Category Archives: Ayn Rand

On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Degradation of Western Values in Art

Salvador Dali

Concomitant with the ascendancy of the trends themselves, conservatives and liberty-minded intellectuals ranging from Ayn Rand to Dennis Prager have inveighed against modernist and postmodernist trends in art on the grounds that it represents a degradation of aesthetic standards and, by extension, Western values. As an artist myself and one who is and has been sympathetic to these modes of expression, this is an argument to which I’ve devoted considerable thought. While I agree with the central propositions put forth by these individuals, I’m not ready to throw the modernist baby out with the bathwater. Art can and should affirm immutable, transcendent values that will carry on beyond the lifetimes of their creators. Art should also be grounded in tradition and those who pursue it should be held to the highest standards.  I propose that modernist and postmodernist trends, or what was once regarded as avant-garde, have largely supplanted any notions of Western traditionalism. Objective standards of beauty and excellence have indeed given way to a bottomless relativism. Contemporary art is a little too consumed by nihilism, ugliness and abstraction for its own sake.  If artists consume themselves with rebellion against values and standards to which no one is holding them accountable, then it’s little more than empty posturing.

Modernism was transgressive in its day because the standard bearers of traditionalism were the mainstream in art. When the impressionists departed from classical realism, it was transgressive because classical realism was the standard. The various movements that defined the 20th century saw art moving further and further away from these traditions to the point where avant-garde no longer has any meaning other than to signify a broad body of artistic expression defined by a departure from or outright annihilation of any semblance of traditionalism.

Pablo Picasso

If artists have no commitment to uphold anything sacred or beautiful and the profane and ugly are the default settings, then it reflects a rottenness in the cultural soul just as Ayn Rand asserted.

Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. It reflects the sum of a society’s deepest philosophical values: not its professed notions and slogans, but its actual view of man and of existence. – Ayn Rand

Art, at some level, must edify and exalt the divine spirit or some universal idea of cosmic Oneness. Without it, humanity drifts towards solipsism and nihilism. The avant-garde only has power to shock when it serves as a counterweight to an overbearance of traditionalism. In the world of art, there is literally no boundary which has not been transgressed, no sacred idol undesecrated nor profanity unspoken. We’re pretty far away from any kind of hegemony of traditionalism in the art world. Just as atheism and anarchism may be philosophically and logically untenable positions, each argument serves as a permanent counterpoint to institutional power. I believe that the avant-garde is the active attempt to concretize these philosophical positions.

Willem de Kooning


Jackson Pollock

People are generally attracted to art, music and literature that has identifiable structure, steady rhythms, heroism and the pursuit of justice, themes which address relatable slices of life in memorable and clever ways, and emotional content that’s somehow uplifting. For better and worse, the avant-garde has generally eschewed these conventions. Conversely, people generally do not want to consume art that is too abstract or dwells on humanity’s tendency towards depravity.

That said, the avant-garde has produced a wealth of innovation which cannot be denied. There is a place for expressionism, abstraction and pastiche. The surreal and the grotesque have their place in a panorama of artistic expression in which the traditionally beautiful occupies a prominent position. Admittedly, avant-garde has rebel cache because it was used as both anti-communist propaganda by the CIA and was repudiated by the Nazis as “degeneracy”. Anything that scandalizes the upper crust intelligentsia, pisses off the Nazis, and gets subsidized to fight communism despite being created by artists largely sympathetic to communism is going to have some built-in appeal. The avant-garde’s associations with dubious ideologies should not be ignored, but that should not preclude exploration or reevaluation of the ideas either.

Yves Tanguy

From my perspective, the avant-garde only occurs as such in proportion to the degree to which the tradition from which it departs is recognizable. Oftentimes, the most innovative artists walk a fine line between tradition and modernism and find a way to reconcile seemingly disparate aesthetics.

The critics of the avant-garde have a point. If nothing else, the central proposition that animates nearly every avant-garde movement is the departure from objective reality.  As much as I am supportive of a revival of classical standards in art, I’m equally enthusiastic about the renewed vitality it will bring to the avant-garde.

