Atlas Shrugged Close Reading
This analysis of Atlas Shrugged contains spoilers for later in the book. Bold text in quotes is added by me for emphasis.
Chapter 2 – The Chain
It began with a few lights. As a train of the Taggart line rolled toward Philadelphia, a few brilliant, scattered lights appeared in the darkness; they seemed purposeless in the empty plain, yet too powerful to have no purpose. The passengers watched them idly, without interest.
“It” is Rearden Steel. The lights are “brilliant” (one of several positive, light-based English words, like “illuminating”), but the passengers aren’t interested. Lights are built for a human purpose; they aren’t a feature of empty plains; but still the passengers aren’t interested.
Light enables human sight; seeing the world enables the human mind to understand it and take rational action (though not automatically, since one has to choose to see and to think). Lights are an important enabler of steel mills, and of human minds, and these two facts are related.
the passengers saw distant structures under a faint, reddish glow in the sky; the glow moved in irregular spasms, as if the structures were breathing.
Rand compares the reddish glow of creating metal to breathing because both play a crucial role in human life. Rand chooses descriptions carefully to have meaning instead of just being visually accurate.
The steam was red as the sky.
This is an unnatural sight, which is an indicator of a significant human achievement. Standing out from nature isn’t a random accident, it’s a sign of a major achievement which does something substantial to transform the world.
The passengers could not grasp the complexity of what seemed to be a city stretched for miles, active without sign of human presence.
Why don’t they see humans? There’s some automation, there’s some efficiency (a small number of people doing a big job), and it’s also a matter of scale: the mills are much larger than people, so, in terms of size, people are only a small fraction of the thing being observed.
Why don’t the passengers grasp the complexity of what they see? Partly they aren’t familiar with the steel industry, and partly they have the wrong philosophy. They aren’t great at the methods of thinking (reason); they don’t respect steel mills enough (or industry, technology, or capitalism); and they don’t care enough about understanding (they don’t see complexity and really, strongly want to understand it, as they ought to). People should be trying to understand things all the time, but most of them find thinking painful and commonly avoid using their minds.
They saw a line of glowing cylinders moving through the night; the cylinders were red-hot metal.
This is another unnatural sight indicating a major human achievement. It’s awesome that humans can control red-hot metal (as well as towers, bridges, birders, cranes, steam and flame). It’s not a danger to our lives (like a volcano), it’s an enabler of our lives.
The big neon sign on its roof lighted the interiors of the coaches as they went by.
People complain about neon signs, which they find crass and commercial. But Rand likes them (and billboards too) because they are signs of human prosperity. And note that the neon sign lights the train, which has positive symbolic value in addition to being a literal description.
A passenger, who was a professor of economics, remarked to his companion : “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?”
Rand routinely juxtaposes comments, as she’s done here. The previous paragraph gave the name: “REARDEN STEEL” (which is named after the single person who was the primary creator of of the mills Rand just described). This paragraph has a fool (who is a professor of a relevant field!) saying individuals aren’t important – while, out the window of his train, he could see a counterexample.
Another, who was a journalist, made a note for future use in his column: “Hank Rearden is the kind of man who sticks his name on everything he touches. You may, from this, form your own opinion about the character of Hank Rearden.”
That’s not really journalism. It’s vague, half-deniable smearing which doesn’t provide useful information to readers.
Unnamed characters, used briefly as examples, are always reasonably typical people. If Rand wants to talk about someone unusual or notable, she’d explain more (as we learn what traits make Rearden unusually productive, and what traits make Orren Boyle unproductive). Rand is criticizing these professions, on purpose. You can understand why by recognizing their relation to ideas in the book. Don’t pass over this and think, “I agree this particular journalist isn’t very good.” If that’s your thought, you aren’t understanding or agreeing with Rand.
The train was speeding on into the darkness when a red gasp shot to the sky from behind a long structure. The passengers paid no attention; one more heat of steel being poured was not an event they had been taught to notice.
It was the first heat for the first order of Rearden Metal.
Who taught them what to notice? Why would anyone teach them to notice the wrong things? Why would anyone accept that lesson? Do you pay attention to events like these? Or do you just take metal for granted as an enabler of your comfortable life, with no concern for where metal comes from and what intellectual conditions affect its supply and quality?
Rand juxtaposes the passenger’s attitude with the fact in the next paragraph: they’re incorrect in this case. And their mistake isn’t random bad luck, they have the wrong mental attitudes in general.
The train speeding into the darkness is notable too. Darkness is what you get when you leave civilization behind, but a train is so well-designed it can confront the darkness safely, reliably, and at high speed.
To the men at the tap-hole of the furnace inside the mills, the first break of the liquid metal into the open came as a shocking sensation of morning. The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight.
Morning and sunlight are positive light-based symbolism, while also being visual descriptions, again. The shock, and the morning during the night, help indicate how unnatural this is. Humans put a lot of work into this, on purpose.
Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violent red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame that was not there, red blotches whirling and running through space, as if not to be contained within a man-made structure, as if about to consume the columns, the girders, the bridges of cranes overhead. But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence.
Earlier Rand mentioned “sudden wounds spurting fire”. She uses violent symbolism, like broken arteries, to emphasize the power of the forces being contained and controlled by human design. But the raging flame “was not there”, and the red blotches only whirled as if they were not to be contained. In the midst of this visual chaos and apparent danger – amidst this tremendous heat, fire, and steam capable of turning metal into liquid – everything is safe and the metal is part of peace and prosperity. (We encounter the danger later when Rearden and Francisco fight a furnace break-out caused by a man who went to college and learned how to make excuses.)
Stop and think about how much temperature we’re dealing with, how many pounds of metal, etc. And think about how well you could do this with your bare hands, or primitive tools. Modern industry is an amazing accomplishment!
What can harness this raging flame and prevent it from consuming any columns or girders? That’s one of the things the book is about, which the reader is supposed to find out. The answer is the rational human mind.
It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile.
Radiance is another positive word related to light.
It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it
What is the metal obedient to? Rearden and his engineers. What controls the metal? Not really the two “brittle” borders. Not really a spout of clay. Put almost any piece of clay there and the metal won’t be restrained and won’t obey. The metal is controlled not by clay, which is deemphasized, but by the rational thought which designed this entire process.
Rand speaks directly about the “conscious intention” that controls the “power to annihilate” in the next paragraph:
Two hundred tons of a metal which was to be harder than steel, running liquid at a temperature of four thousand degrees, had the power to annihilate every wall of the structure and every one of the men who worked by the stream. But every inch of its course, every pound of its pressure and the content of every molecule within it, were controlled and made by a conscious intention that had worked upon it for ten years.
This theme comes up elsewhere, e.g. in Galt’s speech (part 3, ch. 7):
“… if they want to lift [water] to the roof of a skyscraper, they must do it by a process of thought and labor, in which the nature of an inch of pipe line counts, but their feelings do not
And when Taggart Terminal breaks down (part 3, ch. 5):
The pull of one of the small levers, which protruded like bookmarks from the shelves, threw thousands of electric circuits into motion, made thousands of contacts and broke as many others, set dozens of switches to clear a chosen course and dozens of signals to light it, with no error left possible, no chance, no contradiction—an enormous complexity of thought condensed into one movement of a human hand to set and insure the course of a train, that hundreds of trains might safely rush by, that thousands of tons of metal and lives might pass in speeding streaks a breath away from one another, protected by nothing but a thought, the thought of the man who devised the levers. But they—she looked at the face of her signal engineer—they believed that that muscular contraction of a hand was the only thing required to move the traffic—and now the tower men stood idle—and on the great panels in front of the tower director, the red and green lights, which had flashed announcing the progress of trains at a distance of miles, were now so many glass beads—like the glass beads for which another breed of savages had once sold the Island of Manhattan.
