Atlas Shrugged: The Survival Instinct

Atlas Shrugged: The Survival Instinct March 25, 2016

LemmingsMural

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter IX

When John Galt curses out America on live television, the ballroom erupts in chaos. The broadcast is instantly cut off, and some guests scream or flee in panic, while others freeze in terror. The thugs guarding Galt hustle him away. Seeing Mr. Thompson and the other looters make a hasty departure through a side exit, Dagny follows unobtrusively and listens at the door:

She found them huddled in a small, private study: Mr. Thompson was slumped in an armchair, clutching his head with both hands, Wesley Mouch was moaning, Eugene Lawson was sobbing with the sound of a nasty child’s rage, Jim was watching the others with an oddly expectant intensity. “I told you so!” Dr. Ferris was shouting. “I told you so, didn’t I? That’s where you get with your ‘peaceful persuasion’!”

They’ve tried every kind of bribe and flattery they can think of, and since that hasn’t gotten John Galt to cooperate, most of them are out of ideas:

“I resign!” yelled Chick Morrison. “I resign! I’m through! I don’t know what to say to the country! I can’t think! I won’t try! It’s no use! I couldn’t help it! You’re not going to blame me! I’ve resigned!” He waved his arms in some shapeless gesture of futility or farewell, and ran out of the room.

“He has a hide-out all stocked for himself in Tennessee,” said Tinky Holloway reflectively, as if he, too, had taken a similar precaution and were now wondering whether the time had come.

“He won’t keep it for long, if he gets there at all,” said Mouch. “With the gangs of raiders and the state of transportation—” He spread his hands and did not finish.

She knew what thoughts were filling the pause; she knew that no matter what private escapes these men had once provided for themselves, they were now grasping the fact that all of them were trapped.

Strangely, for someone who took such sadistic pleasure in revenge fantasies, Rand never shows us the ultimate fate of most of her villains. Except for Robert Stadler (as we just saw) and Jim Taggart (still to come), we never find out what becomes of them: not Hank Rearden’s mooching family, or Ivy Starnes, or Ma Chalmers. We’re left to assume that they perish in the final collapse of civilization, but the book doesn’t depict it or fill in the details.

This passage, which is the closest Rand ever comes to addressing it, serves as her assurance that none of them will get away. Even if they have bunkers in the woods stocked with canned food, none of them will be able to get there, or if they do, they’ll be killed or enslaved by the random roaming gangs of the apocalypse.

But if that’s true, why doesn’t it also apply to the protagonists? In his radio speech, Galt urged any good capitalists remaining in the outside world to build hidden communities of their own, and it’s implied that some of them did. By the book’s logic, those communities should also be doomed to destruction.

Plus, what makes Galt’s Gulch safe from those same raider gangs? Even if it’s hidden from the air, it’s a fairly large piece of territory; someone is bound to stumble across it sooner or later. Even if the inhabitants have magical sci-fi weapons, there are only a thousand or so of them. Do they really have a chance against the entire rest of the world?

This is where Rand’s psychology takes a turn for the weird:

She observed that there was no terror in their faces; she saw hints of it, but it looked like a perfunctory terror. Their expressions ranged from blank apathy to the relieved look of cheats who had believed that the game could end no other way and were making no effort to contest it or regret it…

Even though the looters know they have no chance to survive, she says, they’re not afraid – their fear is only “perfunctory” – because this outcome is secretly what they were hoping for all along.

This is a poor word choice, to say the least. How can terror be perfunctory? If there are any emotions that can only be felt sincerely and with one’s entire being, terror would be near the top of the list. Can you feel a cursory murderous rage? An obligatory infatuation?

Of all the looters, only Dr. Ferris seems to have a card left to play. He asks them, gloating, “Now do you see what a valuable establishment the State Science Institute really is?”

“It won’t work,” said Tinky Holloway. “He won’t give in.”

“That’s what you think!” said Ferris, and chuckled, “You haven’t seen our experimental model in action. Last month, we got three confessions in three unsolved murder cases.”

… They remained silent; Mr. Thompson was struggling not to see that they were all looking at him. Then he cried suddenly, “Oh, do anything you want! I couldn’t help it! Do anything you want!”

Dagny realizes that they intend to torture John Galt. But this is where Rand’s psychology gets ludicrous, as she insists that they’re not planning to torture him because they want him to save them, but because they want to kill him and thereby ensure their own destruction:

They did not think that Galt would give in; they did not want him to give in. They did not think that anything could save them now; they did not want to be saved. Moved by the panic of their nameless emotions, they had fought against reality all their lives — and now they had reached a moment when at last they felt at home. They did not have to know why they felt it, they who had chosen never to know what they felt — they merely experienced a sense of recognition, since this was what they had been seeking, this was the kind of reality that had been implied in all of their feelings, their actions, their desires, their choices, their dreams… They did not want to live; they wanted him to die.

