Atlas Shrugged: Kim Jong-il Looking at Things

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VII

I mentioned earlier on that Hank and Dagny will soon be having an affair, and this chapter has the first direct allusion to it. While Dagny is in Hank’s office discussing her plans to live on site in Colorado and direct the building of the John Galt Line, he makes an offhand remark about whether she’ll be safe there, to which she laughs and replies, “Why, Hank, it’s the first time you’ve ever thought that I wasn’t a man.”

A wedge of light fell across her face. He saw the firm, sensual mouth in sharp outline. Then she leaned back a little, and he saw only a suggestion of its shape and the dark lines of her lowered lashes.

Haven’t I? – he thought. Haven’t I thought of it since the first time I saw you? Haven’t I thought of nothing else for two years? [p.193]

I’ll spare you a longer excerpt, but pretty much an entire page is given over to Hank’s internal monologue ruminating on all the sex he’d like to have with Dagny. Notably absent is any acknowledgment that he’s already married or that this presents any sort of obstacle. (Lillian, needless to say, isn’t amenable to an open marriage.)

I’ll say more about this in later chapters, once they’re actually sleeping together, but for now I’ll just mention one thing. If this were presented as a character flaw – if Hank was depicted as ruthless and competent in business but unable to control his lustful impulses in his personal life – then that would have made him a much more three-dimensional and nuanced character. But instead, Rand presents this as all of a piece: because her heroes are the best, they’re entitled to anything they want, whether in business or in bed, and any hurt it may cause others is dismissed as inconsequential.

Now let’s move on to a later scene, right after the surprise passage of the Equalization of Opportunity bill. Hank is brooding in his office, reflecting on the long climb of his success and how it’s all being torn away by looters, when suddenly inspiration strikes:

In the next moment, he was at his desk, bending over it, with one knee on the seat of the chair, with no time to think of sitting down, he was drawing lines, curves, triangles, columns of calculations, indiscriminately on the blueprints, on the desk blotter, on somebody’s letters.

He calls her in great excitement:

“Dagny! That bridge of ours – throw in the ashcan all the drawings I sent you…. Listen, you know the contraption you called the Rearden Truss, that you admired so much? It’s not worth a damn. I’ve figured out a truss that will beat anything ever built! Your bridge will carry four trains at once, stand three hundred years and cost you less than your cheapest culvert.” [p.203]

OK, so just to recap: Hank Rearden is a super-competent corporate executive who runs a mining company that’s better than any other mining company in the world, and he’s a brilliant metallurgist who invents a new alloy the world’s never seen before, and he’s a genius architect who can come up with a bridge design that’s better than anything that’s occurred to anyone else in the entire span of human history.

I’ve mentioned the Mary Sue-ishness of Rand’s protagonists, but this section put me in mind of something else. It’s part of official North Korean state dogma that their hereditary rulers are semi-divine figures, possessing a superhuman degree of intelligence and perceptiveness, and that they can visit any farm, factory, business or military base in the country and give the people they meet instant suggestions on how to run things better. In the North Korean lexicon, it’s called “field guidance” or “on-the-spot guidance”.

This gave rise to a brilliantly funny Tumblr, Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, which mocked official state propaganda photos of the dictator being shown around North Korean factories and businesses and gawking politely at the people there. (The strong odds are that most of them were Potemkin villages set up just for his visit.)

Rand’s heroes have the same power of omnicompetence. Just at a glance, they can see how something works and figure out ways to improve it that would never have occurred to anyone else. You might think this bitterly ironic, that North Korea’s communist cult leaders and Ayn Rand’s uber-capitalists are depicted in some very similar ways, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all.

Both ideologies, for their own reasons, need to postulate that there are some people who are literally superhuman, who stand head and shoulders above the herd, and who deserve to rule by reason of that inherent merit. As both a cause and a consequence of this, both ideologies are fiercely anti-democratic. It goes to show that two very different belief systems, even when they occupy what should be opposite ends on the political spectrum, can both be so far from the center that they curve back around and meet each other.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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.

  • skyblue

    “any hurt it may cause others is dismissed as inconsequential”

    That sounds like a nice succinct summary of Rand’s philosophy in general.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    OK, so just to recap: Hank Rearden is a super-competent corporate executive who runs a mining company that’s better than any other mining company in the world, and he’s a brilliant metallurgist who invents a new alloy the world’s never seen before, and he’s a genius architect who can come up with a bridge design that’s better than anything that’s occurred to anyone else in the entire span of human history.

