In a comfortable studio policy inspector Porfiry Petrovitch, Nat Taggart with his companion, Eddie Willers. Prince Myshkin ushers in Rand. They seat themselves on the sofa and the conversation ensues…
Porfiry Petrovitch, to Nat Taggart: “There is, if you recollect, a suggestion that there are certain persons who can… that is, not precisely are able to, but have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is not for them.”
Nat Taggart smiles at the exaggerated and intentional distortion of his idea.
Eddie Willers, with alarm: “What? What do you mean? A right to crime? But not because of the influence of environment?”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “No, not exactly because of it, in his article all men are divided into ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?”
Eddie Willers, muttering in bewilderment: “What do you mean? That can’t be right?”
Nat Taggart, smiling again, sees the point at once, and knows where Porfiry Petrovich wants to drive him. He decides to take up the challenge.
Nat Taggart, simply and modestly: “That wasn’t quite my contention, yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so.” (It almost gives him pleasure to admit this.) “The only difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an extraordinary man has the right — that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep — certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). You say that my article isn’t definite; I am ready to make it as clear as I can. Perhaps I am right in thinking you want me to; very well. I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. Then, I remember, I maintain in my article that all… well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mohammed, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed — often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law — were of use to their cause. It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say, those capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals — more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. You see that there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before. As for my division of people into ordinary and extraordinary, I acknowledge that it’s somewhat arbitrary, but I don’t insist upon exact numbers. I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood — that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note that. It’s only in that sense I speak of their right to crime in my article (you remember it began with the legal question). There’s no need for such anxiety, however; the masses will scarcely ever admit this right, they punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation. But the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal. Each class has an equal right to exist. In fact, all have equal rights with me — and vive la guerre éternelle — till the New Jerusalem, of course!”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Then you believe in the New Jerusalem, do you?”
Nat Taggart, firmly, but keeping his eyes fixed to a spot on the floor: “I do.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “And… and do you believe in God? Excuse my curiosity.”
Nat Taggart, raising his eyes to Porfiry, repeats: “I do.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “And… do you believe in Lazarus’ rising from the dead?”
Nat Taggart, stammers: “I… I do. Why do you ask all this?”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “You believe it literally?”
Nat Taggart: “Literally.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “You don’t say so… I asked from curiosity. Excuse me. But let us go back to the question; they are not always executed. Some, on the contrary…”
Nat Taggart: “Triumph in their lifetime? Oh, yes, some attain their ends in this life, and then…”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “They begin executing other people?”
Nat Taggart: “If it’s necessary; indeed, for the most part they do. Your remark is very witty.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Thank you. But tell me this: how do you distinguish those extraordinary people from the ordinary ones? Are there signs at their birth? I feel there ought to be more exactitude, more external definition. Excuse the natural anxiety of a practical law-abiding citizen, but couldn’t they adopt a special uniform, for instance, couldn’t they wear something, be branded in some way? For you know if confusion arises and a member of one category imagines that he belongs to the other, begins to eliminate obstacles as you so happily expressed it, then…”
Nat Taggart: “Oh, that very often happens! That remark is wittier than the other.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Thank you.”
Nat Taggart: “No reason to; but take note that the mistake can only arise in the first category, that is among the ordinary people (as I perhaps unfortunately called them). In spite of their predisposition to obedience very many of them, through a playfulness of nature, sometimes vouchsafed even to the cow, like to imagine themselves advanced people, destroyers, and to push themselves into the new movement, and this quite sincerely. Meanwhile the really new people are very often unobserved by them, or even despised as reactionaries of groveling tendencies. But I don’t think there is any considerable danger here, and you really need not be uneasy for they never go very far. Of course, they might have a thrashing sometimes for letting their fancy run away with them and to teach them their place, but no more; in fact, even this isn’t necessary as they castigate themselves, for they are very conscientious: some perform this service for one another and others chastise themselves with their own hands… They will impose various public acts of penitence upon themselves with a beautiful and edifying effect; in fact you’ve nothing to be uneasy about… it’s a law of nature.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Well, you have certainly set my mind more at rest on that score; but there’s another thing that worries me. Tell me, please, are there many people who have the right to kill others, these extraordinary people? I am ready to bow down to them, of course, but you must admit it’s alarming if there are a great many of them, eh?”
Nat Taggart, continuing in the same tone: “Oh, you needn’t worry about that either. People with new ideas, people with the faintest capacity for saying something new, are extremely few in number, extraordinarily so in fact. One thing only is clear, that the appearance of all these grades and sub-divisions of men must follow with unfailing regularity some law of nature. That law, of course, is unknown at present, but I am convinced that it exists, and one day may become known. The vast mass of mankind is mere material, and only exists in order by some great effort, by some mysterious process, by means of some crossing of races and stocks, to bring into the world at last perhaps one man out of a thousand with a spark of independence. One in ten thousand perhaps — I speak roughly, approximately — is born with some independence, and with still greater independence one in a hundred thousand. The man of genius is one of millions, and the great geniuses, the crown of humanity, appear on earth perhaps one in many thousand millions. In fact I have not peeped into the retort in which all this takes place. But there certainly is and must be a definite law, it cannot be a matter of chance.”
