The following is a segment, much rewritten, of an article on Rand’s Atlas that Modern Age ran some few years ago –
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is, up to a limit, a true revelation of redistributive rapacity, even of the old call to sacrifice in its Twentieth-Century ideological manifestation; the novel is, up to a limit, a true revelation of ideology as a reversion to the most primitive type of cultic religiosity: Collective murder as a means of appeasing a supernatural principle. It is also – it is primarily – a sacrificial narrative, as most of popular, as opposed to high, narrative ever has been and probably always will be. It follows that the novel’s borrowed premise is sacrifice: Rand invites us to view with a satisfying awe the destruction before our eyes of those who have mistreated the protagonists, with whom she has invited us to identify – one of the cheapest formulas of commercial fiction. The standard Arnold Schwarzenegger or Clint Eastwood thriller achieves its effect by no different means. The catharsis in Atlas comes not at the end, however, but around two-thirds of the way through the story. It is the superbly stage-managed Winston Tunnel disaster.
Rand exerts her full ability as a storyteller to endow the railway-tunnel calamity with the appearance of inevitability, making it out to look like the entirely predictable outcome of the nihilism expressed by the “looters” and “moochers” elsewhere in the narrative. The back ground to the tunnel disaster is the steady deterioration of the national industrial infrastructure. Trains cannot keep schedule; those that manage a unpredictable departure run at the behest of gangsters whose participate in the zero-sum game that is rapidly and obviously reaching its climax by commandeering resources and grabbing what they can. Diesel locomotives have all but disappeared; the maintenance is too expensive and the trained mechanics have vanished into the John Galt universe. One of the few diesels still rolling pulls the Taggart Comet. It has broken down, stranding the Comet in the Rocky Mountains.
A coterie of gangsters, stranded by the railroad’s diesel locomotive breakdown, begins to complain, as though the inconvenience stemmed not directly from their own sustained depredation on the economy and circumvention of the law but originated rather from mysterious external powers. The chief miscreant, Kip Chalmers, has come from the gang’s Washington headquarters to take over a satrapy in California. Like all the other criminal types in Atlas, Chalmers talks as though his libido were a divinity, demanding instantaneous appeasement on every occasion. With the diesel out of commission, however, and with only a coal-fired steam locomotive available, the eight-mile-long mountain tunnel stands as an insuperable material obstacle between Chalmers and his goal. The station supervisors timidly explain this. Chalmers explodes: “Do you think I’ll let your miserable technological problems interfere with crucial social issues? Do you know who I am? Tell that engineer to start moving if he values his job.”
Competent personnel have long since severed links with the Taggart Transcontinental; those still on the job are the ones who have, in Rand’s recurrent, pejorative phrase, adapted themselves to the prevailing conditions. None wants to thwart Chalmers because to do so would put oneself at risk of becoming a “scapegoat.” They conform to the novel’s ambient, semi-voluntary, self-abnegating trope of unanimity under coercion. The Comet, coupled behind an old-fashioned coal-burner in defiance of the safety rules, chugs towards the tunnel.
It is worth noting that in his study of The Ayn Rand Cult (1999), Jeff Walker offers an amusing tally of recurring items in the Atlas vocabulary. Writes Walker: “Destroy or destruction occurs 278 times,” “evil… is deployed a staggering 220 times,” and “the evil of sacrifice or [of the] sacrificial requires 135 deployments.” So it goes. Although Rand repeatedly denounces sacrifice, her narrative approach is distinctly sacrificial. Moreover, Rand’s sacrificial imagination tends to betray itself through stylistic discrepancies. This proves to be the case with the tunnel disaster. Rand always editorializes, but she rarely editorializes in such a way as to arrest the action of story or to jolt readers out of their suspended disbelief. Something important must be at stake to compel Rand to insert the authorial passage that interposes just before the Comet, flaring and smoking, enters the lethal bore: “It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.” They are indeed not guilty – not guilty, that is, by the legally normative standard of justice that Rand putatively upholds in Atlas Shrugged and which she accuses her antagonists in the novel’s grand conflict of repeatedly and egregiously violating. Just as Rearden is guilty of no particular demonstrable moral or legal infraction at his trial, except his competence, so are the passengers on the Comet – excluding, let us say, Kip Chalmers and his retinue – not guilty de jure of any proven legal transgression, as none has enjoyed due process.
Who are the unnamed “those” in Rand’s sentence who “would have said,” absent a hearing by the rules, that, no legitimate sentence could in the moment attach to the fated ones? We can name them as any readers who at this point in the narrative might feel uneasy about what Rand proposes momentarily to execute in her role as omni-competent author-creator of the story, she who makes things happen. Note how the verbal construction, “happened,” affects the sentence, making it seem as though the event could boast of no agent; that rhetorical gesture dissimulates a great deal because there are no accidents in novels. Primarily it would dissimulate the author herself, were she not, in the writing of the utterance, betraying her manipulative and determining presence. The luckless ones must be made out as guilty. Rand must demonstrate that the random passengers have sinned sufficiently to substitute for the known “looters.”
