Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 3: Enjoying the Smutty Parts

By Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Part I, Chapters 6 through 10: Readers encounter an eventful party, a career triumph, a torrid affair, and more.

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

Subject: Part I, Chapters 6 through 10

A society anniversary party, crashed by a worthless playboy. The construction of a new railway line and bridge out of an untested new metal. A torrid affair (finally!) and a road-trip vacation. The accidental discovery of a fantastical new invention and a quest to find its inventor. And a climatic act of self-sabotage. A lot happens in chapters six through 10. And we're still only in the first third of the novel! We've got a long, long way to go!

Despite all of this action, Atlas Shrugged is fundamentally an attempt at a philosophical novel, and one that places professional philosophers themselves in small but important roles. Indeed, the chapters under discussion are more or less framed by a contest of philosophies, which underlies the plot of the novel itself.

The Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Read the entire series on Ayn Rand's controversial classic

In chapter six, we encounter at the Rearden's anniversary party one Dr. Simon Pritchett, head of the Department of Philosophy at the once prestigious Patrick Henry University, pontificating on the new philosophy. Take a moment to consider some of his weighty pronouncements:

"Man's metaphysical pretensions," he said, "are preposterous. A miserable bit of protoplasm, full of ugly little concepts and mean little emotions -- and it imagines itself important! Really, you know, that is the root of all the troubles in the world."

"The philosophers of the past were superficial .... It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn't any."
 
"Reason, my dear fellow is that most naïve of superstitions. That, at least, has been generally conceded in our age."

"The purpose of philosophy is not to seek knowledge, but to prove that knowledge is impossible to man."

Such statements read like a parody of philosophical nihilism, and Pritchett and his interlocutors appear as pseudo-intellectual strawmen, but I think that Rand is dead serious in passages such as these. Deluded by their celebration of irrationality, by their mysticism, by their belief that the universe is a contradiction, Pritchett and his ilk regard the human being as a mere animal, or worse, as a worthless collection of chemicals.

Dr. Pritchett, we soon learn, is the author of The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe, a tome recommended by Jim Taggart of all people. "You think a system of philosophy -- such as Dr. Pritchett's -- is just something academic, remote, impractical?" Jim asks his new paramour a few chapters later. "But it isn't. Oh, boy, how it isn't."

Even Jim realizes that one's philosophy, one's understanding of the nature of the human being and of one's place in the universe, shapes his actions and morality. This is one of Rand's points: Theory and practice are intimately linked. It is a point underscored by the fact that Francisco d'Anconia, the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld, and a mysterious third (I wonder who he can be!) all majored in both philosophy and physics -- thought and action -- at Patrick Henry.

You can imagine Rand thinking, The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

I think Rand is correct, though, in implying that there is a fundamental connection between one's anthropology -- one's understanding of the nature of the human being -- and the social and political order than one advocates.

What are the implications of Dr. Pritchett's system, as Jim understands it? "Unhappiness is the hallmark of virtue. If a man is unhappy, really, truly unhappy, it means that he is a superior sort of person." Suffering is the essence of being. It's clear where Rand thinks the philosophy of Pritchett is taking us. At the party, he tells his listeners that "Once [man] realizes that he is of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more ... tractable."

(That little ellipsis -- it is Rand's -- is doing a lot of work, isn't it?)

The assault upon reason leads to the degradation of the human being leads to slavery.

But there is an alternative. Towards the end of chapter 10, following up on the trail of the mysterious inventor of a radically new kind of motor, Dagny seeks out a remote roadside diner in the Rockies to see the man behind the counter. Enjoying a excellent hamburger,

She studied the man behind the counter. He was slender and tall; he had an air of distinction that belonged in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank; but his peculiar quality came from the fact that he made the distinction appropriate here, behind the counter of a diner. He wore a cook's white jacket as if it were a full-dress suit. There was an expert competence in his manner of working; his movements were easy, intelligently economical. He had a lean face and grey hair that blended in tone with the cold blue of his eyes; somewhere beyond his look of courteous sternness, there was a note of humor, so faint that it vanished if one tries to discern it.

