The victory over desire is extremely painful. Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being. One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.” The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē. But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride. (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing. As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself. When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema. (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)
I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account. He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her. He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.” Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed… He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth. Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.” Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.” Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.” In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.” Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –
Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead. I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice. It is true that this is partly her own fault. The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision. It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe… But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged. Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.
In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.” Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.” Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism. No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry. Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy. Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism. The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.
Wilson goes on to say that Rand’s epos inspired him with a double response. As Wilson had “always detested the ‘fallacy of insignificance’ in modern literature, the cult of smallness and meanness, the atmosphere of defeat that broods over the twentieth-century novel,” he “was delighted by the sheer health of Ayn Rand’s view.” He can even understand, he writes, what Rand means when she extols that virtue of selfishness for which so many applaud or revile her, depending on their perspective: “Selfishness has always been man’s vital principle – not in the sense of… indifference to other people but in the sense of intelligent self-interest.” Yet while Rand might lay claim to “a considerable intellect… it is… narrow and incurious” so that, “having established to her own satisfaction that all that is wrong with the world is lack of faith in reason and its muddled ideas on self-interest and altruism, she seems to take no further interest in the history of ideas.” In a sentence that has considerable resonance with the two elements of my epigraph (Girard and Gans), Wilson makes this pronouncement on the story of Galt’s strike against a corrupt world: “Collectivism has been established as the scapegoat that explains the decadence of our civilization” and having found her miscreant, “rather as Hitler found the Jews,” Rand “then begins her crusade.”
Wilson’s encounter with Rand evoked a sequel, equally telling. Convinced that his own critique of “the fallacy of insignificance” – in books like The Outsider (1956) and Religion and the Rebel (1957) – had points in common with Rand’s “Objectivism,” Wilson wrote to her, outlining the similarities as he saw them, with the hope of opening communications. No reply came from Rand. Instead, Rand’s then chief acolyte Nathaniel Branden wrote him, enclosing a copy of his book on Objectivism: “It is possible that you do not realize the singular inappropriateness of your letter to the author of Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps my book will give you a new perspective on the full context in which your letter was received and appraised – and might suggest to you a new approach.” Wilson had mentioned in his letter his initial dislike of Rand’s work, his change of mind, and his intention to devote an essay to Atlas. He then cites the final sentence from Branden’s reply: “Miss Rand would be very pleased to hear of your interest in her work – when and if you correct your offense against it in the same terms that the offense was committed.” As Wilson writes, “I was somewhat staggered by this messianic tone.” But the “messianic tone” operates everywhere in Rand. So too does a naïve attitude towards history and philosophy that at times can only be described as sophomoric. Consider the following excessively rhetorical question cum asseveration from Rand’s Introduction to a paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three:
Have you ever wondered what they felt, those first men of the Renaissance, when – emerging from the long nightmare of the Middle Ages, having seen nothing but the deformed monstrosities and gargoyles of medieval art as the only reflection of man’s soul – they took a new, free, unobstructed look at the world and rediscovered the statues of the Greek gods, forgotten under the piles of rubble?
Where to begin sounding the seismic fissures in Rand’s Weltanschauung, as revealed in the mass of errors assumed by this verbal tit-bit? Rand styled herself, from the beginning of her notoriety, as an individualist and as an opponent of étatisme; but étatisme begins in the Renaissance, with a theoretical justification in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince, at the moment when she claims that the post-classical “nightmare” ended. Gargoyles are part of the Gothic sculptural repertory and have a specific meaning in context, but so are radiant saints and Holy Mothers – often in the medium of translucent glass; so too are the burgesses of the cathedral-towns, the merchant class, on whose willing largesse the great lady-churches rose. The cathedral itself represents an engineering marvel unequaled until the Twentieth Century, but Rand, whose architect-hero in The Fountainhead wants to build a mile-high tower, sees only those objectionable imps and devils. The Middle Ages (so-called), having granted European mankind a remarkably stable and prosperous era, gave way, in fact, to the bellicose convulsions of the Reformation, culminating in the bloody spasm of the Thirty Years War. “Middle Ages,” a coinage of Eighteenth Century philosophes, is as prejudicial a term as is “capitalism,” a coinage of Nineteenth Century socialists, which Rand also adopts ubiquitously in her prose, both narrative and expository. Hence the melodramatic title of one of her essay-collections, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
There is a moment, in Atlas, relevant to the foregoing, when Rearden, having just subverted the kangaroo court designed to make an expropriation of his factory look legal, discovers himself to be the object of blackmail to the same end perpetrated by the repellent Floyd Ferris of the fraudulent “National Science Institute.” The blackmailer threatens to make public Rearden’s affair with Taggart soeur. Because Rearden does not want Dagny to become a victim of Ferris’ machinations, he decides to sign over the patent for his miracle alloy (“Rearden Metal”) to the government gang. Numb from fighting what he now understands to have been all along a hopeless action against the “looters,” Rearden imagines, as Rand puts it, “a long line of men [who] stretched through the centuries from Plato onward, whose heir and final product was an incompetent little professor with the appearance of a gigolo and the soul of a thug.” She means Ferris, who however is now tied to his looming precursor, the student of Socrates and the author of The Republic, Phaedrus, Symposium, and the others. A specter haunts Atlas Shrugged.
