Atlas Shrugged: Beauty Equals Goodness

Atlas Shrugged, p.33-39

The next character we’re going to meet is Hank Rearden, at work in his steel mills in Pennsylvania. In the name of being fair to Rand, her description of the first pouring of molten Rearden Metal is pretty good:

The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violet red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame… But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it, it fell through twenty feet of space, down into a ladle that held two hundred tons. [p.34]

But, to continue the question I asked last time: How did Dagny know to trust Rearden’s new alloy essentially on sight? I think this section provides the answer to that. Here’s the first description of Rearden; see if you can tell what it is about him that makes him so trustworthy:

The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice – then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair – then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five. [p.34]

Rand says that Rearden had always been told he was ugly, but it’s pretty clear that this is an informed flaw. Given his icy blue eyes, his blond hair, his height, his prominent cheekbones, and the distinguished lines of his face, it’s obvious that he’s meant to be a handsome fellow.

But Rearden isn’t the only hero whose conspicuous Aryanness is emphasized. Flip back a few pages and see how Rand describes poor, tragic Eddie Willers, who’s on the side of the good guys in spite of what ends up happening to him:

Eddie’s eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder. [p.15]

And while Dagny isn’t another Nordic heroine, she’s described quite similarly in her first appearance, as I pointed out earlier:

A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body. [p.20]

Rand, as you can tell, loves to describe her protagonists as if they were roughly chiseled hunks of marble, or people in a Cubist painting – all sharp lines, flat planes and angles. Rereading her description of Dagny, I was reminded of nothing so much as this:

But as geometrically unlikely as these descriptions are, we’re clearly meant to treat the heroes’ sharp, angular faces, square jaws, jutting chins, sensual mouths, and determined eyes as markers of their inherent virtue. Now, by contrast, look at Rand’s first description of the bad guy James Taggart:

He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness… a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled… [p.14]

Later in this chapter, we’re going to meet Hank Rearden’s brother Philip, another villain:

Philip had always been in precarious health, though doctors had found no specific defect in his loose, gangling body. [p.39]

And the piece de resistance is Rearden’s wife Lillian, who’s one of the most despicable looters of them all. Rand starts out writing her as if she were gorgeous, but it’s a head fake:

Lillian Rearden was generally regarded as a beautiful woman. She had a tall, graceful body, the kind that looked well in high-waisted gowns of the Empire style… Her exquisite profile belonged to a cameo of the same period: its pure, proud lines and the lustrous, light brown waves of her hair, worn with classical simplicity, suggested an austere, imperial beauty. But when she turned full face, people experienced a small shock of disappointment. Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. [p.39]


You can tell by the squareness of his chin that he’s a brilliant scientist.

So, in contrast to Rand’s angular protagonists, her villains are pale, round, soft, vague, and droopy. And that, I think, is the answer to how Dagny decided to trust Rearden’s alloy. It’s not just the author-on-board phenomenon, it’s that in Randworld, moral worth is linked to physical attractiveness, and heroes and villains can be recognized and distinguished from each other by sight. If someone has steely good looks, you’d do well to buy what they’re selling, and if someone is bald or has a double chin, you’d better run far away!

Of course, Ayn Rand didn’t invent the concept that good and evil people can be sorted based on appearance. It’s a common, if unfortunate, trope in all kinds of media. But the problem, again, is that Atlas is intended to be a philosophy for readers to apply in their real lives. Tolkien didn’t expect anyone to meet elves or orcs on the street. But this book, whether intentionally or not, does send the message that you can judge someone’s character by the steadiness of their gaze and the firmness of their handshake. Needless to say, this isn’t likely to work out as well in the real world as it does in this book.

Other posts in this series:

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.

  • L.Long

    When I see a very properly dressed good looking person the 1st thought is what is S/He want and what kind of con will they try? Are they armed or how many henchmen are following? And a roman collar makes me doubly suspicious.
    In my readings I find the ugly=evil and pretty=good is a very common thing in pre-1920 writing and is still used today. I think it is a thought processes many people have, family walking down street and an old craggy hunchback comes around the corner and everyone over the age of 5 gets all nervous starts to find escape routes to avoid the ‘evil one’.

  • Entertaining Doubts

    Ironically, the “angular planes” description of the heroes’ features, combined with the imagery of the smelting plant, brought to mind Soviet propaganda posters. Workers Unite!

  • Bob Jase

    From what you’ve quoted so far Rand writes like a talented high-school kid. No wonder that’s where she picks up her followers – kindred spirits in cliche & simplicity.

  • Lagerbaer

    Beauty = good, ugly = evil? So when can we expect Atlas Shrugged – The Disney version?

