Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists

Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists March 13, 2015

Rapture

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter X

Leaving the stranded train behind, Dagny and Owen Kellogg set out into the night to seek help. As they walk along the tracks, they get to talking. Dagny tells Kellogg how hard her job has become, lamenting, “I don’t have a single first-rate man left on the Taggart system” (ouch – sorry, Eddie!), and offers him any job he wants if he’ll work for her again:

“All right. Track walker.”

What?

“Section hand. Engine wiper.” He smiled at the look on her face.

… “Do you mean that you’d take a day laborer’s job?”

“Any time you offered it.”

“But nothing better?”

“That’s right, nothing better.”

“Don’t you understand that I have too many men who’re able to do those jobs, but nothing better?”

“I understand it, Miss Taggart. Do you?

“What I need is your—”

“—mind, Miss Taggart? My mind is not on the market any longer.”

She stood looking at him, her face growing harder. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

Score another brilliant deduction for Dagny Taggart! Only an ingenious capitalist mind like hers could have come to the conclusion that Owen Kellogg, who quit his job and mysteriously vanished around the same time as all the other successful businessmen who quit their jobs and mysteriously vanished, just might be connected to those men in some way. At this rate, it won’t be long before Dagny makes the further Sherlockian leap that Francisco is also involved with this cabal, based on the subtle hint that he’s repeatedly told her he’s part of a secret society and wants to recruit her to join it.

The two of them have plenty of time, walking alone through the dark, for Kellogg to deliver another mini-Randian Monologue, inspired by an offhand remark of Dagny’s on what the dollar sign stands for:

“The dollar sign? For a great deal. It stands on the vest of every fat, pig-like figure in every cartoon, for the purpose of denoting a crook, a grafter, a scoundrel — as the one sure-fire brand of evil… Incidentally, do you know where that sign comes from? It stands for the initials of the United States.

…Do you know that the United States is the only country in history that has ever used its own monogram as a symbol of depravity? Ask yourself why. Ask yourself how long a country that did that could hope to exist, and whose moral standards have destroyed it. It was the only country in history where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade, the only country whose money was the symbol of man’s right to his own mind, to his work, to his life, to his happiness, to himself.”

In passages like these, Rand is unintentionally highlighting her massive historical blind spot. Since I’ve already written about her inexcusable erasure of American slavery and the vast wealth the slaveholders made from it, I won’t belabor the point. Instead, I’ll mention that her explanation of the origin of the dollar sign is wrong: the symbol predates the United States as a political entity, and seems to be a scribal abbreviation of “Sp“, for the Spanish peso.

After walking several miles, they find an emergency telephone. After some yelling at the lazy and insolent night dispatcher, Dagny manages to make him understand what the problem is and orders him to send a new crew out to the train. But on the roadside nearby, she spies a powerful light blazing in the middle of nowhere. She asks about it, and the dispatcher tells her it’s a landing strip belonging to the Flagship Airlines.

On the spot, Dagny decides to hire a plane to take her out west and complete her journey. She belatedly realizes that this would mean abandoning Owen Kellogg by the side of the road, but luckily for her, Kellogg is fine with that. In spite of his earlier avowal that he won’t do any job that requires the use of his mind, he volunteers to take charge of the new crew and make sure the train gets to its destination, because he’s just that nice: “I just want you to see what it’s like to do something you want, for once.”

This was a point made in a perceptive comment by uykhvasdrvtjyku from last week about the classist assumptions built into Rand’s worldview. Although Objectivism is nominally a system where all trades are fair exchanges, the reality depicted in Rand’s narrative is that “working class peons are expected to donate their labor for free whenever their capitalist betters need it”. (Remember the old Taggart employees who came unbidden to guard the maiden voyage of the John Galt Line? Or the time when Dagny stole liquor from one of her employees?) Far from being based on freedom and equality, it’s very much a feudal mindset, where commoners are expected to unquestioningly serve the whims of a tiny minority of aristocratic elites.

Because this is Atlas Shrugged and random chance always favors the protagonists, when Dagny reaches the airfield she finds a perfectly good plane sitting on the runway for her (“a Dwight Sanders monoplane, brand-new, the kind of ship that men were pleading for, in vain, all over the country”, forgotten in “whatever silent crumbling had gone on at the distant headquarters”). Bribing the attendant with a check for $15,000, she bids Kellogg goodbye and takes off, flying through the night to Utah where Quentin Daniels is waiting.

The stars were vanishing, the sky was growing darker, but in the bank of clouds to the east thin cracks were beginning to appear — first as threads, then faint spots of reflection, then straight bands that were not yet pink, but no longer blue, the color of a future light, the first hints of the coming sunrise.

…She saw the Afton airport from across a span of miles, first as a square of sparks, then as a sunburst of white rays. It was lighted for a plane about to take off, and she had to wait for her landing. Circling in the outer darkness above the field, she saw the silver body of a plane rising like a phoenix out of the white fire and — in a straight line, almost leaving an instant’s trail of light to hang in space behind it — going off toward the east.

