Posts Tagged nihilism

3:10 In the Name of the Best Among Us, “Murder Most Foul”

PREVIOUSLY: The core trio of nihilist villains spent a dark night of the soul torturing John Galt for his refusal to save them from their own suicidal impulses. In the face of Galt’s principled calm, Jim Taggart finally had the complete mental breakdown we’ve all been waiting for, and the existentially-shattered bad guys ran away for good.

And so here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The very last chapter of Atlas Shrugged. What a long, strange trip it’s been. One that’s perfectly encapsulated by the fact that this chapter is titled “In the Name of the Best Among Us” and begins with the heroine committing murder.

Yes, quite fitting really, that the narrative climax and moral nadir of the novel are one and the same. This is how it goes down:

Dagny has arrived at the ominous bunker housing Project F where John Galt is being tortured. There is a guard standing outside and Dagny approaches him, announcing that she’s been sent by President Thompson himself and she needs to get inside ASAP.

The guard is confused. Flummoxed, even. Dr. Ferris told him NOT to let anyone in. Now he’s facing CONTRADICTORY ORDERS! OH NO. Whatsoever is he to do? What if she’s lying? What if she isn’t? Somebody’s going to be mad at him!

Dagny draws a gun and aims it point blank at his heart. She tells him that he has two options. He can let her in, or he can get kill’t right and proper. “Gosh, golly, gee whiz miss! I dunno what’s right! I’m ever so simple ‘n all, and I only knows how to obey what’s I been told. You gotsed me all a-foggied up in my mindbrain!”

Dagny says, “I’m going to count to three and then I’m gonna cap your ass like an ice-cold thug.”

“Heavens to Betsy, I’m just a humble country boy what’s never aimed for no higher, how’s ever did I come to this? Lord have mercy, I’ll be wit’ you soon Jesus!”  And then Dagny finishes counting and this idiot gets got.

Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

Sympathy for animals during the callous murder of a human, Dags? How very Tony Soprano of you.

And then Francisco, Hank Rearden, and the Dread Pirate Ragbeard all come out of the shadows, having disposed of the other three guards surrounding the building, which is to say, they bound and gagged them. Which leaves them decidedly alive.

TIME OUT. So, okay, let’s review this little morality play, shall we? Of the four heroes who needed to take out mindless guards, only Dagny killed a person. And never mind that she could have, say, shot him in the hand and taken his weapon, or snuck up behind him and cold-cocked him. Even once she’s pulled the gun and aimed to kill, there are still, clearly, three other people backing her up who are eminently capable of coming up from behind and detaining a goon without resorting to homicide! In short, there is NO EXCUSE for this.

Which means that the entire scene is no more and no less than Ayn Rand’s carefully included, specifically plotted, and consciously intended justification for taking a life above and beyond self-defense, a.k.a. MURDER. This, despite her absolute and uncompromising declaration during Galt’s Speech that such an action represents the vilest most nihilistic form of anti-life. The End, Game Over, Full Stop: Ayn Rand is a loathsome, self-contradicting, literally psychopathic bitchmonster BY HER OWN DEFINITION. Proof, from The Speech:

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive.

To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.

Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins. When you declare that men are irrational animals and propose to treat them as such, you define thereby your own character and can no longer claim the sanction of reason—as no advocate of contradictions can claim it. There can be no ‘right’ to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.

To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument—is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.

Q. E. Motherfuckin’ D.

“But wait!” you might say, “These people are torturing Galt, so they initiated force first!” But let’s remember that we believe in individual responsibility on this blog, and this guy hasn’t initiated any force himself, doesn’t even know what he’s guarding, and absolutely does not need to die for Dagny to accomplish her mission of ending the use of force against Galt. This is on her. Objection overruled.

“But WAIT!” you might say, “Ayn gives herself an out! She rationalizes this scene in The Speech only two paragraphs after the excerpt you just quoted!” You would be referring to this:

If there are degrees of evil, it is hard to say who is the more contemptible: the brute who assumes the right to force the mind of others or the moral degenerate who grants to others the right to force his mind.

But considering the extremity of Rand’s convictions about good and evil, this is basically like Ayn saying, “It’s never okay to rape somebody… but if she was asking for it, well, that’s on her.” Like, you know, an illegitimate rape.