The passage is odd, not least in its specificity, since Rearden, although educated and intelligent, nowhere else in the novel demonstrates any particular knowledge about the philosophical tradition or the history of ideas: to the contrary, he has to be educated in logic, ethics, and epistemology by Francisco d’Anconia; nor, elsewhere, does Rand mention any other figure in philosophy, except for the fictional Hugh Akston, who substitutes for Rand herself as the exponent of Objectivism. Shortly after Rearden experiences this curiously definite vision, he emerges from reverie to hear Ferris finish up his threatening speech with a naked admission: “We’re after power and we mean to get it.” Rearden suddenly grasps that Ferris and his gang require what they so volubly despise and condemn, the virtues namely of industry and productivity, and that his years of concession to their parasitism constitute a moral lapse on his own part. In specifying Plato as the source of the collectivist debacle that Atlas describes, in singling him out as the origin of all that distorts the mob-ridden contemporary world, Rand invokes her own prescient version of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that figures in recent Left-Liberal rhetoric. A type of sortilege has taken place: in naming the name Rand has put responsibility where, as she sees things, it properly belongs. Those who know Rand’s work can reproduce her argument: Plato, the grandfather of collectivist resentment, falsely divides the world into the realm of becoming and the realm of being (of matter and spirit) and he stigmatizes the former as a mere pale copy of the latter.
In so doing, Plato glorifies non-productive contemplation and rancorous dialectic at the expense of the pragmatic men, the entrepreneurs and investors – at whom the intelligentsia sneers as being inferior to them, but on whom they absolutely depend for their security, leisure, and well-being. As the Taggart in the white hat tells Rearden, the “mystics” have always preached that, “the inferior animals who’re able to produce should serve those superior beings whose superiority in the spirit consists of incompetence in the flesh.” The millennial queue of reality-deniers descending out of the past and stultifying the present finds its contrast, in Atlas, in another linear image, that of railroad tracks on a straightaway reaching to the distant vanishing point whose instrumental abolition the rails portend. Heroic materialism conquers time and space. Rearden and the female Taggart explicitly identify their own will with this image near the climax of Part I of Atlas (“Non-Contradiction”) when they ride in the locomotive cabin during the first run on the John Galt Line in Colorado: “She saw that the track was sweeping downward, that the earth flared open, as if the mountains were flung apart – and at the bottom, at the foot of Wyatt Hill, across the dark crack of a canyon, she saw the bridge of Rearden Metal.” The Wyatt oil fields, which the line serves, will become, as the pair hope, “the capital of… the Second Renaissance… of oil derricks, power plants, and motors made of Rearden Metal.”
Like Rand’s characterization of the Gothic Age (that nightmare of gargoyles), her notion of Plato – as the arch-offender against her own matter-oriented Neo-Romanticism – rests on a breath-taking ignorance of what it would dismiss. As acute as Rand’s personifications of militant collectivism and unmitigated power-seeking are (by all means let us accord them their due), they cannot approach in either the power of their insight or the depth of their analysis the diagnosis of the identical socio-pathologies in Plato’s dialogues, where figures like Thrasymachus, Ion, Callicles, and the trio of Socrates’ accusers at his trial embody exactly the kinds of viciousness against which the Atlas-author, to adapt Wilson’s phrase, launches her crusade. Rearden’s trial resembles Socrates’ trial in any number of ways (the mendacity of the accusation, the hostility of the jurors), except that in Rand’s Romantic conceit the hero must – eventually – triumph over his persecutors, just as Rearden and his associates together triumph over the looters in the final, precipitate downfall of the ransacked world. Socrates, too, triumphs, but not pragmatically; only in his metaphysical exemplum does he transcend the condemnation voted by the corrupt assembly and redound forever to their ill repute.
