15 September 2015

The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. NY: Signet, 1968.

This intersecting story of great men -- of architects Keating and Roark, and newspapermen Toohey and Wynard -- is really about the girl who connects them. Dominique is a frigid social climber who destroys two husbands to be with her lover. Her self-discovery drives the plot and, finally, brings resolution to each of the characters.

Or is it about the rapist who stalks her through two marriages? The Fountainhead is totally a male sex fantasy (skyscrapers -- you really need that symbolism explained?): rape a woman and she’s yours forever. That’s the wrong message (one of several), of course, but illustrates why the book is important to understand. Most dangerously, the book appeals to those who conflate thinking OF oneself with thinking FOR oneself.

First, it’s inspiring how those who want “nothing but freedom” are those with the financial freedom to want nothing more. How they get so rich in the first place isn’t a moral question -- the getting rich is a moral imperative. This is the first lesson of the catechism: you should be rich. Take it. From whom it’s taken matters not; if they can’t hold it, they don’t deserve it. Only rich people are characters worth discussion.

Value is only the use to which I -- as opposed to anyone else, who has no consequence -- the use to which I wish it put. This is sociopathy.

“The meaning of life is work” -- this phrase excuses so much. But, that meaning is only available to those few, those special few who (want to think they) are great, and to hell with everyone else; only my work matters. The masses, by obvious contrast, are part of the material and good only for what can be made with them.

But correlating talent as a worker and value as a man? Really? It’s just a hymn of praise to unregulated exploitive capitalism.

The masses are only that, masses, not each, individually, an ego as great as Rand’s; not each, like Roark, the center of existence for its own self; not each, a reader of this tripe believing it applies to him, and no one else...

This ‘philosophy’ only works if the masses are illiterate (and thus, they must be kept that way). Otherwise, everyone reads The Fountainhead and wants to be a ‘builder’ -- and society descends into petty squabbles among egomaniacs, while nothing is built and people die in the starvation of anarchy.

Or perhaps society runs exactly as Rand envisions. Soon, we run into the tragedy of the commons. This occurs when each genius takes what he ‘needs’ without regard for others, who are, after all, of no consequence. Soon all resources are depleted, and no one can build again.

Alas, such is the curse of self-proclaimed genius.

“He wondered why ineptitude should exist and have its say.” He did not understand that perfection is an ideal, not reality. He was, after all, just an inexperienced, idealistic boy.

The Fountainhead has an obvious attraction for alienated adolescents; thinking that I am great, that the world doesn’t understand, and that starving for my ideals is perfectly reasonable can be very attractive for someone who doesn’t fit in and starves because of it. Unfortunately, not fitting in does not make one a genius, and we have no right to impose our ideals upon others. Claiming otherwise; claiming an authority unto oneself; these may be good qualifications for Congress, but they will not, generally, get your project built. Other people are usually necessary for that, and our rights end when encountering the same rights of others.

The reaction against communal instincts and reflexive praise of capitalism are understandable, to some extent, since Rand was a refugee from the Soviet Union. She was predisposed to assert the self against society. Of course we must each be able to assert the “I”; the individual ego is, as she notes, what gives us each value. She made this argument eloquently in Anthem. But each of us contains that, and each of us must respect that in each other. We can not  use everyone else as the dumb stone of our construction, but must assist others also struggling toward realization. We can all be supermen -- those who already are should not make it an exclusive, power-wielding club, but a goal available for all. In The Fountainhead, Rand makes clear that most people are not, in her estimation, capable or worthy of such self-realization, and indicates that those who are ought simply ignore the rest. This extends her Objectivism, exposing its main tenant as the virtue of selfishness and going beyond asserting the self over nihilism to asserting the self over others.

Really, it is simply a failed line of thought which collapses on itself, because exploiting others creates a downward spiral that takes down everything (see: climate change, the Great Recession, &c). Ultimately, The Fountainhead cannot be read with a straight face. Instead of reading this as a serious philosophical treatise, it should be treated as romantic comedy and played with high camp: “I love you -- I must punish myself by marrying him!” It has already been done, with a script by Rand herself, but imagine the following cast.

Roark            Matt Damon
Keating         John Cusack
Dominique    Scarlett Johansen
Catherine      Emma Watson
Cameron       Clint Eastwood
Guy               Tim Roth
Ellsworth      Steve Buscemi
Wynard         Leo DiCaprio



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