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Atlas Shrugged IX: Growing Up Galt

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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.”

Then:

“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.”

And:

“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…

Ok. Seriously?

“[Dagny’s] father picked them up…then asked,

“Francisco, how many years of algebra have you had?”

“Two years.”

“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.

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Written by newscum

October 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm

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Atlas Shrugged III: The Decider

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Atlas Shrugged: pgs 5-16

Wow, sorry about that. It’s been a busy week.

Anyway, today we are again traveling through a door. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the…oh, I’m sorry. That’s the opening to the Twilight Zone, not Atlas Shrugged. Although the ideas behind Atlas Shrugged would’ve made an excellent episode of the Twilight Zone. Of course, Dagny and Hank and John Galt would be the bad guys. Say what you will about the Twilight Zone, but it at least had a firm moral compass.

So, when we left off last, we had just met James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest railroad in the United States. Eddie Willers shows up in his office because there is trouble brewing.

He looked at James Taggart and said, “It’s the Rio Norte Line.” He noticed Taggart’s glance moving down to a corner of the desk. “We’ve had another wreck.”
“Railroad accidents happen every day. Did you have to bother me about that?”
“You know what I’m saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is shot. Down the whole line.”

DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!

The next few pages, while ostensibly about the Rio Norte line, are nothing more than a stream of cheap little insults at the expense of Jim Taggart. Of course, we begin with the initial description, where we left off last time, but allow me to refresh your memories.

He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.

Over the next few pages she will add lines like:

“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willers was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes”

“James Taggart seldom raised his head; when he looked at people, he did so by lifting his heavy eyelids and staring upward from under the expanse of his bald forehead.”

“Taggart asked slowly, his voice half-mocking, half-cautious, ‘What did my sister say?’”

You get the idea. That is not including the constant innuendo of every line of dialogue, of every comment. I would have to copy the entire page and a half to give you the full sensation. So just take my word for it, Ayn Rand goes out of her way to slander Jim Taggart. What’s more, these slurs are not directed at his intellect, nor at his ideas. While both these will be eventually attacked, when Rand first attacks her intellectual opponents, she immediately defaults to the cheapest of all propaganda tricks: physical appearance. Her heroes are clean limbed and healthy, and usually described as “angular.” She gushes over the lines of their faces, their bodies. Her villains…well, just read what she wrote.

What makes this so very irritating (beyond the fact that it’s bad writing, poor character development, supremely propagandistic, and generally bad art) is that when her villains do the same thing in the novel, she treats it as a supreme betrayal. On page 477, she describes one of the passengers riding on a doomed train as:

“a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.”

But as we have seen, and as we shall continue to see, her descriptions of her opponents are not analytical. There are no sheets of figures showing why their schemes will fail, there are no cutting logical analyses (Well, except for that massive speech by John Galt, but that is a bit sui generis and will be dealt with in its own good time.) There is only a stream of invective; the cheapest, most foolish inanities put into the mouth of characters she doesn’t like. Cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all liberals are scoundrels (if you will.) And trust me, it only gets worse from here.

But let us turn from that fruitful and yet to be fully explored path to what may be the most important sentence in this entire book. A bit of context: Eddie is thinking about Ellis Wyatt. (Q: is he a good guy or bad guy based only on the name?) and how he has turned his oil wells into the lifeblood of the nation by being bootstrappy. (A: Good guy.) He is reflecting on the symbolism of a map of railway lines as a chart of the United States’ arteries, and Ellis Wyatt’s role in filling them with oily lifeblood. To Eddie, Wyatt is an almost mythic figure.
.

One man had done it, and he had done it in eight years; this, thought Eddie Willers, was like the stories he had read in school books and never quite believed, the stories of men who had lived in the days of the country’s youth.

