Atlas Shrugged: The Non-Altruistic Rescue Squad

Atlas Shrugged: The Non-Altruistic Rescue Squad April 15, 2016

RescueSquad

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter X

The elite capitalist strike force consisting of Dagny, Francisco, Hank and Ragnar Danneskjold has gotten into the State Science Institute (you know, by executing a defenseless guard in cold blood). But between them and John Galt, there’s a laboratory where eight more armed guards are sitting in wait. Hank takes the lead:

It was Rearden’s face that saved him from being shot on sight when he entered: his face was too well known to them and too unexpected. He saw eight heads staring at him with recognition and with inability to believe what they were recognizing.

He stood at the door, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, with the casual, confident manner of a business executive.

“Who is in charge here?” he asked in the politely abrupt voice of a man who does not waste time.

Hank tells the bewildered soldiers that he’s there on behalf of the government to take custody of the prisoner. But the chief of the squad (“a tall, emaciated man, with jerky movements, a sallow face and the restless, unfocused eyes of a drug addict”) knows who Hank is and doesn’t believe him:

“I don’t believe you!” His cry was too shrill to project conviction. “I don’t believe that the government would send you on a mission, when you’re one of those vanishing traitors and friends of John Galt who—”

“But haven’t you heard?”

“What?”

“John Galt has made a deal with the government and has brought us all back.”

Angry and suspicious, the chief tries to call someone for confirmation, but of course, the good guys have cut the phone wires to the building. When Hank warns them that he’s getting impatient and won’t tolerate any further delays, the chief erupts in mindless fury, pulls out his gun and fires:

Some of them saw Rearden sway, his right hand gripping his left shoulder. Others, in the same instant, saw the gun drop out of the chief’s hand and hit the floor in time with his scream and with the spurt of blood from his wrist. Then all of them saw Francisco d’Anconia standing at the door on the left, his soundless gun still aimed at the chief.

All of them were on their feet and had drawn their guns, but they lost that first moment, not daring to fire.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” said Francisco.

“Jesus!” gasped one of the guards, struggling for the memory of a name he could not recapture. “That’s… that’s the guy who blew up all the copper mines in the world!”

As always, Rand’s heroes have plot armor that’s better than any bulletproof vest. You can die from a penetrating shoulder injury, if it severs the subclavian artery (that’s how Otzi the Iceman died). But anything that would kill a lesser human, for one of them, only results in a minor and appropriately manly flesh wound.

The guards are daunted by the presence of the “legendary figures” pointing guns at them, and they’re on the verge of surrendering without a fight. (To be fair, if Warren Buffett was aiming a pistol at me, I’d probably be astonished too.) The chief screams at his troops to start shooting, and when they won’t, he grabs a gun with his good hand and shoots one of his own men for disobeying:

In time with the fall of the man’s body, the window burst into a shower of glass — and from the limb of a tree, as from a catapult, the tall, slender figure of a man flew into the room, landed on its feet and fired at the first guard in reach.

“Who are you?” screamed some terror-blinded voice.

“Ragnar Danneskjold.”

Three sounds answered him: a long, swelling moan of panic — the clatter of four guns dropped to the floor — and the bark of the fifth, fired by a guard at the forehead of the chief.

Crashing in through the window – yes, yes, very appropriately piratical. There’s no chandelier for him to swing on, but otherwise it’s a classic swashbuckling move. I like to imagine it’s the only way Danneskjold ever enters a room, which causes his friends in the Gulch no end of annoyance. (“Use the door for once, Ragnar!”)

But while it makes sense that Ragnar Danneskjold’s name would terrify bad guys into submission, the scripting of this scene makes no sense at all. If someone burst into a room and started shooting at me, I doubt my first reaction would be to yell, “Who are you?” The identity of the gun-wielding intruder seems like it’d be pretty far down the list of things anyone would be likely to care about in that moment.

More likely, this is a minor example of Randian heroes’ talent for talking as a free action. When there’s something they want to say, everything else obligingly comes to a halt so they can speak without interruption. I doubt Rand meant it this way, but if Ragnar was genre-savvy enough to weaponize this ability, that’d be a very clever tactic.

The remaining guards surrender, and the heroes tie them up. (I was half-expecting more cold-blooded killings, but I guess Rand felt that she had already made her point.) They storm the room where John Galt is being held prisoner:

Danneskjold had the tools to smash the lock. Francisco was first to enter the cellar, and his arm barred Dagny’s way for the fraction of a second — for the length of a look to make certain that the sight was bearable — then he let her rush past him: beyond the tangle of electric wires, he had seen Galt’s lifted head and glance of greeting.

They set him free and smash the machine. Galt seems more nonchalant than relieved to see them. It’s as if he’d expected them to come for him – even though he had no way of knowing that the other capitalists knew where he was, much less that they’d organize to stage a rescue.

