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Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter V

In her days as a Hollywood screenwriter, Ayn Rand met and later married an actor named Frank O’Connor, apparently for no reason other than that he was classically handsome and fit her conception of what an ideal man should look like. O’Connor was never a household name, and his acting career fizzled out. He lived the quiet life of a househusband, devoting himself to gardening, painting and especially to drinking, while Rand supported them with the income from her writing.

Having read two biographies of Rand, I know of no evidence that she resented her role as the breadwinner. From all accounts, she genuinely loved and cared for her husband. But as she gained prominence as a political writer and thinker, she attracted a circle of young admirers – they ironically nicknamed themselves “the Collective” – who idolized her, and hung on her every word, in a way that the taciturn and apolitical O’Connor never did. One of them in particular was a student named Nathan Blumenthal, although he later changed his name – apparently in homage to his philosophical idol – to Nathaniel Branden.

Ayn Rand saw a kindred spirit in Branden and anointed him her chosen heir, trusting him to write treatises and deliver lectures on her behalf. But it didn’t end there. Remember, by Objectivist logic, you’re supposed to feel sexual desire for whoever best embodies your political views. Therefore, Rand proposed, and Branden agreed, that the two of them were obligated to sleep together – notwithstanding the fact that both of them were married to other people at the time. Astoundingly, both O’Connor and Branden’s wife Barbara agreed to this arrangement. (This was in 1954, three years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. It’s hard not to wonder if Dagny’s liaison with the married Hank was a real-life-writes-the-plot scenario.)

Rand had persuaded herself that the four of them, “like the characters in her novels… lived on an emotional plane far above the irrational jealousies and fears” of ordinary people [Anne Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, p.259]. Neither she nor Branden understood the toll it was taking on their spouses. It sent Frank deeper into alcoholism, and Barbara suffered from “panic attacks and night terrors” [p.262]. What’s more, Branden was twenty-five years younger than Rand, and his ardor for their relationship soon cooled. For several years he searched for a graceful way to extricate himself, but whenever he broached the subject, Rand would grow suspicious and possessive and make remarks like “This affair is sexual or it’s nothing” [p.264]. Adding yet another complication to this thorny tangle, Branden fell in love with one of his younger admirers, a student named Patrecia Gullison who attended his lectures on Objectivism, and unbeknownst to Rand, began yet another affair with her.

But for the moment, let’s return to Atlas Shrugged. When we left off, Dagny was at dinner with the bad guys, making the case that they should abandon half the U.S. However, they’re interrupted when a disaster strikes at the Taggart Terminal:

On the night of October 15, a copper wire broke in New York City, in an underground control tower of the Taggart Terminal, extinguishing the lights of the signals.

It was only the breach of one wire, but it produced a short circuit in the interlocking traffic system, and the signals of motion or danger disappeared from the panels of the control towers and from among the strands of rail… On the edge of the city, a cluster of trains gathered at the entrance to the Terminal tunnels and grew through the minutes of stillness, like blood dammed by a clot inside a vein, unable to rush into the chambers of the heart.

Dagny gets an emergency telephone call, saying that all train traffic is at a standstill and no one knows what to do. Glad of the opportunity to do something useful, she excuses herself and hails a cab. Arriving at the terminal, she takes command:

“Call all of your unskilled laborers,” she said to the assistant manager, “the section hands, trackwalkers, engine wipers, whoever’s in the Terminal right now, and have them come here at once… have them bring here every lantern they can lay their hands on, any sort of lantern, conductors’ lanterns, storm lanterns, anything…. We’re going to move trains and we’re going to move them manually.”

“Manually?” said the signal engineer.

“Yes, brother! Now why should you be shocked?” She could not resist it. “Man is only muscles, isn’t he? We’re going back — back to where there were no interlocking systems, no semaphores, no electricity — back to the time when train signals were not steel and wire, but men holding lanterns. Physical men, serving as lampposts. You’ve advocated it long enough — you got what you wanted.”

Dagny’s open contempt for her own employees seems new, and a little unfair. How does she know what this man’s political beliefs are? He does work for Taggart Transcontinental, after all. What makes her so sure that he’s on the side of the looters rather than, like Dagny herself, soldiering on for the sake of his love for the railroad?

One question the text doesn’t address is whether Dagny could have fixed the broken interlocker herself. Although she has an engineering degree and the semi-superhuman intellect of all Randian protagonists, she never volunteers to try. (She later hires an engineer from a rival company, at great expense, sneering that there’s “not a single mind left on Taggart Transcontinental”). It’s too bad – a scene of Dagny fresh from a black-tie dinner, fixing a complicated piece of machinery in her evening gown, wielding a wrench while wearing high heels, could have been pretty cool.

The laborers assemble as instructed, but while Dagny is surveying the crowd, she gets a thunderbolt shock:

She could barely distinguish the faces of the men when they gathered at the foot of the tower… She could see the greasy garments, the slack, muscular bodies, the limply hanging arms of men drained by the unrewarding exhaustion of a labor that required no thought. These were the dregs of the railroad, the younger men who could now seek no chance to rise and the older men who had never wanted to seek it.

…Then she stopped. It was his eyes and hair that she saw first — the ruthlessly perceptive eyes, the streaks of hair shaded from gold to copper that seemed to reflect the glow of sunlight in the murk of the underground — she saw John Galt among the chain gang of the mindless, John Galt in greasy overalls and rolled shirt sleeves, she saw his weightless way of standing, his face held lifted, his eyes looking at her as if he had seen this moment many moments ago.

