Atlas Shrugged: Author Appeal

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?

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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.

  • Anna

    “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]

    Of course, this is meant to make Lillian sound heartless, insulting (and later giving away) a sentimental present from her husband in exchange for a more expensive, prettier one. But when that very same husband (as we saw in the last post) doesn’t know anything about her and routinely works 18 hour days, resenting spending any time with her (away from his work) at all, what can you expect? He got her the sort of present a female version of himself would have liked, and that’s Dagny and not Lillian. Gosh, if only he had actually gotten to know the person he was to marry, maybe he could have chosen someone he actually had things in common with.

    “Lillian’s mouth moved into an upturned crescent. It resembled a smile.”
    Because of course lesser non-Objectivist beings don’t actually smile.

    “that sexual submission isn’t just her desire but a characteristic trait of femininity”

    It sounds like she’s saying that submission in general is a characteristic trait of femininity, hence her hating on female leadership, which is odd since she herself and often her female characters are very successful. But I guess as long as at least one man is more successful it’s ok, hence her objecting to a female president who would have nobody above her.

    “After all, Rearden Metal isn’t rare; Hank’s foundries are churning it out by the ton.”

    Maybe I have this wrong, but isn’t it very expensive and difficult to get because it’s the best metal ever?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Excellent point about Rand’s inconsistent response to her own Objectivism.

    And there is an example from Rand’s own life in which she lost money in exchange for something of non-monetary value. This is from the Anne Heller biography on Rand:

    (Editor Hiram) Haydn was ambivalent, at best, about (Atlas Shrugged)’s ethics and politics… he had doubts about the the novel’s “drab” prose style and core ideas… he suggested a number of cuts, including cuts in John Galt’s speech. When Rand refused he appealed to Bennett Cerf… (Cerf went to Rand and said) “Nobody’s going to read that speech. You’ve said it all three or four times before… you’ve got to cut it.” Answering with a comment that became publishing legend, she said, “Would you cut the Bible?” With that, Cerf threw up his hands, but cagily asked her to forfeit seven cents in royalties per copy to pay for the additional paper it would take to print the uncut speech and other long passages… She agreed… Haydn resigned himself to being an “apprentice copy editor” who helped her search for and remove words within a paragraph that rhymed “an obsession with her.”

    I like this quote because it demonstrates both that Rand was willing to give up money in exchange for the questionable value of bashing her “philosophy” over the heads of readers a few more times; and that Random House did almost no editing of Atlas Shrugged, which explains so much about the book.

  • DavidMHart

    Answering with a comment that became publishing legend, she said, “Would you cut the Bible?”

    Wait – she wouldn’t? Had she read all those tedious genealogies?

  • Nancy McClernan

    LOL!

    I assume her comment is more about thinking the reverence accorded by many people to the Bible should be accorded also to/instead of to Atlas Shrugged – which it apparently was, at least by her inner circle.

  • Nancy McClernan

    And it’s likely that the Bible was edited much more than Atlas Shrugged.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    It’s cheaper that steel, as well as being lighter and more durable than steel and possessing a faint aroma of fresh-baked chocolate cookies. Basically, it’s the Mary Sue of alloys.

  • jayemel

    “Gosh, if only he had actually gotten to know the person he was to marry, maybe he could have chosen someone he actually had things in common with.”

    That’s the entire point of Hank Rearden’s character.

  • ORAXX

    What little Rand actually had to say could have been condensed into a short paragraph and she could have spared the reader the misery of wading through her endless, empty, turgid, prose. All of Rand’s writing comes down to…..Greed is good……Selfishness is better……Compassion for your fellow man is bad……Actually doing something to benefit your fellow man is very, very bad.

  • skyblue

    Perhaps Rand wanted to have Dagny show open contempt for Lillian in public (since, after all, Lillian is worthless and Dagny treating her as such is only appropriate). Nice party banter there – putting someone on the spot and calling them a coward in front of friends!

    But, whatever Rand’s intention was, it is kind of funny that she ends up forgetting about Objectivism for a second there. Whoops!