Dagny lands and asks the attendant to call a car to take her to the Utah Institute of Technology, where Quentin Daniels is waiting. To her utter horror, the attendant tells her that Daniels just left, with a stranger, on the plane she saw take off just before she arrived. Almost as soon as the words are out of his mouth, she’s back behind the wheel and racing down the runway in pursuit:

Once and for all — she thought, clutching the wheel as if it were the enemy not to be relinquished, her words like separate explosions with a trail of fire in her mind to link them — once and for all… to meet the destroyer face to face… to learn who he is and where he goes to vanish… not the motor… he is not to carry the motor away into the darkness of his monstrously closed unknown… he is not to escape, this time…

The plane carrying Daniels flies into the high, rugged mountain wilderness of Colorado. Dagny’s plane is running low on fuel, and she knows of no airport within a hundred miles where either of them could land, but she presses on:

The stranger’s plane was suddenly slacking its speed. He was losing altitude just when she had expected him to climb… With a sudden flash of sunlight on its wings, the plane banked into a long curve, rays dripping like water from its body — then went into the broad, smooth circles of a spiral, as if circling for a landing where no landing was conceivable.

…She knew only that it did not look like, but was certain to be, the motion of a suicide.

She saw the sunlight glitter on his wings for an instant. Then, like the body of a man diving chest-first and arms outstretched, serenely abandoned to the sweep of the fall, the plane went down and vanished behind the ridges of rock.

Dagny, “unable to believe that she had witnessed a horrible catastrophe taking place so simply and quietly”, flies over the valley where she saw the stranger’s plane disappear.

The bottom of the valley looked like a stretch of the earth’s crust mangled in the days when the earth was cooling, left irretrievable ever since. It was a stretch of rocks ground against one another, with boulders hanging in precarious formations… There was no level piece of soil the size of a handkerchief. There was no place for a plane to hide. There was no remnant of a plane’s wreck.

Mystified, but unwilling to give up as long as there’s any chance Quentin Daniels is alive, she circles lower and lower to search for any trace of him. That’s when something extraordinary happens:

She saw the needle of her dial moving down, she saw the walls of granite moving up, she saw the ring of mountains growing higher, its peaks coming closer together in the sky — but the floor of the valley remained unchanged, as if she were dropping down a well with a bottom never to be reached…

The flash of light that hit her had no source. It was as if the air within and beyond the plane became an explosion of blinding cold fire, sudden and soundless. The shock threw her back, her hands off the wheel and over her eyes. In the break of an instant, when she seized the wheel again, the light was gone, but her ship was spinning, her ears were bursting with silence and her propeller stood stiffly straight before her: her motor was dead.

She tried to pull for a rise, but the ship was going down — and what she saw flying at her face was not the spread of mangled boulders, but the green grass of a field where no field had been before.

…And in answer to the earth that flew to meet her, she heard in her mind, as her mockery at fate, as her cry of defiance, the words of the sentence she hated — the words of defeat, of despair and of a plea for help:

“Oh hell! Who is John Galt?”

Crash. Fade to black. End part II.

I admit, there’s some good writing in this section. I thought the passages of Dagny flying the plane were well done, combining lyrical descriptive writing with a fierce, driving inner monologue. That said, there was some discussion in the comments previously about the terrible clunkiness of the slogan “Who is John Galt?” – and it’s especially ridiculous as a thing you yell when you’re in a plane that’s about to crash. What’s wrong with a good, old-fashioned “Oh, shit!“? (Despite writing characters who revel in shocking others and defying conventional standards of propriety and morality, Rand was oddly squeamish about profanity.)

But the message is something else entirely. I’m not the first person to observe this by any means, but Atlas Shrugged has the same basic plot as Left Behind and other works of Christian eschatological fiction centering around the Rapture – a deep irony, considering Rand’s atheism.

In both stories, a chosen few are maliciously persecuted by an evil majority that hates and oppresses them for being righteous. In both stories, the chosen ones are rewarded by being transported out of the corrupt and stifling world, to live in a utopia populated by others like themselves who understand them perfectly. And in both stories, part of the appeal is that the elect get to look down from their safe perch on the suffering and destruction of everyone else, whether it’s saved Christians on the clouds of Heaven or wealthy capitalists in the mountain retreat of Galt’s Gulch.

Escapism has always been part of literature’s appeal, but this story offers it in a particularly extreme form. It promises that all the suffering and frustration you experience isn’t your fault, but can be blamed on evil people who unjustly oppress you. It’s a not-so-subtle invitation to readers to think of themselves as members of the righteous remnant, and to glory vicariously in the idea of everyone else getting their deserved comeuppance. Rather than seeking to humanize those we disagree with, it nurtures grievance and resentment, encouraging true believers to join in the accusation Rand flings against the world: “I told you so! Now you know I was right all along! Now you’ll be sorry!”

Note: Next week, I’ll change course for a bit and review the second Atlas Shrugged movie, subtitled “The Strike”. Then we’ll move on to the third and final part of the novel – and oh, what glorious wonders await…

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