René François Ghislain Magritte

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Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed

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Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel is an admirable work. I really wanted to like it. It mines some rich veins of philosophical thought which include individualism versus collectivism, gender equality, the difference between intellectual property and ideas as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas of a speculative anarchist society.  Unfortunately, the novel is ultimately derailed by some fallacious notions and stale, toxic ideas couched in a pretense of edgy progressivism. Sadly, despite Le Guin’s recognition of the scarcity, insularity, and conformity bred by the allegedly revolutionary values she espouses, she doubles down and limps to the conclusion waving the flag of communist ideals in a cloud of unearned triumphalism.

The Dispossessed tells the story of a physicist named Shevek from the anarchist world of Anarres. Shevek develops a groundbreaking theory which has the potential to unite humanity throughout the universe. Though the Anarrestri profess revolutionary values, they are unreceptive to his work. He sets out to the sister world of Urras, the civilization from which the Anarrestri fled, in hopes of bridging the divide between the two societies.

Le Guin makes a courageous attempt at tackling the questions of morality and ethics in the absence of state or religious institutions, but she ultimately succumbs to some really dumb and deeply clichéd antipathy towards market economics. This includes an equally rote denigration of property rights and, by extension, their inextricable link to human freedom. She is apparently on record crediting the blatherings of post-Marxist anarcho-collectivist wankers, Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin, as the philosophical underpinnings of this book. The anarchist society of Anarres is essentially her conception of anarcho-syndicalism.  In other words, it is a society in which there is no private property and no system of prices, competition or currency. Everything is “shared” and used for the “common good”. All economic activity is centrally coordinated by bureaucratic “syndics” and the division of labor is determined by computers. Subsequently, her philosophical commentary bears some unfortunate remnants of Marx, Rousseau and even the poisonous proto-fascist drivel of Georges Sorel. Le Guin’s Anarres is probably best described as a fantastical vision of a world envisioned by feminists, social justice warriors, utopian eco-socialists and anarcho-communists.

To her credit, she addresses the limitations of the collectivist worldview in this novel. This puts her work in philosophical proximity to another notable female writer who tackled very similar themes but arrived at very different conclusions.  Contrary to her professed disdain for Ayn Rand, the themes of this novel are very similar to those contained in The Fountainhead . The two books share more than a few similarities. Each book presents a brilliant male protagonist who seeks to contribute his unique talent to society and each is called upon to adhere to principle in the face of demands from authority or perceived authority. Le Guin appears to take direct aim at Randian ideas of “egoism” and “altruism” at various points in the book.  Though when she does, she ultimately misrepresents both.

Le Guin is widely lauded for tackling gender and sexual politics in her work, but I personally found this aspect of the novel the most grating. All of the editorial around gender carried the sanctimonious stink of contemporary feminism.  Her perverse obsession with equality of outcomes can be traced to an obvious refusal to accept biological differences and individual choices within the paradigm of market economics. True to standard progressive form, she also heaps piles of scorn on those who hold religious beliefs. She holds people of faith in contempt for promulgating a sexist and patriarchal belief in the inherent superiority of men over women. I absolutely concede that most religious faiths affirm the traditional role of male breadwinner and female caregiver, but this line of argument feels tiresome.  If she were referring specifically to the manner in which Islamic societies rigidly enforce a subordinate role for women, it might have more bite. I’m doubtful that was her intent.  It’s particularly dubious hearing this petty nonsense from an author in the Western world who presently enjoys numerous freedoms that are hallmarks of the market economy and liberal society.  Le Guin can be an atheist without fear of violent reprisal. She can compete in the marketplace with men. She can and does claim property rights and has achieved fame and notoriety for the merit of her creative work within the context of a free market.

She wastes no time carving out the contours of her main character and the central ideas of the book. The opening passages describe the wall which cordons off the spaceport of Anarres from the rest of the planet. Right away, Le Guin is telling us that this is a story of walls; walls that stand between societies, genders, and ideologies.

As a character, Shevek is kind of dull. Just as modern writers pander to feminists by writing female characters which are divorced from any conventional femininity, Shevek is the result of Le Guin doing the same thing in reverse. Shevek is arguably Le Guin’s beta analogue to Rand’s alpha Roark. He’s sensitive, vegan, and lives a monk-like life of the mind. As Anarrestri custom dictates, he holds womyn in reverence.  Since her editorial point of view is so rife with dumb and confused ideas, it’s difficult to view him as a heroic archetype of any set of virtuous attributes.