  • smrnda

    This … is… terrible … writing. Making the ‘good guys’ tall and angular and the ‘bad guys’ round and pudgy is bad writing by the standards of the pulp era. Not only that, but these descriptions are boring to read – it’s clear that appearances are meant to be value judgments, so she should just ditch all this unnecessary verbiage and say

    Person X = good guy = looks good.
    Person Y = bad guy = looks bad.

    That would save us about 800 pages of crap.

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

    Hey, I found a great artist’s representation of Dagny Taggart. http://tombraiders.net/katie/screenshots/tr3/lara1.jpg

  • Bdole

    If someone has steely good looks, you’d do well to buy what they’re selling

    Generally when I see pople of that description I think of the salesman/politician personality trait that SO SO often goes with it. An empty suit trying to sell you something you don’t need and wouldn’t work anyway. This isn’t resentment, it’s experience. The overconfident good-looking alpha-male who talks too fast, uses too many words, and touches you too much (I really am a guy) is generally a con artist because he can get away with crap that a more homely person couldn’t pull off mainly because people do asociate attractiveness with trustworthiness and competence.

    Tolkien’s orcs, goblins, and trolls certainly fill the bill for bad guys looking ugly in the movies. Likewise, the elves, hobbits, and even the dwarves are charming. Wasn’t Golum a hobbit once? Then he became evil…and ugly.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    Tolkien’s orcs, goblins, and trolls certainly fill the bill for bad guys looking ugly in the movies. Likewise, the elves, hobbits, and even the dwarves are charming. Wasn’t Golum a hobbit once? Then he became evil…and ugly.

    Although Gandalf left Frodo a note telling him to look past a person’s exterior so that he’d trust Aragorn. Granted, Aragorn turned out to be handsome anyway, IIRC, even if he was pretty rough- looking when Frodo met him.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I’m not sure if I should comment since I have not read Atlas Shrugged, but from what you’ve quoted here, it seems like Rand is just using a cheap literary device by making good guys handsome and bad guys ugly, and not trying to make a statement about it. Was there anything actually indicating that Dagny trusts the metal based on Rearden’s looks? You wrote previously that she trusted it because she had “seen the formula.”

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    The important difference between Tolkien and Rand in this respect is that Tolkien was writing a fantasy story. Gollum and the Orcs are ugly because they have been twisted by magical forces, by the power of Morgoth and the corrupting influence of the Ring respectively. And even this paradigm isn’t absolute. The elves act very selfishly in places. Saruman cloaks his evil in beauty (the Peter Jackson films don’t convey this well since Saruman is the principal villain for much of the story, and you can only clean up Christopher Lee so much.)
    Rand on the other hand is creating an entirely atheist setting. There is explicitly no physical reason for her heroes to be pretty and her villains ugly, save for the fact that she is a very very bad novelist.

    I like the industry porn though. She has the same love of industrial settings that Tom Clancy brings to his military fiction.

  • Steve Bowen

    If they’re not wearing white stetsons they aren’t the good guys, everyone knows that.

  • Kat

    @Steve Bowen: but doesn’t Chuck Norris wear black? :D

  • smrnda

    I second the industry porn, though she’s a hack, likely since she’s never *worked in industry* and probably never knew anybody who did. It’s no McAndrew’s Hymn by Kipling :-)

  • Adam Lee

    Was there anything actually indicating that Dagny trusts the metal based on Rearden’s looks? You wrote previously that she trusted it because she had “seen the formula.”

    No, I obviously don’t think Rand intended that as an explicit principle. But whether she meant to do it or not, she did in fact write the book in such a way as to strongly imply that physical attractiveness is a way to tell good guys apart from bad guys. You can speculate for yourself on what it might mean that she may have done this unconsciously.

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

    OK, so… been putting this off, but things to say! I will tear them up into bite-sized chunks. I may or may not expand any of these into a post on my own blog, towards “may” if an interesting conversation develops.

    1) On Style: Rand has described her style as “Romantic Realism,” realism because it’s set in the real world (or something meant to be very close to it), romantic because it’s idealized in the sense that things work out the way they’re supposed to (according to Rand, of course). While the execution comes across as shitty (mainly because it’s shitty), what she’s trying to communicate is what she thinks the consequences are for certain types of attitudes and behaviors (it is an Author Tract, after all). This more or less informs everything about the novel, which is what makes it such terrible literature (and why I ate it up as a teenager: because I was always going, “Yes! Yes! That’s how things ought to go!”).

    2) On Looks: If you were to say that a person is good-looking and therefore morally good, you’d be affirming the consequent. In line with Rand’s Romantic Realism, a person isn’t good because of their good looks; you can see this in the way she describes Jim Taggart’s appearance as a kind of “fall from grace.” Rather, there’s a kind of “instant karmic Lamarckism,” whereby a person’s moral character sort of bleeds out and affects their physical looks. This is somewhat realistic, as certain good decisions (healthy diet + decent exercise) will actually positively impact a person’s appearance. But yes, it’s silly for personality to dictate facial features.

