At the beginning of the movie Trainspotting, the main character Renton goes on a rather famous rant, telling people to "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family." And on and on, until finally wrapping up by asking why people bother choosing any of that stuff when there's heroin available. Galt may seem like the anti-Renton, since he tells everyone to choose "life" over "death" (or slow death via bad morals). But both Galt and the "looters" agree with Renton on a certain point: average, everyday life kind of stinks. And both groups offer up their own kind of "heroin" to make life better.
For Galt, life as most people live it is no better than death. "Life" for him refers to his philosophical and moral system. The looters take Renton's route more directly. They concede that life is indeed crap, but make it marginally more bearable by embracing their own system of morals (their version of heroin). Galt may love his either-or scenarios, opposing life and death dramatically, but like the looters he tries to give people an alternative to a life that currently stinks. The main difference between the two groups is that Galt wants to fix the world, while the looters want to maintain the status quo.
Why are we bringing all of this up under "Robert Stadler"? Well, Stadler poses an interesting problem: what happens when a character thinks he is choosing Galt's idea of a positive life but is actually choosing a more harmful form of "heroin"? Well, in this book he gets blown up in the most spectacular failure of a science project ever. Project X is definitely going to be disqualified from the science fair for that, not to mention its unpardonable cruelty to goats.
Robert Stadler, genius physicist and sad old man, plays a hugely important role in the book. He demonstrates just how close Galt and the looters can be, and how frighteningly easy it is to slide into the looters' camp without even consciously realizing it. Rather than being an outright antagonist for Galt, he instead functions as a fascinating foil.
Head in the Sand
Robert Stadler starts out with good intentions. He even shares a lot of the values that Galt preaches. After all, Galt studied under him at Patrick Henry University and they got along very well. Stadler believes in the power of science and prizes smarts and ability. But these values lead him into two errors.
The first is that Stadler buries his head in the sand. He sees that the world has problems, but he can't think of a way to fix them. So, while he doesn't agree with the values of the looters, he ends up doing exactly what they preach: denying and ignoring problems. Here's an example of Captain Oblivious in action:
"Do you know the statement issued by this institute in regard to Rearden Metal?"
He frowned slightly, "Yes, I've heard about it."
"Have you read it?"
"It was intended to prevent the use of Rearden Metal."
"Yes, yes, I gathered that much.'
"Could you tell me why?"
He spread his hands...."I really wouldn't know." (126.96.36.199-19)
Stadler ignores basic things going on around him, often because he thinks he's so much better than everyone else. He has to think big and important thoughts; current events are irrelevant to him, and best left to others. Stadler also using his amazing powers of obliviousness to ignore his own doubts and concerns.
He would not permit himself to know that what he felt was self-loathing; he identified the emotion but not its object; it was loathing for the men around him, he thought; it was they who were forcing him to go through this shameful performance. What can you do – he thought – when you have to deal with people? (188.8.131.52)
This passage also reveals Stadler's other major error: he often ignores things around him because of his contempt for other people. He hates society and other people at times, describing them as hopelessly stupid.
"Men are not open to truth or reason....Yet we have to deal with them. If we want to accomplish anything, we have to deceive them into letting us accomplish it. Or force them.... They are nothing but vicious animals." (184.108.40.206)
With all his brains and ability, Stadler grows to hate the "lesser" people around him and resorts to ignoring them as a way to surviving among them. So he is also pessimistic – people are "hopelessly" stupid in his opinion. Stadler has become increasingly disillusioned over the years, and by the time we meet him, his negative opinion of mere mortals seems firmly entrenched.
Galt states on more than one occasion that he has a lot of contempt for Stadler, since Stadler had the potential to do better. Such statements are revealing, since they show us that Galt also has some contempt for society at large, much like Stadler himself. After all, Galt wouldn't advocate his strike if he thought society and the looters could be reasoned with in any other way. It's Dagny who has enough faith in people to stay behind and fight in the real world. Arguably, Galt is using tough love in order to save people, but both he and Stadler both proceed from a similar assumption, that people kind of suck.
Stadler, then, acts as a really interesting foil to Galt. Though they seem like opposites, they are similar in a lot of ways, and their actions are not always easy to distinguish. Both ignore society in their own way: Galt through his strike and Stadler through his Captain Oblivious routine. Both can also be accused of being pretentious, full of themselves. But there is a crucial difference: Galt uses his views of life proactively to try to fix the world, while Stadler tries to get by in the world as it is.
Ultimately, Stadler's gruesome death is a symbolic statement of this difference. Stadler blows up in a science project gone awry, a project built by his own institute. Stadler digs his own grave in that sense; compromise didn't work. But Stadler also shows us how frighteningly easy it is to misinterpret value systems in this book. Stadler didn't set out to enable evil people or to make awful decisions. He went to his ultimate doom without fully realizing what was happening.