The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Last year I finally made my way through The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I actually wrote the majority of this post shortly after reading it, and then sat on it for months and months and months. I always feel reluctant to talk about Rand, because she is one of those figures that evokes a strong response. People adore her or they despise her, and its usually the latter.

Personally, I find that I have some pretty serious issues with many of the expressions of her overarching philosophy. And I find that she has some pretty large holes in her logic. Yet, there are some personal expressions of what she says that resonate with the way I approach my own life. But I’m not so sure that it stimulates the healthiest aspects of my own internal identity.

Like a lot of people, my general impressions of Rand have been largely informed by my interactions with people who claim to be her supporters. Their seemingly excessive self-interest and emphasis on the individual above all else, a disregard for the basic welfare of others, and a message of no government regulation of industry had always left a bad taste in my mouth.

In my experience, Objectivists (Rand’s philosophy is referred to as “Objectivism” because of its emphasis on objective reality as opposed to subjective experiences) were people who said that the government had no right to pass restrictions on companies who wanted to violate the earth for whatever purpose they deemed appropriate. They were people who seemed quick to speak out against social initiatives designed to improve the lives of people at an economic disadvantage. They were the jet-setting young republicans who wanted a moral excuse to amass wealth without having to answer to the societies of which they were a part (In short, very few Roarks or Galts among them).

Brash and conservative positions like this only further served to reduce my interest in Ayn Rand and reinforced my impression that hers was a philosophy of pillaging. No responsibility to others. Nothing need be given back. Just an unhindered celebration of capitalism, industry, and the triumphant human spirit, with no acknowledgment of the shortcomings inherent in all three.

So, I didn’t bother reading her books. That is, until someone came along and had this brilliant idea that I should actually judge her on the basis of her work, not what other people claimed she said. After all, people across the centuries have used amazing and rational ideas to further very unscrupulous and irrational ends.

I started with Atlas Shrugged and pretty quickly became a reluctant admirer. Much to my surprise I found a great deal of merit in her thoughts on the importance of the individual and the moral imperative of pursuing personal happiness. Using fiction as a means of transmitting her philosophy, Rand managed to create some unexpected common ground. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the letter of the Randian law, I find my own thoughts on the importance of the self and the value of personal integrity (to thine own self be true) to be very much in harmony with its spirit.

Having found success with Atlas Shrugged, I decided to give The Fountainhead a try. The Fountainhead was her earliest attempt at using fiction as a platform for philosophy, and after reading it, it is easy to see why she felt the need to write Atlas.

The Fountainhead has the feel of something not quite complete. The characters are less compelling and their motives not as clear. In particular, the inclusion of Ellsworth Toohey as the conniving mastermind behind the downfall of society into a celebration of mediocrity seems unbelievable. Compare this to Atlas Shrugged where she conveys a more complete picture of the general downward trend, which appears more organic–the work of many, many people, thoughts, and ideas. In general, I would define the book as a collection of thoughts not fully formed.

Additionally, I find her ideas about sex and relationships to be remarkably, well, disturbing. The first sexual encounter between the male (Howard Roark) and female (Dominique Francon) protagonists is described by Rand as a “rape.” This idea thrills Dominique to no end, and she relishes the experience. In fact, up until then, she was frigid. Incapable of having a sexual response. Then she finds someone worthy of exciting erotic intent in her and everything changes. However, I have a big issue with this being referred to as “rape.” Domination is not rape. Rape is non-consensual sex. Given Dominique’s response, I can’t define what happened in this scene as non-consensual. And while I recognize that these were not times that had a strong feminist voice, I find it extremely difficult to read lengthy passages where a woman celebrates the idea of rape.

Rand’s ideas of sex seem to be all about domination by a worthy opponent, which is definitely appealing to some people. Atlas Shrugged also featured the idea of sex as an animal act of domination and that it was only enjoyable when it was with someone whom you could respect and admire, but I do not recall it described as rape. (Note to Ms. Rand–rapists aren’t heroic.)

I’m not sure if it is an issue of interpretation, but as I read further into Rand’s works, I found that, very much like Jesus’ descriptions of the reviled Pharisees seem applicable to present day “Christian” leaders, Rand’s descriptions of the evil “looters” (her name for people who participate in the system only to leech off of it) seemed an accurate description of the behavior exhibited by people I have met who claim to be her followers. Interesting, no?

I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Fountainhead, but it was not the epic manuscript that Atlas Shrugged had been. At least not for me. In fact, I struggled to make it through. At one point I set it down for several weeks, completely unmoved to pick it up and finish the final 100 pages. Then an unexpected virus attacked and I found myself in bed for a few days and I committed to polishing it off as an act of will.

It’s been too long since I’ve seen the movie version with Gary Cooper, but I remember liking it a lot better. The simplistic and epic feel of the book lends itself well to a movie adaptation. In fact, if you wanted to skip the book and just see the film (Rand wrote the screenplay, after all), you wouldn’t be missing anything. In fact, just skip it altogether and go read Atlas Shrugged if you’re interested in what Rand had to say. (It’s never a bad idea to try and at least separate the philosopher from his/her disciples and their ideals from their actual behavior).

I have to admit that I find her fascinating. And I often wonder what she would have to say now about things like her obnoxious devotees, the current economic crisis, or the environmental destruction wrought by unfettered industry. It’s hard not to be interested in someone who says things like:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

So, what do you think of Rand, The Fountainhead, and her objectivist ideals? Is she the matron saint of a destructive type of self-interest or the main proponent of a religion celebrating the (overstated?) glory of humankind?

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