"Dagny is myself, with any possible flaws eliminated, Ayn [Rand] once said."*
Chapter 9 The Sacred And The Profane
When we last visited Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart, they were expressing their contempt and disdain for each other by having sex. As our chapter opens, Dagny is sprawled on the bed in post-coital bliss, while Reardon is---not.
"I want you to know this."
He stood by the bed, dressed, looking down at her. His voice had pronounced it evenly, with great clarity and no inflection. She looked up at him obediently. He said:
What I feel for you is contempt. But it's nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don't love you. I've never loved anyone. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. I wanted you as one wants a whore--for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind. You're not. You're as vile an animal as I am. I should loathe my discovering it. I don't. Yesterday, I would have killed anyone who'd tell me that you were capable of doing what I've had you do. Today, I would give my life not to let it be otherwise, not to have you be anything but the bitch you are. All the greatness that I saw in you--I would not take it in exchange for the obscenity of your talent at an animal's sensation of pleasure. We were two great beings, you and I, proud of our strength, weren't we. Well, this is all that's left of us--and I want no self-deception about it.
Reardon goes on to tell her that he wants "no pretense about love, value, loyalty or respect," and he will accept the consequences of their act of depravity. Dagny laughs in his face, telling him that she glories in their depravity.
"It's I who will depend on any whim of yours. You'll have me any time you wish, anywhere, on any terms. Did you call it the obscenity of my talent? It's such that it gives you a safer hold on me than on any other property you own. You may dispose of me as you please--I'm not afraid to admit it--I have nothing to protect from you and nothing to reserve."
Dagny tells Reardon that her greatest pride in life is to earn the right to be used sexually by him. Reardon has "earned" her through his manly, individualist superiority, and she has earned the right to owned and discarded by him through her own superiority.
When he threw her down on the bed, their bodies met like the two sounds that broke against each other in the air of the room: the sound of his tortured moan and of her laughter.
This is what passes for hot sex in the libertarian universe. But it is in keeping with the libertarian belief that their theories do not need to have any relationship to reality whatsoever. The idle fantasies of young men and women who spent too much time plotting revenge against lesser minds and too little time actually talking to anyone else tend to veer into melodrama and self-aggrandizement, it seems. Nobody, not even libertarians, want to give up love, intimacy, caring, and every other tender emotion so they can force their partner to submit to their crushing superiority, or submit mockingly to the moral defeat of their mate. In her biography of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden, who was able to both adore Rand and see her clearly for what she was from the distance of time, said:
In [Atlas Shrugged]. Francisco presents Ayn's theory of sex, saying."A man's sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself...He will always be attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself, the woman whose surrender permits him to experience--or to fake--a sense of self-esteem. The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer--because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut...There is no conflict between the standards of his mind and the desires of his body.... Love is our response to our highest value--and can be nothing else."
It is an intriguing theory--and a potentially dangerous one, which already had had explosive effects on Ayn's life. It had led her to wildly aggrandize the men who were her sexual choices--Leo and Frank--and it would continue to do so in the future; if the men to whom she was attracted were not heroes, then what would her choices say about her? And it had led her to denounce those of her friends who were not able to demonstrate that their choices were similarly exalted....Few things in life are so complex and so little understood as that which motivates our passionate sexual response; to require, as proof of psychological health, that this motivation lead only to the choice of a "hero," is to inflict, on oneself and others, inestimable damage.
In Atlas Shrugged, through the relationship of Dagny and Galt, Rand was creating the "ideal" romance....The passion, the capacity for joy, the hero-worship, the violent sexuality, the longing for submission to a stronger force, that had found its outlet only in her novels, was screaming to be lived before it was too late, and could no longer be denied.
She could not find what she needed with a man who was a contemporary and an equal. Such a man might challenge the whole structure of the fantasy in which she progressively had begun to live--the fantasy in which she was flawless, serene, morally and intellectually superior to those around her, the apotheosis of rationality, the woman without self-doubts or inner conflicts. And so she chose a boy--a brilliant, talented boy, but still a boy, who posed no threat, who revered her and would confirm the fantasy picture she could allow no one to threaten.
