Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Fountainhead: A Book Review

More so than in any of the nonfiction books Ayn Rand wrote later in life (most of which are merely collections of her essays and articles), the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism gave her worldview its fullest voice and expression in her works of fiction, particularly the two novels for which she is most famous, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), both of which I have read. The present essay is my review of the former, which I will follow up with a review of the latter in another essay.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, a brilliant architect whose genius is unrecognized and under-appreciated by all people, save the small and ever-dwindling number of intelligent individuals left in society. Peter Keating, Roark's struggling colleague in the field of architecture, is another central character whom Roark helps out occasionally by designing something for which Keating takes complete credit for. Keating is everything Roark is not and builds his career by leeching off of Roark's brilliance. Struggling in obscurity through many discouraging odds as he fights to preserve his personal vision, Howard Roark remains true to his ideals through to the end, which culminates in his dramatic delivery of a long speech on the value of ego and the necessity of self-interest before a hostile courtroom as he vindicates himself in the face of charges that he dynamited one of his own buildings to make a statement.

The court allows Roark to talk uninterrupted for a substantial length of time that covers many pages. Those familiar with Ayn Rand's fiction will recognize the theme of the uninterrupted long speech made by the brilliant hero at the end to be a recurring one in her novels, a device utilized by the author to have her characters serve as her mouthpiece. Rand's fictional characters are developed as avatars of her ideas, who participate in the plot not only to advance it, but also to be represent through their unfolding development the gradual revelation of Rand's philosophical worldview as the novel progresses.

Meanwhile, in polar opposition to the noble hero archetype that is Howard Roark, the main villain of The Fountainhead is a character named Ellsworth Monkton Toohey. This character exemplifies all that is evil and destructive in the Ayn Rand universe. This is precisely what ends up making this character highly complex and interesting, despite Rand's black-and-white approach to morality in her secondary universe. One of the fundamental ethical principles of Objectivism states that man, being an end in himself, must exist for his own sake and not sacrifice himself for the sake of others. This principle is stated explicitly throughout her fiction. The central character of her later novel Atlas Shrugged, for example, makes the following solemn oath near the end of the book: "I swear - by my life and my love of it - that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" (p. 979). The protagonist in Rand's lesser-known 1938 novella Anthem states almost the exact same sentiment: "I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man's soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet" (p. 96).

In The Fountainhead, such self-giving, collectivist-oriented characters who live for and through others are referred to as "second-handers." This term still holds a prominent place in Objectivist jargon, and Rand followers consider it to be among the worst possible insults. In addition to this, altruistic qualities and impulses are constantly treated pejoratively in Rand's literature. This is at least one aspect of Rand's philosophical beliefs that clashes with scientific fact; evolutionary biologists have long established and demonstrated, by way of game theory, that altruistic behavior is in fact an evolutionarily advantageous trait that arises naturally from competitive drives to propagate the species. This is certainly not the case in Ayn Rand's fictional universe, and the character of Ellsworth Toohey is perhaps the clearest illustration of this view of altruism as being degenerative and destructive. Regarding this demonization of altruism, Libertarian economic theorist David Ramsay Steele provides the following critical perspective on the character of Toohey:
In The Fountainhead, the preaching is kept within bounds, and is generally not too jarringly inauthentic. The one bad lapse is the long speech in which Ellsworth Toohey lays bare his own motivations - but Rand had put herself in an impossible position with her ethical theory. For Rand, a villain must be a completely self-sacrificing person. Toohey is an intelligent villain who wants power. [B]ut somehow it has to come across that in wanting power he is not being selfish - which would be virtuous! If Toohey had been dedicated to a mistaken ideal - based on the theory that everyone would be happier in a world of self-sacrifice - it would be convincing, but we would have no reason to hate him. If Toohey had known that universal self-sacrifice would lead to universal misery, but wanted it for the selfish motive of getting power for himself, this would have been detestable, but dangerous to Rand's egoistic message. Toohey has to want to do his bit towards a goal which (it is made clear) can arrive only after his death, to know that the goal will make everyone completely wretched, and to want it for that reason. But this just makes him an unbelievable loony, bereft of any plausible link to real persons like Lewis Mumford and Harold Laski (who were among Rand's models for Toohey. (David Ramsay Steele (1988). "Alice in Wonderland: A Review of The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden." Free Life: Journal of the Libertarian Alliance 5 (1): 8-9).

Throughout the novel, Toohey repeatedly expounds upon the greatness of selflessness as the highest virtue as he enthusiastically promotes welfare programs and other social expressions of self-sacrifice. Because he is a Rand creation, this of course makes Toohey the personification of evil. Toohey's villainy derives from the fact that he lusts after power and will end up hurting people in order to attain that power. But this obviously does not come close to resembling altruism, which Rand considers the greatest evil! The internal conflict in Rand's fictional experiments is this implicit opposition to altruism that is required to create a credible villain that is discernable in a story that explicitly advocates self-interest and the exclusive pursuing of one's own personal success.

This internal conflict extends beyond Rand's fictional world to her creative acts in and of themselves. A recurring and defining characteristic of evil people in Rand's universe is that they lack a profit motive in whatever they undertake to accomplish. And yet, in undertaking to write books to teach people her particular philosophy, Rand herself did not entirely live up to her ideal of pursuing the profit motive as the greatest good. On the one hand, she did of course make a substantial amount of money from the novels she wrote. But where was the guarantee that she would reap a profit from sharing the knowledge she herself worked to gain? After all, Objectivism promotes the attainment of specialized knowledge to benefit the individual, rather than the attainment of general community knowledge that serves society as a whole (and thereby serves each individual within that society, by the way). Thus, a consistently-applied worldview of total self-interest would mean that very few individuals (if any) would become teachers and educators. Yet Rand devoted her life to teaching the public her philosophical belief system through her novels and nonfiction writings. Apparently, it was legitimate for her to devote her life to an activity that had the potential to result in little or no profit, rather than use her knowledge in a specialized capacity to assure herself of profit. And if even an Objectivist can derive personal happiness from teaching and sharing the information they worked to gain, then one can also derive happiness from acts that are truly altruistic in nature.

Therefore, if one considers personal happiness to be an element of his or her own self-interest, then it follows that altruism cannot logically be written off as degenerative or evil. In fact, I argue that engaging in selfless acts (or seemingly selfless acts) without a profit motive in mind can be a source of pleasure. This is even true for the hedonist whose motivation for giving of himself for another human being may be his own pleasure. Consider also how Rand's views explain the enjoyment and pleasure many people glean from masochism.

These considerations raise the question: What if a man wants (even out of selfish urges) to sacrifice himself for another person? Who is Ayn Rand to declare by fiat that he must not act on that desire? Objectivism simply fails to take into account the complexity of why we as human beings do what we do, vying instead to present a grossly oversimplified model of morality and human volition.


  1. dude.
    change the background on this. I'd love to read it, but black on grey doesn't render too well for us over fifty folk.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, trittico. The changes I have made look better to me as well.