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April 03, 2008

Heroic Autonomy: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand
first published 1943
Pp. 727. Penguin Books, 2007
Paperback, 8.99

Well, I did it! I read an entire book by Ayn Rand. It is not the longest book I've ever read, though it felt like it. I think the longest book I've ever read is War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk; with its companion, The Winds of War, it clocks in at over two thousand pages and I read it/them on a trip round the world.

The comparison is instructive - they are in some ways the opposite book. Wouk is what Orwell called "good middlebrow"; his writing is intelligent, well constructed and compulsive, but never challenging. Rand is full of clumsy constructions, excessively long speeches and preposterous scenarios. This book is like a pastiche of a nineteenth century novel, but she challenges everything which is ordinarily believed.

The central character of The Fountainhead is Howard Roark, an architect who is expelled from his school of architecture for his complete rejection of decoration and tradition. No real architect or architectural theorist is ever mentioned, but Roark is thrown out of college in 1922 because of opinions very close to those expressed in Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, which was published in 1923. For him "Tudor" and "Renaissance" are symptoms of metaphysical and moral dishonesty.

Well, back in the 1980s I was at least three times (it might have been four) the "lay member" of an architectural awards committee, dealing with architects for whom the Roark/Le Corbusier doctrines had become professional orthodoxy. I came to the conclusion that their views might have been persuasive if we were dealing with buildings which had no context, but we never were.

Even so, Rand managed to sell me a modernist hero: this is modernism, after all, as unorthodoxy, in the New York of the 1920s. Also, the decorators and revivalists here are pusillanimous and shallow and reminiscent of all the time-serving, creepy-crawly academics one knows.

Roark has a contemporary called Peter Keating who is pragmatic and ambitious, who makes the compromises which Roark will not and forges a successful career. They both love (in complicated ways) the mystically beautiful and intelligent Dominique Francon, the daughter of Guy Francon, New York's leading architect.

She falls in love with Roark when, his uncompromising principles having deprived him of all commissions, he is working as a quarryman near her summer home and he rapes her. But she marries Keating and becomes a kind of Stepford wife to him to punish him for his mediocrity. (I said this was preposterous, but it is magnificently, weirdly, unpredictably preposterous!)

Even more strange is that throughout their careers Roark continues secretly to help Keating with his work, asking for no credit or reward. This is the paradox of egotism: because Roark is sufficiently solipsistic that he has no interest in other people's opinions he is happy to let someone else take credit for his work. When Roark is accosted by a writer who has attempted to ruin him and has had considerable success in doing so this conversation occurs:

"Mr Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us."

"But I don't think of you."

If for nothing else The Fountainhead would be worth reading for the portrait of this writer, Ellsworth M. Toohey, a well renowned commentator on architecture and social problems. This portrait is the paradox of egotism in reverse. Toohey is wise and gentle, public-spirited and socially sensitive; he preaches collectivism and egalitarianism. But this is all for the subtle glorification of Ellsworth M. Toohey; worse, in his heart is a far-reaching manipulative malice. He is Voltaire's lover of humanity who hates real humans and he effectively destroys his orphaned niece. I was easily persuaded to loathe Ellsworth M. Toohey.

The fourth of the major male characters is Gail Wynand, a newspaper and property tycoon who has fought his way out of Hell's Kitchen. Wynand rises and falls in our estimation. At first we see him in a conventional light as an unprincipled power-seeking vulgarian, then as an heroically autonomous supporter of Roark. But finally, unlike Roark, he fails the test of autonomy, backing down and compromising rather than lose his empire. Dominique makes an interesting comparison between him and Toohey (p. 520):
You can't fight him on his terms. You're only a tank - and that's a very clean, innocent weapon. An honest weapon that goes first, out in front, and mows everything down or takes every counterblow. He's a corrosive gas. The kind that eats lungs out. I think there really is a secret to the core of evil and he has it. I don't know what it is.
And it is refreshing, for once, to find a writer who thinks the leftist intellectual is more evil than the ruthless tycoon and who suggests that if the pen is mightier than the sword this may not be an entirely good thing.

In The Fountainhead heroism and autonomy are seen as very close. They are qualities which may incur some level of martyrdom because those who possess them are bound to be hated and feared by those who do not:
Both men disliked Roark. He was usually disliked, from the first sight of his face, anywhere he went. His face was closed like the door of a safety vault; things locked in safety vaults are valuable; men did not care to feel that. He was a cold, disquieting presence in the room; his presence had a strange quality; it made itself felt and yet it made them feel as if he was not there; or perhaps that he was and they weren't.
Many people lack autonomy to the extent that we might even question their existence. Rand particularly has it in for the sort of well-heeled hausfrau who fancies herself as a bit of an intellectual (p. 160):
He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded as if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends, the picture postcards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.
While I have every sympathy for the reaction described here I must state for the record that the problem of distinguishing autonomy from mere cipherism is not an easy one philosophically and it is certainly not solved here.

Much of the style of The Fountainhead is peculiar to its period. One aspect of this is that the characters in the novel assume that human life is about to be utterly transformed and that the essence of politics is to contest the nature of that transformation. The vestiges of such an assumption were still around in the 1970s, but I guess it has disappeared completely now. Related to this is the idea of a contest between an extreme, almost anonymising egalitarianism and an equally extreme, supermanish elitism, neither of which would be taken seriously today.

And there is the taste for the kind of paradox which defies convention: rape is the best form of passion, helping your enemy is the cruellest thing you can do and so on. We can't have this taste for convention-flouting paradox now because we don't have enough well-established conventions. The general effect of Rand's style is variously reminiscent of Wilde, Shaw and Nietzsche.

At the end of the book Roark blows up a public housing project which he has secretly designed to save Keating's career, but which Keating has allowed to be ruined by the decorators and revivalists. Wynand defends Roark in his papers, but is broken in the process. Roark goes on trial . . . . . and I won't say any more in case you want to read the book.

It is my principle to read books with as little knowledge of the author and their individual context as I can muster. In Rand's case I was close to perfection. I knew only her gender, her approximate dates (she was born in 1903 and died in 1982) and that she was in favour of capitalism.

I had no idea that she was a Russian from St. Petersburg called Alisa Rosenbaum who went to university in the Soviet Union and did not go to the US until she was twenty-one and that she had a sister who spent her whole life in the USSR. Nor that she had a husband called Frank O'Connor to whom she was married for most of her life. Nor that The Fountainhead has been in print for more than sixty years, has sold more than six million copies and was made into a movie in 1949. It was directed by King Vidor and starred Gary Cooper as Howard Roark.

Rand's "objectivist" philosophy is a global cult. She regarded Immanuel Kant as the supreme symbol of the unacceptable religiosity of mainstream modern thought. So do I.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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