Atlas Blogged #6

July 19, 2010

Part 6 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 6: The Non-Commercial

This chapter sees a return of the man with the mind of a surly teen, Hank Rearden. It’s his wedding anniversary, and his wife has thrown a party to which the cream of society have been invited. Naturally, he resents it – not as a frivolity, because he wishes to make his wife happy (somewhat inexplicably, as he considers his marriage an interminable agony), but rather because of the urgency of his work. In some ways this chapter is a retread of our previous examination of Rearden in social situations – him being thought of as selfish, his focus on his work to the exclusion of discourse with the people who depend on them, his resentment combined with inexplicable generousity – but it also allows Rand to bring together a few strands of the story to present, and moves on the plot a little.

We encounter Rearden as he hurriedly dresses, rushing past a newspaper with a highlighted article on the subject of an ‘Equalisation of Opportunity’ bill – a bill inspired by limited resources, limited opportunity, and the necessity of competition to limit the number of business concerns a single man may own.

Rand is clearly beginning to build up to some sort of anti-monopoly legislation argument here, but all that’s expressed at this point is Rearden’s rage at such a limitation.

Rearden enters the party, and the first person he encounters is a philosopher called Dr Pritchard, who decries anything created by man and claims that the key task of philosophy is demonstrate that there is no such as meaning. Pritchard applauds the Equalisation of Opportunity bill, pointing out that man must be forced to be free in the matter of competition. He then sneers at reason as ‘the most naive of all superstitions’.

This is a horrendous caricature of Anglo-American philosophy in the 1950s, which has absolutely nothing to do with what was actually happening on the ground. Quine published ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism‘ in 1951, ostensibly to move analytic philosophy towards a holistic scientific rationalism. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary philosophy during the period would have been aware of his political conservatism – not to mention the rigour of reason philosophy required in this period. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957.

There is absolutely no excuse for Rand’s caricature here. Even if she intended to poke at continental existentialist philosophers like Heidegger or Sartre, none of the thinkers in this period would have rejected meaning as not existent – rather, existentialists tend to concieve of meaning as generated by the self. This is not dissimilar to the self-motivated men and women who are the heroes and heroines of this book. The utter ignorance and arrogance here is appalling.

On the other side of the room, a writer called Balph Eubank is holding court. Like Pritchard, he is very much a straw man – putting forward arguments like an Equalisation of Opportunity act for literature. This would involve only permitting any given book one print run of 10,000 copies, and is so absurd as to be not worth discussing further.

In a conversation with a journalist named Bertram Scudder who wrote a scathing fact-free article on Rearden called The Octopus, a character called Claude Slagenhope (It would be nice if Rand gave her strawmen slightly less ridiculous names) makes a key strawman argument:

“Need is the only consideration. If people are in need, we’ve got to seize things first and talk about it afterwards”

In other words, Rand is accusing socialists of taking without thinking of the consequences. Perhaps some people do genuinely think like that, but the onus is rather on Rand to demonstrate some real examples of her bogeymen.

Dagny enters the party unexpectedly, as befits someone who typically stands aside from society. She approaches Rearden, the only man the room she respects. He is cold to her, most likely because she’s lowered herself to come to a party when she could’ve been working. Dagny actually comes across as rather socially incompetent in this entire chapter, the initially strong heroine seemingly being broken down by her repeated encounters with strong men.

After a mild period of inconsequential shilly-shallying of strawmen, Franciso d’Anconia arrives, to the annoyance of Rearden who regards him as a man who has squandered his fortune. Of course, we know from the previous chapter that the golden boy of copper is no squanderer, rather moving with the purpose of a man who wishes to hasten the end of ‘looter’ society.

d’Anconia approaches Rearden, who is intrigued by his seeming understanding of the inner rigours of Rearden’s psyche. A key point in their discussion is d’Anconia allowing Rearden to realise that without his efforts and work, all those attending the party right now would likely be naked outside in a storm. d’Anconia offers his gratitude for this, which Rearden rejects on the grounds that he works purely for himself – the support of his hangers-on is incidental to this fact.

We move through the party, hearing tales of a Norwegian pirate stealing from aid ships, and of Atlantis, a home for the spirits of heroes, which the mysterious John Galt – a rich and successful businessman – found, and purposely drove his yacht to the bottom of the sea to reach.

Dagny swaps her diamond bracelet for the one made of Rearden Metal possessed by Rearden’s wife, Lillian. This odd act, mysterious to Dagny herself, is resented by Rearden.

The party ends, and so does the chapter with a discussion of Rearden’s rather pathetic inability to come to terms with his own marriage and sexual desire. He no longer desires his wife, and sex is brief and perfunctory, a function of instinct rather than joy.

Analysis

This is a chapter in which various strands of the story begin to be woven together. As such, its arguments tread no new ground, being rehashes and restatements of previous discussions. The only new matter is that of monopoly legislation, which Rand argues against only with the ridiculous strawman of ‘forcing to be free’, leaving one to conclude that she has little idea how markets work in real life.

Rearden is painted as being fundamentally unhappy and unable to cope with the world outside of work – this theme is picked up in his c0nversation with d’Anconia, and may yet develop into something more interesting. Will he yet abandon his wife outside in the storm?

Part 7 is here.

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