Friday, September 2, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Day

      "Who is John Galt?"
  The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still--as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
  "Why did you say that?" asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
  The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
  "Why does it bother you?" he asked.
   ...[Eddie] walked on, reminding himself that he was late in returning to the office. He did not like the task which he had to perform on his return, but it had to be done. So he did not attempt to delay it, but made himself walk faster.
  He turned a corner. In the narrow space between the dark silhouettes of two buildings, as in the crack of a door, he saw the page of a gigantic calendar suspended in the sky.
  It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening's sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.
This date, and meaning, runs throughout the story of Atlas Shrugged. It's also today, as I write this.
  ...The calendar in the sky beyond the window of her office said: September 2. Dagny leaned wearily across her desk. The first light to snap on at the approach of dusk was always the ray that hit the calendar; when the white-glowing page appeared above the roofs, it blurred the city, hastening the darkness.
  She had looked at that distant page every evening of the months behind her. Your days are numbered, it had seemed to say--as if it were marking a progression toward something it knew, but she didn't. Once, it had clocked her race to build the John Galt Line; now it was clocking her race against an unknown destroyer.
  ...She raised her head, as she finished reading his pages. The calendar in the distance said: September 2. The lights of the city had grown beneath it, spreading and glittering. She thought of Rearden. 
In a few days, Obama (I can't call him "President" — it's too much of a desecration of that title) will be speaking to the nation.
  ...The last event of the day had been a large dinner reception at the home of Senor Rodrigo Gonzales, a diplomatic representative of Chile. No one had heard of Senor Gonzales a year ago, but he had [been described]... as a progressive businessman. He had lost his property--it was said--when Chile, becoming a People's State, had nationalized all properties, except those belonging to citizens of backward, non-People's countries, such as Argentina; but he had adopted an enlightened attitude and had joined the new regime, placing himself in the service of his country. His home in New York occupied an entire floor of an exclusive residential hotel.  He had a fat, blank face and the eyes of a killer.
  ...[He had mentioned] that by agreement with the future People's State of Argentina, the properties of d'Anconia Copper would be nationalized by the People's State of Chile, in less than a month, on September 2.
I'm not saying that's what Obama's speech will be about — except in spirit.
  [Dagny] shuddered and walked faster--but ahead of her, in the foggy distance, she saw the calendar above the roofs of the city--it was long past midnight and the calendar said: August 6, but it seemed to her suddenly that she saw September 2 written above the city in letters of blood--and she thought: If she worked, if she struggled, if she rose, she would take a harder beating with each step of her climb, until, at the end, whatever she reached, be it a copper company or an unmortgaged cottage, she would see it seized by Jim on some September 2 and she would see it vanish to pay for the parties where Jim made his deals with his friends.
But the party can only go on so long before it's over.
  ...On the morning of September 2, a copper wire broke in California, between two telephone poles by the track of the Pacific branch line of Taggart Transcontinental...
  "Copper wire?" said James Taggart, with an odd glance that went from her face to the city beyond the window. "In a very short while, we won't have any trouble about copper."
  "Why?" she asked, but he did not answer. There was nothing special to see beyond the window, only the clear sky of a sunny day, the quiet light of early afternoon on the roofs of the city and, above them, the page of the calendar, saying: September 2.
And from there the effects ripple outward.
  "Ladies and gentlemen!" the voice of the radio speaker leaped forth abruptly; it had a tone of panic. "News of a shocking development has just reached us from Santiago, Chile!
  "...The seizure of the multi-billion dollar d'Anconia Copper was to come as a munificent surprise to the country. [But] on the stroke of ten, in the exact moment when the chairman's gavel struck the rostrum, opening the session--almost as if the gavel's blow had set it off--the sound of a tremendous explosion rocked the hall... The chairman averted panic and called the session to order. The act of nationalization was read to the assembly, to the sound of fire alarm sirens and distant cries.  But more terrible a shock came later, when the legislators called a hasty recess to announce to the nation the good news that the people now owned d'Anconia Copper. While they were voting, word had come from the closest and farthest points of the globe that there was no d'Anconia Copper left on earth. Ladies and gentlemen, not anywhere.