Eddie Willers, unable to contain himself: “Why, are you both joking? There you sit, making fun of one another. Are you serious, Mr. Taggart?”
Nat Taggart raises his pale and almost mournful face and makes no reply. The unconcealed, persistent, nervous, and discourteous sarcasm of Porfiry seems strange to Eddie Willers beside that quiet and mournful face.
Eddie Willers: “Well, sir, if you are really serious… you are right, of course, in saying that it’s not new, that it’s like what we’ve read and heard a thousand times already; but what is really original in all this, and is exclusively your own, to my horror, is that you sanction bloodshed in the name of conscience, and, excuse my saying so, with such fanaticism… That, I take it, is the point of your article. But that sanction of bloodshed by conscience is to my mind… more terrible than the official, legal sanction of bloodshed…”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “You are quite right, it is more terrible.”
Eddie Willers: “Yes, you must have exaggerated! There is some mistake, I shall read it. You can’t think that! I shall read it.”
Nat Taggart: “All that is not in the article, there’s only a hint of it.”
Porfiry Petrovitch, unable to sit still: “Yes, yes. Your attitude to crime is pretty clear to me now, but… excuse me for my impertinence (I am really ashamed to be worrying you like this), you see, you’ve removed my anxiety as to the two grades getting mixed, but… there are various practical possibilities that make me uneasy! What if some man or youth imagines that he is a Lycurgus or Mohammed — a future one of course — and suppose he begins to remove all obstacles… He has some great enterprise before him and needs money for it… and tries to get it… do you see?”
Nat Taggart, calmly: “I must admit, that such cases certainly must arise. The vain and foolish are particularly apt to fall into that snare; young people especially.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Yes, you see. Well then?” Nat Taggart, in reply: “What then? That’s not my fault. So it is and so it always will be. He said just now” (nods at Eddie Willers) “that I sanction bloodshed. Society is too well protected by prisons, banishment, criminal investigators, penal servitude. There’s no need to be uneasy. You have but to catch the thief.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “And what if we do catch him?”
Nat Taggart: “Then he gets what he deserves.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “You are certainly logical. But what of his conscience?”
Nat Taggart: “Why do you care about that?”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Simply from humanity.”
Nat Taggart: “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be his punishment — as well as the prison.”
Eddie Willers, frowning: “But the real geniuses, those who have the right to murder? Oughtn’t they to suffer at all even for the blood they’ve shed?”
Nat Taggart: “Why the word ought? It’s not a matter of permission or prohibition. He will suffer if he is sorry for his victim. Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
Nat Taggart, dreamily, not in the tone of the conversation: “The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.” He raises his eyes, looks earnestly at them all, smiles, and takes off his cap. Everyone gets up.
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Well, you may abuse me, be angry with me if you like, but I can’t resist. Allow me one little question (I know I am troubling you). There is just one little notion I want to express, simply that I may not forget it.”
Nat Taggart, stands waiting, pale and grave: “Very good, tell me your little notion…”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “Well, you see… I really don’t know how to express it properly… It’s a playful, psychological idea… When you were writing your article, surely you couldn’t have helped, he-he! Fancying yourself… just a little, an extraordinary man, uttering a new word in your sense. That’s so, isn’t it?”
Nat Taggart, contemptuously: “Quite possibly.”
Eddie Willers moves nervously.
Porfiry Petrovitch: “And, if so, could you bring yourself in case of worldly difficulties and hardship or for some service to humanity — to overstep obstacles? For instance, to rob and murder?” And again he winks with his left eye, and laughs noiselessly just as before.
Nat Taggart, defiantly and haughty contempt: “If I did I certainly should not tell you.”
Porfiry Petrovitch: “No, I was only interested on account of your article, from a literary point of view…”
Nat Taggart, dryly: “Allow me to observe, that I don’t consider myself a Mohammed or a Napoleon, nor any personage of that kind, and not being one of them I cannot tell you how I should act.”
Porfiry Petrovitch, with alarming familiarity: “Oh, come, don’t we all think ourselves Napoleons now?”
Ayn: suddenly: “Excuse me, if I’ve heard you right, crime must not only be permitted but even recognized as the inevitable and the most rational outcome for a Mohammed or a Napoleon! Is that so or not?”
Nat Taggart: “Quite so.”
Ayn: “I’ll remember it.”
Having uttered these words Ayn ceases speaking as suddenly as she had begun. Everyone looks at her with curiosity.