Wednesday, May 30, 2012


C.S. Lewis once defended the use of metaphor and anthropomorphism in the Bible--the Garden of Eden, God the Father--as the least worst way of conveying something that lies beyond the perception of the five senses. God being beyond human comprehension, so his logic went, it is only by metaphor, by reference to already tangible phenomena, that a picture, if incomplete, of God could emerge.

I would make a similar argument for conveying the unique badness of Atlas Shrugged, whose back cover bills the novel as "unlike any other book you have ever read." True, every novel is unique, but one as absurdly ambitious as this is especially so. One cannot grasp the totality of its oddness without actually reading it. Since 1,000+ pages is large investment for a book that's largely awful, however, the need arises to find a proper frame of reference when describing it to lesser masochists. (Thus the previous comparison of Ayn Rand's characterization to trashy horror movies.) With all its talk of "the murder--and rebirth--of man's spirit," Atlas Shrugged is best viewed, in keeping with the C.S. Lewis thread, as (ir)religious, apocalyptic literature, an eschatology of the anti-christ of lit.

The book's religious angle may not be immediately apparent. The setting, a near-future America ruled by morons, is a dystopia, the premise a mystery story: who is responsible for the disappearance of Teh Best on Earth? Who invented--and abandoned--the brand new motor that could power the world? Who is John Galt? Yet consider this appraisal:
Atlas Shrugged cloaks itself in the conventions of ordinary airport thrillers, but it does far more than just provide an Objectivist alternative to decadent mainstream entertainment. It creates an Objectivist theory of everything, one that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to rational specifications. It’s an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs — especially liberals....

I did modify that excerpt a little. The book in question is actually Left Behind, the first installment in the mega-selling fundamentalist Christian book series that imagines the events of the Book of Revelation following the Rapture, in which all the world's Christians are taken to Heaven, while the handful of those who remain and become Born Again must contend with a world of nonbelievers and nefarious internationalists. Even as Atlas Shrugged sets itself squarely against Christianity, to stake a claim to its feelings of exaltation and transcendence, it can't help but mirror it in many crucial aspects.

One of these is, perhaps not so surprisingly, is the idea of a paradise. This comes to the fore with the unraveling of the book's mystery, starting with its third section, "A is A." Dagny Taggart has charged Quentin Daniels, a young and typically brilliant physicist, with attempting to figure out how the mysterious motor she discovered in a scrap heap at the Twentieth Century Motor Company works. When Daniels tells her he is quitting because of government interference, she fears that the Destroyer--the name she's given to the man who is making off with the best and brightest--will snatch him away too, and so dashes off to Utah to reach Daniels before it's too late. Her train breaks down and so she happens upon an airfield and buys a plane that she conveniently knows how to fly. She lands in Afton, Utah, just as Daniels and a mysterious stranger are taking off, and pursues their plane into the mountains of Colorado, where it disappears. In trying to find their aircraft her own runs out of fuel and she makes a crash landing with a comically defiant cry of, "Oh hell! Who is John Galt?"

Her awakening is described in language of unearthly serenity:
When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man's face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world she had expected to see it at sixteen--and now she had reached it--and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: But of course. 
She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud..... 
This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence--and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone's senseless joke. She smiled at him, as at a fellow conspirator, in relief, in deliverance, in radiant mockery of all the things she would never have to consider important again. He smiled in answer, it was the same smile as her own, as if he felt what she felt and knew what she meant. 
"We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?" she whimpered. 
"No, we never had to." 
The man is John Galt. He is the redeemer of Ayn Rand's godless Calvinism, Objectivistly perfect, the man who will restore light to a benighted Earth. He is not the first such creation of Rand's. Howard Roark of The Fountainhead had his Christ-like aspects, but he was still only an architect; he would live in Galt's Gulch, but not lead it. Galt is Rand's Übermensch, proud of pride rather than King of Kings. So great is Galt that he discovered a new physics, with which he used to build his motor, which he then abandoned on a junk heap when he left the communist Twentieth Century Motor Company, just as he would lead the captains of industry to leave their factories to join the junk heap of greater humanity. (There is no such thing as subtext in an Ayn Rand novel.)