  "In that same instant, on the stroke of ten, by an infernal marvel of synchronization, every property of d'Anconia Copper on the face of the globe, from Chile to Siam to Spain to Pottsville, Montana, had been blown up and swept away.  In place of the golden dawn of a new age, the People's States of Chile and Argentina are left with a pile of rubble and hordes of unemployed on their hands!"
Call it the work of anti-social misanthropes, or just the natural consequence and end-game of looters everywhere.
  [Dagny] saw the glare of the explosion in every face she met through the rest of the day-and in every face she passed in the darkness of the streets, that evening. If Francisco had wanted a worthy funeral pyre for d'Anconia Copper, she thought, he had succeeded.  ...She saw it in the face of Hank Rearden, when she met him for dinner that evening. ...She knew whom he meant, when he said suddenly, his voice soft and low with the weight of admiration, "He did keep his oath, didn't he?"
      "His oath?" she asked, startled, thinking of the inscription on the temple of Atlantis.
      "He said to me, 'I swear--by the woman I love--that I am your friend,' He was."
      "He is."
      He looked away, out at the city. They sat at the side of the room, with a sheet of glass as an invisible protection against the sweep of space and streets sixty floors below. The city seemed abnormally distant: it lay flattened down to the pool of its lowest stories. A few blocks away, its tower merging into darkness, the calendar hung at the level of their faces, not as a small, disturbing rectangle, but as an enormous screen, eerily close and large, flooded by the dead, white glow of light projected through an empty film, empty but for the letters: September 2.
The meaning is a tocsin -- an alarm bell warning of great danger.
  "How could he? How could he?" a woman was demanding with petulant terror. "He had no right to do it!"
  "It was an accident," said a young man with a staccato voice and an odor of public payroll. "It was a chain of coincidences, as any statistical curve of probabilities can easily prove. It is unpatriotic to spread rumors exaggerating the power of the people's enemies."
  "Right and wrong is all very well for academic conversations," said a woman with a schoolroom voice and a barroom mouth, "but how can anybody take his own ideas seriously enough to destroy a fortune when people need it?"
  The muffled scream of a woman across the room and some half grasped signal on the edge of Dagny's vision, came simultaneously and made her whirl to look at the city.
  The calendar was run by a mechanism locked in a room behind the screen, unrolling the same film year after year, projecting the dates in steady rotation, in changeless rhythm, never moving but on the stroke of midnight. The speed of Dagny's turn gave her time to see a phenomenon as unexpected as if a planet had reversed its orbit in the sky: she saw the words "September 2" moving upward and vanishing past the edge of the screen.
  Then, written across the enormous page, stopping time, as a last message to the world and to the world's motor which was New York, she saw the lines of a sharp, intransigent handwriting:        
Brother, you asked for it!  Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Anconia 
In one sense, the entire story of Atlas Shrugged is one of contrasts between two numbers:  the number "2" -- and the zero.  The first is a response to the latter.  As John Galt told the world,
   "This, in every hour and every issue, is your basic moral choice: thinking or non-thinking, existence or non-existence, A or non-A, entity or zero. ...You who are worshippers of the zero--you have never discovered that achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.
  "...you can no longer say to me, the builder: 'Produce, and feed us in exchange for our not destroying your production.' I am answering in the name of all your victims: Perish with and in your own void. ...Perish, because we have learned that a zero cannot hold a mortgage over life. 
  "...You dart in panic through the trap of your days, looking for the exit you have closed, running from a pursuer you dare not name to a terror you dare not acknowledge... The purpose of your struggle is not to know, not to grasp or name or hear the thing I shall now state to your hearing: that yours is the Morality of Death. ...you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward--if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection. 
