By Ayn Rand
Oh, Rand, you almost had me there, you tricksy Objectivist! (I’m breaking into Rebecca’s week of blogging because I can’t quite contain myself on Chapter 7.)
At the beginning of the chapter, when Dagny has run away from a rigged debate and found herself in a seedy diner, she discusses the state of the world with the lower-income diners. Like all good liberals, it was only from their mouths that I began to see what Rand has been trying to get at, and to perhaps even find some common ground between liberal and conservative viewpoints.
I think we can all agree that the state of the production in our country is in trouble, and, additionally, that one of the main sources of the trouble is that people have become disenfranchised from the act of production, that people are too afraid to buck the status quo to come up with original and ground-breaking ideas. From my liberal standpoint, the voices of the “little people” are too far away from the “big people” and if the “little people” try to make their voices heard, they have a very real fear of losing their jobs. Thus, people in the production line might notice incompetence, but are actively discouraged from acting on it. Of course, the two political sides break down when it comes to finding a solution, but I think even agreeing on the problem is a step in the right direction.
So, I was beginning to buy into Atlas Shrugged, right? I was even starting to think that this whole endeavor wouldn’t be as unpleasant as I had originally thought.
Then, she lost me again with one little word in the last ten pages of the chapter, and it felt like a slap in the face. That word was “passenger”:
“The day began with the news of a disaster: a freight train of the Atlantic Southern had crashed head-on into a passenger train, in New Mexico, on a sharp curve in the mountains, scattering freight cars all over the slopes.”
The freight car was carrying much-needed ore for Hank Rearden’s company, and he promptly calls the train company to check on the status of his metal. The general manager of the train company cannot give him an answer, and promptly falls into hysterics, giving the impression that he is just incompetent and not capable of dealing with any sort of crisis, instead of the truth, which is that he is currently dealing with getting EMERGENCY CARE to the MORTALLY INJURED PEOPLE and COLLECTING CORPSES from the GODDAMNED PASSENGER TRAIN and that Rearden can SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT HIS GODDAMNED METAL UNTIL THEY MANAGE TO CLEAR THE SITE OF THE FUCKING BODIES.
JESUS! Anyway, Rearden then arranges for freight trucks to go pick up his metal and deliver them so he doesn’t have to have any sort of delay in his smelting business or whatever, despite the fact that he wouldn’t be able to get his trucks anywhere near the sight because it would have been cordoned off by the EMERGENCY VEHICLES, who would have told him to get HIS ASS OUT OF THEIR BUSINESS until they were done SAVING LIVES. In fact, this is one of the most important justifications for a government, and a largish one, at that: to have the services that will jump into emergencies like this, and also to tell the CEOs of metal companies that they can’t just drive their freight trucks over all the corpses in order to pick up their freight.
And, here’s where the real slap in the face comes: this is a fictional novel, not a report of an actual event. Rand decided to add the word “passenger” to this sentence, even though it was completely unnecessary and no actual passengers are mentioned in any of the following paragraphs. It feels a whole lot like Rand is specifically going out of her way to make sure that the reader knows that she views copper ore as more valuable than human lives, and that’s where she’s lost me completely. (After much yelling and gnashing of teeth, and a few days of retreating to my normal reading of vampires and werewolves, Rebecca has convinced me to keep reading to the end, but I’m on my guard now, and I don’t see how she can win me over again.)
P.S. – Much earlier in the chapter, before I got distracted by the PURPOSEFULL and BLATANT disregard for human life, this made me laugh:
Hank Rearden is driving a new and clearly very beautifully engineered car, which he tells Dagny is from Hammond’s of Colorado. Now, I just moved from Boulder, Colorado this year, and Hammond’s of Colorado is in fact a well-known candy company that makes old-fashioned and very beautiful candy canes. However, Hammond of Hammond’s Candy actually has quite the Randian origin story, so maybe it is a bit of a call-out, though she couldn’t quite bring herself to have Rearden sucking on a bunch of candy canes.
Yes. That one, little, completely unnecessary word undoes so much of her argument. It could have been two freight trains, or it could have been a rockfall blocking the tracks or the one freight train jumping the tracks, but she had to introduce passengers. Passengers aren’t people, after all. Aargh.
oh rand… if only she would have paid a bit more attention whilst reading nietzsche
Ugh, I am definitely not tackling any Nietzsche, I’ll tell you that!
Hah! But Thus Spake Zarathustra wasn’t half bad from what I recall, having read it about ten years ago.
