Atlas Shrugged VI: The Ballad of Hank Rearden
“The metal came rising to the top of the ladle and went running over with arrogant prodigality. Then the blinding white trickles turned to glowing brown, and in one more instant they were black icicles of metal, starting to crumble off. The slag was crusting in thick, brown ridges that looked like the crust of the earth. As the crust grew thicker, a few craters broke open, with the white liquid still boiling within.”
I’ll give it to Rand. That’s a damn pretty piece of writing. Say what you will about the woman (And I plan on saying a LOT) she can find the rough beauty in the industrial world.
Which it its way is half the problem. The best lies, they say, are those that have a core of truth at the center. And Rand finds some truth. There is nobility in doing honest work. There is something grand about tons of steel spun through midair by brave strong men who build and create.
The Seven Deadly Sins are so deadly precisely because they start out as virtues. Gluttony starts out as an honest love of the pleasures the world has to offer, and only later becomes twisted into sin. Pride starts out as nothing more than healthy self-esteem, taken too far. And in a similar way, Rand seizes on good things and twists them.
Let me shock all the libertarians reading this. I like the free market. Hell, I love the free market. When regulated and controlled, capitalism is a good thing, a great thing. The power that allows steel mills to rise, cities to sprawl across the globe, is the power of progress. And the love of building things is a true and honest love.
But that is only where Rand begins. In her hands, the love of creation becomes a weapon. In Rand’s world, creating and building are not pleasures, but desperate blows against a cruel and oppressive world. And her creations are twisted by this obsession. Hank Rearden cannot simply love to create. Love of his business must be his only love. He has to cut out everything else. All other beauty, all other loves, are not only subservient to his mills, they are obliterated.
And it has made him terribly, terribly sad:
“Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal. He was Hank Rearden.”
A man who never smiles, a man who never shows any expression, is rarely a happy man. And there is something pathetic in that passage, a man who has been denied love turning to one thing he can do well. One thing that makes him happy.
And I’ll make another confession. I like Hank Rearden. In this whole damn novel, he’s the only person who ever acts like a human being. A human being with a sequoia firmly implanted in his nether regions, true, but a human being nonetheless. Galt is a messianic figurehead, there to be dramatic and say pithy things about Aristotle. Dagny is….unpleasant. Eddie is there to show what happens to you when you’re not quite good enough (hint: the people you’ve served all your life throw you to the wolves.) But Rearden is a real person, a real character, and even though he’s not the best, he’s such a welcome relief in this novel I can’t help but love him.
There is a bit more lovely writing- descriptions of a young struggling Rearden making his first steel mill out of nothing, and, again, there is that deceptive Horatio Alger charm. This is a story we are familiar with. Poor Boy Makes Good on nothing but wit and brains. Most delightful, most familiar. And because it is familiar, we instinctively fill in the little details. We know Hank. We’ve met him a dozen times before, and where Rand’s grasp of the formula fails, we fill in the blanks for her. And we are predisposed to like these people. And so we like Rearden. Even filled out with the stale details of stereotype, he is at least three-dimensional.
And there is another thing about Rearden. He cares. He doesn’t care in the weak and wibbling sort of way that Eddie does, or have the blank uncaring of Dagny. This is a man who honestly loves people.
“He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been-for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.”
Read that thoroughly un-Randian passage. Here is Hank Rearden, steel magnate, thinking, in a vague and inconsequential fashion, that he’d like to make other people happy. And that’s why we love him. Even though we know we’ll see this common decency beaten out of them, for a moment, this is a happy man, filled with the great joy of success, and wishing nothing but good to everyone.
Of course, all good things must come to an end.
“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife…”
Awww! How sweet! Ten years of work, and the first thing he thinks to make with this metal he’s poured so much sweat into is something for his wife. Well, she must be a hell of a woman, right? To be so on his thoughts that in the moment of his greatest triumph, his thoughts turn to her.
“Then she turned her head, looked at Rearden in the shadows across the long room, and her arms spread gracefully, like two swan necks by her sides.
“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuyeres to polish?”
Charming. Rand doesn’t have a Madonna/whore complex. She has a Madonna/bitch complex. Every woman she writes is either a Dagny or…whatever this is supposed to be. No one talks like that. No one acts like that. Does it get worse? Does the Pope shit in the woods?
“Lillian Rearden was generally regarded as a beautiful woman. She had a tall, graceful body, the kind that looked well in high-waisted gowns of the Empire style, which she made it a practice to wear. .. But when she turned full-face, people experienced a small shock of disappointment. Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”
Oh! She’s supposed to be the cold, high-society chick and of course, Rearden will find love with the innocent but hard working Other Woman.
And here’s the problem. There are three interesting things going on here: Rearden meets his brother, Lillian plans a party, and Rearden gives her the bracelet. Today, for brevities sake, I’ll just finish off the bit about the necklace. Next time, though, I want to discuss Philip and Lillian in greater detail. For now, however, lets wrap this painful little scene up.
“”I brought you a present, Lillian.”
He did not know that he stood straight and that the gesture of his arm was that of a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love, when he dropped a small chain of metal into her lap.
Lillian Rearden picked it up, hooked on the tips of two straight fingers, and raised it to the light. The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal.”
“You mean,” she said, “it’s fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?”
He looked at her blankly.
She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. “Henry, it’s perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and-what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?-soup kettles?”
“God, Henry, but you’re conceited!” said Philip.
Lillian laughed. “He’s a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn’t the gift, it’s the intention, I know.”
Damn. I mean…damn. That’s a crushing blow. Ok, I’ll grant, as far as great gifts go, bracelet of metal doesn’t do much, and maybe he could’ve jazzed it up a little, but, sweet Jesus, that’s cold.
And that’s why Hank Rearden is the only real human being in this novel. The others were born to privilege and wealth. Francisco, Dagny…Galt was not born rich, but is instead a super-genius of some fashion.
Hank is just Hank. He’s the poor boy who made it good. He’s the guy who works and sweats and slaves because he honestly believes this is a good world. The cynicism of Galt and Francisco is disgusting to see. Rand tries to disguise it, but it is nothing more than the lowest form of aristocratic contempt for the proles. There are the chosen few, and then there are the hordes of slaves. Hank doesn’t have that though. He wants to make people happy, he wants to take care of his family. He wants in other words, other things. A life beyond mills and metal.
But that isn’t permitted. That isn’t the party line. And so, for the next nine hundred pages, this book is the Tragedy of Hank Rearden. Of a decent, hardworking man corrupted, beaten, mistreated and spurned until he lashes out at the world in a cynical orgy of destruction.
In Dagny, in Galt, this is disgusting. In Rearden, it is tragic. It is like the collapse of one of his buildings- something old and grand and noble slowly torn down and reshaped until the kind man who makes bracelets for his wife is lost.