Atlas Shrugged: In Medias Res

Atlas Shrugged, p. 11-19

The book begins with Eddie Willers, who isn’t actually one of the protagonists, walking through the streets of New York City. He gives a dime to a homeless man who asks him the mysterious question “Who is John Galt?”, noting all the while that the city is dying:

The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories.

Eddie, poor, tragic Eddie, works for the railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, and he’s returning to tell his boss, the company president James Taggart, that there’s been another train wreck on the Rio Norte Line. James Taggart is shifty and evasive and refuses to take any action to remedy the disaster, and seems unconcerned so long as he isn’t the one who gets the blame:

“It’s touching, Eddie,” he said. “It’s touching – your devotion to Taggart Transcontinental. If you don’t look out, you’ll turn into one of those real feudal serfs.”

“That’s what I am, Jim.”

As Eddie leaves the office in defeat, he exchanges a few words with one of the company clerks, Pop Harper, whose typewriter is broken and can’t get a new one. Pop also laments the constant drumbeat of bad news: subway accidents, bridges closing for repairs, stores going bankrupt and closing down everywhere. “It’s no use, Eddie,” he says.

So, the book begins with little background or exposition, with the plot already underway. Society is collapsing, the world is disintegrating and decaying, and the evil socialists have all but taken over. There’s nothing wrong with that, as such – in medias res is a fine technique of classical storytelling. But when you use it, you’re supposed to go back at some point and fill in the details, explain what events led up to that pass. And Rand never does.

We’re told right away that capitalism is dying a slow death in this world, but why? Rand’s characters, like Eddie and later on Dagny and Hank, don’t seem to know. But more importantly, Rand herself doesn’t seem to know either. She treats the decline of society as if it were a slow-spreading sickness, or a machine wearing out over time: something that happens on its own, requiring no outside factors to explain it. (We find out over the course of the book that it’s not just America, that every country in the world is becoming a communistic “People’s State” all at the same time.)

But as Rand herself was the first to insist, everything that happens, happens for reasons. Society grows and evolves as it does because of the actions of people. There’s no such thing as “the public”, in the sense of an amorphous, unconscious mass making decisions that aren’t traceable to any specific individuals. And clearly, this world was once in favor of capitalism. Its great skyscrapers and lavish corporate headquarters testify to that. What events changed that? What happened that caused people to no longer hold capitalism and free enterprise in the esteem they once did?

When it’s phrased this way, you can begin to see how this could be a dangerous question for Rand to answer, or even to contemplate. It may be no coincidence that she doesn’t return to it. But, rest assured, I intend to.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • DR

    Rand would have a simple answer to your question: In her world view, the product of an education in the merchant elite under Tsarist Russia, the vast majority of the people are worthless, mindless animals, who can only achieve anything under the firm hand of the very small group of “real humans” that exist in the world. She is an Uebermensch, and the working classes are nothing but Untermenschen. And it’s because they are so morally inept, so incapable of real humanity, that given half a chance, they will naturally prefer indolence and demand socialism.
    There really no mystery there. Rand is nothing but an old school monarchist in anarchist clothing.

  • Bdole

    “the evil socialists have all but taken over. There’s nothing wrong with that, as such ”
    Ha!

  • Jeff

    I always considered Eddie Willers to be her intended reader-insertion character. He’s thoroughly average, but possesses the qualities Rand considered positive while lacking the negative ones. He’s also not one of the fabulously wealthy capitalists, which makes him much more relatable. He’s just an average joe who wants to work a steady job and do the best he can at it; because it’s his job, and because he understands that by doing his small part, he improves things for everybody. Unfortunately for me, that interpretation of the character made me really angry at what she ultimately had in store for him. Spoilers ahead! (Not that I suspect anyone will be too angry if I spoil anything in this book)

    So all the rich capitalists got to run off to their little self-made paradise and hide out while everyone freezes and starves, but hard-working, loyal Eddie Willers got left out in the cold like everyone else. What did he do wrong? As far as I could tell, he was concerned enough about the well-being of others that he stuck behind in the real world to help keep things together while all the capitalists ran and hid. For not being self-centered enough to run off when he had the chance, he got stranded in the middle of nowhere with a broken-down train.