    3) On Dagny’s Deal: I find it very hard to believe that a hardworking railroad executive would be able to remember all her metallurgy stuff from school, but whatever. That’s the hard part, to my mind – if Dagny does in fact understand from the specs & tests that Rearden’s new metal is truly the bee’s knees, then it does make sense for her to invest in it. The “experts” are a bunch of waffly toadies with sinecure jobs who don’t want to take the blame for endorsing a product that might possibly fail, so they’re not to be trusted (because the system’s broken). And Rearden is so open with Dagny because they’re close friends, I’m pretty sure.

    4) On the Collapse of Civilization: Waaay back when, you wrote, “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.” Well, it’s called entropy: stuff that’s been built tends to fall apart when nobody maintains it. And what do you know, someone’s been going around and gathering up all the folks who would normally be up to the task. This is why I kind of went off on that first post of yours: the idea that society collapses without the Morally Upright Industrialists to maintain it is the theme and premise of her book. Hell, on the back of my copy, it says in big bold letters at the top, “WHAT MOVES THE WORLD?” Without the Movers, things grind to a halt and fall apart. When stuff needs to be fixed, none of the moochers want to fix it because if they botch the job or it wears out later, they’ll be blamed for it or expected to do even more work, ughhh. So they let it run until it breaks and then look for someone to blame.

    This all ties into the first point, on style: Rand is painting a picture of the world where, not the mere “consequences of actions,” but the logical consequences of the principles behind actions are borne out in the world. (Again, as she sees them, which is the key. The shitty, shitty key. It’s still bad writing and an awful philosophy, but it is intricately constructed and at least consistent.) Over the course of the Galt movement, the world is forced to face what would otherwise be the long-term consequences of the philosophies that drive them in their own lifetimes. Hence stuff like the scene where the coal engine goes into the tunnel, and Rand goes on and on about how every person just sat by and watched as things went to Hell, and thus they all deserve death. Hence a person’s philosophy being borne out in their physique. Hence confidence and competence overcoming the whims of chance.

    By the way, the logical underpinning for things going to Hell in the first place and the Movers having an impetus to Go Galt is the very way that American politics are set up in the first place: politicians keep their jobs not based on how they run “the business of America,” not on any Objective (snicker!) performance rubric, but based on how many votes they can get from the masses. Since the seat of power is held by the winners of what is essentially a popularity contest (instead of a productivity contest, as it “obviously ought to be”), they will obviously appeal to the looters & moochers with their policies, making the world gradually more “exploitative” of (and intolerable to) the Movers. So Galt & Co. have been getting the Movers to withdraw from behind the scenes, and everything’s slowly been winding down ever since.

    This isn’t spoon-fed to the reader, though; you kinda have to put it together like a detective. But the pieces are all there: we see the collapse, we see the Movers abdicating, and we hear a radio rant (and a bunch of other shit) explaining why the shifting political climate made them do what they did (a climate which was able to evolve because the hard line of the Movers was unpopular with the mooching masses). The Peikoff comment was about how you have to go to the “supplementary literature” to get the blow-by-blow argument for why societal collapse is a logically necessary consequence of anything short of All-Out Motherfucking Capitalism Goddammit. Rand, to her credit (I think), just shows it happening – I did the same thing in TQM by just instating a godlike figure that could fix the world, rather than try to give an account of why I think I’m qualified to tell God what to do.

    OK. Phew. I think that’s enough for now? :) Have a great one!

  • MNb

    “steely good looks”
    The thing is that what Rand thinks are good looks is not the same as what I think good looks. Icy blue eyes make me feel uncomfortable. Example:

    http://l.yimg.com/img.tv.yahoo.com/tv/us/img/site/62/98/0000046298_20080205131107.jpg

    the picture at the right. So the stereotype beautiful = good and ugly = evil never has worked for me as zillions of authors intended.
    Rand’s description of Lillian Rearden is ridiculous.

  • MNb

    On Tolkien: Sauron was capable of looking beautiful before his first fall according to On the Rings of Power. Tolkien’s main theme is decline; recovery is only temporary. This is considered the strongest catholic element in his books. So it’s only consistent that in his world everything becomes ugly sooner or later.

  • smrnda

    Another problem with Rand is that she seems to assume people are fixed types – superhuman ‘doers’ and subhuman ‘moochers.’ The problem is that people are always a little bit of both. I’m a hardworking software developer, working on a computer that was assembled by workers in China who are pretty much slaves. So where do I belong? If all those workers *really* went on strike, I’d be screwed, but the difference is that I get pampered in ways they don’t – if they chose to go on strike, they would be forced to work at gunpoint.

