Atlas Shrugged, part 2, chapter 4

AtlasShruggedOne of my problems with this book is the way that it’s dated. I increasingly get the sense that this book is fighting a war that’s already been won. Ayn Rand is right and society acknowledges it: inventors who create impressive things can and should be rewarded richly by being able to monetize their inventions. Standing up for yourself, declaring your motives and taking pride in your accomplishments, is not only accepted but encouraged. Inventing, and being rewarded for it, is standard. Think of the way society looks at Steve Jobs or at Bill Gates. They’re impressive people and society respects them greatly. From the perspective of the 1950s, maybe this argument still needed to be made. From the perspective of 2013, though, it’s going too far and turning into bullying.

This is not the fault of Rand or her book, but (as her own arguments go) fault is not actually the issue at hand. It doesn’t matter whether there is fault, what matters is that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem is that the book argues that wealthy business owners need to be given more rights and freedoms than they currently are. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, those wealthy business owners are being severely prosecuted. It makes sense to give them more rights, i.e. stop prosecuting them. But we’re not in a society that hates inventors and hates people who make money. We’re in a society where the banks demand bailouts, where the Disney corporation demands control of the intellectual property of a man half-a-century dead, and corporate theft is a standard practice to quash start-up companies.

I think Ayn Rand would be rolling in her grave regarding some of the people who use her arguments to rationalize their behaviors.

Anyway, first a summary of events (it’s only short in comparison to the chapter itself), and then a bit more about how Rearden, despite being rather awesome in this chapter, is also being incredibly blind, and how Francisco has fallen off the deep end.

This chapter starts with an ostentatious Thanksgiving dinner in the Rearden household. The centerpiece is a gilded wooden peasant shoe to show how well they understand the poor and how much the poor are in their thoughts.

It’s actually a pretty excellent scene. It’s gloriously ostentatious, there is much harping at Hank Rearden, and Hank Rearden finally (finally!) stands up for himself. He tells his asshole brother to quit snipping and either start supporting himself or start showing appropriate thanks to Hank for being supported. He tells his mother to shut up and sit down (I’m paraphrasing) and Lillian watches wide-eyed and silent. Not only does he stand up for himself and explain his position, he also begins to treat his family members as rational adults who can be talked to rather than young children who must be coddled and spoiled. Excellent on both counts! Give and demand mutual respect. It’s a good thing!

Rearden runs across “the Washington boy of his mills.”* In a brief conversation, it’s revealed that the guy knew about the Danagger deal but did not turn Rearden in; that he genuinely likes the factory and is just as bewildered by society as Rearden is; and that that he doesn’t have any real family or friends; that he studied to be a metallurgist; and that he hero-worships Rearden. Rearden walks away as if none of that matters.

Then the trial happens! The Trail of Hank Rearden for the crime of selling Rearden metal to Danagger. It is an excellent scene! Rearden essentially calls their bluff.** He refuses to plead his case, he refuses to give the courts any excuse to be merciful and gives them an either-or situation: they can either punish him to the full extent of the law or back down on their own recognizance. Instead he makes a significant speech about the right to personal property and personal reward, the right to honest ambition and the expectation that others have the same right. It’s well done and good for him. Clearly the confrontation with his brother and mother was a practice round for this speech.

The crowd cheers. The judges do back down and slap him with a small fine which he will clearly not be paying.

In leaving the court room, Rearden walks through the crowd of workers who cheered his speech. They thank him for making his stand and assert their agreement. Rearden looks at them with disdain, knowing that they will change their minds soon enough, says nothing to them, and walks away.

Meanwhile, various businessmen run into him over the course of the next few days and tell him off for rocking the boat and warn him against vague dangers from either the public or the government or both.

Francisco does not approach Rearden. After struggling with his desires for some time, Rearden finally goes to Francisco’s apartment. There follows a scene that I’m assuming is extremely dated, because the alternate interpretation is that Dagny is in danger of losing her lovers to each other. (Although, actually, I kind of think the three of them would make a viable threesome. It could still happen: I’ve got more than half of the book still to go.) In this scene, the possibility arises again that maybe Francisco is a Buddha after all; at the very least, Rearden is definitely his disciple.

The lesson Francisco teaches today is all about women. There are, according to his monolog: low women and high women, just as there are low men and high men. Low men are only attracted to low woman because it bolsters their own self-esteem to be better than those women. High men, though, are only attracted to high women because they are true reflections of the man’s principals. No individual can either desire or perform sexual acts with someone unsuitable. And thus, for all his reputation, Francisco has only loved or had sex with one woman. Rearden feels the truth of this in his very gut, and is once more flattered in his opinion of both himself and of Dagny. Their shared love of Dagny is not mentioned or mutually known.