  • Randy Robbins

    I want to thank you for reviewing this controversial classic novel. Mainly because so many would not be willing to read it themselves. But, doing it so gradually, isn’t it going to take years?

  • http://losthunderlads.com acilius

    “[I]n medias res is a fine technique of classical storytelling. But when you use it, you’re supposed to go back at some point and fill in the details, explain what events led up to that pass.” Sometimes you are, sometimes not. Homer never goes back in the Iliad to recap the first nine and a half years of the Trojan War. As for Ayn Rand, I certainly must give you points for originality. I have never known anyone to wish that there were more explaining in her novels.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com The Letter D

    Wait a second. OK, so we’re in agreement that in media res is an acceptable way to start stories. That’s cool. But Rand does go and explain how things got this way. It has to do with the relationship between minions and overlords, and it might not be explicated explicitly on the pages of Atlas Shrugged, but then I’ve also got Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and that really had a stranglehold on me until I was like 22 or 25 or so. It’s terrible, and awful, and I hate it, but it makes a kind of sense – I used to be a die-hard Objectivist, as I think you remember, and would have taken Roark’s place in the quarry, or Dagny’s place beneath him for that matter – it’s just that that kind of sense is bad.

    Still, I think you’re getting cocky, even from the outset. If you have a blow-by-blow takedown of Rand’s philosophy at every step of the way, well, you’ve a right to be so confident. But… the naturalistic fallacy aside, she has a real knock-down argument from consequences which (to my mind) demolishes the tone of the tack you’re taking with this post. But then, I was a full-fledged Objectivist back in my teen-to-drinking-age years, so maybe it’s just my personal investment talking here.

    Hmm… I kinda wanna play Devil’s Advocate to you here. And I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged in a while. But Wyatt’s Torch is kind of a huge thing to me, in terms of philosophical integration and all that.

    (Full disclosure: the last time I read about Wyatt’s Torch and the tunnel, I had a distinct feeling of “Hell yeah!” But that was more than five years ago. This time… I don’t know what to expect, because it’s been years.)

    I mean, I don’t wanna be pushy or anything, and I also have other things in my life to do… I guess I’m just asking, “You game?” :) I’ll read her first chapter on the principle of charity, and see if I now draw the same impression as you – I just think that this book might be an interesting dialogue between the two of us. This could be fun. :]

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    @DR: Rand denounced both anarchism and monarchism (though subconscious impulses are up for interpretation, obviously). Her view, as you note, appears to be a twisted read of Nietzsche, so both the anarchists (who in Russia were violent anti-capitalists) and monarchists (who kept down upstart “real man” Ubermensches to safeguard their power) would be anathema to her. Rand was very clear on the need for a government, albeit limited to providing courts, a military and police (to keep down the collectivist rabble, no doubt) and denounced the libertarians who took similar ideas to anarchist directions in the 1960s-’70s (along with libertarianism in general, as she felt it was a ripoff of her Objectivist philosophy which had “the teeth pulled out”). She was big on denouncing and purging heretics, which many of her own close followers suffered.

  • Azkyroth

    But… the naturalistic fallacy aside, she has a real knock-down argument from consequences which (to my mind) demolishes the tone of the tack you’re taking with this post.

    Wouldn’t that require the consequences to actually follow?

  • Nonnie

    @ Jeff, I remember relating to Eddie the most when I read it, and it made me angry too, but for a different reason. It seemed like the best thing he could do was to devote himself to serving the more able hero-characters, like he could never be the main character of his own life. I liked my smart and confident friends well enough, but I didn’t want to spend my life as a servant in their big grand hero quests (thought I actually considered it!)

    Wow, these posts are really making me think about what a relief it is not to be an objectivist (or a teenager without my own firm sense of ethics).

  • Adam Lee

    @DR:

    In her world view, the product of an education in the merchant elite under Tsarist Russia, the vast majority of the people are worthless, mindless animals, who can only achieve anything under the firm hand of the very small group of “real humans” that exist in the world.