The first chapter is devoted to Shevek’s arrival on Urras.  Shevek struggles to understand the customs and culture of the Urrastri. He simply cannot fathom a world that holds religious beliefs, has state institutions and operates under a market economy. Having constructed a framework for a dramatic clash of ideas, the reader is guided through Shevek’s quest as events alternate between Anarres and Urras.

After this exposition, Le Guin takes us back to Anarres and Shevek’s childhood where the cornerstones of his development were built and the values he acquired from his culture are fleshed out.  Here and in every other subsequent chapter, Le Guin’s muddy logic and dubious editorial comes into sharper focus.

Groan inducing commentary abounds in The Dispossessed, but Le Guin’s disdain for property rights is highest on the list. True to the authoritarian and quasi-religious nature of all collectivist political thought, Shevek’s indoctrination to Odonian values begins at childhood. As most children are wont to do, young Shevek is naturally inclined to view possessions as his property. He is hastily scolded for entertaining this notion by his caretaker. Like Rousseau, Le Guin regards property rights as infantile and the source of human sin. That’s so very progressive and original, Ursula. Throughout the remainder of the book the words “profiteer” and “propertarian” are used as pejoratives. Her disdain for capitalistic property ownership is expressed very clearly through Shevek during his tenure on Urras.

Le Guin considers the ownership of property all by itself as an expression of power. It’s an idea that’s tired and nonsensical in equal measures. She attributes Shevek’s sense of unease on Urras to his perception that a society which affirms property rights is one of “mutual aggression”. This stands in contrast to the feeling of “mutual cooperation” that is the guiding principle of the self-abnegating hippies on Anarres.  It’s more than a little ironic that Le Guin venerates this alleged utopia devoid of private property and denigrates the statist aggression of Urras. In real life, she’s more than happy to advocate for state aggression to enforce copyright law.

This moral confusion and sophistry extends further with respect to acts of actual aggression. Le Guin gets the fundamentals of the argument for anarchism right, but at the same time, she fails to present a coherent Odonian theory of morality with respect to the initiation of violence. This also happens to be the one area where, even if inadvertently, she veers a little too closely to the Sorellian belief in revolutionary violence. In a conversation with an Urrastri woman named Vea, he explains that Odonians are striving for actual morality by abolishing institutional power. That way, Odonians are free to choose morality instead of having it forced upon them by their alleged betters.  So far, so good. However, when Shevek is beaten up arbitrarily as a teenager, he accepts it as a “gift”.  This suggests a lack of appreciation of the inviolability of negative rights and perhaps illuminates her apparent inability to distinguish the state monopoly on the application of force versus private and voluntary exchange.  At the same time, she engages in some typical moralistic handwringing over the usage of defensive force to protect property.  Since she’s already established the ownership of property as an expression of power and a moral wrong, then anyone who uses force to defend against theft or violent expropriation is possessing “power no one should have”.  Make up your goddamn mind, Ursula.

The Odonian credo of self-sacrifice is equally moronic and cringeworthy. It also tips the scale towards a Sorellian concept of “myth”.  For Odonians, the experience of “shared pain” is the principle that binds Anarrestri to one another and to which they must consistently subordinate themselves. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious article of faith or any of the collectivist fantasies promulgated by politicians. 

The one idea which truly torpedoes her book is the centrally planned nature of the Anarrestri economy.  She concedes a bureaucratization of Odonian life, but her failure to recognize the inherently preposterous nature of the idea cannot be overlooked. For a SF novel, The Dispossessed is remarkably short of speculative science or any fantastical leaps of imagination. Aside from Shevek’s theory, the DivLab computer is actually one of the wildest speculations in the whole book. Le Guin spends no time discussing it or how Odonians developed such a thing in the first place. Odonians live a life of self-imposed poverty and austerity, and yet, a really sophisticated computer determines how labor resources will be allocated. There’s no regard for the individual, purposeful human action which drives skill specialization and gives rise to supply and demand. Not only is it wildly preposterous that Odonians could develop such a sophisticated piece of technology, the remainder of society is utterly devoid of any other comparably sophisticated technology.  Nor is there any other labor saving machinery. Her description of Shevek’s feelings of “brotherhood, adventurousness, and hope” while waiting to receive instructions during the Anarres famine sounds like dumb, nationalistic propaganda. For all of the realism she brings to every other aspect of the book, Le Guin apparently spent no time examining why central planning was a failure. I can’t help but fault her for her intellectual blindness on this front.