Dagny is dumbstruck by the sight of him, and she’s barely able to finish giving the laborers their instructions. She tells them that the terminal managers will send out written orders to tell them where to stand to signal the trains to pass. Then she slips away into an abandoned tunnel, silently willing Galt to follow. He does, and when he catches up with her, they have sex on the disused tracks (on a pile of torn old burlap sandbags, which doesn’t sound comfortable at all).

The next span of moments was like flashes of light in stretches of blinded unconsciousness — the moment when she saw his face, as he stopped beside her, when she saw the unastonished calm, the leashed intensity, the laughter of understanding in the dark green eyes — the moment when she knew what he saw in her face, by the tight, drawn harshness of his lips — the moment when she felt his mouth on hers, when she felt the shape of his mouth both as an absolute shape and as a liquid filling her body — then the motion of his lips down the line of her throat, a drinking motion that left a trail of bruises…

Post-coital, they lie next to each other and talk (surprisingly, no smoking involved). John Galt confesses that he loves her, that he always has since he first laid eyes on her. This is how he kept tabs on her, working in a lowly job where no one would ever expect to find a man of his genius, always watching her from a distance except for the one night he almost approached her and reconsidered at the last minute:

She whispered, “You’ve been a track laborer, here—here!—for twelve years…”


“Ever since—”

“Ever since I quit the Twentieth Century.”

“The night when you saw me for the first time… you were working here, then?”

“Yes. And the morning when you offered to work for me as my cook, I was only your track laborer on leave of absence.”

Taggart Transcontinental must have unusually generous vacation policies. John Galt spends one month a year in Galt’s Gulch, remember, plus all the other time he’s spent roaming the U.S. searching for other capitalists to recruit. An unskilled track laborer gets that much time off?

He mockingly asks if she wants him to fix the broken interlocker, but Dagny declines (“I don’t want to see you working as their serf”). Instead, she insists that she just needs to hold out a little longer until the looters collapse. Galt insists that she’ll soon see the error of her ways (“True, it’s just a little longer — not till you win, but till you learn”). He walks away, telling her not to try to see him again until she’s ready to join his strike.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that an Objectivist can’t be monogamous. In Rand’s view, you’re rationally obligated to throw your current partner aside if you meet someone superior. Dagny proves it: over the course of the book, she trades off romantic partners repeatedly, going from Francisco to Hank to John Galt, all based on her assessment of who’s the best capitalist.

Imagine if Hank had wanted to sleep with Dagny but considered himself bound by the promise of fidelity he’d made to his wife. That would make for a more interestingly conflicted character, and a better, more complex book. But that kind of conflict is something Rand never permits her protagonists. In her mind, they’re entitled to whatever they want because of their superior morality. To do anything else would be a “sacrifice” – Rand’s most dreaded word – of trading off a “greater” value for a “lesser” one.

And that brings us back to the Brandens. In 1968, after years of dissembling and excuses, Nathaniel wrote Rand a letter confessing that he was no longer attracted to her. She didn’t take it well:

Her reaction was manic and alarming. “You bastard!” she shrieked, according to Branden’s 1989 account. “You bastard, you bastard! You nothing! You fraud! You contemptible swine! …Everything that you have ever professed to be is a lie! Everything was stolen from me!” [p.365]

Gradually Rand’s temper cooled, and she grudgingly accepted that the two of them could continue to be business partners working to promote Objectivism, as long as they ceased to have any kind of friendship or other personal relationship. The other shoe dropped a few months later, when Barbara, tired of the lies, informed Rand of Nathaniel’s affair with Patrecia, which had been going on under her nose. In a white-hot fury, Rand summoned him to her apartment to berate him:

“You have rejected me?” she shouted. “You have dared to reject me? Me, your highest value, you said, the woman you couldn’t live without, the woman you had dreamed of but never hoped to find!”

…If Nathaniel were the man he pretended to be, he would have been blind to all other women on earth and would feel sexual desire for her “even if I were eighty years old and in a wheelchair!” she railed at him, in grief and rage, according to both Brandens. [p.371]

She sent him off with one final malediction: “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health, you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” [p.372]

After that night, Rand never saw or spoke to Branden again. She severed all ties with him, even removing his name from the dedication in subsequent printings of Atlas Shrugged. She issued a searing denunciation of him in her newsletter, asserting to all her followers that he was guilty of behavior “so irrational and offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him” [p.379], though she was deliberately vague about the real cause of the breach. Students who continued attending officially sanctioned courses on Objectivism “had to sign a waiver promising not to contact either [Nathaniel or Barbara] or buy Nathaniel’s forthcoming book or subsequent books” [p.381]. In a final act of spite, when Rand died in 1982, one of her final wishes was that guards be posted at her funeral to keep the Brandens out if they tried to attend [p.410]. (Branden, older and wiser, became a successful psychotherapist specializing in the role of self-esteem. He died in December 2014.)

Like the best tragic heroes of myth, Rand was brought low by her own hubris. She believed that emotions, even primal ones like love and lust, were under full conscious control and were an expression of someone’s deepest principles. And since she was, by her own definition, the greatest advocate of reason and capitalism, it followed that everyone who believed in reason and capitalism should desire her. Thus, when Branden lost sexual interest in her, she had no graceful way to accept it; she could only interpret it as a repudiation of everything she stood for. Worse, it meant that she was inferior to another woman. Coming from her chief acolyte and handpicked successor, that was a mortal wound to her ego, and if anything defined Ayn Rand, it was her ego. For all that it was self-inflicted, it was a blow she never fully recovered from, and it greatly accelerated the cultic and totalitarian tendencies of Objectivism.

Other posts in this series:

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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