Atlas Shrugged VIII: Trainspotting
“Trouble is, Paul,” he said, thinking aloud, “that the men one has to pick for that job are such a crummy lot,”
Larkin looked away. “That’s life,” he said.
“Damned if I see why. Can you tell me that? What’s wrong with the world?”
Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”
Rearden sat up straight. “No,” he said sharply. “No. There’s no reason to feel that way.”
He paced the room, his energy returning. He looked at his family.
They were bewildered, unhappy children-he thought-all of them, even his mother, and he was foolish to resent their ineptitude; it came from their helplessness, not from malice. It was he who had to make himself learn to understand them, since he had so much to give, since they could never share his sense of joyous, boundless power.”
Oh Hank. Oh you sweet, sweet man.
Let us, for a moment, accept the story’s conceit. The other Rearden’s are helpless children. Ok. Certainly we all know someone like that, or at least know of someone like that. High society seems to have a lot of these people. Not cruel. Not even stuck up. Just so far out of touch they think K-Mart is a rap star.
Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s who I think of. Sweet, but not in the same world as the rest of us. And ok, I can work with that.
These people are unhappy and Hank wants to help them. Wants to reach out and share his largess because he’s a nice guy. I can buy that. Heck, I can even buy that they’re ungrateful jerks, because who doesn’t know a few of those?
But later, Hank gives his brother ten grand (in 1920s-ish money!) just because why the hell not, he wants the kid to be happy.
“Philip stared at him blankly; it was neither shock nor pleasure; it was just the empty stare of eyes that looked glassy.
“Oh,” said Philip, then added, “We’ll appreciate it very much.”
There was no emotion in his voice, not even the simple one of greed.”
This is where Rand begins to lose us. I would imagine you could hard Warren Buffet 10K in 2012 dollars and he’d have more of a reaction than that. Human beings are human beings, and except for the rare sociopath, we all feel pretty much the same thing. Love and hate and sorrow and anger and happiness and when someone hands you 10 large, you feel happy. You don’t just stare at them like you’re halfway through a stroke.
But I do have an alternate explanation.
Philip is high as BALLS. Seriously- Philip shot some horse about half an hour ago, and now he’s not talking to Hank, he’s talking to what he thinks is a hallucination offering him enough cash to buy an Afghanistan’s worth of smack.
The rest of the scene makes more sense, actually, if you assume that Philip has a heroin addiction he and everyone else is hiding from Hank.
“”By the way, Henry,” Philip added, “do you mind if I ask you to have Miss Ives give me the money in cash?”
Rearden turned back to him, puzzled.
“You see, Friends of Global Progress are a very progressive group and they have always maintained that you represent the blackest element of social retrogression ha the country, so it would embarrass us, you know, to have your name on our list of contributors, because somebody might accuse us of being in the pay of Hank Rearden.”
He heard Larkin’s voice crying after him, “Damn it, Hank, you shouldn’t have given it to him!”’
Tell me that doesn’t sound like a junkie. They always come up with complex and vaguely plausible reasons WHY you can’t just buy them a sandwich but need to give them money. Poor Larkin there has been spending MONTHS shepherding Philip through NA, going to all these meetings, and now Hank gives him ten thousand in cash just when Phil has a relapse. Of all the shitty luck.
C’mon- younger, passed over brother without much personality who suddenly has access to all the cash in Christendom, but only as gifts from his brother? It’d drive you to drugs too.
Bah. We skip ahead. Essentially more of the same in the next few pages. Jim Taggart has a meeting with Excuse-Making CEOs. They all agree to support “progressive social policies,” which here apparently means “communism” because those are totally the same thing.
There is more of Rand’s obsessive conflation of appearance with reality and her obsession with straight lines- everyone here is hunched, round, and soft. I’d say it crosses the line from awkward motif to obsession, but it did that about 50 pages ago. Now it’s just sort of sad. This woman has such a fascination with right angles I’m starting to think her first boyfriend was a t-square.
There are a few things that irk me though.
“”If everybody could pull for a common purpose, then nobody would have to be hurt!” [Larkin] cried suddenly, in a tone of incongruous despair.”
Rand was born in the wrong world. She would’ve made a fantastic minister of propaganda. See- most propaganda doesn’t work because its too obvious. The propagandists don’t have the patience required- real propaganda, the type that sticks, is subtle. Slowly, you associate the people you hate with weakness and negativity.
So Rand sticks meaningless, but vaguely liberal sounding bullshit into the mouths of her most irritating characters, and surrounds them with words like “dank” and “dismal” and “despair” and “flaccid” and…..
And you can’t really fight it- it’s like punching cotton wool. You cannot point at one section and go “As XYZ economic data shows, you’re talking out your ass there, Ayn.” Ironically enough, for a writer so obsessed with creation and building, she only tears down. This book is an excellent study on the slippery slope, come to think of it. She never says “libertarianism is good.” All she says is “everything else but libertarianism is bad.” At the end of this book, these characters won’t really have done much of anything- even the most intense passages full of trainz-n-brainz ‘action’ boil down too “and then Dagny did some business stuff that any reasonably competent human could bang out without too much trouble.”
See, everyone in this book is a strawman. Even the people we’re supposed to like are strawmen. And Ayn’s entire argument comes down to: “Wow! Those strawmen sure did fall apart! Clearly these other strawmen over here are vastly superior beings! You should worship them.”
Cargo cults have better backstories than that
The problem is, when you do it over the course of several hundred pages- well, you end up committed to the conceit after a while. Once you’ve spent a week or so hacking through this, you pretty much have to either go along for the ride or accept that you’ve spent your time reading the world’s most verbose and obscure strokebook.
Propaganda. Good propaganda, but like all propaganda, ultimately hollow.
Her characters struggle and pontificate, but don’t really grow or change. Their voices are set at the beginning. They may learn, like Hank does, but that learning doesn’t change them. They are as they were at the start. They move through their world and though the story tells us they make a difference, that they grow and change- we never get to see it. Because if they did change, it would be an admission that there could be a flaw in this world, that these characters were not chiseling commandants in stone.
The surest way to tell if something is bullshit is to see how it handles its own flaws and mistakes. The real world can be inconsistent, strange, and inexplicable- a good philosophy admits that. But BS will got far out of its way to paper any pinhole of dissent or doubt, because BS cannot afford the exposure. To make Atlas Shrugged a reflection of reality in the way that Anna Karenina is, would take this story from the pompous and banal into the realm of the moronic- when one imagines a Dagny Taggart in our world, she ceases to be noble and just becomes laughable. Rand made one of the classic blunders- the world informs you, you do not inform the world.
And that is, perhaps, why Rand’s staunchest devotees are usually between 15-20. Old enough to think, but not old enough to have seen enough of reality to form a true mental picture. In those years the world seems very starkly divided- understanding complexity is often a function of aging.
*flip flip flip.*
Ah. And now we come to something good. The childhood of Dagny Taggart.
This requires pondering. More to follow, but here’s something to wet your whistle.
“Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day. She stated it to herself when she stood alone between the rails, looking at the two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance and met in a single point. What she felt was an arrogant pleasure at the way the track cut through the woods: it did not belong in the midst of ancient trees, among green branches that hung down to meet green brush and the lonely spears of wild flowers-but there it was. The two steel lines were brilliant in the sun, and the black ties were like the rungs of a ladder which she had to climb.”
Oh, T-square. You’re so naughty!