So actually, that weird equivocation makes perfect sense.  Ayn is trying to create a category of “illegitimate” murder! That’s ballsy, Rand, I’ll give you that. Trying to hide your flagrant contradictions in plain sight? As Bill Clinton once said, “It takes some brass to accuse a guy of doing what you did.”

At the end of my commentary on Galt’s speech, in teasing out the implications of the Objectivist worldview, I gave Ayn the credit of not endorsing terrorism. But as my friend Max pointed out in the comments, she TOTALLY DOES! This scene is nothing if it isn’t a rationale for killing innocents in the name of your cause because they’re ignorant of and thereby complicit in the corruption of a society gone mad. There is LITERALLY no point here beyond rationalizing politically-motivated violence through moral absolutism. That “Rand the Father” willed this scene into being exposes as a fraud the gospel preached by “Galt the Son.” I don’t know how many more ways I can restate this. There’s no way of getting around it. It’s unforgivable.

TIME IN.

Dagny and the Objectivists (free band name for some prog rockers who are really into ambient mechanical noises) storm into the Project F building and find another guard inside who is apparently too insipid to, you know, guard the place.

In confused awe at the air of authority these intruders carry, the guard asks ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? Why did Rusty let you in?” Francisco says Rusty must have had his reasons. The guard replies, “Well he wasn’t supposed to.”

Francisco replies, “Somebody has changed your suppositions,” which for full effect should be read aloud in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1994 right before he unleashes a hail of subautomatic machine gun rounds on the audience for this amazingly terrible one liner.

But Francisco does NOT unleash a hail of bullets. He shoots the guard in the hand and then Rearden & Ragbeard tie him up, further emphasizing the needless nature of Dagny’s earlier ass-capping.

The gang interrogates the guard about the layout of the structure, how many other stooges are loitering around the place, etc. He says Ferris is gone, but Ferris’ prisoner is still there. The remaining sentries are upstairs in the laboratory playing poker.

It’s Rearden who walks brazenly into the poker game, once again relying on nothing more than charisma and the body language of authority. He insists they hand the prisoner over to him on orders of the President. The chief guard is suspicious but when he picks up the phone he realizes the lines have been cut.

At this he turns on Rearden and draws his gun. Rearden warns him that he’s not alone. The other guards try to cool the chief down. They recognize Rearden and realize that these people are not to be fucked with. But the chief knows only one way to handle this:

The Chief fires on Rearden, hitting him in the shoulder. Francisco, who snuck into the room from the fire exit on the opposite side (the SHITTIEST guards) fires his silenced pistol at The Chief, shattering the man’s hand at the wrist. Seriously, every time Francisco’s ace marksmanship disables a gunman, Dagny’s killing of the first guard becomes more and more apalling and out of line.

Speaking of Dagny, she joins the other two in the room and the slacker guards around the poker table are even more dumbstruck. Understandably so — this is basically the equivalent of being randomly burlged by Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Marissa Mayer.

This team of covert CEO spies instructs the guards to lay down their arms. They don’t know who they’re holding, why, or what they’re fighting for. They’re dupes. The Objectivist team does know what they’re doing, why, and what for, and that alone should be reason enough for the guards to defect.

One of the guards does, and The Chief can’t abide it so he dives for his gun with his other hand and kills the defector in one shot. One of the other guards kills The Chief in retaliation. And then the Dread Pirate Ragbeard enters by smashing through the window from a swinging rope. Like you do.

Actually, hold on. Let me get this straight. After they gained entrance to this building through a door, and after all three of his compatriots surrounded this room through its doors, and after the gunfight that inflicted a wound on one of his allies was already over… then Ragbeard runs around outside the building, rigs up an Indiana Jones rope swing and theatrically flies in through a window? What? What kind of useless bullshit is that? God, Ragbeard, you are the DUMBEST character. The DUMBEST. Idiot!

So they tie up the remaining poker players and then have one of them lead the way to Ferris’ office, where there is a secret stone staircase down to the Project F torture chamber. A secret stone staircase? Looks like the good guys aren’t the only ones with a flair for the needlessly theatrical.

Speaking of which, Francisco asks Rearden if he needs any medical attention for the expanding pool of blood staining his shirt, and Rearden is like “Nah bro, blood off my shoulder.” Because as Nietzsche once said, ubermenschen are bulletproof. Oh no, sorry, I’m thinking of Superman.