Circuits, switches, signals – all controlled by thoughtful, human design to allow trains to move at high speed, in a small area, without crashing into each other. Without human intelligence, these things become crude materials again, e.g. glass beads instead of signal lights.
The longest explanation of this issue is when Dagny rides the first train on the John Galt Line and looks at the motor (part 1, ch. 8):
Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?—she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.
They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power—of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. For an instant, it seemed to her that the motors were transparent and she was seeing the net of their nervous system. It was a net of connections, more intricate, more crucial than all of their wires and circuits: the rational connections made by that human mind which had fashioned any one part of them for the first time.
They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going—not the oil under the floor under her feet, the oil that would then become primeval ooze again—not the steel cylinders that would become stains of rust on the walls of the caves of shivering savages—the power of a living mind—the power of thought and choice and purpose.
We see in the story how industrial civilization can fall apart. The right moral code is required or machines don’t last long. A rational process of thought is required to understand how machines work, and to build and repair them. This is dramatized at the end when John Galt tells his captors how to repair their broken torture machine.
Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal. He was Hank Rearden.
Rand defends a face that most people would see as “cruel” and “ugly”. Most fans don’t think that way – but think they liked and agreed with the book. They didn’t notice this. To understand the positive aspects of what’s seen as “cruel”, it helps to consider what it opposes: the “nice guy” who is yielding, compromising, mild, indecisive, hesitant, unsure, irresponsible, appeasing, second-handed, and who puts major effort into conformity. Hank lacks sympathy for weakness, incompetence, etc., and people regard that as cruel.
Hank’s lack of visible emotion is because, for him, emotions aren’t a show to be put on for an audience.
A man came riding through the air, in the cab of a crane overhead. He pulled a lever by the casual movement of one hand: steel hooks came down on a chain, seized the handles of the ladle, lifted it smoothly like a bucket of milk—and two hundred tons of metal went sailing through space toward a row of molds waiting to be filled.
The purpose of this passage is to convey how powerful competent men using their minds properly can be (“riding through the air” is impressive!). They move hundreds of tons, casually, like buckets of milk. Their tools, like cranes, play a major role here but not a decisive role: as previously discussed, the machines were created by men, and would fall apart without men with the right ideas.
Hank Rearden leaned back, closing his eyes. He felt the column trembling with the rumble of the crane. The job was done, he thought.
He closes his eyes because he doesn’t need to see, think, understand anymore (because he’s done). Attitudes to light and vision come up frequently.
He’s badly mistaken about the job being done, as we’ll see as the plot progresses. People often complain about the unrealistic perfection of Rand’s heroes (and that they don’t learn during the books), but Hank and Dagny spend a lot of the book making mistakes like this, and learning better.
Rearden smiled in answer: it was the only salute he had received.
Rearden’s life isn’t designed around getting praise from others.
Rearden goes back to his office and works late. He’s the kind of person who wants to produce instead of the kind who tries to claim he’s already done enough for now.
It had taken ten years to make that [Rearden Metal] bracelet. Ten years, he thought, is a long time.
Overnight success usually follows years of working in obscurity. Big achievements usually take a lot of effort that the public and media don’t pay much attention to.
The sustained effort over time also means Hank merits more credit. He didn’t just stumble onto this last week (in which case perhaps someone else could have stumbled onto it, and Hank got lucky). He pursued this, on purpose, and put lots of resources into it.
He never felt loneliness except when he was happy.
He’d like someone to appreciate his success and celebrate with him. But it’d have to be someone who thinks like he does, and has similar values, and understands Hank’s accomplishment. But the world lacks people like that.
the days when the young scientists of the small staff he had chosen to assist him waited for instructions like soldiers ready for a hopeless battle, having exhausted their ingenuity, still willing, but silent, with the unspoken sentence hanging in the air: “Mr. Rearden, it can’t be done
Just hiring scientists wouldn’t have gotten it done. Hank, individually, is responsible for Rearden Metal. Without his mind and will, it wouldn’t exist.
the meals, interrupted and abandoned at the sudden flash of a new thought, a thought to be pursued at once, to be tried, to be tested, to be worked on for months, and to be discarded as another failure
Success isn’t automatic. Hank earned it while others, like Orren Boyle, avoided effort like this.
the moments snatched from conferences, from contracts, from the duties of running the best steel mills in the country
Hank was already doing enough to be rich, successful and productive. He wanted to do more. He doesn’t even like vacations; he likes his work. In part 1, ch. 9, Hank asked Dagny about vacations:
He did not answer; in a moment, he asked casually, “When did you take a vacation last?”
“I think it was two … no, three years ago.”
“What did you do?”
“Went to the Adirondacks for a month. Came back in a week.”
“I did that five years ago. Only it was Oregon.”
Why take vacations when you like your life, including your work? And if you don’t, you better fix that instead of trying to escape on vacation.
he despised memories as a pointless indulgence. But then he understood that he thought of them tonight in honor of that piece of metal in his pocket. Then he permitted himself to look.
Hank has enough control over his thinking to decide whether to look at memories.
He was trying to learn to breathe against the scalding pain in his chest. He stood, cursing himself, because he had made up his mind that he would not be tired. After a while, he went back to his task; he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.
Hank worked hard both physically and mentally. He decided that physical pain isn’t important, and to focus on pursuing what he wanted in life.
He earned his mines, at age thirty, and that’s what matters to him. He did what it took to succeed. He’s disappointed by how few others do that.
moving toward the purpose he had chosen. All he remembered of those jobs was that the men around him had never seemed to know what to do, while he had always known.
He chose his purpose and used his mind. Others were aimless.
He remembered wondering why so many iron mines were closing, just as these had been about to close until he took them over.
Because other people didn’t know what to do with iron mines, and didn’t make it their business to use reason and find out. They had other concerns in life such as social status.
He saw an evening when he sat slumped across his desk in that office. It was late and his staff had left; so he could lie there alone, unwitnessed. He was tired. It was as if he had run a race against his own body, and all the exhaustion of years, which he had refused to acknowledge, had caught him at once and flattened him against the desk top. He felt nothing, except the desire not to move. He did not have the strength to feel—not even to suffer. He had burned everything there was to burn within him; he had scattered so many sparks to start so many things—and he wondered whether someone could give him now the spark he needed, now when he felt unable ever to rise again. He asked himself who had started him and kept him going. Then he raised his head. Slowly, with the greatest effort of his life, he made his body rise until he was able to sit upright with only one hand pressed to the desk and a trembling arm to support him. He never asked that question again.
Hank started himself and kept himself going. No one did that for him. He makes himself move and rise (note the symbolism about motion and ascent), and won’t let tiredness win. He tried, and tried, and tried. I particularly like what a train-ride-stealing bum later tells Dagny about trying (part 2, ch. 10):
“Do you think that it’s any better in the West?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Then why are you going there?”
