Atlas Shrugged: Objectivist Mating Rituals

Atlas Shrugged: Objectivist Mating Rituals January 30, 2015

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IX

While Francisco is being cryptic at Dagny about the disappeared capitalists, their conversation is interrupted by a surprise visitor:

The sound they heard was the turning of a key in the lock of the entrance door. The door opened and Hank Rearden came in.

…Francisco had risen to his feet, as if in the unhurried, automatic manner of a d’Anconia trained to the code of courtesy. There was nothing that Rearden could see in his face. But what she saw in it was worse than she had feared.

In the manner of an old Western-style showdown at high noon, the two capitalist titans square off across the width of Dagny’s apartment. You can almost picture it: the unflinching gazes, the hands tensed at their sides, the single bead of sweat sliding down a statuesque forehead. Practically all that’s missing is for one of them to dramatically growl, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, pardner.”

The last time they parted ways, Hank vowed that he would kill Francisco on sight if he ever saw him again. But the cause of his hostility is more immediate: he believes that Francisco is only there in an attempt to seduce Dagny, and like any good Objectivist, he’s homicidally jealous toward anyone who tries to move in on “the woman he owns“.

“What are you doing here?” asked Rearden, in the tone one would use to address a menial caught in a drawing room.

“I see that I have no right to ask you the same question,” said Francisco. She knew what effort was required to achieve the clear, toneless quality of his voice. His eyes kept returning to Rearden’s right hand, as if he were still seeing the key between his fingers.

“Then answer it,” said Rearden.

“Hank, any questions you wish to ask should be asked of me,” she said.

Rearden did not seem to see or hear her. “Answer it,” he repeated.

The two men exchange angry accusations while Dagny keeps trying to explain what’s really going on, only to be repeatedly ignored and talked over by both of them:

“Hank, if you wish to accuse me—” she began, but Rearden whirled to her.

“God, no, Dagny, I don’t! But you shouldn’t be seen speaking to him. You shouldn’t deal with him in any way. You don’t know him. I do.” He turned to Francisco. “What are you after? Are you hoping to include her among your kind of conquests or—”

“Why don’t you defend yourself, if you have nothing to hide? Why are you here? Why were you stunned to see me enter?”

“Hank, stop it!” Dagny’s voice was a cry, and she drew back, knowing that violence was the most dangerous element to introduce into this moment.

Both men turned to her. “Please let me be the one to answer,” Francisco said quietly.

This scene could almost be read as a black comedy lampooning clueless sexism – two men battling over which one has the right to call on a woman at her home, while both acting as if her wishes couldn’t possibly be relevant – except I’m quite certain that Rand doesn’t mean it as satire. To her mind, both Hank and Francisco are acting correctly here. In the Objectivist worldview, women have no wills of their own worth respecting; they’re just items of property that gravitate toward whoever’s the best male capitalist in the room. (Remember, in Rand’s psychology, “the essence of femininity is hero-worship“, and love and sex are both just expressions of admiration for whoever best exemplifies your philosophical ideals.)

As their argument heats up, Hank lobs every insult he can think of at Francisco: that he’s a worthless playboy, that he’s corrupt and a traitor to what he believes in, that he’s worse than the looters. Their battle reminds me of nothing so much as the ritual of penis fencing, the pre-mating dominance contest of flatworms.

Then, belatedly, Hank figures something out:

He made a step toward Francisco; he asked, pointing at Dagny, his voice low and strangely unlike his own voice, as if it neither came from nor were addressed to a living person, “Is this the woman you love?”

Francisco closed his eyes.

“Don’t ask him that!” The cry was Dagny’s.

“Is this the woman you love?”

Francisco answered, looking at her, “Yes.”

Rearden’s hand rose, swept down and slapped Francisco’s face.

The scream came from Dagny… Francisco’s hands were the first thing she saw. The heir of the d’Anconias stood thrown back against a table, clasping the edge behind him, not to support himself, but to stop his own hands. She saw the rigid stillness of his body… his convulsed fingers struggling to grow fast to the table’s edge, she wondered which would break first, the wood of the table or the bones of the man, and she knew that Rearden’s life hung in the balance.

There’s an odd implication here that Francisco would kill Hank in a fight, which is strange since he’s not described as especially muscular or imposing (he’s “gaunt” and “slender”), nor has anything up to this point given us reason to believe he has any special skill at killing people. Do his Mary Sue powers include innate knowledge of Capitalist Kung Fu?

Dagny tries to intervene, only to again be harshly shut down:

Her voice had the savage sound of rising to deliver a blow and it was crying to Rearden: “—to protect me from him? Long before you ever—”

“Don’t!” Francisco’s head jerked to her, the brief snap of his voice held all of his unreleased violence, and she knew it was an order that had to be obeyed.

Motionless but for the slow curve of his head, Francisco turned to Rearden. She saw his hands leave the edge of the table and hang relaxed by his sides.

…He bowed to Dagny, inclining his head in a manner that appeared as a simple gesture of leave-taking to Rearden, as a gesture of acceptance to her. Then he left.

Although this scene comes close, it’s unlikely that Rand would ever have allowed two of her heroes to come to blows. That would, after all, spoil her theme that True Capitalists never truly disagree about anything (even if Hank doesn’t know Francisco is still a True Capitalist). Disturbingly, however, that prohibition on inter-protagonist violence doesn’t apply to sexual relationships between men and women – as we’ll see next week.

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