Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VI
It’s common for authors of fiction to use their books as an apologetic: asserting the essential rightness of their views by putting ideas they support into one group of characters and ideas they dislike into other characters, and then having the latter ignominiously defeated by the former. Many novels do this, but Atlas more so than most. Rand’s characters and plot are like thin papier-mâché shells around the cast-iron principles she wanted to impart.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with message fiction. On the contrary, I’d imagine that almost all authors do it at some level. Our stories grow out of us, and our own ideas, tastes and views of the world can’t help but influence the things we write. And these kinds of conflicts can even make for good reading, if they’re scripted by a deft touch. Still, it’s all too easy for an author to fall into the trap of believing that if they can make something true within the world of fiction they created, that proves it must be true in the real world as well.
We’ll see a few examples of it in this chapter. In addition to all the looters and moochers, Dagny Taggart is one of the guests at Rearden’s party. The first time we see her there, Rand tells us about her evening gown and how different it is from her usual severe corporate attire:
It was a black dress with a bodice that fell as a cape over one arm and shoulder, leaving the other bare… it was astonishing to discover that the lines of her shoulder were fragile and beautiful, and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained. [p.131]
OK, look. So long as it’s safe, sane and consensual, it’s none of my business what anyone else does in bed. If Ayn Rand liked to be dominated by men, if that was her kink, that’s fine, really. No judgment.
The problem is when she insists, as she does here, that sexual submission isn’t just her desire but a characteristic trait of femininity, something that all women should or do want. This is another symptom of something we’ve already seen: how Ayn Rand’s philosophy drove her to universalize all her personal preferences, even ones that she clearly held for non-rational reasons, treating them not just as matters of taste but as morally good or even morally obligatory. Rather than accepting it as her own desire, she decided that all women ought to submit to men, which in turn inspired her sexist belief that women are psychologically unsuited to leadership. (I’d draw a comparison to the way Mother Teresa’s life of suffering and depression led her to conclude that suffering was a positive good, which she then put into practice by withholding medical care from the sick and dying.)
Rand believed that reason was the only way to navigate through life, and that’s fine. But for some reason, she didn’t draw the conclusion “The rational course of action is to find out what people’s desires are and then structure society so as to accommodate the greatest possible number of them.” Instead, her conclusion was something more like, “Because I am rational, my desires are the correct desires, and anyone who’s rational must therefore want exactly the same things as me.” (This extended down to her insistence that “reason” dictates specific preferences in art, music and fashion, and anyone who disagreed with her tastes must therefore be an enemy of capitalism, reason and life itself. We’ll hear more about this later.)
Another scene a few pages on gives us more author appeal, when Dagny asks herself why she came to this party, and comes to the conclusion that it’s only because she wanted to see Hank Rearden:
The faces of the others looked like aggregates of interchangeable features, every face oozing to blend into the anonymity of resembling all, and all looking as if they were melting. Rearden’s face, with the sharp planes, the pale blue eyes, the ash-blond hair, had the firmness of ice; the uncompromising clarity of its lines made it look, among the others, as if he were moving through a fog, hit by a ray of light. [p.139]
We’ve already seen how Rand idealized conspicuously Aryan heroes and equated physical attractiveness with moral goodness. But this passage is a step beyond even that. It’s literally dehumanizing: it describes all the non-protagonists as indistinguishable from one another, as if they were a pool of shapeless sludge. Whenever anyone starts discussing human beings in such a debased way, denying their uniqueness and individuality, all moral people ought to see the ominous parallels and fear what kind of plan demands such a justification. When you start thinking of your ideological opponents this way in fiction, it can smooth the way to make the transference to the real world.
Last but not least, there’s a short but significant scene where Dagny sees Lillian showing off the Rearden Metal bracelet that Hank made for her:
“This?” Lillian was saying, extending her arm with the metal bracelet for the inspection of two smartly groomed women. “Why, no, it’s not from a hardware store, it’s a very special gift from my husband. Oh, yes, of course it’s hideous… Of course, I’d exchange it for a common diamond bracelet any time, but somehow nobody will offer me one for it…” [p.149]
Dagny immediately takes off her own diamond bracelet and holds it out to her:
[S]he heard her own voice saying in the great stillness, very calmly, a voice cold as a skeleton, naked of emotion, “If you are not the coward that I think you are, you will exchange it.”
…Lillian’s mouth moved into an upturned crescent. It resembled a smile. She snapped the metal bracelet open, dropped it on Dagny’s palm and took the diamond band.
It seems clear that Dagny is Rand’s self-insert character in this scene, acting out an authorial fantasy by besting a romantic rival through her superior devotion to capitalism. (She’ll soon be having an affair with Hank, if that wasn’t obvious.)
However, something is puzzling to me. Rand doesn’t spell out the principle here, but I presume we’re meant to take away that Dagny wants the bracelet because it signifies human achievement, which she idolizes and the looters detest, whereas the diamond band has no special meaning to her and she can easily get another one like it.
But isn’t this kind of, well, sentimental? After all, Rearden Metal isn’t rare; Hank’s foundries are churning it out by the ton. Even if Dagny’s diamonds have no special symbolism to her, they’re surely more valuable in a strictly materialistic sense, and isn’t that what an Objectivist is supposed to care about above all else? If the free market, in its infallible wisdom, decrees that a diamond bracelet is costly, isn’t that a signifier of real and objective value which all devotees of Rand’s philosophy are bound to respect?
To say that Lillian’s bracelet was precious to Dagny because it’s the first thing made of Rearden Metal seems to be treading awfully close to saying it possesses value because of some abstract, non-material quality. That’s supposed to be a notion that Rand abhorred, the kind of mushy thinking she could (and would) later excommunicate many of her own disciples for. Possibly, in the sexy excitement of her self-insert scenes, she briefly forgot what it was she was supposed to believe?
Other posts in this series: