Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking Part 5

Chapter 6 The Non-Commercial

America has always been primarily concerned with the making of money. Many of the first settlers were part of a corporation which hoped to extract America's riches; if not gold and gems, then timber and tobacco and slaves. Mrs. Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony Trollope, wrote in her critique of America:

Nothing can exceed their activity and perseverance in all kinds of speculation, handicraft, and enterprise, which promises a profitable pecuniary result. I heard an Englishman, who had been long resident in America, declare that in following, in meeting, or in overtaking, in the street, on the road, or in the field, at the theatre, the coffee-house, or at home, he had never overheard Americans conversing without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them. Such unity of purpose, such sympathy of feeling, can, I believe, be found nowhere else, except, perhaps, in an ants' nest. The result is exactly what might be anticipated. This sordid object, for ever before their eyes, must inevitably produce a sordid tone of mind, and, worse still, it produces a seared and blunted conscience on all questions of probity. I know not a more striking evidence of the low tone of morality which is generated by this universal pursuit of money, than the manner in which the New England States are described by Americans. All agree in saying that they present a spectacle of industry and prosperity delightful to behold, and this is the district and the population most constantly quoted as the finest specimen of their admirable country; yet I never met a single individual in any part of the Union who did not paint these New Englanders as sly, grinding, selfish, and tricking. The yankees (as the New Englanders are called) will avow these qualities themselves with a complacent smile, and boast that no people on the earth can match them at over reaching in a bargain. I have heard them unblushingly relate stories of their cronies and friends, which, if believed among us, would banish the heroes from the fellowship of honest men for ever; and all this is uttered with a simplicity which sometimes led me to doubt if the speakers knew what honour and honesty meant. Yet the Americans declare that "they are the most moral people upon earth." Again and again I have heard this asserted, not only in conversation, and by their writings, but even from the pulpit. Such broad assumption of superior virtue demands examination, and after four years of attentive and earnest observation and enquiry, my honest conviction is, that the standard of moral character in the United States is very greatly lower than in Europe. Of their religion, as it appears outwardly, I have had occasion to speak frequently; I pretend not to judge the heart, but, without any uncharitable presumption, I must take permission to say, that both Protestant England and Catholic France show an infinitely superior religious and moral aspect to mortal observation, both as to reverend decency of external observance, and as to the inward fruit of honest dealing between man and man.

America sold everything it could get its hands on. We cut down forests and dug up mountains. We killed passenger pigeons and buffaloes and whales. We built foundries and factories and mills and sold our products to the world. "The business of America is business," Calvin Coolidge famously said during the Roaring '20s. And now, centuries after the Massachusetts Bay Company reached our shores, the corporate class dominates all others. But our world is not the world of Any Rand, and in her world all businessmen and their labors are despised. Join us as Hank Reardon of Reardon Metal is forced by duty to attend his anniversary dinner, where the inferiority of the rest of the (sub)human race tears at his sensitive yet inviolable soul.

"You don't care for anything but business." He had heard it all his life, pronounced as a verdict of damnation. He had always known that business was regarded as some sort of secret, shameful cult, which one did not impose on innocent laymen, that people thought of it as of a ugly necessity, to be performed but never mentioned; that to talk shop was an offense against higher sensibilities; that just as one washed machine grease off one's hands before coming home, so one was supposed to wash the stain of business off one's mind before entering a drawing room. He had never held that creed, but he had accepted it as natural that his family should hold it. He took it for granted--wordlessly, in the manner of a feeling absorbed in childhood, left unquestioned and unnamed---that he had dedicated himself, like the martyr of some dark religion, to the service of a faith which was his passionate love, but which made him an outcast among men, whose sympathy he was not to expect.

The millionaire industrialist is a social outcast, just like Du Pont, Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt, Schwab, and Mellon. It's something Reardon knows from his childhood, just like little Ayn Rand.

The great exception in her somewhat alienated childhood affections was her handsome father, Zinovy....Like Vasili, Zinovy was, for the most part, silent, but he was immensely proud of his accomplishments as a self-made businessman. He admired his eldest daughter's proud spirit and original, razor-sharp mind. An avid reader of Russian literature, he encouraged her efforts to write her first stories and, later, her drive to craft a fiction of ideas.


