Review: ‘The Fountainhead’

fountainhead

The Fountainhead
By Ayn Rand

  • Date Finished: July 29, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction, Philosophy
  • Year: 1952
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Where, oh where, can I possibly begin to describe my experience with The Fountainhead? There are…so many thoughts. So many wonderful, conflicting thoughts. Here we go: how about we start with how I thought I was going to react to this book, which brings me to my prior experience with Ms. Rand.

The Bad

A few years ago, I bought both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged…I think it might have been one of my last purchases as a Half-Price Books employee and I knew I was walking away with a steal. At some point, I can’t exactly remember when without looking through my Reading Lists (it was during a period of NO REVIEWS), I read Atlas Shrugged.

I distinctly remember not liking it – one bit. I don’t know if I was just young or wrapped up in my own liberal ideals, but I knew vaguely what Ayn Rand stood for, what objectivism meant, and I was pretty sure I disagreed with everything about it. Thinking back, I’m not really surprised. First of all, Atlas Shrugged is much more of an economic and political novel than The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged tackles objectivism in the sphere of big business and the idea of a free economy. Its “heros” are powerful business people who compromise with no one and don’t attempt to hide their love of money and success. There’s that John Galt fellow, who has QUITE the long speech (50+ pages, anyone?).

What I didn’t like about Ayn Rand – and what I still don’t like about her – is how obvious and yet non-realistic she is in her writing. She writes her books with a PURPOSE – to convert others to her ways of thinking. In this way, reading Rand’s books are like reading religious texts in a way, though at least her’s are self-aware. So, that’s good. However, she drills her message home by presenting the world – and her little stories – in terms of black and white. People are either “good” or “bad”. There is no in-between, or if there is, it’s considered weak. You’re either the strong, shining hero, or the sniveling bad guy. While reading Atlas Shrugged, I couldn’t help but yell (inside my head, of course): “Well, it’s easy to make your point when you write the world this way! It’s easy to say, “This is the bad guy,” when you’re dealing with someone who is so archetypically evil. And of course all the heroes (and heroines) are beautiful.”

In short, I saw Ms. Rand’s books as a type of political propaganda only loosely based in reality, intended only to promote her particular worldview without any serious or intelligent dissent. It was nearly as bad as a religious text. It made me mad: this was a book that tackled serious political and social subjects in what I saw as a very flippant and careless manner. So many people in the real world have formed their own personal and political philosophies based on what John Galt rattled off in that long-ass speech. I didn’t think very much on objectivism itself, but I knew I didn’t like it.

Flash forward to now, and I’m about to read The Fountainhead. All I can think about is my Atlas Shrugged experience. I’m also thinking about that scene in “Dirty Dancing” when Baby is trying to convince Robbie to help Penny pay for her abortion, and he (an asshole) says: “I can’t go about bailing out every chick who’s probably balling every guy in the place. Some people count, and some people don’t.” He then hands her his well-read copy of The Fountainhead and says, “Here. Read this, but be careful, because I have notes in the margins.” If this was a book Robbie Gould liked, then I was surely going to hate it. I knew it.

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I mean, what a jerk.

The Good

How could I ever suspect that I wouldn’t only enjoy The Fountainhead, but I would really-really-really-really like it? What is going on, right? I know, I was surprised too. Let me explain.

Unlike Atlas ShruggedThe Fountainhead is less of an economical/political novel, and more of a philosophical novel – and I think that’s at the core of why I liked it so much. Yes, Rand is still spouting a form of propaganda in an attempt to convert people to her worldview, but here, it’s so much less offensive and actually…intriguing. Interesting. Appealing, perhaps?

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, a modern architect who absolutely refuses to compromise on his artistic style and vision. He is talented, and he has a distinct, one-of-a-kind, modern style that shocks and amazes people – and he’s hated for it. You see, Roark lives in a world where the architectural trend du jour is to borrow heavily from the styles of the past. Writers trumpet that there are no new ideas – all the good ones have already been thought – and it’s our job now to preserve that past and revere it.  There are no great men, and never will be any more. Above all, there is to be no aspiration toward greatness in any endeavor because the highest virtue is selfless-ness, and greatness implies a serious moral crime: selfishness.