    The other thing is that almost everybody has a deluded view of their own importance and competence. Trust me, lots of ‘knowledge workers’ aren’t really different from plumbers or bricklayers or seamstresses in terms of what they bring to the table. I learned this working in the tech industry, where hot-shot kids realize that they’re not such unique geniuses as they thought they were pretty fast, and where they quickly learn that any piece of significantly complicated software is going to be the collective product of many contributors. That’s how the world works – everybody does a part, a part that often seems utterly trivial and irrelevant, but that’s how things really get done.

    The other problem is the belief in ‘moochers’ to begin with. Sorry Rand, most of the poor people who want something delivered to them by politicians are hard-working low-wage workers who are sick of 60 hour weeks and minimum wage with no benefits and working on the holidays. Regrettably, they have the numbers to vote, but not the $$ to buy elected officials. Then, the capitalist ( and the engineers who actually develop things are rarely running anything) argue that the State needs to make labor more ‘efficient.’

    And on inefficiency in business. In any business, it has to be hard for any one person to make a snap decision, because we have to avoid disasters, because if things go bad, lots of people suffer. People are 100% justified in being risk-averse. There’s no way NO F-CKING WAY for people to *know* that Product X is really the greatest thing ever. You need tests, and then you need to see how things play out long term. What happens if there’s a sudden scarcity of some component necessary to make Rearden Metal? If I base my whole business on Metal X, and then component Y turns out to go scarce and expensive, I’ll be wishing I’d stuck with plain old steel.

    Let’s take metal. It’s obvious Rand knows NOTHING about metallurgy. Metals, based on their molecular properties, have theoretical test strengths. However, they’re never really that strong, so that’s why there’s these huge books of current strength tests of metals. A lot can affect the strength of a metal – the conditions under which it’s made, speed of the process, quality of materials put into it (which are going to be variable.) Shit, a metal can end up being weaker because of where you manufacture it. Anybody who thinks you can look at a formula and *know* how strong a metal has has already failed physical chemistry.

    The danger of Rand’s work is that she is pretending to write about a plausible, realistic world, and her assumptions are 100% wrong. “Romantic realism” is nonsense – realism is realism, once you’ve distorted it it’s not realism any more. The world could sustain lots of people ‘going Galt’ since for every Mover who goes Galt, they’ll be 10 people who think the Galtoid is just deluded as to his own self-importance. It’s also the case that we actually need proles to get work done, and the work of proles is rendered invisible so their contribution to civilization can be ignored and dismissed.

    I wish the mass transit workers would go on strike sometimes. If they did, I would be shit out of luck for getting work done, but how long would I have to go on strike to deal the same damage? In the end, I’m privileged, and I’m lucky that working class people are brainwashed to expect so little.

  • Paul S

    Reminds me of a Chick Tract.

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

    “Another problem with Rand is that she seems to assume people are fixed types – superhuman ‘doers’ and subhuman ‘moochers’.” Yes, reality is much more complicated and flexible than this. However, in Rand’s defense – not saying I agree with her, just playing Devil’s Advocate for the moment – it can be argued that only those whose lives are actually characterized by constant upward trajectory can qualify as Movers. Notice that it’s maybe at most a hundred people in Galt’s Gulch, and they’ve been gathered from the whole world (but mostly the USA, it seems… not racist). So almost the entirety of humanity falls well below this gold standard, and this is more or less how Rand sees the world: one person in a million is a genuine Mover, but the Movers are the only ones who are really any kind of worthwhile. Everyone else just needs to fall in behind them or GTFO (and quite frankly, though the exceptional types are extremely helpful, I think we would do just fine without the exceptional types who are also jack-holes).

    As for the parade of regular folk who’ve had one or two shining moments in their lives (rather than living a constant stream of achievement), to them Rand would say, “You should be like that all the time! Why aren’t you? There must be something wrong with you.” Which is dumb. We can’t all be in the 99th percentile, and no matter how “objectively” talented everyone is, only those who manage to pull out ahead of the pack can manage to shine brighter than the rest, because the pack will bring the “dullness of normalcy” with it. We just need to stop seeing it as “dullness,” I think… perhaps by grounding our sense of accomplishment in the Stone Age standard of living? I mean, the simple pleasure of a daily hot shower takes on a whole new meaning when you look back at how far we’ve come from the ancestral condition.

    “…if they chose to go on strike, they would be forced to work at gunpoint.” That would be interesting to see. After all, the head may be “in charge” of the body, but it’s pretty useless without the hands, the spine, and so on… even though the brain hogs most of the resources. But yeah, in a clinically-detached sort of way, I wonder what would happen if there were a nation-wide strike in China. A popular uprising is typically the only thing that a government truly can’t deal with, but technology may be changing that (which is the basic premise of The Hunger Games, which I just watched with my little sister yesterday). Which is, y’know, frightening. :(

    “The other problem is the belief in ‘moochers’ to begin with. Sorry Rand, most of the poor people who want something delivered to them by politicians are hard-working low-wage workers who are sick of 60 hour weeks and minimum wage with no benefits and working on the holidays.” Damn skippy! Of course, Rand would simply counter that their wages are justly low, since they’d be commanding a higher wage if they were able to by threatening to withdraw their labor. The fact that there are so many other workers willing & able to replace them simply goes to show (in Rand’s book) that their work really isn’t all that valuable.

