Penelope

Yes and the way he pronounced Penelope with three syllables like cantaloupe. Fresh fruit that breaks inside your mouth and dribbles down your chin, sticky for days afterwards. She remembers picking seeds and fibers from her teeth at the Orinda Country Club pool with her tongue through dull metal braces. 

And the tight white denim jeans he had on were so like Paul Newman’s in the dune racing scene in Sometimes a Great Notion, the movie to which she nightly pawed at herself at twelve, learning, yearning for a man like Hank Stamper. She yearned for a man like that, a man from the North. This man, she would find out later, was from the North but the wrong North: the North of ivy and red-brick walkups, not Douglass Fir and slick, dark stones licked by beating waves. But him so like Paul Newman with those blue eyes that flitted about her body devilishly. He was a devil, a rogue, impetuous like a child. Like the young boy who had once mispronounced her name in grade school, erupting the class into wild and cacophonic laughter. So unlike, for he was not a clown, was deadly serious as illness or fathers or ill fathers, so familiar to her. So familiar brushing up against her midsection with a tan arm when passing a drink to someone else, fleshy white underneath like a fish slithering through cold and familiar waters, the water already beginning to break inside her. He could open her waters with a single touch. 

Introductions brought them together around a low coffee table strewn with beer cans and ashtrays. Marriage, trying to get marriage out of her brain and coming back up, resurfacing. Trying to get it out like trying to remove a vital organ while still alive. 

The laughing, head-thrown-back cackling of mirth and new friends filled the air. The mirth passed from person to person around the strewn coffee table above which the lights shaded low and dark this strange now-not-stranger’s first face for her. For her. For you, his eyes seemed to say without lips moving. They spoke to her in the longful forlorn way he looked up at her over the cards to some game they were playing that she couldn’t make sense of but he seemed to know innately. Not love, not lust, not curious, not nothing. Beautiful he was in the braided lamplight over the drinks and the smoke and the cards, she remembers, beautiful. 

Pass, who’s turn is it? You? No you? Is it me? It’s you. Who? Penelope pronounced with three syllables like cantaloupe. So daring to mispronounce after proper introduction. It was intoxicating to be forgotten immediately after making herself known to him. Marriage, this now-not-stranger, was he married? He blew smoke across the table in big puffs that obscured the space between them, shaking her resolve to know him. She didn’t want to, didn’t need this, another man, another one, another marriage. Marriage, she remembers. 

But the no-winking no-nonsense way he looked at her without saying anything. She loved being there in that moment, held in blue cold-crusted eyes like diamonds glinting in the overhead light. Then the game wrapped up and the people sat back talking the no-talk that follows such games when everyone should be an adult and should know what to talk about, but still so young all of them. After all, all after or during their first marriages of which there will be so many. Marriage was repulsive to her then. 

But, she remembers, a little thing. When she arrived and the moon hung overhead big and bloated like an egg over the griddle streets, she stood with the true stranger in white denim pants. True, for she had not known him then and had not known that he would be coming inside with her. The two of them the only bodies in the swaying liquid cold of the December evening. Thinking in those moments not of marriage, not of beautiful, not of nothing. Not thinking. Drinking. Drinking in the sight of a pensive man looking up. The way he held his cigarette between thumb and forefinger like pinching a delicate flower. She pictured the gardenias he could one day pick for her. She pictured putting them behind her ear, tucking them up into the blonde waves. She pictured the life above the two of them as the sky turned. He had not seen her, had not met her, but was there for her. For her. And she had only to accept the unwanted, uninvited intrusion of this stranger’s body in her life. She had only to accept it. 

Was there a choice? Did she have a choice? Him, making her question these and many other. Him, complicating the delicate balance of her now jaded world with his presence. Him just looking up, pinching his smoke, with no notice of her. Him, making her question marriage being so like a trap and a trial and a procession of days. Him, seeming like a story without end, and an asker of questions with no words. Or with one word. The right word pronounced wrongly. Penelope, like cantaloupe. Yes. 

James Taggart Masculinity

Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic Atlas Shrugged is the outline of a moral philosophy—objectivism. Objectivism holds that contradictions cannot exist and that men control their own destinies by following the engines of their moralities. This philosophy enjoys favor among many of the top brass Republicans in the USA. Rand’s abhorrence of big government and her fanatical devotion to the myth of the free market conform well with conservative policy in this country. Although the novel is often identified as merely a polemic against socialism, Rand’s critical eye exposes much more about American society than the flaws inherent to large bureaucratic institutions. Atlas Shruggedis not only the outline of a moral philosophy, but also a modern tragedy lamenting the triumph of an inferior kind of masculinity over the ideal kind, the kind epitomized by Rand’s hyper-masculine heroes.

The novel contains innumerable references to gender, identity, and sexuality in its 1000-plus pages. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a brilliant engineer and industrialist. Her femininity is suppressed throughout the novel, even as she pursues three romantic relationships. Dagny and her suitors all strive for and largely meet the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity—physical strength, mechanical and financial competence, and fierce independence. Rational thought and planning form the foundation of the morality that guides the novel’s heroes through their concordant quests. Though all three of Dagny’s suitors are physically capable, financially brilliant, and perfectly self-sufficient, the enigmatic John Galt dominates his peers. His name appears again and again on the lips of most every character, “Who is John Galt?,” a prayer for a masculine cure for all the country’s ills.

Dagny’s brother, James, is the President of the family’s railroad company, Taggart Transcontinental. Throughout the novel, James is nothing but a dithering buffoon. He passes all responsibility for the family business to his sister and elects to spend his days and nights in small, dim rooms with other incompetent executives. They plot and scheme, hungry to expand their power and determined to destroy anyone whose ability or effort might threaten their position. These men are weak. Only their intractable aggression identifies them as masculine.

In most other ways though, these men are not masculine. James and his cadre are indecisive and emotionally unstable. They whine incessantly about fairness and blame. They have no technical competence whatsoever. They are referred to as “leeches” at many points in the novel. And most importantly, they have no ties to rationality, opting instead to pursue a path of contradiction in order to increase uncertainty in the populace and expand their power. Miraculously, they succeed.

When James Taggart and his Unification Board take control of the country, they institute nonsensical economic policies designed to starve the prosperous and the able. When their actions cause a national catastrophe, they capture and torture John Galt, pleading with him to lead them as a dictator from their dire situation. When James and his men refuse to acknowledge their share of the blame, Galt declines. By declining, the ideal masculine, embodied by Galt, bows to a lesser form of masculinity. Galt knows that incorporation into James’ crew will lead to the destruction of his masculine identity. Rand is arguing here that the dominant masculinity in a social context need not be or even strive to be the ideal form. James Taggart’s masculinity is that of a drowning man who pulls someone down in order to reach the surface. Weakness can be a great source of power.

James Taggart masculinity abounds today. Our Commander in Chief ran on a campaign of blaming immigrants for domestic problems and has since shifted blame for all his missteps to the courts, the press, and the American people. His administration seems more interested in defending his image than governing. His economic success is mainly the product of inheritance. And he has little to no respect for facts. 

In the closing pages ofAtlas ShruggedJames realizes that his moral engine was the desire to “[prove] to himself that he could exist in defiance of reality and would never have to be bound by any solid, immutable facts.” Why are the Rand-ites in Congress today unable to see the parallels between President Trump and James Taggart? Perhaps pushing policy with little interference from the White House is more alluring than a strong, competent leader. Or maybe their fascination with Rand is merely superficial, a philosophical justification for the way things are. What is clear is that the James Taggart masculinity espoused by Trump dominates all others, unchallenged not because of its strength, but because of its weakness.