Rand’s metallurgist in fact imitates Socrates when he confounds his accusers by employing the simple expedient of omitting any self-defense. The omission makes it clear that the judicial event is rigged and that the fall guy is being asked to collaborate in his own undoing. He turns the tables on his accusers. The difference is that Rand preserves Rearden so that he (and she, and we) can later gloat. Again, Rand’s misrepresentation of Plato will hardly pass for original; as others have noted, it replicates, without acknowledgment, a similar vehement misrepresentation in Nietzsche’s treatment of both Socratic and Judaeo-Christian morality, the two of which he describes famously in Beyond Good and Evil as kindred versions of a slave-morality. Rand’s term is the sanction of the victim, or “altruism.” Like Nietzsche, Rand conflates the Platonic and Biblical visions. The Athenian looms up in her invocation of him as the scandal, the blocking-agent, preventing by his wretched legacy the realization of a “Second Renaissance” – stymieing, therefore, our redemption from the prevailing Dark Age. The mention of Plato at what amounts to the fulcrum of Rand’s colossal narrative possesses, however, an additional significance: for it has as its context a long sequence, from the beginning of the book until the end, in which the author develops one of the recurring themes that lie at the heart of her pragmatic vision – the theme of sacrifice.
II. 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.” Let us contemplate some instances of the last. In Part I, quite early in the narrative, James Taggart is discussing with Eddie Willers, one of the minor protagonists, the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad’s chief current competition, the Phoenix-Durango Line, which has now “got most of the freight traffic of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.” In particular, due to disrepair on the Taggart Transcontinental, the Phoenix-Durango’s Dan Conway has secured a contract with Ellis Wyatt of Wyatt Oil – the biggest industrialist in the region. These words irritate Taggart. He describes Wyatt to Willers as “a greedy bastard who’s after nothing but money,” a “destructive, unscrupulous ruffian,” and “an irresponsible upstart who’s been grossly overrated.” Taggart asks rhetorically: “What does he expect? That we drop all our other shippers, [and] sacrifice the interests of the whole country to give him our trains?” Willers replies in the negative, adding that Wyatt expects nothing; he merely takes his trade to those who handle it competently. Rand emphasizes from the start the resentfulness in Taggart’s character, by expression of which he compensates rhetorically for his lack of productive ability.
Taggart views existence as a zero-sum game in which wealth can only be redistributed but never increased. The idea of a sacrifice, of excluding one thing for the sake of another, thus comes entirely from Taggart, not from Wyatt. To do business, to make money: this, for Taggart, amounts to – and may be dismissed as – “greed.” Quite apart from the scandalous Wyatt, any competitor can appear to Taggart and his associates as an obstacle to the fulfillment of whatever wish they cherish in a given, disconnected moment. In one of their confabulations, at the end of which they affirm again their principle that “people who are afraid to sacrifice somebody have no business talking about a common purpose,” Taggart rebukes Paul Larkin’s regretful codicil – “I wish we didn’t have to hurt anybody” – with the scornful formula: “That is an anti-social attitude.” Earlier in the same consultation, Taggart has posed in the form of a question that, “when everybody agrees… when people are unanimous, how does one man dare to dissent?” The palaver concludes with a toast on a Marxist theme: “Let’s drink to the sacrifices to historical necessity.” In these bits of conversation and exposition, Rand adds to her usage of the term sacrifice a linkage to the extreme conformism of unanimity; and she makes it clear that, within the mentality indicated by the term, to flout unanimity is necessarily anathema – a case of “anti-social” behavior. Sacrifice of this sort, the annihilation of the one for the well being of the remainder, stems from a distinctly unanimous, or collective, rather than from any individual, type of resentment. The schemers invariably justify their schedule of abandonment and expulsion by invoking an imminent crisis that the victim’s immolation will avert. Even the harassed Conway, whose railroad the gang dissolves in favor of Taggart’s Rio Norte Line, says to Taggart la femme, “I suppose somebody’s got to be sacrificed,” not excepting himself should the lot so fall, for “men have got to get together.”