    Of course, if all the minions were to withdraw their labor together, then… well, we’d have something like when the unions first started the whole collective bargaining thing a century or so ago. Rand says this permits freeloaders to ride along on the coattails of others, hiding in the herd so to speak and getting something they wouldn’t be able to get on their own – but on a large scale, that’s the point. When efficiency rises, as it dramatically did in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, less total staff-hours are required to do all the same jobs. A few more niches arise, to be sure, but increasing efficiency still means that less overall human work is required to keep things running. There’s two ways you can deal with that: reduce each person’s expected contribution, or hold the expected contribution constant and reduce the number of people working. Guess which one we chose? When you have a permanent surplus labor pool, you can artificially depress wages because there are a bunch of people lined up outside the factory trying to get in. It also means you can work people until they wear out like machine parts, then just replace them, raising turnover and decreasing tenure (and this is easy, when each project is broken up into bite-sized chunks that a person can do all day long with minimal training). This is why unions were so necessary: because machine labor made human labor too expendable.

    But since instituting the 40-hour week (here in America, anyway), sick time and other benefits, and a minimum wage, we’ve run into a problem: we’ve kept increasing the efficiency of the overall system, but we haven’t continued to reduce the expected contribution of all the participants (i.e. “how much you need to work each week to make a living wage“). Meanwhile, wealth disparity has grown enormously, and… well, blah blah blah. Point being, minions are necessary, but you also have to be nice to them or your whole system will approach breakdown. Fuck’s sake, you need to keep your machine parts clean & oiled & happy for the machine to work… why don’t we treat people that well? (Perhaps because you can’t “oppress” a machine – it will work or not, and can’t be argued with or intimidated if it doesn’t meet yoru expectations.)

    “Anybody who thinks you can look at a formula and *know* how strong a metal has has already failed physical chemistry.” Dagny didn’t merely look at a formula. She also saw detailed test results. Rearden also put loads of effort into this, and his search is explained in some considerable detail later in the book – the cost of the search is what makes it so outrageous that the moochers demand to be let in on it for free. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t the mere elemental proportions, but how it was made that made it so strong (which is why the moochers couldn’t figure it out and so demanded that Rearden turn it over… though I might be making this up). I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Rearden knows what sorts of tests to do, and while Rand may still know nothing about metallurgy, it’s fair play for her to hand-wave that away by stipulating that Rearden knows his stuff.

    “…realism is realism, once you’ve distorted it it’s not realism any more.” False. Genres aren’t this inflexible, it’s all on a smooth continuum and while there are perhaps some lines to be drawn, they’re intrinsically fuzzy lines. You can have “hard sci-fi,” in contrast to the garden variety which boils down to “fantasy with lasers,” where you give a plausible account of how the technologies might be developed based on existing knowledge and hardware (which is “realistic science fiction”). Or historical fiction, where you relate plausible retellings of known events had they happened another way. You can bring in elements of realism without going all the way – if literally any distortion makes it fail to be realism, then you may as well say that only documentaries qualify, because any fiction is a distortion for describing events and characters which simply aren’t literally real. Making the exception for fiction at all (“OK, we’ll allow only the distortions necessary to make it fiction, but still call it realism”) stops you from forbidding (in a principled and non-arbitrary way) the same exception for any other genre (“OK, we’ll allow only the distortions necessary to make it romantic, but still call it realism”).

    “In the end, I’m privileged, and I’m lucky that working class people are brainwashed to expect so little.” Well, yeah. Me, too. But ultimately, I think it’s the guys at the top who are making many orders of magnitude more than their minions explicitly by keeping those minions so downtrodden who are really getting away with some bullshit here. “Mover,” my ass.

  • smrnda

    @the letter d

    Interesting. I will agree you can get a little leverage with realism, but I think that Rand’s “Romantic Realism” should just be called what it is – propaganda. It’s no different than Soviet Propaganda where The Capitalist always is fat and wears a top-hat and kicks the guy who shines his shoes, or colonialist propaganda of silly, child-like ‘natives’ who need to be led by stoic, athletic and cultured white imperialists. I guess I kind of feel like even though it’s hard to draw a clear boundary, at some point we have to say that a particular work or author is getting a bit too far away to be ‘realistic.’ I mean, Dickens overdoes his descriptions to make a point and does some of the same things Rand does, but he’s at least able to present a little depth and nuance. I’d probably not call him ‘realism’ but I’d at least be able to say he’s a bit more true to life.

