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But I’m not done giving you teasers for my current book, So Who Is John Galt, Anyway? A Reader’s Guide to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Here’s another excerpt from one of the chapters that is unique to this book and has never been published in my newsletter or anywhere else.
The book’s final chapter, “The Special Sense of Existence,” examines the nature and basis for the unique “sense of life” of Ayn Rand’s novels.
The nature of that “sense of life” appeal is hinted at in one particularly important and dramatic moment in Atlas Shrugged. When Dagny is about to crash-land in the valley at the end of Part Two, here is what is going through her head.
“Her arms pulling at the wheel, with no chance of knowing whether she could succeed, with her space and time running out—she felt, in a flash of its full violent purity, that special sense of existence that had always been hers. In a moment’s consecration to her love—to her rebellious denial of disaster, to her love of life and of the matchless value that was herself—she felt the fiercely proud certainty that she would survive.”
What are the elements of the “special sense of existence” that seems unique to an Ayn Rand novel? In this passage, we already find: denial of disaster, love of life, pride, and self-confidence. But this “special sense of existence” had “always been hers,” and we are supposed to recall the previous characterization of Dagny that has given us a feel for her approach to life.
For example, Dagny’s first scene in the novel ends with this description of her as a woman of action. “Through the dry phrases of calculations in her mind, she noticed that she did have time to feel something: it was the hard, exhilarating pleasure of action.” Similarly, in the long flashback to Dagny’s childhood early in the novel, we get a description of one of the distinctive emotional themes of her life.
“She never tried to explain why she liked the railroad. Whatever it was that others felt, she knew that this was one emotion for which they had no equivalent and no response. She felt the same emotion in school, in classes of mathematics, the only lessons she liked. She felt the excitement of solving problems, the insolent delight of taking up a challenge and disposing of it without effort, the eagerness to meet another, harder test.”
This is echoed in Dagny’s response to the statue of Nat Taggart in the Taggart Terminal: “He held his head as if he faced a challenge and found joy in his capacity to meet it. All that Dagny wanted of life was contained in the desire to hold her head as he did.”
So another element of Dagny’s “special sense of existence,” an underlying element that explains the rest, is an emphasis on the capacity to act and to solve problems. This is something Ayn Rand also pulls out in her characterization of Rearden, as in his reaction to the passage of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.
“He saw for the first time that he had never known fear because, against any disaster, he had held the omnipotent cure of being able to act. No, he thought, not an assurance of victory—who can ever have that?—only the chance to act, which is all one needs.”
This is the root also of Dagny’s “denial of disaster” and “fiercely proud certainty that she would survive”—the confidence in her capacity to think, to act, and to solve problems.
I go on to examine how this sense of life is connected to the spirit of youth, including this observation about the character of Dr. Robert Stadler.
It is telling that Stadler is described in these early passages as still being unusually youthful in appearance. His face is described as “ageless” and he has “an air of youthful energy, almost of boyish zest.” Stadler is intended as a cautionary tale, as someone who had the spirit of youth but lost or betrayed it, and the key to that betrayal is in the loss of his confidence in reason.
In this regard, Ayn Rand’s novels are often sneered at as being “adolescent.” I take up that issue, not as an excuse to dismiss her novels, but as an opportunity to look at the particular cognitive and psychological needs of adolescence and how Ayn Rand addresses them.
Note how this is an aspect of Ayn Rand’s re-imagination of literary Romanticism. The fire of individual self-assertion comes not from a wild torrent of emotion, but from the power of reason. Yet this combination of reason and self-assertion poses a dilemma from within a conventional perspective.
Psychologists who study adolescent development have identified several key issues that motivate young people as they are making the transition from childhood to adulthood. The first is their discovery of a sense of idealism. As a child reaches adolescence, his ability to grasp and deal with abstractions increases. He develops an increasing interest in ideas and principles and wants to act on them. This usually manifests in a noticeable impatience with the compromises and hypocrisies of his elders.
At the same age, an adolescent becomes increasingly conscious of his own efficacy in thinking and making decisions, of his ability to choose what he will do, what he likes, what he wants. He begins consciously forging his own identity by asserting his choices and preferences and desires.
In a society dominated by the morality of altruism, you can see how these two impulses of youth—idealism and self-assertiveness—inherently conflict. A young person wants to assert his independent identity and personal desires, yet the abstract moral ideal he is offered, and to which he wants to dedicate himself, is one in which the assertion of the self is evil.
If you want to read more about how Ayn Rand answers that dilemma—well, like I said the last time I posted one of these teasers, I had to hold some things back exclusively for the book. So buy it and read the whole chapter.