The valley in which Dagny crash-landed is Galt's Gulch, a hideaway for all the departed which has at its entrance a prominent statue of the dollar sign. Dagny had viewed the genius' sudden disappearance with increasing dismay, for the loss of intellectual capital they represented, and to see them all again in one place is, for her, to walk among the heroes of Valhalla.
[Philosopher Hugh] Akston smiled. "What does this look like to you, Miss Taggart?" He pointed around the room. 
"This?" She laughed, suddenly, looking at the faces of the men against the golden sunburst of rays filling the great windows. "This looks like... You know, I never hoped to see any of you again, I wondered at times how much I'd give for just one more glimpse or one more word--and now-now this is like that dream you imagine in childhood, when you think that some day, in heaven, you will see those great departed whom you had not seen on earth, and you choose, from all the past centuries, the great men you would like to meet." 
"Well, that's one clue to the nature of our secret," said Akston. "Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves--or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth."
Not just Heaven, but Hell as well is considered in relation to the here and now:
"Shale oil?" 
"That's the process which you were working to develop while you were on earth?" She said it involuntarily and she gasped a little at her own words. 
He laughed. "While I was in hell--yes. I'm on earth now." 
"How much do you produce?" 
"Two hundred barrels a day." 
A note of sadness came back into her voice: "It's the process by which you once intended to fill five tank-trains a day." 
"Dagny," he said earnestly, pointing at his tank, "one gallon of it is worth more than a trainful back there in hell--because this is mine, all of it, every single drop of it, to be spent on nothing but myself."
 The language here recalls the Bible's parable of the rich man in Hell, found in Luke 16:
The Great Teacher makes the rich man cry out, "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame." --Why did he not ask for an ocean of water, or a pail-full at least, or a pitcher-full; why restrict himself to the least drop? Plainly he knew himself to be placed beyond all good. He knew this was the utmost he could ask, and even this is denied him! What could our Lord have designed but to teach this? How irresistibly is this taught and with what overpowering force! What remarkable facts are these! How obviously and how forcibly is the truth taught here that saints at death pass into a state all joyful, but the wicked into one of unutterable torment!
In the Christian Hell, the rich man cannot purchase even a drop of water because it has become priceless. In Objectivist Hell, the rich man can produce a trainful of oil, but it has become worthless.

Lest one think I am coloring my interpretation of all this with my own biases, consider Rand and her disciples' treatment of Atlas Shrugged and Galt. Rand famously balked at editor Bennett Cerf's suggestions to make changes to the unwieldy tome with the retort, "Would you cut the Bible?" Following the publication of Atlas Rand fell into a deep depression, weeping in response to the savage reviews it received, for which she would chastise herself that John Galt would not feel this way.

Nor was Galt the only point of reference in the Atlas framework of viewing the world. When Nathaniel Branden grew wary that Rand might find out about his affair with the decidedly not intellectual Patrecia Gullison, he described her as an Eddie Willers, Dagny's right-hand man at Taggart Transcontinental, who is rational and competent but without any distinguished gifts. This is to say nothing about the Collective, the cult that grew up around Rand.

The religious mode suits Atlas Shrugged. The Galt's Gulch chapters are immensely dull--as perfection, even a morally inverted perfection, can only be--but the action picks up fiercely afterward, as Dagny opts to rejoin the world in a doomed attempt to save it from self-destruction. The book's version of America falls apart before our eyes, its numerous villains deform themselves into complete and irredeemable monsters, and its heroes bloom heroic in utterly ridiculous grandeur. The third and final part of Atlas Shrugged, is a book of revelation.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Preach the Controversy

