Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII, The Speech
A brief promo before we get to today’s post: I was on the Feminist Coffee Hour podcast to talk about Ayn Rand and gender roles in Objectivism. Check it out! (Full disclosure: one of the co-hosts happens to be the person I’m married to. There were also some minor cat-related technical difficulties midway through, so apologies for that.)
Last time, we heard John Galt commandeer the airwaves to explain his grand plan to destroy the world, in the best tradition of supervillains everywhere. I’m going to delve into the minutiae of Galt’s speech next week, but first I want to point out one especially glaring improbability.
This is how it begins:
“Ladies and gentlemen… Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is what you are going to hear.”
… “For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing — you who dread knowledge — I am the man who will now tell you.”
And this is how it ends:
“Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the Morality of Life and that yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth.
“You will win when you are ready to pronounce the oath I have taken at the start of my battle — and for those who wish to know the day of my return, I shall now repeat it to the hearing of the world:
I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
There’s nothing between those two paragraphs that we haven’t already heard by this point in the book: capitalism good, government bad, reason dictates that you agree with my every word or else you are a parasite, I’ve taken away all the producers and now the rest of you are going to starve, and so on and so forth. What’s more notable is how long it takes him to say it.
In between those opening and closing paragraphs, there are almost 34,000 words. That’s the size of a mid-length novella. At an ordinary speaking pace of around 120 words per minute, the whole speech would take about 4 hours and 45 minutes to deliver. As KennethJohnTaylor pointed out last week, you can manage it in 3 hours and 20 minutes if you can keep to a quicker pace of about 170 words per minute. And all that’s assuming you don’t need to stop midway through to rest your vocal cords, take a drink of water, or use the bathroom. Presumably, superhuman bladder control is another of the powers of Randian protagonists. (According to the Atlas Society, it took Rand over two years of effort just to write this speech, although the novel implies that John Galt delivered it extemporaneously.)
So, Galt has a doorstopper of a speech to deliver. But the most bizarre thing is that he shows no concern for ordinary people’s attention span. He makes no effort to summarize it, to reduce it to its essential principles, or otherwise make it more palatable. He just expects everyone to listen to the whole thing – and somehow, he’s right.
When the speech ends and the next chapter begins, we’ll see that Dagny, Eddie and the bad guys are in exactly the same places in the TV station. Even though what Galt was saying was the antithesis of the looters’ morality, even though it was everything they hated and dreaded the most, no one angrily turned the radio off or pulled the plug or kept searching for ways to interrupt the broadcast. They just stood and listened silently to the whole thing, without reacting, without objecting, as if time had been suspended while Galt was talking.
Human nature being what it is, the number of people who’d actually listen to the whole thing ought to be minuscule. The vast majority of listeners would get bored and turn the TV off, if they didn’t just fall asleep, long before Galt got anywhere near his conclusion. Even taking into account the mystery of how he took over the airwaves (which he never does explain in the speech), hours on end of listening to a voice droning on and on over a blank screen is boring. And it started at 8 PM, so he ought to be talking until well after midnight.
This is a commonplace in Atlas Shrugged. As with Francisco interrupting a wedding to deliver a twenty-minute lecture on the gold standard, or Hank Rearden offering a philosophical monologue in place of a plea at his own trial, Rand’s characters seem to have the superpower of being able to deliver arbitrarily-large infodumps without taxing anyone’s patience and without being interrupted or shouted down. This would make sense in a fourth-wall-breaking work of literature where the characters can pause the action and speak directly to the readers, but not in a work of purported realism like this one.
The real explanation is that it’s an eruption of authorial fantasy. This is just what Ayn Rand wanted and expected: that when she expounded upon her ideas, people would sit and listen in submissive silence, without criticism or challenge, like churchgoers listening to the reading of holy scripture. Rand never accepted that her ideas were just one viewpoint among many, or that she should have to prove their worth in open debate. (Remember Dagny angrily refusing to take part in a debate earlier in the book.) Whenever she met with any kind of challenge or resistance, she immediately became furious and sought to expel that person from her life. For such a staunch capitalist, she was a fierce enemy of the marketplace of ideas!
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