Atlas Shrugged, part 2, chapter 10

AtlasShruggedIn many ways, this book reminds me of reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I read that book as assigned reading in college and it was just painful. It was well written, but that actually made the pain worse, because I spent several hours reading about this one character making bad decision after bad decision. Up until the very end, there was always a chance for her to change directions, to fix her problems, or at least mitigate them.  She just never managed to act on those chances.

I see Dagny in much the same way. She has these opportunities to turn things around. She has the connections and the opportunities to force people—in industry, in government, and in the general population—to listen to her.  These opportunities keep on coming up and she wastes them, time and time again. It’s painful to read.

The one time that she actually deigns to explain herself, back when she was introducing the John Galt line to the press, she explains herself in the most useless way possible.  (A hint: if you’re trying to convince either a person or a large group of people to side with you, explain why it is to their benefit to do so rather than to your own. For instance, don’t write a job application saying why you need a job, write a job application saying why the company needs you.) For all that Dagny and Rearden look downs at the idiot masses in this book who beg for money and goods, they don’t do anything different themselves when they talk about money and profit.

Anyway, I think this may all be over! This is the last chapter of the second section and not only does it contain my second favorite scene so far (right after Dagny’s ride on the first train on the John Galt line), it sets up the next section to be quite different. I am very excited.

First a summary of events:

Dagny is on a train making her way to Utah so that she can see Quentin Daniels about the motor before “the destroyer” comes and takes him away.

She discovers the conductor trying to throw a stowaway off the train. She watches without feeling, as the tramp hopelessly obeys the conductor and the conductor shows only malevolence from his own pain. They are not people to each other, or to Dagny either.

But then she notices the collar of the tramp’s shirt (“it was bone white from repeated laundering and it still preserved a semblance of shape.”) and that he tries to collect his possessions before jumping off the moving train. Suddenly she feels an emotion! The tramp can stay on the train as her guest.

The tramp then tells her the story of working for The Twentieth Century Motor Company, ie, the company that Dagny’s mysterious miracle engine was abandoned in. He talks about how the workers voted to accept the plan that everyone would “work according to his ability and be paid according to his need.” This immediately turned everyone against everyone else, made sure that nobody wanted to demonstrate any ability but would whine about every need. But back at the very beginning, one tall, slim engineer stood up in front of the crowd of workers and rejected the proposal, saying “I will put an end to this, once and for all. I will stop the motor of the world.” Then he vanished. This was John Galt.

The train stops, because the train crew decided to desert their posts in the middle of nowhere. (Where did they go? Why did they pick there of all places to desert? It’s not brought up. Maybe aliens abducted them? Maybe there’s an underground fortress? It’s not discussed, but Dagny has to walk five miles to get to a phone.)

The passengers aren’t sure what to do, but Dagny takes command, and then they want her to serve them and change reality or something.

She goes off with Kellog, an ex-employee of hers, to find a phone, leaving the tramp in charge of the train. They reach the first phone line on the tracks, but the phone is broken. They walk to the next phone and it works, so she calls the office and tells them to send out a replacement crew. Dagny is horrified that she has to rely on name recognition and unspecified threats to get the crew that she wants. She thinks this is the first time she’s ever been reduced to this! (Apparently forgetting that she relied on name recognition and unspecified threats in her first scene in the book when she tells a conductor to ignore a signal light.)

Meanwhile, Dagny discovers that Kellog has a pack of the mysterious cigarettes with the money logo on them. Kellog goes on a short (yay! Short and concise!) description of how the dollar sign is based on the United States’ initials. (Actually one of eight origin theories listed on Wikipedia.) And how money is the good and virtuous foundation of the U.S. More on this below, in the rant section, because, wow, does he mess up his facts.

Anyway, it turns out that there’s an airfield near the phone booth, there’s a beautiful, modern plane that was abandoned there at least a year ago, but it’s in perfect working condition and Dagny knows how to fly it. Despite her rush to get to Quentin Daniel’s, she never made a previous attempt to fly to Utah, not even by asking Rearden for the use of his plane (which has at least been mentioned before), but you just kind of have to roll with this plot twist. Dagny can fly a plane and there’s a plane for her to fly.

She flies the plane.

It reminds me of the scene in which Dagny and Rearden rode on the train together, as the first passengers on the John Galt line. It’s a beautiful description and provides a feeling of peace and happiness. It is a nice scene.

She lands in Utah, discovers that Quentin Daniels just left by another plane. So she hops back into her plane and chases after.

Again the descriptions are gorgeous. The feel of these scenes are lovely. The practical nature of them is ludicrous though. Dagny is lucky that she’s a main character because she takes some pretty horrible risks, but her determination holds true and she manages to find a secret hidden valley with a false floor in it, and doesn’t loose control of the plane until the very end. Then she crashes.

The End. (Of section 2. Section 3 is coming soon. I think it is safe to assume that Dagny does not die but revives in the super secret lair of “the destroyer,” AKA John Galt, hidden in the mountains.)

And now to rant:

First, Kellog’s short statement. I think it’s best summed up in his own words, in which he describes how the United States:
“was the only country in history where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade, the only country whose money was the symbol of man’s right to his own mind, to his own work, to his life, to his happiness, to himself.”

So here’s a massive bit of revisionist history that makes me want to yell. Did he just forget that there were Native Americans on the American continent before the settlers forced them off their land? And about how slavery wasn’t abolished in the U.S. until 1865? (That’s about ninety years after the American Revolution and 90 years before this book was published.) And, for that matter, the United States supported the theft of intellectual property from other countries up until 1955 (publishing houses could make a lot of money selling books when they didn’t have to pay the authors anything, and the government didn’t want to export money by paying foreign authors/inventors for anything), and they still didn’t sign the Berne Convention until 1989 (when the U.S. decided it was established enough that we needed protection for our own intellectual property more than we needed free access to other people’s.) I’m not saying that there wasn’t a lot of productivity and hard work going on in the country, but there was a hell of a lot of looting happening, too.