    Well, sure. But the capitalists once had the upper hand in Rand’s world, so how did they lose it? How did her heroic, infallible superhumans end up ceding their power to a bunch of lazy, irrational looters? That’s a question she never really attempts to answer.

    @Randy Robbins:

    I want to thank you for reviewing this controversial classic novel. Mainly because so many would not be willing to read it themselves. But, doing it so gradually, isn’t it going to take years?

    It could well take a year or two, yes. That’s OK, I knew this was going to be a big project when I started out. I do plan to skip some of the repetitive subplots and long monologues, which will speed it up a little.

    @acilius:

    As for Ayn Rand, I certainly must give you points for originality. I have never known anyone to wish that there were more explaining in her novels.

    Ha! But she could easily have cut some of the redundant parts (like the lots of little digressive subplots that just replay the same themes as the main plot without really affecting it) and shortened the novel by half or more. That would have left a lot of room for the additional exposition that would have made this story more plausible, though maybe plausibility wasn’t her main goal.

    @The Letter D:

    But Rand does go and explain how things got this way. It has to do with the relationship between minions and overlords, and it might not be explicated explicitly on the pages of Atlas Shrugged, but then I’ve also got Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and that really had a stranglehold on me until I was like 22 or 25 or so.

    I’m sorry, I think you lost me there. Are you saying that the Randian theory of how the socialists beat the capitalists is laid out by another author in a different book? I don’t think that really counts, if so.

    I’m not saying that it’s impossible for an Objectivist to devise an explanation of how this situation could have come to pass. I’m sure there are multiple possible explanations. What I’m saying is that it’s pretty hard to devise an explanation of how this could have happened without some capitalists doing something to make them lose favor in the public’s eyes, something that would have given the bad guys at least a pretext to seize power. But Rand has to make her protagonists utterly blameless for story purposes, which is why I think she just glosses over this backstory altogether.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/ Russell Glasser

    Hi Adam, just discovering your blog for the first time after being introduced to you at the AA convention. And what do you know, your last post was on one of my favorite subjects, namely making a mockery of Ayn Rand. May I ask, is this your first time reading Atlas Shrugged? Or are you a glutton for punishment?

  • cipher

    Adam, you may be interested in this C-Span interview with Nathaniel Branden, who was one of Rand’s closest disciples but who fell out of favor. It was recorded in 1989 after Branden’s memoir, “Judgment Day”, was published: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/8219-1

  • Jeff

    @ The Letter D:

    Ugh, I forgot all about stupid Wyatt’s Torch. And Francisco’s little prank with the copper ore. I know the understanding of global resources was not where it is now at the time the book was written, but still:

    There’s only so much oil in the planet. There’s only so much copper, and iron, and everything else. And her “heroes” gleefully set their supplies on fire or sink them to the bottom of the ocean to apparently teach us all a lesson. Ayn Rand apparently glorifies environmentally-destructive trolling, because it’s the troll’s right to do so; if you don’t like it, well, go find your own deposits of natural resources and do better with those.

    … Since I’m on the subject, one of my biggest objections to the book was the cavalier attitude she had about these sorts of things. Not just the “I dug it out of the earth so it belongs to me, to do with as I see fit” attitude of the various protagonists, but the implication that there’s always going to be more of everything for future generations. Don’t worry about the oil fields burning, just go find more oil! Don’t try to fix a system you consider broken, just move somewhere uninhabited and start your own system! After a certain point, there are no more deposits to exploit, and there are no uninhabited areas to retreat to. And once that happens, the possibility of equality is gone until society can restructure itself to accommodate all the new humans who are automatically at a disadvantage because they were born long after the capitalists get their first (and second, third, and fourth) dibs on what’s here. Even if supplies were literally unlimited, there would still be an unfair advantage given to the people who had access to those supplies first.