Her actual grasp of physics and science is equally questionable. For all of Le Guin’s emphasis on the Odonian passion for scientific knowledge, she manages to smuggle in some dubious notions which sound like applications of scientific theory derived from feminist epistemology. Apparently, Shevek arrives at his big breakthrough because he was able to extend beyond pure scientific theory and include the realms of “philosophy and ethics”. Good science is philosophy, and is the product of sound ethics. For a woman so apparently keen on equal gender representation in STEM fields, she starts to sound like Luce Irigaray here. As a cheerleader for women in STEM, Le Guin is doing a great job. As someone who earns a living telling stories built from scientific speculation, this is kind of laughable.

Le Guin also attempts to counter Randian ideas, but her conception of both “egoism” and “altruism” are both straw men.  By her reasoning, “egoism” can either be Shevek’s desire to assert his ideas in the face of ostracism or it can be overtly public displays of sexual affection.  As a young child, Shevek is accused of “egoism” when he attempts to formulate his own ideas separate from the tightly controlled confines of the Anarres public school system.  To use contemporary parlance, Shevek would have been accused of using microaggressions.  Here, she suggests an upside to “egoism” which more or less maps to Rand’s conception. However, she ends up diluting her editorial when describing Shevek’s revulsion at the “egoism” of an Urrastri couple getting hot and heavy in full view of a group of people.  Apparently, immodest displays of sexual attraction are on par with individual displays of independent thought.  Got it, Ursula.

Her notions of altruism are equally daft and run afoul of Rand’s actual position. Shevek and his friends conduct their own Stanford Prison Experiment on one another just to feel what’s it’s like to deny freedom to another and to experience an absence of freedom.  When Shevek expresses concern for their captive friend, he is chided by his compatriot not to get “altruistic”.  Le Guin is clearly trying to highlight the monstrosity of imprisonment, but she completely mischaracterizes Rand’s view of altruism. Rand consistently argued that altruism was a toxic and debilitating worldview because it ultimately fueled a pointless and narcissistic sense of self-abnegation. Most importantly, she abhorred the ceaseless desire to petition an authority to adjudicate the parameters of the alleged altruism.  To be fair, Le Guin’s usage of the term alternates between pejorative and complimentary, and it’s difficult to tell where she ultimately stands.

The major intersection between Rand and Le Guin occurs in Shevek’s development of the Theory of Simultanaiety; the theory which would allow the development of an intergalactic internet. Not only does Le Guin use this to distinguish the importance of asserting individualism, but she uses it to make a worthwhile point about sharing ideas even if she misrepresents the nature of intellectual property in the process.  Just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Shevek risked ostracism and reproach from fellow Odonians in order to develop the idea. According to Le Guin, intellectual property belongs to the State, and subsequently, is just another form of dominion over others. This is partially true, but fundamentally false. Intellectual property is a monopoly right conferred by the State to the holder of the property claim. It confers state power to the holder of the right.  Ursula Le Guin would know. She’s a huge advocate for it.

Though her commentary on gender is rife with progressive clichés around “equality”, it is noteworthy that she appears to be a forerunner of the whole neutral/non-binary view of gender that’s all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, her views hew very closely to the pretentious postmodern ramblings of Judith Butler.  In the Odonian tongue, “brother” and “sister” share the same noun. Odonians have sex with males and females as adolescents and there is no stigma associated with this activity.  She also anticipated the current trend of subverting gender stereotypes by casting females in roles traditionally perceived as male. The entire book seems like the blueprint for the now omnipresent push for women in STEM. Like most contemporary feminists, Le Guin seems to dismiss equality of opportunity and focuses obsessively on equality of outcomes. She seems to relate to inequity of outcome as evidence of retrograde attitudes all by themselves. She also disregards the gender imbalance in science as a product of natural choices or differences in skill levels. While on Urras, Shevek expresses total surprise at the complete absence of women in science. Naturally, she portrays the scientists of Urras as sexist oafs who are somehow keeping women subservient and subordinate.