Anyway, the guards to the torture room don’t put up nearly as much of a fight. They did, after all, see Ferris and Mouch leave in a panic with a catatonic James Taggart in tow. They’re just itching for an excuse to leave. And so leave they do.

Left with no more obstacles, the team of rescuers rush into the torture chamber and find Galt lying calmly on the rack. Dagny runs over to him, crying, and they embrace. “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” Galt asks her, and laughing through her tears she says that no, they did not.

And you know what? As far as narrative closure goes, that pretty accurately sums up how I’ve come to feel about this whole damn book.

NEXT WEEK: The conclusive denouement of Atlas Shrugged, and the thrilling climax of Atlas ‘Clubbed.

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3:9 The Generator, “The Mindless Consumer”

PREVIOUSLY: John Galt was forced to participate in a fascist propaganda rally, but managed to expose his duress to the world during the broadcast.

Meanwhile, the cowardly Doc Stadler listens to said propaganda rally on his dashboard radio as he flees New York City. Since meeting with Galt, his existential terror has become all-encompassing. This wasn’t helped when President Thompson threatened him with incarceration and potentially torture if Galt didn’t start cooperating. Thompson’s theory was that they needed some leverage over the man, and as his former teacher and the only person he had requested to see during his captivity, Stadler was as good a place as any to start.

So driven by panic and adrenaline, Stadler has bolted for Iowa, where he has some vague idea to take control of Project X and rule the Midwest as his own personal feifdom.

Meanwhile on the radio, when Galt exposes his participation in the rally as a fraud perpetrated at gunpoint, the signal turns into a jumble of screams and shouts and then suddenly cuts out. Stadler goes leadfoot on the accelerator.

Soon enough he arrives at the military installation, called Harmony City, that surrounds the Project X generator. The gate is abandoned, parts of the barbed wire torn down. Trucks and armed men are running around further inward. Stadler ignores the odd circumstances and barrels onward.

When he reaches the control building, the guard is smoking and looking insubordinate and has accessorized his uniform like some kind of guerrilla or militia man. Stadler demands to be let inside and made commander. The guy couldn’t give less of a shit but takes him inside to meet The Boss.

Down in the control room itself, The Boss is instructing his underlings to spread the word from Chicago to Kansas City that he now rules America’s breadbasket and demands exorbitant tithes from all the remaining residents. The Boss, by the way, is Jabba the Hutt, the former G-man who took over Taggart Transcon while Dagny was in Galt’s Gulch. He and his ragtag private army have beaten Stadler to his plan.

Stadler insults and harangues Jabba. He doesn’t know what he’s doing! He’s drunk! He’s completely unqualified to handle this dangerously powerful scientific weapon! Jabba tells Stadler to go screw and starts fucking around with all the control panels just to be a dick. Stadler is like “NOOOO!!!” and then:

The Project X harmony of death whines to life. A shock wave of destructive energy ripples out for hundreds of miles around, felling every structure, killing every innocent, and destroying the Taggart Bridge, last road across the Mississippi. And the eye of the storm is not immune — the Project X control base rises and up and shreds itself to pieces too, collapsing to the ground with the mutilated remains of Jabba and his soldiers and the former Doctor Stadler inside.

Meanwhile, back in New York City:

After Galt raised hell at the rally, all the plutocrats rushed out of the room while Thompson had Galt wrestled to the ground and sent back to his cell/suite. Dagny, inspired by John, snuck back up the hotel and into the room where the Fascists hold their emergency meetings.

Therein she finds everyone freaking out. Goebbels tears his hair out and quits. Doc Ferris is hissing that he TOLD them this would happen. Thompson relinquishes all responsibility, and Ferris takes this opportunity to convince them that with the government completely discredited, their only option left is to let him torture the shit out of ol’ Johnny. Why this would get them anywhere nobody really asks.

A chill runs down Dagny’s spine as she finally realizes the full depravity of these supposedly civilized people. Just as Ferris explains to the rest that his specially designed Persuader, a.k.a. Project F, is located in a soundproof room at the State Science Institute, he remembers that Dagny is there. She returns his gaze dully, shrugs, and lets herself out. Ferris seems to think nothing of it.

I think I forgot to mention that in the last chapter Dagny received a secret letter from Francisco giving her a phone number to call in case of emergency, which is relevant now because call she does. As soon as she’s out on the street she gets on her cell phone.

