Just finished reading–for the first time–Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943).
Why hadn’t I read it back in my formative years? The few times I’d heard the book mentioned by someone in my college classes, it always seemed to be by some seriously weird, loner-type girl. I remember one literature class in particular, in which one of Ayn’s acolytes annoyingly brought up Rand and her ideas (which were far, far to the right of Barry Goldwater and Attila the Hun) at every possible opportunity. Such fierce devotion pretty much soured me on reading Rand.
I must say that after finally slogging through Rand’s turgid tome (my copy weighs in at 727 pages), I can see why I resisted her charms.
The Fountainhead is about as subtle as a punch in the face. About as nuanced as a tractor pull. Characters don’t have conversations, they make speeches to each other. Long, interminable speeches. Elmore Leonard, she is not.
I don’t know if Rand was a successful card player but I suspect she would have done marvelously at a Vegas poker table since she is a master at stacking the deck. The novel contains not a moment of subtlety, nuance, or balance.
You can instantly tell the (tiny handful) of good guys from the bad guys (everyone else in the world). The good guys are angular, thin, chiseled, steely in demeanor and are so grimly convinced of their rightness that they do not for a second listen to anyone else or consider another’s point of view. Not exactly people you’d want to have a beer with.
The bad guys are lumpy, curly-haired, soft, rounded, and are always looking in the mirror to see how they appear to others. “Second-handers” Rand calls them.
If you prize even a modicum of plausible characterization, this is not the book for you. The characters might as well be wearing those little name tags you see at real estate brokers conventions.
Hello, My Name Is _____. I stand for solitary genius and uncompromising individualism.
Hello, My Name Is ______. I stand for soulless conformity and the evils of collectivism.
In fact, if not for the spicy sex scenes between Howard Roark, the architect and fiercely uncompromising hero of our sodden tale, and the exotically beautiful Dominique, one of the strangest female characters in all of literature, there would be nothing to recommend this ode to selfishness, rugged individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and overblown overwriting.
For the dirty little secret about The Fountainhead is that–despite its tawdry politics and eye-rolling prose style–the only time the book throbs to life (pardon the language, but Rand’s bodice-ripping prose can get contagious) is when Roark and Dominique go at it. And when they go at it, I mean they go at it.
The Fountainhead was our grandmothers’ Fifty Shades of Grey.
When I quizzed my Baby Boomer contemporaries, I found that virtually none of the men had read The Fountainhead. Some of the women had. When asked what they specifically remembered about the book, hardly anyone mentioned its politics or larger themes: but they all seemed to vividly recall that Howard Roark was a hottie. And the torrid love affair he has with Dominique Francon.
In truth, the novel only pulses with life in the scenes between Roark and Dominique. There’s a kind of Fifty Shades of Grey kinky domination/submission dynamic to their love affair. When these two angular, steely characters get together, the sparks really fly.
Pardon me for the long quote coming up, but if I paraphrased this selection you’d think I was exaggerating or making it all up.
Actually, for a fun thought experiment, try imagining Congressman Paul Ryan or economist Alan Greenspan or any of the Tea Partiers who worship at the altar of Saint Ayn reading the following scene between Dominique and Howard:
She fought like an animal. But she made no sound. She did not call for help. She heard the echoes of her blows in a gasp of his breath, and she knew it was a gasp of pleasure. She reached for the lamp on the dressing table. He knocked the lamp out of her hand. The crystal burst to pieces in the darkness.
He had thrown her down on the bed and she felt the blood beating in her throat, in her eyes, the hatred, the helpless terror in her blood. She felt the hatred and his hands; his hands moving over her body, the hands that broke granite. She fought in a last convulsion. Then the sudden pain shot up, through her body, to her throat, and she screamed. Then she lay still.
It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him–and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted. . . .
Ever wonder where the Republican Party’s “war on women” comes from? The seeds are right here, baby.
And this near-rape (or true rape, depending on your point of view) isn’t an isolated moment in the novel. No. The Fountainhead overflows with the most ridiculously over-the-top sex and overwrought pillow talk.
Here is Dominique after she has ruined Roark’s chances for an important architectural commission:
“I have hurt you today. I’ll do it again. I’ll come to you whenever I have beaten you–whenever I know that I have hurt you–and I’ll let you own me. I want to be owned, not by a lover, but an adversary who will destroy my victory over him, not with honorable blows, but with the touch of his body on mine. That is what I want of you, Roark. That is what I am. You wanted to hear it all. You’ve heard it. What do you wish to say now?”
“Take your clothes off.”