He walked, as if this were his form of last tribute and funeral procession for the young life that had ended in his arms. He felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill. 
The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy's body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy's teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug's gun--at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care. 
~ Atlas Shrugged, page 910
This is an old story in internet time, but it's worth digging into the implications of BB&T paying schools to teach Ayn Rand's creed of radical selfishness:
John Allison, CEO of banking giant BB&T, calls Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged "the best defense of capitalism ever written." He says that Rand changed his life, and he's working to ensure that the deceased author isn't left out of the nation's college curricula.
Since 2005, the BB&T Charitable Foundation has given 25 colleges and universities several million dollars to start programs devoted to the study of Rand's books and economic philosophy. In January, the company announced it was donating $1 million to Marshall University in West Virginia.
The money would establish a course dedicated to Rand's Atlas Shruggedand Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and help create the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism on campus..... 
"[Objectivism] goes against the collective wisdom of the human race, I think, pretty much everywhere," says [Sociology professor Rick] Wilson. "I think it's a curious interpretation of philanthropy to use corporate money to promote, really, an extreme philosophy."
More curious is the interpretation of philanthropy to spread an ideology that is anti-philanthropy and, moreover, explicitly misanthropic ("I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, and I loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to these possibilities"). Yet it is not exactly a contradiction. If one believes Ayn Rand's ideology, including the idea that money is the greatest arbiter of objective value, then the willingness of well-endowed corporations to funnel large sums of cash towards promoting Ayn Rand's ideas proves their value. Never mind the scholasticism, here's self-validation!

I'm actually not opposed to the idea of including Rand in certain college curricula, in the abstract. Aside from  the woman herself being a freakishly interesting topic of study, she has exerted a profound influence on American conservatism. The Tea Party moment in politics and the current Republican party's reflexive animosity towards government is impossible to understand without considering her. I think assimilating Rand into a political economy or philosophy curriculum could go a long way towards defusing her cultural potency. It's hard for a figure or school of thought to remain a totem of greatness or vice when its been approached and dissected and ventriloquized by academia; Marxist readings may still be fashionable in some scholarly circles, but in the broader American culture Marxism itself is all but dead. The only people of note who take it seriously try to link it with Barack Obama. (These types, incidentally, are often Randians.)

Moreover, I think most students are smart enough to see through Rand's nonsense. For those who need a little guidance, that's what professors are for, and that's the real problem with the course as implemented. Marshall's BB&T money stipulates that Atlas Shrugged must be distributed to grad students at the Lewis College of Business, as well as undergrads taking a course on the book and its ideas. The course is an elective, but--irony of ironies--the seminar on the America's pre-eminent radical individualist is short on skepticism:
A student—whose would only speak on terms of anonymity—that has had ECN 408 said they had no preexisting knowledge that the course was sponsored by BB&T and that only on the first day did they become aware of the BB&T Center and the course that was created with it. 
“I thought it was a standard economics theory course,” the student said. “My initial impression was that it would be interesting. I already knew some Rand philosophy, but thought there would be other points presented rather than say a pro-business one such as Rand’s. But that was not the case. 
“It felt like complete indoctrination,” the student said. “It would be better if multiple points were discussed rather than just one.” 
According to Marshall’s course catalog, ECN 408 is supposed to discuss, “Marxism, capitalism, communism, fascism and socialism considered as theories, movements and actual political economies.” The course’s current syllabus, however, does not contain any direct readings on Marxism, communism, socialism or fascism.
There's also the fact that the literary and philosophical value of Atlas Shrugged is minimal, and that the investment of time is goddamn enormous, and that the resources of both the school and the students could be much better used teaching and learning about far better writers and thinkers who don't have rich companies helping them sell hundreds of thousands of books every year three decades after their death. But set that aside.

The real question is not "Should Ayn Rand be taught in college?" but rather "Who is asking that Ayn Rand be taught in college?" The Rand case recalls ongoing cases to teach the Bible and creationism in public schools and science classes under the Trojan Horse guise of "Intelligent Design," and not just because, as I'll discuss in my next post, Atlas Shrugged is quite literally the Objectivist Bible. The topics, Christianity and Ayn Rand, are worth exploring, but from multiple sides, and not just taken at their own word. There is world of difference between pedagogy and proselytism.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Playing the Piper

