Atlas Shrugged: My Two Favorite Passages
By Art Carden
Last week, I asked about my two favorite passages in Atlas Shrugged: the tunnel disaster (pp, 539-560 of the Signet 50th Anniversary Edition) and the scene in which the young man Hank Rearden referred to as “Non-Absolute” dies (start on page 908). In just a few words, here’s why (SPOILERS BELOW):
1. The Tunnel Disaster. The world in Atlas Shrugged dies by a thousand cuts, but those thousand cuts have, in Rand’s system, a common root: a failure to deal with objective reality, or more generally (and less charitably), an unwillingness to think. The unintended consequence is a set of rules and norms that encourage people to evade responsibility above almost all else. Beginning on page 558, we learn, in a few sentences each, about some of the people on the train that carries them to their deaths. The one that stands out as the most tragic in my mind (p. 559):
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.”
2. Tony’s Death. Tony is an interesting character to juxtapose against Hank Rearden’s brother, Philip, particularly in the hundred or so pages leading up to this scene. Philip is a one-dimensionally repulsive character (Rand has been criticized, with some justification, for writing one-dimensional characters). And yet Tony’s transformation from “Non-Absolute” or the “Wet Nurse” is an interesting story of redemption made tragic by his death. Here are Rearden’s reflections that speak to me (p. 910):
Somewhere, he thought, there was the boy’s mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler’s caution, who had obeyed with a zealot’s fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs–then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.
He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly–yet man, whose tool of survival is his mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child’s education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.
Armed with nothing but meaningless phrases, this boy had been thrown to fight for existence, he had hobbled and groped through a brief, doomed effort, he had screamed his indignant, bewildered protest–and had perished in his first attempt to soar on his mangled wings.
Parental responsibility is the common theme in the quotes above. It’s a long process of trial and error, but I’m reminded by passages such as these that while Adam Smith was right that “there is much ruin in a nation,” I owe it to my children to do what I can to fix it.