I read Atlas Shrugged over the course of about a year.

Yes, a year; maybe more. I wrote an essay in the in an effort to earn/win cash for school. Alas, my piece was dumped with the rest of the slush pile, not quite cutting the muster. In the two years since, I’ve encountered almost unanimously antipathy for Rand’s novel, of which more later. Here, though, the essay, mostly untouched.

So far as the brightest among us can tell, the universe has at its core a rule that something cannot arise without a source. There is no effect without a beckoning cause. Energy results from a translation of matter, and matter from a translation of energy.

There is, however, a thematic exception to this rule. Among the stars exist those great consumers of matter and energy, from which not even light can escape, black holes. These structures result from the collapse of stars no longer able to sustain their brilliance. The most prolific terrestrial cousin of the black hole is cancer, a cell which consumes other, healthy cells for the sole purpose of producing only more cancerous cells.

Self-sustaining organizations, either of stardust, DNA, or even of interested persons, must take as a primary goal continued production. Stars must keep fusing hydrogen to make helium, and helium to make lithium, and so on. Organic cells must continue to produce energy, sugars, proteins, and all the other building blocks of life. So must the public and private institutions of humanity continue to produce the goods and services other public and private institutions require toward shared sustenance.

Early in Atlas Shrugged, we find the slow but steady proliferation of a cancerous ideal: The needs of a man define his worth. At some point prior to Eddie’s opening contemplations, one mind after another has given over its energies not to positivity, but the negation of apathy. Like bees to a honeypot, holders of public and private office have swarmed to the temptation that they need only provide compelling evidence of a lacking capacity to produce in order to maintain their various business interests.

One of Rand’s most influential villains speaks more directly to the point than he realizes.

‘My purpose,’ said Orren Boyle, ‘is the preservation of a free economy. It’s generally conceded that free economy is now on trial.’

[Boyle] had started out with a hundred thousand dollars of his own and a two-hundred-million dollar loan from the government. Now he headed an enormous concern which had swallowed many smaller companies. This proved, he liked to say, that individual ability still had a chance to succeed in the world.

What Boyle and his cronies embrace is a glaring logical fallacy: any effort which merely consumes can’t but inevitably destroy all sources of sustenance. Boyle had succeeded through only as much “individual ability” as was required to procure the alms of treasurers. Black holes merely consume, and produce no useful byproduct; cancer consumes and produces only more cancer; and beggars can hope for naught but the depletion of the industrious folks who might give a hand-out. The cronies’ rhetoric bears out this confusion: “‘After all,'” states Boyle, “‘private property is a trusteeship held for the benefit of society as a whole.'” James Taggart responds with a smile that “seemed to say that something in his words was an answer to something in the words of Boyle,” and then, “‘The liquor they serve here is swill…. Since I hold the purse strings, I expect to get my money’s worth and at my pleasure.”

Taggart, Boyle, the Friends of Global Progress, and all the other agents of industry’s eventual collapse conflate sympathy for need with appreciation for production. Achievement is necessarily, absolutely postivistic, resulting in something new made from something old. They fail to understand that achievement cannot be carved out by acts of negation, cannot be formed by destroying the new to return novelty to the old. There are more ways than one to skin a cat, but none are much good without a cat to begin with.

In the midst of nervous shuffling and aims of nationalization and protectionist legislation, Ellis Wyatt and Dan Conway conspire to make profits.

[A] train of tank cars carrying oil went hurtling down an embankment and into a blazing junk pile. . . . Ellis Wyatt did not wait for the court to decide whether the accident was an act of God, as James Taggart claimed. He transferred the shipping of his oil to the Phoenix-Durango, an obscure railroad which was ‘small and struggling, but,’ critically, ‘struggling well.’ To struggle well is to see a field of negation as nothing but a frontier for positive effort, for creation, and not a source of need. The needy bemoan a bushel of lemons when they wanted cake; those struggling well make lemonade.

The consortium of lazy ignorance wastes no time passing the Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule, which “provided that the members of the National Alliance of Railroads were forbidden to engage in practices defined as ‘destructive competition’.” The only practitioners of destructive competition, however, are the very parties who passed the Rule, embroiled as they are in a race for the meekest assets and the greatest relative need. “‘Nine months from now,'” James Taggart boasts to his sister, “‘there’s not going to be any Phoenix-Durango Railroad in Colorado!”, as if the absence of competition would render unnecessary the maintenance of a railway to transport oil out of the state.

It’s this sort of self-defeat nested within selfishness that creeps through the rest of the country, tarnishing and then reducing to rust and scraps every means of industry and production. More importantly, of course, is the gutting of the will of men and women. When eventually all the great thinkers and their corporations who had fueled the nation’s, the world’s, progress and development succumb to the secretive idyll of Midas’ valley, leaving the rest of the world to embrace its negation, we find Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart faced with the greatest casualty of all: The abandonment of the will to succeed itself. One by one, the Ellis Wyatts and Ken Danaggers face this greatest of their fears, and realize that it is only through this abandonment of the will to succeed that they can find the will again. Even its greatest stalwarts must look upon their mills, bridges, and railways and realize that, like the carcasses of loved ones, all that remains must be let go.

Our lives are but intersections of cyclic adventures, a hopeful meandering through the effects of our causes. Each of us has come from the dust of stars, and each of us will make our way back. The destruction of the Phoenix-Durango was the death knell of the motor of the world; and it was made possible only by a profuse worship of negation, the worship of zero.


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