Sunday, September 6, 2015

Atlas Shrugged/THS Chapter 2

In chapter two of Atlas Shrugged, we are introduced to buildings. Slowly. Very.

 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.

There is so much shit to unpack here. First, we have the major writing fail of that whole "seemed purposeless" bit. "Seemed" is a word on my red flag list--when I'm editing, I'll look up every case of "seemed" and try to delete it. Thought, realized and the ever-popular "was doing" set up are also flagged. These are words an author uses when they don't want to commit to a detail, or they are trying to convey information that a character has no possible way of knowing. The lights are scattered--which implies purposelessness and therefor makes the whole "seemed" bit unnecessary--but too bright to be meaningless. As are street lamps, stoplights, road flares, car lamps, house lamps, flashlights, train lights, and anything brighter than a firefly's ass. Attributing purpose to something man-made is easy and obvious. What Rand is attempting to do--badly--is imply that only certain things get the value of purpose and, in turn, imply that purpose itself is a higher value. The problem is that not all purposes are good ones. The lights illuminating a dockyard aren't going to have the same level of importance as a road flare at a car wreck.

And then we have the whole "watched idly" bit, which is another running theme in Atlas. It is implied that it's wrong that these passengers don't care about the random scattering of lights outside a train window, that they should be interested and worshipful and should discount their own business to be drooling fans of someone else's universe.

But we're not going to value somebody else's shit the way we value our own. We're not supposed to. Success in your field does not automatically rock my world, nor do your failures invalidate (or validate) a single fucking thing to me. Of course Random Passenger Alpha doesn't give a rats ass about random lights outside their train. They might be contemplating brain surgery, or the funeral they're heading to, or, you know, going to sleep like a normal human being would at night. This expectation of hyper-vigilance for success is stupid.

...this is the first goddamn paragraph.

 Rand continues to describe a building via the dopplar effect, and of course this is Rearden Steel. And for a group of people who, we are told, emphatically don't give shits about the building...a lot of them have really, really negative thoughts about Rearden Steel. We are supposed to see this as the cruelty and apathy of those who are not Gifted And Talented...but it comes off more like the nerdy kid (This being Rand) fantasizing about how all the popular people will hate them once the nerdy kid is famous and successful. And it's about as realistic.

We then move on to the pouring of metal, and oh my GOD is it purple, and dawn and morning and thrilling and I'm sorry, I've read sex scenes that are less masturbatory than this.

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...A flow of stars hung above the stream, leaping out of its placid smoothness, looking delicate as lace and innocent as children’s sparklers.
 Hank himself gets only a paragraph, and compared to his steel it's downright spartan. This is the very first time his special metal has been poured. Ever. Which means that Dagny not only ordered something untested, she ordered something that didn't even exist. Like, maybe there were test batches or something, but the wording really, really implies that this metal was just a formula on paper until Rearden started throwing shit into a crucible. This is like booking a year long voyage on the Apollo 1 rocket. You know. The one that exploded during a test with all hands on board. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS.

 Then he walks home. At night. In the middle of fucking nowhere. In a society that is collapsing.  He does this all the time. Tonight, he's got a bracelet he made from his first pouring of Rearden Metal ever, and he thinks about how much work went into making the bracelet and the Metal, and because we might miss this from the rather good phrasing, It had taken ten years to make this bracelet...ten years is a long time, Rand then lists all the work that went into researching the formula.

ALL. OF. IT. Including the late nights, the lack of sleep, the criticism, and how his happiness makes him lonely because he's unappreciated.

There's a phrasing about how all this is glorious, not because it's useful or good, but because it contains consious intention. It's the same thing as in the first chapter, where the power of wanting something, not the value or the nature of the thing wanted, is enough to justify character behavior. I want it, therefore I ought to be rewarded. It reminds me a lot of that scene at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy where Rocket and the space cop are arguing over the definition of stealing.

 We then get Hank's entire work history. It reads like a very purple resume and doesn't make me actually like this guy.

And then it is time for a Statement of Purpose:

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. 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.
Hank Rearden, in other words, has the empathy of a brick and is kind of a shitheel. What I find incredibly interesting, though, is that Rand appears to be using Joy much the same way that Lewis does. Not as a magnification of happiness, but as a transcendant moment that surpasses happiness. Having said that, if Rand is using Joy that way she's missed the entire point. The factors that create Joy in one individual are different from the factors that create it in another. Not everybody is going to be delighted that a steel factory is making steel. And this highlights a major, major problem in Objectivism. It discounts entirely the differences between individuals and expects them all to be identical in both their needs and their abilities.

