Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead – Reviewed
-Ayn Rand

I am not sure what any modern-day psychologist would make of Ayn Rand. That she was brilliant is beyond dispute. At the same time, she had gross psychological problems and suffered badly from depression and other mental disorders. She loved her husband – Frank O’Conner – but she cheated on him openly, creating a world where her demands and whims were the priority. She worshipped individualism and people who were prepared to live an individualist life, to the point where she conceived a quite unseemly admiration for William Hickman, a child kidnapper and serial killer. It is hard to understand why someone so devoted to the principles of objectivism would fail to realise that Hickman was reviled, not for being an individualist in a collective world, but for his gross criminal acts.

The Fountainhead predates Atlas Shrugged (Rand’s better known work) by several years. Rand clearly learned more about the art of writing in-between writing the two books, for The Fountainhead has a slowly meandering plot and quite a few poorly-drawn characters. It also has an ending that I was forced to disagree with, perhaps quite heavily, and that tends to let the entire book down.

The book is the story of five deeply flawed characters, although Rand would claim that one of them was perfect. Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, is a rugged individualist, an architect who believes in designing the buildings he wants to design and to hell with what the customer actually wants. Roark sums up his philosophy fairly early on, when he notes:

I don't intend to build in order to have clients; I intend to have clients in order to build.”

Peter Keating, like Roark, is an architect. Unlike Roark, Peter has no real talent – although he had some talent for painting – and was pushed into it by his mother. Peter’s other main talent is in manipulating people to get what he wants, something that serves him well in early life, but leaves him feeling empty later on. In many ways, Peter is the tragic hero of the story, with his genuine talent destroyed and his life rendered worthless by his own actions.

In many ways, Gail Wynand and Roark are cut from the same cloth. Gail is a newspaper mogul who climbed up from the gutter to build a powerful media empire. Gail’s weakness, however, lies in the fact that he is dependent upon public opinion; it built him and he can be brought down by it.

Ellsworth Toohey is the book’s villain, the most unredeemable of Rand’s characters. Ellsworth is the man ‘who isn’t, can never be, knows it and hates it.’ Ellsworth is driven to tear down the ones with genuine natural talent, determined to bring everyone down to ground level, and he has no qualms over how he chooses to achieve that. Ellsworth was trained for the priesthood in his early days – a comparison to Stalin – although Ellsworth is far more subtle, allowing the pretence of freedom while gathering all the power in his own hands.

And then there is Dominique Francon. Dominique is the daughter of Guy Francon, a highly successful, but creatively inhibited architect. She is a thorn in the flesh of her father and causes him much distress for her works criticizing the architectural profession's mediocrity. Her strengths – she is far more intelligent than anyone else, apart from Roark - are also what she initially lets stifle her growth and make her life miserable. She begins thinking that the world did not deserve her sincerity and intellect, because the people around her did not measure up to her standards. Of the four main male characters in the book, it is noteworthy that Dominique marries three of them and is the first to give words to the danger of being too close to the fourth.

As the story opens, Roark is being expelled from school after refusing to hew to the shared standards of acceptable designing. Roark accepts this quite calmly and goes to work for another underappreciated architect, struggling to make ends meet while Peter – who has taken refuge in mediocrity – starts climbing up the ladder towards a high position in the company. Unwilling to compromise his principles, Roark finds few clients and is forced to take up work on a quarry, during which he has a rough sexual encounter with Dominique. (This may have been rape; it is an issue that has been debated hotly over the years.) Roark returns to work, leaving Dominique without even a name.

Ellsworth Toohey has, somehow, learned about Roark and decided to tear him down to nothing. He organises for Roark to be hired as the designer of a new cathedral in New York, an enterprise that ends in disaster when Roark – having been given full creative freedom – includes a naked statue of Dominique in the building. Roark is sued, his business is destroyed, an act that depresses Dominique. She marries Peter and becomes his wife, body and soul. It brings him no happiness, however, as he is pushed into using her as a toy and a bribe. She leaves him for Gail Wynand, who has meanwhile fallen in love with Roark’s work.

Realising that he is a failure, Peter pleads with Ellsworth to gain the commission for Courtland, the most sought-after building project in New York. Knowing that he needs Roark’s help, he convinces Roark to design the building, in exchange for full creative freedom – nothing will be changed. Ellsworth, however, insists on making a minor change, an act that incenses Roark. Roark, with Dominique’s help, blows up the building project as an act of protest, something that leads to his swift arrest.

On trial, Roark makes a passionate speech defending his right to build as he sees fit and how he, not Peter, designed the housing project. He rouses the courtroom with a speech about the value of ego and the need to remain true to oneself. The jury finds him not guilty and Roark wins Dominique, as well as one last contract from her former husband. The last scene follows Dominique (now Mrs. Roark), entering the site to meet Roark atop the steel framework.

Oh, boy.

I confess that I rather disliked The Fountainhead. Part of it was that everyone, including Roark, was unlovable. Roark himself is an arrogant conceited asshole – the later John Galt is a rather mellower version of the character – who refuses to compromise his principles, whatever the cost. Roark seems not to realise that newcomers in any field – and that includes architecture – must earn their place; success at minor commissions would lead, naturally, to greater successes and a chance to stride boldly forwards into unbroken territory. Instead, he remains a staunch individualist, even to the point where it hurts himself more than anyone else.

One of the problems lies in the fact that he – and architects in general – are hired to perform a task, not to break new ground. A client wants what he wants, not what the architect thinks he should be glad to have. Roark’s job is to give the client what he wants. He can design all he likes, but meeting the client’s requirements is the first step to actually seeing his designs produced and made real. Roark does not seem to grasp this, while Peter does – one of the few positive signs around the character.

The oddest point of the book lies in the fact that both trials in the book are gross miscarriages of judgement. In the first trial, Roark is convicted and ordered to pay damages, even though he broke no law. Roark was given full creative freedom to design and build as he liked – if the client didn’t like the result, he should have been more specific or insisted on seeing the plans before they became reality. There is also the ‘minor’ detail that most of the evidence presented against Roark was subjective – my dislike of Van Gogh’s work doesn’t make him a bad artist – and therefore inadmissible in court. If Roark had built a mosque when he had been asked to built a church, they might have had a point; as it was, Roark was innocent.

In the second trial, Roark is declared innocent – when he was unquestionably guilty. Roark didn’t own Cortland – the housing building he demolished - and thus he had no right to destroy it. It was not Roark who paid for the materials, it was not Roark who built it personally; his sole contribution was the design – which, legally, belonged to Peter. If we dismiss those facts, Roark risked lives – the building could have been inhabited – and he wasn't even striking at the true source of his torment. The innocent suffered along with the guilty at Roark’s hands.

The Fountainhead has many interesting points – I cannot deny that. Rand makes many good points – the willingness of the unloved to degenerate and bring down the achievers, the corrupt nature of newspapers, and the folly of relying on public opinion and how easily it can be shaped by people lacking scruples – and all of them deserve study. The book is definitely worthy of respect.

It is not, however, great literature. Roark’s unlovable nature brings the book down. I cannot help, but feel that if he had been able to express himself better, he would have had far less trouble. I imagine that Rand would sneer and say that I was expecting him to talk down to us.

2 comments:

  1. Must be an enjoyable read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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  2. Very well said. I especially enjoyed the comparison of the two trials. You're right - both had ridiculous endings. So many worship at the feet of Rand and her philosophy. If philosophy leads to such horrible places (such as blowing up building that aren't youurs) then perhaps something's wrong with the philosophy?

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