Here is a fascinating Playboy Magazine interview with Ayn Rand from 1964. It's full of weird and interesting tidbits (the psychology of Hitler and Stalin is "in effect, is summarized in Atlas Shrugged by the character of James Taggart"!), but this one struck me the most:
PLAYBOY: What [do you think] about [Vladimir] Nabokov? 
RAND: I have read only one book of his and a half -- the half was Lolita, which I couldn't finish. He is a brilliant stylist, he writes beautifully, but his subjects, his sense of life, his view of man, are so evil that no amount of artistic skill can justify them.
I mentioned this a long time ago, but when Rand was growing up in St. Petersburg, she was best friends with Nabokov's sister, Olga. It may be more accurate to say that Olga was friends with Rand, one of Rand's only friends in a youth marked by precocious social awkwardness. I'm less interested in the amazing coincidence of the families of Nabokov and Rand, two of the 20th century's most celebrated and overrated (respectively) English language novelists, growing up together, than I am in Rand's own response to it. She remarked on the connection elsewhere, in a very different fashion. From Ayn Rand and the World She Made:
[H]er literary mission accomplished, her social reticence returned. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Joan Kennedy Taylor hosted a radio program called The World of Books on an educational radio station in New York. When Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita shocked the nation in the summer of 1958, Taylor asked Rand for advice about whether to interview the author on her program. To the younger woman’s surprise, Rand didn’t comment on Nabokov’s lurid subject matter or abstract literary style but instead said, wistfully, “Oh, Nabokov! If you do interview him, please ask him how his sister is! She was once my best friend.” It was a remarkable moment of nostalgia for the characteristically forward-looking Rand. Yet she made no effort to see Nabokov, although he was a professor of Russian at Cornell and visited New York a number of times to promote Lolita. And she never contacted his sister Olga, who was living openly in Prague. “She was very, um, cautious about being identified,” said Taylor. “She was afraid of being on some kind of [secret Soviet] list and being found.” She remained wary of Soviet surveillance well into the 1970s.
This is indeed an unusually personal moment for Rand; the Playboy interview is much more typical. Here was an opportunity to remark, even if briefly and offhandedly, about the amazing coincidence that she had such a close relationship with Nabokov's family growing up. Yet she remains clinical, discussing only his work, the only capacity in which he would be publicly known, in the driest terminology possible (with one as moralizing as Rand, "evil" very quickly becomes a generic descriptor).

Abstract, devoid of personal qualities, this is Rand 'in character,' which I mean very literally:
Toward the end of her life, Rand listened as a prominent psychologist stood onstage and dismissed her fictional heroes—those idealized steel barons and physicists and composers—as implausible. Soon she’d had enough and stood up in the crowd, outraged. 
“Am I unreal?” she shouted. “Am I a character who can’t possibly exist?” 
She intended this, one suspects, as a refutation. It strikes me as maybe the most profound question she ever raised.
As dull and irritating as Rand's character development in Atlas Shrugged is, I still maintain that in a technical sense it isn't 'bad' because Rand isn't trying to fulfill normal expectations of 'good' characterization. Inner conflict, doubt, tangential thoughts, quirks of personality; to Rand these hold no interest in themselves outside of being personal defects of an objectively good and pure persona. Rand's heroes are two-dimensional philosophical concretizations because that is what she considers the ideal person to be.  They're bad by my standards, certainly, but that doesn't matter.  One of the principal rules of evaluating art (and in a post-Duchamp world, we cannot but classify art by the creator's intent) is viewing it on its own terms. Rand presents a unique challenge because her radical kitsch stands in willfully stubborn opposition to the (aesthetic, moral, political) values of most critical observers, and so she is too easily dismissed as merely bad or right-wing when her oddities make her so much more interesting and compelling.

The interplay between Ayn Rand's personality and her fiction was a two-way street. She wrote characters that expressed her grandest ideals and in turn considered herself the embodiment of everything her heroes represent. Thus did she guardedly present herself as eminently logical, free of whim and whimsy. Even when discussing matters of love, that most personal and vexing of emotions, it was in abstract terms. She told Playboy she would step in front of a bullet aimed at her husband because he is a 'great value' to her. The real-life details of this 'great valuation'--Rand's dominance of her husband Frank O'Connor to the detriment of his career, social life, independence, health and happiness--need not be rehearsed here, for they are implicit in the Objectivist formulation of the individual as first subject. All others, even significant others, are objectified.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Adventure Capitalism

I'm going to back up a little, to draw some connections between Atlas Shrugged and the world today, albeit not the connections usually made. There's a subplot involving Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden's discovery of a motor that ran on static electricity and could have powered the world, and the search for its creator (it was built and abandoned by industrial Übermensch John Galt). They find it on top of a junk heap in an abandoned factory of the Twentieth Century Motor Company.