The Atlas protagonists, by contrast, rebel against the trend, even when they cannot fully articulate their reasons. On the occasion just cited, Miss Taggart objects to Conway: “Nothing can make self-immolation proper… Nothing can make it moral to destroy the best.” In Part II of the novel (“Either-Or”), at Rearden’s trial, the defendant tells his accusers, “If it is now believed that my fellow men may sacrifice me in any manner they please for the sake of whatever they deem to be their own good, if they believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it – well, so does any burglar.” A bit later, in defining the ideal of justice, which the procedure against him so flagrantly violates, Rearden asserts that “no clash of interests” would ever divide “men who do not demand the unearned and who do not practice human sacrifices.” The charges against him qualify, therefore, not as juridical, but as sacrificial in some anthropologically primitive sense. When Rearden declares that, “Were [I] asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who want to survive at the price of my blood… I would reject it as the most contemptible evil,” he earns a round of unexpected applause from part of the gallery. Yet, alongside those who cheer for the ethical principle, he notes “the faces of loose-mouthed young men and maliciously unkempt females, the kind who led the booing in newsreel theaters at any appearance of a businessman on the screen.” Let us record the excessiveness of that adverb, “maliciously.”
Like the naming of Plato, the word betrays a certain authorial gratuity; it finds no natural motivation. A simple “unkempt” would have served. Nevertheless, Rand has discerned something about sacrifice that those who study it among classicists and anthropologists (Girard, Gans, and Walter Burkert) have likewise noticed: that it works most efficiently under dissimulation. The collective murderers would never admit to harming a guiltless party. Rearden’s judges respond to his candid description of what they had planned for him with calming denials: “Why do you speak of human sacrifices?” and “you do not really believe – nor does the public – that we wish to treat you as a sacrificial victim.” In private, however, the gang-leaders willingly allow how “sacrifice is the cement which unites human bricks into the great edifice of society.” Here the perspicacious reader will see a resemblance to the public pillorying – as in the regular “two-minute hate” – in Orwell’s 1984. The same reader might also think of the 1930s show-trials under Stalin, when one purported high-level saboteur after another was offered up in public to Marxism-Leninism. Readers of Atlas need to remember that Rand has not conjured her scenario entirely out of thin air, but that she draws on her knowledge, some of it based on first-hand experience, of the totalitarian states that bestrode the world in the Twentieth Century. The sacrificial character of the National Socialist Holocaust is self-evident; if the sacrificial character of the Soviet atrocities were less so, it should not be. Rand came to the United States as an escapee from Lenin’s Russia.
It is the presence in Atlas of these genuine, if not terribly original, insights that obscures something else. It is that something else that motivates the declaration that Rand’s magnum opus is “morally incoherent,” as an earlier paragraph held Consider again that excessive adverb in Rand’s sketch of Rearden’s public detractors. The superfluous “maliciously” belongs to another strand in Rand’s grand narrative that twines about her plausible analysis of the “mob” or “looter” psychology as essentially collective in its nature and based on a need for victims. In her comments on fiction generally and on her own work, Rand made much of authorial omniscience, of the artist as the creator of every detail of an imaginary universe. She makes the background, she moves the characters this way or that and puts the words in their mouths; they are glorious or repellent according to her plan. And why not! If a narrative were to be effective, the author would need to take care that the protagonists and antagonists contrast sharply; that the conflict in which they collide reflects such a sharply drawn difference of motive and justification. A story without catharsis is hardly a story at all.
