‘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.
In her introduction to its 25th-anniversary printing, she says: “This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man.” Yet this man — the architect Howard Roark — turns out to be pretty boring. He rarely speaks. When he does, it is rarely interesting (and when it is, it is transparently didactic). He has no sense of humor. As his enemies try to destroy him, he shows so little emotion that the reader must rely upon an abstract sense of justice in order to give a damn. Howard Roark is a ghost of a protagonist.
To some degree this was inevitable, however — Roark will conduct himself with a minimum of drama, for Roark is egoless. I realize that’s a dirty word in The Fountainhead, but I’m using it in a special sense, one I think Rand could accept. For Rand, “egoless” means self-negating, sacrificing yourself to something or someone else. What I will use it to mean is an absence of self-consciousness about your ego — a self-esteem secure enough that you don’t compare yourself with others, a focus on your work complete enough that you don’t worry whether it will succeed, a general freedom from thinking of your identity abstractly and trying to justify or glorify it. This sense is approximately the antonym of “egotistical” — the word, Rand explains in her introduction, that she mistakenly used for “egoistical” when writing The Fountainhead. “I don’t make comparisons,” Roark says. “I don’t want to be the symbol of anything.” He does not want to be a great architect; he wants to build his buildings. That’s egolessness.
Its antithesis is Roark’s foil, Peter Keating, also an architect, whom we meet graduating from college as valedictorian and self-consciously enjoying the fact that many people are looking at him. The crucial distinction between these types is that only a Roark can be creative. A Keating, a man who must justify himself before and in comparison with the world, is essentially derivative. He cannot create anything his own, because he has accepted a standard not his own. And this principle comes with a corollary for anyone who wishes to be a creator: He must not — as Rand puts it in a note that her heir, Leonard Peikoff, reprints in his Atlas Shrugged introduction — “place his wish primarily within others” or “attempt or desire anything that . . . requires primarily the exercise of the will of others. . . . If he attempts that, he is out of a creator’s province and in that of the collectivist and the second-hander.”
This corollary is not, properly speaking, a moral imperative, because no obligation has been established to try to be creative. But the Randian hero is creative, and will observe the corollary, and that is why, in addition to never sacrificing his interests for another’s, he will never ask others to sacrifice their interests for his. Much like the Nietzschean superman, the Randian hero cannot be predatory or exploitative; this would not give him what he wants, because no one outside himself has it to give. (Chambers’s statement that the Randian voice commands “from painful necessity,” his belief that Rand favors rule by a technocratic elite, and the title of his review, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” are all, therefore, in error.)
Most of The Fountainhead’s second-handers are mediocrities out to make themselves feel better by cutting down their betters. This isn’t very interesting either. Rand doesn’t care enough about many of these characters to make real people of them, and she draws their personalities in a manner both crude and incoherent. Keating, for example, is both devilishly calculating — as when he forces out a partner at the firm, making room for himself, by accosting him with such violence as to induce a heart attack — and stupidly inert — as when his mother manipulates him into not marrying the woman he loves.
The book finally starts to get interesting when we meet its Devil, an architecture critic and public intellectual named Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey is a second-order second-hander: He preaches a gospel of collectivism so as to win power over the Keatings. He is out to “collect souls,” and they will consent to his rule because he will secure their egos (in my sense of the word) by destroying the egoless. His weapon is to invert values, so that the creators are despised. He is witty, urbane, eloquent, ironically colloquial, physically repulsive, smashingly dressed, surgically subtle, and purely ruthless.
Two other characters will come to life. One is Gail Wynand, the aristocratic newspaper baron who publishes Toohey’s column. Wynand has made a Devil’s bargain and his papers have no soul: They print whatever the public wants, no matter how indecent, dishonest, or ugly, and it is indeed ugly. Wynand tells himself he doesn’t care, because the ugliness pays for his private gallery of the most priceless and exquisite art. But because deep down he is an incomparably noble man, his conscience is tearing him to shreds. He has long attempted to blast it away by recreationally forcing honorable men to betray their integrity. We meet him holding a gun to his temple and deciding not to pull the trigger.
The other is a beautiful young woman named Dominique Francon. Dominique seems not to love anyone or anything, but is secretly possessed by a reverence for beauty. Her hobby is to destroy priceless and exquisite art. We meet her shortly after she has thrown a sculpture down a ventilation shaft. She thinks it is too beautiful to be seen by mankind.
Neither of these two is, properly speaking, realistic, but then neither are Dostoevsky’s characters. Wynand and Dominique remind me of something Robert Nozick writes in The Examined Life: “Some literary characters are . . . ‘realer than life,’ more sharply etched, with few extraneous details that do not fit. In the characteristics they exhibit they are more concentrated centers of psychological organization. . . . They are intensely concentrated portions of reality.” What is intensely concentrated in Wynand and Dominique is a passionate but thwarted idealism. Each is gripped by his conception of the beautiful and the good, but each betrays it without cease, and ironically out of loyalty to it.
Roark gives each a chance to redeem himself. For Dominique, redemption means learning not to worry about those who scorn what she finds beautiful — only when she can overcome her ego’s vulnerability is she able to marry Roark, with whom she has long been in love. For Wynand, redemption means devoting his premier newspaper to Roark’s defense as Roark stands trial for victimlessly dynamiting a building that, in violation of a contract, was not being constructed according to his specifications.
Such is the public fury against Roark that Wynand’s editorials provoke a reader backlash and a strike of his staff. He even seems to be making Roark more hated. But Roark does not care:
“Gail, it doesn’t matter, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not counting on public opinion, one way or the other.”
“You want me to give in?”
“I want you to hold out if it takes everything you own.”
