Well, thank goodness that’s over.
For the last few weeks I’ve been slogging my way through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Why? asked a colleague when I mentioned this. Well, why indeed.
Curiosity, I suppose, the same reason I read Mark Twain – I read a lot of American fiction and Ayn Rand is referenced in a lot of it. The Fountainhead was the philosophical bible of far too large a chunk of the post-war generation, mostly Americans. And of course there is the Simpsons episode where Marge gets a part in the musical version of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and so Maggie has to be put into the Ayn Rand School for Tots. And I got it cheap in a secondhand shop – I wouldn’t pay full whack for it, dear Lord no – so why not?
It’s not exactly a story of Everyman – every key character is, if not a multi-millionaire then at least independently wealthy. If we were actually expected to take it seriously then it would just be preposterous, a relatively bonk-free bonkbuster along the lines of yer average Jackie Collins (who I’m probably grossly misrepresenting as I’ve never read her stuff). But by the cunning deployment of metaphors you find you actually can take it seriously. Almost. This isn’t meant to be how the world of architecture actually is; it’s idealised in a way that is meant to reflect how things should be out here in reality.
The hero is Howard Roark, a maverick, uncompromising modernist architect. He designs modern buildings with modern materials; stark, unadorned, each perfectly matched to its environment. The architectural establishment refuses to take him seriously as ‘everyone knows’ the only way to make a decent building is to add classical Greek pillars and Renaissance frills to it. After all, if buildings weren’t meant to be made like that then why did the ancient Greek and the Renaissance architects do it that way?
The antagonist is Ellsworth Toohey, not an architect at all but a self-appointed architectural expert who holds the architectural community in thrall through his newspaper column and his behind-the-scenes Machiavellian manoeuvring. Appalled at creativity he will never be able to share, he instead applies his whole being to dragging everything down to his own level so that he can rule supreme. ‘Don’t set out to raze all shrines,’ he advises. ‘Enshrine mediocrity and the shrines are razed.’
Toohey I actually found the most recognisable real-life character. I can think of at least newspaper columnist who is his direct spiritual descendent. In Toohey’s ideal world no one will dare hold an independent opinion for fear of what their neighbour will think. Everything must be referenced to a self-appointed expert in some field or another; ‘X says that …’ ‘Y believes …’, where X and Y themselves are just the media darlings of the moment who bring absolutely nothing except their artificial fame to the party.
Yes, there are plenty of real-life Tooheys out here – but the great thing, of course, is that they have no power. They can be ignored with perfect confidence and the sun still comes up the next morning. X says, Y believes – but who cares? To a certain extent that happens in the novel too. Toohey asks Roark to say exactly what he thinks of him and Roark replies, with genuine puzzlement, ‘but I don’t think of you.’ But Roark is very much the exception. Roark’s way or Toohey’s way – that is the basis of the novel.
There is also little to argue about in Roark’s general philosophy, which is: be what you’re good at, do what satisfies and fulfils you, and if you can make money from it then even better. He doesn’t design buildings because he fulfils a social function, or because the nation needs more buildings, or because he gets paid well for it. He does it because he enjoys it, and the fact that he’s paid for the job is nice. This is pretty well why I write books.
Burt Roark is also what in real life you’d call a prima donna whose mother didn’t spank him enough. His buildings must be built exactly as he designed them – they must not be altered or augmented in any way at all. He holds to this principle even though it costs him jobs and for a while he has to work as a manual labourer in a quarry to make ends meet. This, Rand is in no doubt, is exactly the right attitude, whether in metaphor or reality. Metaphorically it’s dubious and in real life someone just needs to slap him about a bit and tell him to get a grip. I’m betting Rand’s manuscript for the novel wasn’t published exactly as she wrote it; there would have been copy editors and proof readers. (Or, given the number of typos in the book, maybe it was; which itself just makes my point.)
To wrap the book up, Rand gives us a practical demo of what she’s been preaching for the last billion pages. Roark designs a building project which is added to by lesser talented architects. Because it no longer matches his perfect vision, he dynamites it – having made sure no one is actually going to get hurt – and then argues in court that he had the perfect right to do so because he created it and he can take it away. And guess what, he gets off.
It’s also worth mentioning that when they first meet, Roark essentially rapes the woman who becomes his wife. She even uses the word herself. But she forgives him because he is so obviously perfect and has a right to her.
Draw your own conclusions.
Rand’s philosophy is that you’re either/or. You’re either a creator, giving something unique and new to the world, in which case you are perfect and untouchable; or you’re a second hander, a parasite off the creators. Rand wrote the novel during WW2, a time when it really should have been clear that uncritically following one man’s perfect vision is not always best.
In his courtroom speech, Roark is proud of living in America, a country that enshrines the right to the pursuit of happiness. Astonishingly, that is actually a manmade right and not a natural one; and America was also built on the fact that one man can have way too much power and actively needs input from others to control it. There are no checks and balances in Rand’s philosophy. What prevents Roark from just knocking out philosophically perfect but uninhabitable buildings? From creating another Bull Ring or Brunswick Centre? Only the notion that Roark, being perfect, does everything well, and such buildings would not be ‘well’. But who decides ‘well’? Guess what, Rand does.
Nor is there a concept that maybe you can be a creator in some ways but quite happily a second hander in others. If I write a book then I try to make it all my own. Later the same day I might cook a meal by happily following someone else’s recipe, maybe even (the ultimate Rand evil) mixing and matching a bit from other recipes too. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a post-modern cook. And proud of it.
I also wonder how much Rand knew about human biology. Did she know that our very DNA contains viral additions millions of years old that serve no useful purpose? That our bodies are full of archaic leftovers from older forms that don’t actually do anything?
Let’s cut a long story short, and wish Rand had too. She’s spot on about the importance of bursts of creative energy from people like Roark; but it’s the committee approach that then carries things forward and perpetuates them, leavened by individuals to keep life fresh and interesting.
I doubt I’ll try Atlas Shrugged, even if I do find it going cheap in a secondhand shop.