Romantic love, per Philip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness, is Oedipal love. It thrives on deferral, on being forbidden. Its terms are idealized, like a child's conception of the parent.

Now we have Rand's conception, in which desire is both a defeat and a triumph. THE essential human desire, without which evolution cannot take place, is cast in these ego-based terms of "surrender" and "triumph." If Hank Rearden dealt with other primal urges this way, we'd get a torrent of nonsense about the "victory" of his eating a meal, of his "surrender to lunch that, at the same time, signified his victory over need itself" and blah blah blah.

So the sexual union of Dagny (what a name; like a knife) and Rearden (ditto; it's both the cozy little room in the back and an owner of an ass) is a mutual Oedipal seduction. It's fundamentally bad (because it represents a defeat for the participants' egos) and triumphant (because it signifies the attainment of the desired, forbidden thing).

And wingnuts take this seriously. I wanna tell ya...

Batocchio said...

That first quoted passage read as if it was from the Rand bios by Burns and Heller.

If Rand was into some real twisted sex with another consenting adult, that's fine. The problem is she wanted to impose the same on everybody else, and screw over the entire world. Movement conservatives/authoritarians are obsessed with image, dominance/submission, and subscribe to a zero-sum game competitive paradigm. Economic Calvinism, social Darwinism, Randism, plutocracy, neo-feudalism, or the Cult of the Asshole – call it what you like, it's all essentially the same.

Downpuppy said...

David Brin, who did such a lovely demolition of Frank Miller & Sparta a few weeks back, covers Atlas with a very broad perspective - http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2011/11/atlas-shrugged-hidden-context-of-book_27.html

Kip W said...

Susan, thanks for the great read. I've read the book three or four times (rounding up for the either skipping through or skipping entirely the 80-pound "A is A is A is A is A is A is A" airdump), and have probably gotten as many ships and giggles from it as I'm going to.

Here's something funny. Who gave Rand her big break? Bennett Cerf, the liberal second-rater known mostly to the public as a collector of other people's jokes. He saw a chance to make some money.