  • Elizabeth

    I never went through a “Rand” phase when I was younger, so I never studied her or her philosophies in depth.
    I’m curious about one thing though – didn’t she write this when the US was at its peak of productiveness? Post-WWII, I mean – wasn’t it all about industry and “a better future through chemistry” and all that stuff? It seems right up her alley. Not the situation with socialist looters and all that. What am I missing about the time period?
    BTW – I got through part I this weekend, which ends with Dagny’s search for the elusive engineer…

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    @Adam:

    “Well, sure. But the capitalists once had the upper hand in Rand’s world, so how did they lose it? How did her heroic, infallible superhumans end up ceding their power to a bunch of lazy, irrational looters? That’s a question she never really attempts to answer.”

    It’s the same problem with any “we’re the natural ruling class, but those parasites took us down” theory, like antisemitism. If they were really the natural ruling class the supposed parasites shouldn’t have been capable to begin with. If they do, well, isn’t that just a Social Darwinist kind of “natural selection” at work?

    @Elizabeth:
    “I’m curious about one thing though – didn’t she write this when the US was at its peak of productiveness? Post-WWII, I mean – wasn’t it all about industry and “a better future through chemistry” and all that stuff? It seems right up her alley. Not the situation with socialist looters and all that. What am I missing about the time period?”

    I think she was writing against the New Deal. That was in the recent past at the time, and widely loathed by conservatives and libertarians even now. At the time, it was pretty intense.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What happened that caused people to no longer hold capitalism and free enterprise in the esteem they once did?

    They learned that pure capitalism means six-year-olds working in coal mines.

  • Adam Lee

    Come on, Reginald, be fair. That’s a complete distortion of Rand’s viewpoint: she says that twelve-year-olds should work in coal mines.* Totally different.

    * Yes, really. We’ll get to that later in the book.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    How did her heroic, infallible superhumans end up ceding their power to a bunch of lazy, irrational looters?

    -Envy among the majority?

  • Simon Regan

    The question of the actual origin of evil in the Atlas Shruggedverse (and thus the Objectivist view of reality) is actually fairly tricky, especially given the Objectivist view of evil as in itself unsustainable. You can certainly argue that the decline we see in the ASverse’s USA is directly caused by Galt choosing to ‘stop the motor of the world’ by convincing all the exceptional individuals to give up bearing the burden of everyone else. But Galt started his campaign as a result of the same trend we see happening throughout the book – the slide into corporativist collectivism of the Twentieth Century Motor Company – and Galt’s speech explicitly spells out that once begun socialism must spread – it can’t squat on one group of cash cows and sustain itself as it inherently kills its victims, or at least their desire to produce.

    The Speech spells out Rand’s theory that individualism and collectivism has gone in cycles, with ‘faith and force’ ruling when the men of the mind withdraw their sanction, but this still doesn’t explain why the tendency towards force and coercion builds up. A quote from the Speech: “it is not man who is now on trial and it is not human nature that will take the blame”. But if man does not have a tendency to evil, why does he as a species repeatedly turn to evil, unless there is some sinister inhuman force manipulating individual humans? Indeed, that seems to be the way the Speech is going, with numerous teased mentions of ‘your teachers’, but then this abruptly gutters out and this archvillain class is instead replaced by the ‘moral elite’, who are identified as the poor.

    ‘Your teachers’ are just dismissed as other schmucks who don’t get freedom. Which leaves us with the idea that the overwhelming, mind corrupting, evil-as-a-cosmic-principle contagion of the ASverse is just regular people making mistakes in judgement and those snowballing across communities. Even then, doesn’t that tendency to think and act with the herd (and indeed, the basic lack of talent that makes him helpless without the largesse of the man-qua-Rand) constitute a flaw in man’s nature that would put him ‘on trial’?

    One of the strangest things about Atlas Shrugged is what it doesn’t mention – Russia does not appear at all in Atlas Shrugged, even in passing as a comical People’s State. When ‘your teachers’ could easily have been revealed as a conspiratorial network of Bolsheviks deliberately preaching socialism, this is a baffling omission. I’m not sure whether this represents a conviction that applied communism would inevitably cripple the Soviet Union and render it harmless (a rather odd idea given Rand’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee), or that Rand disliked the notion of presenting Russian immigrants as sinister, disloyal Fifth Columnists.


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