  • busterggi

    Its still not adamantium.

  • smrnda

    Rand seems to be unable to leave anything about the human condition up to being a matter of opinion or subjective preference – not only should everyone like all the same things, she decides there is no conflict *ever* between rational people.

    I consider myself a reason and evidence based person, but I don’t think you can really call certain preferences, opinions, tastes or goals ‘rational’ or ‘irrational.’ I mean, I’m not going to argue that certain sexual tastes are ‘rational’ and others are ‘irrational’ (unless we’re talking about safety, health or consent issues.) Aside from that, living around people from different cultures and living in a few different countries made me realize how subjective a lot of our preferences are – people conditioned to Western classical music are probably not going to enjoy Chinese Opera as much.

    On the whole, she’s dividing her characters into a set of Good Cardboard Cutouts and some poorly drawn Bad Cardboard Cutouts. I tend to find the best authors prefer some moral ambiguity and complexity, and often want the reader to be able to see good and bad in all the characters, and where even heroes are flawed and the villains have appeal. I mean, even though Batman is the good guy, the Joker is going to be a much more interesting character. It’s what makes a story interesting because it’s closer to real life. She’s pretty much reducing life to a few simplistic points and then creating characters who spout the slogans over and over again. This is bad, heavy-handed propaganda that would be considered bad writing in a high school creative writing workshop.

    On good authors – I think many good authors just don’t think they have all the answers, but are great at creating characters and telling stories. If you have a point to make about how society should work, study sociology, economics or some other field and publish a paper.

  • Science Avenger

    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?

    No, not at all. Rand goes on about how valuable philosophy and the mind are, you don’t get less materialistic than that. An Objectivist is supposed to care about productive work and the rational thought that goes into it. To Rand the process of production was as important as the end result, thus her going on about Rearden’s mills, and by contrast being so critical of that acquired as a looter (we’ll see more of that when Ragnar Danneskjold enteres the picture). Dagny’s reaction is completely in line with that.
    The literary criticisms here seem more appropriate. The scene is just awful and unrealistic in so many ways: the insults at a party, Lillian being so vocally critical of her husband’s gift, and I can’t even address the “chained” comment it’s so absurd.

  • Science Avenger

    I consider myself a reason and evidence based person, but I don’t think you can really call certain preferences, opinions, tastes or goals ‘rational’ or ‘irrational.’

    This was one of the first things that started driving me away from Objectivism. Rand never solved the problem of these preferences. Her arguments of why human beings should attain some semblence of autonomy and productive achievement seem reasonable enough, but she never figured out why someone should choose to be a doctor rather than a fireman or philosopher. She actually admitted knowing nothing about human psychology. It shows.

  • smrnda

    She seems to have a lot of gaps in knowledge, with the additional problem of being too certain of always being right and not just having answers, but having *all* the answers. I mean, the way she waxes philosophically about smoking is just laughably ridiculous.

    On psychology – I tend to find many people with rigid ideologies have a strong distrust of psychology; you certainly get that with many religious people (possibly because psychology explains their behavior in an unflattering way) and psychology has been distrusted by many totalitarians (of course, the available psychology at the time was often pretty shitty, but that’s another point) but was she just ignorant, or did she believe that psychology was wrong or had nothing to say?

  • Nancy McClernan

    What made you become an Objectivist before being driven away?

  • Nancy McClernan

    But if “to Rand the process of production was as important as the end result” then that certainly doesn’t discount a diamond band, the creation of which is by no means negligible in terms of production, which includes mining, grading, shipping, cutting and mounting. And we know how much she respects mining, since that is d’Anconia’s source of wealth.

    Depending on how many diamonds we are talking about, how it was fabricated, etc, the band could easily equal the productivity needed to create a bracelet made of Rearden Metal.

    Dagny’s response is probably about being symbolically chained by Hank Rearden, more than anything else.