To begin ratcheting up reader outrage, Rand has the threat to Rearden come in part from his own family. Thus wife Lillian will eventually sum herself up in the resentful formula, “I can’t produce [Henry’s] metal, but I can take it away from him.” In an early parenthesis, Rand admits Lillian’s feminine beauty, only adding that “the eyes were the flaw,” being “neither quite gray nor brown, [but] lifelessly empty of expression.” In another parenthesis, she has Rearden’s mother chide him for his involvement in his business: “You think that if you pay the bills, that’s enough, don’t you? Money! That’s all you know.” Rand describes la mère’s voice on this occasion as “half-spitting, half-begging.” Brother Philip, a whining freeloader, begs money for “The Friends of Global Progress” and claims it to be “a martyr’s task.” The preparation of readerly ire gets under way in earnest, however, in a chapter (“The Non-Commercial”) in Part I devoted to Lillian’s cocktail party on the tenth anniversary of her marriage to Henry. Rand employs a cinematic technique: the authorial eye and ear, like the tracking camera, travel among the partiers registering now this, now that conversation, acquainting the spectators with key individuals among the predators-in-guise-of-saints. Readers should interpret that whatever later befalls these self-sanctifiers, or others like them, stems from their theory of men and the world. Ethos, as Heraclitus said, is fate. Before sampling the scene, I wish to state again that in her divulgence of the “altruist” mentality, Rand seems to me accurately to have gleaned much about late-Twentieth Century Left-Liberal piety – not least its addiction to righteous display and its hypocrisy. But – to use one of her own favorite terms – her narrative builds on a borrowed premise.
The soirée reveals a parliament of scoundrels, a veritable thiasus of those who live like parasites on the lifework of others, and who, at the same time, volubly insult their material benefactors. Comes first Dr. Pritchett, professor of philosophy at the once venerable but now corrupt Patrick Henry College – a nihilist in the style of Jean-Paul Sartre or Jacques Derrida: “Man? What is man? He’s just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur.” According to Pritchett’s wisdom, “Man’s metaphysical pretensions… are preposterous”; a man is “a miserable bit of protoplasm, full of ugly little concepts and mean little emotions – and it imagines itself important!” In the professor’s opinion, “reason… is the most naïve of all superstitions” and contradictions that bedevil said superstition in fact resolve themselves a priori in a Platonic “higher philosophical sense.” Later in the evening, he argues how “nothing is anything.” His precursor on the faculty, Hugh Akston, taught by contrast how “everything is something.” There comes next Balph Eubank, author of the novel The Heart is a Milkman, who opines: “the literature of the past… was a shallow fraud” which “whitewashed life in order to please the money tycoons whom it served.” Rand unveils the repellent Bertram Scudder “slouched against the bar.” He edits a rag called The Future and makes radio propaganda for the gang on the order of “property rights are a superstition” and “one holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it.” All of Lillian’s guests partake freely in the hors d’oeuvres and drink; they take the largesse for granted, as if it were their due. There comes next Mort Liddy, a so-called composer, who turns on the radio so that everyone can hear a broadcast of his new composition. It turns out to be a jazzed up version of a theme stolen from one of Atlas’ minor protagonists, the real composer Richard Halley. Liddy’s score “was Halley’s melody torn apart, its holes stuffed with hiccoughs.”
The phrase “torn apart” carries an archly sacrificial connotation. Think of King Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. A winter snowstorm closing in, conversation turns to the weather. Looking out on the glowering vista, a woman whom Rand describes as “an elderly spinster with an air of breeding and hopelessness,” remarks how she is “growing to be afraid of the dark.” Rand endows the spinster and her companions with “the same gray look of being spent,” a descriptive gratuity rather like the gallery’s malicious unkemptness or Lillian’s lifelessness. “It feels,” says someone, “like a new Dark Ages.” Later speeches, later acts of mischief, by the “looters” constitute but variations on the basic themes that Rand introduces during the anniversary fête. In Part III when the governmental and economic crisis has just about reached its climax – the railroads have all but ceased to exist, industry is ruined, crops have either failed or the harvest has rotted on sidings waiting for non-existent freight-trains to haul it to market – Dagny Taggart tries to survey the sum of disasters. The enormity defies any full assessment, but Rand’s heroine knows the cause:
Did it matter – she thought, looking at the map – which part of the corpse had been consumed by which type of maggot, by those who gorged themselves or by those who gave the food to other maggots? So long as living flesh was prey to be devoured, did it matter whose stomachs it had gone to fill? … There was no way to tell which acts of plunder had been prompted by the charity-lust of the Lawsons and which by the gluttony of Cuffy Meigs – no way to tell which communities had been immolated to feed another community one week closer to starvation and which to provide yachts for the pull-peddlers. […] There wasn’t even any way to tell who were the cannibals and who were the victims.