When Francisco picks up he already knows about the rally and tells her to go to her apartment and office, collect all her valuables and some clothes and other supplies. She does exactly that and we get a roundelay of callbacks to earlier in the book: from her apartment, the Rearden Metal bracelet and the gold coin she was paid in Galt’s Gulch. From her office, the map of the Transcon lines at their long-gone apex and the portrait of her great-grandfather Nat.

But just as she prepares to leave her office, one of her few remaining employees comes in crying. The horror, the horror! He has just learned of the humanitarian atrocity in the Midwest, and the destruction of the bridge. Dagny is momentarily spurred to do her job, but stops herself. She turns to the engineer and tells him there’s nothing she can do for them now, and leaves. She has officially gone Galt; on her way out of the train station she marks the statue of Nat with a big dollar sign graffiti in lipstick.

Outside, Francisco arrives. Dagny joins him and tells him about how the Fascists are flying to State Science with Galt in tow. They head out.

At State Science, Project F is actually up and running already. Quick flight! I guess it was just New York to New Hampshire. Anyway, Galt is strapped to a board and wired up with electrodes. Ferris is supervising the interrogation while Mouch and Jim watch. They run high voltage through various parts of Galt’s body while demanding that he become their ruler. HA! That’s pretty great. For once in this godforsaken novel, the hilarious perversity of the situation comes across as intended instead of ironically doubling back on the author.

After an hour or two of electroshocks, Galt’s heart monitor is spasming wildly, but he remains silent and focuses on meditative breathing. It’s Wesley Mouch who freaks out first. He asks Ferris to stop, for surely Galt will obey them now. But Ferris scoffs. The point isn’t to make him obedient, the point is to break him completely, until he believes in their philosophy and works with them voluntarily.

But when Ferris puts the question to Galt he just stares at them unblinkingly, and they all start screaming angrily at him.

“We want you to take over! We want you to rule! We order you to give orders! We demand that you dictate! We order you to save us! We order you to think!”

It’s all to no avail — they’ve shorted the circuit on their device and the power generator fades out. They crowd around the box and Ferris commands some lackey to fix it! Fix it! But nobody knows how. It’s actually John Galt himself who, smiling wryly, tells them how to get it back up and running. The lackey sees the pointed mocking look in Galt’s eyes and, suddenly realizing the disturbing situation he’s agreed to be in, he runs away, leaving the triumvirate of villainy alone with Sexy Capitalist Jesus.

SIDEBAR: Ferris personally designed this device. And yet he doesn’t know how to fix it, and Galt, who has not looked at its internals, does. It’s a nifty little scene, but I have to call bullshit on this one.

Jim explodes in urgent fury and starts tinkering with the Project F generator himself. He declares that they must destroy Galt’s mind, that it’s a moral imperative they eradicate his ideas from existence. 

But now even Ferris and Mouch are starting to have their doubts. They remind Jim that they cannot afford to kill the only man who can protect them from the anarchy they have unleashed on the world.

At this, Jim has a moment of clarity and screams madly, like a rabid animal. He has suddenly seen the truth of himself, the truth he has fought so hard to obscure. This is his nadir, the mental breakdown he has spent the last five chapters sliding toward, the triumph of his nihilism over his willful refusal to admit it:

He was suddenly seeing the motive that had directed all the actions of his life. … It was the urge to defy reality by the destruction of every living value, for the sake of proving to himself that he could exist in defiance of reality and would never have to be bound by any solid, immutable facts.

A moment ago, he had been able to feel that he hated Galt above all men, that the hatred was proof of Galt’s evil, which he need define no further, that he wanted Galt to be destroyed for the sake of his own survival. Now he knew that he had wanted Galt’s destruction at the price of his own destruction to follow, he knew that he had never wanted to survive, he knew that it was Galt’s greatness he had wanted to torture and destroy.

As all his knowledge had consisted of emotions, so now he was held by an emotion and a vision that he had no power to dispel. He was no longer able to summon the fog to conceal his hatred of existence—he was seeing the face of Cherryl Taggart with her joyous eagerness to live—he was seeing his face as the face of a killer who killed in order not to discover his own irredeemable evil.

