Let the mocking begin.
Chapter 1 The Theme
The theme of AS, going by the first chapter, is that everything and everyone sucks except for Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon and maybe a few other people. This might not seem like much of a theme, but that's what happens in dreadful books. The theme is greed is good, or every emotion but triumph is bad, or only a half-dozen people deserve to exist despite--or because of--the fact that they are sociopaths. Sometimes you get lucky, like in this book, and all these themes are included.
The story opens with one of the Good Guys, Eddie Willers, at work in a depressed, crumbling New York City. We know he is one of the good guys because his every thought and action revolved around his job and he has absolutely no life outside of it. He is doggily and doggedly devoted to his boss, Dagny Taggart, the daughter of the founder of Taggart Transcontinental railroad, and has been since they were small children together. Rand flashes back to Willers' childhood, when the two discussed the nature of greatness and when Willers often contemplated a giant tree on Dagny's property. The tree seems to hold up the world, like Atlas himself, yet is destroyed by a bolt of lightning and its rotted and empty core exposed for all the world to see. This passes for subtlety in Rand's world.
Willers is having troubles at work. It seems that the entire world became tired of money and decided to stop trying to make it. Mine owners stopped digging ore, businessmen stopped selling steel, manufacturers stopped manufacturing, repairmen stopped repairing, salesmen stopped selling. Everyone just decided, out of the blue, after centuries of selling everything they could get their hands on, from Indian burial goods to trees to beaver to bison to cotton to cloth to everything else that the US has manufactured, to change their nature, their entire way of life, and stop buying and selling. They now want to share and be equal. They've gone and quit business-ing, and not in a good Galtian way either.
Willers decides to talk to the railroad's president, Dagny's brother James. James is a Bad Guy. We know this because his appearance, his voice, his character, his morality, and every single solitary thing he does and says is repellent. He and all the other Bad Guys are exactly alike--without a single redeeming feature.
[James] had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of this tall, slender boy, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.
Why is James so weak when Dagny is so strong and self-assured? They have the same bloodline--which Rand informs us is both noble by birth and ennobled by the blood of their boot-strapping industrialist father because Rand always wants to have it both ways. But he is missing something, or rather everything, that Rand tells us are invested in a very, very few people, a very special few people, a people of mastery and greatness, the only worthwhile people on the entire planet. You might even call these people a Master Race.
James is petulant, forced by the shape of his mouth to ignore Willers' attempt to solve the railroad's problems with supplies, workforce, and a global wave of socialism. He doesn't want to make money by running a successful railroad, he would rather everyone fail and watch his world crumble around him. He doesn't want oil man Ellis Wyatt's business despite the fact that Wyatt has magically found a way to make tapped-out oil wells spout forth in abundance. Unlike Dagny, James doesn't care if his railroad doesn't reach Colorado, which has magically been revealed to hold every resource known to man despite the fact that it had already been settled and its oil resources, for one, sold off. James tosses Willers out of his office and the action, such as it is, cuts to Our Heroine, Dagny Taggart.
Dagny Taggart is everything that Alisa Rosenbaum (Rand) is not. Rand was the unattractive, bourgeois daughter of a businessman who lost his money in the revolution, not the beautiful daughter of a rich industrialist and a noblewoman. She studied history and went to the state film school. Dagny (and Rand's alter-ego in her semi-autobiographical We, The Living) is an engineer, and obviously the rational, mathematical, precise, unemotional profession appealed to Rand. Unsurprisingly, Rand had been an unhappy child. Intelligent but combative, unappreciated but endlessly critical, stubborn and self centered, Rand was never able to be close to anyone.
Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote “a scathing denunciation of childhood,” headed with a quote from Pascal: “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”
Rand respected her father and strongly disliked her mother, whom, oddly, she called by the Russian variant of her patronymic, Borisovna. From the beginning, she and Anna Rosenbaum did not get along. The daughter viewed her mother as capricious, nagging, and a social climber, and she was painfully convinced that Anna disapproved of her. Anna considered her eldest daughter to be “difficult,” Rand recalled. It’s easy to imagine that she was. Although formal photographs from the time show a beautifully dressed, long-haired little girl with an arresting composure and huge, dark, intelligent eyes, her face is square and her features are slightly pudgy; when animated, they assume the stubborn, hawkish look of her adulthood. She had few friends and little inclination to make new ones, and she was physically inert in an era of passionate belief in physical exercise. Her mother nagged at her to be nicer to her cousins and more outgoing and athletic (“Make motions, Alice, make motions!” Anna would cry) and was exasperated by her penchant for becoming violently enthusiastic about the things she liked—certain European children’s stories and songs, for example—and immovably indifferent, even hostile, to the things she didn’t. But Anna also articulated many of the values that Rand would later become famous for expressing. In a letter from the 1930s, for example, Anna wrote to Rand, “Every man is an architect of his own fortune” and “Every person is the maker of his own happiness.”
Anna was also more broadly, and proudly, educated than her husband was. She read and spoke English, French, and German, and until the Belgian governess arrived she taught Rand and Natasha to read and write in French. Though Rand made good use of these advantages as she grew older, she viewed her mother as hypocritical and shallow, an opinion not entirely borne out by the evidence. She once characterized Anna as an aspiring member of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia whose main interest in life was giving parties, and she suspected that Anna enjoyed books and plays less than she enjoyed the appearance of talking about them at her frequent gatherings of family and friends. Anna subscribed to foreign magazines, including children’s magazines, which Rand read and was strongly influenced by as she began to write her own early stories. Still, until the 1917 Revolution changed everything, Anna seems to have been an artistic social climber (though a remarkably intelligent and resourceful one, as we shall see) who wanted her daughters to rise in the city’s Jewish social hierarchy—a project for which Ayn Rand was particularly unsuited.
