Art Carden  

Atlas Shrugged: My Two Favorite Passages

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Last week, I asked about my two favorite passages in Atlas Shrugged: the tunnel disaster (pp, 539-560 of the Signet 50th Anniversary Edition) and the scene in which the young man Hank Rearden referred to as "Non-Absolute" dies (start on page 908). In just a few words, here's why (SPOILERS BELOW):

1. The Tunnel Disaster. The world in Atlas Shrugged dies by a thousand cuts, but those thousand cuts have, in Rand's system, a common root: a failure to deal with objective reality, or more generally (and less charitably), an unwillingness to think. The unintended consequence is a set of rules and norms that encourage people to evade responsibility above almost all else. Beginning on page 558, we learn, in a few sentences each, about some of the people on the train that carries them to their deaths. The one that stands out as the most tragic in my mind (p. 559):

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."

2. Tony's Death. Tony is an interesting character to juxtapose against Hank Rearden's brother, Philip, particularly in the hundred or so pages leading up to this scene. Philip is a one-dimensionally repulsive character (Rand has been criticized, with some justification, for writing one-dimensional characters). And yet Tony's transformation from "Non-Absolute" or the "Wet Nurse" is an interesting story of redemption made tragic by his death. Here are Rearden's reflections that speak to me (p. 910):

Somewhere, he thought, there was the boy's mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler's caution, who had obeyed with a zealot's fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs--then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.

He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly--yet man, whose tool of survival is his mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child's education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.

....

Armed with nothing but meaningless phrases, this boy had been thrown to fight for existence, he had hobbled and groped through a brief, doomed effort, he had screamed his indignant, bewildered protest--and had perished in his first attempt to soar on his mangled wings.

Parental responsibility is the common theme in the quotes above. It's a long process of trial and error, but I'm reminded by passages such as these that while Adam Smith was right that "there is much ruin in a nation," I owe it to my children to do what I can to fix it.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
FredR writes:

It's weird because to me, "The Tunnel Disaster" was as morally abhorrent a fantasy as anything the Marquis de Sade produced.

RPLong writes:

I knew a kid like "Non-Absolute." It was really sad because he was extremely intelligent, but the only thing he knew about anything is what he learned at the local left-wing university. I used to pose daily philosophical questions to him, hoping to sort of expand his horizons beyond the tired liberal tropes. We ended up good friends, but I don't think I changed his mind about anything.

Marc F Cheney writes:
Rand has been criticized, with some justification, for writing one-dimensional characters

Are you kidding me? I could see saying that about her heroes, but her one-dimensional villains are shockingly realistic.

Marc F Cheney writes:
It's weird because to me, "The Tunnel Disaster" was as morally abhorrent a fantasy as anything the Marquis de Sade produced.

I've seen a lot of people say they loathe that passage. Personally, I don't get it. If John Galt or another of the heroes had murdered the passengers, I would agree. If the deaths were described in gruesome detail, I would agree. But they weren't murdered, and their deaths are stated as a plain fact.

Why do you find it morally abhorrent?

FredR writes:

"Look at all these parasites and looters who deserve to die because their actions, or even just their thoughts, don't line up perfectly with my particular brand of libertarian philosophy."

RPLong writes:

Regarding FredR's comments...

No one is required to enjoy Rand's novels, but disliking them and/or their underlying message is no reason to go on a witch hunt looking for perversion where none exists.

This shouldn't have to be said, but here goes. The point of the scene is not to stick it to morally reprehensible people, but rather to show that they had each in their own way contributed to their own demise. It's called thematic irony - a common and effective literary tool. Have you ever seen The Unforgiven? Or Pale Rider? Or The Matrix? Similar techniques are employed throughout those and many other films. It's standard practice in most horror films, actually.

Of course, none of that matters to people who have decided to be irked by Rand beyond all rationality.

Silas Barta writes:

I've long had a deep suspicion of Objectivist philosophy on the grounds that, with respect to the (important) issue of children, it doesn't and can't say much. Nor does it help that Rand decided not to have children, probably on that basis.

Re-reading those passages makes me rethink that.