Taggart collapses into a catatonic state on the floor. Ferris and Mouch are completely unnerved. They call his name but get no response. Shouting to the guard that they will come back, they swear they’ll come back, they pick up Taggart’s limp body and drag him out of the room, more to escape Galt’s unblinking stare than to actually help their friend. They know that he’s a vegetable now.

Jim Taggart, gone forever — never really there at all.

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3:4 Anti-Life, “Ministries of Love and Truth”

PREVIOUSLY: Sleazy ol’ Jim Taggart met the innocent naif Cheryl in a Rite Aid in the Bronx. She was starstruck, he was perversely fascinated by her undeserved hero worship. So they got married.

Heads up, I genuinely think this chapter’s good. Let’s begin: 

Just like on the night he met his wife, James Taggart is wandering the streets of New York in a funk. Just like that night, he has reason to celebrate in theory, but finds himself feeling dissatisfied, angry, with an unsettling pit in his stomach. Just like that night, he does his best to avoid effective introspection because it always leads him to disturbing thoughts, truths about himself that he is unwilling to face.

He’s supposed to be celebrating because he’s just come from a bunch of parties and meetings in which visiting Argentinian elites let slip the details of D’Anconia Copper’s impending nationalization. Furthermore he has arranged a lot of inside trading to invest in the Argentinian state-owned businesses that will absorb D’Anconia’s resources.

But the toast celebrating the wink-wink nudge-nudge-type deal had sent an unexpected wave of panic and claustrophobia through Jim, spurring the long walk and evasive navel-gazing. And now even that escape is over, because he has arrived at home.

Cheryl waits inside with poise and dignity. Over their first year of marriage she has come into her own as one classy bitch. Jim finds this obnoxious and irritating. She asks what he’s doing home so early, and he says he came to celebrate with her. They both know this is bullshit.

Anyway, he boasts about his shady deal in a hollow and defensive way, and she just kind of studies him with clinical detachment. That gets under his skin so he accuses her of not appreciating ‘welfare philosophy.’ She says she saw enough welfare queens and unambitious degenerates when she lived in the slums, and has no problem voting Republican thank you.

She then mentions Dagny’s speech on the Rush Leno show and how inspiring she found it. This obviously drives Jim nuts even more. He goes into a convoluted explanation of the politican gamesmanship at play in the scapegoating of Leno, but Cheryl doesn’t care. She realizes the D’Anconia grab will take place on their first anniversary and gets lost in thoughts of the last year.

Specifically she thinks of how hard she worked to learn etiquette and culture and as befitting her newly elevated station, and how Jim seemed to grow more annoyed and resentful the more competent and impressive she became. She remembers when she learned it was Dagny who really kept the lights on at Taggart Transcon. She remembers the night Jim and his cabal suspended the Constitution in D.C. and how he came home in an anxious manic frenzy. Her fears and suspicions have grown ever since, and grown more insidious.

She remembers — God, are we still in flashback? Pick up the pace Cheryl — when she confronted him about his fraudulent accomplishments, he lashed out and spewed self-pity, making her feel guilty and apologizing. Afterwards she realized how manipulative and emotionally dishonest his behavior was (and always had been). Truly frightened but determined to figure out the nature of her husband, she has had one gnawing question in mind:

“What do you want from me?” she blurts out in the present. Jim is taken aback. “Love,” comes the obvious answer. She says she did love him, for his courage and ambition and all those things that turned out to be a lie. What does he want to be loved for? He’s disgusted.

“I don’t want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself—not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself—not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.”

“But then . . . what is yourself?”

This skirts too close to the self-reflection that Jim so skittishly avoids. He dismisses her as unfeeling, unloving. His nature finally starts snapping into focus for her.

“You want unearned love. You want to be a man like Hank Rearden without the necessity of being what he is. Without the necessity of being anything. Without . . . the necessity . . . of being.”

Jim tells her to shut the fuck up just as the butler arrives with champagne for their ‘celebration.’ He demands she toast with him to Francisco’s impending ruin and she refuses. He smashes his champagne flute on the floor and storms off to the bedroom. Cheryl gets out of the house as fast as she can.

Meanwhile, alone in the dark of the Transcon offices, Dagny — you’ll never guess — is hard at work. She is sullen, for all her time is consumed putting out fires and preventing disasters, instead of building or improving or inventing anything new. She longs for the stress-free, naturalistic beauty of Galt’s Gulch.