Rand coolly informed her husband Frank O'Connor, who was dependent on her financially, and Barbara Branden that she and Nathaniel Branden were going to have an affair. There was nothing Frank could do about it. He was a passive man who had no marketable skills. He had been happy on their California ranch but went along when Rand decided that they would be happier in New York. He had to do what his wife wanted or be out on the street, penniless and to old to start a career. He and Rand had inevitably grown apart and Rand would take out her frustration on him by flying into a rage over small things, or discard friends who disagreed with her image of herself. They were both unhappy, but Rand, according to Barbara Branden, assumed that Frank felt what Rand felt and wanted what Rand wanted.
This is something out of space and out of time. If the four of us were lesser people, it could never have happened and you could never accept it. But we're not lesser people....It's right and rational that Nathan and I between us can last only a few years. I could never be an old woman pursing a younger man.
Of course she was and she did. Branden was 25 and Rand was 50. But Rand convinced herself that her affair was natural and right, just as selfish people who harm others to get their own way always convince themselves that their actions will benefit everyone. In a 1964 interview with Playboy, Rand explained her philosophy regarding love and happiness.
PLAYBOY: You hold that one's own happiness is the highest end, and that self-sacrifice is immoral. Does this apply to love as well as work?
RAND: To love more than to anything else. When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person's need of you. I don't have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.
PLAYBOY: You have denounced the puritan notion that physical love is ugly or evil; yet you have written that "Indiscriminate desire and unselective indulgence are possible only to those who regard sex and themselves as evil." Would you say that discriminate and selective indulgence in sex is moral?
RAND: I would say that a selective and discriminate sex life is not an indulgence. The term indulgence implies that it is an action taken lightly and casually. I say that sex is one of the most important aspects of man's life and, therefore, must never be approached lightly or casually. A sexual relationship is proper only on the ground of the highest values one can find in a human being. Sex must not be anything other than a response to values. And that is why I consider promiscuity immoral. Not because sex is evil, but because sex is too good and too important.
PLAYBOY: Does this mean, in your view, that sex should involve only married partners?
RAND: Not necessarily. What sex should involve is a very serious relationship. Whether that relationship should or should not become a marriage is a question which depends on the circumstances and the context of the two persons' lives. I consider marriage a very important institution, but it is important when and if two people have found the person with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives -- a question of which no man or woman can be automatically certain. When one is certain that one's choice is final, then marriage is, of course, a desirable state. But this does not mean that any relationship based on less than total certainty is improper. I think the question of an affair or a marriage depends on the knowledge and the position of the two persons involved and should be left up to them. Either is moral, provided only that both parties take the relationship seriously and that it is based on values.
PLAYBOY: As one who champions the cause of enlightened self-interest, how do you feel about dedicating one's life to hedonistic self-gratification?
RAND: I am profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism. Hedonism is the doctrine which holds that the good is whatever gives you pleasure and, therefore, pleasure is the standard of morality. Objectivism holds that the good must be defined by a rational standard of value, that pleasure is not a first cause, but only a consequence, that only the pleasure which proceeds from a rational value judgment can be regarded as moral, that pleasure, as such, is not a guide to action nor a standard of morality. To say that pleasure should be the standard of morality simply means that whichever values you happen to have chosen, consciously or subconsciously, rationally or irrationally, are right and moral. This means that you are to be guided by chance feelings, emotions and whims, not by your mind. My philosophy is the opposite of hedonism. I hold that one cannot achieve happiness by random, arbitrary or subjective means. One can achieve happiness only on the basis of rational values. By rational values, I do not mean anything that a man may arbitrarily or blindly declare to be rational. It is the province of morality, of the science of ethics, to define for men what is a rational standard and what are the rational values to pursue.
PLAYBOY: Isn't the individual equipped with powerful, nonrational biological drives?