She goes so far out of her way to create female heroes and invert every gendered convention, that it feels overly calculated. At times, it suggests a subtle contempt for motherhood. In this respect, Le Guin’s thought seems to anticipate the broader trend in feminism which all too often reduces to a singleminded focus on terminating pregnancy. This Orwellian attempt to erase any semblance of women as caregivers in art is now commonplace. In other words, it comes across like propaganda. Odo, the matriarch of the revolution was female and her teachings formed the foundation of Odonian society. What a coincidence. The foundations of a revolutionary anarchist matriarchy were written by a woman. How totally meta, Ursula. Shevek’s mother leaves his father when he was a baby to devote herself to her engineering career because her Duty to the People® took priority over her own child. The physicist who inspired Shevek’s work was a woman, too. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s got a uterus and she had theories which weren’t taken seriously even in the matriarchal utopia of Anarres. To Ursula Le Guin, women just don’t get taken seriously in this capitalist patriarchy and motherhood and biology are no big deal. 

Le Guin betrays a smug, repressive elitism towards women who flaunt their sexuality by wearing makeup or provocative clothing. It’s an attitude that’s sadly endemic to a significant segment of the contemporary feminist “movement”. Vea is portrayed as an attractive woman, and yet, for Odonians and Le Guin she’s a “body propertarian” whose humanity is absent simply because she’s provocatively dressed and made up.  Who’s the one objectifying and dehumanizing, Ursula? You or that evil patriarchy?

And what feminist novel would be complete without a scene of sexual assault?  Apparently, we just can’t talk about gender politics without some rape editorial. The assault scene between Vea and Shevek stands in sharp contrast to the scene between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon portrayed in The Fountainhead. Here, Le Guin betrays a pretty obviously low opinion of men’s capacity for self-control.  Once Shevek gets a little bit to drink and is in the presence of a woman who’s made up and wearing sexy clothes, he is seemingly unable to stop himself from committing assault. His monk-like existence amongst the joyless, preachy pro-feminism communists of Anarres just couldn’t contain those toxic male urges. 

The Dispossessed is book that’s moderately engaging and asks the right philosophical questions, but mostly arrives at the wrong conclusions. In science fiction, I expect some flights of imagination, and in this respect, Le Guin borders on a sort of pedantic realism that feels slightly inappropriate for the genre. It’s almost as though she’s disconnected from the things that make science fiction fun and engaging. It’s burdened by a certain overly earnest preachiness and stoicism.  As a work of philosophy, it gets a few things right, but misses the mark more often than not. Kropotkin, Bookchin and Le Guin were completely correct about state power. Unfortunately, she and her intellectual forebears were incorrect about property rights, market economics and the proper application of violent force.  I would be inclined to disregard all of the gender politics, but the collection of ideas presented are so prevalent nowadays, it demands a vigorous rebuttal. The stranglehold of Marxist and post-Marxist ideals remains as strong as ever. The eco-communist ideas of Murray Bookchin are even getting a second wind in the alleged “anarchist” feminist utopia of Rojava. Naturally, it was dutifully reported by the progressives at the New York Times. I hope Le Guin is happy that a real life version of Anarres is being attempted right before our eyes.

The argument for anarchism is the definitive argument of our times and Ursula Le Guin is to be commended for making an earnest contribution to this debate through science fiction. It’s too bad she’s on the wrong side of the argument.

Ayn Rand: Anthem

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After going 43 years not having read Ayn Rand, I am increasingly convinced that the degree to which you are able to enjoy her as a writer depends a lot on your overall receptivity to what she is laying down philosophically.

While I can appreciate that folks find the single minded and self-righteous implacability of her worldview repellant and impossibly self-centered, I have concluded that these criticisms are both right and wrong.

Thematically, this book is exactly what I expected.  It portrays a future society in which the will of the individual has been completely subjugated by the will of the collective.  The protagonist eventually escapes from society and reclaims his individuality and as a result, makes some revelatory pronouncements which certainly validate the view that Ayn Rand is a one dimensional harpy dispensing scorn and condemnation toward all collectivist impulses and sentiments.  Love and respect is to be earned and not freely given.  The pursuit of achievement is its own end and whether or not it is of any benefit to mankind is not the point.  “We” can only be invoked voluntarily and if invoked in the context of political power or social activism is corrupt and evil.  And so on.

No surprises.

On this front, the critics and haters are correct.  As Whittaker Chambers so eloquently put it in his 1957 National Review piece, it’s the tone that dominates and the words are shouting us down.  It’s clear that Ayn Rand wanted this book to carry the weight of a Biblical parable (the protagonist claims the name Prometheus and surprise! his invention is a light bulb).  There is simply no questioning the validity and veracity of her revelations!

