Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 6: Dagny Taggart and Her Pre-Feminist Train Wreck


The discussion continues with a violent love triangle, an imperiled heroine, and more ...

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From: Garance Franke-Ruta
To: Conor Friedersdorf,
Michael Brendan Dougherty, Jerome Copulsky
Subject: Part II

Two thirds done! I will admit I flipped ahead to the next page after the end of Part II and was thrilled to discover it was finally time to introduce John Galt as a character, right there at the start of Part III on page 644 of the 50th Anniversary Edition (Signet, publisher). Not since Tristram Shandy has an author taken so long to introduce a central protagonist into a novel.

I'll also admit to turning to the Internet for some supplementary materials to sort out what was going on. I read Middlemarch in two days; I have a strong stomach for long books and normally just read them straight through until they are done (before binge Netflix watching, there was binge reading). But I have found myself having trouble sticking with Atlas Shrugged, because of Rand's Objectivist literary style, which after hundreds of pages can feel as weighty and graceless as a Yugoslav monument to World War II.

But once I had my Wiki guide to the unfolding of the plot to come, I suddenly realized that one reason the book compels is that so much is explained at the end that you kind of have to go back over earlier passages to really get them, or to get them fully. To be really grasped, the 1,069-page book has to be read more than once. But that also means that when read cold by a first-time reader is can seem plodding, and confusing, and maybe even slightly pointless.

Fortunately, the endless talk of railways, ambitions, the looters, and the disappearances is leavened by a healthy dose of sex scenes and minor disquisitions about sexuality morality in Part II.

I love reading pre-feminist descriptions of these sorts of things, much in the same way I love reading memoirs written in pre-Freudian times, because it is so interesting to see how people constructed themselves and interpreted the events of their lives before the advent of contemporary ideologies and conceptions of self.

Rand continues to be a real outlier for her era in this regard, writing in the voice of Dagny Taggart of her first love: "He taught her every manner of sensuality he could invent .... They were happy and radiantly innocent. They were both incapable of the conception that joy is sin."

That's still a pretty radical view here in the 21st century (hello, Purity Balls). Later, during Dagny's affair with married man Hank Rearden, she tells him, "Hank, I knew you were married. I knew what I was doing. I chose to do it. There's nothing you owe me, no duty that you have to consider .... I want nothing from you except what you wish to give me .... So long as you wish to remain married, I have no right to resent it."

Is that the voice of liberation or one of the long-standing compartmentalizations characteristic of the mistress mentality? Hard to say. But again, Rand makes her female protagonist an outlier -- an adulterer -- and paints Rearden's marriage as a sham. They may have a shared a problem with stringent divorce laws, but we're a long way from Jane Eyre here.

Dagny also argues with Hank when he presses her to confess the identity of her first love, which she refuses to disclose, telling him: "You've never accepted my wanting you, either -- you've never accepted that I should want you, just as I should have wanted him, once."

So Rand, the anti-romantic, turns out to be a great defender of female sexual autonomy and desire.

One final note: In my readings I came across this article by a Canadian feminist who indicates that the Rand sex scenes were apparently a matter of grave controversy in the 1970s. I hear things get more edgy in Part III, but while what goes on in Part II is not all flowers and gentleness, it seemed such an unremarkable set of descriptions, I was really shocked to discover there was any historic controversy about them at all.

From: Conor Friedersdorf
Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Jerome Copulsky
Subject: Part II

Thomas Jefferson famously sat down with his Bible and cut out the passages that he judged to be wise. Sometimes when I read Atlas Shrugged, I have a similar impulse -- every so often I highlight a paragraph I particularly like, and as often I have the urge to cut something out. I would actually love, Jerome, to have a go at being the editor that you say the book needs. If the estate of Ayn Rand would allow it, I'd have a painstaking go, release my own version for public perusal, and debate it merits. (I have a feeling that's something her estate would never allow.)

A good editor could certainly pare down various philosophical passages, like Francisco's money speech, without losing anything. A more activist editor might also make some of the most glaringly didactic dialogue seem a bit less so without losing the meaning. But I must say that the excessively repetitive passages, even the length itself, doesn't seem to have cost Rand. What I mean is that the book is successful, beloved, and influential beyond the wildest expectations any novelist could reasonably have when putting pen to paper. Could it be improved upon? Sure. But if she sought to create a novel as a vehicle for her ideas, she succeeded wildly on her own terms. And while that doesn't stop me from wishing it reached the aesthetic perfection of Lolita (the novel) or The Graduate (the film), I am enjoying the book yet again. In the parts where Rand wants to move the action forward she's quite adept at it. And I think that Garance is on to something when she speculates that it might be easier on second read.

(Full disclosure: I skip the redundant parts of the speeches. And spoiler alert: heretical as this will sound to hardcore Atlas Shrugged fans, I fully recommend skipping much of the speech that appears in Part III, even if it's your first time reading the book. Once you figure out you've come to it, safe enough to turn the page a bunch of times before you actually start reading again.)

I suppose it's those redundant, excessively lengthy, and excessively didactic bits that causes people to call Rand a bad writer. But I must say that when she isn't deliberately doing those things I find the writing quite enjoyable: the prose clean, the imagery evocative, the inner thoughts and feelings of the main characters interesting (save James Taggart, about whom I have mixed feelings). Most of all, it is original, which is saying something. I think Michael is absolutely right when he says that the book shares certain characteristics with other dystopian novels, but my favorite parts of Atlas Shrugged are the ones that render the world through a lens unlike the one used by any other writer. Sometimes I find those passages inspiring, other times thought-provoking, and still other times I find them wrongheaded, or (rarely) morally repugnant.

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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