And finally, Rearden announces that he really and truly does trust Francisco because he ordered a bunch of copper from the d’Anconio company. Francisco freaks out. He begs Rearden to believe that, no matter what happens next, Francisco truly is his friend. I have no idea how that evening ends, because the scene ends abruptly.

Three days later, Rearden freaks out because pirates attacked the boat shipping the d’Anconio copper, dropping it all to the bottom of the ocean.

End of chapter 4.

On to some more reactions:

Rearden really is something of an idiot and the narration doesn’t appear to understand just how much. Any other character who made a business decision based on their faith in a friend would be denigrated. Rearden, on the other hand, is betrayed by the fact that Francisco’s company didn’t deliver. Shocking! All the evidence pointed to d’Anconio copper being a really bad business choice, but Rearden knew in his gut that it was the right choice. Never mind that Francisco created that fake mine in Mexico with shoddy crap that lost vast amounts of money for his investors. Nevermind that at the Taggert wedding, Francisco specifically warned Rearden against doing any business at all with d’Anconio Copper. Rearden felt the truth that Francisco can be trusted, and made the purchase. What was he thinking? (Or rather, what was he thinking with?)

Then, three things regarding Francisco’s speech on women and sex:

  1. It is both ludicrous and insulting that he thinks people have such simple motives and cookie-cutter desires and responses.
  2. I really can’t wait until they discover that they share the same lover. It will likely be wonderfully melodramatic. (Although if Dagny is present at the discovery, I do hope she suggests a threesome as the solution.***)
  3. Francisco has been creating a public reputation as a playboy by going on dates with women but not sleeping with them. He appears to seriously believe that those women are so jealous of their reputations as seductresses that they don’t talk amongst themselves. I can’t imagine that he doesn’t have a quiet reputation among those ladies as being impotent, and using them to bolster his public reputation.

And finally, Rearden’s tentative thought in the last chapter on approaching people as a resource to be developed has apparently fallen by the wayside. He had an amazing potential ally in the person of his “boy from Washington.” This was a kid who knew the other side of the battle, but could so easily have been made loyal to Rearden. In fact, he became loyal to Rearden all on his own, but Rearden didn’t even notice. In the same way, there were the crowds at his trial who supported him, who were clearly tired of being lied to by the press and by the government. The problem is that the lying press and government are apparently the only sources of any information at all, because Rearden won’t deign interact with them. There are people, masses of people, the great and unknown “public” who would love to support him if only he allowed them. But instead he assumes that they will believe the lies of the government and thus dooms them to do so by refusing to give them an alternative. Is it really a surprise that the people will follow the only political party that is willing to give them any information at all, even knowing that they lie 95% of the time? At least there’s the possibility of that 5% truth.

So, over all, this chapter was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. It had a few excellent scenes of Rearden finally standing up for himself, a few frustrating scenes of him being completely blind to his potential allies, and one long scene of him being a disciple to the increasingly unstable Francisco.

* This poor guy has been nicknamed “the wet nurse,” which cracks me up at the same time it makes me sad for the poor guy. And raise an eyebrow at whether the implied social commentary was intentional on Rand’s part or not. A wet nurse is a woman, still lactating from breast-feeding her own child, who is hired to breast-feed someone else’s child. Such a nurse is the very first attendant that a young child of a wealthy family would have, before a regular governess or tutor was appropriate.

** Unfortunately, the wrong people have taken note of this example. Various executives at large banks have discovered that they can literally get away with treason because they’re too necessary to the current economy to be arrested.

*** My knowledge of 1950s culture is not particularly strong, but this isn’t actually totally out of the question. Having a shared mistress was a form of male bonding in 1830s Manhattan, so it’s quite possible it either stayed one as late as the 1950s or is something that Ayn Rand wished to bring back as a useful standard from the past.

2 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, part 2, chapter 4

  1. ‘In leaving the court room, Rearden walks through the crowd of workers who cheered his speech. They thank him for making his stand and assert their agreement. Rearden looks at them with disdain, knowing that they will change their minds soon enough, says nothing to them, and walks away.

    That’s not what happens. Please read that again.

    Look at what Rearden is actually doing: He sees that their representatives in government are passing regulations that are paralyzing his business, threatening to destroy him, and he’s trying to figure out “Why were they ready to renounce their highest moments as a sin?”

    • Rebecca says:

      I read it again:

      “He looked at the people around him. They had cheered him today; they had cheered him by the side of the track of the John Galt Line. But tomorrow they would clamor for a new directive from Wesley Mouch … They would do it because they would be told to forget as a sin, that which had made them cheer Hank Rearden.”

      Here are the people supporting him but he already knows what they will do tomorrow and he does nothing to stop it. He even knows that they will give it up because they are told to by Wesley Mouch et al. And he walks away without even considering acting as a counter voice, giving the public the option of hearing from someone who supports their morals. Instead, he goes off to contemplate the question of why the people believe the only source that speaks to them.

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