The Company serves as a symbol of the, ahem, horrific ideals of Communism put into practice. By sheer narrative contrivance, Dagny eventually comes upon a bum who used to work there, who explains how everything went down. It's an enormously long speech, especially for one given by a weary vagrant, but the gist of it is the plant fell apart when the new ownership, the original owner's altruistic heirs, decided with a vote by the employees to change their compensation so that all worked according to their ability and were paid according to their need. The results were predictable:
“...The factory’s production had fallen by forty percent, in that first half year, so it was decided that somebody hadn’t delivered ‘according to his ability.’ Who? How would you tell it? ‘The family’ voted on that, too. We voted which men were the best, and these men were sentenced to work overtime each night for the next six months. Overtime without pay – because you weren’t paid by time and you weren’t paid by work, only by need. 
“Do I have to tell you what happened after that – and into what sort of creatures we all started turning, we who had once been humans? We began to hide whatever ability we had, to slow down and watch like hawks that we never worked any faster or better than the next fellow. What else could we do, when we knew that if we did our best for ‘the family,’ it’s not thanks or rewards that we’d get, but punishment? We knew that for every stinker who’d ruin a batch of motors and cost the company money – either through his sloppiness, because he didn’t have to care, or through plain incompetence – it’s we who’d have to pay with our nights and our Sundays. So we did our best to be no good.
Long story short, in four years the company goes bankrupt because no one's willing to do any work. The Twentieth Century Motor Company works as a half-accurate metaphor for the Soviet Union, which--to grossly simplify--was eventually bankrupted, but it fails in being representative of any car company or business that's ever existed. Simply put, no one would be so stupid. It's safe to say no company ever failed from adapting socialism. However, there abound stories of once-prosperous companies that are swiftly befallen by disastrous management of a most capitalist bent. Consider Georgetown Steel:
It was the early 1990s, and the 750 men and women at Georgetown Steel were pumping out wire rods at peak performance. They had an abiding trust in management's ability to run a smart company. That allegiance was rewarded with fat profit-sharing checks. In the basement-wage economy of Georgetown, South Carolina, Sanderson and his co-workers were blue-collar aristocracy. 
"We were doing very good," says Sanderson, president of Steelworkers Local 7898. "The plant was making money, and we had good profit-sharing checks, and everything was going well."
Great, right? A company producing a valuable good, in which both the management and the workers are happy with their compensation and the work they're doing, and providing much-needed jobs to boot. Capitalism at it's best.

In 1995 Georgetown Steel was purchased by Bain Capital, then run by Willard 'Mitt' Romney.
His specialty was flipping companies—or what he often calls "creative destruction." It's the age-old theory that the new must constantly attack the old to bring efficiency to the economy, even if some companies are destroyed along the way. In other words, people like Romney are the wolves, culling the herd of the weak and infirm. 
His formula was simple: Bain would purchase a firm with little money down, then begin extracting huge management fees and paying Romney and his investors enormous dividends. 
The result was that previously profitable companies were now burdened with debt....Bain would slash costs, jettison workers, reposition product lines, and merge its new companies with other firms. With luck, they'd be able to dump the firm in a few years for millions more than they'd paid for it. 
If investors are supposed to act as doctors bringing a patient back to health, Romney essentially made his patients lose weight by harvesting their organs and left them for dead. Market efficiency was never part of the equation, merely the shareholders' bottom line.
When Bain purchased the mill, Sanderson says, change was immediate. Equipment upgrades stopped. Maintenance became an afterthought. Managers were replaced by people who knew nothing about steel. The union's profit-sharing plan was sliced twice in the first year—then whacked altogether. 
"When Bain Capital took over, it seemed like everything was being neglected in our plant," Sanderson says. "Nothing was being invested in our plant. We didn't have the necessary time to maintain our equipment. They had people here that didn't know what they were doing. It was like they were taking money from us and putting it somewhere else."
This played itself out again and again, in Indiana, Missouri, Puerto Rico. Not all of the deals Romney and Bain engaged in were crooked, but neither were these incidents outliers:
[N]early one in three of the companies [Romney invested in] experienced severe financial trouble. One in five wound up in bankruptcy. 
The more telling figure: Of Romney's 10 biggest moneymakers, he ultimately destroyed four of them, leaving bankruptcy judges to clean up the mess.
Romney doesn't really talk about Ayn Rand, but his declaration that "I will not apologize for my success", with all its haughty arrogance and ignorance of fortune and privilege, is well in keeping with the spirit of Atlas Shrugged. Certainly Rand's defense of money as the root of all good is something to which Romney might nod in affirmation.

