Atlas Shrugged: The Middle Path


Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

OK, folks, programming note: Next week’s post will be the last for this chapter, which ends the first part of this book. Once that’s done, I’m going to jump right into a short review of the cinematic hilarity that is Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Rent or stream a copy and get ready to follow along – if you dare!

* * *

Lee Hunsacker has just one useful piece of information for Dagny: the Starnes heirs, the owners who first ran the Twentieth Century Motor Company into the ground, live in Durance, Louisiana. She soon tracks them down:

The ill-smelling bungalow, where she found Ivy Starnes, stood on the edge of town, by the shore of the Mississippi. Hanging strands of moss and clots of waxy foliage made the thick vegetation look as if it were drooling; the too many draperies, hanging in the stagnant air of a small room, had the same look. The smell came from undusted corners and from incense burning in silver jars at the feet of contorted Oriental deities. Ivy Starnes sat on a pillow like a baggy Buddha. Her mouth was a tight little crescent, the petulant mouth of a child demanding adulation – on the spreading, pallid face of a woman past fifty. Her eyes were two lifeless puddles of water. [p.301]

We’ve often seen how Rand constantly equates physical ugliness with evil motivations, but I think this may be the first time that she extends this principle to places and not just to people. Perhaps Ivy Starnes’ evil is so concentrated that it’s leaking out into the environment, like toxic waste.

I have to wonder, how often has Rand’s obsessive focus on physical appearance led to her followers being duped? Given her insistence that all good people are beautiful and angular, I’d have to imagine that there are Objectivists who’ve been led astray because they thought a handsome, strong-chinned con artist couldn’t steer them wrong. And how many of them have scorned great investments because the person selling them was overweight or had a receding hairline?

“We put into practice that noble historical precept: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need… Twice a year, we all gathered in a mass meeting, where every person presented his claim for what he believed to be his needs. We voted on every claim, and the will of the majority established every person’s need and every person’s ability. The income of the factory was distributed accordingly. Rewards were based on need, and the penalties on ability. Those whose needs were voted to be the greatest, received the most. Those who had not produced as much as the vote said they could, were fined and had to pay the fines by working overtime without pay. That was our plan. It was based on the principle of selflessness. It required men to be motivated, not by personal gain, but by love for their brothers.”

I won’t spend much time on this, because there’s a longer section later in the book which goes into more detail about what happened at the Starnesville factory. But I do want to focus on Ivy Starnes’ explanation of why her scheme failed and the factory went bankrupt:

“We were defeated by the greed, the selfishness and the base, animal nature of men. It was the eternal conflict between spirit and matter, between soul and body. They would not renounce their bodies, which was all we asked of them.”

Dagny thinks of this as “pure evil”, recalling the people in the ruins of Starnesville scraping out a living in the fields. But then again, the obvious rejoinder is that capitalists through the ages have likewise asked workers to “renounce their bodies” by laboring, for the benefit of the capitalists, at work that’s bound to ravage their health. As we saw earlier, there have always been businesses that treated workers as disposable, reasoning that it doesn’t matter how many people are killed or crippled on the job, because they can always get more. (Remember Hank Rearden and Rand’s acceptance of children laboring in coal mines?)

The thing is, I agree with Rand that communism doesn’t work as an economic system. But I give Karl Marx credit for this one thing: at least he thought that people suffering and being exploited was a problem. Rand is clearly prepared to countenance any amount of human misery, as long as it happens in a society with the right premises.

“But I have seen my error and I am free of it, I am through with the world of machines, manufacturers and money, the world enslaved by matter. I am learning the emancipation of the spirit, as revealed in the great secrets of India, the release from bondage to flesh, the victory over physical nature, the triumph of the spirit over matter.” [p.302]

One of the things Ayn Rand has in common with fundamentalist Christianity is her notion that all belief systems which are not hers are the same belief system. In her eyes, you’re either a good capitalist who loves productive work, or an evil mystic who claims to value “spiritual” things because you hate productive work and the people who do it. What’s more, everyone knows which of these two camps they belong to, whether they want to admit it or not. That’s why she sees nothing odd about Ivy Starnes converting from communism to Buddhism; as far as she’s concerned, those are just two slightly different ways to be a malevolent, life-hating looter.

Actually, a touch of Buddhism might be just what the doctor ordered for Rand. Contrary to what she seems to think, Buddhism doesn’t counsel rejection of the world, but the so-called middle path, neither total devotion to sensual pleasure nor total asceticism and renunciation of the flesh. Rand’s life could practically be a Buddhist parable about the unhappiness brought by devotion to one extreme at the expense of the other. (The viewpoint advocated by Ivy Starnes sounds more like Gnosticism, the early Christian sect which taught that the material world was an evil place to be escaped as soon as possible.)

In the end, Dagny is able to intimidate Starnes into giving her one more clue:

“But, my girl, I said that I do not remember…. But I do not know their names, I do not know any names, I do not know what sort of adventurers my father may have had in that laboratory!… Don’t you hear me?… I am not accustomed to being questioned in such manner and… Don’t keep repeating it. Don’t you know any words but ‘engineer’?… Don’t you hear me at all?… What’s the matter with you? I — I don’t like your face, you’re… Leave me alone. I don’t know who you are, I’ve never hurt you, I’m an old woman, don’t look at me like that, I… Stand back! Don’t come near me or I’ll call for help! I’ll… Oh, yes, yes, I know that one! The chief engineer. Yes. He was the head of the laboratory. Yes. William Hastings. That was his name — William Hastings. I remember. He went off to Brandon, Wyoming. He quit the day after we introduced the plan. He was the second man to quit us… No. No, I don’t remember who was the first. He wasn’t anybody important.”

Gosh, do you think that first engineer might turn out to be important?

Even though we don’t see Dagny’s side of this conversation, it’s plain that she’s threatening to hurt Ivy Starnes if Starnes won’t give her the information she’s demanding. We’re not meant to draw any negative conclusions about Dagny from this, because Rand’s heroes are entitled to commit violence to get what they want, especially if it’s against someone who’s fat and ugly. One thing’s for sure: For all that Rand disparages Buddhism as irredeemably spiritual and mystical, one of its core ethical principles is non-violence, and I’d rather associate with a Buddhist who followed this tenet than with an Objectivist who might decide I don’t merit freedom from forcible coercion because I’m not True Capitalist enough.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Welcome to Atlantis
The Sci-Fi Fans Who Fear Change
Atlas Shrugged: Bells and Whistles
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 12
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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