    All that while he has “thought of nothing else for two years” other than having sex with a woman who is not his wife.

  • http://www.calgarysecularchurch.org/ Korey Peters

    The key is to multi-task.

    “Hmmm… I’d really like to get that Dagny into a reverse cow-girl. Bend her back like a bridge. Oooh! That gives me an idea for a new bridge girder!”

    It writes itself, really.

    EDIT: I apologize if this is too off-colour.

  • Jeff

    I’d say a more accurate summary would be “any hurt it may cause others is dismissed as right and just.”

  • smrnda

    This reminds me of William S Burroughs, who was a longtime drug user (heroin) and homosexual. He actually wrote a few bits (a few in the Western lands or Cities of the Red Night) where a Sherlock and Watson type detective pair, stuck on a case, decided to have hot gay sex and instantly solved the mystery, or where people are suddenly able to solve engineering problems after some kind of orgy.

    Quite a lot of author appeal.

  • http://www.calgarysecularchurch.org/ Korey Peters

    I’m trying to imagine suggesting this at our next all-company meeting…

  • Andrew Reid

    So, Hank Reardon is basically Tony Stark minus the one-liners, then?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Off color and hysterically funny!

  • Nancy McClernan

    I find the “thought of nothing else for two years” the oddest part: Dagny likes Hank, Hank likes Dagny; they have no qualms about infidelity; Dagny’s been celibate since d’Anconia, which was eight years earlier; and Hank has been having sex with Lillian out of duty for almost all of their eight-year marriage.

    What took them so long?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Oh man Hank’s internal monologue is priceless – it would be considered too melodramatic for a soap opera. Here’s some more of it, just to get a better idea…

    Haven’t I? – he thought. Haven’t I thought of it since the first time I saw you? Haven’t I thought of nothing else for two years?… He sat motionless, looking at her. He heard the words he had never allowed himself to form, the words he had felt, known, yet had not faced, had hoped to destroy by never letting them be said within his own mind. Now it was as sudden and shocking as if he was saying it to her… Since the first time I saw you… Nothing but your body, that mouth of yours, the way your eyes look at me, if… Through every sentence I ever said to you, through every conference you thought so safe, through the importance of all the issues we discussed…

    And on and on for the next half a page.

    Although that’s nothing compared to Hank’s feelings for d’Anconia.

  • smrnda

    It’s odd that for a writer who is so obsessed with being supposedly rational and intellectual that she’s able to take a positive view of just normal sexual desire expressed in purely physical terms. It’s probably the case that Rand isn’t consistent at all and is just writing out her fantasies.

  • Science Avenger

    “normal sexual desire” might be stretching it a bit. ;)

  • Nancy McClernan

    Actually I think that Rand was trying to suggest that Hank has weird sexual hang-ups, brought on by being sucked dry by the parasites (i.e. his wife and family.) This becomes most clear during the first sexual encounter with Dagny.

    One of the most striking things about Hank is how disconnected he is from his own emotions. They appear to travel to him from a distant galaxy which is why it takes two years for them to reach his consciousness.

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

    You can get away with it if it’s funny. :)

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

    Or the lovable-rogue likability.

  • skyblue

    “first sexual encounter with Dagny”

    Oh no. Oh no no no no.

    I have been enjoying these “Atlas Shrugged” blog posts as they give me a chance to marvel at the awful writing and characters, and made much easier to stomach by the commentary.

    But are you telling me there is a sex scene, written by Ayn Rand lurking in the future? That is absolutely horrifying. Or hilarious. But probably just horrifying, not sure I want to find out.

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

    Oh yes, there are sex scenes coming up. I think they’re mostly horrifying, with a side order of hilarious.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Sure – she’s kind of known for the persistently rapey vibe of all her Ubermensch sex scenes. (The parasites don’t have enough passion to get rapey, their sex is weak and feeble by Rand standards.)

    Another blogger writing about Atlas Shrugged invented the term “ragesex” for Randian couplings, which is both apt and funny.

    http://danialexis.net/2013/01/24/liveblogging-atlas-shrugged-part-ii-chapter-9-the-face-without-pain-or-fear-or-guilt-or-interest/

  • Tova Rischi

    Out of curiosity, do you have any works discussing your views on communism at length?

    I personally wouldn’t call Juche communism, so I saw that last paragraph as something of a contradiction. Then again I’m the guy wouldn’t called Leninism-Stalinism communist, so maybe I don’t deserve that.