From the age of five or six, Ayn Rand took in everything in, including the ugly and nonsensical pieties and prejudices of neighbors and official spokesmen who treated Jews as, at best, second-class human beings. Often, their pretext for such treatment was that the Jew were the greedy entrepreneurs, rabid industrialists, and ruthless bankers who were spoiling Russia's "pure" Slavic traditions and fomenting labor unrest. In such circumstances, Rand's love for her self-made father was strongly roused. The result would be seen in her pro-individualistic, pro-industrial novels, which more than one commentator has also viewed as an impassioned defense of gifted, productive Jews.

Rand's mother, on the other hand, was socially ambitious and critical.

Though Rand made good use of [the advantages given her by her educated mother] 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....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.


[Rand] claimed not to care about being approved of or accepted by her family and pers. Since she generally wasn't accepted, the proud, intelligent child appears to have learned early to make a virtue of necessity. In her twenties and thirties, she would construct a universe of moral principles built largely on the scaffoldings of some of these defensive childhood virtues.

As he dresses for the party, Reardon ruminates on how he ignores his wife yet feels no guilt. He admits he does not and never did devote a moment of his time to her, that he has no idea what her interests are or who her friends are. His thoughts are always on his business and what he must do next, since Ubermensch purity demands he not soil his mind with trivial matters. The only important occupation in the world is running a business; every minute not spent running a business is agony and Reardon has pressing matters on his mind, such as the government's attempts to break up corporations with the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.

Reardon married Lillian because she seemed to worship him as much as he felt she ought to, but she instantly disappointed him by expecting him to actually acknowledge her existence.

It was the difficulty of the conquest that made him want Lillian. She seemed to be a woman who expected and deserved a pedestal; this made him want to drag her down to his bed. To drag her down, were the words in is mind; they gave him a dark pleasure, the sense of a victory worth winning.

When he joins his wife Lillian, Reardon is furious to see that she is wearing his gift of a Reardon metal bracelet with a profusion of diamonds, the better to show off the apparent cheapness of the revolutionary metal. Every word she utters, every gesture she makes to Reardon is portrayed by Rand as sly, cruel, vindictive, arrogant and immoral. Hell hath no fury like a little girl habitually found wanting by her unkind, critical mother.

Reardon suffers the cocktail chatter with undisguised disgust. All of Lillian's distinguished guests are ignorant, foolish, dogmatic, and ugly. Only the relatives of industrialists are given attractive features, morals and intelligence. Reardon stands around like a statue until his composure is broken by the unexpected appearance of our heroine, railroad magnate Dagny Taggart. Reardon is struck by the difference between Dagny the Ubermensch and Dagny the woman.

Seeing her in the suits she wore, one never thought of Dagny Taggart's body. The black dress seemed excessively revealing--because it was astonishing to discover that the lines of her shoulder were fragile and beautiful; and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.
Let us all pause to take a minute to say, What the hell? Surely that is some kind of inartful use of language, perhaps Rand meant wrapped in chains or a more metaphorical type of belonging.

Sadly, no.

The moment Dagny sees Reardon, she is reduced into a simpering little man-tease, doing her damndest to get him to throw her over his shoulder and have his superior way with her. She has all the subtlety of a sorority girl trained from birth to attract a man by alternately buttering him up and trash-talking anyone he ought to dislike. Like poor Caroline Bingly, who unsuccessfully attempted to snare Mr. Darcy by alternately insulting Elizabeth Bennett and praising her own small, elite circle, Dagny is driven to try to impress Reardon.

"Why have we left [this world] to fools," she asks Reardon plaintively. When he rebuffs her she is full of "desolate emptiness." She shrugs the disappointment off, mumbles a few words, and wanders off. She runs into Francisco D'Anconia, who also admires her bare shoulder.

She stood as she always did, straight and taut, her head lifted impatiently. It was the unfeminine pose of an executive. But her naked shoulder betrayed the fragility of the body under the black dress, and the pose make her most truly a woman. The proud strength became a challenge to someone's superior strength, and the fragility a reminder that the challenge could be broken.

