Where Atlas Shrugged Went Off the Rails

Reconstruction of the 1895 Montparnasse Train Derailment by Andre Engels, Creative Commons

Reconstruction of the 1895 Montparnasse Train Derailment. Photo by Andre Engels, Creative Commons

The truth is, it’s been years since I read any Ayn Rand, and, like most Americans, I could safely ignore her … until now.  Because now, the Republican Presidential nominee has selected a Vice Presidential candidate who’s a big fan.  Granted, Paul Ryan is distancing himself from Rand (in part because she’s an atheist, and he doesn’t want to sully his very real Christian conservatism, and in part because of pressure from the Catholic Church). But as late as 2005, he addressed The Atlas Society.  Whether or not he believes in her philosophy, Paul Ryan has brought Ayn Rand back into the public discussion.

Let me summarize what I’ve learned from that public discussion:  The belief that Objectivism is morally repugnant is pretty widespread.  Even more widespread is the belief that it’s just too simplistic, assuming rational action in a world where there is simultaneously information overload AND never enough of the right knowledge for ANYONE to make perfectly rational decision.

I’ve probably heard “I thought that was so cool when I was 13” about as often as I’ve heard “that’s horrible/evil/I can’t believe she actually makes a “virtue” of selfishness!”

So I’m going to discuss Atlas Shrugged.  I’ll start by saying that I liked the book.  It was a good story, despite the long monologues.  Heck, the long monologues were actually interesting.  And there were some pretty amazing moments – I won’t spoil my favorite one, but let me just say that it comes when they try to torture John Galt.  I still like that scene.

The question I ask today is not, “Who is John Galt?” but rather, “Where did Atlas Shrugged go off the rails?”  When did the work become morally monstrous, intolerable, unacceptable?

It’s not Dagny Taggart’s sexual liberation, not even her affair with Hank Rearden.  First, let me say: I certainly can never condone infidelity of any kind.  But there is something powerful about a female character who really owns her own body, and exists neither to be controlled by men, nor for their titillation.  It’s even more amazing in a book published in 1957!

And there’s something noble about the way Dagny short-circuits her enemies’ attempt to blackmail Hank Rearden.  He was willing to go along to protect her reputation, but she announces their affair on a broadcast radio interview.  She laughed in the faces of the people who wanted to use her “secret” to destroy a man she loved.  Again, you’ll never hear me approving of adultery, but I really don’t think this is the “big problem” with Atlas Shrugged.

It’s not Ellis Wyatt and Francisco D’Antonio destroying their business assets rather than have them be forcibly nationalized.  Theft by force is robbery, whether it’s a thug with a switchblade or a government with an army.  As governments become more coercive, more tyrannical, and less respectful of human rights, nonviolent resistance becomes justified, even admirable.

It’s not even Ragnar Danneskjold’s raiding.  The Galt’s Gulch bunch were planning a revolution, and Ragnar’s actions were pretty bloodless as revolutions go.  Danneskjold certainly caused less carnage than our Founding Fathers did.  The fundamental problems with Rand’s philosophy aside, Atlas Shrugged is the story of a new American Revolution. Danneskjold was just the Galties’ admiral.

No, the point where Atlas Shrugged goes off the rails (pun intended), the point where “A is A” becomes inhuman, the point where Rand’s great epic becomes a moral monster is…

Eddie Willers.  He is, without a doubt, as self-sufficient, as morally upright (even using Rand’s strict and somewhat twisted morality), and hard-working as any of the Galt’s Gulch bunch. While he lacks their capitalistic genius, he’s faithful, dedicated, and asks that no one be sacrificed for his needs.  Eddie is one of the few characters that objectivists and non-objectivists alike can find admirable.

He’s served as Dagny Taggart’s right-hand man for her entire career.  He’s the Alfred to her Objectivist Batman.

And. She. Leaves. Him. Out. In. The. Chaos. To. Die.

Eddie’s not a “second hander” or a “looter,” trying to take by force.  He’s not a schemer or an enemy.  He’s not even a stranger.  He’s been her right hand all along, and frankly, without someone to back her play, to handle the details, to fill in the blanks while she’s dreaming up new innovations, Taggart wouldn’t have made it where she did.

And. She. Leaves. Him. Out. In. The. Chaos. To. Die.

And he does.  He dies, abandoned by the person whose success he spent his life facilitating.  He’s not a superstar, so he can just … drop dead.  It’s inexcusable.  It’s insurmountable.  It washes away, in a moment, any good that may be gleaned from the novel’s philosophy.

Sure, he wasn’t invited to Galt’s Gulch, and she probably couldn’t have scored him an invitation (not even as her personal assistant), but she could have warned him, could have sent him somewhere out of the way, to ride out the chaos.  But she doesn’t.

And that utter lack of empathy, of loyalty, of basic respect, it’s not the hallmark of a great innovator.  It’s the hallmark of a sociopath.

