Atlas Shrugged IX: Growing Up Galt
So. The childhood of Dagny Taggart.
“[S]he always ran when Eddie yelled, “It’s Frisco d’Anconia!” and they both flew
down the hill to the car approaching on the road below.”
This sentence tells us two very important things. First, that Dagny and the shadowy Francisco d’Anconia are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she flies off with him to his secret richy-rich fortress.
Second, it tells us that she and Eddie Willers are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she abandons him in the newly post-apocalyptic world.
This should tell you everything you need to know about Dagny. This is a novel that spends enough pages on the concept of integrity to have those pages turned into their own separate novel, but has characters who act with the integrity of a particularly rapacious robber baron. The intensity of this fuck-you-jack-I-got-mine mentality transcends even the internal logic of the novel.
According to Rand’s beliefs, the poor, disabled, old, less than perfectly brilliant (more on that in a bit) are, at best, grist for the mill. At worst they’re actively evil through the mere fact of their existence, and most of the time they have the same moral weight as a marshmallow- they can stick around for them as likes that, but you aren’t taking any on the lifeboat.
But Eddie is not just another poor person who never pulled hard enough on their bootstraps. Eddie is incredibly useful. When Dagny has to go off and have rational sex with Hank, or Francisco, or John, Eddie is the one left in charge. Eddie works hard, Eddie doesn’t complain. The only thing Eddie is not, is a total fucking bastard. Excuse me- the only thing Eddie isn’t is aware that his business abilities make him fundamentally superior to, oh, say, steelworkers.
Which, incidentally, and not to get to far ahead, is another problem with this book. It’s elitist. Well, that is to perhaps cloud the issue. Undoubtedly Rand would brag about her elitism. Rather, this book is aristocratic in the nastiest sense- noblesse without the oblige. Throughout the novel, ordinary workaday schmucks will appear. Not the entitled commies, or the lazy bums, but characters we are clearly supposed to like- hardworking, loyal, intelligent. Caring more for work than reward.
And these guys….get fucked. Left to rot in what Rand makes very clear is a hellish, medieval world. Oh, true, in Galt’s gulch we will see what may be best described as token poor people. For the most part, though, the defining characteristic of those who go Galt is their wealth and (presumed) intelligence. Rand pays lip service to the idea that she values hard work and integrity and so on, but in reality, what Rand values is success. In Rand’s world, the unprincipled greed of Jack Abramoff is worth more than 40 years of work by a Detroit assembly line worker, because Jack made money and the worker didn’t. When the dollar is elevated above all (and by the end of the novel, it is elevated to the status of religion) how those dollars are acquired ceases to matter.
And thus, a young Francisco d’Anconia (hereafter referred to as FdA because unlike Rand, I’m sick of typing that ridiculous name in full) says the following:
“We are the only aristocracy left in the world—the aristocracy of money”
Lil’ FdA is one of the most punchable creations since Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and for much the same reason- unbearable sanctimony and always being right. FdA is the perfect person.
“The running to meet him had become part of a contest among the three of them. There was a birch tree on the hillside, halfway between the road and the house; Dagny and Eddie tried to get past the tree, before Francisco … they never reached the birch tree …Francisco always won, as he always won everything.”
“The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.”
He pronounced his name as if he wished his listeners to be struck in the face and knighted by the sound of it.”
“He spoke five languages, and he spoke English without a trace of accent, a precise, cultured English deliberately mixed with slang.”
And he can do so many pushups, and he knows karate and one time he went up to a rampaging bear and pulled a thorn out of its paw and the bear was his friend and they stayed up as late as they want and drank milkshakes all the time and then they made Francisco the king of the world because he had great abs. Or something.
Perfect protagonists (known in some parts of the internet as “Mary Sues”) are boring. Perfection is dull-it removes any hint of excitement from the plot. Drama is, functionally, seeing someone face an obstacle. English 101- Person Vs. Person, Person Vs. Themselves, Person Vs. Nature, Person Vs. Society. Arguably, those four categories cover pretty much everything ever written. Perfect people triumphing isn’t a surprise. Of course FdA becomes rich and awesome- he’s perfect, so naturally he’s perfect at becoming rich and awesome.
And drama doesn’t need to be huge- sure, War and Peace is pretty freakin’ epic, but so is To Build a Fire. There are two fundamental conditions that must be met in a good drama, however- the characters must have something to overcome, and the character must change. Grow, shrink, rise, fall- a good story is about someone changing in some fundamental way.