Anyway, he made the bracelet for his wife to celebrate his metal, only his wife (who is also kind of a shitheel) doesn't like it much. And I have to admit it: I really, really like Lillian's character.

“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 tuyères to polish?”

She's awful. She's verbally abusive, manipulative, and later on pulls a couple stunts that are truely reprehensible, but she doesn't take Hank's shit. At all.  Unlike James Taggart or 90% of the rest of the cast, she has no reason to exist other than to as a comparison for Dagny. And like most comparison characters, Lillian gets a life of her own through the author's own negligance and misunderstanding. She takes absolutely no shit from anybody, and it's clear Rand had no idea what to do with her after she served her purpose of making Dagny the coolest person who ever cooled so she just kind of fades away.

Hank also has a mother, who serves no purpose in the book whatsoever, and a brother, who is James Taggart 2.0: The Unemployed. There's a long, long sequence where Hank overhears his mother, Lillian and brother Phillip talking about how Hank Is Not A Saint. I have to admit, I'm imagining him sitting against a closed door with his ear pressed to the crack, with a mental age of about five. He then has a long thought-spiral into unappreciated depression because he supports them and they think so badly of him. And then Rand slips up. Again.

Why that chronic air of suspicion, as if they were waiting to be hurt?...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.

Yeah. This is kind of whipped puppy syndrome and it implies nothing good about Hank. Being "wounded by the mere fact of his being" is a real nice thing to imagine if you want to feel holier-than-thou and put-upon. But...yeah, most people don't react like that. Obviously this relationship is real, real dysfunctional. If it were one person (Say, Lillian or the mom) then yeah, it could be that Hank is in the right. But it's more than one, and that usually means that Hank ain't the cool person he thinks he is. And the assumption that they are "wounded" by his existance, rather than his actions, means that yep, he's likely in the wrong. And that he really, really does have the emotional maturity of a five year old.

He also has a buddy over, Paul Larkin, who proceeds to attach himself to Hank's ass like a lamprey. Paul congradulates Hank on his metal, then warns him that the State Science Institute wants to take him down. Hank laughs him off because his metal is good and everything will be alright in the end because he's the worlds most dysfunctional, co-dependant Pollyanna. Even better, Paul is described as being short, fat and "unfinished", which means he's going to be a bad guy later and probably betray Hank first chance he gets. Golly, it's so wonderful when you can ID the bad guys by their appearance!

 Through the conversation with Paul, we also discover that Hank has a lobbiest in Washington whose entire purpose is to protect Hank from new laws, perfectly realistic. The guy's name is Westley Mouch, and his description also implies that later on he's going to fuck Hank over. Having established this, we then move on to the Existancial Angst portion of the chapter:

“Damned if I see why. Can you tell me that? What’s wrong with the world?” 
Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”

Yeah, that's still no YOLO.

Then it's Phillip's turn to be visected.

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; he could afford to support his brother and never notice the expense.
Yeah, having a family member who is a continual deadbeat is a hard situation, and enabling problematic behavior is an issue. But the issue is not Hank supporting Phillip altruistically--it is that Philip is taking advantage of Hank and abusing the privelage of getting to live relatively expense free.

Also: Philip went to College, and Hank didn't.

And now it is time for Strawman to attempt arguing. Philip asks Hank for a little money for his charity--something disgustingly socialistic--and Hank, well:

And then Rearden thought suddenly that he could break through Philip’s chronic wretchedness for once, give him a shock of pleasure, the unexpected gratification of a hopeless desire. He thought: 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— let’s see him happy just once, it might teach him something— didn’t I say that happiness is the agent of purification?— I’m celebrating tonight, so let him share in it— it will be so much for him, and so little for me.

And that is how you love somebody. You figure out what gives them joy and you provide that even if you don't fully understand it. Do it within the limits of safety, but do it nonetheless.

Thing is? This is played as an error in thinking--something that Hank does wrong. A misstep. Philip gets no joy out of the donation--in fact, he asks Hank to keep his name off the check because the charity GASP! doesn't like corporations donating ( what universe, Rand?). The idea of doing for another, not because your desires corrispond but because you just want to make them happy, is played as a bad thing. However, rejecting a gift because it's not what you want--which means the giver made no attempt to figure out what you'd like--is played as wrong too--Lillian's barbed acceptance of the bracelet because it isn't diamonds (Speaking of which, Hank, would it have killed you to put some effort into that thing?) is handled as if she'd thrown it back in his face and spit at him in good measure.