 Yet, as has been pointed out, Rand would find little to like about Romney and his ilk in the financial industry. All of her heroes are creative, industrious individuals who are compensated for the services they provide. The Masters of the Universe on Wall Street who, for instance, bet $2 billion in derivatives aren't really providing a service. It's usury in all but name, gambling, creating money from money and dragging everyone down with them if a deal goes south. Theirs is a parasitic existence, surfeiting as they do on other peoples' cash and often by government subsidy.

Rand's former lover, acolyte, and number two man Nathaniel Branden once said, in a speech given after Rand's death, that:
...[I]in all the years I was associated with her I never saw big business do a thing to assist or support Ayn Rand in any way. I would say that for most businessmen her ideas were much too daring, much too radical. She believed in laissez-faire capitalism. She believed in a free market economy, I mean, a free free market economy. An economy in which not only were you to be unencumbered by regulations but so was everyone else. No special favors, no special protections, franchises, subsidies. No governmental privileges to help you against your competitors. Often I've had the fantasy of one day writing an article entitled "Big Business Versus Capitalism."
All of which is to underscore, again, the fantastical nature of Ayn Rand's project. It's all well and good to celebrate virtue and rationality, but expecting and demanding people act in such a fashion is a recipe for failure. Rand's own life illustrated this, as do her most powerful standard-bearers and today's ultra-rich, who will do whatever they can to make as much money as possible. An absolute meritocracy is a lovely idea, but an idea is only as good as its implementation. If nothing else, Communism taught us that much.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I Spit on Your Train

The rude characterization of Ayn Rand's late work, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, befits nothing less than a trashy horror movie, particularly an 80s slasher film. Clear-cut heroes are surrounded by a noxiously awful cast whom we cannot wait to see dispatched with karmic aplomb. The Fountainhead even had a psychopath, who just happened to be obsessed with erecting buildings rather than gutting teenagers, which would have been infinitely more interesting. In Atlas Shrugged, we actually do get a little mayhem, in the form of a train wreck. Yet the scene in question--with its the sense of impending catastrophe prolonged with an extended demonstration of Murphy's Law in action--resembles less a slasher than it does the opening premonition of a Final Destination movie. It is probably going to end up being the best scene in the book.

"Best" is a relative term, and even here it comes with caveats, namely that the first two-fifths or so of the chapter are a bit of a wash. There's a section in which Eddie Willers, one of the rare characters who's neither a superman or social parasite but merely an unremarkable competent, speaks in a baldly expositional monologue to a low-ranking Taggart Transcontinental worker. Then there's a scene with Hank Rearden confronting and protecting Ragnar Danneskjöld, reverse-Robin Hood pirate who robs navy ships freighted with foreign aid.

(One could devote a whole post to rebutting Rand's position that Robin Hood "is remembered, not as a chamption of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor," but really, one need only point this out as another instance of Ayn Rand missing the bleeding point. That Robin Hood is a symbol of retributive justice, and not as a hookup for easy money, is something you either get or you don't.)