“Because I haven’t tried it before. That’s all there is left to try. It’s somewhere to go. Just to keep moving … You know,” he added suddenly, “I don’t think it will be any use. But there’s nothing to do in the East except sit under some hedge and wait to die. I don’t think I’d mind it much now, the dying. I know it would be a lot easier. Only I think that it’s a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it.”
Dagny considers this “one of the most profoundly moral statements she had ever heard”.
[The former steel plant] was closed and given up. He had bought it the night before.
Why did others give up on a plant which Hank can succeed with? That’s the kind of thing we’re meant to learn from the book by observing Hank compared with others like Paul Larkin and Orren Boyle.
People read statements like these as descriptive facts without giving a lot of thought to their full meaning: all the people who could not operate the plant productively, and why they couldn’t, and that it had actually reached the point of giving up and it would be closed if not for Hank. It’s not like one random business failed and there were dozens of buyers who could run it successfully. Instead, many businesses failed and there’s hardly anyone who could run them better.
he saw the brown-red of rust, like dead blood, on the steel of the giant cranes—and bright, green, living weeds, like gorged cannibals, growing over piles of broken glass at the foot of walls made of empty frames.
Rand is emphasizing how inhuman this scene is. Rust is like death, and the weeds are alive instead of the cranes. Cranes are part of the human world, and weeds part of the inhuman “natural” world. Cannibals are inhuman too because they’re savages who don’t use their minds. Only civilized humans who use reason are real humans; cannibals are too much like animals.
At a gate in the distance, he saw the black silhouettes of men. They were the unemployed from the rotting hovels of what had once been a prosperous town. They stood silently, looking at the glittering car he had left at the gate of the mills; they wondered whether the man on the hill was the Hank Rearden that people were talking about, and whether it was true that the mills were to be reopened. “The historical cycle of steel-making in Pennsylvania is obviously running down,” a newspaper had said, “and experts agree that Henry Rearden’s venture into steel is hopeless. You may soon witness the sensational end of the sensational Henry Rearden.”
“Glittering” is another positive word, related to light and vision, with symbolic value.
None of those unemployed men could run the steel mill, nor the newspaper writers, nor the “experts” they speak of.
How did the men become unemployed? Because not a single one of them was competent to figure out how to keep the mills running productively. Now they hope Hank will save them, instead of saving themselves. It’s nice that Hank can help others like this, but it’s a side effect (of living his own life), and it needs to be respected, admired, and thanked – rather than punished, regulated, and smeared. It’s a good thing that Hank elevates these men above “rotting hovels” and is able to guide them to be producers. But that needs to be viewed appropriately; the wrong moral judgements of what’s going on lead to destructive laws, angry mobs, suffering for our greatest men (many of whom withdraw from the world, to some extent, and do less good than they could), and the overall deterioration of the economy.
Hank defied conventional wisdom by buying the mills. And he took the risk – if the project failed it’d cost him financially, but it wouldn’t make the men of the town worse off than they were before (but if it succeeded they’d end up much better off!).
The men stood silently because they had nothing to say or contribute. They’re passive and are fortunate to live in a world where Hank exists.
The red glow of the mills breathed in the sky, a sight as life-giving as a sunrise.
Glow, breath, sky, sight and sunrise all have positive, life-oriented symbolic value.
Whatever it was, he thought, whatever the strain and the agony, they were worth it, because they had made him reach this day—this day when the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal had been poured, to become rails for Taggart Transcontinental.
Hank’s employees made different choices with less strain, agony, risk, responsibility, and thinking. Now they benefit from his achievement. He earned his wealth more than they earned theirs. He made their lives possible more than vice versa. They’re pretty interchangeable and replaceable; he’s not.
As he touched [the Rearden Metal bracelet for his wife], he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called “his wife”—not of the woman to whom he was married. He felt a stab of regret, wishing he had not made the bracelet, then a wave of self-reproach for the regret.
Something is wrong here. This should stand out and get the reader interested in figuring out what’s going on. This is another early lead to keep track of an analyze as more information is available. Actions like that (keeping track, following up later with more consideration of the matter) are necessary to understand the book well.
Hank’s emotions have some wisdom he doesn’t consciously understand. A wife and a career shouldn’t be disconnected, unrelated things. They’re both parts of his one life. He should have a wife who appreciates his productivity.
This was not the time for his old doubts. He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight.
They don’t all wish Hank well, and that isn’t forgivable. Later in the story, harm comes to Hank from his mistake.
He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been—for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.
The unnecessariness of suffering is a recurring theme in the book which I haven’t seen receive much attention. I think it’s particularly important to understand so that people can use it in their own lives (stop suffering).
He stood straight, as if before a bench of judgment. He thought that in the darkness of this night other signs were lighted over the country: Rearden Ore—Rearden Coal—Rearden Limestone. He thought of the days behind him. He wished it were possible to light a neon sign above them, saying: Rearden Life.
Hank expects to be judged for his business ventures. He takes responsibility for them. (Like I expect to be judged for the writing on this website, which is part of my own career, and which I take responsibility for.)
The positive light of the signs, as against the darkness of the night, is more symbolism which also makes literal sense. Signs themselves have positive meaning too. What’s a sign for? To rationally guide men and give useful information. Rearden wants to guide men in life generally, as he guides them to produce steel, ore, coal and limestone. And he knows that his steel, ore, coal and limestone enable men’s lives and lift men up above animals, savages, weeds and nature.
He turned sharply and walked on. As the road came closer to his house, he noticed that his steps were slowing down and that something was ebbing away from his mood. He felt a dim reluctance to enter his home, which he did not want to feel. No, he thought, not tonight; they’ll understand it, tonight. But he did not know, he had never defined, what it was that he wanted them to understand.
Hank’s family doesn’t understand him (note this is again about the importance of ideas and rational thought). And it’s partly his own fault: he didn’t specify clearly enough what they ought to understand and then demand that they understand it (or else he wouldn’t want to interact with them).
Note the typical symbolism: slow is bad. Motion and forward progress are good. The speed of trains is good. Stopping the motor of the world, or freezing the economy, are bad. Later Francisco d’Anconia is described this way (part 1, ch. 5):
Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.
Standing still and being aimless are both bad. But Wesley Mouch advocates standing still (and advocates using force to limit freedom, which is necessary to prevent men from trying to make progress) in part 2, ch. 6:
“The picture now is this,” said Wesley Mouch. “The economic condition of the country was better the year before last than it was last year, and last year it was better than it is at present. It’s obvious that we would not be able to survive another year of the same progression. Therefore, our sole objective must now be to hold the line. To stand still in order to catch our stride. To achieve total stability. Freedom has been given a chance and has failed. Therefore, more stringent controls are necessary. Since men are unable and unwilling to solve their problems voluntarily, they must be forced to do it.” He paused, picked up the sheet of paper, then added in a less formal tone of voice, “Hell, what it comes down to is that we can manage to exist as and where we are, but we can’t afford to move! So we’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to make those bastards stand still!”
Notice that Mouch uses the word “progression” to refer to a retrogression. And standing still to catch your stride is a blatant contradiction.
Standing still is death. Problems are inevitable. If we stand still, some disaster will come along that we can’t cope with. Our only hope is to make enough progress to be able to cope with problems. We need to increase our ability to solve problems, not stop acting (a method which never goes anywhere, never reaches a better, safer situation).