With a worldview so rigid, the laws of physics take hold and the caustic, inverse reaction is inevitable.

How could anyone really hold such a narrow view of the world and regard that as unassailable Truth?!

There are many possible lenses through which to view people and the world around us which are seemingly unaddressed by the Randian view. There are some people for whom voluntary charity and giving is a genuine expression of themselves.  Some derive great satisfaction from knowing that their contributions are making a material difference to others.  Some are edified and filled with joy by freely expressing love to others regardless of whether it is earned.   Some are willing to place trust and faith in others to find their own self direction instead of relating out of the default assumption they are looters.   The key of course being whether or not these actions are taken voluntarily versus being carried out by a state bureaucrat.

The punch line, however, is that Ayn Rand didn’t care about the haters.  She wrote what she wrote and if you don’t like it, move on.

Where the critics and haters are wrong is simply a failure to fully appreciate the importance of individualism and self-interest.  The key to happiness and self-fulfillment lies within each individual.  You are your own best guide for navigating the challenges which life presents.  Even if there have been worthy achievements made by the State, the placement of too much faith in the power of the State to rectify social ills is misguided and potentially toxic.  I agree wholeheartedly that the freedom of the individual has lit the flame of progress for humanity throughout the ages and there are passages in this book which testify to the spirit of individualism and burn with a righteous fire.

Anthem is both a worthwhile read and a completely worthwhile addition to the dystopian SF canon.

And hey, just remember this.  Any book which inspired Rush’s 2112 can’t be all bad.

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead

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Yes.

It is extraordinary.  Fully deserving of its stature.

Before I get to the meat of the book, there’s something I need to get out of way right now.

I know I’m stating the painfully obvious, but I have reached the unequivocal conclusion that the knee-jerk antipathy that gets hurled at Rand by the political Left is either rooted in ignorance or simply an extension of negative opinions held towards Rand’s more visible and vocal fans (e.g. Paul Ryan). Or perhaps both.

The vast chasm of misunderstanding which lays between her apparent adversaries and the reality of what she was actually saying is nothing short of mind boggling.  It just doesn’t compute.

Needless to say, Rand was aware of this disconnect and like the hero of the story, Howard Roark, couldn’t be bothered to give two shits.

But STILL.

The scorn I’ve seen heaped upon her by artists…ARTISTS…on social media and the blogosphere in general leaves me wondering if they have any awareness of what Ayn Rand was laying down in this book.

Seriously.

Admittedly, it took me a while to get past my own preconceptions and prejudices, but nowadays, anytime I hear anyone throwing shade on Ayn Rand, it begs the question…

Are you opposed to what Ayn Rand was actually saying, or is your antipathy rooted in an overall animosity directed towards conservatives and libertarians who champion her work?

Anyway.  The book!

Ayn Rand spoke of wanting to write a fiction of ideas and The Fountainhead overflows with them.

This is the story of two architects. Howard Roark is the implacable, uncompromising visionary. Peter Keating is the obsequious, self-aggrandizing, fame seeking but competent hack.  More specifically, it is the story of being true to one’s ideals.  It is the story of being grounded in the strength of your convictions so thoroughly that it penetrates to the core of the earth and that you are able to remain anchored no matter how much adversity the world presents.

The story traces their evolution from architecture school up through the highest echelons of the architecture world in early 20th century New York. Howard manages to get himself expelled from architecture school because he refused to be a dittohead and Peter graduates with distinction for giving his professors what they wanted. When they go to the big city, Peter gets a plum gig with the most prestigious hacks, and Howard gets a gig with the washed up idealist who is essentially Howard’s older analogue.

At every turn, we see very different set of choices, motivations, allegiances and consequences which culminates in a satisfying conclusion.

Howard Roark is a quintessentially Randian hero.  He is so singularly driven by his internal sense of purpose that it takes on a superhuman quality.  He is so consistent that it seems impossible. He faces so much rejection, so many injustices, so much misguided scorn, and is subject to so many abuses and betrayals yet remains unbowed by all of it. At so many points, I expected Roark to just lose his shit, but he never does. Many have criticized this character portrayal as one dimensional, but his ironclad sense of moral purpose and clarity is the central theme of the book. His actions are nothing short of a clarion call for all of humanity.

