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.
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.
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.