6 comments on “Where Atlas Shrugged Went Off the Rails

  1. Nathan Webb says:

    I remember reading Atlas Shrugged as a Freshman in college. I did so because of a guy I knew in high school who was just raving about it, and I wanted to see what he saw. I really liked the story. There were a couple of parts of it that I found somewhat hard to invision (like, there’s a point in the story when all three of Ragnar Danneskjold, Francisco D’Anconia and Hank Reardon are all “on screen” together in the book, and she had described all three of them as very tall, each of them impressively taller than average. Not that such a height distribution is so rare as to be unbelievable, it’s just I found that scene hard to visualize in my head because I got distracted trying to place the three giants together). There were a couple of parts where I had to just shrug and say “Okay, so she’s not an engineer. I’m not a political scientist, so it evens out.” There were even some points where I thought she wrote a bad plot point, but could overlook that on the grounds that A) every author is going to make story decisions that I don’t like–I mean, I really enjoyed the Hunger Games, but, zombie werewolves? /really?/ B) I did see how the plot decision I disagreed with–Dagney’s choice of lovers in the end–was necessary as a symbolic thing for the actual point of her novel. I also did skip the 5 page speech and the 80 page speech. I did not find them interesting, but without them, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It was complex, the chacters were (mostly) believable (and mostly is really all I ask of any author), and at the time I found Dagney to be an admirable heroic figure.
    I do remember being confused as to why she left Eddie Willers out in the cold, but at the time I think I actually didn’t notice what a horrible moral choice that was. I hope it was more because I let it slide by virtue of it blending in with the backdrop of the rest of the story and not because I was sociopathic myself to any degree. I /might/ have been–I was going through a slight elitist phase myself, which thankfully didn’t last but about two and a half years, and was never /that/ severe anyway.
    I remember not thinking much of her political point beyond that it dragged the story down. I was eighteen, I hadn’t thought much of politics at all at that point. I remember disagreeing with it generally on Christian grounds, and on gut-level instinct grounds, but I did see good points in it: theft is bad, corruption is bad, innovation should be encouraged and rewarded, power is easily corrupted, dishonesty about one’s intent, either with others or with oneself, makes one weak (I don’t know how I got that last one when I was 18; it’s more complex than the others, and probably more complex than I was used to thinking at the time. I guess even a stopped clock is right twice a day–but I do remember thinking that very thing about the congressional hearing to nationalize Reardon Metal).
    Looking back on it now, I think there were three major things where the story took a wrong moral turn. Your observation about Eddie Willers is certainly one of them, and it symbolizes a much larger problem: Eddie Willers was not the only such person they did not save. They didn’t save /any/ of the others in his position. Galt and his “innovators” very much threw several babies out with the bathwater. They also royally screwed themselves in one of three ways: either A) international interests would come in to America and take it over, in which case they get another, this time stronger government to screw them over, B) they become a tiny little camp in a Mad Max world, or C) the millions of Humans out there who didn’t measure up but were still smart, capable, and even good people pull together, fix it, and suddenly the Galt’s Gulch people become a tiny little village surrounded by a functioning society they now have to deal with, and that they flipped off big time.
    Which brings me to point number 2: They didn’t even try. They just passed a death sentence on all of America and maybe the world for their vanity. How arrogant do you have to be?
    Well, that brings me to point number 3: There was a scene in the novel where Rand, by way of the narrator, passes judgment on all of America for being second-handers and looters, and justifies the indiscriminate deaths of everyone on a train, including children, because those children would have grown up to be thieves.
    So I think your charge of sociopathy is justifiable not just through Eddie Willers, but through large chunks of the rest of the novel as well. Rand was trying to make a political point, but it wasn’t /as/ a political point. She was writing out her elitist fantasy of living as a goddess on Olympus while the rest of the Earth burned clean, to be rebuilt as the new gods saw fit. The story was just to justify that they /were/ gods, and that we mere mortals–including those of us who are self-sufficient and capable–should be worshiping at their temple in gratitude lest they with-hold their gifts from us. I don’t disagree that we need to be grateful to our innovators, but THEY AREN’T GODS.
    I would argue that that sociopathic arrogance is where Atlas Shrugged went off the rails.

    • Tim Dedeaux says:

      (I may have to respond to this in bits and pieces. I think your comment is as long as my post) 🙂

      1) I didn’t notice the height thing, either. Probably because I saw them all as 6’2″ to 6’3″, and that’s a family photo where I come from 🙂

      And yeah, heh heh. “Muttations.” LOL.

      2) Don’t feel bad about not catching the Eddie Willers thing. I read the book over 9 years ago, and I didn’t catch it until everyone started talking about the book (thanks to Paul Ryan). Everyone was giving their reasons they opposed it, and honestly, it just hit me.

      3) Yeah, “sociopathic arrogance” is a good way to phrase it. I think that’s the best summation of the personality that led Dagny to toss Eddie Willers aside, and permeated much of what they did, tainting any good that might have come from the strike.

      But if I have to point to a single moment, a single act that shows that all, and gives the lie to Rand’s claims of superior (or even equivalent) morality, I’d point to the death of Eddie Willers.

    • John Dedeaux says:

      It has been many years since I read Atlas Shrugged, or any of Rand’s writings.

      As I recall, I had a few simple thoughts about Rand’s writings:
      1. Sadness that she was an atheist and that her talents would never be intentionally used to glorify God.
      2. Appreciation for the way she could tell her stories and make them interesting.
      3. Appreciation for what I understood as a strong emphasis on our personal responsibility for our actions, and the necessity for political and economic freedom.

      • Tim Dedeaux says:

        I like to think of Rand’s writing as strong medicine. A little can be a powerful corrective (I think we both agree that collectivism can turn cancerous pretty quickly, and at best it leads to financial problems and “austerity:” just look at Greece), but an overdose can be just as dangerous.

        I do wonder what her life and writing might have been like if she’d rejected the Soviets’ atheism along with their collectivism. Unfortunately, the face of Christianity she saw growing up was a church that had been in bed with authoritarian Tsarist governments for centuries.

        It’s a tragedy, really, that she saw it Christianity as no different than Soviet propaganda: just a tale told to keep the peasants in their place.

  2. […] problem that often underlies both outlooks is, to some degree, the problem I addressed when I wrote about Atlas Shrugged.  It’s akin to the spiritual problems so many Pharisees in Jesus’s day and Christians today […]

  3. […] Now, I’m no Objectivist. I’ve talked about where Atlas Shrugged went off the rails. […]

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