Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapter Ten: Wyatt’s Torch
Chapter X: Wyatt’s Torch
Summary: This chapter operates as a detective story, as Dagny travels the country searching for the erstwhile owners of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Along the way, she meets a rogue’s gallery of simpering weaklings, including a couple of grotesque failures in Lousiana, the vile progeny of automotive genius Jed Starnes. The brother and sister tell Dagny, to her horror, of their attempt to institute a communist regime at their father’s factory, paying the same salary to all employees and making decisions by majority vote. Of course, the experiment failed miserably, destroying the company and scattering the engineers (including the inventor of the Magical Static Electricity Engine) to the winds. The reader also learns the story of Midas Mulligan, a super genius investment banker who never lost a dime and never invested in anyone who invoked their personal need for help. Like several other stupendously talented captains of industry, Mulligan closed his bank and disappeared seven years earlier.
Even Warren Buffett had a bad day, Midas
Back in Manhattan, Jim Taggart tells Dangy about a host of new laws on the verge of passage in Washington. The looters want to cripple the Colorado renaissance by limiting the number of cars on John Galt Line trains and their speed, as well as limiting the number of trains running to Colorado to not exceed those running to neighboring, lamer states. They want to limit the production of Rearden Metal to equal output of steel. They want to give every customer in the country equal access to Rearden Metal. They want to forbid companies based in the East to relocate West (to, say, Colorado). They want to impose a special tax on the state of Colorado (how would that even work?) Most ominously, they want to invest Wesley Mouch’s Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources with “emergency powers.” Of course, Jim is down with all this, while Dagny insists that these measures will mean the death of Wyatt Oil, Rearden Metal, and Taggart Transcontinental.
Meanwhile, Hank discovers, unsurprisingly, that Phil Larkin is screwing him, diverting iron ore to more “needy” customers and shipping the ore on railroads instead of the faster Lake Michigan water route as a favor to Jim Taggart. To make matters worse, Hank then has to contend with his tiresome, shrewish wife. Lillian Rearden has the audacity to demand that her husband of many years actually give some sort of indication that he cares about her in some way. Of course, Hank is revolted by her neediness, but he can’t truly hate her, because he knows that he has betrayed her with Dagny.
Dagny’s search for the inventor of the Magic Static Electric Engine eventually leads her to a mysterious older man in a diner in Wyoming. He’s a short order cook, but we know that he’s also one of Rand’s Elect because the hamburger he makes for Dagny is the BEST HAMBURGER OF HER LIFE. Turns out, he’s actually the famous philosopher Hugh Atkins, the one-time teacher of Franscio d’Aconia, Ragnar Dakkersjold, and a third mysterious genius, as well as an acquaintance of the brilliant young Twentieth Century Motor Company engineer who invented the Magic Static Electric Engine. Atkins doesn’t give Dagny much in the way of actionable intelligence, or explain why a world-famous philosopher is flipping burgers in Wyoming. Instead, he offers a bunch of oblique hints; just the sort of thing to help push this sucker of a thousand pages. He also gives her a mysterious (and DELICIOUS) cigarette emblazoned with a gold dollar sign.
Dollar Bill Cigarettes: they’re toasted!
While waiting for the train Colorado, Dagny overhears that all of the dreaded economic laws earlier discussed have been passed. Dagny fears the reaction of the mercurial Wyatt, and rushes to meet him. At Wyatt Junction, she sees the brilliant fires of Wyatt’s oilfields, set ablaze. Wyatt fired them, leaving behind a board nailed to the ground marked with the words “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.” Wyatt himself has disappeared.
Dick move, Wyatt.
Reflections: Something, besides the cardboard characters, overt sermonizing and overheated prose, has been bothering me while reading this book that didn’t come into complete focus until this chapter: Atlas Shrugged should have been a science fiction novel.
I know why Rand probably didn’t want to go in that direction: science fiction is considered kiddie stuff in a lot of quarters (even moreso in the 50s, the apex of middlebrow literary fiction) and she sure wanted this book to be taken SERIOUSLY. Also, putting her looter-driven dystopia in the distant future would made it seem like the road to serfdom will be traveled at a relaxed saunter.
But there are so many story elements of Atlas Shrugged that would be easier to accept in a sci/fi setting. Starting with the most obvious: the damned trains. Train travel was already obsolete when this book was first published: if it was Taggart Interstellar, with Dagny commanding a fleet of spaceships delivering people and cargo from Earth to its many colonies, that central premise would already be more acceptable. The same goes for the breakthrough inventions that power the book: Rearden Metal and the Magic Static Electric Engine. The mind rebels at this sort of corner-cutting in a realist setting, but takes such techno-MacGuffins for granted in science fiction. Finally, there’s the matter of Colorado. Rand doesn’t seem to have too firm a grasp on the relationship between state and federal governments, and the way that Colorado seems to exist as some sort of libertarian oasis in a sea of looterdom doesn’t ring true. How is it that the federal government has snuffed innovation and achievement everywhere in the country except Colorado, letting it exist as a Wild West zone of freedom and capitalism for years? The anti-Colorado laws that are passed in this chapter are truly odd: especially the mysterious “special tax” on the state. You could write it off as a byproduct of the increasing power of the federal government in Rand’s dystopia, but, again, why did it take so long for the wicked feds to exert their power? All of these questions would disappear if the center for Objectivist dynamism were some distant colonized planet in the Andromeda galaxy. And the engine powered by static electricity would feel like much less of a reach.
“If you kill Colorado, what is there going to be left for your damn looters to survive on.” –Dagny Taggart
“Midas Mulligan had once been the richest and, consequently, the most denounced man in the country. He had never taken a loss on any investment he made; everything he touched turned into gold.” He also read minds and could walk through walls. One of the appeals of Rand’s work is that it flatters the reader by putting him on the side of these sort of mega-competent heroes, but their comically oversized accomplishments often make it hard to take them seriously. No serious, long-term investor has EVER avoided losing money once in a while.
“Dagny heard a cold, implacable voice saying somewhere within her: Remember it–remember it well—it is not often that one can see pure evil—look at it–remember–and some day you’ll find the words to name its essence…She hard it through the screaming of other voices that cried in helpless violence: It’s nothing—I’ve heard it before—I’m hearing it everywhere—it’s nothing but the same old tripe–why can’t I stand it?–I can’t stand it—-I can’t stand it!” –Dagny Taggart, losing her mind with rage while listening to Rachel Starnes talk about her failed attempt to socialize the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Dagny eventually snaps and starts slapping Starnes around until she finally gives up the name of one of her engineers who quit after the imposition of shopfloor Communism.