Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I am Howard. Hear Me Roark: Some Thoughts on Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"

This is by no means a comprehensive book report of my thoughts concerning The Fountainhead. Just a few things I wanted to jot down about the book's reputation, structure, themes, and quirks. Feel free to e-mail me if you'd like to offer thoughts or ask questions about something more specific.

Introduction (Getting Over the Popular Opinion Bump)

I'd like to begin my thoughts on The Fountainhead by asking an odd, but important question: what do Ayn Rand, the Confederate battle flag, and Che Guevara have in common? Take a minute to think about it...And don't just scroll down to see my answer. I'm serious. Take some time to develop your own thoughts on the subject, and then scroll down.

That question again for those who missed it: what do Ayn Rand, the Confederate battle flag, and Che Guevara have in common?
The answer, in my estimation, is that people tend to develop their opinions about all three before they really know anything about them.

They're vaguely aware that Che was some kind of revolutionary somewhere. (In my experience, I've talked to at least one guy who says he only wears his Che shirt because he "thinks it's a cool picture.") Depending on where a person stands, the Confederate battle flag is either a symbol of pro-slavery redneck racism or the ultimate expression of Southern pride and heritage. And as for Ayn Rand, well, didn't she write those books about how it's okay for the strong to crush the weak? Didn't she say that being selfish is a great virtue? Didn't she hate poor people? Aren't all of her characters one-dimensional stick figures? God, I hate her!

Press them for details on any of these subjects, though -- what country was Che Guevara most active in? What did he do? Who were his influences? What was the outcome of his actions?...What did the national flag of the Confederacy look like? What were the Confederate soldiers who didn't own slaves fighting for? Come to think of it, what were the dates of the Civil War?...What was it about Atlas Shrugged that you didn't like? Do you think Ellsworth Toohey has redeeming qualities? If so, what are they? -- and suddenly they're all mumbles, saying things like "I can't remember right off the top of my head," "Oh, this is so embarrassing, I used to know this," and "I just couldn't get into it. It was so bad!" In short, their opinions aren't really based on anything concrete. They've heard certain things or read a few pages of something and then declared themselves experts.

Well, I'm no expert on Ayn Rand or her theory of Objectivism -- and you're gonna have to do your own research if you want to know anything about the Confederacy or Che Guevara. But I can tell you this: if you want to be an honest thinker, an honest reader, or just an honest person in general, you need to forget what you've only been told about something and find out about it for yourself. This is especially true if you're one of the many people who've considered delving into Rand's work in the wake of the Obama coronation. Forget the critics and commentators, their pithy comments about Rand's hairstyle, and their misrepresentation of her ideas. The only critic and commentator whose opinion should really matter to you is you. And if you can roll with that idea, you're gonna find a lot to love in The Fountainhead.

How the Book Works

If you read a plot synopsis of The Fountainhead it will probably say that the novel is "the story of a gifted young architect, his violent battle against conventional standards, and his explosive love affair with a beautiful woman who struggled to defeat him." This functions well as a quick assessment, but it doesn't really give you an idea about how the book actually works. Yes, The Fountainhead is the story of a gifted architect (Howard Roark), but it's also the story of an heiress (Dominique Francon), a media mogul (Gail Wynand), a conventional architect (Peter Keating), and a critic (Ellsworth Toohey), among others. Each of these characters become the focal point at various places in the novel, using their personal philosophies to shape their circumstances. This, essentially, is Rand's main purpose. She illustrates the relationship between thought and action, describing why things happen as opposed to how they happen.

Each of the characters is introduced individually and then fleshed out; most of them are fairly easy to sympathize with. We are given their backgrounds, the details of their childhoods, their reputations. It's only as they go about their business that the reader begins to notice their flaws. Keating, for instance, can't seem to do anything without relying on other people. He steals ideas, takes credit for things he hasn't accomplished, and at one point sacrifices love for prestige. Toohey comes off as a harmless society type, until the reader begins to notice his opposition to any kind of greatness. And so on and so on...The novel doesn't present one long story that leads to a hellacious climax, but rather a series of events in which the characters' motivations come into conflict with one another. Naturally, this produces situations where certain characters come to be seen as villains while others come across as unimpeachable heroes. For this reason, it may be helpful to approach The Fountainhead as something of an allegory - a secular version of Everyman or The Pilgrim's Progress, in which the characters represent ideas or attitudes more than they represent individuals.