  • skyblue

    Oh dear. Well, I imagine they’ll make for some interesting posts. I appreciate you slogging through Atlas Shrugged so the rest of us don’t have to!

  • skyblue

    Thanks for the link- much better to read about people reading this book, than it is to read the actual book!

    Also…”rapey” … yuck but I can’t say I’m surprised, given the way Rand’s characters behave.

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

    The only way I could get through Atlas Shrugged was to read the blogs of all those who had already gone through it – that’s how I found this blog.

  • smrnda

    Juche. Wow, I’m not the only person who got curious and read the Eternal Leader’s actual words. Of course, that was during a phase when I was checking out about ANY book that would look suspicious just for kicks.

  • smrnda

    There seems to be something common to right-wingers, whether they’re Randian types of Fundamentalist Christians in that they can only conceive of sex as some kind of conquest.

    I wonder if part of that is the inability to handle egalitarianism, a belief that some people should dominate and others be dominated, perhaps a rigid view of *proper* behavior that makes it hard to make sex just a normal part of life that requires it be some kind of totally overcome with passion moment. Don’t know, but would make for interesting study.

    She could also just be a lousy writer.

  • Tova Rischi

    Thanks.

    I’d probably try and argue that a planned economy isn’t necessarily communist anymore than Austrian economics is all there is to capitalism and try to speak of what “a new social Idea” means to me or that market communism exists, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.

    Anyways cheers.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Why can’t it be both?

    I think that Atlas Shrugged is the purest expression of Rand’s personal preferences – the book and Objectivism are simply Rand’s predilections turned into a movement thanks to her leading sycophants Nathaniel and Barbara Branden.

    Rand herself liked to be dominated in bed, as Nathaniel Branden mentions in his memoirs, and so of course a woman being sexually dominated by a man is not only an acceptable way to have sex, it is the absolutely best, most heroic, most rational way to do it, which is why her Ubermensch always have sex that way, and the non-Ubermensch never do.

  • Cactus_Wren

    (First posting:) That’s exactly how Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will, characterizes the rape scene in The Fountainhead: “… {I}f rape for Roark is an act of individual heroism, of manhood, of challenge met and coolly dispatched, then rape for Dominique must embody similar values. When superman rapes superwoman, superwoman has got to enjoy it — that is the bind Rand has gotten herself into.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, Rand fans have argued that the Fountainhead rape isn’t really rape because Dominique really wanted it. Of course Roark can’t read her mind, so from his perspective it really is rape.

    Not that Rand was big on seeing things from different perspectives.

  • smrnda

    True. It is both. It’s a badly written attempt by one person to make her personal preferences ethical ideals.

  • smrnda

    Perhaps Rand just believed all the standard rape myths.

  • Alex Harman

    I’ve read that Rand’s protagonists were part of Stan Lee’s inspiration for creating Iron Man (although probably a smaller part than the real-life billionaire inventor/industrialist/playboy Howard Hughes — Lee said that Tony Stark is basically Howard Hughes without the assorted neuroses). As Stan Lee doesn’t have the same personality disorder of which Rand exhibited many symptoms, he was better equipped to make such a character likable, despite a background that would have been far more typical for a villain at the time Iron Man first appeared in comics:

    I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military…. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist…. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him…. And he became very popular.

  • Alex Harman

    You could have just said “so of course a woman being sexually dominated by a man is not only an acceptable way to have sex, it is the only acceptable way to have sex.” That’s the core of Rand’s philosphy: the way Rand liked to do anything is the only acceptable way to do that thing, because she was the first and only perfectly rational human being, and all her tastes and preferences were derived by correct reasoning from correct premises.

  • Alex Harman

    Doesn’t Juche literally mean “self-sufficiency?” I remember reading that at one point, anyway, along with the observation that it’s the very peculiar kind of self-sufficiency that a country has when it depends for its food supply on imports from a neighboring country with which it is officially at war.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, I thought that’s what I did say, in slightly different words. She really did consider herself a paragon of rationality, and so all her preferences derived direct from reason.

    It’s especially sad when you compare how her Supermen handle romantic rejection – with perfect equanimity and acceptance – compared to how she handled it, which was to have a complete meltdown.

  • Alex Harman

    Reasonable people, which I think both you and I are, understand the difference between “best way” (or even “best, most heroic, most rational way”) and “only way;” Rand did not, and I thought that point deserved emphasis.


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