Atlas Shrugged Chapter 22: The Utopia of Greed

My current bookmark for Atlas Shrugged is the Temperance card from a miniature copy of the Rider Waite tarot. The deck itself is strewn across the basement floor, having been found and claimed by kidlet as a toy. I chose this card as a reminder not to fall into the trap of absolutist thought that Rand falls into.

Chapter summary: Dagny continues her stay in Galt’s Gulch. To pay her way, Dagny volunteers to be John’s servant. Francisco shows up, several days late, admitting it was because he’d been helping on the search for Dagny’s plane wreck. Much of the chapter is taking up by various permutations of pontificating on how wonderful the Gulch is and how the people on the outside deserve what they get. Hank’s plane is spotted near the end of the month, still searching for Dagny (but, of course, because of the shield, Hank doesn’t see the Gulch and he moves on with his search). Dagny decides to return to Taggert Transcontinental. John decides to return to New York, in order to wait for Dagny to change her mind, despite dire warnings that the world is turning violent.

In chapter 21, Rand laid out her case reasonably well, if perhaps a bit strictly. In chapter 22, she oversteps in several ways. It feels as if, realizing she’s painted herself into something of a philosophical corner, she cheats to get out by trying to change the parameters.

My three biggest disagreements with her in this chapter were the notion that art can be fully judged objectively, her mental calisthenics to fit wives and children into her model, and the treatment of Galt as an ideal man and not as a petulant child.

The first disagreement is simple enough. In Rand’s view, apparently, “true” literary art is completely innovative, artistically precise, and not subject to the emotional whims of the creator. On those grounds, Atlas Shrugged itself fails all three tests. It is not completely innovative, despite Rand’s insistence (in the introduction of my copy) that it is. Brave New World, for instance, touched on many of the same themes in similar, albeit more cynical, fashion. It is not artistically precise; it is, in my view, one of the most inconsistently written books I’ve read in a while, and I’ve been reading mass market YA recently. And it is very subject to the emotional whims of the creator, through the Mary Sue sex life of Dagny Taggert and her groupies.

Steel is objective: It is hard, or it is not. It lasts, or it does not. It can be measured for weight, density, flexibility, and so on. There are objective elements to art, but it is overall more subjective than objective.

On to the second disagreement….

Dagny’s submissive relationship to Hank is intensified even more in her submissive relationship to John. With Hank, it was entirely about sex; with John, it has nothing at all to do with sex. Indeed, for someone who so readily gave up her body to Hank, Dagny’s become quite possessive and Puritanical about sex with John. No, instead, Dagny’s cooking and cleaning and taking care of John’s every domestic need is part of her duties as a–let’s whisper it, as she does–wife.

This goes beyond insulting feminism; it’s a blatant contradiction of Rand’s own position. The frustration is, Rand could have resolved this contradiction by explicitly discussing intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in those terms, but she doesn’t. Instead, in my view, she winds up creating an absolutist position that a woman’s role in a domestic relationship is to serve her husband’s needs, contradicting what is Rand’s main thesis that no man should exist to serve another.

She misfires again when she refers to children for the first time (other than flashbacks to Dagny, Eddie, Jim, and Francisco as kids). There’s a character in the Gulch whose “job” it is to raise her two sons. The mother could not have come to the Gulch solely as a spouse of her husband, so she had to justify her presence there by insisting that she could be the best mother there was to be.

Finally, by missing the intrinsic v extrinsic distinction, Rand instead creates an arrogant community of intelligentsia who think they’re better than everyone else (which, perhaps, they are), and damning everyone who doesn’t see the light of John Galt’s halo, even if they haven’t even been given the chance to do so.

Perhaps deliberately and perhaps not, Rand has created an atheist religion of fickle salvation. Galt is a Christ figure, choosing who is saved and who perishes based on his own assessments. Because he is Rand’s Ideal Man, his assessments are infallible; this does not make him superhuman, Rand argues, but rather this makes him a normal man, something which is rarely seen on Earth.

The argument about what makes a “normal man” is based on Rand’s insistence that what differentiates man from beast is the ability to reason, and that therefore the “normal man” is the one who is guided entirely by reason.

But would such men truly petulantly deny their efforts to all but a handful of people because some people exploit them? Rand wants us to believe (apparently) that Galt and his associates have moved above and beyond the understanding of the looters, and yet she consistently describes them in juvenile terms.

This fickleness is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Hank Rearden in this chapter. He fears that Dagny is dead, but neither Dagny nor Francisco, both of whom care deeply for Hank, are allowed to contact him. John pontificates about free choice and never living for others, and yet he coerces them both into silence. Hank is being punished for his “choice” to stay in the outside world, even though he has yet to actually be given any alternative (Francisco and Ragnar both come near the discussion, but each are interrupted by crises).

Additionally, the residents of Galt’s Gulch have not merely removed themselves from society, to let it thrive or collapse as it will. Instead, they go back to the outside, most for eleven months of the year, some (like Francisco) to deliberately undermine society. John argues that they’re on strike, but strikers don’t generally show up at work and sit idly at their machines. This is beyond a strike: This is a malicious, destructive, willful undermining of the social fabric.

This is petulance.

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