“—but it’s just that a man of culture is bored with the alleged wonders of purely material ingenuity,” she was saying. “He simply refuses to get excited about plumbing.”
This is Lillian Rearden’s first line. What does it say? That Hank’s accomplishments are merely alleged wonders, which are limited to the material realm and boring to cultured men. That steel mills, like plumbing, aren’t exciting. Material prosperity is to be disparaged (in favor of what?). How can Hank be married to someone with these values? Because he didn’t pay enough attention to ideas when choosing his wife or dealing with things outside of his career.
“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuyeres to polish?”
This is mean. He isn’t a janitor who sweeps and polishes. Lillian is attacking Hank’s social status and profession. Sweeping and polishing is a low status job. It’s also an unintellectual job; she’s denying the role of Hank’s mind in his work.
She calls him “darling” while being mean. That’s screwed up, too. If you’re mad at your spouse and fighting with them, you shouldn’t call them sweet or intimate names. It’s bad to mix up those names – which are supposed to be respectful and positive – with malice and hostility. They should be kept pure.
Lillian isn’t very clear about what her point is. She’s saying she wanted Hank to stay later and do more work tasks? Or maybe she’s expressing surprise he’s home earlier than he said he would be? But this kind of statement can be clear given previous history, and Hank knows what she means:
“I’m sorry,” he answered. “I know I’m late.”
She was accusing him of being late in an indirect (less honest) way.
Her accusation was socially calibrated – it’s the kind of thing one typically gets away with in our culture, instead of being called out for (it correctly plays by certain unwritten social rules).
Her accusation snuck in some false comments about sweeping and polishing, which didn’t get corrected. That’s a nasty, intentional tactic. If Hank replied by saying he isn’t a sweeper, Lillian would say that she was joking and that the point was that Hank was late, and accuse Hank of evading the issue of his lateness. But when Hank focuses on the issue, Lillian’s aggressive side-remarks go unchallenged. This kind of thing is difficult to defend against.
Lillian’s attack has plausible deniability – she can claim it wasn’t an attack – because of it’s status as a partial, ambiguous joke. Half-joking is a common social tactic to let people say things without taking responsibility for having said them.
Exaggerating is a common attacking tactic which is socially acceptable. A typical example is accusing someone of having been an hour later when they were half an hour late. If the exaggeration is challenged, you can retreat to the non-exaggerated point and now it’s getting even more emphasis and attention. You can say e.g., “Oh, you were only half an hour late? THat’s the correction you wanted me to know? You think that isn’t very much?” The normal thing to do when attacked is don’t defend yourself, don’t give their accusations time and attention. But when they exaggerate and you don’t reply, they get away with the exaggeration. So whenever you’re doing an attack and you know the best thing for someone to do is not reply to you, then you can exaggerate to be a more effective attacker (if you have no respect for truth or virtue).
Hank is already on the defensive (he even apologizes when he ought to demand she apologize), which is a bad place to be. He should come home to respect, not expert smears. He should have married someone who likes him. He learns this later in the book.
A better reply from Hank would have been, “I do thinking work which I like. I don’t appreciate being attacked for it.” It’s short. It corrects her lies indirectly by stating the truth. It gives a good framing of Hank’s work. And it calls out her meanness.
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” said his mother. “You could have telephoned.” He looked at her, trying vaguely to remember something. “You promised to be here for dinner tonight.”
For apologizing instead of asserting himself, Hank gets attacked more.
“Oh, that’s right, I did. I’m sorry. But today at the mills, we poured—” He stopped; he did not know what made him unable to utter the one thing he had come home to say; he added only, “It’s just that I . . . forgot.”
Hank apologizes again after being told not to say he’s sorry. He lets them attack him, and the attacks will now continue.
Hank doesn’t want to introduce his metal into such a nasty context. It’s not for them to make fun of.
“Oh, let him get his bearings, he’s not quite here yet, he’s still at the mills,” his wife said gaily. “Do take your coat off, Henry.”
This is something Hank could have said. It’s a good point – he just got home and he’s being attacked before even settling in.
Does Lillian say this because her attack went too far (she wasn’t trying to start a group of people making persistent attacks)? Why would she want to attack Hank, but only in limited ways? Is she trying to create a false impression of being on Hank’s side by defending him now in a temporary, minor way? (She doesn’t say Hank’s actually in the right, just that the attacks are too overwhelming and sudden for the situation. She doesn’t mention that she started them.)
Paul Larkin was looking at him with the devoted eyes of an inhibited dog. “Hello, Paul,” said Rearden. “When did you get in?”
“Oh, I just hopped down on the five thirty-five from New York.” Larkin was smiling in gratitude for the attention.
How did Hank guess that Larkin had trouble? Just because he came and all, and he only comes when he has trouble?
Rand’s side comments on the dialog indicate Larkin isn’t enough of an independent person.
“But no, no special trouble this time. I just thought I’d drop in to see you.”
This is a lie, Larkin came to give Hank a warning (about Wesley Mouch), which he realized he owed Hank. But Larkin does it so vaguely that Hank doesn’t understand, and Larkin doesn’t clarify. Lying about the reason for his visit helps make the later warning less clear (if Larkin had admitted he came to share important information, then Hank would have paid more attention to what the information was).
His wife laughed. “You’ve disappointed him, Paul.” She turned to Rearden. “Is it an inferiority complex or a superiority one, Henry? Do you believe that nobody can want to see you just for your own sake, or do you believe that nobody can get along without your help?”
Lillian’s next comment, after suggesting the attacks on Hank stop, is to attack Hank again – while having the excuse of ambiguously being joking.
He wanted to utter an angry denial, but she was smiling at him as if this were merely a conversational joke
Rand starts openly explaining social dynamics, instead of just illustrating them. The smile and pretense at joking make it difficult for Hank to respond. If Hank comments as if Lillian meant what she said, she’ll pretend she didn’t. But if Hank doesn’t deny it, then it stands. It’s hard to fight hostile comments that people say but won’t take responsibility for saying.
he had no capacity for the sort of conversations which were not supposed to be meant, so he did not answer. He stood looking at her, wondering about the things he had never been able to understand.
Do you ever say things you don’t mean, or only half mean, or don’t even know if you mean? Do you make conversational jokes? If you do any of this, have you carefully analyzed it to understand its purpose and check for anything bad? This stuff is dangerous at best and merits major introspection. That’s the kind of thing one should learn from this passage.
Note that you need to be able to spot this stuff when others do it, on your own, not just agree when Rand spots it. And you need to clearly understand why it’s bad (in written or spoken words), or you don’t have much hope of catching your own errors (which is way harder than catching other people’s errors).
Rand is telling us that lots of behavior that goes on in families, and in social interactions, is bad. That applies to many readers of her book, who assume she’s criticizing other people and don’t carefully check whether any of the flaws apply to themselves.
Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.
Hank is accused of being ugly for having an expressionless face, and we’re meant to sympathize with Hank. But now Lillian is accused of being less than beautiful because her eyes and face don’t express emotions like gaiety. Is this a double standard from Rand? Did she make a mistake, or is there some other explanation?
Partly it’s because of the contrast between Lillian’s conversational jokes and the lack of corresponding gaiety in her face (she isn’t actually having a good time, it’s just an act). For more let’s look at what Rand wrote earlier:
Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal.