 “But you’re wrong, Paul, you’re so wrong! 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.”
I begin to think that nothing good, kind, or generous ever happened to Rand. It also shows me that she believes altriusm is a zero-sum game--that in giving to one, another loses something of value. Generosity diminishes the great without magnifying the weaker.

But the thing is? Humans need other humans. The key phrase here is interdependant. In which we depend on each other. There's a much abused term in Christian circles--a helpmeet. A lot of people assume that a helpmeet is intrinsically weaker than the thing it is helping. This term is most commonly applied to a wife (as is the ever-dispicable "weaker vessel") But the term itself defies that definiton because it first implies that the husband needs help, and second that the helpmeet is capable of meeting that need. The word meet, back when this phrase was coined, meant sufficient or equal to the task. An interdependant relationship is a relationship among peers, a kind of sheild wall against the world. When one person in the relationship fails, another can step in and take the heat until person A is back on their feet.

This is why altruism isn't a zero-sum game. There's a wonderful system called Maslaw's Hirearchy of Needs which states that an individual is only capable of production in one area of their lives if their needs in other areas are met. It also states that this is a hirearchy, meaning that the potential of higher levels can only be reached if the lower levels are met in full. The fundamental basics--food, shelter, clothing, water, warmth--are necessary for the next level--security and a feeling of safety--which are necessary for the next level--relationships--which are necessary for the next level which involves creative production. An individual's inability to produce can be directly tied to a deficiancy in a preceeding level. In this case, Mom Rearden, Lillian and Philip are all incapable of producing on their own. This can be tied to a deficiancy in their sense of security--they feel that they can't trust anybody, even each other, otherwise they will lose something in that bottom tier--home, clothing, food, safety.

Altruism at the bottom level--making sure that no matter what you get your basics met--provides the security necessary to build good relationships and become a productive individual. But if any one level on the hirearchy--usually displayed as a pyrimid--is shaky, the whole damn thing is going to come down.

However, Rand only sees this system as a co-dependant one--in which the dependees aren't displaying their strengths. And while I absolutely agree--it is co-dependant and abusive--the issue isn't Hank's altruism. Rather, it's that for some reason--perhaps the fact that the world's in the process of collapse, perhaps the fact that Hank's a dick--the other Reardens don't feel secure in their fundamental needs.

The chapter ends with what is perhaps Lillian's best line:

“A chain,” she said. “Appropriate, isn’t it? It’s the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.”

Now, on to That Hideous Strength:

Last time we met Jane Studdock, who has an unhappy marrige and a history of visonary dreams. Now we will meet Mark, her husband. And let's start with the very, very, VERY obvious:

Mark is C.S. Lewis's self insert.

He's a don of a fictional college called Braxton in a town called Edgestow, and Lewis very obviously draws deeply upon his own history at Oxford's various facilities to build Braxton. How aware Lewis is of his self-insert is unknown, but it's kinda...there.

After a long peroid in which Lewis literally starts describing his fictional college in first person (A rather bizzare drop for somebody as precise as Lewis usually is) Mark takes center stage. He is relatively new to Braxton, and was recently accepted into the College's inner circle of leadership, and is currently enjoying the new, strange feeling of being the confidant of this inner circle's leader, a man named Curry. They're plotting something to be revealed shortly, and Curry tells Mark what a hell of a time "we" are going to have getting things done. Mark has a strong reaction to the "we".

You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun “we.” So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called “Curry and his gang” with awe and with little understanding, and making at College meetings short, nervous speeches which never influenced the course of events. Now he was inside and “Curry and his gang” had become “we” or “the Progressive Element in College.” It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.

We get a rambling list of the people who are onboard with Curry for his whatever, and one of the names dropped is Lord Feverstone, Dick Devine.

I really cannot explain how huge a cognitive dissonance this book is from the other two in the trilogy. The other two books had a main character named Ransom--a Mary Sue of the first water, but one of the rather fun sort--who was an unapologetic Christian, and who, at one point, got into a literal fistfight with the Devil over the future of Venus's Eve. Dick Devine was involved in the first book, as Professor Weston's assistant and Ransom's kidnapper. So this mention here is the first connection we have to Ransom, and one I didn't mark at the time because Dick was kind of forgettable. Vastly forgettable. (His most significant contribution in Out of the Silent Planet was to wave beads in the face of the advanced-yet-dying races in charge of Mars) It'll be a LONG time before the primary connection to the previous books is made. Right now, we have to be happy with Dick.