    On the ‘movers’ I can guarantee that there does not exist any set of 100 or even 1000 people that we cannot do without. I think this is what I really find ridiculous about the whole ‘going Galt’ thing. I can think of hugely relevant people in my own field of expertise, and I can still imagine we’d have computers and software if we hadn’t had some of them, even folks like Turing and von Neumann likely. In the industry, if the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the industry went on strike, they’d then just be overrun by people eager to fill the vacuum. I guess my take is that too much of necessary work is collective in nature, and it works because no one person, not even the geniuses, are truly essential. If geniuses were that essential, society would have already collapsed since we can’t expect there to always be a Newton or an Euler around. I think Rand is capable of thinking this way simply because she isn’t an innovator herself and isn’t really that knowledgeable about science and industry. Progress is made just as much by random no-name college profs and researchers who advance our knowledge by tiny steps as by big ones. Plus, you can’t invent and implement a technology without lots of cooperation, so the whole ‘lone innovator’ is more a fiction than reality.

    You’re totally correct that thanks to innovation, we no longer need everybody working a 40 hour week, it’s just that we can’t get rid of the expectation that everybody needs to work without putting different people (not the current ruling class) in charge of resource allocation. Plus, we need to redefine work as something with social utility, not something that makes a shareholder happy.

    My take on Rearden is that given what we know about metallurgy, she’s drifting from science fiction into outright fantasy with the Rearden metal. Part of my take on this might just be that I was once employed making mathematical models of materials, all of which end up being not as strong once they are made but in totally unpredictable ways. Metal X can have a predicted strength of twice that of Metal Y, and metal Y turns out to be stronger somehow once you actually make it. Plus, certain qualities of metals (strength, cost, malleability) end up being mutually exclusive. If it’s the process, the raw materials are still important, and it’s also a case where once you increase your volume of production, you may not get such uniform quality since it becomes harder and harder to make sure everything is really working the same way. (That’s why Maker’s Mark bourbon costs more than Jim Beam) I think my frustration with Rand is that she’s trying to write sci fi without knowing any science, so it seems like a sleight of hand trick – you get the rad new technology but without even a plausible explanation, and a technology that requires huge quantum leaps beyond anything we’re doing now. It’s as if you write a story where a guy makes a time machine out of paperclips, with the explanation being ‘he is a genius. a professor of physics could tell the machine would work.” Most sci fi writers kind of work something in as an explanation, even if it just ends up being buzzwords about technologies that don’t exist (like a lot of terms from Star Trek or so), but Rand just makes us accept that it’s true based on the alleged brilliance of her characters, who come across as a bunch of obnoxious jackasses. Then again, she’s writing this stuff back in the 50s, back when we had space operas, rockets shooting people to the moon who return by parachute, with explosions in space and little green men who arrive on earth and speak English with identifiable ethnic accents, when the standards for ‘fictitious technology’ were a bit lower.

    Just since you seem to have a lot of good insights, I think the reason we don’t see a worker revolt is that we’ve made sure workers get educations that teach them to obey orders and not expect much more, and to believe in simplistic nonsense. Plus, we have religion to thank. An out of work working class white male is probably spending more time worrying about the rapture than he is worrying about economics. I don’t think religion is consciously working to keep workers down, nor do I think it’s necessarily a tool of evil overlords, just a bunch of nonsense that will have bad effects.

    I guess in the end, Rand isn’t a very good writer. If she hadn’t attracted a following based on promoting narcissism, her works would probably be out of print and totally forgotten.

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

    @ smrnda: Hey, thanks for responding! :)

    “…I think that Rand’s “Romantic Realism” should just be called what it is – propaganda.”
    OK, yeah. When you put it in terms of “allegory with an agenda,” you convinced me. And really, what these novels are missing is real characters, not cardboard cut-outs, which is something I’ve known since high school when an English teacher pointed out to me that Gail Wynand was the only real developed character in The Fountainhead (elements of which I still confuse with Atlas from time to time, as I did in my comment on the first post of this series… it’s been almost a decade since I read them, in my defense). Everyone else in the book is just a representation of certain principles without any real inner conflict. Atlas has less of this, I think, but it’s still there; and yeah, as a novelization of her philosophy, the “characters” are really just principles being pitted against each other.