Roark wants Wynand to save his soul, you see. Wynand has sinned against the creator’s code. He has spent his life, not bringing forth the best within himself, but debasing it for the worst in his readers. Roark sees that he is “the worst second-hander of all — the man who goes after power.” And now that he wants to yoke this supposed power to his own convictions, it vanishes: He can lay no claim to the minds of others.
I, too, want mightily for Wynand to hold out. He becomes magnificent, awe-inspiring, in the discovery of his integrity. When he does not hold out — when he betrays Roark rather than close his paper — I feel as I do when I dream I have done something unforgivable. When in his final conversation with Roark — whom he feels too guilty ever to see again, even though, as atonement, he has shut down the paper anyway — he commissions the tallest building in New York, a “monument to that spirit which is yours . . . and could have been mine,” I feel the relief of redemption. There is a passage in which Roark does not know that something he has said has given a passing character “the courage to face a lifetime.” Rand’s hymn to integrity might achieve the same effect.
Which makes it all the harder to take Atlas Shrugged.
It’s not just the gas chamber. She piles offense upon offense, and they all come down to this: Instead of bringing forth the best within her, she brings forth the barely comprehensible hatred of her derangedly insecure ego.
How do we see this?
In her contempt for her creation. There is no Ellsworth Toohey, no villain we can respect and — as readers — enjoy. These looters possess, at best, “the cunning of the unintelligent and the frantic energy of the lazy.” Their chief speaks in a voice “high with anger and thin with fear.” You know by looking at them that they are evil, the physical signs of evil being obesity, baldness, round-facedness, and soft- or watery-eyedness. The heroes, by contrast, are flawlessly, violently beautiful. The men invariantly have sharp features; the heroine’s hair slashes across her face. This projection of virtue and vice into physiognomy and physique disfigures The Fountainhead as well, but less. In Atlas Shrugged Rand seems to grow more spiteful with every page turn, so that the looter on page 7 has “a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead,” while the two on page 560 have a “pendulous face . . . with the small slits of pig’s eyes” and a “doughy face . . . that scurried away from any speaker and any fact.” Even their names are belittling: Buzzy Watts, Chick Morrison, Tinky Holloway.
Then there is the fact that some of the heroes are first-class haters. Foremost here is Francisco d’Anconia, who is pretending to be a worthless playboy so that the looters won’t respect him enough to notice how he is tricking them into destroying their copper supply. He charms with such proclamations as: “The rotter who simpers that he sees no difference between the power of the dollar and the power of the whip, ought to learn the difference on his own hide — as, I think, he will”; and, of women he has manipulated into falsely claiming affairs with him and so destroying their reputations: “I gave those b**ches what they wanted.” How I long for the boring Roark, who is almost incapable of anger. (“It’s because of that absolute health of yours,” a friend tells him. “You’re so healthy that you can’t conceive of disease.”)
And of course the damnation. Rand calls to mind Thomas Aquinas’s notion that the righteous in Heaven will be able to observe the torments of the wicked in Hell, the better to enjoy their blessedness, with the difference that Rand, as the creator of this world, is analogous not to the righteous but to God. One suspects God would feel less pleasure damning people. You don’t do this with the word “little,” for example, unless you are really having a good time: “The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities.”
What, then, went wrong? How could the woman who gave me Gail Wynand give me this? Rand answers the question herself, in the notes for Atlas Shrugged (which was originally to be called “The Strike”):
The Strike is to be a much more “social” novel than The Fountainhead. The Fountainhead was about “individualism and collectivism within man’s soul”; it showed the nature and function of the creator and the second-hander. . . . Their relations to each other — which is society, men in relation to men — were secondary, an unavoidable, direct consequence of Roark set against Toohey. But it is not the theme.
Now, it is this relation that must be the theme. . . .
. . . I set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers, and how viciously it treats them.
What I think is that because The Fountainhead is not primarily a social novel — because Rand was concerned primarily with presenting the ideal man’s soul — she looked into herself and gave expression to the finest things she found. She did this by imprinting them on her fictional landscape, which is why even the villains of The Fountainhead possess a measure of dignity and humanity. But in Atlas Shrugged Rand instead looked out and showed us the world of men as she sees them. And she sees them viciously.
There is so much to be said against Rand as an artist. There is the inept dialogue — characters begin a great many sentences by shouting each other’s names or saying “You know”; the heroes speak, every one of them, in exactly the same voice; the averagely intelligent advance the plot by blurting out their secrets. There is the Girl Scout banality of Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, who seems to have escaped from the young-adult section. There is the preposterous omnicompetence of the heroes, equally at home on the Harvard faculty or in a Vin Diesel movie, and the endless gushing about their exalted feelings, Rand’s attempt to steal with treacle what she has not earned with character development. There is that editorial discipline which gave us John Galt’s speech.
I don’t care. I don’t require of my artists that they be perfect craftsmen; I require that they inspire me. What is sad to me about Rand is that she could, but that the creator of Gail Wynand could create only one; that she could no longer imagine him when she looked out at mankind; that what she showed us instead was her need to reassure herself, in terms frankly delusional, of her superiority to it.
There is a desperately sad moment in The Fountainhead when Keating, who originally wanted to be a painter and upon the collapse of his career has acquired an easel, offers his canvases to Roark and asks — though he cannot say the words — whether they’re any good.
“It’s too late, Peter,” [Roark] said gently.
Keating nodded. “Guess I . . . knew that.”
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
This is the feeling that stopped me at the gas chamber. I cannot damn Ayn Rand, and for the too few hours of deep inspiration she offered me, I give my thanks. But it got too painful to look any longer, and so, exercising the right of any self-interested reader, I simply closed the book.
— Jason Lee Steorts is managing editor of National Review.