Thus “the man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, and that an individual conscience is a useless luxury.” Thus “the woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly school-teacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless school-children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil.” Thus “the man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap plays in which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.” So it goes for sixteen instances – car by car, and over a thousand words – before, in the Dantesque circumstance of the Objectivist contrapasso, every Jack and Jane of the mean-spirited wretches painfully asphyxiates. Just to make sure that the punishment fits the crime, Rand has an Army munitions train enter the tunnel at high speed from the opposite end. The resulting detonation buries the disaster under a mountainous tomb.
A passage from her recently published Journals suggests that Rand must have had actual people in mind as models of those who die, with time enough to feel the pain of their excruciating deaths. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in November 1947 on Communists in the film industry, Rand called attention to William Wyler’s film The Best Years of our Lives, for which screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood had earned Film Academy accolades in the previous year. Rand had hovered in and around Hollywood for two decades but she had never achieved a major screen-credit; she remained a dialogue writer on other people’s scripts. When she delivered a full script, for The Fountainhead, it would be her swansong in the industry.
In Sherwood’s script for The Best years, as Rand remarks, “a returning war hero is denied a seat on a plane, to make room for an offensive businessman who is obviously rich.” Later, the same hero “takes a job in a drugstore owned by a national chain, where he is treated unfairly, offensively and antagonistically.” Finally, “the picture denounces a banker for being unwilling to give a veteran a loan without collateral, a refusal which is treated as though it were an act of greedy selfishness.” Rand characterizes the last as “the all-time low in irresponsible demagoguery on the screen.”
Aficionados of The Orthosphere would probably react to those scenes in Wyler’s film quite as Rand did, but that is beside the point. It seems quite likely that Rand was thinking of Sherwood himself when she sent the adenoidal, second-rate playwright to his death in the tunnel. The parallelism leads us to suspect that, in the tunnel episode, Rand composes a cataclysme à clef, doing away with personal bêtes-noir in thin fictional disguises. And what then does Atlas become but a grand fantasy of godlike revenge, a theater of resentment assuaged, and a daydream of limitless, homicidal ego? In Part I of the novel Hank Rearden says to Dagny Taggart, when they have concluded a contract by which the former will supply Rearden-Metal rails for the John Galt Line, that: “We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.” In the morally inverted context of Rand’s universe, the denial of a spiritual component functions as the equivalent of a claim to godhead. It is the “looters” who ceaselessly invoke “the spirit.” They nevertheless get interred under a rocky collapse while the materialists fling aside mountains with their rails of super-alloy.
That Taggart femme, Rearden, d’Anconia, and Galt all qualify as Promethean supermen à la the vulgate of Nietzsche we can hardly doubt. The young Rand confessed herself a Nietzschean, although later she elided the enthusiasm and denounced the author of Zarathustra. When the remaining gangsters torture Galt to force him to tell them what to do in order that they might save themselves late in Part III, they treat him as though he were a supernatural being. Rand describes the tortured Galt in words suggesting an Adonis-Redeemer on the wheel. When the electroshock device fails, he calmly instructs his tormenter how to repair it.
Rand could see that Left-Liberal envy falsely attributed to the business class – or to anyone with one dollar more in his account than someone else – a supernaturally scandalous blocking-power. Rand could not see, however, that she endowed the Left-Wing carpers of the Twentieth Century with precisely the same inflated status that they perceived in all their rivals and enemies; that they, the Left, had become for her what the reviled “bourgeoisie” was for them. In their absolute magnification, righteous ego and despicable alter achieve sublime proportion but lose their distinctness in a kind of cosmic anxiety. The critic Eric Gans means just this when he refers, in his Signs of Paradox (1996), to “the descent of the absolute into the empirical world” as its “undoing.” René Girard means just this when he speaks about the overcoming of Promethean desire as the real novelistic achievement.
If, artistically speaking, Atlas Shrugged were merely an effective rather than a genuinely literary novel, one would still need to remark that it remains enormously popular more fifty years after its publication. Few books stay continuously in print that long. It is also the case that despite her uncompromising rejection of them, some conservatives still try to find a place for Rand in their pantheons or make excuses for her, one way or another. A wag once said that Atlas Shrugged is the only book of fiction guaranteed to have been read by the clientele of the Young Republicans – a not implausible statement. It is also often the only novel – or even the only book – to have been read by the hygienically challenged sophomore who shows up, glowering, in one’s Survey of Literature, whose semi-literate mid-term essay denounces everything except its writer’s own savage conviction. All of which suggests that at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, it is the universal vulgarization more than the universal politicization of culture that poses the genuine moral problem of the age. Ayn Rand’s authorship constitutes both an early symptom of, and a major influence on, that degenerative trend.