It’s specifically the unyieldingness that is called ugly. The expressionlessness is called cruel.
Hank doesn’t play the normal social games, put on the expected performances, and express the emotions others want to see in the ways they want to see. For this his face is considered ugly. Lillian is a faker who lacks expression for a totally different reason, and gets judged in a similar way. This requires some speculation but it makes reasonable sense.
“We have met before, dear,” she said, in answer to his silent scrutiny, “though you don’t seem to be sure of it.”
This is another mean conversational joke. It has some meaning, but the meaning isn’t clearly stated, and Lillian wouldn’t clarify or take responsibility for the meaning if challenged. (Do you ever say things that you wouldn’t want to clarify, or wouldn’t want to take responsibility for, if challenged?)
“That’s the trouble I’ve always had with you.” She was not looking at him, but reciting words into space. “It’s no use trying to do things for you, you don’t appreciate it. I could never make you eat properly.”
Making someone do something is a totally different concept than doing something for them. This kinds of confusion is typical of non-Objectivists. Most people don’t pay close attention to distinctions between voluntary and involuntary (making is involuntary and therefore doesn’t constitute helping.) Hank’s mother wants to be appreciated for doing things “for” Hank, of her choice, that aren’t the things he actually wants. Her “help” consists of pressure to get Hank to conform to a lifestyle she wants him to live. Real help means helping someone achieve their own values that they chose.
Hank’s mother has been failing to control him since he was a child, but is still trying. And she frames it dishonestly, pretending her attempts at control are attempts at help which should be appreciated.
“… It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”
This is a big slander from his own brother. Hank is lenient with family, but they don’t seem to value family like Hank does. They aren’t extra nice to Hank because he’s family; they are less nice to Hank than they ought to be.
Drowning is a particularly bad metaphor here. It brings up the concept of death, but Hank’s work improves life.
Hank does some of the best work in the world, and he’s very successful, and he comes home to comments telling him to stop and do something else unimportant.
“Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice.
Why regret it? Doesn’t Philip’s comment merit irritation? Though I do think it would have been better to coldly and directly name the issues – that Phil is stupid, irritating and immoral, and why.
“You ought to learn to have some fun,” said Philip. “Otherwise, you’ll become dull and narrow. Single-tracked, you know. You ought to get out of your little private shell and take a look at the world. You don’t want to miss life, the way you’re doing.”
Phillip means that Hank already is dull and narrow. His attack dishonestly pretends it’s a potential future issue.
This is a ridiculous thing to say to someone who expanded to run multiple businesses, and is an inventor too. This statement is challenging the existence of Hank’s actual life, and trying to reframe it contrary to reality.
The accusation that Hank will miss life is an implicit comment on what matters in life. It’s saying that mills and mines aren’t important in life, but hobbies and socializing are. Hank is doing what he values in life. Philip has different values, and he’s aggressive about the disagreement (which he frames not as a disagreement, but as Hank being bad), but Philip doesn’t clearly state his values. This isn’t a intellectual discussion, it’s sneaking in pressuring attacks here and there to create an overall atmosphere hostile to Hank’s values.
Fighting anger, Rearden told himself that this was Philip’s form of solicitude. He told himself that it would be unjust to feel resentment: they were all trying to show their concern for him—and he wished these were not the things they had chosen for concern.
Hank is incorrect. They chose the wrong things on purpose. They’re being pushy. They don’t mean well. The fact that many people don’t mean well can be hard to grasp for a moral person, but it’s dangerous to misunderstand malicious people because then you won’t defend yourself.
“I had a pretty good time today, Phil,” [Rearden] answered, smiling—and wondered why Philip did not ask him what it was.
Philip doesn’t care about what Hank regards as good. Philip wants to pressure Hank to change values, not encourage Hank’s existing values. If Philip asked, it’d give Hank the chance to speak positively about his work, but Philip is trying to create an atmosphere hostile to Hank’s work.
“You might have apologized, only I ought to know better than to expect it.”
Hank did apologize twice, and his mother told him not to apologize. She’s a liar.
“I told you about her, I told you many times, but you never remember anything I say. Mrs. Beecham was so anxious to meet you, but she had to leave after dinner, she couldn’t wait, Mrs. Beecham is a very busy person.
Hank is a busier person. This is denying Hank’s place in the world, social status, and importance.
“ … She wanted so much to tell you about the wonderful work we’re doing in our parish school, and about the classes in metal craftsmanship, and about the beautiful wrought-iron doorknobs that the little slum children are making all by themselves.”
This work doesn’t compare to Hank’s work. The metal craftsmanship classes and the doorknobs are particularly notable: Hank is a master of metal who produces better products, more efficiently (in terms of human effort and resources used), on a much larger scale. And he makes steel and Rearden Metal, which are superior to iron.
It took the whole of his sense of consideration to force himself to answer evenly, “I’m sorry if I disappointed you, Mother.”
A great man is on the defensive again. How could he let that happen to him? What disarmed him?
“You’re not sorry. You could’ve been here if you’d made the effort. But when did you ever make an effort for anybody but yourself? You’re not interested in any of us or in anything we do. You think that if you pay the bills, that’s enough, don’t you? Money! That’s all you know. And all you give us is money. Have you ever given us any time?”
Money is good (see Francisco’s speech about it). Hank should stand up for money, and not associate with people who attack it.
Hank should be proud of his money, and say so. His values – like that money is related to life-enhancing productive achievement which helps people – should be prominent throughout his whole life. Instead, Hank has something of a double life; his home life operates according to different rules than his work life (which is why he doesn’t enjoy coming home).
The attack on Hank for paying their bills is ridiculous. It implies it takes no effort for Hank to make money, which is false. It suggests paying the bills isn’t valuable to his family – but if he stopped paying the bills, it’d be immediately revealed that they do care if he pays the bills, after all (we find out about this later when Hank’s bank accounts are frozen). And it suggests Hank’s work doesn’t help others – but it helps everyone who e.g. rides on rails he produced, or eats food transported on those rails, or uses a building with structural metal Hank produced, or heats their home with coal from a mine with metal bracings he produced.
If this meant that she missed him, he thought, then it meant affection, and if it meant affection, then he was unjust to experience a heavy, murky feeling which kept him silent lest his voice betray that the feeling was disgust.
It means that she hates him, and his feeling is correct. Feelings are overrated in some contexts, but they can be pretty well attuned to social dynamics and to other things which aren’t talked about clearly. When the values involved aren’t being stated in English, it makes sense that Hank would have a non-English reaction instead of an English analysis.
He stood in the middle of the room, with his trenchcoat still on, as if he were trapped in an unreality that would not become real to him.
Hank’s home life is out of his control, and it’s awful, and he doesn’t know how to fix it even though he’s a great man! There must be something really powerful involved if it could beat him.
She said gently, “December tenth is our wedding anniversary, Henry.”
She should keep track of that for him. She ought to be a helper who makes his life nicer and supports him, not a person who tries to catch him out.
They were all watching his face; if they expected a look of guilt, what they saw, instead, was a faint smile of amusement. She could not have intended this as a trap, he thought, because he could escape it so easily, by refusing to accept any blame for his forgetfulness and by leaving her spurned;
Right. Hank puts less effort into romantic stuff than Lillian. That makes Hank higher social status, and makes him look better than her (less needy).