I hereby nominate Howard Roark and Dominque Francon as the Fun Couple of 1943.
So apart from the naughty bits, what else is there to recommend about The Fountainhead?
For one thing, Howard Roark may be the biggest pill in all of literature. It’s no wonder arch-conservatives love him to death. He cares nothing about other people: their needs, opinions, lives.
One can imagine the Tea Party members of Congress doing the happy dance when they hear Roark say stuff like this:
“I don’t work with collectives. I don’t consult, I don’t co-operate, I don’t collaborate.”
Rand relishes telling us how unlikeable Howard Roark is: self-contained, self-righteous, unable and unwilling to compromise, to get along, to see both sides of things. (Sound familiar?)
Here is Roark in a scene with the dean of the architectural school which is just about to expel him:
The Dean moved in his chair. Roark made him uncomfortable. Roark’s eyes were fixed on him politely. The Dean thought, there’s nothing wrong with the way he’s looking at me, in fact it’s quite correct, most properly attentive; only, it’s as if I were not here.
Of course, it’s not just Roark’s personal style that rankles. His ingrained contempt for anything smacking of altruism or the social good is what makes Rand’s supposed hero one of literature’s true monsters.
In his big summation scene near the end of the novel (Roark has blown up the public housing project he designed and is now on trial), Roark lays it all out. The selfish, the egotists are the true heroes of mankind:
“The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. . . .
Roark goes on to explain why tyrants, emperors, and dictators are “second-handers” and not true egotists:
“Rulers of men are not egotists. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter.”
Note where Roark ranks “social workers” in his social hierarchy: between beggars and bandits.
Of course, in real life Ayn Rand found any attempt to provide social services or a safety network for the public tantamount to full-fledged socialism. (I told you she wasn’t into nuance.)
Throughout her life, she battled any programs or policies designed to better the life of the average person. In truth, throughout The Fountainhead runs a deep streak of hatred for common folk–Rand’s only regard is for the handful of the chosen: the solitary genius, the man apart, the rugged individualist. To hell with the needy, the old, the infirm, the less well-off.
Rand fought the New Deal tooth and nail. She excoriated both Social Security and Medicare (even though, later in life, she personally took advantage of both programs).
Her “greed is good” and “selflessness is the ultimate evil” stance is beloved by ultra-conservatives everywhere. I’m sure she would have been battling on the ramparts with the Ted Cruz’s of the world, fighting unto death the odious idea of universal health care. (Hey, wealth has to offer some exclusive privileges, doesn’t it? Or else what’s the point?)
And the environment? Forget about it. Rand has a chillingly anti-Sierra Club view of the natural world. Here are Dominique and Gail Wynand (multi-millionaire publisher and Dominique’s soon-to-be-husband) on Wynand’s yacht:
“. . . When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes.”
“Yes. And that particular sense of sacred rapture men say they experience in contemplating nature–I’ve never received it from nature, only from . . .” She stopped.
“Buildings,” she whispered. “Skyscrapers.”
“Why didn’t you want to say that?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. . . .”
I love that bit about mountains calling to mind, not the wonders of the natural world, but “tunnels and dynamite.” Drill baby, drill.
If you’ve ever wondered where right-wingers’ hatred of the environment and any attempts to protect the natural world comes from: here it is. The wonderful folks who are set on stripping the EPA of all its legitimacy and funding, who still believe, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, that this whole Climate Change thing is a liberal media-inspired hoax–get their inspiration from Rand’s relentless championing of the man-made and artificial at the expense of the natural.
I have to say I finished The Fountainhead with a sigh of relief: I didn’t have to battle with Rand’s prose any longer. Honestly, after slogging through the book, the only things that kept me going after awhile were the sex scenes.
And yet, I’m not sorry I read the book. It has its loopy charms.
A character like Ellsworth Toohey (where does she get these names?) is such a cardboard figure that he is impossible to take seriously. He practically twirls his give-away melodrama villain mustache when he explains in mind-numbing detail his plans for total global domination and power. (Think Austin Powers‘ Dr. Evil.):
“You’re afraid to see where it’s leading. I’m not. I’ll tell you. The world of the future. The world I want. A world of obedience and of unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor . . .
“I want nothing for myself. I use people for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. 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. . . .”
Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead: Grim. Humorless. Relentless. Merciless. Absolutely sure of herself and her stance . . . I’ll need to take a few months (and have a few stiff drinks) before I can even think of attacking Atlas Shrugged (which, from what I hear, is even more of a grind-your-teeth slog than The Fountainhead). And almost twice as long. Oy vey.