And there you have it folks. That is the quintessence of the Tea Parties, the Libertarians, the Randites beliefs. That the world today is somehow inferior to some unspecified prior golden age. And that is somehow the fault of restrictions on business. Life, they believe, was better in the age of Carnegie and the Battle of Blair Mountain, of Rockefeller and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Of J. P. Morgan and the Battle of Homestead. It is no coincidence that these things are paired. The existence of uncontrollable monopolies, of a pure free market, was what permitted the Gilded Age; filled with unbelievably wealthy nabobs and incredible suffering. There were no controls, no checks, no balances. And for 99% of everyone, it sucked.
Of course, one of the fundamental, unstated beliefs of this Tea Party worldview is that they will somehow all be among that one percent. That they are all so bootstrappy, so skilled, and so talented that should all checks on the pure free market be removed tomorrow, they would all be John D. Rockefellers, lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills.
And in all honesty it is more than likely that, should that unhappy state of affairs come to pass, they would hang on quite well for a while. Of course, this would have little or nothing to do with their inherent abilities, but their whiteness, their education, their prior economic status…in other words, almost everything else but their inherent skills. To use my favorite phrase, they were born on third base, and think they hit a triple.

The essential belief of the Tea Party is that when they release the perfect free market, that all inequities will swept away, and the only rubric will be pure talent. They believe in some idealized pseudo-Peter Principle. That instead of rising to the level of their incompetence, people will instead rise to the level of their greatest competence and be happy there. In other words, they believe in a world of happy-crappy BS.
Ironically, their blind embrace of the free market is nothing more than the embrace of the free reign of mankind’s least noble impulses, expressed as far as the profit margin. As long as there is no profit (or at least no extra profit) in hiring women, in hiring minorities, in improving destitute communities, and so on, there will be no free market incentive to do so. And as long as it doesn’t impact the profit margins, anyone in power is free to exercise whatever bigotry they choose. It would be simple to slide back into the sort of system that existed before the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Mysteriously enough, only white males could go to college and get a good job. Which is, of course, proof that only white men have the natural genius required for industry. And so therefore women and minorities shouldn’t go to college. And so on ad nauseum.

Returning to the narrative. The discussion that consumes these pages is essentially this. There is another railroad, the Phoenix-Durango that is competing with Taggart Transcontinental in the newly industrial state of Colorado. Wyatt’s oil fields have caused a sudden economic boom in the state, one that Taggart’s railroad was poorly posed to take advantage of. The Phoenix-Durango is outperforming them, and Eddie wants something done about it. And Jim is going to do something about it, just as soon as their Mexican railroad starts to pay off.

Throughout this conversation a few themes are endlessly repeated. “Talk to my sister” and “No one can blame us” The first theme..well, we’ll meet Dagny in just a bit. But the second theme is very interesting. In Ayn Rand’s world, what Liberals care about is not results, not progress, but not being blamed. The world can go to hell (and it does) as long as no one can blame them.

That’s…that’s so stupid I don’t even know where to start. It’s like talking to someone about the latest mission to Mars and discovering that they believe the sun is a giant lamp in the sky, and the stars are places where the paint has chipped away. The flaws in their thinking are so grotesquely fundamental that you don’t even know where to start. However, we’ll put off that question until later, when one of these poor-straw men actually tries to defend themselves.

Then we come to a bit of good and rather effective writing. As Eddie leaves Jim’s office, he bumps into old Pop Harper, the office repairman. And Pop asks Eddie if he knows where he can get any good woolen undershirts.

Pop Harper glanced up at Eddie Willers as he came out of the president’s office. It was a wise, slow glance; it seemed to say that he knew that Eddie’s visit to their part of the building meant trouble on the line, knew that nothing had come of the visit, and was completely indifferent to the knowledge. It was the cynical indifference which Eddie Willers had seen in the eyes of the bum on the street corner.
“Say, Eddie, know where I could get some woolen undershirts?” he asked, “Tried all over town, but nobody’s got ’em.”
“I don’t know,” said Eddie, stopping. “Why do you ask me?”
“I just ask everybody. Maybe somebody’ll tell me.”

