The Fountainhead

Fountainhead is endlessly quotable – so I’ll fill most of this post with…quotes, since they probably express so much better the nature of the book than I ever could. Actually, this is probably always the case, but since now we’ll be talking philosophy I don’t think I can handle it on my own.

The book is structured into 4 parts, all taking place sometime in the 20s and 30s – each centered upon one character, but all in connection, all pushing the plot forward to the final showdown. It’s very classic – the characters are archetypes and merely a means of expressing an idea and the narration follows through with all five stages that have been deeply imprinted in my brain for about 8 years of school (introduction, intrigue and so on😉 ). I’m not pointing these out as faults – but merely trying to give you an idea of what to expect (personally, I had none). I actually think I started with an irrational, vague prejudice against it – I couldn’t explain it, nor identify its source. There are books I love, and books I find exciting (weirdly enough, these categories don’t necessarily overlap) and this one was part of the latter. Sometimes all I wanted was to flip the pages further and see what happens. Or google it. A few years ago I would have done it, too, but I’ve come to learn that delayed gratification is somehow more satisfying.

Everyone, every single character is so completely and utterly fucked up in this book – every single one of them. (The same phrase can be easily applied to the people in Trainspotting or in any Chuck Palahniuk novel – but this doesn’t make it any less true of this case. There are so many different levels and types of fuckeupness😉 ) They’re not real, they’re character foils and cardboard cutouts sustaining an idea and their villainy or merits are only in relation to that Idea; the writing can get overly and needlessly pretentious at times, the dialogues can get stilted (or rather, turn into monologues for the audience) and there’s something inhuman in the assumption that everything can be judged solely on intellectual merit because it implies no emotion whatsoever. And we’re all part (more or less reluctantly) of this much blamed world that finds backbone and idealism something to be laughed at – so part of the book could induce a bit of a guilt trip – but there were moments when I loved every single page, every single line. I wish I could explain it more coherently.

He was certain it was profound, because he didn’t understand it.

Oh, Peter Keating, you tried so hard but the whole set up was so you would fall. Starting with his home life, the ambition of becoming someone was instilled in Keating, a man lacking a particularly strong or determined personality. His mother is so obviously manipulating and insidious (I hate these kinds of characters, all I want to do is take the nearest blunt object and beat some sense into them) – about his chosen profession, about his potential marriage, about the path his career is to take. He becomes the leading name in architecture at a very young age, a partner in the biggest firm in New York with the inexhaustible help of Ellsworth Toohey (our evil genius mastermind, I’ll get to him later) and a bit of a talent for flattery and manipulation of his own. But Toohey, from the first moment they come in contact, seems to suck out his soul – not that Keating had much to begin with – and to use him for his own purposes. Devoid of passion, originality or talent, Keating appeals to Howard Roark (a former schoolmate and our hero) when it comes to designing his biggest commissions. And Roark helps without resenting him, because the only thing he cares about is his work, is seeing his buildings and his vision erected – on one condition: that nothing is altered or embellished to fit the majority’s sensibilities and dubious tastes. But Keating is growing more and more self-aware with every page – at least in his relation to Roark. His feelings are stated so simply, laid out with every stare sometimes undermine the potentially subtleties of the psychology of two complicated men. With the rising of the Cosmo – Slotnick building (Keating’s supposed crowning achievement) his ambiguous feelings towards Roark start morphing: impotence turns into rage – and rage into hatred. Later on, used up and cast aside by Toohey, he tries to redeem himself in the eyes of the public – and can only do so by appealing once more to Roark’s genius.

Keating is the perfect antithesis to Roark – lacking in principles, in talent, in interest for his chosen profession, willingly bending to the will of public demand, living only for how he is seen by others, seeking admiration without substance, entertaining no personal thought or opinion. His accepting to marry Dominique Francon (instead of the woman he was reluctantly in love with) is her self-flagellation and just further proof that Keating lives only for a public.

One thing bugged my slightly – and I found somewhat out of character. At the first meeting between Toohey and Keating it’s said that Keating knew everything that happened under Toohey’s mask of benevolence. Real life doesn’t quite work like that; even if people notice certain hidden undercurrents in the words or gestures of others they are more like hunches, feelings, afterthoughts rather than certainties. When this scene established a sort of bond between the two, it comes off as fake, forced – in much of the same way that the beginnings of Roark & Dominique’s tryst feel fake: immediate unspoken understanding is overrated and most likely a misunderstanding.

Then you’ll go home and think about destroying me

Roark to Dominique – one simple phrase describing the tumultuous relationship between the two. She is his kindred spirit – in a way, and her own principles, her own (fanatical) love of the absolute force her to keep away from him – or to destroy him. She says: Roark, before I met you, I had always been afraid of seeing someone like you, because I knew that I’d also have to see what I saw on the witness stand and I’d have to do what I did in that courtroom. I hated doing it, because it was an insult to you to defend you–and it was an insult to myself that you had to be defended… Roark, I can accept anything, except what seems to be the easiest for most people: their halfway, the almost, the just-about, the in-between. They have their justifications. I don’t know. I don’t care to inquire. I know that it is the one thing not given me to understand. When I think of what you are, I can’t accept any reality except a world of your kind. Or at least a world in which you have a fighting chance and a fight on your own terms. That does not exist. And I can’t live life torn between that which exists–and you.