Galt smiled and said in the tone of an answer to the questions Francisco was not asking, “Yes, it was pretty bad, but bearable — and the kind of voltage they used leaves no damage.”

“I’ll find them some day, whoever they were…” said Francisco; the tone of his voice, flat, dead and barely audible, said the rest.

“If you do, you’ll find that there’s nothing left of them to kill.”

…Francisco turned his face away. “It’s only that it was you…” he whispered, “you… if it were anyone but you…”

“But it had to be me, if they were to try their last, and they’ve tried, and”—he moved his hand, sweeping the room—and the meaning of those who had made it—into the wastelands of the past—”and that’s that.”

“And that’s that.”

This is, in theory, the action-packed climax of the entire book. It should be the most exciting part, especially since the heroes finally resort to taking up arms. Instead, it’s kind of a letdown.

There’s no speech of defiance cast into the villains’ teeth, no dramatic gunfight or fireball that chases someone down a hallway, no last-minute reversal of fortune where it looks like the heroes are about to lose it all. There’s no heroic one-liner at the moment of victory (“Tax this“). Rand couldn’t even give us a scene where the bad guys realize they’re doomed and set the torture machine to maximum to electrocute John Galt, only to reveal that he’s managed to reverse the polarity so they end up frying themselves.

Instead, there’s a handful of low-level mooks that the heroes easily overpower, and that’s it. The chief villains aren’t even on the scene by the time they arrive. This whole section reeks of creative exhaustion, as if the author was just tired of her own book and wanted to get it over with.

The good guys’ plane is hidden in some brush outside the building. Ragnar takes the pilot’s seat, Francisco gets out a first-aid kit to bandage Hank’s shoulder. They start the engine and take off:

They heard the sudden sound of Danneskjold’s voice raised cheerfully in conversation with empty space, and they realized that he was speaking over the plane’s radio: “Yes, safe and sound, all of us… Don’t try to beat me to Galt’s Gulch, I’ll land first — and I’ll help Kay in the restaurant to fix your breakfast.”

… “Whom is he talking to?” asked Galt.

“To about half the male population of the valley,” said Francisco, “or as many as we had space for on every plane available. They are flying behind us right now. Did you think any of them would stay home and leave you in the hands of the looters? We were prepared to get you by open, armed assault on that Institute or on the Wayne-Falkland, if necessary. But we knew that in such case we would run the risk of their killing you when they saw that they were beaten. That’s why we decided that the four of us would first try it alone. Had we failed, the others would have proceeded with an open attack.”

I’m sure we’re meant to find this a stirring and inspiring moment, but there’s a problem. This rescue seems strangely… dare I say it? …altruistic.

While the capitalists ended up overpowering the guards without too much trouble, they had no way of knowing that would be the case. There could have been a hundred soldiers on duty there, rather than a dozen. For all they knew, when they attacked the building, they were going on a suicide mission. Even as it was, Hank Rearden was wounded and it was down to dumb luck that he was grazed in the shoulder rather than shot through the heart.

What makes the problem even more apparent is when we find out that all the capitalists showed up in force for this rescue mission. Was that a wise, a rational choice of how to allocate their resources? Not only could they have failed to save John Galt, they could have been killed or recaptured themselves. This reckless stunt could have fatally undermined their entire elaborate plan to rebuild society and save humankind – and all for the sake of one person.

This is where Rand’s insistence on rational selfishness collides with the cliches of the genre. As Midas Mulligan said earlier, they no longer needed John Galt to run things in the valley. They were fully capable of getting by without him. And he went back to the outside world against their advice, knowing the hazards he faced. It was a risk he chose to run, and it went badly for him. Shouldn’t he suffer the consequences? Why would all the others gamble their own lives to save him from his own poor decision? Is that the kind of thing an Objectivist would do?

It would be one thing if the narrative acknowledged this. We could have a scene where Francisco and the others were reluctant for all the reasons I gave, and then Dagny, who loves John Galt and therefore has a “selfish” reason to want to save him, gives a rousing speech that inspires them to action. But there’s nothing like that. Instead, when Galt is in danger, all the others immediately rush to help him, without even a question.

This just goes to show, for the last time, that while Rand wants us to believe her ideal world is a perfectly egalitarian utopia of merit, what it really is is a feudal hierarchy. Just as Hank and Dagny expected their employees to surrender their property and even their lives in defense of their bosses, John Galt is the Best Capitalist and therefore a more important human being than even the business owners, so of course they’re willing to risk everything for his sake.

That’s why Galt isn’t surprised or especially relieved to see them. He knew he ranks above everyone else, so there was never any doubt in his mind that they’d come to save him. Francisco even says as much: “If it were anyone but you” – implying that if someone else had been captured and tortured, they wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to stage a rescue. Their loyalty and devotion are entirely unidirectional, flowing up towards Galt like water rising up the roots of a tree toward the crown. This isn’t a morality of selfishness, so much as it is a morality of servitude.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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