Howard Roark laughed.
This is the start of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s breakthrough in 1943, and it’s the best book I’ve read this summer.
I’ve previously written about Charlie – the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Charlie is given several books to read by one of his teachers, and The Fountainhead was one of them. These two books are very, very different, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be equally amazing.
Through the main character Howard Roark, Ayn Rand promotes her vision of so-called objectivism – the praising of the individual and its accomplishments, of independence, and of reason. Most of the plot takes place in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Architecture is used as a means of illustrating how the individual’s meaning lies in his or her own accomplishment, untampered by others, created out of one single mind. The book is divided into 4 parts, each bearing the name of a character: Peter Keating, Ellsworth M. Toohey, Gail Wynand, and Howard Roark. The first is an architect, like Mr. Roark. The other two serve to show the destructive consequences of altruism and power on society. A fifth character named Dominique Francon is also important to mention. She might actually be the most important one.
It might sound like a very heavy book. To be fair, it is 727 pages long. It’s incredibly complex, and an enormous achievement. First and foremost because of the characters. Their personalities are described through the others, through their perception of themselves and their relations, through the society at the time, and, sometimes, through the shape of the buildings they create.
Even though I disagree with several of the points she makes, it’s interesting to learn her perspective – I can sympathize with her characters just as well as I sympathized with Charlie. Like travelling, I think reading broadens the mind. It’s important to like what you read, but not necessarily to agree with it. People should disagree, but also respect other peoples’ opinions, and preferably learn about them. If you don’t know anything about your opponents’ views, you’re not in a position to criticize them either.
At the end of part two (on page 401), Ellsworth M. Toohey and Howard Roark meet:
“Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”
“But I don’t think of you.”
In this book, Toohey is the voice of altruism. On the one hand he promotes solidarity. On the other, he wants power. The former is what usually gains most attention in society. The latter is what the author seems to think is always the basis and driving force for such individuals. In Roark, Toohey meets his match. Roark is arrogant and does not care much about the well-being of others. He’s selfish in the sense that he thinks first and foremost of himself and what he can achieve by his own means. Actually, in the basis of things, the two aren’t that different, but one subjects his views openly, while the other uses the common good as a shelter for his selfish wants.
I think it’s fair to say that most important thinkers, scientists and inventors in the past centuries have been denounced and hated to a certain degree, because of their work. Roark puts it this way:
Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anaesthesia was considered sinful.
Towards the end of the book, the essence of Roark’s character becomes perfectly clear. In one particular statement Roark talks about selfishness, society, and individual accomplishment. In essence he embodies the author’s vision of ‘objectivism’. This philosophy promotes the view that such creators never base their motive for invention on the need of others. They are not selfless and they serve no one – a creator lives only for himself.
There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. … Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival.
In essence he talks about how no one can live for any other. A creator goes against what’s normal and therefore stands alone. Roark rejects selfishness as evil, and argues altruism to create dependent and corrupted individuals.
The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner.
This is ‘objectivism’ – a forceful defence of self-interest in the name of progress. The rest of Ayn Rand’s books promote the same philosophy. Atlas Shrugged seems to be the most popular one. I’ve only read the first half of it, but to me it seems that it’s too similar to The Fountainhead. The story is different, but the characters and their motives are the same. It’s too repetitive, in my opinion, but I keep reading because I like her style.
I want to finish with another quote from The Fountainhead, also given to Howard Roark’s character, which to me seems to embody what Ayn Rand wishes each individual to want:
“I take the only desire one can really permit oneself. Freedom. To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”