Philo writes:

One is responsible for his own actions. Don’t encourage people to shirk responsibility by blaming their parents.

FredR writes:

It's just that this woman dies in a horrific train accident, because her husband worked for the government. By supporting him, she contributed to her own demise. This totally makes sense. Instead of being logically ridiculous and morally perverse, it's only thematic irony.

"To a gas chamber - go!"

Art Carden writes:

Thank you all for the excellent comments.

@Marc F Cheney re: one-dimensional heroes and realistic villains: you make a very good point. Indeed, during Bailout-Palooza a few years ago, I almost swore I was going to look at the front page of the Wall Street Journal and read about the Automobile Unification Plan.

The portrayal of the tunnel disaster as a sadistic fantasy strikes me as a bit odd. I don't think there's an unwritten "and they deserved it" at the end of the passage. Rather, I think Rand highlights--and powerfully--the effects of bad ideas. She is showing us a tragic consequence of, in her view, bad philosophy.

I've been stewing on an idea for a future post or article on how we react to tragedy (like the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, Hurricane Katrina, the Tuscaloosa tornadoes of 2011, and other disasters). I might bump such an entry further up in the queue after reading these comments.

Thanks again--thanks for reading and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Greg writes:

I just want to add the quotes that FredR is paraphrasing:

The section begins:
"It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them."

There is then a series of unsympathetic vignettes like the one Art has linked to above. Then:

"there was not a [passenger] aboard the train that did not share one or more of their ideas."

Based on this, I think it is over the top to describe the section as Rand saying that people who don't agree with her should die. But I do think she is saying that they got what they deserved. It is like if you leave a bag unattended in a public place it is not the case that someone should steal your bag, but if someone does steal it then you had it coming.

I think her point here is ridiculous and unnecessary.

I can't see how you are meant to read the section as tragic in any emotional sense.

RPLong writes:

FredR -

We can discuss this, but you have to be open-minded enough to consider alternate possibilities. If your point here was just to throw snark at a caricature of Ayn Rand, then there wouldn't be much point to my saying anything other than "I disagree."

If you told me a bit more about your own beliefs, I'm utterly certain we could come up with a list of stories that highlight various aspects of your personal value system. If those stories have any kind of literary conflict at all, then it is almost certain that the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and everyone learns an important lesson.

You might not agree with Rand's ideas. Neither do I, fully. Probably neither does Prof. Carden. But the whole point of novels is to tell a story with good guys who win, bad guys who lose, and maybe some in-between folks who are forced to take a side. Throw in some flowery descriptions of each of those things, and you've got yourself a novel.

So it's pretty clear to me that your only objection in this case is that you don't like who Rand calls the bad guys. That's your prerogative, but the suggestion that the pivotal events in a novel are a sadistic fantasy is untenable. It's a novel, not an episode of Sesame Street. In novels, especially novels that employ Romanticism, some of the bad guys lose. What else do you expect?

s da writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

FredR writes:

Like I've been saying, my problem isn't with the general structure of "bad guys losing", or "people work their own destruction." My problem is with the specifics of the case. Ayn Rand's specific choice of villains, her specific attitude towards these villains, etc. It's a sadistic fantasy because she obviously is exulting in the deaths of random ordinary people. Why, after setting it up so that some playwright is going to be killed because he wasn't a libertarian, does she go on to describe him as a "sniveling little neurotic"? It's a question of taste.

abe writes:

"I've long had a deep suspicion of Objectivist philosophy on the grounds that, with respect to the (important) issue of children, it doesn't and can't say much. Nor does it help that Rand decided not to have children, probably on that basis."

Bingo!

It's curious that none of Rand's characters have children. Feelings of self-less love and parental affection would have collided against elements of her philosophy, or rather introduce nuances she didn't want to deal with.

Joshua Lyle writes:

abe,

False. Ragnar Danneskjöld has two kids, and his wife has a passage describing her love for their children (who specifically states that love of one's own children is in fact not self-less, in contradiction of your statement), in addition to demonstrations of affection within the family. The other male heroes are all courting the same (unmarried) heroine until the end of the story, but you can infer that they're at least interested in having children, given a worthy partner.

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