It’s gross that they look for guilt and try to cause it. Hank should find people he actually likes, and who like him, to spend time with. His family is bad, but even if they stopped being bad they still wouldn’t be good. Hank should find people with something positive to offer him.
she knew that his feeling for her was her only weapon.
What kind of wife has weapons against her husband? And what kind of person uses positive feelings, like respect for one’s spouse, in a negative way?
He had to respect her intention
Her intention was to make him feel guilty so he lets her have more control over his life. She wants to pressure him into running his life according to her values, not his own. (And she doesn’t want to intellectually discuss which values are correct, or even what the differing values are. She doesn’t want to use reason, she wants to get her way contrary to reason.)
He had to let her win, he thought, because she had thrown herself upon his mercy.
She didn’t think that far ahead. Hank is doing a multi-step analysis, and leaving the steps unstated. Then the actual nature of the interactions is hidden and this lets others be dishonest about it. Leaving things unstated also allows for lots of misunderstandings, both honest ones and as a dishonest excuse.
He smiled, an open, unresentful smile in acknowledgment of her victory. “All right, Lillian,” he said quietly, “I promise to be here on the night of December tenth.”
“Thank you, dear.” Her smile had a closed, mysterious quality; he wondered why he had a moment’s impression that his attitude had disappointed them all.
They’re disappointed because Hank wasn’t defensive this time, and didn’t feel guilty.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Lillian, but today at the mills we poured the first heat of Rearden Metal.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Philip said, “Well, that’s nice.”
The others said nothing.
Hank apologizes again. And the others won’t allow a “Hank’s work is good and his metal is a great invention” framing of the matter. They won’t participate in what should be a celebration. And it’s not “nice”, that’s not a reasonable description, that’s a direct contradiction to how great it is.
“The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal.”
“You mean,” she said, “it’s fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?”
These people are full of contradictions. Moments ago they were attacking money, and saying Hank should offer more than money, but now the lack of monetary value is a complaint.
Perhaps more important is what’s missing here: glorification of a magnificent achievement.
He looked at her blankly.
Hank knows her attitude is wrong, but doesn’t know what to do about it. He should stand up to it and express his ideas.
She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. “Henry, it’s perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and—what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?—soup kettles?”
She doesn’t think it’s wonderful.
The intent of the gift wasn’t originality, and she knows that, and her comment is mocking. Originality is not the value being offered to her. She’s rejecting the actual value and offering this as a false, inadequate substitute (false because it’s not the real value, inadequate because this substitute is not actually considered very valuable).
She doesn’t expect to be a sensation by wearing it.
She’s demeaning girders, motors, stoves, typewriters and kettles – all great things. Rather than appreciate the gift, she’s attacking the values that Rearden Metal in general will help with.
“God, Henry, but you’re conceited!” said Philip.
Lillian laughed. “He’s a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn’t the gift, it’s the intention, I know.”
Hank isn’t conceited. He has made a judgement that Rearden Metal is good. He made the judgement using objective, rational thinking – not bias. The judgement is correct. Philip has no serious counter-arguments (he could make a couple, but would quickly lose if the matter were debated, so he avoids stating them in the context of thoughtful debate).
Hank isn’t a sentimentalist. He’s particularly unsentimental. He made one little gift, while generally spending his life on large-scale production.
Hank isn’t like all men. What he’s doing isn’t simply being male. That’s attacking his achievement, his specialness, his high value instead of just having the value of a standard male.
Lillian doesn’t appreciate it. So much of what she says is a lie.
The intention is not the point, the point really is the gift: it’s good and should be appreciated as such. Appreciating it merely because Hank intended it as a gift is a way of rejecting its value (and Lillian doesn’t really do even that much).
“The intention’s plain selfishness, if you ask me,” said Rearden’s mother. “Another man would bring a diamond bracelet, if he wanted to give his wife a present, because it’s her pleasure he’d think of, not his own. But Henry thinks that just because he’s made a new kind of tin, why, it’s got to be more precious than diamonds to everybody, just because it’s he that’s made it. That’s the way he’s been since he was five years old—the most conceited brat you ever saw—and I knew he’d grow up to be the most selfish creature on God’s earth.”
This is full of lies. Hank thinks Rearden Metal should be precious to others because it’s an objective value. It can improve other people’s lives by giving them better railroad tracks, airplanes, cars, kettles, spoons, bridges, and so on. It’s not just “a new kind of tin”; she’s trying to falsely diminish his achievement.
Hank expected his wife to share his values and appreciate Rearden Metal. He expected to have the kind of wife who’d prefer it to a diamond bracelet – as Dagny rightly does. He’s confused by the reality of his wife, who has bad values and doesn’t deserve him. So he got her a gift she should want, because he overestimates her. This is a matter of his confusion and her immorality, not the kind of conceit he’s accused of.
“No, it’s sweet,” said Lillian. “It’s charming.” She dropped the bracelet down on the table. She got up, put her hands on Rearden’s shoulders, and raising herself on tiptoe, kissed him on the cheek, saying, “Thank you, dear.”
She didn’t put it on. She doesn’t like it.
It wasn’t meant to be sweet and charming, at least not primarily. She isn’t appreciating the actual nature of the gift. She’s, at best, appreciating it like receiving flowers and chocolates from her husband on Valentine’s Day.
He did not move, did not bend his head down to her.
Hank knows he didn’t receive a proper reaction. He wasn’t fooled enough to be happy with this reaction. He doesn’t know how to fix it, though.
“Hank Rearden’s not interested in man, beast or weed unless it’s tied in some way to himself and his work. That’s all he cares about.
Someone has to care about metal for men to have metal. Consider Hank’s place in society and what more he could actually do to benefit others, if he were to somehow care about them more. And consider the importance of metal to society, and in millions of individual lives.
if she wanted a place in the home of her successful son, he would not deny it to her.
That’s not what Hank’s mother wants. She wants to control him and to destroy him by making him normal (making him have her values instead of his current values).
“It’s no use hoping to make a saint out of Henry, Mother,” said Philip. “He wasn’t meant to be one.”
Hank’s work comes first, and he’s very devoted to causes he cares about. He’s very persistent, uncompromising, and purist. He doesn’t try to get along with people or fit in. These are some of the major traits of saints. The average man can’t be a saint.
Hank is also doing big, important work which can help millions of people have significantly better lives. That he also makes a profit is compatible with him helping others. It’s broadly more effective to help others in mutually beneficial ways than to make altruistic sacrifices to help them.
“Oh but, Philip, you’re wrong!” said Lillian. “You’re so wrong! Henry has all the makings of a saint. That’s the trouble.”
Lillian understands Hank better than the others do. But she doesn’t actually like him. She considers his sainthood “trouble”.
What did they seek from him?—thought Rearden—what were they after? He had never asked anything of them;
Hank should be called self-sufficient not “selfish”.
it was they who wished to hold him, they who pressed a claim on him—and the claim seemed to have the form of affection, but it was a form which he found harder to endure than any sort of hatred. He despised causeless affection, just as he despised unearned wealth. They professed to love him for some unknown reason and they ignored all the things for which he could wish to be loved.
They don’t love Rearden Metal. They try to drag Hank down to the level where there’s nothing to love a man for but that he’s your “brother”, “son”, or “husband”. They want everyone to be equally shabby and worthless. They don’t want to look bad by comparison, so they don’t want anyone above them. They want everyone to fit in and no more, and to acknowledge that they are living their lives correctly when that’s what they do.
