Eric_W's Reviews > The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
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Apr 08, 09

Read in January, 1997

I had not really paid much attention to Ayn Rand, darling of the conservatives (very surprisingly, actually) until I began reading her biography. When I asked around to see who had actually read any of her work, I found only a few, but lots of opinions about Rand herself. Often those comments ascribed beliefs to Rand that were at opposite poles of the spectrum, from conservative to radical, individualist to Nazi fascist. Obviously another case of what I call the “De Toqueville syndrome,” where everyone pretends to have read a famous book and to know what the author stood for, but has no firsthand reading knowledge. Her biography revealed a complex and very interesting individual, so it was time to dig into her works personally.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect. Thrown out of Stanton School of Architecture for his refusal to adhere to the standards of the past (the dean views Roark as a rebel who opposes all the rules of architecture and his society’s view of art that is representation of what has been revered in the past) and for turning in assignments that represented a complete break from the past. The conversation with the dean, who tried to persuade Roark to come back into the fold, represents the central theme of the book, the conflict between those who are realitycentered against those who define their lives through the eyes of other people. Roark seeks employment with Cameron, an architect whose designs tried to incorporate using the advantages of new materials, e.g., a skyscraper should look tall, not just like a twenty-story brick building trying to look like a renaissance house. Cameron began to design buildings the way he wanted rather than how his clients demanded. His business dwindled to nothing, but he was sought out by Roark.

Following Cameron’s retirement, Roark seeks employment as a draftsman in a large architectural firm, where he gets a break by sketching a house that breaks with tradition completely but is just what the client wants. Roark is a brilliant but struggling iconoclast, while his rival and former classmate Peter Keating rises to the top of his profession by using obsequiousness, manipulation, and deception. His primary concern is how he is perceived by others. He designs by copying from the past, never thinking independently. Both men are in love with Dominique Falcon, a brilliant, passionate woman, who falls in love with Roark, admires his genius, but who is convinced his genius has no chance in a corrupt world. The villain of the book is Ellsworth Toohey, an architectural critic of note, who denounces Roark for his failure to adhere to the accepted standards of the day. Toohey believes that the individual must sacrifice his independence to the will of others, i.e. society or the group. Toohey is employed by Gail Wynand, a publisher whose paper caters to the lowest common denominator to gain power. He comes to admire Roark and must then decide whether he will continue to pander to popular taste or live according to his higher standards. Rand and her novels have been vilified by the left-wing as reactionary and praised by conservatives as brilliant and influential.

Frankly, I cannot understand how conservatives can be so enamored of this work that celebrates independence and the rejection of tradition and “normal” morality. She celebrated atheism, a kind of free love, very strong women, and a rejection of parental values and social norms. She abhorred the subordination of reason to faith, of surrendering one’s own thinking to the beliefs of others. She despised the religious believer who without questioning adopts the religious beliefs of his parents, conforming without thinking. Morality becomes something practical and relative. For example, Roark dynamites a government building project that has been altered, so he can gain access to the courts since the government cannot be sued. Roark really doesn’t care what other people think. He has such strong personal will that he will just do what he thinks is right. He also pals around with one of the construction workers who admires him because he is the only architect that understands construction, and, indeed, Roark makes the point that he loves engineering and building.

That sounds more like sixties liberalism than what I hear conservatives espouse. Rand is clearly a romantic who believed that man can live up to an ideal, and reason can help them achieve the independence and the happiness that depends on that independence. What infuriates liberals, as far as I can gather, was her unfailing adherence to capitalism. I suppose conservatives latched on to her vigorous rejection of collectivism, no doubt related to her childhood experiences under Communism. This is not to say Rand celebrates nonconformity for its own sake. That is simply another form of conformity because it’s living one’s life in reaction to the standards of others. The conformist must learn the beliefs of others to adhere to them; the nonconformist must learn the standards so as to avoid adhering to them. Both groups are psychological dependents. Rand celebrates the independent thinker, the individualist who lives on his own terms. The individualist creates his own standards and adheres to them regardless of what others do or think. He has a commitment to reason and facts. Roark represents the great innovator struggling against a profoundly conservative society against the traditionalist who says, “It was never done this way, so it can’t be good.” The climax of the book is Roark’s speech to the court when he is on trial. “I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. . . The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” He represents a complete rejection of altruism, “the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.”