Second, the tramp’s story about The Twentieth Century Motor Company is ludicrous to begin with but also stands out as a counter example to various prior rants that our main characters have made.

To begin with, Rand doesn’t appear to believe in minority votes. It’s weird, in that it’s not that she doesn’t think they’re important, it’s that she doesn’t think they exist, even when she has clear evidence of them. This has been bothering me for a while, as she and her characters describe how the entire world is against them, not a single voice on their side, except for all the people who are on their sides. But it was particularly evident in the tramp’s story. The 6,000 person factory votes for this new program that no one understands, but they all voted for it. Except for those people who didn’t vote for it. I’m assuming that John Galt at least didn’t vote for it, and neither did the many people who are described as quitting their jobs within the first week, before the change ever actually had a chance to effect them. But the description isn’t that a majority of people voted for it, or that a mob shouted down all dissenters, or even that since most people didn’t know what it was they didn’t vote one way or the other. It was described that everyone voted for it. As a Quaker, I know exactly how hard it is to come to a unanimous vote about anything at all: There’s no way this happened in a regular factory of 6,000 people.

Then, in one of Francisco’s (many) screeds, he talks about how one shouldn’t envy the unworthy heir because they would just burn through their money. Well, here’s an example of just that, because here were some unworthy heirs burning through the money and the tramp was just one part of the collateral damage. It was also a completely free-market decision on their part to do this to the company. Why isn’t this a happy story (as far as Rand is concerned)? I am reminded of how Ragnar, in chapter 7, tells Rearden that there’s all this money that Rearden can use but only if he uses it like Ragnar tells him to. The free market is good but only if you freely choose the way good heirs want you to and not the way bad heirs will tell you to? Well, yes, but… that’s kind of an extreme restriction on what “free” actually means. And the employees were free to vote against the changes and were free to leave at any time, as demonstrated by the fact that a lot of them did. So my question is less why is the tramp complaining about it, but why is Dagny giving him any sympathy? Why isn’t she shrugging his troubles off as having been a result of him choosing the wrong company to work for?

And then, Dagny’s description of the tramp (She doesn’t recognize him as a person until she realizes that one of his shirts is still in pretty good condition) reminds me of an argument that I had with an ex. I was watching RiP: A Remix Manifesto, about copyright laws, and my ex said that maybe people would have listened to the arguments more if the spokespeople hadn’t dressed in jeans and worn their hair in dreadlocks.  On the one hand, he was right: many people would have respected them more if they were dressed in suits and ties. On the other hand, he spoke with disapproval, as if it was the requirement of a person to present a conventional/conservative appearance before it was important that they make a logical argument. Women’s rights movements have been fighting this type of argument for a really long time and will continue for some time to come, as women want the right to be respected even if they are wearing trousers or are not wearing burqas. The fact that Dagny judges a tramp by the ability to keep a white dress shirt in good condition strikes me as pretty despicable, especially as she looks down on both the conductor and the tramp for failing to view the other as a person.

Third, I actually really like the descriptions of the plane flights for all that they stretch to the breaking point my suspended disbelief. They are gorgeous scenes in which Dagny admires the world around her and stretches her abilities to achieve a goal. The problem comes in when I wonder where this skill suddenly came from.

(And the plane, for that matter. If there’s an airplane mechanic reading this: How long can a plane be left out on a field without maintenance before it’s no longer good to fly? I would have expected a year to be on the far side of that time period.)

There was no previous mention of Dagny being able to fly a plane and surely if she wanted to get to Utah as fast as possible in order to reach Quentin Daniels before he disappeared, she would have tried to take a plane originally. I get the impression that Dagny can gain skills from the aether at need for plot points. I am reminded of a philosophy teacher I had in high school who thought that education and intelligence were the same thing. (I, personally, believe he thought this because he was highly educated but not actually as smart as any of the student in his class.) The fact that Dagny is suddenly flying a plane makes me wonder if Rand thinks the same thing, but in the opposite direction: that intelligence is the same thing as education. Since Dagny is smart, she doesn’t need to be educated, she just knows things and has skills not because she learned them but because she’s smart and thus didn’t need to learn then. Francisco’s backstory certainly supports this philosophy since he is able to do anything and everything on his first attempt. Not only do I disagree with this philosophy, based on common sense, but there have actually been experiments that demonstrate its weakness: even smart people need to learn skills.

2 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, part 2, chapter 10

  1. Anna says:

    So, as you know, I’ve had a pretty wretched head cold for the last week, but I didn’t realize how much it has incapacitated my brain until I read your recap. I had forgotten that Dagny’s motor came from Twentieth Century, meaning it is most likely that John Galt invented it. I also hadn’t thought anything of all the employees abandoning the train in the middle of nowhere.

    I did not like any part of this chapter, but I’m willing to concede that it is most likely because I am feeling just all-around miserable right now. I was mad that Dagny suddenly knew how to fly a plane and then I was mad about having to read about it.

    Rand does a lot of throwing around of derogatory terms, like “looters” and “moochers,” but then as comparison sets up her protagonists as such unrealistic super-people, that it makes me feel really defensive reading this. Like, I don’t think I would be able to fly a plane if the need came up, and I would be too scared to try, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person or a looter/moocher.

    • Rebecca says:

      Heh. You liked the chapter where everything falls apart (urg), but I like the part where things work, no matter how randomly.

      Don’t worry about the whole “looters” and “moochers” insults. Because as much as her bad guys complain about not getting the money and kudos they deserve, her protagonists whine even more about not being given what they deserve.

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