Affection always has a cause, but sometimes it’s unstated. And if the cause is good, why not state it proudly?
Unearned wealth is illustrated by James Taggart in the book. We see several ways he gets it, and how his character and lifestyle contrast with men who earn their wealth.
He wondered what response they could hope to obtain from him in such manner—if his response was what they wanted.
This is setting up one of the book’s themes. We later learn more about what they want from Hank (the sanction of the victim).
they seemed wounded by anything he said, it was not a matter of his words or actions, it was almost . . . almost as if they were wounded by the mere fact of his being.
They look bad by comparison. If a Hank Rearden is possible and good, what does that say about their life choices?
Don’t start imagining the insane—he told himself severely, struggling to face the riddle with the strictest of his ruthless sense of justice. He could not condemn them without understanding; and he could not understand.
Rand is warning us against rejecting ideas for being too negative. People really can be bad. Understanding it is important, but it’s not “insane” to form severe, negative moral judgements.
Did he like them? No, he thought; he had wanted to like them, which was not the same. He had wanted it in the name of some unstated potentiality which he had once expected to see in any human being.
People should be worth liking. They have the potential to use reason and be fellows in the shared quest for progress. That should be universal, but instead it’s rare.
He felt nothing for them now, nothing but the merciless zero of indifference, not even the regret of a loss.
The loss is only hypothetical – what men should be – not actual (men didn’t actually get worse).
Did he need any person as part of his life? Did he miss the feeling he had wanted to feel? No, he thought. Had he ever missed it? Yes, he thought, in his youth; not any longer.
Hank shouldn’t give up on having good people in his life. He should leave his family and make a serious search for people with shared values. He could find Dagny Taggart, Ellis Wyatt and others, and become friends with them.
His sense of exhaustion was growing; he realized that it was boredom. He owed them the courtesy of hiding it, he thought—and sat motionless, fighting a desire for sleep that was turning into physical pain.
Why hide his boredom? That’s faking reality for their sake. They are boring – but he hides his opinions and helps put on a show. In some sense, they know they’re boring too (but they lie to themselves and evade, so they don’t know it clearly), and they’re putting on an act to fake reality and pretend they aren’t boring and valueless. They want Hank to help them with their anti-reality fakery, and he does so as a “courtesy”. This is a big deal, not a minor courtesy. (Even if it was free for Hank it’d be bad. But it’s actually costing him sleep he badly needs, and this is resulting in physical pain.) Hank learns more about these issues throughout the book.
“I just . . . I just hope you don’t run into trouble.”
“Oh, I don’t know . . . the way things are nowadays . . . there’s people, who . . . but how can we tell? … anything can happen. . . .”
If Larkin doesn’t know, why did he bring it up? There are people who have some unstated attributes, and the world is some unstated way nowadays. But, Larkin informs us, we can’t know anything, and anything can happen. What an empty statement. It’s good that Hank repeats his direct question.
The smile was disarming, like that of a boy who throws himself at the mercy of an incomprehensible universe. He was fifty-three years old.
This is typical Rand. She doesn’t spell out the comparison between being like a “boy” and being 53 years old. She just puts the two comments next to each other and leaves it to the reader to notice the contrast. Larkin is acting like a boy, but isn’t a boy – he doesn’t have the excuse of youthful ignorance.
The universe isn’t incomprehensible, nor merciful. Mercy comes from people, not nature. Incomprehension comes from refusing to think, evading issues, rejecting reason, etc., not from nature. Some people, like Hank, do understand things.
“You’re not popular, Hank.”
“I haven’t heard any complaints from my customers.”
Larkin doesn’t want to say what he means. If Hank could guess what Larkin meant – if he already understood these issues – then Hank wouldn’t need to be told it in the first place.
“That’s not what I mean. You ought to hire yourself a good press agent to sell you to the public.”
“What for? It’s steel that I’m selling.”
How can an ideology be taken seriously when it won’t even assert its ideas? If you won’t say your point, why should I be interested? Yet this way of thinking, which leaves so much unstated, dominates the government and the Taggart Transcontinental Board of Directors.
“I don’t think the public’s against me. And I don’t think that it means a damn, one way or another.”
“The newspapers are against you.”
In a free society, Hank wouldn’t need to give a damn about public opinion. He’d be safe because no one would use force against him, and he’d deal with those who appreciate what he produces. But Hank doesn’t live in a free society, as we see later when the force of government is used to destroy Hank’s businesses.
The pivot from the public to the newspapers is interesting. Many people appreciate steel, but some noisy “intellectuals” don’t. Those “intellectuals” have a lot of control over the media, the universities, and the government in the book and in the world today. But the actual public is better than the opinion pieces newspapers publish and claim to be representative of the public.
“… That you’re intractable. That you’re ruthless. That you won’t allow anyone any voice in the running of your mills. That your only goal is to make steel and to make money.”
“But that is my only goal.”
“But you shouldn’t say it.”
Larkin is openly advocating dishonesty, and is being dishonest about why.
“What’s the matter, Paul? What are you driving at?”
“Nothing . . . nothing in particular. Only one never knows what can happen in times like these…. One has to be so careful . . .”
Larkin lied earlier that he visited for no particular reason, and now he’s lying that he isn’t driving at anything in particular. Hank doesn’t understand how to decode these lies.
Rearden chuckled. “You’re not trying to worry about me, are you?”
Hank doesn’t think anything can threaten him, but he’s wrong. It’s like Gail Wynand, in The Fountainhead, who didn’t think Toohey could be a threat, and gave Dominique an “ultimatum” to drop the matter, and said: “discussing the idea of Ellsworth Toohey as a threat to me is ridiculous. Discussing it seriously is offensive.”
Paul Larkin had always been unlucky.
If it was luck, it wouldn’t be consistent. Rand is criticizing Larkin, and this kind of excuse in general, but it’s somewhat subtle.
Larkin glanced away, as if debating something in his mind. After a while, he asked cautiously, “How is your man in Washington?”
Larkin knows the answer to this question – the whole point of the conversation is that Larkin knows Hank’s Washington man is rotten, and Larkin feels that honor requires him to give a warning. Hank doesn’t realize Larkin is giving a hint, not actually asking a question.
“In fact, that’s what I came here to tell you.”
Larkin finally tells the truth, but Hank doesn’t notice it contradicts some of Larkin’s previous statements.
“For any special reason?”
Larkin considered it and decided that the duty was discharged. “No,” he said.
“No” is a lie. Larkin says the kind of lies that will get Hank not to listen. Larkin knows this is happening. Why, then, does he feel he did is moral duty, when he knows he didn’t communicate any warning? Larkin makes a half-hearted, limited attempt not to betray Hank. Just like in his businesses, Larkin is satisfied without success (in this case, successful communication).
Rearden disliked the subject. He knew that it was necessary to have a man to protect him from the legislature; all industrialists had to employ such men. But he had never given much attention to this aspect of his business; he could not quite convince himself that it was necessary. An inexplicable kind of distaste, part fastidiousness, part boredom, stopped him whenever he tried to consider it.