Mark questions if Feverstone's fellowship at the college is secure, given that he's never in it. Curry laughs him off. Mark pushes in a very, very round-about way, and Curry tells him that Dick got Mark his fellowship. This translates to "drop it" so Mark does. Curry wants to make sure he gets the point, though, so he lets Mark know that the other contender--who was more qualified, was a man named Denniston. Curry is quick to point out, though, that Denniston's proven himself to be completely unsuitable because of his academic persuits, so Mark really was the best choice. Mark decides to take Curry out to drinks to smooth things over, and in the process we find out that Mark's spent a lot of money keeping Curry happy.

Lewis then drops out of Third Person again to describe the Bragdon Woods. They are very pretty woods, with a well that might date back to King Arthur. The language is a little purple-ish (A more forgivable sin than dropping into First Person for the second time in a chapter) but the sense of beauty, and better, history, comes through loud and clear. He manages to connect his fictional college and wood to most of British history, and then moves on to the key point in this chapter: Curry's scheme.

The title of this chapter, my lovelies, is "The Sale of Bragdon Woods". It's a mile of untamed wildness, and a valued part of the college, and if you're prone at all to enjoy purple prose and imaginary history, you're probably a bit attached to the wood now, too. Curry wants to sell it off to the N.I.C.E--the National Institute for Co-Ordinated Experiments. The NICE was created to cut through all the "red tape" and just fucking do science, which seems like a great idea to a sociologist like Mark. The NICE want to buy Bragdon Wood so they can put a skyscraper on it. A big one.

Curry assures the fellows of Bracton that the NICE won't be ripping up too much of the woods. Right.

Three years ago, if Mark Studdock had come to a College Meeting at which such a question was to be decided, he would have expected to hear the claims of sentiment against progress and beauty against utility openly debated. Today, as he took his seat in the Soler, the long upper room on the south of Lady Alice, he expected no such matter. He knew now that that was not the way things are done..

What follows is an incredibly dry passage that describes Curry manipulating the everloving fuck out of the fellows of Bracton. First he talks about how much trouble it is to keep the woods in shape, and then drops the subject. Now he talks about how much money the college needs, and how, if they cut the salary of some of the more junior Fellows, they might even be able to pay for the upkeep of the wood. Then Curry reminds everybody that Merlin's Well, while being of some historical value, is a magnet for the kind of people a modern skeptic would call "Woo". There's lots of woo around the Well, and there are filmmakers who want to shoot a documentary about the woo, and as the college has a severe woo allergy, somebody proposes putting a barbed wire fence around it, to which all the old hats who love the wood declare they'd rather chop all the trees down. Thus having firmly established that 1. the Wood is a woo magnet, 2. its upkeep is expensive and 3. taking care of it means most of the people in this room will not get a raise, Curry goes for the kill:

It was not till six o’clock that all the converging lines of thought and feeling aroused by the earlier business came together upon the question of selling Bragdon Wood. It was not called, “the sale of Bragdon Wood.” The Bursar called it the “sale of the area colored pink on the plan which, with the Warden’s permission, I will now pass round the table.”...The advantages of the sale discovered themselves one by one like ripe fruit dropping into the hand. It solved the problem of the wall; it solved the problem of protecting ancient monuments; it solved the financial problem; it looked like solving the problem of the junior Fellows’ stipends.
There are a few hold-outs, most notably a man named Jewel, and another man with the moniker "Bill the Blizzard" attempt to protest. Unfortunately for them, the vote goes through and the Wood is sold to the NICE.

We're still in the set-up process of both books, and the comparisons between Hank and Mark are actually rather fun to make. Hank is a strong, forceful man with a pretty decent altruistic instinct--something that, I am sure, Rand included as a flaw. Mark, on the other hand, comes off much more like Philip, Hank's brother. Later on, there's a line that goes "There was a lot of the spaniel in Mark" and that's probably the best summery of his character. Hank is a steamroller, and Mark is the thing that gets rolled.

We've also been introduced to the two things-behind-the-scenes for both books: The State Science Institute in Atlas, and the NICE in Strength. That both books chose to have a primary force be a state-founded place of scientific study is really interesting. The NICE will play a bigger role than the SSI will for Atlas, but both play key functions.

Next time: We meet Jane's maid; James and Orrin Boyle hate Hank Rearden a lot.

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