The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

So I was given this book as a present by my brother – thanks! – which presented a good opportunity to read a book I’d normally never pick up; due to (a) what I know about Objectivism, and (b) what people who like Rand seem to get up to: see Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, etc.

But! I will say this: to its credit, and taken as a book, considered apart from its philosophical, moral and political stances, then it is actually quite good. Why: the dialog crackles. The plot is constructed well enough that it kept tugging me on in the manner of a good thriller, and the people are well-drawn enough that I wanted to find out what happened to them. It was good enough that I didn't read any other books at the same time. As a minor weak point, in some places the descriptive prose is hideously clunky.

That said, everything else about the book stands as a good example of why artistic merit is often divorced from other value systems, and since the author and the book itself specifically demand not to be judged in isolation from reality, as art for the sake of art, I’m happy to unload on the book as follows.

Firstly, Rand has used to the fullest extent her liberty as author to construct a reality in which her argument is presented in the best possible light. There’s nothing wrong with this as a rhetorical device; otherwise what would be the point of a political novel? But it’s interesting to note what had to be left out in order to make her promotion of egoism and self-interest-as-Prime-Directive stick.

There is one mother and one father in this book, that of Keating and Dominique respectively, and both parent-child relationships are severely dysfunctional. They are both relations between grown children and their parents. Parent-child relationships where the child is younger, i.e. dependent, clearly don’t figure in a world where self-interest is all, and indeed how can it? Parents sacrifice a lot when they have children – free time, mobility, sleep, income – and all sacrifice is antithetical to Rand’s philosophy. She would call it selfish, saying that the parent is somehow trying to live through their child, second-hand. I don’t deny that some parents do try this, but certainly not all; and all good parents sacrifice.

This lack of basic relationality goes further; there is one uncle (Toohey) and one niece (Katy), no brothers or sisters, no cousins, no grandparents or grandchildren. Roark and Dominique, the heroes, are introduced to us almost from nowhere. Roark’s parents are hardly discussed, yet where was his absolute self-centeredness inculcated? Dominique’s mother is dead, so where did she pick up her psychological sadomasochism? How did she grow up, since Guy Francon clearly wasn't involved? Gail Wynand, for his part, is effectively an orphan.

The only person whose parents are introduced at all are Toohey’s, whom we learn he manipulated into subservience at an early age. Nothing else about them seems significant.

This lack of familial relations, and the sparse friendships represented, allow Rand to promote self-interest to the hilt. She obviates the need for vulnerability in true relationships, she elides material links except when they illustrate weakness of character as in Keating. Wynand and Roarck came from a poor background, but neither have ill or poor parents, grandparents or other family members to support. Roarck doesn't need to think about paying the medical bills of his father; and if he did, then in what light would this cast his decision to refuse work, or to get himself expelled from school?

Enough about what is missing. What is present is objectionable enough, and we can start with the rape of Dominique Francon. Limply described as a 'rough sexual encounter' in the plot summary in the Wikipedia article, the section dedicated to the rape scene itself devotes half its verbiage to pathetic attempts to defend it. But I ask you: in what kind of rough sex would one attempt to smash one's lover over the head with a crystal lamp-stand? Miles away from anywhere, in the middle of the night, where your lover could die of blood-loss, from the nasty head wound a successful blow would inflict?

It's not hard to object even though the author clearly doesn't. As written, Dominique didn't enjoy it; she fought like a demon, she felt herself defiled. She suffered terrible pain. She went into shock immediately afterwards on the bathroom floor. Rand can deny this is rape; that matters not in the slightest. It was rape as written; in the book Dominique refers to it as rape.

It makes things worse to try and offer the slight smidgen of justification available: that in the book, Dominique is a sadist, she enjoys suffering, she was in love and secretly wanted it. Worse because in the real world, tragically, women are raped, all the time, by men who falsely and wrongly believe all these things of their victims. And this scene in a book that offers Roarck as a model, a super-man worthy of emulation, and Dominique in her tormenting and submission to him following this as an ideal woman. When you consider that the book is often read and admired by young men, it gets worse still.

I'm far from the first and surely not the last to make these points. But what of the ideology? After all the book is explicit in its agenda, what of that?

This is where I get more mixed and less forthright, because Rand herself is highly mixed up. She movingly describes the designs of Roarck, and the scathing indictment of all others shows a real love of building and architecture. Yet it's when Toohey is insincerely promoting collectivism that we hear of sacrifice, charity, and love. Greatness, Rand is saying, rejects all these things in the furtherance of itself.

How wrong this is. And ironically the book itself is full of sacrifice, charity and love; without which Roarck could not succeed. Austen Heller sacrifices a good portion of his reputation in first hiring Roarck for his debut project, then defending him; the worker Mike sacrifices time and income to move with Roarck in order to work with him; Heller and later Wynand host Roarck as he relaxes; And Wynand very clearly grows to love Roarck, even in preference over his then-wife, in all ways except romantically.

It's Toohey, in the book, who does nothing out of love or charity. All his actions are self-serving, but they are dressed up in the language of collectivism. His deceit, however, is also self-serving. And it's when Toohey is insincerely extolling collectivism that the book expresses the distorted shadow of what love, charity and sacrifice are all about.

But again, the book constructs a reality to support it's argument, why should it not be distorted? However, to see clearly the nature of distortion I think it's most helpful to compare the book to a real-world scenario.
"Buildings and their manufacture are inseparable. You understand a building if you understand how it’s made. I want to know what buildings are for, how they work, what they can or should be made of, before I even begin to think what they should look like."
A quote from Roarck? No. Imagine that Rand was writing The Fountainhead today, and not about architecture, but about technology. Roarck and his purist sensibilities, and his refusal to compromise, are mirrored nowhere better than in one company: Apple.

Steve Jobs was famously self-centered, and the gadgets that Apple produced under him and his successors are the product of a laser-like focus on greatness, a word that Rand and Jobs both loved to use.

Jonathan Ive is the chief designer at Apple and deserves a lot of credit of the iMac, iPhone, and iPad. He worked closely with Jobs, and recently gave a (very) rare interview to Time magazine. The above quote is from him, except that I replaced the words "object" or "thing" with "building".

Watch me put some of his quotes into two buckets, named after characters you might recognise:

"We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.""I don’t like being singled out for attention. Designing, engineering and making these products requires large teams,"
"We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. ... our success is a victory for purity, integrity — for giving a damn."[The team] "is really much smaller than you’d think — about 15. Most of us have worked together for 15 to 20 years. ... We can be bitterly critical of our work. The personal issues of ego have long since faded."
"What people are responding to is much bigger than the object. They are responding to something rare — a group of people who do more than simply make something work, they make the very best products they possibly can. It’s a demonstration against thoughtlessness and carelessness,""Apple is imperfect, like every large collection of people."

See what I did there? Apple, surprise surprise, in the real world, values both greatness, collective effort, ego and egoless team work. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ive's description of Jobs himself:
"His ideas were bold and magnificent. They could suck the air from the room. And when the ideas didn’t come, he decided to believe we would eventually make something great. And, oh, the joy of getting there!"
And this is why for me the ideology of the book fails. Taken as a hymn to human achievement, greatness, and struggle in the face of adversity, the book works well. But the struggle in the book is cast as one against some of the key ingredients needed for humans to achieve greatness and to overcome adversity. The book takes human nature, puts it through a centrifuge to extract one single ingredient, and then extolls this above all others, to the detriment of the whole. How annoying.

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