And that is a critical failure on Rand’s part- This Francisco we see here- young, cocky, arrogant, strong, handsome rich accomplished tall blond able to eat all the cookies he wants without getting fat, is the exact same person we see at the end of the novel. Twelve-year old Francisco is functionally indistinguishable from forty year old Francisco. As are twelve-year old Dagny, and even twelve-year old Jim. There is no moment, or storyline, wherein Jim becomes the weak and miserable man we see in the present, there is no moment when a young, carefree, Francisco d’Anconia decides he will be rich and more awesome than Batman. They simply always were this way. FdA has blond hair and blue eyes and will be a great freethinking industrial potentate, and Jim has brown hair and brown eyes and will be weak and cowardly. As inevitable as DNA.
Anyway, another trend appears pretty soon- child labor. FdA decides, like pretty much every good guy in a Rand story, that he is gonna start working right away. He does this working for the Taggart railway as a call boy. Which- fair enough. Actually sounds like a good job for a 14-year old boy. My first job was shoveling snow in Maine, so I’m not all that impressed- running errands on a sunny railroad in the middle of the day sounds hella nicer than waking up at 5 AM to shovel a foot of snow before school.
Incidentally, my favorite bit of retarded St. Francisco-can-do-anything shows up here:
“They tried to follow him once, through the cold, pre-morning darkness, but they gave it up; no one could track him when he did not want to be tracked.”
Francisco d’Anconia. Business magnate. Olympian sprinter. Last of the Mohicans.
But this, of course, isn’t good enough. He also shipped out the summer before as a cabin boy on a cargo steamer. Apparently his father looked for him for three months, but the only thing he asked Francisco (who was apparently too busy cabin-boying to write a freakin’ letter) was if FdA had done a good job.
Nice. Loving, responsible parent there.
Anyway, Dagny asked him why he took this call-boy job, and he says:
“”To learn what it’s like, Slug,” he answered, “and to tell you that I’ve had a job with Taggart
Transcontinental before you did.”
Is…is it wrong to want to strangle a fictional child?
Anyway, FdA is awesome. His can play baseball. He drives speedboats. He…
“[Dagny’s] father picked them up…then asked,
“Francisco, how many years of algebra have you had?”
“Who taught you to do this?”
“Oh, that’s just something I figured out.”
…[W]hat her father held on the crumpled sheets of paper was the crude version of a differential equation.”
….Let’s just move on, ok?
This may seem like it’s not about Dagny, but it is. And Jim.
Imagine you grew up with, apparently, the Messiah. Someone with the Godlike power to do anything he puts his mind to. Now, my mother, and probably yours, told me that all the time. “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Except that for Francisco, there is no effort involved. He <i>watches</i> and then does it. Perfectly. Whatever it is- riding a horse or stripping an engine.
Francisco isn’t smart. Francisco isn’t even a genius. Francisco is what idiots think people with eidetic memories are like. I’m not sure there is a word for what Francisco is, because there is no one like him- at least, not in every possible field of human endeavor. There are people like Mozart who have a literal genius for music- they can transcribe a work they only heard once, for example. But Mozart couldn’t look at an engine running and reconstruct it from scratch. Mozart probably couldn’t just pick up a bat and ball and hit a home run (something else Francisco does).
(What’s more, even in music, Mozart wasn’t perfect without effort. His earliest works are beyond belief for a ten year old, but compared to the work of an ordinary mature composer, they’re only decent. Even Mozart needed to put in some work before he mastered music. )
But imagine living with this literal freak of nature, this being hardwired for mechanical perfection. Imagine seeing all your hard work, your practice, your struggles and triumphs swept away in moments by someone who just watches you for a moment, then does it better than you.
No wonder Jim Taggart ends up the way he is. His entire childhood, no matter how hard he works or how hard he tries, he can never win. The simplest victories- running faster, hitting a ball harder, being a faster reader, better at math, or history, or building a treehouse- are snatched from him again and again. Imagine that. Imagine living with that. You’d develop an inferiority complex like Superman’s younger brother, Tim Kent (Tim’s a farmer on a little spread outside Smallville. Grows peas.)
You might grow up feeling overwhelmed by the world. You might even be so fucked up you develop a philosophy that equality should be enforced by law. Either that, or end up worshiping them as your superior to be aped and followed blindly into whatever dumbass cult they end up starting.
Next time: We finish up Dagny’s childhood, and return to the plot.