The logic of the sacrificial theory of life is the devolution of everything into a vast crisis where “cannibal” and “victim” become indistinguishable. “Men had been pushed into a pit where, shouting that man is his brother’s keeper, each was devouring his neighbor and was being devoured by his neighbor’s brother, each was proclaiming the righteousness of the unearned and wondering who was stripping the skin off his back, each was devouring himself, while screaming in terror that some unknowable evil was destroying the earth.” So might it actually be. Had there been no alternative to a National Socialist Europe or to a Marxist-Leninist Northern Hemisphere, would the result not eventually have been the same? The question is, grace à Dieu, speculative but the plausible answer seems, yes. The famine in Ukraine and the perennial corn-shortages all across the Republics would certainly have become universal had not American wheat eventually flowed into a Soviet Union incapable of feeding itself. Why then do I say that Rand has built her drama on a borrowed premise? What is that borrowed premise?
Both questions solicit the same response; the response concerns the moment of catharsis in Rand’s narrative. Atlas Shrugged is a, 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. Thus 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 – the selfsame protagonists with whom she has been invited her readers to identify. The standard Arnold Schwarzenegger or Clint Eastwood film achieves its effect by no different means. The catharsis in Atlas comes not at the end, however, and not in the form of direct vengeance by the protagonists against the malefactors (on the model of Odysseus against the suitors), 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 calamity in the railway tunnel with the appearance of inevitability, to make it look like the entirely predictable outcome of the nihilism expressed by the “looters” at Lillian’s entertainment and elsewhere. Tom Clancy might well have learned something about the exegesis of catastrophe from Rand’s example; but, as Walker shows, earlier popular literature offers a number of precedents. Near the end of Part II of the novel, the industrial infrastructure of the country and of the Taggart Transcontinental in particular has radically deteriorated. Trains cannot keep schedule; those that do run, run at the whim of gangsters whose principle is that to want is to get. Diesels have all but disappeared. One of the few still rolling pulls the Taggart Comet, once the line’s crack coast-to-coast passenger train; but it has broken down, stranding the Comet in the Rocky Mountains.
III. Immediately, a coterie of gangsters begins to complain, as though the inconvenience stemmed not directly from their own sustained depredation on the economy and circumvention of the law but from inimical 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 gangsters in Atlas he talks as though his libido were a divinity in itself 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 Winston Tunnel stands as an insuperable material obstacle between Chalmers and his goal. The railroad people 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.” Rand adds that Chalmers had learned in college that only by threat might one effectively “impel men into action.” All competent personnel having long since severed links with the Taggart Transcontinental those still on the job are the ones who have, in Rand’s recurrent and pejorative phrase, adapted themselves to the prevailing conditions. None wants to thwart Chalmers because to do so would put one at risk of becoming a “scapegoat.” They conform to the ambient, semi-voluntary, self-abnegating unanimity under coercion. Hitched to a coal-burner the Comet express accelerates towards the tunnel.
In one or two earlier instances these paragraphs have observed how Rand’s sacrificial or holocaustic imagination betrays itself by a stylistic discrepancy. So again it is with the Tunnel incident. 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.” Indeed they are not guilty – by the legally normative standard of justice that Rand putatively upholds in Atlas Shrugged. Just as Rearden is guilty of no demonstrable moral or legal infraction at his trial, except his competence, so are the passengers on the Comet – excluding, let us say, for the sake of ceding as much as possible to Rand, Kip Chalmers and his retinue – not guilty de jure of any proven legal transgression, as none has enjoyed due process. Who are the “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? One could 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 author – as the one who makes things happen. The insupportable inflection “happened” in the sentence, as though the event could boast of no agent, dissimulates a great deal: primarily it would dissimulate the author herself, were she not, in the writing of the utterance, betraying her manipulative and determining presence.
What actually occurs is that the luckless ones must be made to be guilty. Rand must demonstrate that – as comrades in spirit of Pritchett, Eubank, Meigs, Ferris, and the other nefarious types who have already been paraded before us to arouse our irate disapproval – the random passengers have nevertheless sinned sufficiently to substitute for those 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.” And so it goes for sixteen instances – car by car, and well 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 sentence achieves its goal, 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. Remark the adjective “sniveling” in the case of the playwright: another instance of stylistic excess in the prose of an author who rarely loses control of style. Let us note the gauche repetition of the adjective “little” under the same rubric.