Those of you familiar with Ayn Rand know that this depiction of the world as a place of black-and-white/right-and-wrong reality is one of the chief criticisms of her writing. I would argue against that criticism, however, noting (as just one example) that the characters of Gail and Dominique inhabit a certain gray area, embodying both villainous and heroic traits. And, not surprisingly, they are frequently in conflict with themselves, wanting one thing but doing another. Contrast this with Rand's pure villains and heroes who move ahead with single-minded purpose and you'll see Rand's main point once again: an individual's thinking affects him at every level of his existence. Appropriately, the characters who can't turn their thoughts into actions can't function.

Dominique and "The Open Boat"

[At this point in the blog I'm going to start making more specific observations. Those who plan to read it are hereby warned about plot spoilers that may follow -- if indeed it's possible to spoil the plot of The Fountainhead. I could tell you the end of one situation and still leave five or six others for you to discover on your own. Anyway -]

The character of Dominique had me confused for a significant stretch of the novel. Rand kept giving glances at her inner workings -- her disdain for society, her desire to be left alone -- all of which pointed to a strong sense of individualism. And yet, none of her actions (the marriage to Keating, the rivalry with Roark, etc.) seemed to fall in line. It wasn't until I read her testimony at the Stoddard Temple trial that it began to make sense: Dominique is one of the boatmen from Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."

In "The Open Boat," you'll remember, a group of men are stranded at sea. At one point they come close to land and believe they're about to be saved. But, as cruel Fate would have it, they end up being swept back out again, leaving them to lament: "If I am going to be drowned-- if I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?"

Just as it would have been easier for the boatmen to accept their fate if they hadn't come so close to being saved, Dominique feels it would have been easier for her to accept the world's mediocrity if she hadn't been exposed to Roark and the greatness he represents. I believe this is why she struggles against him for so long.

Hero? Sure. Friend? Not So Much.

About halfway through The Fountainhead, I began to realize that, while I admire Howard Roark and support the qualities he embodies, I don't necessarily like him all that much. He's a heroic figure, but not a charming hero like Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes. And then it occurred to me that not liking Roark is kind of the point. Because guess what? He doesn't care what I think about him. :)

It reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges in the whole novel: Ellsworth Toohey says, "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." Roark calmly replies, "But I don't think of you." Owned.

But My Favorite Part...

Far and away my favorite moments in the novel are the ones that feature all the so-called artists and geniuses that swarm around Ellsworth Toohey. You don't hear much about Ayn Rand's sense of humor, but it's clearly on display in these sequences. You can tell she despises these people, and if you've ever spent any amount of time in a university English department, you've met them all: the one who writes about their trials and despairs as if they're the only person who's ever been through anything difficult, the one who thinks they're clever because they wrote 700 pages without using the letter E, the one who deliberately creates meaningless art to convey some mediocre point about futility, etc. etc.

The essence of this mediocrity-as-genius motif is most clearly represented in one of the book's most famous scenes. Poor Peter Keating, an unexceptional architect, is reading something written by a famous novelist named Lois Cook. Rand writes: "'...Toothbrush in the jaw toothbrush brush brush tooth jaw foam dome in the foam Roman dome come home in the jaw Rome dome tooth toothbrush toothpick pickpocket socket rocket...' Keating leaned back with a sense of warmth and well-being. He liked this book. It had made the routine of his Sunday morning breakfast a profound spiritual experience; he was certain that it was profound, because he didn't understand it."

Reflect on that last sentence for a moment. "He was certain that it was profound, because he didn't understand it." That is exactly what's gone wrong with the arts in America. Every bit of crap - from abstract expressionist paintings to sculptures that don't look like anything to post-modern writing that relies on gimmicks to cover up the lack of substance - has been hailed as a work of bold and daring innovation that "challenges traditional ways of thinking." But of course when you point out the simple fact that none of it makes any sense, you're told that you "just don't get it." Artsy types, you see, are on this whole other level that you can't touch. YOU are incapable of greatness or genius. YOU will never experience anything profound, because it's reserved for the people who can look at the splotches of paint and see what they're really saying. In short, modern artists seem smart because they've convinced you that you're dumb. This is why most people don't read books or go to art museums anymore. Literature and art have been made meaningless to them...Not because they're stupid, but because literature and art have become stupid and then passed the blame. It's one of our country's greatest cultural tragedies.

If Nothing Else...

Realizing that most of you probably aren't going to read The Fountainhead in its entirety, I'd like to at least close this out with a simple recommendation. If nothing else, you should read Howard Roark's courtroom speech. It encapsulates most of the ideas that the rest of the novel elaborates on quite nicely.

I hope those of you who are up to the challenge, though, will soon find yourselves reading those three special words: "Howard Roark laughed."


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