She tries to destroy him, to push away commissions from him – until he creates something so grand, so powerful – and gets shut down so mercilessly, that she feels compelled to publicly defend him at the trial against him. It’s a humiliation to both, and her punishment is her marriages: first to Peter Keating and then to newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand.

In what is probably the only moment of honesty in her marriage to Keating, she says to him: I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being – only without the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment – I said I had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence – I created nothing. I didn’t say equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind – I just agreed with everybody. Keating knows he is being used, but doesn’t understand how or why. And when she decides to leave him and to marry a supposed greater evil – that’s when he starts to fall apart, to see the emptiness of his life and to wallow in dissatisfaction.

And love is exception-making…

…because Wynand proves to be nothing like anyone expected. Millionaire, owner of several tabloids and other enterprises – Dominique expects him to be the embodiment of all she hates the most: mob mentality and mediocrity. The Banner, his most famous paper, has played a key role in the temporary destruction of Roark’s career, as well as in the launch of men like Peter Keating – after all, Ellsworth Toohey is one of its most popular columnists, offering opinions on everything pertaining to art or social issues. What Dominique finds is a man who despises his public and his employees, a man who, behind it all, shares her love of the unique, a man who chooses to destroy those in which he sees integrity because he can’t allow them to live in a world that will suffocate them and, most importantly, a man who understands and loves her. So, when Wynand chooses Roark as the architect for his personal home – the one place that will not be featured in his papers – they easily become friends, as the spiritual kinship they share is so much more important than the feelings he still has for Dominique. But this partnership brings out a side of Wynand he had forgotten and is, as such, the beginning of his downfall. Not to spoil anything for anyone who may not have read this, but the most heartbreaking scene of the entire book was Wynand and Roark’s last meeting – after Dominique has finally left him for Roark, after the strike and after what Wynand must have perceived as the biggest betrayal of his life. In Rand’s style it came to a logical conclusion, but…

(…) you have no weapon except your genius, which is not a weapon but a great liability

And we finally arrive to our own well dressed, polite, cultured Darth Vader. Toohey is not the obvious villain – he doesn’t want anything tangible for himself, he claims to act out of selflessness, he claims to support culture and art and those who are creating them, he’s a perfectly harmless, well-behaved, highly regarded professional. And thus, he’s the worst kind of manipulator and the embodiment of Rand brand of evil: mediocrity and collectivism. He recognizes greatness in Roark and dedicates himself to destroying him, not by being obvious about it, but by putting in motion a whole network of people and circumstances. The commission for Stoddard temple – a temple to all beliefs – is pushed towards Roark by Toohey, knowing full well that the result would not please Mr. Stoddard, a man trying to repent for a life spent chasing money and pleasures. The ensuing trial (where Dominique is forced to stand up for Roark) is also orchestrated by Toohey through his column and through the various councils he has organized, where only his pets are allowed. He knows  how to get under your skin, how to ensnare, how to make himself invaluable – and how to put thoughts into the expectant minds of those who can’t – or won’t – think for themselves. He builds up his influence with great patience and nearly takes over Wynand’s Banner. He turns Peter Keating to a shell of a man, sucking out everything that may have been his own. For a short while he thinks of Dominique Francon as an ally – since she is also after destroying Roark – but when he realizes that her motives are completely different, he turns a page and start to use this reveal to his advantage. He has himself surrounded by mindless drones with pretensions of intelligence and talent, whom he can unleash against whoever he wants – and, after the housing project fiasco, his choice of victim is Wynand (and Roark again, by association).

In his confession to Dominique it’s clear he understands perfectly which levers to push and what he’ll obtain by pushing them: But to be beaten by the man who has always stood as the particular example of mediocrity in his eyes, to start by the side of this mediocrity and to watch it shoot up, while he struggles and gets nothing but a boot in his face, to see the mediocrity snatch from him, one after another, the chances he’d give his life for, to see the mediocrity worshipped, to miss the place he wants and to see the mediocrity enshrined upon it, to lose, to be sacrificed, to be ignored, to be beaten, beaten, beaten not by a greater genius, not by a god, but by Peter Keating (…) do you think the Spanish Inquisition ever thought of a torture equal to this? There is nothing innocent, nothing left to chance in his plan – and that’s probably the most frightening thing of all: that men are so alike, that they can so easily be decoded.

Because the beauty of the human body is that it hasn’t a single muscle which doesn’t serve its purpose, that there’s not a line wasted, that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man.

