Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter I
And now, we embark on the third and final part of Atlas Shrugged. When we left off at the conclusion of Part II, it was on a cliffhanger: Dagny’s plane was spiraling down for a crash landing, plummeting into a mysterious valley that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Part III begins as she regains consciousness:
When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man’s face.
…She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud. The angular planes of his cheeks made her think of arrogance, of tension, of scorn — yet the face had none of these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it.
Ayn Rand’s absurdly detailed descriptions of her characters always make me think of the bad-writing advice, “Try to convey more in stage directions than is physically possible“.
…he looked as if he were poured out of metal, but some dimmed, soft-lustered metal, like an aluminum-copper alloy, the color of his skin blending with the chestnut-brown of his hair, the loose strands of the hair shading from brown to gold in the sun, and his eyes completing the colors, as the one part of the casting left undimmed and harshly lustrous: his eyes were the deep, dark green of light glinting on metal.
She tried to draw away from him, but it was only a faint movement of her head on the grass she felt under her hair. She tried to rise.
A shot of pain across her back threw her down again.
“Don’t move, Miss Taggart. You’re hurt.”
“You know me?” Her voice was impersonal and hard.
“I’ve known you for many years.”
“Have I known you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What is your name?”
We’ve finally met the MacGuffin himself. I have to give Ayn Rand credit for one thing: John Galt is the first of her heroes who isn’t conspicuously Nordic.
Here’s how she’s described every protagonist up till now:
Eddie Willers: “Eddie’s eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder.”
Francisco: “The suntan of his skin intensified the startling color of his eyes: they were a pure, clear blue.”
Hugh Akston: “He had a lean face and gray hair that blended in tone with the cold blue of his eyes”
Hank: “The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice — then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair”
Dagny: “the brown of her hair, the blue-gray of her eyes”
After this parade of angular, handsome, mostly blond and blue-eyed capitalists, you’d think her final hero would be the blondest and bluest-eyed of them all. Instead, Rand surprises us by making him angular and handsome with green eyes. By the standards of this book, this is a bold experiment. I wonder if she meant anything by it, but it’s more likely that even she had begun to realize that it would strain the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to give every hero coincidental Aryan traits.
She glanced slowly around her. She was lying in the grass of a field at the foot of a granite drop that came down from thousands of feet away in the blue sky. On the other edge of the field, some crags and pines and the glittering leaves of birch trees hid the space that stretched to a distant wall of encircling mountains. Her plane was not shattered — it was there, a few feet away, flat on its belly in the grass.
…She made a movement to rise. He bent to lift her, but she gathered her strength in a swift, sudden jolt and slipped out of his grasp, struggling to stand up. “I think I can—” she started saying, and collapsed against him the instant her feet rested on the ground, a stab of pain shooting up from an ankle that would not hold her.
He lifted her in his arms and smiled. “No, you can’t, Miss Taggart,” he said, and started off across the field.
But here, the sequence of events is more puzzling. If Dagny’s plane didn’t have a catastrophic crash landing, how did she end up lying in the grass outside, and why doesn’t she remember what happened? Did John Galt come into the plane, carry her out, put her down on the ground until she woke up, then pick her up again and carry her off? If so, hello spinal cord injury! Whatever happened to not moving accident victims until they’ve gotten medical attention?
While he carries her, she asks if he knew he was being followed. He says no, that he touched down at the landing field, then saw her plane plunging to the ground and came to investigate:
“There was no landing field in this valley, when I looked down. There was no meadow, either. How did it get here?”
He glanced at the sky. “Look carefully. Do you see anything up there?”
She dropped her head back, looking straight into the sky, seeing nothing but the peaceful blue of morning. After a while she distinguished a few faint strips of shimmering air.
“Heat waves,” she said.
“Refractor rays,” he answered. “The valley bottom that you saw is a mountain top eight thousand feet high, five miles away from here.”
… “Why do you keep that screen?”
“Because this place is private property intended to remain as such.”
“What is this place?”
“I’ll show it to you, now that you’re here, Miss Taggart. I’ll answer questions after you’ve seen it.”
I earlier pointed out the place where Atlas takes the leap from political allegory into pure sci-fi. That genre shift is going to assert itself much more, now that we’ve come to Galt’s Gulch.
Rand apparently believed that the power of human ingenuity is literally infinite – that there’s nothing a person can’t accomplish or create, if he believes in himself and in capitalism enough. Rearden Metal was one example, but John Galt, the genius who invents impossible devices out of his head, is a much bigger one. Here, we find out that the capitalists’ secret valley is protected by another of his inventions, a “ray screen” that makes it invisible from the air, reminiscent of Star Trek‘s holodeck.
The title that Ayn Rand chose for this chapter is “Atlantis”, and in light of magical technology like this, that’s amazingly appropriate. After all, Atlantis is the archetype of a mythical society: a place that can’t be found, because it doesn’t exist.
So far, this book has been devoted to Rand’s critique of society as it is. She rages against laws, institutions and moral norms that, in her mind, serve only to oppress the brave producers while breeding corruption and rewarding incompetence. But that begs the question of what alternative she proposes – of what her ideal society would look like and how it would function. In this chapter and the next, we’ll finally get a glimpse of the answer.
And that answer is breathtakingly simple. Rand’s belief is that, if we just got rid of essentially all laws and regulations, freedom would blossom and humanity would flourish. The next two chapters are her argument for this principle. But in fiction, utopia can be conjured into being by authorial fiat, which glosses over or ignores all the myriad problems that would inevitably arise if someone actually tried to build a society along these lines.
This isn’t just armchair speculation. In the real world, people in various times and places – remote wildernesses, isolated islands, ships at sea, even the dark reaches of the internet – have tried to create a libertarian utopia, either by following Ayn Rand’s principles or independently working along similar lines. And in every case, as we’ll see, their effort either failed to get off the ground or collapsed with dire results. It’s no surprise, really, that building a perfect society in reality turns out to be much harder than it is in the obliging world of fiction. Rand’s Atlantis is like all other utopias, in that it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Image: Telluride, Colorado; via Shutterstock
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