Her reverie is broken by a knock at the door — Cheryl has come for a visit. Dagny sees how frightened and upset she is and offers her a seat. Cheryl apologizes to Dagny for being misguided and mean to her before, tells her how much she respects her, and spills some of her fears about Jim.

Dagny reassures her that her fears and beliefs are all true. She isn’t crazy. Jim is indeed a bad guy. Oh and anybody who accuses you of being “unfeeling” is just criticizing you for having a sense of justice. Ugh. I’m not saying that’s never true, but claiming it’s always true sure sounds to me like a patented Ayn Rand coping mechanism for being a miserable asshole.

In response, Cheryl goes on a borderline-psychotic rant about how living in high society where everybody shares Jim’s value system is making her feel suffocated because thinking that the world runs on Jim’s perverse philosophy of ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ (ease up on the strawmen there, Ayn) makes her feel like the universe is oppressively meaningless and that her own existence is unsustainable and under threat and she’s drowning in a sea of moral relativism and the alienation of modernity! Aaah!

Dagny, perturbed by Cheryl’s fragile mental state, tells her she should absolutely not go back home to Jim tonight. She promises that the philosophical struggle overwhelming her is not her responsibility to solve. Just have faith in your own mind and life (but don’t call it faith). Stay sane. And seriously, don’t go home to Jim.

Cheryl finds Dagny’s wisdom reassuring, and calmly promises that she’ll be okay. The two women agree to start getting together regularly, but when Cheryl exits with the intention of returning to her house, Dagny feels momentarily scared on her behalf.

TOMORROW: Anti-Life part 2, “The One Who Knocks Boots”

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3:3 Anti-Greed, “Internet Metaphor Death Ray”

PREVIOUSLY: Dagny took a tour of John Galt’s secret society in remote Colorado. It was like the bastard child of Portlandia and a Scientology compound.

Dr. Stadler, spiritually atrophied physics genius, arrives in a vast Iowa field for reasons he’s not quite clear on.  He just knows his handlers told him to be here for “the unveiling.” His nefarious right-hand man Floyd “Jafar” Ferris is there, in the know but evasive.

Stadler feels a sickening in his gut but does his best to ignore it as the country’s leading lights and even President Thompson show up. Ferris mentions that it is the mysterious Project X that is being unveiled and the pit in Stadler’s stomach deepens.

Everybody sits in the viewing area facing the field and gets a pair of goggles. There’s a very “atom bomb test” vibe in the air. Ferris gets up to the mic and starts warming up the crowd. He points to an ugly mushroom-shaped building out in the field a ways. It’s giving off a sinister aura and Ferris is explaining how it emits signal waves into the air, etc etc. Wait, did they just invent wireless internet? I’m confused. Anyway it has a range two hundred miles in diameter, but later models could reach up to six hundred.

Stadler zones out, distracted by an abandoned farm house out in the distance and a few goats prancing around it. Until, that is, Ferris wraps up and some scientist lackey turns on the machine.

In the length of a mere instant, all of the goats float into the air, jerking and spasming unnaturally, then falling together in a mangled pile of fur and legs akimbo. The abandoned farmhouse splinters into its component pieces and then collapses to the ground. Project X is a doomsday machine! Shocking NOBODY.

The crowd sits in horrified silence, unsure how to react. Stadler thinks “this was the realm of a child’s nightmare, where material objects could be dissolved by means of a single … wish.” Ah, so it is the internet!

Anyway, Stadler confronts Ferris. “What the fuck?” he demands. “Chill out, Doc, this is a great tool of peace,” Ferris explains, Orwell-style. Stadler: “How’s that exactly?” Ferris: “Mutually Assured Destruction. Also a chilling effect on domestic unrest.”

Then Ferris turns to the television cameras and tells the nation how proud they all are of this patriotic achievement and how it’s all thanks to Dr. Stadler’s groundbreaking work in theoretical physics. While a number of other speakers stand up to orate about Project X (officially titled the Thompson Harmonizer), Ferris dismissively hands Stadler a pre-written speech to read at the climax of the broadcast.

Stadler makes his last stand. He excoriates Ferris for abusing his authority to bring a devastating tool of oppression into the world. Ferris laughs it off and goes on a proudly nihilistic rant about how there is nowhere left for Stadler to turn now, and how he must embrace the impotence of logic and morality and truth in our age of spin and marketing. “Speaking of which,” Ferris concludes, “you’re up next.”