We’ve finally come to the supposed hero of this whole thing – Howard Roark. The guiding principle of his architecture is that beauty serves a purpose – or rather that beauty is obtained only through a purpose – an unyielding conviction which he expresses many times in a calm and indifferent voice. He’s not a sanguine man, he doesn’t let passion and emotions overrun him, his only arguments are of a logical nature. He hates the eclectic of contemporary architecture, he doesn’t want to steal from the ancients but to push things forward and create something new, something entirely his. He’s thrown out of Stanford (where Peter Keating is hailed as the future of architecture) and he chooses to work for one man – and one man only: Henry Cameron. Cameron, a former glory, has been shunned to the outer edges of the profession because he wouldn’t sell himself, wouldn’t sell his convictions – a philosophy he shears with Roark. You’ll think me crazy, but part of his attitude reminded me vaguely of House: only diagnosis matter, not people (or, in this case, buildings).

In fiction – and in real life, too – I love characters who are passionate about what they do, who fight for what they feel is right. They can be single-minded, but, on the other hand, such dedication is bound to lead to something great. And this is why I loved the character of Roark: not necessarily for his principles, but for the simple fact of his courage – putting everything he had into the one thing he loved most.

Keating is the perfect character foil for Roark – matching him (or should I say – opposing him) almost trait for trait – which, I think, slightly lessens the power of both characters. Roark’s friends are few but steady – and they are those who understand his vision and let him achieve it. Anything less would have been a compromise and Roark does not compromise – as proven most eloquently by the blowing up of the housing project (a project he had designed for Keating and let him put his name on it – on the condition that it is built without any alterations. Keating is forced into a partnership with other architects who make various modifications and Roark, considering the deal was not respected, takes matters in his own hands and blows up the whole structure). The ensuing trial is nothing but an excuse for Ms Rand to put forward and explain her objectivist ideas and the verdict – through probably philosophically correct, doesn’t seem judiciary possible. (I didn’t go to law school or anything, but blowing up a building is definitely a felony, no matter how you justify it).

So…what’s this philosophy we’ve been talking about? Here I really will leave you with 2 quotes: Roark on one side, Toohey on the other. Should be clear which is which😀

> If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It’s the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips, or swords, or fire, or guns. (…) The soul, Peter, is that which can’t be ruled. It must be broken. (…) There are many ways. Here’s one. Make man feel small. Make him feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity. That’s difficult. The worst among you gropes for an ideal in his own twisted way. Kill integrity by internal corruption. Use it against itself. Direct it toward a goal destructive of all integrity. Preach selflessness. Tell man he must live for others. Tell men that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one of them has ever achieved it and not a single one ever will. His every instinct screams against it. (…) Man realises he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue – and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness. Since the supreme ideal is beyond his grasp, he gives up eventually all ideals, all aspiration, all sense of personal value. (…) His soul gives up its self-respect. You’ve got him. He’ll obey.  (…) That’s one way. Here’s another. Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rear, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept – and you stop the impetus of effort in all men, great or small. (…) Enshrine mediocrity and the shrines are razed. There’s another way. Kill by laughter. (…) Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It’s simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humour is an unlimited virtue. Don’t let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul and his soul won’t be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man. (…) There’s another way. (…) Don’t allow men to be happy. Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. Happy men have no time and no use for you. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. (…) Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil. (…) This is how far we’ve come. We’ve tied happiness to guilt. And we’ve got mankind by the throat.

> And isn’t that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self. Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he’s honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he’s great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison. The man whose sole aim is to make money. But money is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose – to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury – he’s completely moral. But the men who place money first go beyond that. Personal luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They’re second-handers. Look at our so-called cultural endeavors. A lecturer who spouts some borrowed rehash of nothing at all that means nothing at all to him – and the people who listen and don’t give a damn, but sit there in order to tell their friends that they have attended a lecture by a famous name. All second-handers.

(…)

That precisely is the deadliness of second-handers. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask ‘Is this true?’ They ask ‘Is this what others think is true?’. Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? Those are the egotists.

(…)

The creator – denied, opposed, persecuted, exploited – went on, moved forward and carried all humanity on his energy. The second-hander contributed nothing to the process except the impediments. The contest has another name: the individual against the collective.

You can read a million reviews, you can google all you want about Rand and objectivism – but after two weeks, I’m happy to let this one go. It’s been a memorable ride.

~ by ameer on July 11, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Fountainhead”

  1. “They’re not real, they’re character foils and cardboard cutouts sustaining an idea and their villainy or merits are only in relation to that Idea; the writing can get overly and needlessly pretentious.”

    QED. That’s why I abandoned this and Atlas Shrugged after just starting them. Huge letdowns. I was expecting to be shocked and awed :<

    • Yeah, I figured Atlas Shrugged would probably be much of the same. Thing is though – and it’s probably weird and contradictory – I was really into the book. But I kinda got what points she’s making, and I don’t know if I want to sit through the advanced course😉 At least not yet😀

  2. Love loved The Fountainhead, but love love loved Atlas Shrugged🙂

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