Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Fountainhead

I chose Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for my summer reading long before the controversy over Paul Ryan blossomed in the media. I thought it would be interesting to read it simultaneously with Edvard Radzinsky's biography of Stalin, since Rand, a staunch anti-Communist, wrote in reaction to the Marxism which consumed her native Russia. Marxism and the Randian philosophy of Objectivism are both atheistic, materialistic philosophies which have shaped contemporary thought. While Marxism makes a god of the state, demanding the total immolation of each individual to the needs of the People, Objectivism makes a god of the individual, exalting self-actualization, along with sex and money, as the highest goals in life. According to American Writers:
The Fountainhead (1943; film, 1949), which became a durable best-seller, depicts its architect-hero as a superman whose egoism and genius prevail over timid traditionalism and social conformism. The Objectivist philosophy embodied in the book, inspired by Nietzsche, held that all real achievement is the product of individual ability and effort, that laissez-faire capitalism is most congenial to the exercise of talent, and that selfishness is a virtue, altruism a vice. Rand's reversal of the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic made her a beacon for an avid and self-renewing cult of libertarian-conservative followers.
I found it helpful to read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead in the light of the Communism she was reacting against. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, they confiscated Rand's family's prosperous pharmaceutical business. The family almost starved to death. Businesses all over the  new Soviet Union were taken over by the government in the 1920's, as were the farms and factories. The most successful businessmen, farmers, artists, and craftsmen were killed, imprisoned or starved to death under Stalin, unless they were able to escape the country. Complete immolation on the altar of Communism was expected of every citizen; only mediocrity was safe. Everyone lived in fear of the consequences of speaking out; even dedicated Communists would be arrested and tortured if they were seen as a threat to Stalin's power. Anyone could be arrested on false charges or on the slightest suspicion. Being arrested often met that one's entire family would be sent to the gulags.

Rand was able to escape from Russia to the United States but the rest of her family were not permitted to leave. She went from being a non-religious Jew to an atheist. She became a successful screenwriter in Hollywood. She objected to the socialism that she saw seeping into American arts, politics and culture, seeing it as bringing not only mediocrity and vulgarity but the destruction of the American work ethic.

In The Fountainhead, her arch-villain is the writer Ellsworth Toohey, who like Stalin was a former seminarian, but instead of leveling people with fire and sword Toohey does so with his pen. He despises the young architect Howard Roark who, unlike the successful Peter Keating and thousands of others who have sold their principles for worldly success, cannot be bought, nor can he be browbeaten into sacrificing his vision and individuality. To quote from Toohey's long rant to Peter as to what must be done to create the new society:
Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to 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 rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection....Enshrine mediocrity, and all shrines are razed. (pp. 635-636)
Stalin would have agreed; in the Soviet Union he was enforcing Toohey's ideals at gunpoint. In the meantime, Roark, Rand's hero, is a reproach to those who have caved in to the system, not being threatened by death as Stalin threatened people, but merely giving in to the fear of the loss of human respect. Peter Keating sells his wife to a publisher in order to secure a lucrative commission. In The Fountainhead, Americans who sacrifice themselves and their loved ones for mere money are pitiable, much more so than those who capitulate from fear of bodily harm in Communist hellholes. Russia and Communism are not mentioned in The Fountainhead, which is why it is helpful to understand Rand's background

 Roark is a man of few words. I wonder if his blunt manner is the reason some conservative young people have such poor social skills, thinking that they are imitating Howard Roark, and therefore dispense with social pleasantries? Roark is admirable, however, for his refusal to bow to public opinion. He will not sacrifice his integrity for anyone, not even for the woman he loves. Any artist, writer, architect, etc. who has ever trouble succeeding can (rightly or wrongly) identify with Roark's struggles, which is certainly one of the reasons the novel is still widely popular.

Another reason for the book's enduring success is surely the romance between Roark and the exquisite but troubled Dominique Francon. Roark and Dominique have an intermittent affair, beginning with the ravishment of Dominique by Roark at her country house in Connecticut. It is disturbing that Dominique revels in the fact that she was "raped" by Roark, making a criminal act into her romantic fantasy. Whether Dominique was actually raped is a matter of debate; the scene is nevertheless misleading about the nature of sexual violence and brutality against women. The volatile passion of Roark and Dominique can be seen as a a response to the puritanical side of Bolshevism which discouraged romantic love and fidelity, as embodied by Toohey's disdain for sexuality, except as a tool to degrade people.

Roark is an atheist and lives for his achievements in this world. The Fountainhead is subtly (and often not so subtly) hostile to religion, which is how the book fails to offer a powerful rebuke to Communism. Rand merely sets up another false god, and every false god is a demon, as C.S. Lewis said. Objectivism is as rooted in materialism as is Communism, and material possessions cannot bring lasting happiness. In the words of Whittaker Chambers:
Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century, and may be its final experience—will be, unless the free world, in the agony of its struggle with Communism, overcomes its crisis by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man's mind, at the same intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die.
It is faith which overcomes the evil of the world, and in despising faith Ayn Rand misses the source and the goal of happiness. Conservatives who drink too deeply of her philosophy will not be the irresistible force against Marxism which our world so desperately needs. It is possible, I believe, to imitate some of her better ideas as put forth in The Fountainhead, such as the refusal to sacrifice one's honesty and integrity for the dust that is public opinion.



julygirl said...

In the film, I felt Gary Cooper was miscast in the role of Roark. Thanks for the Wonderful review and comparison and contrast of the two philosophys

MadMonarchist said...

Never read the book but I have the movie, unsubtle and "preachy" as Rand tends to be, but I think it has a positive message overall. The problem is that to the die-hard "Randists" out there, Objectivism is nothing less than a religion and they would not claim or desire Paul Ryan, or you, or me or anyone who goes to Church as one of their own. To be an Objectivist one must have no other gods before Ayn Rand.

However, I've been thinking lately that "Randism" may be on the up-swing. As the left goes more unabashadly toward socialism the right inches more in the opposite direction and religious values seem to be less and less "winning" issues. With Objectivism you get your capitalism without all those pesky moral values that get you called a bigot or a homophobe.

I'm afraid I'm rather pessimistic, no matter who wins in November.