    “On the ‘movers’ I can guarantee that there does not exist any set of 100 or even 1000 people that we cannot do without.”
    Absolutely! You should watch an excellent series on YouTube by kirby1 called “Everything is a Remix.” He makes pretty much exactly that point, saying that when the conditions are right, certain discoveries and inventions are all but inevitable. Certain geniuses were definitely able to make the connections earlier, but this is obviously as opposed to “later” instead of “at all.” The exception to this, I think, are works of art – but particular works of art, not movements or genres or what-have-you. That is, until “Jane Austen fanfiction” becomes a genre, which I have on good authority it most definitely will. :)

    “…it’s just that we can’t get rid of the expectation that everybody needs to work without putting different people… in charge of resource allocation.”
    Again, I’m with you 100%. I don’t think that will change until we achieve a much greater degree of automation, though. I saw something to the effect of: if you factor in minimum wages, paid time off, and benefits, iPads would cost fifteen grand if they were made in the USA. Of course, we would probably build them with expensive machines to bring down the cost… but then we wouldn’t be able to get a new model every couple of years. And if consumers don’t keep constantly buying shit they’re told they need, well… our entire economic model would collapse! (Which, let’s face it, is a terrible model for everyone except the handful of guys who happen to be at the top right now.) What I think we ought to do is tweak a few knobs (mainly “how many hours until overtime” and “minimum wage”) until labor is somewhat in demand (so that anyone who needs work can get work, though they may need to move…) but we’re still getting everything done and anyone can afford to put a kid through school so long as they’re willing to work (and again, possibly move…). Of course, this will force the wealth disparity gap to close a little, to which some assholes we’d be better of without would cry, “Well, if I can’t make a thousand times more in a year then some schmuck working full time at minimum wage, then what’s the point of trying at all?” Because honestly, fuck those guys.

    As we transition to near-complete automation, though, deciding who gets to retire on the free first is probably going to be “the new hard question.” To pick an extreme example, it may become the case that less than one hour of work a week is required per human being to keep things running… but doing something for one hour a week, you probably won’t be all that good at it… and it’ll quickly become a “too many cooks” problem, to my mind. Maybe lower the retirement age, or start extending the public education expectation into the college years, or both? I don’t know.

    I thank you for your continued elaboration on Rearden’s alloy, because I’m a philosophy grad with half an education in physics (which is only half of physical chemistry) and zero experience in materials manufacturing. I can see now that it’s less plausible than it seemed to me as an eighteen-year-old, and definitely enters the territory of Did Not Do the Research. The conflict here is that I’m trying to argue for Rand’s ghost, with whom I ultimately disagree (I’m an ex-Objectivist, clean for six or seven years now), but who I think has some legitimate responses to Adam’s criticism of her. So that’s the role I’m playing in these comments, just so that’s clear. Point being, while it’s true that Rearden should have gone through the proper channels, what Rand’s trying to say is that those proper channels have legit problems. Which, I mean, they will out of necessity, because nothing’s perfect – it’s just your cross to bear, what you have to deal with in order to live in society.

    What Rand is trying to show is that you can do better than that system, and I think she’s got a case to make. In point of fact, it simply is possible to know better than the “authorities”, especially when those authorities are extremely risk-averse to the point of denying a new material the opportunity to prove itself on the grounds that it hasn’t been proven yet because if anything goes wrong it will be traced back to their stamp of approval. While this is not generally the case, it sure is sometimes, and I think Rand’s right in that there ought to be a way around such red tape bullshit (specifically, when it becomes bullshit, and not a moment sooner). To someone like you, who is more toward the “expert” end of the continuum, her narrative solution is clearly implausible; but then, so is most of the technobabble on Star Trek to me (half a physics education, I have to bite my tongue on literally every sci-fi thing I watch). Point being, the sort-of explanation you call for is there, but it’s clearly not passing muster with you because you know more about the subject than she does – and I have exactly the same problem with the writers of pretty much every sci-fi show or movie I’ve watched in the last ten years. Conclusion being, I think we can both agree that she had a lot more work to do in order to more soundly make her point (the point of principle being lost in the practical and technical details of how the science works).

    “I think the reason we don’t see a worker revolt is that we’ve made sure workers get educations that teach them to obey orders and not expect much more, and to believe in simplistic nonsense.”
    Ha ha ha, you are preaching to the choir there, buddy! XD I think I’ll just leave it at that.

  • Adam Lee

    Hey D. Thanks for stepping in here! This is much more interesting when Rand has a defender, even if it’s only a partial defense.

    Rather, there’s a kind of “instant karmic Lamarckism,” whereby a person’s moral character sort of bleeds out and affects their physical looks. This is somewhat realistic, as certain good decisions (healthy diet + decent exercise) will actually positively impact a person’s appearance. But yes, it’s silly for personality to dictate facial features.

    I like “karmic Lamarckism”. :)

    Yes, I certainly agree that a person’s life choices can affect their appearance. The only problem is, it should work the other way to how Rand describes it! We’re constantly told about how her protagonists work 16-hour days, skip sleep one or two nights a week, have no friends or hobbies outside work, etc. Those working conditions can’t be conducive to exercise or a healthy diet. If anything, they ought to be the ones who look prematurely aged and withered from stress, while the looters (who, after all, do no grueling work) should be much more fit. But as you said, this novel reflects the way Rand thinks reality should work, not the way it actually does work.

    And what do you know, someone’s been going around and gathering up all the folks who would normally be up to the task.

