Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 7

AtlasShruggedThis is an extremely dense chapter in which a great many events happen and I am enticed into having a great many thoughts and opinions. Thus, this post is going to be both very long and much shorter than would be required to fully discuss. This chapter deserves a discussion group. I’m beginning to realize how complex this book really is, what with the way it is thoroughly layered in unreliable narration.

The first layer is that all of the characters are either lying—to each other and/or to themselves in bouts of hypocrisy—or making false assumptions. One cannot accept at face value anything that any character says or thinks.

The second layer is Rand’s narration. An author can choose to write a book through the eyes of a character or write in what is commonly called a god voice, in which the author is telling the reader what is happening without any bias from the characters. Rand writes in this style, but still shows a clear bias in the way her summations do not match the details. (For example, as Anna pointed out, Hank Reardon has eyes “like pale blue ice” and has “prominent cheekbones” that made him look younger than his years, but is still considered “ugly.”)

The third layer, which is not the book’s fault, per se, but is nonetheless and important feature in my understanding of the book, is the cultural impact this book has taken. Randian philosophy is an established enough part of the culture that I cannot read Atlas Shrugged without having to deal with other people’s interpretations.

From all three sources, I have heard, for instance, that our heroic protagonists are cold and emotionless, that they prize money above all else, and that they never give charity or offer favors. And yet, given the actual events of the book and the look into the thoughts and ideas of these main characters, all three of these sources are wrong.

A common bit of writers advice is to show, not tell. For instance, if a character is really smart, show them being smart rather than simply telling the reader that they’re smart. I get a real sense of discordance here, though, because I am being told one thing and then shown something contradictory. I am told (by Ayn Rand, by Dagny Taggert/Hank Reardon, and by Paul Ryan) that:

  • Dagny and Hank are cold and emotionless. But then they show vast and painful emotions. They feel pride and pain, desire and concern, frustration and anger and pleasure and happiness.
  • Money is the only thing that matters. But then they spend vast quantities of money to achieve goals based on spreading truth and knowledge and quality, and they turn down vast quantities of money offered as bribes to turn aside from those goals.
  • They never give charity or offer favors. But then they go on to help their opponents who are being torn down by unfair means, and to provide opportunities and support to small businesses who need a chance.

Money is not an ends that these people are working towards, it’s a measurement of greatness, but is not the greatness itself. I watched a TED talk a while back, which pointed out that of all the various things societies and individuals needed to succeed, money was the only one that is purely a means by which other goals can be achieved, but is not a goal in and of itself.

I think Rand understood this perfectly well. The part where she and I diverge is that she appears* to think that money is a useful measurement of greatness, while I think is a deeply flawed measurement tool.

Anyway, I think the three main events of this chapter are:

Dagny takes a leave of absence (in theory at least) from Taggert Transcontinental in order to work as a separate company to complete the Rio Norte Line AKA the John Galt Line. Up till now she has been throwing money at any problem that arises—buying factories and importing workers, etc.—but for the first time she appears to actually have finite funds. This is demonstrated by how she goes to Francisco to beg money and has a weird conversation with him in which he refuses to help her but shows signs of secret agendas and inner turmoil. Then she makes up the funds by getting smaller piecemeal support from stakeholders in the John Galt Line.

The Legislatures passes the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. This apparently means that no one company, or possibly no one person (it’s unclear to me if Rand sees a distinction between a company and the individual who heads it), is allowed to own multiple ventures in multiple areas. Thus, railroad companies, smelting factories, ore mines, etc., must all be owned by different individuals. This codifies a set of ludicrously artificial divisions which are really bad for everyone.

The State Science Institute publishes a rather wishy-washy warning against Reardon metal. Dagny then confronts Dr. Robert Stadler, head of the Institute, about the press release. I’m not sure if this should really count as a major event of the chapter, really, but I am certainly going to rant about it.

And, we’re back to some rants regarding these events:

The State Science Institute is clearly a political force rather than a scientific one, despite what Robert Stadler attempts to argue. But while the narrator and Dagny both consider Stadler to be an excellent scientist, I wanted to smack him upside the head and talk to him about the scientific method. First: you can’t prove a negative, so stop saying that there isn’t any intelligence in the population. Second: the existence of even one counter example is enough to disprove a theory. Since he acknowledges three smart students and Dagny as being intelligence, stop saying that there is no intelligence in the population. Third: given the scientific rule of crap-in-gets-crap-out, stop lying to the general population and then complaining about how the general population doesn’t know the truth.

