Ayn Rand’s iconic and influential work Atlas Shrugged has managed to avoid some of the more textured criticism precisely because from the day of its publication it has either been celebrated as a work of Libertarian philosophy or ignored and dismissed as a clunky work of sub-par fiction. Hence, it was either placed atop a pedestal or ignored as a work worthy of further inquiry, depending on your ideological leanings. But what could possibly bring the two ideologies together more than a little S&M?
50 Shades of Grey has (unfortunately) become one of the biggest selling literary phenomena of the past decade and is now a film. Starting out as Twilight fan fiction that appealed to the more risque elements of vampires and werewolves, a few name changes and some decent marketing turned it into the literary equivalent of Deep Throat, and popularized a new genre of fiction – S&M Chick Lit.
Sadomasochism has its psychological roots in control; it is the need to either control or be controlled and, ultimately, is a submission of the self. According to Dr. Roy Baumeister in Psychology Today, "Masochists… are taking a breather from the growing burden of selfhood." This element of control and of relieving the burden of self is realized in Dagny Taggart’s character; she is a young, independent, powerful, and driven woman running the show in what is traditionally a man’s world – big business. But how’s a girl to blow off some steam with such a busy schedule and an image of power to maintain?
Enter Hank Rearden; owner and operator of Rearden Steel and inventor of Rearden Metal, the newest alloy that is revolutionizing the train industry. Hank may exude a powerful role in business and metallurgy but both politically and intimately he is completely powerless. As the envious political forces beat him down throughout Rand’s novel, the real tragedy of his existence is his marriage to Lillian and his support of her ungrateful mother and brother. Lillian is a demeaning and emotionally cold woman who loves nothing more than torturing her hard-working husband with pseudo-intellectual insults gleaned from fellow socialites. When he presents his wife with a bracelet made from the very first of his revolutionary Rearden Metal, she laughs him off. On top of that Lillian wasn’t much in the bedroom: "She made it clear that she took it for granted that men had degrading instincts which constituted the secret, ugly part of marriage. She was condescendingly tolerant." Hot stuff! Rearden takes this (and much more) abuse with a stoic sense of responsibility to his vows and tries to hide in his work… Until, of course, he meets Dagny.
The sex scenes in Atlas Shrugged are such that it is difficult to understand why they haven’t received more attention in light of the 50 Shades phenomenon. They are rough, illicit, and downright dirty at times and probably pushed the envelope for 1950’s acceptability. There is both a physical and emotional violence in the affair between Rearden and Dagny, which should not be confused with love. At their first intimate encounter: "Whatever I am, she thought, whatever pride of person I may hold, the pride of my courage, of my work, of my mind and my freedom – that is what I offer you for the pleasure of your body, that is what I want you to use in your service – and that you want it to serve you is the greatest reward I can have." The following morning Dagny is bruised on her arms and "Rearden in bed beside her, after hours of violence which they could not name now, not in words, or in daylight…"
Dagny’s submission to Rearden has a two-fold psychological explanation: for one, it is the giving over of her selfhood to Rearden as a way of escape from the burden of her fully realized self; secondly, it is, as Dr. Baumeister explains, that of fully realizing her womanhood while occupying a social role normally reserved for men. "If anything, female masochists desire to be turned into an extreme caricature version of femininity, something far removed from their normal selves." Conversely, Hank Rearden is able to display the power and control toward Dagny that he is unable to express in his home life. But their relationship is more business than love. It is essentially a business transaction – a "contract" in the S&M lexicon – with all the competitive venom and objectivity of such. Rearden tells Dagny that he hates her, that he wants her only as a man may want a whore, while Dagny is merely entertained by his guilt. Throughout their relationship, their business acumen remains intact. Rearden lets Dagny know in no uncertain terms that he is going to charge her as much as possible for use of his metal while she says that she will use every trick in the book to pay the least. Each individual satisfies the sexual/emotional needs of the other, while not interfering with the other’s ability to conduct business – true capitalism.
There is also the iconic scene during a party at Rearden’s house in which Dagny, in front of an audience, offers to trade a diamond bracelet for Lillian’s bracelet made of Rearden Metal. Lillian is more than happy to make the trade and Dagny wears the bracelet throughout her relationship with Hank even after Lillian asks for it back. Sadomasochists and their partners often have a form of "leash," normally a necklace or chain, which is worn by the submissive as a public display of their role in the fantasy.
Ayn Rand had a well-known affair with Nathaniel Branden, a fellow leader in the Objectivist movement, but nothing to date suggests that she was into anything similar to what is depicted in Dagny and Rearden’s relationship. Instead, the kinky stuff appears to be a product of her intense ideology, one that glorifies self-realization through strength of character, absolute freedom, and shaking off of any notion of victim-hood, feminine or otherwise. That very same self-realization embraces – at intimate times – the more natural male and female roles based on the primitive qualities of brute strength. She embraces a role of femininity that is similar to her view of politics, government, and economics; it is a stripping down to the bare essentials and embracing the primitive base reality of the act – man takes woman. Her stripping away of the social wrapping involved in sex is the same as her stripping away the social wrapping of economy and showing it for what it is – self-interest.
That being said, as Rand has demonstrated in her work and as has been shown throughout the world through the success of capitalism, self-interest can be an amazing thing. In the immortal words of Paris Hilton, "that’s hot." Who knows? Maybe soon we will be seeing some steamy fan fiction featuring the love triangle of Dagny, Rearden, and Galt as they shake loose the shackles of society and don the shackles of foreplay.
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