OK, so this novel is a SOMEWHAT political – Rand is essentially using The Fountainhead to fight against socialism, which is the social and philosophical doctrine pushed by the novel’s central antagonist, Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey preaches the virtues of “collectivism” over individualism, and through his powerful influence, manages to convince New York City’s elite that individualism is evil…that Howard Roark is evil.

While reading this book, I was struck by the notion that the main motivation of Toohey wasn’t the “good of mankind”, but power – and I was right (he eventually admits this). Toohey notes that once you convince man to give up his sense of self in favor of a completely “selfless” existence, you have won complete power over them. Once you convince man that he/she have no right to think for themselves, to experience their own emotions, and make their own judgments, you hold that power in your hands. Suddenly, YOU can tell others how to think and feel.

Roark, and the small cadre of people who believe as he does, fight against that. I won’t tell you if he eventually wins, but it’s a LONG fight (it’s a long book). But I have to admit: as much as Rand’s personal philosophies sometimes turn me off, I have to say: this book really appealed to me. I am very much a believer in individualism and independent thought. Many times, while reading about objectivism and collectivism, I compared these two philosophies to religion and my feelings on faith – particularly the bits that spoke on stripping man of their individual will in favor of the group, of turning the simple fact of enjoying something into sin, of emptying a man’s head of his own judgment and filling it with the group’s beliefs and judgments (regardless if they’re nonsense or not). It’s a dangerous proposition.

That being said, I don’t want to say this book turned me into a Republican of some sort (heaven help us). I’m still a liberal. I still believe that a modern government needs to collect taxes for public services, and to help support the very poor among us. It’s only humane, and no matter how much I may respect Howard Roark, I can’t agree with his belief that man should ONLY live for himself, and himself alone. A society made up of those men would never work, and in the real world, no man can ever be as strong (and as black-and-white) as Howard Roark.

And this is where I run into the same problem from Atlas Shrugged: I believe that the world does exist in shades of gray, no matter if Rand believes that to be weak. This is what living in the real world – not a fictional universe where the laws are created by Rand – tells me. I don’t think there are very many people like Howard Roark out there in the world, nor do I believe are there many Ellsworth Tooheys. Because both men are archetypes, meant to represent two ends of a philosophical spectrum. Rand has constructed a story around them – a fable, if you will – in order to convince us that her worldview is right. It’s what fables – and religious stories – are for.

When I read Atlas Shrugged, this fact just pissed me off – I was angry at Rand for what I thought was an abuse of the literary technique to promote a selfish philosophy (God, I sound like Toohey). The Fountainhead tempered some of that anger as I found myself agreeing with some of Howard Roark’s philosophy – not all, but some. Individualism, the fact that man’s greatest gift and his greatest power is his mind and his ability to reason – these are all things I believe very strongly in. Do I agree with Howard Roark’s opinion on taxes and social programs? Not really.

But I don’t have to agree with all of it. Oh sure, Rand wouldn’t be happy with that. She, like Howard Roark, would demand all or nothing. I know, in my heart and using my mind, that this isn’t necessary. I can exist as a liberal who supports social programs for the poor, while also believing firmly in individualism and self-reliance. Just as I don’t think Ellsworth Toohey’s philosophies can exist completely in the real world, I don’t think Howard Roark would either. He’s not…a real person. But that’s OK. Because in this context, he can be whoever Rand wants him to be.

All that being said, The Fountainhead exemplified for me how truly talented a writer Ayn Rand was, and how smart she was. As much as I may disagree with her politically, I can’t help but admit that she was a brilliant thinker and writer, and her books elevate the craft. Her stories are eloquent, masterfully rendered, and beautiful, and her thoughts are fascinating – even if I got a little lost at times.

I can’t give this book an “A+” because of my few small qualms, but I can say that this was one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s perhaps the book that surprised me the most – in the best possible way.

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