As the cowardly Doctor steps up to the podium, an idealistic young reporter, let’s call him Jimmy Olsen, rushes the stage. “Don’t do it, Doc! Speak truth to power! Call out these fascists for what they are!” But it is too late. Defeated, zombie-like, Stadler addresses the nation with Ferris’ hollow words, praising the Harmonizer while Ferris sees to the expulsion of  Jimmy.

NEXT! In New York City, Dagny Taggart has returned from her secret visit to John Galt’s Church of Mammon and is freshly perplexed by the glassy eyes and willful ignorance of the despairing populace in the outside world. People now seem like unreasoning animals she cannot understand and to whom she cannot relate. So the sociopathy in Galt’s Gulch has rubbed off after all.

Dagny knows that her return will spark a media firestorm. She’s heard word-of-mouth stories about some new technology from the DOD, but she hasn’t paid enough attention to catch the details. Her first task upon getting back to her apartment is to get in touch with Hank Rearden.

She reaches him in Colorado, where he’s been searching for the wreckage of her plane. He is extremely relieved to learn she’s alive, and doesn’t even care when she dodges all his questions about where she was and why it took her so long to come back. They agree to meet once he gets back to New York.

Next stop is her old office at Taggart Transcon. Eddie is there serving as manservant to the venal bureaucrat now running the company. He is chained up and wearing a Princess Leia bikini. It’s pretty gross.

When Dagny shows up, an unimpressed Jabba sees himself out. Eddie kisses Dagny’s hand, which is the most assertive thing he’s done in 700 pages. Together, they go to meet with the vile and impotent Jim.

Actually, they make him come to Dagny’s office, where he is clearly a nervous wreck. He insists that Dagny needs to hold a press conference explaining her absence, but she just dictates a press release to Eddie about how she was in a plane crash and spent the month recuperating at a remote farm in Wyoming.

Jabba the Hutt comes back and the increasingly panicky Jim tries to act like Dagny and Jabba are gonna get along great while Jabba takes over the company as part of the railroad industry’s nationalization. They talk a bunch of technical jargon about how the train system is being run these days. It is a thrilling exercise in suspenseful prose.

As the abysmal state of America’s infrastructure comes into sharper focus, Jim reverts to his usual anxious excuse-spewing self, which seems to annoy Jabba as much as it annoys Dagny. She realizes that he feels guilty, though he would never admit it, and that he has lost his power and influence, and now feels doomed to become a victim of his own schemes.

Jabba’s business done, he leaves again. Jim immediately harangues Dagny some more about how she will definitely go on some talk show and reassure the nation that she isn’t a political dissident, that the economy will rebound now that she has returned, no ifs ands or buts. 

She quietly observes his freak out for a hot minute and then calmly refuses to enable his propaganda campaigns any longer. His hysteria reaches a boiling point and he goes into a despairing, frightened version of Ferris’ speech from earlier. Nihilism is the fundamentally true philosophy, there is no use in resisting the inertia of social corruption, you’ve just got to play along, blah blah blah.

But Dagny, increasingly confident that she is coming to understand the moral rot pervading the world, kicks him out for being depressing and pathetic. Fair call.

NEXT — 3:3 Anti-Greed cont’d, “Love Pentahedron”

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Food for Thought #5: Objectionisms

The most important development in the last two chapters is simple: the characters are now explicitly discussing philosophy.

"Nihilists? Don't worry Aynie, these men are cowards." -Nietzsche

At Rearden’s party, one of the vapid elites is a philosophy professor. Both he as a speaker and the listening socialites confuse his condescension for profundity. And though it isn’t stated quite this bluntly, his comments unmistakably suggest that existential nihilism is mankind’s last great intellectual achievement.

He further implies that this worldview is what leads him to support socialist policies, which is ridiculous but we’ll get to that. The other guests just smile, nod, and defer to his presumed wisdom until Francisco reasserts existential meaning with a pithy one-liner (‘Everything is something’).

