Dagny Taggart was Catholic

19 Jul

Some literary exegesis for you today, in honor of the dramatic increase in Atlas Shrugged sales this year.

Since I first read Atlas Shrugged, I found myself particularly (maybe inordinately) interested in the brief scenes from various characters’ childhoods– particularly those of Dagny, Eddie, and Francisco (and even Jim in this case, I guess, as much as that fact irritates me).  And one of the lines I like best is in the description of Dagny’s conception of “worship.”

“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… a science that was so clean, so strict, so luminously rational.  Studying mathematics, she felt, quite simply: ‘How great that men have done this’ and ‘How wonderful that I’m so good at it.’  It was the joy of admiration and of one’s own ability, growing together.  Her feeling for the railroad was the same: worship of the skill that had gone to make it, of the ingenuity of someone’s clean, reasoning mind, worship with a secret smile that said she would know how to make it better some day.  She hung around the tracks and the round-houses like a humble student, but the humility had a touch of future pride, a pride to be earned.”

Clearly, Dagny’s sense of worship and humility, which includes pride in man’s ability and one’s own ability as integral, is a tad different from the traditional view that worship means self-abnegation and humility a sense of one’s own worthlessness.  Still, there’s religious imagery there: worship, humility, pride– even the word “luminous” conjures haloes or heavenly apparitions.

More explicitly, when Dagny passes the statue of good ol’ legislator-killing ancestor Nat Taggart in the concourse, she compares the room to a house of worship:

“She had always felt that the concourse looked like a temple.  Glancing up at the distant ceiling, she saw dim vaults supported by giant granite columns, and the tops of vast windows glazed by darkness.  The vaulting held the solemn peace of a cathedral…”

And then, of the statue itself:

“To look at that statue whenever she crossed the concourse, was the only form of prayer she knew.”

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but if she had always considered the concourse similar in atmosphere to a church, or what a church ought to be, (and remember that Dagny was barely into double digits when she informed Eddie Willers that she would run the railroad some day– the kid was undoubtedly familiar with the concourse even then) it seems logical that Dagny would also have a familiarity with temples or cathedrals from a young age.  (Cathedrals, by the way, are pretty distinctly Catholic– as are stained-glass windows.)

The diction is important too– Dagny had always felt the concourse looked like a temple, but Rand does not write that she had also always considered her admiration for Nat Taggart to be prayer.  When referring to the statue, Rand writes of Dagny that it was the only form of prayer she knew, not had ever known.  Another indicator that the Taggart children had a religious upbringing.

And now into the apocrypha–

The 35th anniversary edition of the book (the copy I happily have) includes an introduction of sorts by Dr. Leonard Peikoff.  He includes a number of enlightening passages from Ayn Rand’s notes on the book, one of which mentions a character she ultimately cut from the final version of the story: “Father Amadeus.”

Father Amadeus, Peikoff comments, “was [Jim] Taggart’s priest, to whom he confessed his sins.  The priest was supposed to be a positive character, honestly devoted to the good but practicing consistently the morality of altruism.  Miss Rand dropped him… when she found that it was impossible to make such a character convincing.”

Many (most?) Protestant denominations neither use the term “priest” for the reverends/ministers/pastors nor recognize the sacrament of Reconciliation (absolution of sins with a clergyman as intermediary) as valid.  This is pretty strong evidence that Jim Taggart, at least, was (originally intended to be) not only a religious man but a practicing Catholic– and a pretty good practicing Catholic at that, if his confessor was to be a character with a name, backstory, and all the trimmings. 

Now I can see an evasive, tormented, guilt-ridden man like Jim Taggart turning to religion as a means of comfort or something to grasp onto, but it’s also plausible that he was born into the religion and carried it through to adulthood.  And if he was raised in a Catholic family, judging from Rand’s non-fiction discussion of Catholic doctrine in “Requiem for Man” and “Of Living Death” (and of the doctrine of Original Sin as well), it’s not only possible but probable that Jim’s sense of his own worthlessness was compounded by adherence to beliefs which taught him that humans are innately evil and helpless.

So here’s the thing– I happen to hold the unorthodox opinion that fictional characters have lives outside of the plots of their books (maybe even lives their authors don’t know about) and so am personally convinced that Jim Taggart was a practicing Catholic throughout the novel (now there’s a scary thought).

And if he was raised in the Church as a child, then it’s almost certain that his sister was as well, if only for a very short time.


Quotes from Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand


4 Responses to “Dagny Taggart was Catholic”

  1. teaxaligree November 27, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    Oh my god loved reading this post. I added your feed to my reader.

    • thescattering November 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm #

      Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it!


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