Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fountainhead

It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing. ([Roark] p. 717)

(All quotes taken from The Fountainhead, Centennial Edition, The Penguin Group, New York, 2005.)

I'm singularly unqualified to review The Fountainhead, but since there have been some requests, I am posting this review. I have endeavoured not to read any reviews of it, so as not to skew my impressions. I did read part of the Afterword in this edition (by Leonard Peikoff), but decided against that before I finished it. The Afterword contains some of Rand's notes on the book, which are no doubt helpful.

If I weren't Christian, I'd end up either as an Objectivist or an Existentialist. Or maybe a serial killer. I suppose an Existentialist can be a serial killer too, but an Objectivist can't.

The Fountainhead is Rand's 1943 novel: it tracks five main characters from 1922 to 1936: Howard Roark, Peter Keating, Ellesworth Toohey, Gail Wynand, and Dominique Francon.

Howard Roark is the hero---Rand always has a hero---, a young architect. The book opens with Roark's expulsion from Stanton, a prestigious architecture school. That same day, Peter Keating (with whose mother Roark had been boarding for 3 years) graduates the top of the Stanton class.

Roark and Keating both move to New York: Keating takes a job with a prestigious architectural firm while Roark lands a job with a brilliant architect, Henry Cameron, who is seen as a has-been. Cameron's designs had taken New York by a storm, but he had fallen from popular favour. Roark seeks him out because he is the only architect Roark knows who designs new and different buildings.

Peter Keating rises in prominence in the firm Francon & Heyer largely through sycophancy and plotting. When he finds himself stuck in a design, he inevitably turns to Roark for help.

The most popular newspaper in New York is the Banner, owned by Gail Wynand. The Banner employs Ellesworth Toohey, a socialist who writes a daily column, and Dominique Francon, the daughter of Peter Keating's boss.

Dominique is arguably the central character in the novel. And if Roark is the hero, then Toohey is the villain.

Toohey is an idealist: a socialist who believes really only in equality. He has some other ideas, but they all stem from this one. Toohey spends the majority of the book influencing public opinion through his column in the Banner, his book Sermons in Stone, and various speeches. He also forms several clubs: one for writers, one for architects, and so on. He mentors young artists and gives them exposure through his writing. But he gravitates to the peculiar and new, not the brilliant. His desire for equality drives him to embrace the mediocre and ignore the great.

As the story develops, Keating rises to a partner in the firm, while Roark ends up unemployed. He leaves the city to work in a quarry, where he meets Dominique who's rusticating. They begin a sexual affair that lasts through the book.

Dominique's relationship with Roark occupies the middle of the book. She takes pleasure in hurting him (and he reciprocates: this is a game they play); and eventually marries Keating, and then Wynand, purportedly because she loves Roark. Her motives are mixed, and she seems not to understand them herself. But Roark permits---even encourages---her relationships with the other men, insisting she's not ready for him yet.

Dominique marries Peter, and spends that night with Roark. The biggest clue to Dominique's motivation is her speech to Roark that night: "I can't live a life torn between that which exists---and you." (p. 386). Dominique uses sex as a form of self-abasement, as a weapon against herself and the men she uses. The only man she seems to respect is Roark, which is apparently what motivates her to hurt him every way possible: condemning him in the press, marrying the men who hate him, even degrading herself.

And Roark waits for Dominique to find what she's looking for, knowing she'll eventually return to him when she does.

Wynand contracts Roark to build a house for Dominique, unaware of their history. Both Roark and Dominique find themselves loving Wynand (Roark in a platonic sense); and a strange relationship ensues where Roark and Dominique are thrown together repeatedly, but don't acknowledge their previous relationship; either to one another or to Wynand. Roark finds that he can respect Wynand: Wynand built his media empire alone. He is a rags-to-riches success story, and he understands the vanity and emptiness around him.

Eventually Roark designs a building anonymously for Keating, under the condition that it be built exactly as he designs. When it is not, he dynamites it. This culminates the stories of the characters into a climax of sharp contrasts. The building was to be a housing project for the poor, and Toohey leads the city in outrage against Roark as one who would attack them.