RAND: He is not. A man is equipped with a certain kind of physical mechanism and certain needs, but without any knowledge of how to fulfill them. For instance, man needs food. He experiences hunger. But, unless he learns first to identify this hunger, then to know that he needs food and how to obtain it, he will starve. The need, the hunger, will not tell him how to satisfy it. Man is born with certain physical and psychological needs, but he can neither discover them nor satisfy them without the use of his mind. Man has to discover what is right or wrong for him as a rational being. His so-called urges will not tell him what to do.
Rand's attempt to reduce sexuality to a rational response is, of course, doomed to failure; man does possess instincts and emotions don't always come from reason as Rand theorized. When Rand thought she was using reason to explain her affair with Nathanial Branden she was using rationalization instead. Overwhelmed by the strength and newness of sexual feelings and deeply insecure about their sexual desirability, teenagers might easily envy the self-confidence of the Rand heroes, who have passionate affairs based on mutual recognition of innate superiority. When you are young, Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon and John Galt might seem like the epitome of heroic and sexual ideals. Barbara Branden said:
Ayn had established herself among her young friends, through the rigor of her argumentation and the forcefulness of her personality, as the epitome and the standard of the human potential, of everything we were struggling to become and everything we loved. I felt that she had given me so much, she had pulled me out of the intellectual morass of adolescence and had helped me to make sense of a complex, confusing world, she had given me friendship, and knowledge, and love. She had opened wide the doors of her own shining world to admit me, she had consistently encouraged me to achieve my most treasured goals, in my work, in my person, in my life; she had healed my wounds and ended my lonely distance from the world around me; she had taught me to exchange the leaking life raft on which I'd floundered for a sturdy, high-speed cruiser; she had shown me the grandeur and the limitless possibilities of existence. It was unthinkable that I should interfere with her happiness or that I should run from the sight of it. She had given me the possibility of mine.
Atlas Shrugged is a power fantasy, and unfortunately Rand's power fantasy was partially sexual in nature; because she did not want to deal with such incoherent, inconvenient things as emotions, all her heroes must be overcome to indulge in them. Dagny must be forced to physically submit and Reardon must be morally overcome, to fulfill Rand's sexual fantasies of power and submission at the hands of a superior man. In her own life Rand chose a passive man who gave into her at all times but her disconnect between fantasy and reality is ignored by her devout followers.
But it's not enough to have gods to worship, one must have demons to despise as well. After we leave Reardon and Dagny to their exalted and violent passion, Rand describes James Taggart's encounter with a young pretty drugstore clerk, Cherryl Brooks. As always, it is striking how today's libertarians sound exactly like the looters and moochers they despise. James says:
"How do you know what's good, anyway? Who knows what's good? Who can ever know? There are no absolutes--as Dr. Pritchett has proved irrefutably. Nothing is absolute. Everything is a matter of opinion. How do you know that that [Reardon] bridge hasn't collapsed? You only think it hasn't. How do you know that there's any bridge at all?"
Nobody knows anything ever; nobody can do anything ever. The constant lament of the Megan McArdle libertarians, who ignore facts, reason and logic so they can continue to enjoy the perks and pleasures of being sycophants of the ruling class. James listens to Cherryl praise him for Dagny's accomplishments and escorts her home, giving up the chance to sleep with her because, "He felt nothing. The prospect of experiencing pleasure was not worth the effort; he had no desire to experience pleasure." The scum very conveniently don't feel anything but rage and jealousy in Atlas Shrugged, which is of course why they deserve their eventual and inevitable deaths and destruction.
Meanwhile, Reardon and Dagny continue their well-deserved affair, with Reardon slapping Dagny and twisting her arms behind her back, throwing her on her knees, and Ayn Rand making sure that we know exactly how much pleasure Dagny feels at being treated with cold and angry violence and pain. In Rand's libertarian world it's always Christmas and never winter; Dagny is never harmed more than she wants to be harmed. Reardon simultaneously worships and degrades Dagny, a ridiculous situation that bears no relation on reality. A man as cold, cruel, arrogant and emotionally deadened as Reardon would glory in breaking down another person, making himself feel better by destroying everything good in Dagny, but these characters were never meant to be real people with real emotions. They are Heroes, and their heroic acts are always right.
Part II of The Sacred and The Profane to follow.
*From The Passion Of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden