Book Review: The Fountainhead Wednesday January 4, 2012

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is what I call a philosophical novel. I read them occasionally and before Lancaster University – when I took a year off – I read Hesse, Camus and Sartre partly for pleasure and partly to prepare myself for study. My favourite course was Philosophy and Literature when we examined Hamlet, Voltaire, and a section of Sartre’s Nausea. I got First Class grades for several essays in Renaissance Literature, and spent more time studying Hamlet than any other text. My interest was primarily psychological, in terms of philosophical ramifications. I reasoned the impact of Shakespeare is largely because his work is a concentrated source of psychological/philosophical material. My lecturer disagreed with psychoanalytic observations, insisting that Shakespeare is embedded in a political and historic context and has to be treated accordingly. I disagreed and disagree now, twenty five years later. While his work is undoubtedly embedded in the conditions of his time it reaches beyond that and that, ultimately, is the test of greatness. He gave me a 70% grade, a First, despite his objection.

The greatest literature, it seems to me, always extends beyond an insular narrative experience of time and place. It needn’t be philosophical; human relating and how it’s depicted, and how we relate to reading such material, can be similarly resonant. I enjoyed browsing the Lancaster library shelves and finding all manner of volumes by myself, according to interest: they were not on any reading list. No one advised me to do this and it meant I clashed with the intellectual framework of traditional literature courses, but it was useful for my second and third years at Lancaster when I transferred into Independent Studies, an excellent and unique department which no longer exists. IS, as we called it, was where you designed your own degree: choosing the subject, the questions, the method, and the form of assessment. The only obstacle was finding a supervisor who could manage what might be an obscure pursuit. I found an academic in the Religious Studies department and I used to attend his Buddhism lectures and spent hours browsing the RS section in the library: Yoga, Tantra, Taoism, and Buddhism. I realised, towards the end of my studies, I had to be more disciplined and focus only on the books and the topics which led to getting my degree. But I spent time pursuing other interests, as I read widely before I arrived at Lancaster. I loved books as a boy, love literature as an adult, and conduct my reading within philosophical terms in regard to the imaginative experience it provides: it’s an escape, but what does that ‘escape’ signify?

I hadn’t read a book like The Fountainhead for some years. I’ve recently read Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), An Equal Music (Vikram Seth), and East Of The Mountains (David Gutenberg) which are philosophical, but not like The Fountainhead. The first, in particular, is a cerebral novel whereby the narrative is framed within a philosophical idea: that we are slaves, clones, machines, within a system that milks our energies and reproduces us for its own benefit, which signifies political exploitation. The Ishiguro work, however, contains a great deal of finely crafted emotional sensibility which ‘cerebral’ novels lack. The Fountainhead emphasises the idea that creative thought – not people as such – is the driving force of human advance and the gateway to a better future. The hero, Howard Roark, is a rare individual battling the forces of corruption, greed, ambition, habit, inertia, dullness, and what Ayn Rand calls the second-hander: the social parasite, the politician, the committee, the priest, the manipulator, the fashion victim, the gossip, devoid of principle and maintaining a dead society devoid of meaning. As such, and this applies to all the characters, Rand’s depiction of the central character Howard Roark is not as rounded and developed as you might expect in accomplished literature. In the early part of the book, descriptions of Roark have the quality of caricature: it makes for tiresome reading, where you suspend your desire for more depth. It is however consistent with the thrust of the novel , which is compelling in respect of how you want to know what will happen in terms of philosophical outcome: not how Roark is feeling at the end, if he is happy, or if his struggles are vindicated, but what happens when such a man operates in the modern world. From beginning to end vindication, in terms of social approval and public recognition, is a counter force which blocks, undermines, and corrupts creative power– what Rand calls the fountainhead – like a satanic force. Pleasing others, and doing things for others, is a retrogressive tendency leading to social decay. Only in the final sections of the novel, as it moves towards resolution, do we see indications of the interior life of Roark and the other two primary characters, Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon. But this is not ultimately a failing of the novel; it reinforces its primary message which is its philosophical content. The Fountainhead is a cool and cerebral novel which enthrals with a “mental tension” – Rand’s term – built on a series of clashes, struggles and oppositions: man against society, artist against commerce, spirit against inertia, innovation against tradition, integrity against manipulation, individual power against collectivism, advance against stasis; and finally, which I find an extraordinary literary achievement, man against woman like wild animals engaged in a fight to the death – who do this, because they love each other like it’s the power of rain, thunder, and lightning, not the cooing of mere doves.

I fell in love with Dominique Francon the moment I saw her in a grey suit and just a hint of colour: suggested, which doesn’t need stating. She is elegant, distant, refined, and set apart. When Roark and Dominique first see each other, he working in a quarry, she surveying the operations of her father who owns the quarry – she stares at him and he stares back, owning her, which she can only rebuff with conventions of social appearance: he is an impudent ruffian daring to notice a wealthy socialite. Later in the evening, he enters her house and takes her without permission. She has never had a relationship; she appears to be cold, virginal, and frigid but this is because she has never met her equal. Roark takes her because he understands this and knows she wants it; a rather problematic scenario for our 2012 world, but which has to be read and understood in context. Sex, for Rand, is a fire within an overall integrity between man and woman. In effect, the rape scene is actually a marriage without which Dominique would continue to live as a spinster, contrary to her youth and her beauty. Roark and Dominique are soul partners the moment their eyes meet and they have to fight themselves, respectively, before they actually marry: Roark because he can have her but will not accept this until she is strong enough. For a while, they continue sexual relating in private while in public Dominique tries to destroy his architectural career. She wants freedom from people not ties, independence not need, and self possession rather than collectivism: she once buys a beautiful statue then destroys it so no one else will have the same experience, corrupting hers. She tries the same with Roark. She tells him how she’s taken architectural commissions from him and given them to other architects, using persuasive powers in society meetings. Roark smiles and enjoys this, and then they have sex. The mutual cruelty is unsettling and one wonders where Rand is going with this, perhaps into sadomasochism. She resolves such tensions as the novel progresses. Dominique is afraid of sharing Roark and Roark will not allow her into his life on such terms. What then follows is a tremendous conflict between desire and will. Roark waits seven years, he says, for her to tell him she wants him but only as an independent partner whereby if he goes to jail (which is possible) the pain “only goes down so far”. That is, she loves him no matter what, irrespective of whether she is with him or not. It’s a love so complete, so fiery, it makes no difference if she is with him or not. At that point, Roark accepts her and ends the pain of separation for both. He loves Dominique and wants her as a lioness, not a dove. In all aspects of his life the same principle applies: the independent self comes first, subservient to no man, no woman, no society. He is denounced as a monstrous egotist but it is ‘egotism’ in a sublime sense, expressing the greatest capacities and ennobling others to do the same. Roark accepts nothing less and endures great suffering without resisting it or those who perpetrate it against him: because not succumbing to the pain affirms the self. He says, the pain goes down only so far, then stops. Dominique realises she tries to destroy his architectural career because she can’t bear seeing the way society treats Roark, trampling on his gifts and misunderstanding his integrity. She damages him because it hurts, though Roark is more than capable of bearing that hurt, which develops in her also a stoic power of indifference whereby she cannot be hurt by his suffering. They are separated for seven years. He may go to prison for another ten years: but at this point, Dominique is a lioness with her thin, elegant body and golden hair like a helmet. Roark treats women like his buildings: with uncompromising love. He will die for what he believes in, because not to do so is to lose his self and he wants Dominique on the same terms, with the same luminous capability as his.

Reading The Fountainhead is a test. For some, Ayn Rand is ‘extreme Right Wing’ devoid of what tends to be regarded as ‘Left Wing’ compassion. For others, as a friend proposed, she is Nietzschean. Rand came from Russia and suffered the oppressive collectivism of a ‘Left ideology’ where individuality was subjugated to ‘the people’ and a corrupt Party. She is sometimes criticised for advocating ‘selfishness’ (the late Christopher Hitchens did this) and as a premise to translate into society in simple terms it’s a valid objection but when you read this novel it makes sense, raising the question what then is the greater context of the novel in terms of how ‘selfishness’ fits into it. In that respect, it’s less about social behaviour and political policy than a much needed psychology. When I survey my own life, in every situation I’ve found damaging the underlying issue was one of my ‘self’ poorly and improperly recognised by a ‘system’, ie collective conditions. School was a foul experience where most of my energy was spent fending off, psychologically speaking, anti intellectual peers we would now describe as ‘chavs’. They were simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of intellectual success and disliked those – like me – who were suited for it. Such a pursuit is, effectively, a form of individuation where we develop the important faculty of critical thinking as a means to navigate society and the world. The opposite is going to a football match and following in other respects a herd like level of living. The thinker – as Roark notes in a speech in court not so much defending his actions as articulating why he has and will continue to live as he does – is the Socrates, the Mozart, the Prometheus and

Every great new thought was opposed. Every new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won (710).

There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought…We inherit the products of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The…creative faulty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single, individual men (711).

The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration (712).

The choice is not self sacrifice of domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander (713).

The formulation of Roark’s speech is the core of The Fountainhead in which respect, “selfishness” has a subtly but substantially different meaning to how the term is normally used. It seems to me this core attitude must come first in society – but rarely does. Rather, we are taught to be subservient in relation to prevailing ideology and collective conditions and the significance of religion here is subtle and immense: thus, some of the book fits mythological themes depicted in religious tradition, ie the hero who suffers for the sake of others who don’t know what they’re doing. But this virtue is in relation to the “fountainhead” not the dogmas of religion. Charity and pity are loathsome to Roark because they focus on a disease of infirmity rather than “life”. There are political implications to such ideas, as with the dangers of the social benefit system and how it incapacitates swathes of the population because it’s there: if you don’t work you will be supported which means you don’t have to work. The UK riots of 2011 reminded us of the fact of the underclass. When David Cameron declared that rioters could be evicted he was referring to their council house situation. There were exceptions to the socioeconomic strata of the rioters, but his remark was largely apposite.

Some people will say such ideas are extreme ‘Right Wing’. That is little more than derisory banter, avoiding the fact of the negative effect of the benefit system. I think Rand presents her ideas as a polemicist, with a deliberate shock effect. Like creating a building, you have to work rhetorically with structural tensions and counterpoint. The truth lies in between (some people need the support of the benefit system), but to establish the truth you have to emphasis the opposite. Roark is not an uncaring monster; quite the contrary. He enlists the services of the sculptor Stephen Mallory, because he recognises his genius. Mallory lives in squalor and is barely surviving, so Roark pays his rent and gives him hope – not as an act of charity, he explains, but because he wants Mallory’s sculpture. Paradoxically this is the best form of charity because it affirms the individuality and dignity of the other, whoever they are and irrespective of their circumstances. Clearly, not everyone has a sculpting genius and the majority of people are not heroic artists in any form. The implied situation is, however, all can strive, all can become, all are valuable, on which basis reward will materialise.

In some respects Roark is similar to a religious figure, characterised by suffering and a renegade morality which clashes with entrenched corruption. This is subtle and the most interesting aspect of Rand’s work, because as she says in the introduction to The Fountainhead:

Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has pre-empted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. ‘Exultation’ is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. ‘Worship’ means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. ‘Reverence’ means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. ‘Sacred’ means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by and concern of man or of this earth…But such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists…It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism (xi).

Rand suggests that religion encourages a dependence and subservience on other people, which is antithetical to the metaphysics they claim to represent. You have priests, clerics, and dead mythologised figures of centuries ago constituting an intermediary agency and a “God” who says you are unworthy unless you do as he says. Whatever social value may be found in religious teachings – and this is incidental to the metaphysics they lay claim to which is essentially a lie – can be found in humanistic terms. Roark stands alone. He worships no one, follows no tradition, and works only on his terms. He recognises the “fountainhead” through no intermediary agency and he will sacrifice his own life, if necessary, for this principle. He loves Dominique, Stephen Mallory, the construction worker Mike Donnigan and his friend Gail Wynand who, he says, he would save with his life if he were drowning: not for the sake of Gail, whose life he cannot give and cannot live, but for his sake and his self.

The ‘evil figure’ in The Fountainhead is Elsworth Toohey, reminiscent of sinister manipulative figures in Dickens: Uriah Heep, who speaks in unctuous slippery terms with a false sincerity, snake-like obsequiousness, and frequent references to his “‘humbleness”. Elsworth Toohey is a public preacher speaking of altruism, service to men, the nobility of the ordinary man and ‘selflessness’ in regard to a greater good. But the ‘self’, paradoxically, is the agency of all good, all power, all advance. Toohey tries to destroy Howard Roark for one reason only: power. Roark stands in his way, not because he opposes or battles Toohey but simply because he exists. Roark is the creative Prometheus, a man that Toohey (and architect Peter Keating) can ever be, and Toohey’s life work is to simultaneously oppose such men and gain influence through mass moral manipulation. Toohey says the traditional tactic of divide and conquer is now superseded by a modern method of unite and rule. The world is no longer contested with armies; power is achieved with rhetoric and ideology seen in every collectivist system. Political and religious systems gain power according to ‘unite and rule’. Toohey has a priest-like influence in society and an instinctive understanding of manipulation he discovered – we are told – in his childhood. He disempowers people, while saying it ennobles them. He respects the small man who serves, endows the mediocre man with false dignity, removes the power of self in others – and by doing so, leads them. His life purpose is power but he appears as altruistic, innocent, and servile to a greater cause. His rhetoric is religious, without declaring it as such, and the method whereby he weasels his way into people’s trust and affection to gain influence. His goal is to take over Gail Wynand’s newspaper the Banner, which Wynand only aborts by closing it down. Religions cannot accept educated people, those with direct access to the ‘fountainhead’ such as Roark. They preach the necessity of subservience and other people, and the institutionalised acceptance of personal flaw. Rand’s novel, while depicting a Christ-like figure, is a spitting denunciation of what that figure represents. Toohey speaks the word of the church (and the mosque and synagogue), not Howard Roark. Roark despises what the church represents but with a derision which he bears, paradoxically, Christ-like; but suffering for himself not others.

