How far should a man go to stand up for his ideas in the face of conventional standards? To hold onto his vision despite the many societal norms? To preserve his integrity and his ‘selfness’ at all cost? Well, if you ascribe to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, then there should be no doubt. According to Rand, it is the self which is the highest goal every single person should strive for, and everything else simply does not matter.
This basic idea form the foundation for the Fountainhead. It tells the story of Howard Roark, a young brilliant architect who is far ahead of his time. Roark is the epitome of what Rand depicts as ‘the ideal man,’* a man who stays true to himself despite all the obstacles society throws upon him. I actually hated Roark’s guts when I first started reading the book. Here is a man whose will is so unbending, who is so unwilling or, more accurately, unable to consider other people’s viewpoints and opinions, that it is hard to muster up a single gram of sympathy for him. But that is the whole point, right? Rand teaches us that Roark is not a man who seeks sympathy. And as I read further I started to gain, if not exactly sympathy, a great deal of respect and even admiration for him. You see, despite my own anxieties, despite my own tendency to care deeply about what others think, I am a staunch believer of Rand’s basic premise. Roark, in some crucial ways, represents the man who I would like to become.
This is especially the case when you place him beside Peter Keating, a man who does not have any ideas of his own, but instead feeds off Roark’s ideas while at the same time being consumed by fear, jealousy and anger for Roark. At first glance, you might think that Keating represents the anti-thesis of Roark, but Rand does not even give him this much honour. Keating in the end is a nobody, someone who is not even worth considering because he has no concept of ‘self’ at all. He does not even represent a proper threat for Roark (this role is reserved for the demagogue Ellsworth Toohey, whom I will not discuss in detail as I think this will steer us towards a more political discussion, rather than a personal one). By making Keating such a spineless non-entity, Rand directly appeals to our feelings of self-worth. Every single one of us has a fair amount of Peter Keating within us, but who would readily admit it after reading the Fountainhead? Much better to suppress that part of us and instead aspire to be more like Roark. Crude, but highly effective.
It should come as no surprise however, that Rand employs these crude methods. In a way, perhaps it is even necessary considering the fundamentalist nature of Howard Roark. This is a man who, among the more obvious things, is willing to rape (it was consensual in a weird ‘Ayn Randian’ kind of way, but still**) or to blow up a building to preserve what he perceives to be his own integrity. And the scariest part is that he believes he is absolutely right in everything he does and is utterly incapable of even trying to see things from the other side. How to gain acceptance or admiration for such a man? By making the world as black as white as possible. By making his adversary Ellsworth Toohey a representation of evil, someone who seeks power through the propagation of collectivism and altruism. By making Roark’s ideas far superior than those of his peers, a bunch of arrogant airheads who are capable of little more than rehashing old ideas from Classicism and the Renaissance, but are treated as men of vision anyway. By depicting a society who worships such men as Toohey simply because he caters to the mob-like mentality of society. And by having Roark come up against these obstacles and succeed anyway by holding onto his own vision.*** Isn’t this the very definition of a heroic man? For many, including myself, it is easy to (want to) identify with a man like this.
In a way, it is fortunate that I wrote this review a few weeks after I finished the Fountainhead. Had I written this a week or two ago, I probably would have been less critical and been more willing to overlook the fundamentalist elements. As I mentioned earlier, I greatly believe in its basic premise. At the core, every person has his own ideals, vision and values, and the world would be a better place in my opinion if more people, including myself, were more willing to stand up for these ideals. But a person does not only consist of a core and nothing else. A large part of what defines us, including our ideals, visions and values, only exists within the larger context of our background and surroundings and our interaction with other people. People with their own ideas, visions and values. Our ideals do not exist within a vacuum. Nor do our ideals matter more or less than other persons’ ideals. Fortunately, I would say. The world is a richer place because of it.
Now, I can understand where Rand is coming from.**** She grew up as a young child in communist Russia, so it is not entirely surprising that she rejects collectivism and values individualism so highly. But there are some inherent ironies and contradictions in her way of thinking. For someone who has named her own philosophy Objectivism, she is quite subjective in her opinions. An important part of her argument relies on the ‘self’ being right, and all the others opposing the ‘self’ being wrong. Isn’t that the definition of being subjective? She also constantly reminds us that we should think for ourselves, and not be persuaded by those proponents of collectivism and altruism, who preys upon our feelings in the hope we would abandon our rational thought and follow them instead. Yet you can also accuse her for employing the exact same tactics by glorifying Howard Roark and belittling almost everyone else in the novel. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for a second. Let’s say we all aspire to her vision and that one day the world is filled with Howard Roarks. Can you even start to imagine a world like that? It would be a catastrophe whenever there would be an argument. Such a world is a contradiction in itself.
After much deliberation I decided to give the book 3 stars out of 5. This may seem a bit high considering what I’ve written in the last few paragraphs. But my ratings are always based for a large part on how I feel during reading (as opposed to what I think). I genuinely enjoyed reading the Fountainhead and I wanted to keep reading to get a better grasp on her ideas. No, I do not fully agree with the fundamentalistic nature of the book, but it has inspired me to reevaluate the way I view and lead my life and to write about it. And isn’t that why we read books in the first place?
* Yes, I’m using the term man on purpose. I was disappointed that the plot was so male-centric, especially since it was written by a female author. Yes, there was Dominique Francon, an extremely smart and beautiful woman. She is supposed to be someone who is self-aware, but she seemed only to truly exist within the context of Howard Roark. The perfect companion for the ideal man, in the most literal sense of the word.
** See also previous note. In Rand’s own words, “if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Meaning that Dominique could have stopped it if she truly wanted to in Rand’s interpretation. Even so, the fact that Dominique is in a way willing to be taken this way strengthens my assertion that she is nothing more than someone who can exist only within the context of the ideal man.
*** An important flaw in the novel in my opinion is how Rand portrays Roark as he goes against these obstacles. Roark is so firmly entrenched in his own beliefs and so detached from the outside world, that you never even get a sense of real struggle within his character. He’s just like “Meh, whatever.” I guess that’s the message Rand is trying to get across, that the ideal man is not concerned with such trivial matters, but it makes him less sympathetic than he already is.
**** To be fair, I still have to read her other books, most notably Atlas Shrugged and her works of philosophy. I believe you should never fully judge an author by a single book, especially a book written relatively early in her career.