Anyway, the rest of the chapter is actually legitimately exciting. It concerns Washington bureaucrat Kip Chalmers, en route to San Francisco aboard the Taggart rail to give a speech the next day. The train breaks down because the government's regulations have reached such a fever pitch of incredible lunacy--with a Unification Board charged with making sure profits and payrolls across the board are frozen indefinitely (except for insider graft, naturally)--that the best workers have all walked away to save their dignity and have been replaced with less-than-capable scabs. Chalmers will not be delayed, however, so he demands that he be provided with a car that will get him to San Francisco on time. The problem, as the harried dispatcher tries to make clear to everyone, is that their train has to pass through an eight-mile tunnel that's only ventilated for a diesel engine. Because Taggart Transcontinental has so thoroughly gone to seed, the only engine available is an old coal-powered Comet, which will suffocate everyone onboard if they try to ride it through the tunnel. Everyone, from Colorado Division Superintendent Dave Mitchum to feeble CEO James Taggart to Dagny Taggart's replacement (she quit in protest of the Unifaction laws) Clifton Locey to all the various division leaders, is terrified of angering an all-powerful government hack, and so the responsibility for sending a train of passengers to their deaths is passed around like a hot potato before it is finally dropped in the lap of a nameless night dispatcher.

The episode culminates in a typically overlong (two-pages!) screed that details with increasing shrillness the background of various passengers, and why each one deserved his or her fate: (for context, the fire mentioned is Wyatt's Torch, an ever-burning flame in the mountains of Colorado left behind when industrialist Ellis Wyatt set fire to his oil fields in response to their nationalization.)

As the tunnel came closer, they saw, at the edge of the sky far to the south, in a void of space and rock, a spot of living fire twisting in the wind. They did not know what it was and did not care to learn.

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.

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men...

...The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was 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.

The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.

The man in Bedroom F, Car No.13, was a lawyer who had said, 'Me? I'll find a way to get along under any political system.'

The man in Bedroom A, Car No.14, was a professor of philosophy who taught that there is no mind - how do you know that the tunnel is dangerous? - no reality - how can you prove that the tunnel exists? - no logic - why do you claim that trains cannot move without motive power? - no principles - why should you be bound by the laws of cause and effect? - no rights - why shouldn't you attach men to their jobs by force? - no morality - what's moral about running a railroad? - no absolutes - what difference does it make to you whether you live or die anyway?. He taught that we know nothing - why oppose the orders of your superiors? - that we can never be certain of anything - how do you know you're right? - that we must act on the expediency of the moment - you don't want to risk your job do you?

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No.15, was an heir who had inherited his fortune, and who had kept repeating, 'Why should Rearden be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Metal?'

The man in Bedroom A, Car no. 16, was a humanitarian who had said, 'The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned.'

These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.

The scene doesn't have the prurient thrill of disembowelment and severed heads, but its sense of righteousness carries a nice charge. That final sentence in particular has a pungent, hoist-by-their-own-petard quality. And while by any realistic standard the absoluteness of the company's managerial impotence and criminal irresponsibility is ludicrous, on its own terms it's deliriously engaging. I know how wrong it is to say all this, but bear in mind that my favorite genre of literature is Elizabethan revenge tragedy, in which brutal crimes are answered tit-for-tat with perversely inventive retribution (would that everyone would read The Revenger's Tragedy, in which a lecherous poisoner is tricked into kissing the poison-painted lips of the skull of his victim!). After 500 pages of plodding plot and abstraction, it's nice to see some actual action; it should go without saying that, by so strenuously arguing the inherent justice of suffocating three hundred train passengers, the scene is morally several degrees worse than a merely tawdry Final Destination flick. To continue the tortured horror movie metaphor, it's about on the same level as Saw, which combines its sadism with long-winded moralizing.

That the philosophical equivalent of the guy from The Princess Bride sawing off his leg for the benefit of a clown puppet is the best part of Atlas Shrugged is not incidental. Writing, from the structure of plot down to word choice, is a window into the workings of an author's mind, and the Tunnel Disaster episode, with its unvarnished hatred, meticulous construction, and complete earnestness, provides a morbidly fascinating look into Ayn Rand, whose adolescent lionization of criminality as individualism had by now blossomed into outright misanthropy. Greater and more scrupulous authors and artists have explored ugly sides of humanity, but on some level there's always been a literary sheen applied, an artistry to give the depiction maximum impact. Rand lacked the skill for such tact but makes up for it with a conviction that even the best writer couldn't fake.

To quote another horror movie, a great one, and a character that also had no regard for human feelings, "Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility....I admire its purity."