Monday, March 16, 2009

I'm terribly vexed.

Current book: Atlas Shrugged
Pages read: 523-747

Powering through happened somewhat today, as you can see. I wish I could tell you there were revelations of great import in these more than 200 pages, but I can't. There weren't.

The infrastructure of the United States continues to collapse bit by bit, and at some point one of the great railway tunnels gets destroyed, which brings Dagny, who can't stand to see her creation crumble, back from her self-imposed exile. When she returns, Frisco D'Anconia and Hank Rearden finally find out about one another (i.e. that they both love Dagny and have had sex with her) and have a little confrontation which ends with Frisco leaving and Dagny and Hank having violent sex. (It's a little disturbing; I'm not gonna lie.) Also, Hank gets a visit from Ragnar Danneskjold (who, aside from having the coolest name ever, is a pirate and terrorist attacking the industrial world on behalf of entrepreneurs everywhere) and has a conversation with him in which Ragnar explains that he's the modern figure of Robin Hood, stealing from the government to give back to rich what's rightfully theirs. Hank rejects him because he feels that stealing and crime are still wrong, but is obviously swayed by his arguments, and ends up covering for him with the police and taking the gold bar that Ragnar had brought him as a gift.

Meanwhile, Dagny, trying to save her railroad, ends up engaging in a thrilling airplane chase with one of her gifted engineers, who's running away to disappear like all the other titans of business have in the past year or so. Pursuing him through the mountains, she eventually loses him and ends up crashing her airplane...into the secret, cloaked valley that contains John Galt's weird Objectivist utopia. (Which, I don't know, cloaking device? Really? I feel like I want a Romulan Bird of Prey to shoot down Dagny's plane or something.) There she finds all of her old business partners and friends, and they all try to convince her to give up the railroad, to give up working for a society that doesn't value her, and come away to join them. In the valley, nothing is given for free and everyone has his or her own production line, as it were. There's lots of storytelling of how each one of them came to the decision that John Galt and his ideas were correct (because far be it from Ayn Rand to use one person as an example and let it stand at that), but Dagny remains uncertain about what to do. Because she has no money, she trades her services cooking and cleaning for John Galt for room and board for a month, which is how long they insist she stays before she can go back to the world.

During this month, it becomes clear that John Galt wants her for his wife, and that she, for some reason, wants him back. (I'm avoiding the word love here, because I don't think that has much to do with it. She only seems to want him because he's some bastion of logic, and he only seems to want her because of her entrepreneurial instincts. Call me crazy, but I don't see a lot of love there. Also, I find it obnoxious that she has to cook and clean for him before she can "earn" the right to be his wife. Rand's word, not mine.) Anyway, we also get to hear the motto of John Galt's utopia in here, which is "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." (More on that in a second.) Eventually, Dagny decides she can't stay, that she still has to try to run the railroad because the world deserves a chance, and running away is both cowardly and anathema to her nature. (Right on, Dagny, right on.) She leaves at the end of the month, and John Galt informs her that he's following her back out into the world so that when she changes her mind, he can bring her back to the valley. (I have no doubt that she will, because Ayn Rand is smug and self-satisfied that way, but that doesn't stop him from sounding like a condescending bastard, regardless of the fact that he claims he's doing it because he loves her.)

All right, so, about that motto, then. While I see that Rand is trying to get the point across that each person is responsible for his or her own welfare, I think she's ultimately unsuccessful in that it comes across as a message of ultimate lack of compassion for one's fellow human beings. Instead of "Stand on your own two feet and work for what's yours," which is a solid principle, it seems more like, "Do whatever it takes to succeed and place no importance on love, friendship, or loyalty. Do not help another person in need if it might cost you anything at all." Bullshit, is what I say. If I'm on my way to an important business meeting and someone's bleeding to death in the street, I'm going to stop and save his goddamn life, and I don't care if it costs me money.

The emotional component of this might seem separate from the philosophical and economic components, but it's not really. Yes, there are plenty of arguments against government control of business, and I understand that that's what Rand wants us to apply this to, but I can't help but think of it on a personal, human-by-human basis. John Galt's utopian society only works if everyone who follows the tenet of never living for another man also adds, "I swear never to harm another man simply to add to my profits." But Ayn Rand doesn't want to talk about the fact that pure profit-seeking behavior must have some kind of limits, because otherwise it can happen at the expense of human rights and even lives. The ugly side of unregulated industry is not, apparently, worth mentioning.

She vexes me.

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