Roark is arrested and stands trial: Wynand attempts to defend Roark in his editorials, only to discover the paper he owns is actually controlled by Toohey. Toohey has unionized the paper, and Wynand finds out too late that the excellent pay and benefits he's been giving his employees do not shield him from a strike. Toohey leads a strike over the paper's editorial position.

Wynand eventually capitulates, at which point Dominique returns to Roark. She manufactures a scandal by filing a bogus police report from Roark's house first thing in the morning, wearing Roark's pyjamas and obviously having spent the previous night with him. This hurts Wynand (how could it not?), but also allows him a trouble-free divorce. When Wynand asks Dominique about the scandal, she finally reveals her long relationship with Roark to him.

Dominique had found what she's been looking for, and is ready to belong to Roark. Her willingness to publicly villify herself is the final test of her understanding Roark. And having come to that point, she's ready to marry him.

The Fountainhead is a brilliant book: it's well-written and kept my attention fairly well. But I didn't enjoy it. The middle third that follows Dominique's quest through self-destruction was depressing to the point of painful. I'd like to think it's just fiction, but I've known enough people to think the only fiction is that she recognizes what she's doing.

Adultery always turns my stomach. It's the most fundamental betrayal, and I always react emotionally. While Dominique technically avoids adultery until she publicly returns to Raork; the fact that she would marry one man specifically because she loves another is more than a little adulterous in spirit.

There is a lot of sex in The Fountainhead, but none is very graphic. It's not written to titilate or offend, it's written to prove a point. I didn't find it offensive as much as I found it sickening and depressing.

I probably won't read it again, but it was worth reading once.

Rand's characters like to monologue, and there are some interesting speeches in the book. Of course Howard Roark gives some speeches, but so do the others.

Rand's philosophy of selfishness (a bit of an over-simplification, but workable) is really developed in a few such speeches. I found the conversations between Wynand and Roark on Wynand's yacht to be very interesting:

[I]sn't that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self. Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he's honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he's great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison. ([Howard Roark] p. 633)

Roark delivers the negative too: not only that selfishness is good, but that altruism is evil:

I think Toohey understands that. That's what helps him spread his vicious nonsense. Just weakness and cowardice. It's so easy to run to others. It's so hard to stand on one's own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can't fake it in your own eyes. Your ego is your strictest judge. They run from it. They spend their lives running. ([Howard Roark] p. 634)

The negative aspect, that altruism is the root of great evil, is brought out both by Roark and (indirectly) Toohey.

Toohey's gloating speech to Keating is courageous for Rand in 1943, it would be even more so today. Toohey, the selfless socialist, sees the exceptional as problems to be eliminated as surely as poverty or disease, because the exceptional give lie to the idea of equality. His speech to Peter on the topic lasts for several pages, but this is perhaps the most telling excerpt:

Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept---and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You've destroyed architecture. Build up Lois Cook and you've destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you've destroyed the theatre. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you've destroyed the press. Don't set out to raze all srhines---you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity---and the shrines are razed. ([Toohey] p.665)

Roark's defense in the courtroom is the crowning speech of the novel. It is here Rand makes her case most overtly: that altruism is morally equivalent to slavery. As society has taught and enforced the idea of selfelssness, of living for others, it has essentially put all under slavery. And this slavery is one of spirit, enforced by the approval of others. "We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement." ([Roark] p. 712)

Roark says the only escape is selfishness: acting out of a desire to gain one's own approval, ignoring the opinions and thoughts of others. One who is subject to their approval is their slave.

According to Roark, selfishness is the least harmful motivation, that selflessness has led to the most brutal regimes and the greatest abuses of people.
The 'common good' of a collective---a race, a class, a state---was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by the disciples of altruism? Does the fault lie in men's hypocrisy on in the nature of the principle? The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere. They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man must be sacrificed for other men. ([Roark] p. 715)

It is worth remembering that Rand knew whereof she spoke: she was a refugee of the Soviet Union. She had seen first-hand the oppression meted by those motivated by a love of "the masses."

In the end, it is Rand's view of the importance and dignity of the individual that makes me like her. We live on the cusp of the world she predicted: a world where people are members of groups and very little more. Just look at the last U.S. election for an example. Barack Obama was elected President, and people still refuse to discuss his policies or his qualifications: he is an icon of an underpriviledged group, which is all the justification he needs for whatever he does. What he is as an individual and a man is irrelevant, only the status of the group he represents matters.

