Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: Chapter One: The Man Who Belonged to Earth


Image: Never Trust a Fox in His Green Meadow and Never Trust the Oath of a Jew by Julius Streicher

Text: “The German and the Jew.
Take a good look at the two
In the picture drawn for you.
A joke – you think it is only that?
Easy to guess which is which, I say:
The German stands up, the Jew gives way.”

“Yet another strategy is Manichaeism, which makes much of the need for fateful decisions but stacks the cards.  In effect, we are asked to choose between an evil-tasting, poisonous dish and one that tastes good and is good for our health: all good is on one side, all evil on the other, and the choice makes itself.” – Walter Kaufmann

Part II: Either-Or

Chapter I: The Man Who Belonged to Earth

Pages: 339 – 378

Summary: The first chapter of Part II encompasses comedy, tragedy and romance.  The chapter opens with a discussion between Dr. Robert Stadler and Dr. Floyd Ferris.  Dr. Ferris published a book entitled Why Do You Think You Think? that amounts to a veiled attack on rationalism.  Dr. Ferris, who Rand describes as “severe” and “that a movie producer once said he would cast him for the part of a titled European gigolo,” published the book for the “general public” that Dr. Stadler equates to “a drunken lout.”  (Seriously, when do gigolos ever look severe?)

The conversation goes on a bit, with each side lobbing righteousness-grenades at each other.  Dr. Ferris plays the part of the cynical nihilist and Dr. Stadler the part of a benighted rationalist.  Rand also includes excerpts of Dr. Ferris’s unintentionally hilarious book.  Since this is a Rand book, the excerpts run for two pages.  (One could get the gist after two or three examples.)

Dagny has a contemplative moment, musing on the disappearance of Ellis Wyatt, in some of the most hilarious prose I have ever read.  She fears that the government might subsidize the oil industry and there are few oil men who have men in Washington.  She muses on some economic matters, especially about drilling heads rising in cost from $100 to $500 given the recent passage of looter legislation.  (Granted, the book was published in 1957, but when did a drill bit for oil exploration cost $100?  Things cost less in the 1950s, but this strikes me as ridiculous.)

Anybody got $100 and a few pounds of Rearden Metal handy?

Dagny converses with Dr. Stadler about the motor.  Dr. Stadler agrees to recruit bright minds from the State Science Institute to help her research the Miracle Motor, but has to decline since he interviewed a few candidates and found only dithering dolts.  He also reveals that he knew John Galt once as one of his students, but presumes he’s dead.  If Rand had any talent as a fiction writer, this would have come as a surprise, not as something I saw coming one hundred pages back.  Or is artful foreshadowing the hallmark of a second-rater?

Hank has an infuriating conversation with a weasely government man (given the nickname the Wet Nurse).  The Wet Nurse philosophizes about there being no absolutes (yeah!  Another Nihilist Strawman!), then promptly tells Hank that the Government absolutely needs Rearden Metal for Project X.  Hank refuses and tells the Wet Nurse to simply steal the Metal he needs.  Or arrest him.  The Wet Nurse balks at Hank’s ultimatums.

Hank Rearden valiantly battles the encroaching looter hordes.

The chapter concludes with Dagny and Hank engaging in a whirlwind romance.  Hank, giving Dagny beautiful jewelry for his selfish enjoyment, finally gets his groove back and does not feel so guilty anymore about cheating on his wife.

Observations: The second part of Atlas Shrugged is titled “Either-Or,” a kind of Manichean call to arms.  Either you are a free market hero-god-genius-industrialist or you’re looter scum.  Again to echo Matt’s comparison of Rand to Pynchon, Pynchon’s works repeatedly buck the “either-or” binary opposition, since his novels deal with anarchy, entropy, and chaos.  However, since this is 1957 and the Cold War rages against the godless Communist menace, the title is fitting … at least until Henry Kissinger shakes up the bipolar world with détente and “opening China.”