A passage from her (heavily edited) 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 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 The Best Years of our Lives, for which screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood had earned Film Academy accolades in the previous year. In Sherwood’s script, 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.”
Informed viewers will react to those scenes in Wyler’s film, incidentally, nearly as Rand does, but that is not the point. It is highly probable that Rand thought 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. And what then does Atlas become but a grand fantasy of personal, godlike revenge, a theater of private resentment assuaged, and a daydream of limitless ego? In Part I of the novel, on the occasion when they have concluded a contract by which the former will supply Rearden-Metal rails for the John Galt Line, Hank Rearden makes the following speech to Dagny Taggart: “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 one can hardly doubt. The young Rand confessed herself a Nietzschean; 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 him then in words suggesting an Adonis-Redeemer on the wheel. When the electroshock device fails, he calmly instructs his tormentor how to repair it. Galt’s aplomb reduces the thuggish ideologues to leering paralysis. Girard has noted, in Deceit Desire and the Novel (1962), that envy or resentment tends to inflate the mediator-rival ad infinitum, quite up to the level of divinity, and that desire tends to inflate the ego similarly. 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. One sees this in operation to this day in the class-baiting rhetoric of the Democratic presidential contenders, as they play, in the primaries, to the hard-core ideological “base” of their party; one sees it in the belated and tiresome radical discourse of the academy. She and we together can see the socially corrosive effects of the long-standing rhetoric of modern resentment.
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. As they constitute one Principle in a Manichaean struggle over the world, so she must constitute the other. In their absolute magnification, righteous ego and despicable alter achieve sublime proportion but lose their distinctness in a kind of cosmic anxiety. Eric Gans means just this when he refers, in Signs of Paradox (1996), to “the descent of the absolute into the empirical world” as its “undoing.” Girard means just this when he speaks about the overcoming of Promethean desire as the real novelistic achievement. Another of Girard’s insights also deserves quotation. Writing of Romantic ego-inflation, Girard argues that, “men who cannot look freedom in the face are exposed to anguish [and] look for a banner on which they can fix their eyes.” For Rand this took the form of an apotheosis of the will, more particularly of her own will. Writing of the modern rejection of religious morality, Girard asserts that “in this dimension pride is no longer seen as man’s natural bent but the highest and most austere of all vocations” until “the thinker sets up for our admiration an ideal of quasi-saintliness well suited to seducing the noblest and strongest minds.” Pride prevents Rand from grasping that Plato, whom she excoriates, stood for the genuine civic order that she would uphold, or that the Bible, in banning covetousness, acknowledges the institution of property that lies at the center of her own explicit ethics, and asks men to overcome envy.
If, artistically speaking, Atlas Shrugged were merely an effective rather than a literary novel, one would necessarily still need to remark that it remains enormously popular sixty years after its publication. Such is the case. It is also the case that, despite her uncompromising rejection of them (she meanly refused to endorse Ronald Reagan in 1980 because he opposed abortion), some conservatives, especially the so-called libertarian conservatives and neo-conservatives, still try to find a place for Rand in their pantheons or an excuse for her. A wag once said that Atlas Shrugged is the only novel that every Republican senator has certainly read. It is also often the only novel – or even the only book – to have been read by the disaffected sophomore who shows up, glowering from the front row, in one’s Survey of Literature, whose semi-literate mid-term essay denounces everything except its writer’s own unique illumination. All of which suggests that in these early decades of the Twenty-First Century, it is the universal vulgarization as much as the universal politicization of culture that poses the genuine moral problem of the age. Rand’s authorship constitutes an early symptom of that defective state.
Eric Gans. Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and other Mimetic Structures. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
René Girard, translated by Y. Freccero. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.
Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. Thirty-fifth anniversary edition, with an Introduction by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Plume, 1999.
———-. Journals of Ayn Rand. Edited by D. Harriman, Forward by L. Peikoff. New York: Dutton, 1997.
———. The Romantic Manifesto. Second Revised edition. New York: Signet, 1975.
Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999.
Colin Wilson. Eagle and Earwig. London: John Baker, 1965.