This leads to a more over-arching pattern that I’m noticing: both Rand and our main characters will judge individuals on their own merits but will denounce “people” as being stupid and lazy in general. The less known a character is, the less respected they are. This actually extends to physical appearance. A character with a soft or undefined face is stupid and uninteresting. The smart, interesting characters have sharp features and appear in sharp detail to both the reader and to other characters. The whole situation creates a bit of a circular argument whereby those people who are given attention deserve that attention, while those people who are not seen clearly don’t deserve to be seen clearly.

This is a world that is clearly defined and where certain truths are indisputable. Individuals are expected to recognize and know truth and quality regardless of any lack of information or false information. This is a world where lack of intelligence and lack of information are considered the same thing. If someone does not immediately recognize value, then there isn’t any point in attempting to educate them.

The Equalization of Opportunity Bill passed, I imagine, because none of the opponents to the bill would deign talk to a politician about why it’s a bad idea. They can fly all over the country to oversee their business, but they’ll rely on an unreliable “man in Washington” to take care of the politicians since they don’t really matter. Except, of course, when they do matter. As Dagny and Reardon are being lessoned, but I fear are not learning, the opinions of politicians and the general population do matter. They are valuable because they have power. They should be reachable because they are made up of individuals.

Anyway, to prevent myself from going off on another multi-page screed, here are a few more minor events in the chapter that I still want to mention:

We get our second version of who John Galt is. This time, he’s an explorer who found the Fountain of Youth on a mountain top but was unable to bring it down again.

This book is progressive enough that the few missteps as far as sexism goes really stand out. My eyes popped a bit when Hank Reardon’s super cool, calm, and collected secretary gets described as “a girl in her late twenties.”

There’s a disaster in which a freight train crashes into a passenger train. The narrator and the characters are appalled at the loss of the freight and the amount of time it could take to clear the tracks. There is no mention of the passengers, of any loss of life, or even of the passenger train company that is trying to convince people to ride.

Dagny comments to Hank Reardon that “it’s the first time you’ve thought that I wasn’t a man.” Whoo-ee is she wrong. And apparently she was one of those people who didn’t catch onto the fact that she publicly claimed him at that party in the last chapter. But really, she needs to stop assuming she knows what’s going on in other people’s heads. She is routinely wrong.

* You may have noticed that I often say Rand “appears” to think something or another. This is intentional equivocation, since not only have I not done much research on Rand as an individual, I’m live blogging this and haven’t even finished reading the book.

4 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, Chapter 7

  1. Keep reading, and hopefully the nature and motives of the characters will become clearer. One tip I can give you is that one of Rand’s major premises was mind-body integration. In certain, very important respects, a person’s mind and body reflect a single, unified person. The mental and the physical complement and reinforce one another.

    This idea is woven not only into the characters, but into the narration of the settings. The physical setting reflects the conceptual context.

    • Rebecca says:

      Heh. Anna pointed out that pattern in this book to me a while back: good people are thin to the point of emaciation, while bad people are fat and soft. And hearty or stocky people might appear to be okay at first but will let you down in the long run. It seemed a bit like a rather ludicrous cheat-sheet for judging humanity. But then Robert Stadler broke the pattern: there he is, thin and angular, but also a sell-out.

      • Well, in that form, it’s a stylization in the novel. (This isn’t a textbook on how to judge people in real life.) But my point is that the issue of the integration of the material and the spiritual pervades every aspect of the novel. Rand believed that there need be no essential conflict between the two in a person. The heroes are more understandable if you keep this in mind.

        • Anna says:

          So, I’m about to post an absolutely furious screed on Chapter 7, but don’t abandon us, Sword of Apollo! I was (half) joking with Rebecca that you are our Spirit Guide through the Randian universe. It really would have been good to have read this in a class where there could have been instructor-led discussions, but having you jump in with a more experienced and favorable interpretation is almost as helpful. I’m going to have to think about the idea of negating the conflict between the material and the spiritual for a bit.

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