To the socialist mind, the oppressed are virtuous simply because they're oppressed: they are totally passive, living how and where they do with no responsibility for their own actions, behaviour, or condition. This is the fundamental flaw of all leftist thought: that people are merely machines, innocent and helpless victims of whatever their oppressors choose to give them.

The real evil of this system isn't what it proposes, but where it leads. A poor man is still a man, an underpriviledged woman is still a woman... as long as they aren't reduced to mere placeholders for abstract groups. Leftist thought removes their dignity, their humanity. It doesn't acknowledge they are people: they are merely cogs into the machine.

Interestingly, the only people afforded the dignity of their own will in leftist thought are the oppressors. As a straight white Christian male, I am acknowledged to be human and allowed to take responsibility. No "minority" is given that fundamental dignity.

As a Christian, I can't accept liberal thought for that one reason: no man or woman created in the image of God ought to be reduced to the level of an animal. God hasn't pronounced us to be mere machines, He deals with us as inidividuals. All human dignity is tied up in that one fact.

Given a choice, I'd rather live in the sort of world Rand dreamed of than the ones the collectivists have managed to create; but neither really satisfies what I believe we have been created for. Socialism is worse than Objectivism, but I'd rather not have to choose the lesser evil.

While Rand has such incredible perspicuity on the evils of collectivism, she draws wrong conclusions as an atheist. Where she sees the dignity of being an individual, she tries to push that past the dignity due to a man or woman and turn him or her into a god. Our dignity comes from our bearing God's image. If there is no God, then there really is no greatness in the indvidual. Rand proposes a Promethian theology, of man trying to become more by reaching higher. But without God, the term "higher" becomes problematic. What does it really mean? To accept Roark's answer of "progress" rather than Toohey's answer of "equality" is really arbitrary.

What Rand doesn't acknowledge is, the Creator has the right to demand our obedience, just as Roark had to the right to dynamite the Cortland House because he had created it. She is correct that doesn't give other men the right to enslave me; but I can never be absolutely egotistical in the sense she applauds, because I know I am a creature of the Creator.

And interestingly, this puts me at odds both with Rand's idealistic egotism and the collectivism she eschews. The one puts self as god, the other raises the fiction of "common good": both ignore the One who is God in fact. There is One who has right to command, to be obeyed, and to be feared.


KingJaymz said...

I need to sit down and have a cold one after making it all the way through that. I need to catch my breath.

Great analysis of both the book and the philosophy behind it. As followers of Christ, it seems that we end up damned if we do and damned if we don't in the eyes of the world. I think back to how Jesus dealt with the different groups that came to Him during His earthly ministry, and it was much the same. He seemed to affirm them on a certain level, and then say, "But you have it all wrong, see..."

Shan said...

I liked this book but began to find the pedantic speeches dreary and belaboured. It's the antithesis of the author's creed, "show, don't tell". Rand tells, and tells, and tells again, and then in case you missed it she tells again.

But the concepts are complicated so I guess I can understand her need for explication.

Anyway I found the characters almost completely unsympathetic - that is, I couldn't relate to the motivations of any one of them. I quite liked Roark by the end, but not because he was likeable.

Good precis, Ox.

Ames said...

I'm a Read-For-Escape/Encouragement girl. Shallow, but that is how it is. I think I'll skip this one.

Chuck said...

Shan: Rand (wow, that rhymes...sorta) never impressed me as a novelist. "Polemicist" probably gets closer.

Ox's review gets right at the core of what this story is about. It's the classic problem of "all or nothing": collectivism is an oppressive monster; so brutal, Nietzchean individuality must be the only alternative.

Ironically, the best answer to Rand comes from another (and older) Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, who celebrated unity in diversity (sobornost) as expressed most perfectly in the Body of Christ. The one can't exist without the other: an individual is nothing apart from his group, but the group cannot override the unique gifts, creativity and autonomy of each member. Richard Weaver called this "social bond individualism."

Great job, Ox. You certainly picked no puff piece for your inaugural review.

Gwen said...


Stace' said...

I'm with you.

3 cheers for Jan Karon.

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