Atlas Shrugged: Antiheroism

Atlas Shrugged: Antiheroism December 18, 2015

BlackHat

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VI

I’ve been contemplating the concept of the antihero in literature. It’s always struck me as an odd term. Just going by etymology, you’d think it meant the opposite of a hero, but it doesn’t. All it means is a different kind of hero – someone who has more obvious character flaws, or a different moral code, than traditional, white-hat, truth-justice-and-the-American-way heroes.

What would it mean for someone to really and truly be the opposite of a hero? You might guess it means that they’re a villain, but I don’t think so. I think the word “antihero” can be given a different and more apt definition, and in this chapter, Hank Rearden shows what it is.

As the chapter opens, Hank is dealing with incidents of vandalism and unrest at his steel mill, led by some disgruntled workers whom the government has forced him to take on, when he gets an unexpected notice in the mail

informing him that all of his property, including his bank accounts and safety deposit boxes, had been attached to satisfy a delinquent judgment obtained against him in a trial involving a deficiency in his personal income tax… except that no such deficiency had ever existed and no such trial had ever taken place.

This is why I said that Rand’s villains aren’t even good at villainy. You may remember the scene where Hank was put on trial on a phony charge and then let off with a slap on the wrist. If they wanted to coerce his cooperation, which is the real reason for this, they should have imposed a harsh sentence and then suspended it, so they could threaten to reimpose it now.

Hank gets a phone call from some of the bad guys in Washington, who cheerily assure him that this was a bureaucratic error and they’ll straighten it out. They invite him to a conference in New York, but before he can go, he receives an urgent call from his mother, asking to meet with him first.

He returns to his old house, where he hasn’t been in months. When he walks in the door, he finds his mother, his brother Philip, and to his displeasure, his now ex-wife Lillian, whom his family has permitted to live there without his knowledge. “I couldn’t let her starve on the city pavements, could I?” his mother says; but Hank thinks that it wasn’t out of compassion (of course not!) but just another way of getting revenge on him. Even by the standards of Randian characters, this is an exceptionally self-centered thought – that spite directed at the capitalists is the only reason anyone would ever help someone who’s poor or hungry.

His family explains that because of the freeze on Hank’s assets, the checks he’s been sending them have been halted, and they can’t buy groceries. His mother asks him to speak to the storekeeper and see if he can arrange something on credit, but he flatly refuses to help. He tells them that this is the outcome they wanted all along, and now that they’ve achieved it, they have no right to complain.

What follows is several pages of dialogue where Hank’s family repeatedly claims that this wasn’t what they meant to happen, apologizes for the way they’ve treated him, pleads for his mercy, etc. Each time, he throws it back in their faces and tells them he doesn’t care what happens to them:

“These are terrible times, and we’re scared. That’s the truth of it, Henry, we’re scared, because you’re turning away from us. Oh, I don’t mean just that grocery bill, but that’s a sign – a year ago you wouldn’t have let that happen to us. Now… now you don’t care.” She made an expectant pause. “Do you?”

“No.”

The pain in Philip’s face was real. A year ago, Rearden would have felt pity. Now, he knew that they had held him through nothing but his reluctance to hurt them, his fear of their pain. He was not afraid of it any longer. “We’re sorry, Henry. We know we’ve harmed you. We wish we could atone for it. But what can we do? The past is past. We can’t undo it.”

“Neither can I.”

“You can accept our repentance,” said Lillian, in a voice glassy with caution. “I have nothing to gain from you now. I only want you to know that whatever I’ve done, I’ve done it because I loved you.”

He turned away, without answering.

“Henry, don’t you understand us?” his mother was pleading.

“I do,” he said quietly.

She looked away, avoiding the clarity of his eyes. “Don’t you care what becomes of us?”

“I don’t.”

Judging by how many times this exchange repeats, I assume Rand was getting a vicariously sadistic thrill out of it. Hank’s looter family has been torturing him all along – you know, by committing nefarious deeds like inviting him to fancy parties and insisting he not commit adultery – and in her mind, this is their comeuppance.

But Hank the character doesn’t seem to have any motivation for being here. If he’s unwilling to forgive his family and no longer cares whether they live or die, why did he agree to this meeting? Why was he still sending them money at all – why didn’t he stop that long ago, if he hates them so much? It seems pointless for him to make the trip just so he could refuse all their requests, unless it was part of Rand’s revenge fantasy for him to disown them to their faces.