The horror she felt was only a brief stab, like the wrench of a switching perspective: she grasped that the objects she had thought to be human were not. She was left with a sense of clarity, of a final answer and of the need to act. He was in danger; there was no time and no room in her consciousness to waste emotion on the actions of the subhuman.

Ayn Rand believes that, if you’re not a devotee of her philosophy, it’s because you secretly don’t want to live. She rationalizes this by asserting that the only motive for any kind of law or regulation of business is hatred of human achievement; and because it’s those achievements that make life possible, to hate them is to hate life itself, which in her mind is the same as a wish to not exist.

Of course, this has the corollary that, since most people aren’t Objectivists, her philosophy entails that the majority of humanity throughout history has had this secret death wish. You, me and all of us hate and persecute the tiny handful of producers to camouflage our own hidden desire for non-existence. How could it be that virtually the entire human species could so thoroughly lack something as basic as a survival instinct?

Rand was adamant that human beings have radically free will, that we’re all born as a tabula rasa, and that it’s the choices we make that define our character and shape our selves. And yet, she also believes that the vast majority of us make the wrong choice and end up being drawn to this self-negating cult of death worship. It’s the same as the Christian original-sin theology which holds that human beings have free will and yet that the vast majority of us choose evil. John Galt himself pointed out that this makes no sense, analogizing it to “a game with loaded dice“.

The other horrifying consequence of this is that, because Rand’s protagonists know the looters secretly desire not to exist, and in fact aren’t even really human, it’s morally okay to kill them without qualm. We’ll see this principle play out in the next chapter.

As the looters discuss their evil plans, they realize that Dagny is listening at the door. (Like John Galt “hiding” under his own name, Randian protagonists aren’t good at being sneaky.) Luckily for her, they think she has no idea what they’re talking about:

She held his glance, letting him see the untroubled indifference of hers, as if she had neither cared nor understood. Then, as if merely grasping the signal of a private discussion, she turned slowly, with the suggestion of a shrug, and left the room. She knew that they were now past the stage of worrying about her.

She walked with the same unhurried indifference through the halls and through the exit of the hotel. But a block away, when she had turned a corner, her head flew up and the folds of her evening gown slammed like a sail against her legs with the sudden violence of the speed of her steps.

She finds a pay phone (the telephone system is apparently working just fine, another example of the world rearranging itself to suit the needs of the protagonists) and dials the emergency number Francisco gave her. He picks up, saying he was expecting her call, and she hurriedly explains the situation. He tells her to pack anything she wants to take, since they won’t have time later, and to meet him in forty minutes near the Taggart Terminal.

Dagny packs a suitcase in her apartment, and stops by her silent, vacant office to take some keepsakes. But on her way out the door, she’s met by the company’s panicked chief engineer, who’s been looking high and low for her. He hastily tells her about the destruction of the Taggart Bridge:

“Nobody knows for certain what happened — but it looks like… they think that something went wrong at Project X and… it looks like those sound rays, Miss Taggart! …We’re still checking, but the stories that are coming from the rim of that circle are—” He shuddered. “Only one thing is certain: the bridge is gone! Miss Taggart! We don’t know what to do!”

Dagny leaps for the phone on her desk, to start making calls and giving orders, but remembers what’s at stake and freezes. In what the text says is the hardest decision she’s ever made, she puts the phone back down. Instead, she tells the engineer to gather more information and report back to her, and as soon as he’s gone, she hurries off.

I feel bad for that guy. As he’s going to discover shortly, Dagny has just abandoned him and consigned him to death! Even Hank Rearden took some of his best workers with him when he high-tailed it out for the Gulch, but Dagny leaves them all behind, Eddie included. Clearly, if you work for Taggart Transcontinental, there’s no reward for loyalty.

When Dagny reaches the rendezvous point, she notices idly that panic is spreading through the city. The news has gotten out that the Taggart Bridge is destroyed and New York City’s last supply line has been cut:

She was first to reach the corner, two blocks east of the Terminal entrance. As she waited, she observed the first trickles of the panic that was soon to engulf the city: there were automobiles driving too fast, some of them loaded with household effects, there were too many police cars speeding by, and too many sirens bursting in the distance.

The news of the destruction of the Bridge was apparently spreading through the city; they would know that the city was doomed and they would start a stampede to escape — but they had no place to go, and it was not her concern any longer.

But all this is so much background noise to Dagny: “it was not her concern”. John Galt is in danger, and that one life is all she cares about. The swiftly approaching doom of millions of people scarcely even registers with her. As we’ve seen, she’s come to think of the mass of humanity as “inanimate objects” beneath her concern or even her notice. In the topsy-turvy world of this book, that’s a sign that her character development is finally complete.

Image: Without a survival instinct, human beings might as well be… well, you know. By Sascha Kohlmann, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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