Have you thought that the above might be an overreaction to the selective focus that is inherent in any novel? The focus here is on Rearden and his actions to overcome an obstacle. Don’t you think this conversation might have taken place after whatever emergency services that were available did whatever they could?
Rearden’s job is to deliver steel, not to augment emergency services in a decaying world, or even to manage railroad operations. What is Rearden supposed to do? Give up and contemplate the tragedies of life?
If you were to write your autobiography, would you mention every person who died in a car crash in your state while you were alive? I very much doubt it. You would selectively focus on what affected you.
If a movie shows an intense chase scene, with lots of major crashes along the sidelines, but doesn’t show the emergency vehicles coming to pick up the wounded and dead afterwards, does this mean the filmmakers have a heinous disregard for human life? Or is it because they take such things as a given and want the movie to focus on the actions of the main characters?
I think the problem here is that those deaths did have an immediate impact on Rearden and his ability to achieve his goals. Unlike a car accident in a different part of the state from him, as you mentioned, this is more like a gunman shooting up one of his factories. The fact that it was a passenger train, rather than another freight train or a mudslide or just randomly jumping the tracks, has changed my reading of his character. Now I can imagine him being pissed off that his workers didn’t finish their jobs without caring at all that his workers were dead. It’s not just a matter that he doesn’t care, it’s that he’s not smart enough to understand the long term effects.
Rearden is not supposed to give up and contemplate the tragedies of life, but what he is supposed to do continue to provide value to the world. If he is not to be a parasite, then he has to provide, at minimum, a value that is equal to the harm he does to the world. It may not be his responsibility to prevent the decaying of the world, but it is his responsibility to not make it worse.
So yes, at times he has to endure a small frustration in order to allow someone else to receive a major benefit. This is why even sociopaths in the real world do not generally kill the people standing in front of them in long lines. It’s a minor frustration to wait in line, but it’s a major damage to others to kill them. The cost benefit analysis doesn’t work out.
“If he is not to be a parasite, then he has to provide, at minimum, a value that is equal to the harm he does to the world.”
Rearden is not doing business with “the world.” As a producer, he provides values to his customers for the value he gets in return from them. If his business fails in some way, it is his customers who have a right to demand recompense under contracts. “The world” has no right to recompense if he “fails to deliver net values to it as a whole.” (As judged by whom?) People outside of the transaction do derive benefits, but such benefits are merely incidental, and are not Rearden’s proper goal as a steel producer.
Now, if he does something that makes him directly responsible for someone else’s injury or death, then they–or someone else on their behalf–(not “the world”) have the right to sue/prosecute Rearden for the damage.
But how is Rearden even responsible for those deaths, such that he should pay restitution to anyone? If two trains collide, it’s the fault of the railroad company, not the steel producer whose ore they were carrying.
Rearden is not doing business with “the world.”
But he is doing business in the world. Saying that he only has to treat his customers well is like saying that a thief is a perfectly honest business man because he treats his fence fairly and it doesn’t matter where he’s getting his goods from.
Or, consider Philip Rearden who is clearly shown as a parasite, even though there’s no evidence that he isn’t giving the charity he works for full value. Or Jim Taggert, for that matter. It is not his customers who are getting shorted here.
But how is Rearden even responsible for those deaths, such that he should pay restitution to anyone?
He was not directly responsible (I assume) for the deaths that happen in the immediate accident. It is his actions after the accident that are in question here. His actions after the accident are the ones for which he is directly responsible and if those actions in rescuing his freight prevent the rescue of the casualties, then he is directly responsible for their lack of treatment.
One more thing: If an author kills off characters in a novel, why would you assume the reason for doing it is to express her own attitude of indifference to human life? Might the author be making another point by killing off characters?
There are many reasons why an author might kill off a character. Sometimes it’s to get rid of a character they don’t want to write anymore. More often it’s to make an emotional impact. The impact varies wildly depending on how it’s done. It can be heartrending, it can be victorious, it can even be hilarious. In this particular case, the impact is a rather shocking demonstration of indifference to human life. Did you have a different interpretation of this particular scene and what point Rand was supposed to be making?
Yes. But the point is one of the central themes of the novel as a whole, so discussion of it really should wait.
I’ll give you a hint, though: If it is absolutely essential to the theme of a novel that the plot involves a man drinking a cup of hemlock, is it a matter of indifference to human life that the author writes his death scene, rather than a scene of him partying for a week, afterwards?
If it essential for the plot that a character drink a cup of hemlock, that character must be given a motive for the act other than the author’s convenience. A story that requires random and unexplained events to happen in order to progress the plot isn’t a very well written story.