Using the background of a pre-revolutionary Russia, [biographer Anne] Heller paints Rand’s early childhood as comfortable, but pained. Born Alissa Rosenbaum, Rand struggled to win her mother’s approval, as well as acceptance by her bourgeois peers. Rand asserted her intellectual ability at a young age, and constantly evaluated the inferiority of the people who circled her. This early disassociation with the people surrounding her, allowed for a later developmental flaw, which Heller catalogues as a quick rejection of dissenters. She often recounted how she valorized a fellow classmate, but when Rand the girl, she inquired about who the girl valued most. The child responded with her mother. Rand explains that this she never spoke to her again because of the banal response. In her flippant rebuff, Rand simultaneously preserves her own ego, and perpetuates her understanding of the world around her. Heller notes that Rand spent her life overestimating some people and underestimating others, and “she rarely reconsidered.” What Rand interprets as a strength in future objectivist pursuits, Heller highlights as a connection to Rand’s method of camouflaging insecurities. A compelling example of Rand’s continual re-interpretation of her childhood, Heller retells a story of Rand’s mother, Anna, cleaning out the nursery. Telling the young Alissa to sort out and de-clutter her toy room, Anna promised her daughter’s toys would be returned in a year’s time. Alissa, thinking she was outsmarting her mother, picked her favorites to put in storage. When the time elapsed, and Alissa requested her toys returned, Anna explained she gave them away to charity because she knew that Alissa did not need the toys. An adult Rand referred to this story as the moment when she understood that altruism was truly selfish, she understood her mother’s actions as spiteful. However, Rand’s adult analysis exemplifies her childlike understanding of human relationship to materials. Heller’s detailed storytelling reveals how frequently Rand misunderstood interactions with others, and perhaps, how her understanding of success evolved.
Naturally Rand's alter-ego doesn't enjoy childhood any more than Rand did, and grown-up Dagny is as emotionally clueless and stubbornly needy as grown-up Rand.
Dagny is smart, rich, beautiful, successful, and ostensibly utterly without weakness or flaw. She's Dagny Sue. She's rich but doesn't care about money, beautiful but doesn't care about make-up, clothes and jewels, passionate but doesn't care about (almost all) men, and owns a penthouse with only two rooms--one of the more amusing contortions Rand goes through to make her characters both culturally glamorous and spiritually pure. She is confident, decisive, always makes the right decision, and never meets a challenge that she cannot overcome. Like the rest of Rand's Ubermensch she is utterly perfect, and just as much a fantasy as Edward Cullen and the rest of the Cullen vampire clan in Twilight. Edward can't just be a sexy vampire, he has to be a sexy vampire that **sparkles**!! And Rand's Ubermensch can't just be superior, they must be perfect, just as everyone else without exception must be base and depraved.
Chapter 2 The Chain
We meet Hank Reardon as he is watching the first pouring of Reardon Metal, a new metal that is stronger, lighter, and cheaper then steel, although strangely it includes a lot of copper, a soft metal. Naturally nobody wants the metal or even wants to test it at first, and they all hate and envy Reardon for his competence in the face of their weakness. Reardon is tall, very slender, a blue-eyed blond. He had boot-strapped his way from starting work in a mine at 14 to working at foundries and steel mills, to owning mines (who knew mining paid so well?), foundries and mills of his own. Reardon has a bracelet made of his new metal and we follow his long, triumphant walk home to his family of wife, mother and assorted relations and hangers-on, all of whom are, of course, repellent.
Reardon's family exist so Rand can show us how pure and perfect Reardon is by contrast, and so Reardon can meditate on his inability to respond to them emotionally. Every word his wife utters is a passive-aggressive, veiled or not-so-veiled insult. Every word his mother says is a passive-aggressive, whiny complaint or bout of self pity. Reardon despises them yet treats them with respect and civility, because he is perfect.
What did they seek from him?--thought Reardon---what were they after. He had never asked anything of them; it was they to wished to hold him, they who pressed a claim on him--and the claim seemed to have the form of affection, but it was a form which he found harder to endure than any sort of hatred. He despised causeless affection, just as he despised unearned wealth. They professed to love him for some unknown reason and they ignored all the things for which he could wish to be loved. He wondered what response they could hope to obtain from him in such manner--if his response was what they wanted. And it was, he thought; else why those constant complaints, those unceasing accusations about his indifference? Why that chronic air of suspicion, as if they were waiting to be hurt? He had never has a desire to hurt them, but he had always felt their defensive, reproachful expectation; they seemed wounded by anything he said. It was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost...almost as they were wounded by the mere fact of his being.
Reardon habitually speaks coldly to anyone if he condescends to speak to them at all, withholds affection, and has no interest in anything or anyone but himself and his achievements. He cannot understand others' emotions and expresses very, very few of his own. His only source of joy is the triumph of success and the only characteristics he admires in other people are the ones he holds himself. In fact----
Hare's Checklist and other mental disorders
Psychopathy, as measured on the PCL-R, is negatively correlated with all DSM-IV Axis I disorders except substance abuse disorders. Psychopathy is most strongly correlated with DSM-IV antisocial personality disorder.
Factor1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
Callous/lack of empathy
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
It's not a perfect match, but it's close. Rand's heroes exhibit all the characteristics of deeply disturbed individuals; they are unable to relate to others, unable to feel emotions, monomaniacally focused on their own glorification and success, and are also filled with self-pity because nobody appreciates their superiority. And those are the good guys.
The rest of the chapter consists of people standing around saying cruel things to each other, asking Reardon for money, and saying cruel things to Reardon about money, while Reardon wallows in self-pity, wondering to himself why nobody cares about him.