Ironically, the binary opposition Rand sets up harkens back to the Manichean worldview of Middle Eastern monotheisms (and most religions).  Rand detested religion as irrational, but her dividing the world into a binary opposition seems irrational and reductive.  Because this work was written as a cudgel to beat the Communist ideology to a pulp cheapens the artistic merit of the work.  It is so obviously and specifically reactionary.  Similarly, the work of Ezra Pound, maybe the greatest Modernist poet, becomes dry, pedantic, and boring whenever he raises the issue of economics.

“Want to hear my Canto about American troops walking over a mine field?  Il Duce would love it!”

The tragedy of this chapter is that the budding romance of Dagny and Hank sours amidst the shrill self-righteousness.  For a while, it seemed like the characters would break free from their ideological straightjackets.  It is understood that the book operates like a morality play, but if Rand was the gifted novelist her fans misguidedly attribute to her, then she would have soft-pedaled the ideology for a few pages and allowed to Hank and Dagny to flower as human beings.  Unfortunately, when one deals with idealism, the human factor gets buried in abstractions and utopian dreams.  It would have been nice to see Dagny and Hank as fully formed persons, not merely Objectivist-delivery devices.

Additional Random Thoughts:

  • While Project X remains unknown and the set piece between Hank and the Wet Nurse illustrates the thuggish nature of looter government, one wonders if any industrialists refused to participate in the Manhattan Project?  The government gave no details about the project, not even to Vice President Truman, and the project required vast quantities of materials and man-hours.  What about businesses that had dealings with hostile regimes?  What is Rand saying, that we owe the dollar greater allegiance than the state?

Atlas Shrugged would be greatly improved with the addition of space monkeys.

  • One of the major issues with this novel is that the Enemy is altogether invisible.  We either see representatives of the system (the Wet Nurse, etc.), but not the government itself.  For a novel this epic and grandiose, some scenes in Washington, D.C. might add to the believability factor.  The scenes in New York City have a certain decayed glamour to them, so why not D.C.?  I think I know the answer to this.  To show government representatives would humanize the opposition.  Since Objectivism like other utopian schemes needs to weight the deck in their favor, any representation of the opposition would weaken the argument.  Best stick with straw men and tedious monologues to reader-surrogates.
  • I’m not sure how to square the circle Rand presents us in Part II.  The section is called “Either-Or.”  This name makes Objectivism seem less like a philosophy (something that can be argued and discussed) and more like partisanism (Party X is better than Party Y) or organized religion (“God decreed for us to kill everyone different!”).  The shrillness of the delivery, the cavalcade of exaggerated straw men, and the absurdity of the setting expose the utter weakness of Rand’s arguments.  This contributes to the effect of making hardcore Objectivists as fanatical, immune to evidence, and reason as any Creationist, Scientologist, or suicide bomber.  One can’t argue with those kinds of people.  Ironically, Rand turns reason, the cornerstone of Objectivism, into an idol and the idolatry becomes totally unreasonable.  (Look at the Catholic Church’s constant talk of poverty and charity, meanwhile the Vatican Bank keeps raking in the filthy lucre.)

  • The romantic scenes with Dagny and Hank reminded me of Tamara de Lempicka paintings.  Lempicka synthesized Futuristic lines with classical elegance to create luxurious artworks.

Quotable Quotes:

  • “If a drunken lout could find the power to express himself on paper,” said Dr. Stadler, “if he could give voice to his essence – the eternal savage, leering his hatred of the mind – this is the sort of book I would expect him to write.”  (Atlas Shrugged?  Stadler nails the Ayn Rand’s mental state pretty much exactly.  She wasn’t a drunk, but she did speed with the same ferocity of a street-corner wino.)
  • “By what right did you use my work to make an unwarranted, preposterous switch into another field, pull an inapplicable metaphor and draw a monstrous generalization out of what is merely a mathematical problem?”  (Kind of like how Rand turns Marxist philosophy and any legislation aimed at the economic redistribution of wealth into an epithet by using the term looter.  It reduces the incredibly complex problem of neo-classical economics into a theological spat.  Every time Rand uses the term “looter,” substitute the term “heretic” or “Kulak.”)
  • “Now, you see, Dr. Stadler, you’re speaking as if this book were addressed to a thinking audience.  If it were, one would have to be concerned with such matters as accuracy, validity, logic, and the prestige of science.  But it isn’t.  It’s addressed to the public.  And you have always been first to believe that the public does not think.”  (No wonder Rand is so popular with the Tea Party movement.)  Ferris continues: “So they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking.”
  • “Then the boys in Washington granted subsidies to the oil operators, but not all the oil operators had friends in Washington, and there followed a situation which no one cared to examine too closely or to discuss.”  (This is when I realized Atlas Shrugged was one of the most unintentionally hilarious books I’ve ever read.  Rand lived in New York City, how did she think Rockefeller Center got built?  Magic beans?  Big Oil and Big Government have had a centuries-old relationship in this national, just like … wait for it … the railroads.)
  • Some classic dialogue:

“But I’m a luxury object that you’ve been paid for long ago,” she said; she was not smiling.

“How?”  [Hank]

“By means of the same values with which you paid for your mills.”

(“By means of the same values.”  Warms the cockles of my heart.  Go suck on that, Margaret Mitchell!”)

  • This is the world and the core of it, this is what made the city – they go together, the angular shapes of the city and the angular shapes lines of a face stripped of everything but purpose – the rising steps of steel and the steps of being intent upon a goal – this is what they had been, all the men who lived to invent the lights, the steel, the furnaces, the motors – they were the world, they, not the men who crouched in dark corners, half-begging, half-threatening, boastfully displaying their open sores as their only claim on life and virtue – so long as he knew that there existed one man with the bright courage of a new thought, could be given up the world to those other? – so long as he could find a single sight to give him a life-restoring shot of admiration, could he believe that the world belonged to the sores, the moans and the guns? – the men who invented motors did exist, he would never doubt their reality, it was his vision of them that had made the contrast unbearable, so that even the loathing was the tribute of his loyalty to them and to that world which was theirs and his.”

This passage exposes the contradictory style of Atlas Shrugged, a combination of heady Romanticism and cold pro-Enlightenment philosophy not seen since the writings of fellow atheist D.A.F. de Sade.  The style of de Sade actually works and still shocks readers to this day.  The style of Rand comes across as out-Hugo-ing Victor Hugo and simultaneously anti-Hugo in its complete lack of sympathy in its alleged protagonists.  Instead of emotionally identifying with the benighted inventor heroes, the passage exposes Rand’s ham-fisted deck stacking.  Fine, inventors are good; looters are bad.  I get it.  But any writer with even an inkling of talent knows not to stack the deck in front of the reader’s face.  This deck stacking is so blatantly obvious one can see it from space … kind of like Deepwater Horizon, or better yet, one could call it Hayward’s Torch.

  • “What she felt in that moment contained, as one nameless part of it, the knowledge of the beauty in the posture of his body as he held her, as they stood in the middle of the room high above the lights of the city.”  (Is this supposed to be erotic or am I putting together an IKEA table?  Overly convoluted sentences bespeak an utter lack of writing talent.)

Quotes from Why Do You Think You Think?

  • “Thought is a primitive superstition.  Reason is an irrational idea.  The childish notion that we are able to think has been mankind’s costliest error.”
  • “That gray matter you’re so proud of is like a mirror in an amusement park which transmits to you nothing but distorted signals from a reality beyond your grasp.”  (That explains the Tea Party signs rather well.)
  • “The entire history of science is a progression of exploded fallacies, not of achievements.”  (I didn’t think that was an either-or proposition, since the history of science easily encompasses both.)
  • “Do not expect consistency.  Everything is a contradiction of everything else.  Nothing exists but contradiction.”
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