It’s truly a shame when books and authors get labeled as “conservative” or “liberal,” “communist” or “democrat” and then judged on the basis of the label. Read the book; make up your own mind!

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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by C. (new)

C. I haven't read The Fountainhead, but I have read Atlas Shrugged, which is her opus magnum, and in that book her economics are incredibly right-wing. Reactionary is hardly strong enough to describe it.

I find it interesting that you didn't mention her writing style at all. Most people hate it. What did you think?

message 2: by Eric_W (last edited Apr 05, 2009 05:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric_W I rarely comment on writing style because I don't trust my judgment on such things. I also admit shamefacedly to liking a good story, narrative and reading for ideas rather than writing style.

I have read several biographies of Rand as well as many writings from her acolytes. I'm quite uncomfortable with labels such as right-wing, left-wing, etc. because they seem to have lost any ability to define or to illuminate. The distinctions between the left and right become indistinguishable at the edges, anyway. Both believe in using power to control.

Rand was very much a believer in capitalism and the so-called free market. She arrived from Russia at a fairly young age and given what she saw happen to her father, had a horror of fascism, Communism, and "collectivism" which she defined as doing everything for the "group" as opposed to celebration of the individual. She vigorously opposed any kind of coercion, a belief I find myself having great sympathy for. She was about as existential as one could get. Personally, her life was a screwed up mess, and her affair with a much younger, married acolyte, Nathaniel Branden, supposedly supported by all parties involved was grotesque.

Alan Greenspan was, of course, one of her apostles. He was revered as the patron saint of the free market until it all came crashing down and I guess he has sort of reneged on laissez-faire. From that standpoint alone, Rand is worth reading to try to understand the extraordinary influence she had on his generation.

It has been my experience that many people have instant gut reactions to Ayn Rand, especially those who have not read any of her work. That bothers me. My father always said that if you haven't read something you can't talk about it. He was right, so I can't yet speak about Atlas Shrugged, but it's on my extraordinarily large list of books to read.

References to books I have read and reviewed: Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies
My Years with Ayn Rand
The Ayn Rand Cult
The Passion of Ayn Rand

message 3: by Asamg1 (new)

Asamg1 Like Choupette, I've read Atlas Shrugged (and haven't read The Fountainhead), and enjoyed it immensely, but probably for all the wrong reasons. I consider it the unconscious comic masterpiece of the twentieth century. The characters are so adamant that it sounds like literary socialist realism, and pretty funny socialist realism at that. Anybody who takes him or herself that seriously is a caricature, pure and simple. Not having read any other Rand novels, I don't know whether this is her stock in trade, but I found it quite entertaining in this case. I rather suspect Rand would not, however, be pleased with this assessment...
Just a thought...

Brad One of the best reviews of Rand and the Fountainhead I've seen, Eric_W. And I am in full agreement about the ability of Right and Left Wing labels to contain any meaning anymore. Their usefulness is long past, and when it is applied to someone whose work is as complex as Rand's...well, it is absolutely meaningless. It is important to read the author's work to understand their position, but to label that position is unnecessary once one's own understanding is reached.

message 5: by C. (new)

C. I completely forgot about this thread! Whoops. Eric, I totally agree about people having gut reactions to Ayn Rand, though I think it's not quite so common in Australia as America. The most fervent admirer of her I've ever met grew up in communist Romania, so her philosophy is, I suppose, understandable given her origins but she takes it to such extremes, which is my problem with it.

Like you, Asamg1, I found her characters to be caricatures and her setting so exaggerated as to be verging on parody. What is scary is that it's not supposed to be parody or comedy (if only!), it's supposed to be the basis of a way of life.

I don't think there's anything shameful about enjoying a good story (though I feel ashamed for it myself sometimes too)! You write great reviews, anyway.

Rebecca I just happened upon your review after writing my own and wanted to say "well done!" you are very correct.

Mckenna What biography did you read?