In the diner Dagny visits in Chapter 7, the lowly plebs are having their own version of this conversation, but this time politics doesn’t come into it so it’s clearer that the root of the Randverse’s problems is not political philosophy, but existential philosophy. The professor’s cheerleading for nihilism illustrates that the world has become a spiritual desert; the commoners in the diner illustrate that humanity is dying of thirst. Rand’s political evil, socialism, is actually a symptom, a sad attempt to compensate for a deeper metaphysical rot.

I am more nuanced than anyone in this book.

But on both the political and philosophical levels, she maintains her strict dualities. That may be acceptable for stories about apocalyptic confrontations between the light and dark sides, but it is extremely detrimental to three-dimensional character development in a realistic setting. And those two genre descriptions don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

What’s nevertheless interesting in this crude schema of good versus evil is what characterizes evil in the Randverse. Instead of villains with an ambitious master plan, the bad guys are philosophically adrift. Their moves to manipulate and gain control are flailing and desperate, born out of panic and helplessness. They are timid and fearful and slaves to petty resentments.

And the key here is that while James Taggart & Orren Boyle use lofty social justice language to justify their behavior, they don’t really care about social justice. It’s important to them because it serves as an excuse for their cowardice and allows them to live in denial about their real motivations. But they don’t actually believe it; they act skittish and shifty whenever pressed because they know intuitively if not consciously that they’re full of shit. Really, they only care about looking like they care. They are all PR spin and no principle.

That distinction does a lot to defang Rand’s venomous hatred of liberal sensibilities. She has so far failed to demonstrate that socially conscious rhetoric is morally perverse in itself, despite her best intentions; rather, she demonstrates that socially conscious rhetoric can be abused by morally perverse people. Which is true of course, but the same principle applies to the rhetoric of personal responsibility. If the rot is existential, the politics are incidental.

No you're right this guy was the asshole.

Which means placing all the blame for human abuses of language on the left side of the ledger just makes Rand a vapid elite who mistakes her own condescension for profundity. It’d be like George Orwell ending “Politics & the English Language” by saying “Oh by the way, this only applies to Labour. The Tories are unimpeachable.”

But Dagny and Hank don’t just disagree with their enemies over economic policy. They literally cannot understand them or comprehend them as human beings. Remember way back in Chapter 1 how Dagny suspects Hank’s excellence at his job pisses Jim off, but she disregards the notion because she considers it literally ‘insane’ that Jim would feel that way? I’m not saying irrational jealousy is acceptable, I’m just saying that being unable to grasp it as a concept makes Dagny seem developmentally stunted, like the Forrest Gump of the darkest timeline.

Here’s an example from Chapter 7, after Hank tells his mother off:

The look on her face astonished him … a look of defeat and yet of an odd, sly, cynical cunning … The memory … remained in his mind, like a warning signal … [b]ut he could not grapple with it, he could not force his mind to accept it as worthy of thought, he could find no clue except his dim uneasiness and his revulsion.

Now people failing to communicate across the ideological divide isn’t exactly unrealistic, and as always there’s a kernel of insight in Rand’s portrayal of otherwise good men and women viewing those they disagree with as terrifying pod people.

But look, this book doesn’t end with Dagny and Jim having a good cry together at a family reunion. Rather than have her characters transcend their differences to better understand their shared human nature, Rand actively encourages her readers to view people with different beliefs as alien, other, and existentially threatening. Which is, how do I put this… totally fucked up.

So where does that leave us as we approach the end of Part One (the book is divided into 3 parts of 10 chapters)?

Look what you've done.

As the pontificating of villains and the background chatter of the rabble attest, popular culture in the Randverse has become so devoid of meaning that the underlying metaphysics of society have curdled into a diffuse, subconscious nihilism.

Our heroes have been oblivious to this because they are fully absorbed in self-motivated creative and productive projects. But now that those projects are threatened, they have slowly begun to notice what can only be described as the disturbing obliteration of genuine human values.

And yet, even though the good guys and bad guys have been obvious from page 1, the philosophical battle lines between them are still inarticulate. The good have not defined their libertarian philosophy and the bad hide behind a progressive philosophy they don’t actually take seriously (and based on Rand’s caricatures of progressive policies, she doesn’t take it seriously either).

It’s too bad, really. If only these people had a creator who would send them a messiah figure to preach about what true values are, things could get clearer a lot faster. But since Ayn Rand is an atheist, I’m sure she definitely wouldn’t stoop to a deus ex machina like that. Oh well; who is John Galt?

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