Atlas Summer: Part Two: Chapter Three: White Blackmail


\Alternate chapter title: Tenacious D and the Cigarette Butt of Destiny.

Chapter III: White Blackmail

Pages: 423 – 460

Summary: The chapter has it all: important exposition, a little bromance, a titular line, and the greatest line ever written in the Western Canon.  Shakespeare, Dickens, and Henry James have nothing on the literary firepower of Ayn Rand.

The chapter begins with Hank’s shrewish wife Lillian complaining about his budding romance with copper magnate/philosophical delivery system Francisco d’Anconia.  He leaves his wife to meet his mistress, Dagny Taggart.  So long as Hank gives her what she wants, she does not resent his marriage.  The next morning, Hank and Lillian argue again.  This time Lillian exposes Hank as a philandering hypocrite, but vows to keep his marriage-shattering erotic shenanigans under wraps provided she keep half her wealth.  Hank agrees, since this is the Fifties and nothing could be more dishonorable than a divorce.  (Graham Greene this is not.)

Dagny Taggart = Monica Lewinsky.  Discuss.

After battling his wife, Hank has a day at the office with Dr. Floyd Ferris, author and contemptible bastard.  He offers Hank a way out, since Dr. Ferris knows some people in Washington that could be persuaded to look the other with the inevitable law breaking.  Hank plays the part of the martyr against Dr. Ferris’s oily nihilism.

Eddie Willers again talks to the anonymous man in the Taggart cafeteria.  Willers forwards the plot with some exposition about the indictments of Rearden and Danagger.  Willers feels bad.

Ayn Rand’s original name for Eddie Willers was Eddie Exposition.  Even Alan Greenspan thought this was too obvious.

Meanwhile Dagny Taggart waits a really long time to see Danagger.  Danagger, usually punctual about all business meetings, pushes her meeting off for several hours.  When she finally meets him, she sees a mysterious figure leave through a side entrance.  Who is this mysterious figure?  Who is J–?  Oh never mind.

After pleading and groveling with Danagger, she submits to his plans to leave the business.  Danagger says he doesn’t know what to do next and refuses to name a successor.  He also refuses to disclose the name of the Mystery Man who left his office.  Disheartened and defeated, Dagny is about to leave when she discovers a used cigarette butt in an ashtray.  This is no mere cigarette butt but one emblazoned with the mystical sigil of the dollar sign.  At this moment in the narrative, Ayn Rand writes one of the greatest sentences in the Western Canon.

“She was looking down to the butt in the palm of her hand as if it were a jewel.”

Suck on that, Shakespeare!  Eat it, Mark Twain!

Shakespeare: He didn’t earn as much money as Rand did.  What a loser.  Rand is totally better than him.

Inspired, she plans to discover who smoked this cigarette butt.  This quest is even more important than finding the inventory of the Magical Mystery Electrical Motor.

We return to Hank Rearden again, this time ensconced in his office, pondering the future of his business, rendered silent by the rapacious laws of the looters, rotters, and second-raters.  Francisco d’Anconia sits down to talk to Hank, or at least talk at him while he delivers another heaping of moral philosophy on his lap.  He talks about letting Atlas, tired and bleeding, shrug.  We come to the narrative and moral crux of the novel.  When the world is in trouble, don’t help.  When those unworthy of help beg for it, don’t offer it.  When you see a beaten up Samaritan on the side of the road, kick him in the face and set him on fire.

“Hot stuff coming through!”

Following d’Anconia’s philosophical discourse, he assists Hank in plugging a hole in a leaky bucket.  The action ends on an oddly homoerotic note.  Odd since Rand never made a secret of her homophobia, although in the Fifties homosexuality was considered a form of mental insanity and insane people can’t be Objectivists.  (At least until one heads BP and another becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.)

Observations: One of the pleasures of reading is that a reader can give the text any interpretation he or she wants.  Objectivism, like any other cult, demands one read the holy texts in one specific way.  “Think whatever you want, so long as you think exactly like we do.”  One finds this among hardcore Objectivists (are there any other kind?), unreconstructed Marxists, and Creationists.  Despite monumental evidence to the contrary, they demand you interpret their view of reality under pains of eternal damnation or smacking you in the face with the hardcover of Atlas Shrugged.  Which is a roundabout way of saying I love Dr. Floyd Ferris, despite his status in the novel as enemy and contemptible bastard.  It’s the same reason I like Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas and Brother Cavil on Battlestar Galactica.

Of course!  The government needs Rearden Metal for Project X.  How else will they construct sentient killer robots?

Ferris and Cavill are evil manipulative moral nihilists.  The greatest irony is that Ferris is more of a character than Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia.  Behind Ferris’s cartoonish rendering of nihilism exists a compelling character.  Atlas Shrugged would have been a lot more fun if it followed around Ferris and, say, Cherryl Brooks.  At this point, I cringe every time I find Francisco; since he’ll probably open his mouth and then I have to read several pages of philosophy awkwardly shoe-horned into a scene.

Since one can read this book in any way, the heroic scene involving Hank and Francisco fixing a leaky bucket could be read as a piece of gay pornography.  One could easily read the movie 300 in the same way.  While objective analysis may be possible in engineering, it is not possible in literature or philosophy.  Ayn Rand via her mouthpiece d’Anconia wants to weld together the objective reality of, say, building a railroad bridge with moral philosophy.  Unfortunately, she can’t even stage a sensible debate since her designated opponents are cartoonish and exaggerated like Sade characters.  Like any good Bolshevik or Maoist, Rand considers any alternative interpretation of her work as heretical.  She is strangely similar to Lenin in this regard.  When you get right down to it, certain sections of the US population consider this book as the greatest thing since sliced bread, the Bible, and the wheel.  Others look at it like an overlong romance novel with philosophical speeches stapled to it.

You read Atlas Shrugged one way.  I’ll read it another way.

Quotes:

  • “The only power the government has is the power to crack down on criminals.  Well, when they’re aren’t enough criminals, one makes them.”

And here’s what Bill Hicks said:

Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally on our planet, serves a thousand different functions, all of them positive. To make marijuana against the law is like saying that God made a mistake. Like on the seventh day God looked down, “There it is. My Creation; perfect and holy in all ways. Now I can rest. [Gives shocked expression] Oh, my Me! I left fuckin’ pot everywhere. I should never have smoked that joint on the third day. Hehe, that was the day I created the platypus. Hehe. But if I leave pot everywhere that’s gonna give people the impression they’re supposed to…use it. Now I have to create Republicans.” “…and God wept”, I believe is the next part of that story.

Maybe Objectivists are just Republicans who really, really love to smoke pot?

  • “But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on the guilt.”  (Sounds a lot like the agenda of the Christian Right and its crusade to criminalize everything fun.)

Designed by Renaissance geniuses, funded by guilt.

  • “You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements.”  (I think we owe Tony Hayward, Kenneth Lay, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., Enron, Halliburton, and Union Carbide a heartfelt apology.  Thanks for making the world a better place.)

Tony Hayward, Objectivist Hero.

  • “Man’s motive power is his moral code.”  Just ask Colonel Nathan Jessup, at least after he’s done shouting.
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