04 November 2010

Book Review - The Fountainhead

[This is the first in what will hopefully become a series of book reviews. I have a huge list of things I want to read, and I figure taking notes and writing reviews will be a good way to refine my thoughts. If other folks get something out of the reviews, too... well, that's just bonus!]

Title: The Fountainhead (Amazon) (Wikipedia)
Author: Ayn Rand
First Published: 1943


Howard Roark, Architect. The book opens with Roark being expelled from the architecture program at the fictitious Stanton Institute of Technology, shortly before he would have graduated. Instead of fighting to stay, he steps away without looking back. This act represents the first of many instances where Roark, with characteristically few words, sails forward on the course he, and he alone, charts – learning that which he needs from those around him and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to him, but otherwise never relying for a moment on the kindness or altruism of others.

It is tempting to say that Roark has to fight the system around him: in a time when duplication of classical architectural styles is held up as the only acceptable mode, his style is strikingly modern. His work always represents a seamless merging of material, landscape, and space that, for those with an eye to see, brooks no modification and admits no possible improvement. Yet, it invariably is panned by reviewers appalled by the departure from the 'accepted' classical forms. Despite this, Roark pays little attention to those who do not appreciate his designs, and refuses to engage them. He cares only for those few who recognize his genius and makes his living off of their occasional commissions.

While much of the book follows Roark's principled pursuit of his creative purpose, the rest addresses other aspects of this idea of individualistic creative integrity as personified by three main characters:
  • Ellsworth Toohey, the 'nemesis,' whose sole purpose is promulgation of a comprehensively collectivist social order
  • Dominique Francon, the 'pessimist,' whose values closely mirror Roark's but whose response to the world's collectivist challenge is retreat into cynical frivolity instead of assertive pursuit of her desires
  • Gail Wynand, the 'inversion,' who shares the core of Roark's values, drive and motivation—but whose chosen purpose is to publicly compromise and corrupt the individualistic integrity of others


I found the book to be a ringing indictment of collectivism, both via the narrative device and via the interspersed philosophical arguments. The glimpses of what I believe would later be developed into Objectivism, however, are harsh and distastefully un- (or even anti-) sentimental. I note this not to argue that more genuine rationality in public discourse would be undesirable, but to point out that Objectivism's wholesale rejection of emotion and sentimentality in favor of rationality rather tosses the baby out with the bathwater.

As a Christian, it struck me that Rand labeled Christianity as one of the pantheon of collectivist ideologies to be reviled. On the one hand, I agree that many of the historical and modern doctrines/denominations have focused greatly on abasing oneself whilst serving others. On the other hand, I would dispute that these are proper interpretations of the commands of Jesus. In Matthew 22:39 it is written, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself;" not, "You shall love your neighbor, but not yourself." I would characterize this philosophical aspect of Christianity as 'other-conscious individualism.' From this perspective, I disagree with the book's categorical characterization of altruism as vile, though I agree with the disparagement of the idea that worth is only found in serving or thinking only of others.

A few quotes that I found noteworthy, with commentary following each [page references from original Signet paperback edition, 12th printing, (c)1943]:

Ellsworth Toohey, p293 – "Kindness, Peter," said the voice softly, "kindness. That is the first commandment, perhaps the only one. That is why I had to pan that new play, in my column yesterday. That play lacked essential kindness. We must be kind Peter, to everybody around us. We must accept and forgive—there is so much to be forgiven in each one of us. If you learn to love everything, the humblest, the least, the meanest, then the meanest in you will be loved. Then we’ll find the sense of universal equality, the great peace of brotherhood, a new world, Peter, a beautiful new world…."

This philosophy implicitly posits that every sphere contains only different variants of (moral) 'good' - and, by implication, rejects consideration of the 'wrongness' of things. Philosophies that reject a dual-pole (good/evil) morality are toxic in a reality governed by a dual-pole morality—but now's not the time for that discussion.

p491 – Wynand and Dominique sat in the center of the fourth row, not looking at each other, listening to the play. The things being done on the stage were merely trite and crass; but the undercurrent made them frightening. There was an air about the ponderous inanities spoken, which the actors had absorbed like an infection; it was in their smirking faces, in the slyness of their voices; in their untidy gestures. It was an air of inanities uttered as revelations and insolently demanding acceptance as such; an air, not of innocent presumption, but of conscious effrontery; as if the author knew the nature of his work and boasted of his power to make it appear sublime in the minds of his audience and thus destroy the capacity for the sublime within them. The work justified the verdict of its sponsors: it brought laughs, it was amusing; it was an indecent joke, acted out not on the stage but in the audience. It was a pedestal from which a god had been torn, and in his place there stood, not Satan with a sword, but a corner lout sipping a bottle of Coca-Cola.

This reminds me so strongly of most advertising today. In general, commercials pretty much just make me want to retch.

Ellsworth Toohey, p639 – "I have no private purpose. I want power. I want my world of the future. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to slavery. A great circle—and a total equality. The world of the future."

"Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There's equality in stagnation." I was revolted, reading the monologue from which this came.

Howard Roark, p680 – "Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.
"Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then man must wish to see others suffer—in order that he may be virtuous. Such is the nature of altruism. The creator is not concerned with disease, but with life. Yet the work of the creators has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man’s body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive."

'Suffering is a disease.' Rand identifies this well, but due to her rejection of God she also implicitly rejects the sin explanation of suffering. In a broken world there will always be some in need of assistance, and provision of that assistance is a worthy endeavor. Ideologies exist, Rand's being one of them, that wish mightily that suffering might be eliminated; the (pre-millenial) Christian worldview argues that these are vain and foolish in the present age. I do agree partly with Rand, in that elevation of altruism to the highest virtue is folly—per my prior argument, though, I do not agree that a proper understanding of Christianity requires one to elevate altruism as such.