Atlas Shrugged: Gasland

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VIII

After Dagny and Hank’s train rolls in triumph into Wyatt Junction, Ellis Wyatt invites the two of them to his house for a celebratory dinner. While they eat, he encourages Hank Rearden to move to Colorado (“This is the capital of the Renaissance”) and lets them in on his own future plans:

He pointed west. “The Buena Esperanza Pass. Five miles from here. Everybody’s wondering what I’m doing with it. Oil shale. How many years ago was it that they gave up trying to get oil from shale, because it was too expensive? Well, wait till you see the process I’ve developed. It will be the cheapest oil ever to splash in their faces, and an unlimited supply of it, an untapped supply that will make the biggest oil pool look like a mud puddle.” [p.233]

I had to laugh in recognition when I read this. Ellis Wyatt has discovered hydrofracking!

The technique of hydraulic fracturing is decades old, but it’s only recently become commercially viable. It entails injecting liquid into a well at high pressure to crack open impermeable rock, allowing trapped oil and gas to flow into the borehole. It’s true that fracking in rock formations like the Marcellus Shale has unlocked an enormous supply of natural gas, enough that the U.S. is becoming a net energy exporter for the first time in decades. It’s also true that much of this gas is displacing coal, a far dirtier fuel.

But fracking has its own costs, especially for the communities whose watersheds have been poisoned by a toxic mix of fracking fluids and liberated heavy metals. Energy companies have even gotten laws passed preventing towns from learning what chemicals could be going into their groundwater, claiming that it’s a trade secret.

Obviously you can’t take this analogy too far, because Rand only refers vaguely to Wyatt’s “process” without saying what it is. Maybe in Randworld, Ellis Wyatt has some magical technology that isn’t hydrofracking, that produces cheap oil and gas with no groundwater pollution. But that’s the point: in Atlas, every new technology invented by capitalists is magically perfect. Rearden Metal is lighter and cheaper and stronger than any alloy ever invented. Wyatt’s process unlocks previously unreachable reserves, is incredibly cheap and has no side effects, or at least none worth telling us about. By presenting this impossibly idealized picture of innovation, Rand makes the government look irrational and villainous for wanting to regulate it, but in reality almost every technology has downsides that have to be measured against its benefits.

Over dinner, the three of them exchange boasts about all the pipelines and railroad tracks they’re going to build, all the ways their businesses are going to transform the world. But their celebration is marred when Wyatt gives a toast and then suddenly flings a glass to smash against the wall. When Dagny asks him what’s the matter, he says wistfully, “Never mind. We’ll try to think that it will last” [p.234].

Later that night, Wyatt shows them to their rooms and goes to bed, and that means it’s time for Dagny and Hank, both still turgid with triumph over the success of their railroad, to finally have sex. Prepare yourself – you’ll surely need a cold shower after reading these romantic passages:

His mouth was taut, the lips faintly drawn inward, stressing the outline of its shape. Only his eyes were blurred, their lower lids swollen and raised, their glance intent with that which resembled hatred and pain.

It was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash encircling her body; she felt his arms around her, she felt her legs pulled forward against him and her chest bent back under the pressure of his, his mouth on hers. [p.235]

He was not smiling, his face was tight, it was the face of an enemy, he jerked her head and caught her mouth again, as if he were inflicting a wound.

He took her wrist and threw her inside his room, making the gesture tell her that he needed no sign of consent or resistance. [p.236]

Notwithstanding that it was written by a woman, this scene is shockingly misogynistic. It uses language reminiscent of beatings and violence to describe what Hank does to Dagny, treating sex as an act of subjugation. It’s even more explicit than the earlier scene where Francisco slaps Dagny, drags her around by an arm, and treats her body like his property. And yet, Dagny herself finds nothing wrong or off-putting in being treated this way. She even seems to enjoy it.

Again, if this were just Ayn Rand’s private kinks being expressed, that would be one thing. There are plenty of sex scenes in fiction that no ethical person would act out in real life. But Atlas Shrugged, by its author’s own words, isn’t just intended to be a work of fiction. It’s supposed to be a philosophical guide to the way the world should work, a list of desires and preferences that all rational people are supposed to hold. The fictional story is just the vehicle for proselytizing the author’s opinions.

And one of those opinions, apparently, is that all men should violently dominate women, and all women should enjoy being degraded this way. It’s impossible not to wonder if there’s a psychological connection between Rand’s heartless political views, that the poor and the “losers” should all be mercilessly ground underfoot, and her equally cold and ruthless emotional views, which treat sex as a contemptuous and hateful act by which men express their ruthless domination of women.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Lilies of the Field
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 13
Atlas Shrugged: The Workers' Paradise
Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
About Adam Lee

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


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