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.

That harshest judgment is what I attach to the infamous passage describing the passengers who died in the tunnel and their complicity in their own demise. I understand why Jerome perceives Schadenfreude. My main complaint is a bit different. There's a lot of talk from Francisco about the gravity of the mental errors Dagny makes -- the way she is enabling the looters. Apart from that, Hank Rearden gets various things of his own wrong over the course of the book. He beats himself up pretty good over the speech he gave Dagny after they first slept together. So why aren't any likable characters described dying on the train as the just consequence of their decadence enabling mental mistakes? I'll bet that would've tamped down on the seeming Schadenfreude.
Other stray thoughts:

  • I wonder, Garance, if the 1960s and 1970s businessmen who read and loved Atlas Shrugged experienced a change in their attitudes toward women, or women in business, as a result. If there are any readers with relevant personal experience I'd very much like to hear it. Lots of women have already written telling me how much the book spurred their feminism. 
  • For all her absolutism about right being right and wrong being wrong (and destructive and evil), Rand really glorifies Hank and Dagny for not giving up, for staying and fighting, even though she regards Francisco as being in the right. I am not sure if that is a small contradiction in the novel or a sign that it's more complex than it is generally credited as being.  The case that it's problematic: why should it be so that Hank, who is presented as more heroic than even Ellis Wyatt, who is beloved for his mind by Francisco and Ragnar alike, should take longer to figure out the right thing to do than all the other lesser men who disappeared? It seems so unRandian to suggest that virtue would render you less able to arrive at the truth.  
  • Interesting that through two parts of the book, as society crumbles around them due to bad governance, none of the characters ever, you know, runs for office, or backs a candidate in whom they believe, or tries to persuade their fellow citizens that they ought to vote for different people. Every industry has its lone hero, but not journalist or politician or public intellectual... which is notable in part because Rand both supported politicians and was a public intellectual who dedicated her life to persuasion. Perhaps it just didn't fit the plot? Or is there more to it?
  • The lack of any noble politician, or notion that there might be one, is of a piece with the larger weakness, mentioned by my discussion partners, of the ahistorical veneration of America as a place of honest traders, as if it was never tainted by the seizure of Native American land or the slave trade or Jim Crow. All that is absent from America as presented in Atlas Shrugged (written during Jim Crow), as is the fact that America was founded by slave-owners turned politicians who, for all the genius of their statesmanship, did not preside over anything resembling a libertarian society, even setting slavery aside.
  • Characters in the book are always taking small actions as mental salutes to one thing or another. In that spirit, Michael, Garance, and Jerome, I now nod my head in solemn tribute to your participation.
  • At almost every point in the novel when the main characters undertake some consequential action, Rand painstakingly describes their thought process, sometimes excessively. Yet in the passage where Dagny hears about the disaster in the Taggart tunnel and rushes back toward civilization, there is no account of why. We're just meant to understand it -- and we do, it's a fine writerly choice, just an interesting one since it contrasts so noticeably from Rand's norm.
  • Eddie Willers is a curious character.
  • It seems to me that, just as the aesthetic flaws I've mentioned allow critics to cast Rand as a generally poor writer, despite all the good passages, the plot points like the tunnel disaster that are described as morally monstrous permit critics to evade grappling with the merits of various passages and ideas -- to dismiss the whole book without offering any argument against much of it, and then posturing as if it's all self-evidently unserious to cover their dearth of due diligence. To bookend my entry with mentions of the Bible, it would be like getting to Leviticus, reading about the most monstrous legal rules proscribed, and dismissing the whole religious tradition because of it, as if it somehow obviates Proverbs. (Understand that I am not suggesting a direct analogy -- it would be more forgivable to dismiss all of Atlas Shrugged, it being a single novel, but I still think it would be a mistake.) It doesn't help that some of the book's fans insist that IT HAS NO FLAWS DAMN YOU. 
  • The scene where Francisco restrains himself from defending himself against Rearden is another fascinating one. When it comes to the book's heroes, so much more mercy is given! "Within the extent of your knowledge, you are right," Francisco says. The benefit of that doubt is seemingly never extended to people who haven't achieved extreme success in business. That observation aside, that seems to me a very capably executed love-triangle-is-discovered moment. All three people behave in a way that is true to the characters we've gotten to know.
  • So who do you want Dagny to end up with, Rearden or Francisco?

Send reader emails to conor[dot]friedersdorf[removethis] -- and stay tuned for a discussion of Part III the week after next.