Friday, 5 December 2008

Atlas’s ‘tunnel scene’

I’ve had several conversations with friends disturbed about the ‘tunnel scene’ in Atlas Shrugged (although not as many as I’ve had about the ‘rape scene’ in The Fountainhead). They think it’s cruel.  I’ve pointed out it’s just.

If you’ve found yourself troubled by the scene, you might appreciate Darren Cauthon’s analysis.  But do watch out for spoilers. [Hat tip Objectivist Roundup]


  1. PC: it's just.

    Yeah right. The lady was just a bit screwed.

  2. A decent analysis.

    Berend: The point of the sceen is not that the people SHOULD have died, it was that they each, in some minor way, contributed to their own deaths.

  3. After studying the actual analysis I think PC's comment with "it's just" is not warranted, and if the intention was not to display justice, my remark that this showed particular problematic aspects of her character is not correct.

    But there are quite a few other scenes in both books that do.

    Not withstanding that, Atlas Shrugged was a fantastic read.

  4. The problem I have with the tunnel scene is the claim that a coal burning locomotive cannot be taken through a tunnel because the smoke and fumes will kill the drivers and passengers. The fact is coal burning locomotives have taken trains through tunnels for as long as there have been coal burning locomotives and tunnels.

    So I am required to suspend my reason to understand a chapter that deals with the consequences of suspending ones reason.

  5. Mark V.: which takes greater suspension of disbelief: that a train tunnel designed for diesel locomotives could be horribly and fatally unsuited to coal-fired trains, or that perpetual motion machines (or nearly such, powered by static electricity) are lying around in junk yards just waiting to be found? Not meant as a critique of the book at all -- was great fun read and made me intolerable company for a few months in undergrad; wouldn't change a word of it.

    Berend, PC: Barbara Branden's book has a rather nice take on whether Ayn was a bit screwy.

    PC: Have you ever read Rothbard's one-act play, Mozart was a Red? Apparently Murray Rothbard was a guest in Ayn Rand's salon; the play was the result. I'm a fan of both Rand and Rothbard but probably a bit of a heretic in both camps, so I quite like the piece.

    Tunnel scene: I never saw any problem with it and am a bit surprised to find that there are folks who otherwise like the book but don't like that scene. Me, I feel bad for the folks in Venezuela who didn't vote for Chavez, not the folks who did.

  6. Regarding steam trains going through tunnels.

    In the central North Island of New Zealand there is a section of track known as the Rarimu Spiral. It features two tunnel sections- one short and one long. I've ridden footplate on a steam locomotove through there and it certainly is possible (with a light train at a reasonable speed), but there were precautions undertaken and the crew were well aware of certain risks involved.

    After the trip we discussed the traversing tunnels with steam locomotives. One of the crew mentioned that years ago NZR purchased a pair of Garret locomotives with which it intended to work the Spiral. Those locos had much greater drawbar pull than any of the K or J class locos. It was thought that instead of needing to bank trains ascending the Spiral, the Garrets could do the job alone and unaided. Apparently the process was for the fireman to shovel a large amount of coal on the grate and close the firedoor an instant before the locomotive entered the tunnel. The engineer would let the cut-off right out and set the throttle open all the way. Then both men would hit the deck and cover their faces with wet towels. For the next few minutes the locomotive would gring its way up through the tunnel. Both men knew they'd be dead if anything went wrong and the locomotive slowed or stopped. Same deal went for anyone on the train if they were in a carriage within the tunnel at the same time as the loco, were it to come to a halt. There were conditions of unbearable heat and smoke on the footplate as the train progressed through the tunnel and this got worse and worse until emerging out into the fresh air. Conditions were better inside the carriages but still unpleasant and potentially dangerous.

    The thing to understand is that both these tunnels sections are relatively short. Even so they provided problems for steaming. A reasonably long tunnel section would pose a much greater problem. There are tunnels throughout Europe and the USA where it would definately not be safe to run a steamer. Definately hugely dangerous and likely to result in fatalities.

    There is even a section of tunnel in NZ where it was not usual to run steam as the tunnel was too long and it was unventilated. It was considered unsafe to run steam through there, although it was done on occasion. If I recall the discussion correctly, this tunnel was the first significant section of rail to be electrified in NZ. It was electrified as a matter of design and went live right after the tunnel was completed (just before it was commissioned fro service). Can anyone guess where it is?

    Regarding the tunnel disaster scene in the novel.

    Reasonable to expect this could occur. Actually similar accidents have occurred and for similar actions of ommission or commission.

    Atlas Shrugged is a novel intended to convey the importance of ideas and where those ideas can lead. The tunnel scene is plausible and it certainly does demonstrate what can happen when people act on bad ideas.

    Hanso is correct.


  7. LGM:

    My guess is the Otira Tunnel between Otira and Arthur's Pass, 8.5 km long, finished in 1923.

    I ride back and forth through the Tawa No. 2 tunnel every day on my way to work. It is 4.3 km long and even riding the electric carriages the air gets a bit gross if the passengers don't close the windows sharpish.

    I presume it is a combination of fumes from previous diesel trains, and oil burning off the axles.

  8. Luke H

    Spot on. Otira it is!

    Regarding your trips through the Tawa tunnel; might be leaking hot transmission oil and fumes from the brakes cooking off as well. Sometimes leaking compressed air is contaiminated with lubricating oil. That's another possibility.

    Imagine a live fire in there. Tunnels can be very dangerous.



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