Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Where's Luke Book Review: The Fountainhead

So this is another book by Ayn Rand. I had previously written about Atlas Shrugged, and immediately after finishing that book, I started on this one. I read it somewhat sportadically over the summer and at the start of the school year because it's a somewhat hectic time, and I read it fairly dilligently for the last two or three weeks. I'll sum it up this way: after I read Atlas Shrugged it was clear to me why so many people love Ayn Rand in a cultish sort of way. After reading The Fountainhead it's clear to me why just as many people hate Ayn Rand with a pretty specific vehemence. That's not to say I didn't like the book, I thought it was pretty interesting, but the flaws in her ideology are far more apparent in The Fountainhead.

What really struck me at the time I was reading Atlas Shrugged was the singular linear thought that ran through the entire 1200 or so pages of the book. It was a masterpiece of logic and I've never read another book like it. The Fountainhead really lacks that linear thread and is stripped down, then, just to the ideals she's trying to espouse, and I'm struck by how empty it all seems. In fairness, I suppose, it's worth noting that The Fountainhead was written first, and Rand was unhappy with the way she got her message across in it and therefore set out to write Atlas Shrugged. But I think The Fountainhead is, in a lot of ways, more telling about Rand's view on society and people in general.

Super short plot summary. There's this dude named Howard Roark who is an architect and is Ayn Rand's perfect man. There are other characters who are less than perfect and try to destroy him for various reasons. There are some other people who are potentially as great as Roark and try to support him and his career. The specifics aren't entirely important. The novel is essentailly an interplay between the forces that are for and against Roark. Similar to Atlas Shrugged, this novel culminates in a scene in which the Rand philosophy is simply spewed forth uninterrupted, this time in a courtroom setting. It's not quite the 70 page orgy of philosophy that caps off Atlas Shrugged, but rather a meager few pages of an uninterrupted speech given by Howard Roark.

Here's the problem I'm currently having with Ayn Rand and her philosophy. It's abundantly clear that she hates people. Both of these books are filled with people who leech off of society, do nothing good on their own, don't have any aspirations, and, at the end of the day, contribute to the demise of civilization. And these are the majority of the characters in her book. In each book there are several people who are privy to what I suppose Rand views as the true nature of humanity and being and that tiny minority strives to make the world a better place. In each novel there is one person who represents absolute perfection, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, and everyone else is somewhere along the spectrum between "At least he gets it" to "This guy is ruining the world".

Throughout her novels Rand's message is that the greatest end in the universe is humanity, and, more specifically, the individual, rather than the collective. Each man should strive to be perfect in the sense that he lives for himself, meets his needs, does the things that make him happy, and not worry about anyone else except to the extent that what they have will contribute to his happiness. The problem, though, is that it's clear that 99% of the characters in her books are literally incapable of reaching that ideal. There's a notion running through her books that some people are born to be perfect and others are simply not. Those are aren't have absolutely no hope, shouldn't strive toward anything, and should simply die. She claims to love humanity, when in actuality she hates most people. I'm pretty confident that the people who hate Ayn Rand are making this argument in some way or another.

What's funny is that I was reading something recently that said that what struck the ideologues who latched on to Ayn Rand was the notion that any one of them could become a genius by simply striving toward the things that made them happy and stimulated them. Whereas what seems closer to her philosophy is that as a society we're essentially fucked. You're either born to be a leader or a leech and you're going to stay in that role for eternity.

I hope I'm not discouraging you from reading this book. It was genuinely interesting and the worst thing I can say about it is that it made me think, which is more than I can say for the majority of fiction out there. I would, however, strongly recommend reading both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged if you're going to embark down this path. Reading just one or the other won't give you as clear a picture. Also that's not to say that these books adequately summarize the whole philosophy. Rand did a lot of work after these novels writing purely about the philosophy stripped out of the novel format. I'm also curious to know the opinion of someone who read these books in the opposite order. My suspicion is that they were left with a much different outlook on the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

"Some people count and some people don't. [brings out a copy of The Fountainhead] Read it. I think it's a book you'll enjoy, but make sure you return it; I have notes in the margin."

+25 blogger points to the first person to identify the source of that quote.

Open Bar said...

I'll admit, I had to Google that quote. It was familiar, but I wouldn't have gotten it. I won't reveal it here, so's not to spoil some lucky commenter's +25 somethings.

Anyway, I'm probably not gonna read either of these books, but I'm happy to read your reviews, Chuck.

Here's a link to a guy who really, really dislikes Ayn Rand. Pretty funny: http://www.ginandtacos.com/2009/03/10/seriously-fuck-ayn-rand/

ChuckJerry said...

I was like 95% certain when I googled it and it turns out I was right. But I can't take the points from someone who's certain.

Anonymous said...

Well, I admit that I could have only paraphrased the quote without looking up the wording on imdb myself. I remembered the first sentence and forgot about the hilarious "I have notes in the margin" line.

evan said...

I know this is gay but it's Dirty Dancing. I know almost all of that movie by heart.

Evan said...

And Max, it's the 1st thing I thought when as well.

Evan said...

nobody puts Evan in the corner. Blub.