  "A morality that holds need as a claim, holds emptiness-nonexistence-as its standard of value; it rewards an absence, a defect: weakness, inability, incompetence, suffering, disease, disaster, the lack, the fault, the flaw-the zero. 
  "...It is only the metaphysics of a leech that would cling to the idea of a universe where a zero is a standard of identification. 
  "...All actions are caused by entities. ...An action not caused by an entity would be caused by a zero, which would mean a zero controlling a thing, a nonentity controlling an entity, the non-existent ruling the existent--which is the universe of your teachers' desire, the cause of their doctrines of causeless action, the reason of their revolt against reason, the goal of their morality, their politics, their economics, the ideal they strive for: the reign of the zero. 
  "...When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved, ...he is asking you to step into a void outside of existence and consciousness to give him proof of both--he is asking you to become a zero gaining knowledge about a zero...  
  "You who've never grasped the nature of evil, you who describe them as 'misguided idealists'--may the God you invented forgive you!- they are the essence of evil, they, those anti-living objects who seek, by devouring the world, to fill the selfless zero of their soul. It is not your wealth that they're after. Theirs is a conspiracy against the mind, which means: against life and man. 
  "...It is a conspiracy of all those who seek, not to live, but to get away with living, those who seek to cut just one small corner of reality and are drawn, by feeling, to all the others who are busy cutting other corners--a conspiracy that unites by links of evasion all those who pursue a zero as a value: 
  "This idol of your cult of zero-worship, this symbol of impotence-- the congenital dependent— is your image of man and your standard of value, in whose likeness you strive to refashion your soul.  
  "...to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the ground of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need, as a claim --is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values. ...Be it only a penny you will not miss or a kindly smile he has not earned, a tribute to a zero is treason to life and to all those who struggle to maintain it. It is of such pennies and smiles that the desolation of your world was made."
The full meaning of the number zero is concretized in the following discussion between Galt and Mr. Thompson, the leader of the country who wants Galt to save everyone from themselves-- but Thompson finds there is no common ground he can offer in trade:
        "Well, what on earth do you want?"
"What on earth do I need you for?"
"Huh?"
"What have you got to offer me that I couldn't get without you?"
There was a different look in Mr. Thompson's eyes when he drew back, as if cornered, yet looked straight at Galt for the first time and said slowly, "Without me, you couldn't get out of this room, right now."
Galt smiled. "True."
"You wouldn't be able to produce anything. You could be left here to starve."
"True."
"Well, don't you see?" The loudness of homey joviality came back into Mr. Thompson's voice, as if the hint given and received were now to be safely evaded by means of humor. "What I've got to offer you is your life."
"It's not yours to offer, Mr. Thompson," said Galt softly.
Something about his voice made Mr. Thompson jerk to glance at him, then jerk faster to look away: Galt's smile seemed almost gentle.
"Now," said Galt, "do you see what I meant when I said that a zero can't hold a mortgage over life? It's I who'd have to grant you that kind of mortgage--and I don't. The removal of a threat is not a payment, the negation of a negative is not a reward, the withdrawal of your armed hoodlums is not an incentive, the offer not to murder me is not a value."
"Who... who's said anything about murdering you?"
"Who's said anything about anything else?
      ...There was a long pause.
"Well?" said Galt. "What are your orders?"
"I want you to save the economy of the country!"
"I don't know how to save it."
"I want you to find a way!"
"I don't know how to find it."
"I want you to think!"
"How will your gun make me do that, Mr. Thompson?"
        Mr. Thompson jerked suddenly into bustling, unnecessary motions, as if he were in a hurry, "I've got to run along," he said. "I... I have so many appointments. ...[He] paused at the door, turned to look at Galt for a moment and shook his head. "I can't figure you out," he said. "I just can't figure you out."
Galt smiled, shrugged and answered, "Who is John Galt?"

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