    Now that’s a perspective I hadn’t considered before. I had assumed that the departure of the capitalists was in response to the world’s decline. Is it possible that Rand is saying their strike is actually the cause of it? Hmm.

    Since the seat of power is held by the winners of what is essentially a popularity contest (instead of a productivity contest, as it “obviously ought to be”), they will obviously appeal to the looters & moochers with their policies, making the world gradually more “exploitative” of (and intolerable to) the Movers.

    Well, I’m sure Rand would argue that way, yes. But the question then arises, how did the world ever get as far as it did? How did we ever have an industrial revolution, how did we ever build railroads and cities and all that other great stuff, unless the capitalists had the upper hand for at least some span of time? The progression of the novel is that things go from just “kind of bad” to “anarchic collapse of civilization” over the course of a few years. If the looters had gotten their unopposed way, that would have happened much earlier. What held them at bay for so long, considering how Rand’s heroes are utterly disinterested in politics? Why didn’t the bad guys vote to nationalize all industries and turn all the other countries into communist hellholes decades ago?

  • Nonnie

    On the one hand, I agree with smrnda that technical work absolutely has to be cooperative and triple checked. Otherwise you accidentally took sine instead of cosine 5 lines back and never notice. Also the more I learn about materials science (which is a pretty good amount), the more uncomfortable I feel about pretty much every built thing. This seems like an argument against her heroes having any grounding in reality.

    On the other hand, I often feel really uncomfortable being responsible for things. I always want to delay a bit to get more data, run more tests, do a few more calculations. It’s difficult for me to grapple with the thought that something I design or build could injure somebody. If everyone was like me, maybe we really wouldn’t get things done. Furthermore, I even know some people like Randian heroes. They are tall and good-looking, endlessly energized, clever, industrious, have fun hobbies, etc. They make confident decisions, and I feel more secure with them backing me up.

    These reviews are so enjoyable! I don’t agree at all with her philosophy anymore, but oddly this is actually making me want to read the book again. I thought it was fun to read back in the day.

  • smrnda

    D – great post. I am usually preaching to the choir on patheos, since I stay off most of the religious blogs… :-)

    On realism – over the last few days I was thinking about realism and I think it’s different than genres, which ae really just human conventions. Whether or not a book can be accepted as “Romance” depends on the taste of editors and readers. Whether a book is “Sci Fi” largely depends on how it’s received by the fandom, since there are fictional works that contain futuristic technologies that have never really been considered science fiction, like Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs for example, but it probably had something to do with the fact that he wasn’t part of the science fiction scene of the time and was hanging around authors of the beat generation.

    Realism though isn’t a genre in the same way, since whether or not something is ‘sci fi’ depends on opinions, but whether or not something is ‘realistic’ depends on reality. You can always distort a little. If I make one cop in a story a martial arts expert, it’s realism. If all cops in my stories are all martial arts experts, I’m being a bit ridiculous. Rand just doesn’t do enough research to give her work the details that would sell the story or the feel that the person has been there.

    I write realism, and I find it to be as much solving a puzzle or doing an investigation as a creative act. If I think up a story, I have to get characters from A to B but sometimes I have to make changes when I realize that A to B requires an implausible step, or some other information doesn’t add up. It’s tough when you give a character an occupation since there’s lots of jobs that I haven’t done and know nothing about, and lots of research is required. A big problem in lots of fiction is ‘how are these people getting enough money to do all this stuff?’ Too many writers give people who in real life would be poor too much money, especially in movies and TV. I think a character trait that prevented Rand from writing ‘realism’ is her belief that she knows the 5 Essential Axioms and that from there, you can basically figure out everything. The kind of ‘how do things work’ curiosity is totally absent from her work since she’s only trying to make a point about geniuses, and she never really bothers to investigate how any real geniuses (or even mediocrities) do the things her geniuses do. It’s like a person writing cop stories who has no idea what actually goes on in a traffic stop.

    On the ‘movers’ I’m beginning to think that the only people relevant enough to be ‘movers’ in any time are probably already dead, as the reason they are so relevant is that we’ve built society on their life’s work. Isaac Newton is pretty important, but society wouldn’t have collapsed without him, it just wouldn’t have ended up jumping ahead so quickly. Alan Turing was vitally important and maybe made an Allied victory in Europe happen, but even if he hadn’t existed, civilization (albeit a crappy, Fascist civilization) would still be going on. Of course, I can’t conceive of a world without him *Now* but it’s because he was a major innovator behind the computer and we’ve been using computers for a long time. Civilization can’t be so fragile as to be supported by some 100 or 1000 super-geniuses, just since geniuses like Newton or Euler don’t come around that often.

    All said, great discussion.

  • pbrower2a

    Prime example — Jodi Arias was very attractive (she might not be so attractive now that she is in prison and no longer looks like a grad student as she did in the courtroom on trial for her life) — until one found out in a court case what horrible things she did. This is real life.


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