As it turns out, the distinguished-looking cook behind the counter is none other than Professor Hugh Akston, the scholar who preceded Pritchett as head of the Department of Philosophy at Patrick Henry. 

Dagny immediately recognizes the name, and what is stands for:

"Hugh Akston?" she stammered. "The philosopher? ... The last of the advocates of reason?"

"Why, yes," he answered pleasantly. "Or the first of their return."

Dagny is shocked to find such an eminent mind working behind the counter at a little diner in the middle of nowhere. When she asks why his is doing his, he says simply, "Because I am a philosopher."

We don't hear much from Hugh Akston about his philosophy and its implications at this point in the novel, and it will take us some time to learn the reasoning behind his decision. (I actually found it refreshing that he didn't go off on a several-page-long monologue.) We are left to wonder what would cause the great philosopher to leave his university position and work as a short-order cook. As Rand would put it, what is his motive? And what are the last advocates of reason advocating ...? Well, we'll just have to read on and see. (I expect many more long speeches on the subject, by the way.) And we will have to judge Rand's novel not only on its artistic merits (of which I am still dubious), but also on the coherence of the philosophical system it is developing and endorsing.

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From: Michael Brendan Dougherty
To: 
Jerome Copulsky, Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta
Subject: Part I, Chapters 6 through 10

Maybe it is just the smutty parts but I'm starting to enjoy this book now.

I've gotten used to the way the heroes and villains speak to each other about enterprise. And although everything is overdrawn, I found some of the ideas in these chapters more congenial. I do agree with Rand's heroes that truth and freedom go together. (I would, wouldn't I?) And I do agree that the endless manipulation of language enables tyranny. But of course that would be Rand the libertarian in league with me the reactionary, and Orwell the socialist. So maybe it isn't saying much.

I'm sure that the sex in Atlas Shrugged has been panned as badly as the ideology, but when Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart finally throw down, I actually admired Rand's description of the event as prose. Sex seems like the impossible thing to write. And Rand has set up two incredibly peculiar characters who happen to be demigods in her moral vision. I thought the scene was racy enough and constrained enough. Unfortunately, in the next chapter Hank immediately killed the mood for me by talking again. The pleasant narration gave way to this absurd soliloquy:

"I want you to know this .... What I feel for you is contempt. But it's nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself .... I wanted you as one wants a whore -- for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind. You're not. You're as vile an animal as I am. I should loath my discovering it. I don't. Yesterday, I would have killed anyone who'd tell me that you were capable of doing what I've had you do. Today, I would give my life not to let it be otherwise, not to have you be anything but the bitch you are. All the greatness I saw in you -- I would not take it in exchange for the obscenity of your talent at an animal's sensation of pleasure."

And he keeps talking! For paragraphs more on end.

Hank doesn't feel guilty bending metal to his will, just Dagny's body.

Hank's own reaction to his sexuality is intriguing. He hates the very physicality of it. Up to this point the interactions of Rand's super-capitalists has been something very like the interaction of angels. They are pure light and rationality. And although their tone may seem cold, it has a lightness and efficiency about it.

But Hank thinks of himself as degraded -- entirely servile -- when it comes to sex. And what he thinks of Dagny is almost worse.

What Rand is driving at with the monologue does seem to contain an insight. Hank expresses it very powerfully. "It is a desire that has reduced my mind, my will, my being, my power to exist into an abject dependence upon you -- not even upon the Dagny Taggart whom I admired -- but upon your body, your hands, your mouth and the few seconds of a convulsion of your muscles."

Even Arthur Dimmesdale could not preach a sermon on sex-shame so well. There is, I think, a dark and shameful pleasure in reducing a fully realized "she" into a means for "it." This is the definition of "objectification," and Hank understands that it enslaves the objectifier too. If only he could learn to love his wife.

Dagny ends up being a real sport about it all, laughing, and explaining why she doesn't feel so bad, even offering: "You'll have me any time you wish, anywhere, on any terms." By this point the characters are pretty far from the hard bargains that they have been making everywhere else. "I'm much more of an animal than you think .... If I'm asked to name my proudest attainment, I will say: I have slept with Hank Rearden. I had earned it." So different from the monomaniacal desire to create products, to dominate the market, and to keep working. The capitalist fever is broken for a moment and the two decide to go on a road trip.