Eric_W Well, it's been a long time since I wrote this review and I've read several of her bios (I do want to read the new one by Anne Heller Ayn Rand and the World She Made) but I think the one that spurred my reading of the Fountainhead was My Years with Ayn Rand ( by her erstwhile acolyte Nathaniel Branden and another by his wife (very different perspectives, I might add) The Passion of Ayn Rand ( I was reading a bunch of stuff about Rand in 2007 and 2008 so it's hard to remember which came first.

message 9: by Roxie (new) - added it

Roxie Gray Have you read Atlas Shrugged yet?

I found it interesting that you mentioned De Toqueville syndrome, because I get the same impression upon trying to discuss Ayn Rand with people who "are familiar with her work". She probably appealed more to me a few years ago as an idealistic teenager, but Atlas Shrugged is still one of the most cherished books in my collection.

I really enjoyed this review

message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Syler Fantastic review. But be careful in assuming that because Greenspan was an acolyte of Rand, he acted according to Rand's principles. He very much did not. There was nothing lassiez-faire about his time at the Fed.

message 11: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim I highly recommend a richly-drawn oral-biography of Rand - told through the voices of 100 folks who knew and met her - titled: "100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand". This is almost entirely about Rand's personality - that is, her dealings with those that were interviewed. Very little of it addresses her ideas with any detail.

Harry Eric, nice review! And you're right, seeing a book by Rand sparks intense agreement or disagreement about her other writings, her personality, her life, and rarely about the fictional book itself. You're also right that Rand was no Republican (though she admits that the essentials of Republicanism: smaller government, individual freedom, etc.) were basically sound - she found Republicans to be weak because of being inconsistent with their own principles (leaving aside issues of religion which she opposed regardless) and she'd probably vomit in disgust with Republicans in politics today. As to Democrats? well, let's just say that she viewed the Church and the State as equally culpable of instigating centuries of darkness upon humanity.

I loved this book. Have read it twice, once as a young man, and once recently. Rand began her philosophy not to become a philosopher, but to become a writer of the novels she wanted to write: to write about the characters she wanted to write about, she felt she needed to understand what drove such characters (ergo, Objectivism). She's always seen herself as an author, not a philosopher.

As to her characters: Rand decided early on that the kind of characters she wanted to portray, should be portrayed by their "essence", which some perceive as caricatures. You can like or dislike her books, of course, but her style, her objectives, and her stories came out as she wanted them to be.

I came away from The Fountainhead, and at the time without knowing a thing about her philosophy, with the following: when I run into a difficult problem in life, I ask myself: "Now, what would Howard do in this circumstance?" After all the work she put into understanding the motives of the characters she wrote about, it would be a compliment to Rand to hear this.

One book not mentioned above is Rand's The Art of Fiction which is an excellent book for both readers and authors alike.

message 13: by Jim (last edited Aug 14, 2013 10:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Harry wrote:

(Rand always saw) herself as an author, not a philosopher.

I think it's fairly clear that she was an author AND a philosopher - this was the distinct impression of many who were interviewed for "100 Voices" (see above).

Her novels - having sold tens-of-millions since 1943 (this excludes her pre-Fountainhead short novels) - give her an exposure most philosophers never dreamed of.

(I suppose this is analogous to Michener who wrote best-selling historical novels not "histories")

Academics (a large majority, it seems) hasten to opine that "Rand was not a philosopher". I regret that many in the academy seem not to recognize valid argumentation. True, not only when the arguer disrupts their worldview but also when she does.

Reports from the field seem to be consistent that Rand argued fairly, did not browbeat or resort to personal attacks (the ad hominem fallacy), and tended to start from premises before arriving at conclusions.

This sounds like a true philosopher to me.

Harry Jim wrote: "This sounds like a true philosopher to me."

I agree, she was a philosopher, regardless of what academics tell us. But, I think in her own mind, and what brought her to this philosophy: professionally she saw herself first and foremost as an author. At least, her book on writing indicates so. I find it remarkable, the work done to achieve the writing of her novels, to satisfy her own mind.

message 15: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King What an excellent review Eric_W!

message 16: by Margitte (new)

Margitte What a powerful review of this book. I've started this book, forgot it at a friend's place, and now hope I can get it back as soon as possible. Love your review! And I agree with you.

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