    In any case, I don’t think that the materialistic/money issue is negated by Rand’s finding philosophy and “the mind” important. The issue is whether money is most important. Considering Rand wore a broach in the shape of a dollar sign rather than a symbol that represents philosophy or the mind seems an indicator.

    Furthermore, later we will see Dagny disappointed in Robert Stadler when he indicates his disapproval of Quentin Daniels for taking a higher paying job in industry over one which furthers the cause of science. That’s about as obvious a choice between money vs. knowledge as you can get.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    What makes it more puzzling is that she seemed to believe that talent was a universal currency – that a good capitalist could literally be proficient in any field they chose. I’ll have to dig up the reference, but one of the biographies of Rand that I read quoted her as saying she could have been a great musician, say, instead of a writer had she so chosen.

    That being the case, it makes it even more inexplicable what reason an Objectivist could have for choosing one career path over another, since (IIRC) Rand thought “whim” was unacceptable.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I’d welcome the chance to hear more about Rand’s views of value, if you’d care to expound on them. Having read several of her own books, plus two biographies, I still don’t think I fully understand them. (Maybe she didn’t either. The parts about gold being an “objective value” in a way that paper money isn’t were just laughably bad reasoning.)

    The point I was trying to make here is that surely Dagny wouldn’t trade a pound of diamonds for a pound of Rearden Metal. Considered simply as commodities, one is much more valuable than the other as determined by the free market, which is supposed to be the thing that all Objectivists respect (as with Rand’s argument in The Virtue of Selfishness that anyone who doesn’t get a job should accept that he wasn’t good enough to deserve it).

    But then, why did she want the Rearden Metal bracelet over the diamond bracelet? The only explanation is that it’s the first thing made of Rearden Metal, and therefore it has symbolic value to her over and above its material value. But that seems to be treading perilously close to the idea of “spiritual” values trumping material values, which in my reading is supposed to be something that Randians fiercely reject.

  • John Alexander Harman

    It’s also kind of funny that Lillian turns out not to be a coward — or at least not the particular “coward Dagny thinks she is” who wouldn’t really trade the Rearden metal bracelet for the diamond one (what exactly would be “cowardly” about refusing to make that exchange is a little unclear).

  • John Alexander Harman

    I think Rand’s goldbuggery may have been almost as significant to her misunderstanding of economics as her wrong ideas about human nature. I don’t know enough economics myself to be sure of this, but I have the sense that goldbugs have roughly the same relationship to economics as young-earth creationists do to biology.

  • Nathaniel

    That would be correct.

  • smrnda

    It’s easy to talk about what a great musician you would have made when it hasn’t really come up. Polymaths are pretty rare, and even most of them weren’t universally as successful in all areas they performed in, and often existed in times when fewer people were educated, so they had far less competition.

    I mean, I have some talents other than software design, but it seems like just about *everybody* is good at a couple of things.

    All said, it might have been true that Rand would have been as good of a musician as she had been a writer, in that I’d probably want some earplugs if she was going to perform.

  • A Real Libertarian

    “On the whole, she’s dividing her characters into a set of Good Cardboard
    Cutouts and some poorly drawn Bad Cardboard Cutouts. I tend to find the
    best authors prefer some moral ambiguity and complexity, and often want
    the reader to be able to see good and bad in all the characters, and
    where even heroes are flawed and the villains have appeal.”

    You might want to check out Fate/Stay Night.

    It has a hero who only cares about saving everyone and believes he doesn’t deserve any thanks for risking his life doing it as well as a main villain who’s been an irredeemable monster since birth.

    It pulls it off by asking “how would these people function in a realistic world?” and “how did these people come to be?”

    Just be sure to go through all 3 routes, Fate sacrificed a lot of characterization for back-story, Unlimited Blade Works and especially Heaven’s Feel are much better.

  • Don Sakers

    The bracelet was supremely valuable to Dagny precisely because it was a declaration of love to Henry and a challenge to Lillian. That love was the highest expression of Dagny’s self-worth.

    Lillian would have been a coward (in Dagny’s eyes) if she had refused to face Dagny’s challenge by refusing to swap bracelets.


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