As for the business end of things, instead of spending so much time feeling contempt for their close family members, the heroes are now holding in contempt the press, Washington, perverted science, and crony capitalists. Well, what's to get upset about? Those are about as bad as Rand says.

With Dagny's offer hanging in the air, I can see why early adolescent Conor returned again and again to this text. (Just joshing!)

****

To: Atlas Shrugged Book Club
From: Various Readers
Subject: Reader E-mail

Here is what few actually get about Ayn Rand that so appealed to me -- her Objectivist philosophy was not at all about rejecting emotion as irrational as so many male philosophers had, it was about demanding rational emotion -- that the values you say you hold and espouse are embodied and enacted by your emotional responses in love and sex as in everything else you claim to value. This is the most radical of all her claims -- that human beings can and should be "objective" about their own subjectivity .... She had the nerve to venture into that whole other space -- human interaction -- that solitary male philosophers throughout history had tended to avoid. She did not completely succeed, but she stirred up something deep that still demands real thinking.

****
Speaking of superheroes, Dagny's power is the ability to identify magic motors from a lump of metal and a drawing. I have significant training in physics and am an engineer by profession, and no "report" would be sufficient evidence of utility. Nor can I imagine my assessment of a plan for a comparable power device, a nuclear-fusion reactor, without weeks of study. If Dagny is so confident in her abilities, I have some perpetual-motion-machine plans to sell her. This is, philosophically, the book's biggest flaw to me: Even in the world of motors and machines, the "right thing" is never so easily judged. And what won't work in motors, won't work in ideas either. 

What seems fundamentally missing here is a founding idea of capitalism: acceptance of failure. The Dagny who sinks all her family's money into a mythical motor that never ends up working is a far more believable tale of what makes America great than the Dagny who can do everything and hates everyone but her cool, rich, sexually creative boyfriend.

****
The protagonists have absolutely no idea how to live in the real world. Rearden and Taggart are surrounded by a corrupt system which is defeating them at every turn, yet they continue to do exactly the same things that are not working. They have money to lay down cash for labor, materials, whole factories, yet their decades-old corporations don't seem to have an advertising department. People are being bought out from under them by people who could be easily bought themselves if our heroes could pull their heads out of their own rectitude long enough to learn how to work the system to their advantage. Their stock prices are crashed by crude propaganda ploys but they never think of mounting a propaganda campaign of their own. Dr. Stadler tells Dagny exactly how to do it: "Men are not open to truth or reason. They cannot be reached by a rational argument. The mind is powerless against them. Yet we have to deal with them. If we want to accomplish anything, we have to deceive them into letting us
accomplish it. Or force them."

What does Dagny do with that knowledge? Nothing. Her construction project is halted by a single fraudulent and meaningless non-statement from the Science Institute and how does she respond to it? She doesn't.

Here is what you do, Dagny -- issue a detailed point-by-point response to the statement exposing the meaninglessness of every phrase, stating that Stadler himself denied having read or signed it - just to have as a reference, not because it will be widely read. Then start an advertising campaign under the slogan TOMORROW IS ON TRACK, with brightly colored
illustrations of an ideal future featuring streamlined locomotives shining blue-green rails. Never mention Rearden Metal. Appeal to the emotions without making any concrete statement. Show shadowy forces trying to rip up shining greenish-blue rails, under the slogan DON'T LET THEM STEAL YOUR FUTURE. Print beautiful posters, and newspaper supplements in the form of a children's story or a comic book. Make shining greenish-blue rails the symbol of wealth, health and happiness. Make anyone who doesn't love shining greenish-blue rails the lowest scoundrel and villain who wants to rob your children of their happiness and future. Just try it for three months and send me my consulting fee after you see it working.

Send yours thoughts on Part I, Chapters 6 through 10 to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com -- and remember, no spoilers! Entries from Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta and more readers will run tomorrow.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/atlas-shrugged-book-club-entry-3-enjoying-the-smutty-parts/273456/