While they’re pleading for his help, Hank realizes that the reason for the attachment order is because the looters fear he’s going to quit like the rest of the capitalists, and they’re trying to prevent him by holding his family hostage. (He’s well past the point where this would work, and considers it a “grotesque absurdity” that the bad guys believe he still cares about his mother or his brother.)

“You can’t quit!” his mother screamed in blind panic. “You can’t quit now! You could have, last year, but not now! Not today! You can’t turn deserter, because now they take it out on your family! They’ll leave us penniless, they’ll seize everything, they’ll leave us to starve, they’ll—”

“Keep still!” cried Lillian, more adept than the others at reading danger signs in Rearden’s face.

Keep still? How is that supposed to help? Are Rand’s capitalists genetically engineered with frog DNA so they can’t see motionless objects?

He remembered her hammering derision of his work, his mills, his Metal, his success, he remembered her desire to see him drunk, just once, her attempts to push him into infidelity, her pleasure at the thought that he had fallen to the level of some sordid romance, her terror on discovering that that romance had been an attainment, not a degradation. Her line of attack, which he had found so baffling, had been constant and clear – it was his self-esteem she had sought to destroy, knowing that a man who surrenders his value is at the mercy of anyone’s will…

Read that again, if you didn’t catch it: Hank thinks in reference to Lillian that he remembers “her attempts to push him into infidelity”. This is such a classic abuser excuse: “You made me do this”.

The other funny thing about this passage is that we’ve never seen any of this on the page. Rand doesn’t explain in what way Lillian “attempted” to push Hank into infidelity. Nor did she express “derision” of his work, except insofar as it led him to ignore and neglect her. It’s only now that this plotline is wrapping up that the author retcons this bad behavior into the narrative. It’s as if she’s just realized what I’ve said all along – that of the two of them, Hank’s behavior is worse by far – and tries to balance the scales at the last minute by insisting that Lillian did lots of other bad things offscreen.

Eventually, Hank tires of the discussion and turns to leave. His mother screams at him:

“Wait! Don’t go! Henry, don’t abandon us! Don’t sentence us to perish! Whatever we are, we’re human! We want to live!”

“Why, no—” he started in quiet astonishment and ended in quiet horror, as the thought struck him fully, “I don’t think you do. If you did, you would have known how to value me.”

This moral would be horrifying enough in the context of this one scene, but it becomes a theme throughout the last part of the book. According to Ayn Rand, it’s not just that her villains don’t deserve to live, it’s that they secretly don’t want to live (as is proven by their disagreeing with Ayn Rand). To put it another way, not only is it morally right to kill them, you’re doing them a favor by killing them.

This extreme dehumanization is hinted at in earlier sections. In the scene where Jim tells Dagny that he should get to be a railroad president because he wants to be one, she thinks that her words directed at him “were not addressed to anything human”. Or in the scene where his brother Philip comes to ask him for a job, Hank thinks of his family as “inanimate objects” and “refuse”: “one could not grant any anger, indignation or moral concern to the senseless motions of the unliving; no, worse, he thought – the anti-living.”

This goes well beyond the finding, which I touched on earlier, that most rich people are jerks or that they’ve convinced themselves the poor have it easy. Those attitudes don’t need anything other than ordinary emotional distancing and human short-sightedness to explain them.

But the willfully malevolent indifference exhibited by Hank in this scene is something else. This is what antiheroism ought to mean: not simple villainy, but the active declaration that you’ll go out of your way to not help anyone in trouble. A hero would want to save the needy; a villain would want to torment them or reign over them, which is in its own twisted way an affirmation of their value. The Objectivist way is to declare them subhumans who don’t deserve even a flicker of moral consideration, who can be stepped over or shot dead, equally without notice or concern.

We never hear from Hank’s family again after this scene. The assumption is that they starve or otherwise die in the apocalyptic collapse of society that John Galt brings about, but we don’t find out for sure. In a way, it’s fitting that Ayn Rand doesn’t care enough about them, either as characters or as people, even to tell us what happens to them. It’s consistent with her attitude that her protagonists, and the people who follow her philosophy, are the only ones who matter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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