On The Fountainhead

I read The Fountainhead. I read it out of a desire to be able to more articulately hate Ayn Rand. I think that one should engage seriously in a good faith effort to understand the things one disagrees with. I read some of Twilight in this same spirit; but in that case I was justified very rapidly and felt no need to continue.

The Fountainhead is actually a very good book. Rand is a really excellent writer; her sense of pacing and plot and so on are top notch. Her prose is not a joy in itself, but the book is eminently readable and even exciting.

I don’t know to what extent readers find that this book was pushing Rand’s philosophy. Certainly at the end there is a brief explosion of forthright preaching, but mostly it’s just a story about how great Howard Roark is. And I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with Roark. I don’t object to him being held up as a person worthy of admiration. I think that if you are Roark, that is a perfectly fine way to be, and that most of us simply are not Roark, and that is also fine. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with more people like him, even.

But Howard Roark is barely human. He is so detached from what being human involves that he might as well be an alien. I agree that self confidence and living for oneself are important goals, but Rand believes that they are the only goals. This explicitly rejects the entire idea of humans as social creatures. Without trying too hard to explain things I don’t understand well enough to reify, I would just like to say that I think a normal human striving to be like Roark is not going to succeed; they will merely lose themselves in masturbatory self-aggrandizement and cruel use of other people. What makes Roark unique is not what he has, but what he lacks: he has no need for anyone else, no social needs at all. One cannot choose to not need other people. Many try, and all fail*. People who do not feel themselves in relation to others have a name — sociopaths. But Roark has both a freedom from empathy and some sort of internal ethical code, which is not a combination often found in real life.

Anyway. It’s no fun to talk about heavy stuff. I’ve been thinking about the issues with characters a lot as I read this book. When I’ve talked about it, the best way I’ve found to put is that none of the book’s characters are multidimensional. They each have exactly one personality trait. And yet, so many things are rendered just unfathomably well. The characters’ disgraces and exaltations and hatred and sorrow are all blazingly authentic. The way Dominique hates Howard because she can’t bear to live in a world where she has to share him; the way Keating spends his life running from his own self-awareness; the way Wynand spent his life trying to destroy people in vindication of his universal disgust. These things all feel so real, they touch so deeply, and somehow they never come together to form characters who actually seem human.

I find it very confusing that Rand could have such deep insight into what makes humans tick and yet still revile it so.

*In fact, it seems to me that it is self-contradictory even to try. If one is striving not to need others, that is precisely because one feels it necessary to be outside their judgement; that is, the striving itself is a need to have other perceptions to ignore.

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