Of course, it immediately degenerates into a long maudlin speech after that, but let’s take a moment to appreciate this detail. An old man who just wants some good woolen undershirts. But these things don’t exist anymore. Everyone remembers them, and they are such a small detail, so easily overlooked. You simply buy the cheaper cotton ones, and how often do you buy undershirts anyway? You just assume they’re out of them at the moment. No one ever mentions it, no one ever notices that they’re gone, because they don’t realize they are. But this small detail has slipped away forever, the first small stone of the landslide that’s coming. And the only one who even notices is a half-crazy old man, who just wants to be warm in the long, cold winter. That’s a lovely detail, and a surprisingly delicate touch in a book that is usually about as subtle as a nine pound hammer to the kneecap.
And finally, finally we meet Dagny Taggart. Take a deep breath campers, we’re about to be up to our eyeballs in it.

Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body. The coat collar was raised to the slanting brim of her hat. A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body.

You thought I was joking about the obsession with angles, didn’t you?

And to be honest, not much happens in the next few pages. The train stops, Dagny gets out. She discovers that no one wants to get the train started, because if they take action they could be blamed, dontcha see? And then Dagny sorts it out easily. Not because it was a hard problem, but because it’s an easy one. Which apparently no one else thought about. Also, she hears a piece of music, which she recognizes as the work of Richard Halley, a composer who disappeared some years ago. The thing is, this is a new work. *PLOT POINT*
Then she sweeps into Jim’s office, tells him that she’s not ordering the rails from Orren Boyle who hasn’t delivered it in over a year.

No.

No.

Sweet JESUS NO. OK? I could understand if, say the rail was two weeks, even a month late. Then we would have some energy in this scene. You have Jim Taggart, trying to be loyal to a friend who is having some trouble, and no-nonsense Dagny Taggart who wants that rail yesterday because she has important work to do. Neither one of these people would be evil, or moronic. They’d be two people, with different motives, caught in the struggle between rational and emotional impulses. It could explore the nature of the business world, the question of whether the quest for money is ultimately uplifting or dehumanizing. Jim could defend his principles and Dagny could shoot him down, but as one treats a brother. As one treats a fellow human being. Give the man some dignity, for Christ’s sake.

But no one, no matter how liberal, no matter how communistic, waits THIRTEEN MONTHS for something they need. Let alone something they desperately need. No one at all. It is just a stupid, overblown detail to show how wishy-washy and mealy mouthed Jim Taggart is compared to his sister. And, if she is so on the ball, why in hell didn’t she do this twelve months ago? There is no indication in this scene that once she has put her foot down, Jim will display any resistance. She effectively runs the company, so why is she just getting to this now? It seems to me that she has been waiting just as long as he has, to no appreciable end, for no appreciable purpose. But because she is the one finally taking action, we’re supposed to respect her.

And then this happens.

“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”
“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”
“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”
“No. I haven’t.”

And you know what? I’m with Dagny on this one. Because I have no clue what the “Human Element” is, either. Except a buzzword from IBM. But it sounds like the sort of thing a shitty
author would put in the mouth of a strawman lib….Oh, I see what you did there. Very clever, Ayn.

And then she decides they’re going to use Rearden Metal. Which is a magical new type of metal that can do…well, just about anything. Of course, it’s completely untested under any sort of long term strain, there have been no replicates of the data, no one except Rearden has had a chance to see it.

And then this happens.

“What do you go by?” [Jim asked.]
“Judgment.”
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
“Mine.”
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Nobody.”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
“But who says so?”
“Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them.”

Apparently when she was studying engineering she missed out on…well, the entirety of the scientific method. You don’t “see” things in engineering. You don’t have a gut feeling that something will work and use that to go on. That gut feeling might be the start, but it is step one of about ten thousand. Then you collect data, and compare data, and run tests and simulations and calculate all sorts of variables and you do all this because no matter how good you are, at least half the time you’re Just. Plain. Wrong. Because you forgot to include some little detail in your gut feeling. And this isn’t just Timmy Testtube that does this, either. You think that Einstein just came up with relativity? No. He had a gut feeling, and he followed it down many, many blind alleys until he found something that worked. Because that’s what science is, methodically testing your educated guesses or gut feelings until you get them right.

And on that note…I’m tired. I’m really, really, tired of this book. I’m gonna take a break now. But next time, I think I’ll start exploring some of the similarities between this and the Left Behind series, and why they both seem to have a death grip on two very similar and often overlapping groups of people. Stay tuned.

Written by newscum

July 24, 2010 at 7:39 am