He is also the ultimate badass. He is so self-possessed and so clear in his purpose, he is able to tell the whole world to fuck off without ever having to actually say it. You don’t want Roark’s design? Fine. Beat it. He’ll wait for someone who does.  If no one comes knocking, he’ll seek different employment if he has to.

In a pivotal scene in the novel, a client who was manipulated into hiring Roark in order to discredit him files a lawsuit which goes to trial. Roark refuses to hire a lawyer and opts to defend himself. Witness after witness is called to heap condemnation on Roark’s building. After each testimony, Roark refuses every opportunity to cross examine.  Finally, he drops an envelope of photos of the building on the judge’s desk, and says, “The defense rests.”

Suck on it, Eastwood. It just doesn’t get any more badass than that.

By contrast, Peter Keating is Roark’s opposite. He lacks both a sense of selfhood and a moral compass. He seeks fame, but not the pursuit of virtue. He seeks wealth, but not the passion for work. He seeks the trappings of success, but not the conviction of his own ideas. He’s vapid, conniving and obsequious. Anyone who thinks that Rand equated wealth and virtue clearly has no understanding of her work. Peter attains great fame and wealth, but there is never a doubt over the message that Rand intended to convey with this character.

Ellsworth Toohey is the manipulative, self-aggrandizing but charismatic socialist who publishes an architecture column. Naturally, Toohey is the villain of this tale and his vanity and hollow pretensions make him truly detestable. What makes him truly evil is that he is intelligent and calculating. He knows how to manipulate the will of others and he is only interested in subordinating others in order to acquire power. Through Ellsworth, we are able to see the various ways that Ellsworth, and anyone whose existence is predicated on control and domination, whittles away the self-respect of everyone with whom he associates. Socialism inculcates obedience and deference to authority, and Ellsworth epitomizes the collectivist ethos in all of its insidious contemporary incarnations. He’s highly educated, has a pretense of cultural sophistication, and constantly telegraphs his alleged concern for the “common man”. Worst of all, he takes it upon himself to lecture his subjects on what they should do with their lives and demands absolute loyalty.

Toohey manages to achieve success as an architecture critic in the pages of Gail Wynand’s paper. He uses this platform to promote his insipid and self-righteous blatherings about “brotherhood” and “unity” and to openly celebrate the mediocre and the ordinary. He forms councils and organizations with lofty names and grandiose intentions that achieve nothing other than draw attention to his alleged humanitarianism. He is an utterly contemptible prick. Toohey hatches a clever and clandestine plot to discredit Roark which is so diabolical that you absolutely crave comeuppance.

What makes Toohey’s plan and the chain of events it sets in motion even more devastating is how closely it maps to real world phenomena. Whether it’s the vacuous bleating of Occupy Wall Street activists, vainglorious apparatchiks like Naomi Klein and Bob Reich, sanctimonious celebrity sycophants praising dictators like Chavez and Castro, or populist charlatans like Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders, Ellsworth Toohey’s vile spirit is found in every corner of media, academia and politics. Rand’s portrait seems pretty prescient and it gives her writing a heightened urgency and relevance.

There is a lot of interesting and refreshing editorial from Ayn Rand on what constitutes worthwhile art. Specifically, she draws attention to the ways collectivist attitudes have degraded art. She heaps venomous and seething contempt on postmodern abstraction for its own sake. Any art that fails to affirm basic morality or dwells obsessively on ambiguities is a target of her derision. Personally, I found this point of view refreshing. The prevalence of narcissistic negativity and elitist snobbery amongst musicians heaped upon music which affirms positive emotions, simple pleasures, or love itself is overwhelming. I’m not saying art needs to be monochromatic by any means, but in many cases, the obscurity of certain artists is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of internal attitudes and emotions.  No one is interested in hearing you whine about the world nor is anyone interested in hearing you sneer at the success of others either in words or expressed as art.

Ellsworth Toohey’s Council of American Artists featured artists with avant-garde sensibilities. Her descriptions of their work are humorous and pulsate with disdain. I do not share Rand’s disdain for the avant-garde, but her critique of avant-garde art which seeks nothing other than to “rebel against the tyranny of reality and the objective” is poignant.

Architecture critic Dominique Francon, daughter of architecture scion Guy Francon, is the love interest at the center of a torrid love triangle between Roark and Keating. Through Dominique, we are able to discover Rand’s ideas on femininity, relationships, sexuality, and professionalism. It is arguably an ideological alternative to Left feminism. Alt-feminism, if you will. 

