In the Valley of the Shadow of Galt

Scott McLemee reviews Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed by Lisa Duggan.

May 17, 2019

Last spring, I saw a woman in downtown Washington, D.C., carrying a bag emblazoned with the words "Who is John Galt?" The questions runs as an enigmatic leitmotif throughout the bulk of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and also serves as the subtitle of the third and final installment of the screen adaptation of the novel. Released between 2011 and 2014, the films were made by different directors and feature entirely different casts playing the same characters. (I would not fault you for thinking I made that up, but an examination of IMDb will confirm it.) There seemed no point in asking if she'd seen the movie; scarcely anyone has, except perhaps for connoisseurs of stock footage.

John Galt, as generations of Rand's devotees have learned, is the inventor of a motor and, more importantly, the libertarian mastermind who leads all the creative capitalists in the United States to withdraw to a hidden valley and let the undeserving masses stew in their own chaos for a while, in the form of cataclysmic social and technological breakdown. When the time is right, Galt delivers a speech via a national television broadcast to explain his worldview, which not only celebrates laissez-faire capitalism but explains that the ultimate moral virtue is selfishness. Running to around 33,000 words, the speech would take at least three hours to deliver, though Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt condenses it to a little over four minutes. That hardly even counts as an infomercial. I think perhaps the most succinct presentation of Galt's defining principle (and his creator's, too) comes in the following lines from the novel itself:

Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness -- not pain or mindless self-indulgence -- is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values. Happiness was the responsibility you dreaded, it required the kind of rational discipline you did not value yourself enough to assume -- and the anxious staleness of your day is the monument to your evasion of the knowledge that there is no moral substitute for happiness, that there is no more despicable coward than the man who deserted the battle for his joy, fearing to assert his right to existence, lacking the courage and the loyalty to life of a bird or a flower reaching for the sun. Discard the protective rags of that vice which you called a virtue: humility -- learn to value yourself, which means: to fight for your happiness -- and when you learn that pride is the sum of all virtues, you will learn to live like a man.

The admonition in the middle of that paragraph seems anodyne enough: follow your bliss. But the more comprehensive demand here is to define the pursuit of well-being as the self's only obligation; the needs of others, or their suffering, are fundamentally irrelevant to formulating a sense of "moral purpose of your life." When Galt and associates retreat to their utopian fortress of solitude, the narrative presents the effect as disastrous, with massive fatalities from train wrecks and airplane crashes -- but they do not feel guilt.

Rand's appeal has been unusually durable. The whole Randian corpus remains in print (including a number of volumes assembled following her death in 1982), and it has too many prominent fans to list, including much of the Republican Party leadership. Donald Trump says he admires Rand's The Fountainhead, probably referring to the 1949 screen adaptation staring Gary Cooper as a kind of John Galt beta version, which includes one of the all-time great sequences working around the Motion Picture Production Code rules against licentiousness. The conservative thinker Russell Kirk, not an admirer of Rand, once suggested that people "read her books for the fornicating bits," which she often seasoned with a distinctly sadomasochistic tang. Perhaps that explanation had some validity 50 or 60 years ago, but it hardly explains her continuing appeal.

Nor, for that matter, is hard-core libertarian discourse in short supply now. Lisa Duggan gets it exactly right in Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed (University of California Press) when she writes that Rand's "particular gift was not for philosophical elaboration, but for stark condensation and aphorism. She deployed this gift to create a moral economy of inequality to infuse her softly pornographic romance fiction with the political eros that would captivate a mass readership." The universe of Rand's fiction, and the worldview she put forward in her essays and speeches, celebrates the desires and aspirations of a small number of heroically autonomous figures who triumph over the lesser orders of humankind and are the creators of all value. A character of this type exhibits, in Rand's words,

a calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society -- shouting to it that it cannot break him; his immense explicit egotism -- a thing the mob never forgives; and his cleverness, which makes the mob feel that a superior mind can exist entirely outside its established morals.

This passage is not taken from Rand's fiction but from one of her notebooks, and it refers to someone famous in the late 1920s: William Edward Hickman, who, among other felonies, kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl and collected ransom money from her father, though not before dismembering and disemboweling her corpse.

To be sure, Rand's enthusiasm is for Hickman's demeanor and the outrage it provokes, rather than for his crimes. But she clearly understood that the "calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance" was itself just one aspect of an underlying cruelty that the Randian hero enjoys as his birthright. As does the Randian heroine, albeit differently, when (to quote one of "the fornicating bits") the hero forces himself upon her "as an act of scorn. Not as love but as defilement … But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she wanted."

Not that there's anything wrong with that! Rand would emphasize the consensual nature of the encounter -- which, after all, is between equals. Each character recognizes the other as embodying the highest type of human being, not one of those pitiful specimens scurrying around the edge of the narrative or dying in a horrible mass-transit catastrophe.

The prolonged and cumulative effect of Rand's influence, as it emerges from Duggan's account, has been a multigenerational training of the sentiments in the principle that aspiration and drive are not enough -- that real success is transcendental superiority, a state of absolute and deeply committed indifference to others and to any notion of a common humanity that will continue beyond one's own death. It was awfully tempting to approach that woman on the street and respond to her "Who is John Galt?" tote bag with what feels to me like the only suitable answer: "A sociopathic fantasy figure."


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