It shouldn’t be necessary in a free society, and it’s not part of the world Hank wants to live in. And hiring that kind of Washington man is actually the wrong approach: it’s not what John Galt would do. Participating in corrupt government power dynamics legitimizes them.
His exhaustion had gone while he talked about his business. He felt a sudden spurt of rebellion, a need to recapture and defiantly to reassert his own view of existence, that sense of it which he had held while walking home tonight and which now seemed threatened in some nameless manner.
Washington politics – the politics of pull, friendship and favors – are the threat to Hank’s approach to existence.
He paced the room, his energy returning. He looked at his family. They were bewildered, unhappy children—he thought—all of them, even his mother, and he was foolish to resent their ineptitude; it came from their helplessness, not from malice. It was he who had to make himself learn to understand them, since he had so much to give, since they could never share his sense of joyous, boundless power.
They don’t admit that they’re helpless, and Hank is powerful. They don’t ask for his help respectfully. Hank shouldn’t help them while they are dishonest about the situation in ways that are hostile to Hank.
“You’re not the only one who works hard,” said his mother. “Others have problems, too—even if they’re not billion-dollar, trans-super-continental problems like yours.”
Hank can share his power, competence and knowledge with those who appreciate it – not with people like this. His mother is denying that Hank’s work is any better than Philip’s work.
“Why, no, Mother. I’d like to help.”
“You don’t have to help. You don’t have to feel anything for any of us.”
It’s one thing to help a man who asks for your help. But it’s different to chase them and try to help people who insult you and reject your help. Don’t do that.
There was something wrong, by Rearden’s standards, with a man who did not seek any gainful employment, but he would not impose his standards on Philip
Hank should only help people who share his standards – otherwise Hank is helping his enemies who promote standards incompatible with Hank’s life. That’s exactly what Hank proceeds to do in this scene: he donates money to be used to destroy his business.
“What were you doing today, Phil?” he asked patiently.
“It wouldn’t interest you.”
The social dynamics here are all wrong. Philip should come to Hank, but instead Hank is pursuing Philip. This looks like Hank is the needy, low-status person in the interaction.
Rearden felt contempt for groups of that kind and saw no reason for a closer inquiry into their nature.
If you think a group is contemptuous, and you don’t know the details, then don’t fund it!
Philip added without being prompted, “We need ten thousand dollars for a vital program, but it’s a martyr’s task, trying to raise money. There’s not a speck of social conscience left in people. When I think of the kind of bloated money-bags I saw today—why, they spend more than that on any whim, but I couldn’t squeeze just a hundred bucks a piece out of them, which was all I asked. They have no sense of moral duty, no … What are you laughing at?” he asked sharply. Rearden stood before him, grinning.
Philip implies Hank should have a “social conscience” and that donating would signal having it. Philip implies that having money is evil, but that one can make up for it with charity. Philip implies that a moral person would see it as his duty to help Philip’s cause. All these things are false and part of the set of ideas which are a danger to Hank’s life.
It was so childishly blatant, thought Rearden, so helplessly crude: the hint and the insult, offered together. It would be so easy to squash Philip by returning the insult, he thought—by returning an insult which would be deadly because it would be true—that he could not bring himself to utter it. Surely, he thought, the poor fool knows he’s at my mercy, knows he’s opened himself to be hurt, so I don’t have to do it, and my not doing it is my best answer, which he won’t be able to miss. What sort of misery does he really live in, to get himself twisted quite so badly?
The hint is that Hank could donate $10,000. It’s a hint, instead of a direct request, because Philip is talking about how he asked other people for money. The insult is that Hank is immoral if he doesn’t pay.
Philip is simple-minded and does miss what’s going on. He doesn’t realize Hank sees through the hint and insult. Hank should stop skipping steps and leaving things unsaid. He overestimates people.
What do I care about the nature of his desire?—it’s his, just as Rearden Metal was mine—it must mean to him what that meant to me
It doesn’t mean to Philip what it would to Hank. Philip is a different kind of person than Hank. He doesn’t have desires the same way Hank does. This is revealed immediately:
“Philip,” he said, smiling, “call Miss Ives at my office tomorrow. She’ll have a check for you for ten thousand dollars.”
Philip stared at him blankly; it was neither shock nor pleasure; it was just the empty stare of eyes that looked glassy.
“Oh,” said Philip, then added, “We’ll appreciate it very much.” There was no emotion in his voice, not even the simple one of greed.
You need to have a self for things to mean something to you, as Rand explained in The Fountainhead (consider the scene where Peter recognizes how selfless Dominique has been in their marriage, and she asks him where his self is.)
Rearden could not understand his own feeling: it was as if something leaden and empty were collapsing within him, he felt both the weight and the emptiness, together. He knew it was disappointment, but he wondered why it was so gray and ugly.
Hank wanted Philip to be happy, and he thought the gift would work. It didn’t. The internal collapse is partial disillusionment. Hank is disappointed that his gift didn’t work, but doesn’t understand why. If he knew what was actually wrong with Philip, he’d see it’s gray and ugly.
“You don’t really care about helping the underprivileged, do you?” Philip asked—and Rearden heard, unable to believe it, that the tone of his voice was reproachful.
“No, Phil, I don’t care about it at all. I only wanted you to be happy.”
“But that money is not for me. I am not collecting it for any personal motive. I have no selfish interest in the matter whatever.” His voice was cold, with a note of self-conscious virtue.
To properly help people, you need shared values. You and they both agree something is good, then you help them with it. They won’t reproach you for that!
When people attack “selfishness”, remember they are attacking having and valuing a self. And why should you value other people’s selves above your own? Or is the idea not to value anyone?
Rearden turned away. He felt a sudden loathing: not because the words were hypocrisy, but because they were true; Philip meant them.
Most people find it unbelievable that anyone could be selfless, and think it’s all at act to fake being virtuous – while being largely selfless themselves.
“By the way, Henry,” Philip added, “do you mind if I ask you to have Miss Ives give me the money in cash?” Rearden turned back to him, puzzled. “You see, Friends of Global Progress are a very progressive group and they have always maintained that you represent the blackest element of social retrogression in the country, so it would embarrass us, you know, to have your name on our list of contributors, because somebody might accuse us of being in the pay of Hank Rearden.”
Hank’s destroyers are open about their values – they hate and condemn him – while Hank leaves the stated moral judgements to them. Moral judgements matter (and more generally, ideas matter) and Hank shouldn’t let his enemies dominate that area of life.
He wanted to slap Philip’s face.
That would have been a better response. Hank should withdraw the money, too.
“… What would happen to Henry’s vanity if he didn’t have us to throw alms to? What would become of his strength if he didn’t have weaker people to dominate? What would he do with himself if he didn’t keep us around as dependents? It’s quite all right, really, I’m not criticizing him, it’s just a law of human nature.”
Hank isn’t vain. Hank isn’t throwing alms. Hank doesn’t dominate weaker people. What would Hank do with himself without them? Produce steel, build Rearden Metal airplanes, help produce soup kettles, and so on. Hank should say this instead of letting Lillian lie about the matter.
Saying it’s human nature is a denial that Hank is living according to values he rationally judges to be correct.
She took the [Rearden] metal bracelet and held it up, letting it glitter in the lamplight.
“A chain,” she said. “Appropriate, isn’t it? It’s the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.”
What bondage? They’re the ones trying to chain and control Hank with their manipulative comments. He ought to free himself.
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