‘From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged,” Whittaker Chambers wrote here 53 years ago, “a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’” What he did not write is that Ayn Rand throws in a gas chamber.
It’s about two-thirds through, in a chapter called “The Moratorium on Brains,” than which I reread no farther. (Our president seems to have inspired — which is not quite the word — half the country to read Miss Rand, and I wanted to remind myself what she was teaching them.) A train is carrying 300 passengers through the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco. America is falling altogether to pieces, its citizens starving to death, because the prime movers — Rand’s term for the productive men and women on whom economic creation and therefore life-or-death depend — have called a strike. They are hanging out in a mountain valley that their leader, Mr. John Galt, has cleverly hidden from the world by means of refractor-ray shield.
The world scarcely has diesel locomotives. When the one attached to that train breaks down, the only replacements are coal-burning, which is a problem, because the train is about to pass through an eight-mile tunnel that is not properly ventilated for locomotives of this type. It happens that an important looter — Rand’s term for the half-wits running and ruining the country — is on the train and has strong feelings about getting to San Francisco. His name is Kip Chalmers. “It’s not my problem to figure out how you get the train through the tunnel, that’s for you to figure out!” Kip Chalmers screams at a station agent. “But if you don’t get me an engine and don’t start that train, you can kiss good-bye to your jobs, your work permits and this whole goddamn railroad!”
This is persuasive. “The station agent had never heard of Kip Chalmers and did not know the nature of his position. But he knew that this was the day when unknown men in undefined positions held unlimited power — the power of life or death.” And so the station officials, knowing that the loss of their jobs means the loss of their lives, call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.
But that isn’t why I stopped reading. I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet [that’s the train] were not guilty [note that word] or responsible for the thing that happened to them.
The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence. . . .
. . . The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, “I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children.” . . .
. . . These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas.
Now there are two important defenses of Rand. The first is that it is the looters, not the prime movers, who make the gas chamber possible and send the train into it. The second is that Rand’s philosophy is incompatible with totalitarianism, and no one who believed it would ever send anyone to a gas chamber. Both are true. Neither has anything to do with what troubles me about this gas chamber, and about Ayn Rand. And to explain that, I must say something about Rand at her best, which I believe is to be found in the second half of The Fountainhead, a book I did successfully reread.