These ideas lie at the heart of The Fountainhead in the character or Roark. Roark is Prometheus, Toohey promulgates the cult of the second-hander. The difference between them is starkly conveyed when Toohey privately asks him what Roark thinks of him. Roark replies, he doesn’t think of Toohey: in all aspects of his life he doesn’t recognise the dark forces of greed, corruption and attacks on his self, like it’s illness you simply ignore. He thus hates no one, because to hate for example someone who does him great damage is to become infected by their illness: the life of the second-hander, which can never impose on his self. This aspect of Rand reminds me of Camus’ The Outsider when Meursault says if he lived in a tree trunk he would be content to watch the clouds and the birds. That is his existence, his being, remains free and untouched by ostensible circumstance. The difference between Rand and Camus is that Meursault has a strange quiet indifference, but Roark suffers. Both remain free in similar existential terms but Roark’s freedom incorporates some feeling dimension. Camus was responding to the horrors of the Second War and man’s disovery of what man was capable of, in the form of the holocaust. Rand was responding to the oppressive forces of Soviet collectivism. In both cases, the self is articulated as the only agency of freedom. Meursault rejects the priest before he dies as he has rejected all feeling previously. Toohey is to some extent Rand’s equivalent of a priest preaching a blend of self invalidation and second-hand mediocrity, the preaching of which gives him power.

The 727 page novel can be summarised with the final scene with Dominique, Roark, and the building he is creating which will be the biggest, most imposing, and last skyscraper to be built in New York rising from the squalor of a deprived area:

She saw him standing above her, on the top platform of the Wynand Building. He waved to her. The line of the ocean cut the sky. The ocean mounted as the city descended. She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of courthouses. She rose above the spires of churches. Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.

The Fountainhead is a remarkable book. It’s not my favourite kind of reading because it’s less of an imaginative experience than a cerebral one. But that cerebral experience is thrilling, tense, and compelling. Ayn Rand questions society in a manner which vivifies my critical outlook. She exposes the tricks, the lies, the deceptions, the habits, which beat people down into servitude and collectivism, which are synonymous.

When I finished the book I immediately reached for another novel. I was no longer in a world where Howard Roark lived and I could dream of being him and dream of being with Dominique. I suddenly felt bereft. I wanted to be there, not in my life. This, paradoxically, is my principle issue with The Fountainhead. It’s a fairy tale, simultaneously in the best and worst sense. Roark has the answers, but his eventual triumph is the stuff of dreams. He begins as an archetypal starving artist, the rebel ejected from architectural college because he is too brilliant. He ends as a victorious archetypal hero, having fought a battle the terms of which only he, Wynand, and Dominique understand. His final building is the pinnacle of an architectural career but it is not, in reality, a matter of architecture. The steel, glass and concrete are the outer form for an interior struggle against a corrupt world where we live as sheep; where we are told myths and lies about the Fountainhead instead of given the means whereby we might find it. The problem is despite all the suffering depicted in narrative literary terms in The Fountainhead, the universe of Ayn Rand is one in which integrity and creativity will eventually triumph over the ossified, stuck, dead, aggressive and retrogressive forces of society.

In 2012 we face an unprecedented crisis with ignorant religious aggression since 9/11, corrupt and exploitative economics of which bank manager bonuses are only a part, priests trying to hijack morality and continuing with false metaphysical claims, corrupt political systems which are separate from daily reality and – at the moment – no indication whatsoever any solutions are forthcoming or conceived. The Fountainhead is a fine book but it’s hero, Howard Roark, would in reality be destroyed in his youth by our nasty world the moment he is expelled from architectural college, like an Occupy Wall Street protester getting arrested. The problem is one of power. Prometheus suffers terrible agonies for giving men fire, which in reality would destroy him. Only in mythology do you suffer, get released, then get promoted to Olympus. Prometheus becomes immortal, Roark gets his ultimate building, but it is the architect Henry Cameron who represents ordinary people: broken by the conditions of diseased society which has all the power. I think Rand was correct to identify individualism as the key component and salvation for a sick world. This individualism is ultimately what is called a “spiritual” concern and every ideology, every system, every collectivist ideal, opposes Promethean fire because freedom – the truly free individual – is subject to no one nor any thing and such a being is inherently threatening. The only question remaining is what is the nature of that threat, and if it should be feared or welcomed like intelligent medicine.

As George Orwell said:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban … At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals … If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Or as the Clash said with raw unformed aggression, to embellish the theme with some kick-ass acoustics:

We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers

I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown
Kick over the wall ‘cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?

But, you grow up and you calm down and
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown and
You’re working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now