There is no such thing as equality in Rand's world. You either break or are broken. There is no reciprocity, no sharing, no affection. Everyone is alone, always, and the only relationship that can exist between people is that of master and subordinate, exploiter and victim. It is incredible that such a philosophy could find acceptance, that such an attitude of cruelty, selfishness and violence could be considered just another philosophy or viewpoint by society. People should be too embarrassed to admit becoming devotees of Rand, out of fear that everyone will realize their secret, masturbatory fantasies of domination over beautiful women and evil men, while becoming the richest, most famous, most special person In All The Land.

Meanwhile, to prove to Reardon that she really loves him and that mean Lillian doesn't, Dagny demands to swap her diamond bracelet for Hank's pencil with his teeth marks on it Lillian's bracelet of Reardon metal. That'll show her who likes Reardon best! He rewards her doggy devotion the only way he knows how.

His eyes remained expressionless. Yet she was suddenly certain that she knew what he felt: he wanted to slap her face.

It was not necessary." he answered coldly, and walked on.
Now he's done it. Now he'll never get rid of her.


Phil Perspective said...

Rand's novels are just cheesy S&M stories. It's telling that it's so appealing to the GOP.

Susan of Texas said...

I think Randians made a big mistake by promoting the book as much as they have the last 20 years. The more people know about the book the less they will think of it.

Downpuppy said...

Cool it on Coolidge!

The quote is really: "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." However, Coolidge goes on to say that, "Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence." He discusses journalism and the thought that the business interests of newspaper owners should not taint reporting. He continues, "American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people."

His last paragraph in the speech shows what he really believes motivate Americans:

We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.

Yes,by modern standards Coolidge was a Socialist.

Susan of Texas said...

People used to be more balanced. Sure, you had your robber barons but they also started philanthropies and considered the public good.

NonyNony said...

Sure, you had your robber barons but they also started philanthropies and considered the public good.

Meh. We still have our Gateses and our Buffetts.

And back in the day they had their millionaires who didn't give a damn about anyone but themselves. We don't remember their names because they didn't build foundations to rehabilitate their images.

Mr.Wonderful said...

The more people know about the book the less they will think of it.

What continually amazes me is how the devotees of Atlas Shrugged seem oblivious of how blatantly awful it is. It isn't a case of adequate prose in the service of repellent ideas. It's as though its fans have literally never read a good book. They read all that bombast, one-dimensional characterization, BDSM-for-beginners sex, endless rhetorical yakking, and relentless humorlessness, and think it's profound.

You can't debate ideas under such conditions. I want to say to them, If THIS is your sacred text, then you're pre-qualified as an idiot, and we need not waste our time pretending to respect each other's views.

Lurking Canadian said...

she knew what he felt: he wanted to slap her face

Ye Gods. That's... Oh, man, she was one messed up Russian emigree.

The more people know about the book the less they will think of it.

I wish I could believe that. Somehow, there exists such a thing as a "Christian Objectivist", despite the fact that just about everything Jesus said disagrees with Objectivism AND the fact that Rand came right out and said Christianity was evil. I don't think they actually read Rand, anymore than they read the Gospels. They're both just something to hammer on while denouncing The Other.

Narya said...

I find that I simply cannot (re)read the stuff any more, and it's the way Rand describes Dagny and the way Rand talks about desire and sex that really puts me off. (Yeah, the morally repellent philosophy sucks, of course.) As you note, Rand cannot seem to imagine a sexual relationship based on partnership, equality, etc., only one based on domination, and, specifically, male domination of females. Embody the patriarchy much?

Anonymous said...

It's pretty obvious that Rand's kinkiness was driving the whole thing.

satch said...

"The more people know about the book the less they will think of it." True, if you learn about the book by actually reading it, or at any rate, trying to. Most people will not, however... they'll prefer to be told what the book means by think tanks and institutes dedicated to gussying up Rand's philosophy into an easily digestible mush that confirms the views they already have.

Batocchio said...

In her twenties and thirties, she would construct a universe of moral principles built largely on the scaffoldings of some of these defensive childhood virtues.

like the martyr of some dark religion

These passages really do capture Rand well, doesn't it? The arrogance, the megalomania, the feelings of persecution, the rigidity, the zealotry, the nastiness. It's not surprising that Reardon/Rand would dedicate themselves to business/the cult of Rand respectively, hating actual human beings as they did.