Though it is essentially synonymous with the political Left, another source of Rand hate emanates from the feminist crowd. I believe I understand why she gets a bad rap from feminists, but just like the hate she gets from leftists in general, it is little more than overblown histrionics.  While it’s true that the women in this story are primarily love interests to the men, it is a novel set in early 20th century America. It is basically a reflection of the culture of in which it’s set. Both Dominique and Catherine are employed and the employment in which they’re engaged seems like an accurate portrayal of the type of things women would do back then and are not unrealistic portrayals of things women would do now. Just because she didn’t portray women as powerful politicians or businesswomen seems hardly reason to brand her as sexist let alone misogynistic.  I realize that Rand is on record saying stuff that would invite these characterizations and make many recoil, but she’s promulgating these ideas within the free market. She’s not forcing them on anyone.  You don’t have to subscribe to her beliefs on gender roles in order to gain value from her work.

Admittedly, the first sex scene between Dominique and Howard raised an eyebrow, but it was consistent with each character and the themes of the story.

On a related note, Rand is very sex positive.  She clearly regards it as fundamentally human, life affirming and essential. Toohey has a detached and clinical view of it and it leaves him less connected to humanity itself.

Dominique is a flawed character, but her journey towards full attainment of selfhood is ultimately heroic. It’s impossible for me to take any of the charges of sexism or misogyny towards her or this novel seriously. Like many of the vacant blatherings, childish whinings, and manufactured outrages which emanate from the feminist sphere, it is either misinformed, intentionally misleading or both.

Rand correctly attributes sexism where it truly belongs: with socialism and the political Left.  Not only does Toohey encourage Peter to marry Dominique for her looks alone, Toohey attempts to persuade Gail Wynand to hire Peter Keating by asking for an opportunity to meet his beautiful wife, Dominique Keating! Because he has no real confidence in Peter’s actual architectural talent, he must resort to peddling the physical beauty of his wife in order to make the case for him.

Through newspaper magnate, Gail Wynand, we discover Rand’s editorials on education and the media. Gail attains a world class education with curiosity and drive. He learns business by observing businessmen. He learns geography from longshoremen. Needless to say, she portrays Wynand’s public education with disdain and his pursuit of knowledge on his own terms is a powerful reminder that education must be grounded in real world activity.

Despite his worldly success, he is fundamentally a man without principles. His success was predicated on giving voice to sensationalist drivel. Gail Wynand built a successful career shamelessly pandering to public opinion, but experiences a dramatic turn in his fortunes when he makes a sincere effort to defend Roark in the climactic trial. The one time he tries to assert an editorial point of view with a sense of personal integrity and conviction, public opinion turns against him.

The voices of outrage Rand portrays could easily be mapped on to today’s media landscape.  The leftist rants are indistinguishable from those found in Salon, the Huffington Post, the Nation, or Slate.  These idiotic anti-capitalist and Marxist ravings contain the same dire warnings of the imminent threat of a capitalist takeover and only require the insertion of a reference to the Koch brothers in order to pass muster.

The book culminates in another trial against Roark in which he is charged with the demolition of a housing project he designed at Peter Keating’s request. Since the building was a government project, Keating was unable to fulfill the one condition Roark insisted upon; that it be built exactly as Roark intended.

Just as he did in the Stoddard trial, Roark defends himself by delivering a rousing speech which encapsulates the central idea of the book; that the ego is the fountainhead of virtue.

An individual acts and creates alone, and by doing so, neither exerts his will against another nor petitions an intermediary to gain access to the fruits of another’s labor.

The common perception that Rand’s vision of egoism and selfishness meant little more than “Fuck you, I got mine” is both unsurprising and disappointing. But she knew that it is in the nature of second-handers to scorn those who claimed independence and sought no validation from the public.

Her message cuts through the emasculating, infantilizing, sanctimonious layer of fat covering the paternalistic, authoritarian heart which beats at the center of modern day liberalism like a righteous sword of justice and slices it into bloody chunks.
The Fountainhead, like its hero and subject matter, stands like a monument to the heroism Rand saw in humanity.

It is a rousing fanfare, a banner of triumph unfurled in the wind, and a symphony written in tribute to the joy of human achievement.