Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I broke my own rule for this book. Usually, I give a book and its author more of a chance. After all, I’ve heard so much good about Ayn Rand, and the one-liners people pass around are amazing.

My conclusion after reading 218 pages of a 694-page book—which I took great pains in deliberating on whether or not I should abort, restarting several times but only making it a few paragraphs before concluding it’s all the same—is that it is no longer worth my time. I get it, Ayn Rand is clever, but I don’t think she’s as profound as people might like to make her out to be. And I’m sure she took huge strides in helping women to be taken seriously in the mid-20th century. Great for her and for all women. Seriously.

She is brilliant. She’s a clever writer. She’s courageous. And that’s probably what fools people.

The question I was asking when reading her work is: Is this work of Ayn Rand still relevant, or is it a relic of another time? Is it a leftover? In other words, was there anything Rand put out that transcended her era, or is it dated for the most part, a period piece that we learn not from, but in spite of?

It seems to me, after reading a little of this work, and reading a little bit about her, and hearing people talk about her, that some of her ideas at least, including her pseudo-philosophy of Objectivism, are relics. Curiosities, though superlative in literary design, but not exactly fresh anymore. I have to say it that way because it seems that she is still being treated by some people as impeccable.  

Yes, 218 pages in, I couldn’t take it anymore. My extreme annoyance is probably due to the fact I liked a lot of what I read initially, but it all ended up failing so hard and pathetically. It’s like watching the city mayor turn into the local drunk. You just hate to see it happen. After the first 100 pages I was left feeling like a sucker after each scene, seriously embarrassed that I had fallen for her. Everyone seems to have read her stuff at some point, and loved her… but then high school ended. Angsty teenagers thought it was cool, and some still do in their 40’s and 50’s, but it’s kitsch baby. Kitsch!

It’s clear that the protagonist of the story, Howard Roark, is Ayn Rand’s hero, and, I would add, her alter-ego. She wrote of Roark in the character-details she sketched out prior to The Fountainhead, “Roark is a noble soul par excellence. The man as man should be…and who triumphs completely.”

Meet Howard Roark, a cold, detached, misunderstood person. He’s a bit of a loner, and by that I mean that he would probably find no difficulty in going through life, cradle-to grave, without having touched another human being. As long as he’s vindicated and proved ‘right’—ironically a form of validation from the pedestrians he claims to care so little about—he will live on bread and water. Dreamy. His ideals are epitomized in his comment to the garbage-eater, Keating, “…most people take most things because that’s what’s given them, and they have no opinion whatever…Do you wish to be guided by what they expect you to think they think or by your own judgment?”

Of course, this somehow snowballs into a reckless selfishness and unwillingness to seek win-win situations in any form. He wants things his way, or he pouts. “I would have to think on a nice clean job. I don’t want to think. Not their way. It will have to be their way, no matter where I go. I want a job where I won’t have to think.” First world problem. Keating was right when he leveled a charge straight at the face of Roark, “Why don’t you start working, like everyone else?” Not sure even Ayn Rand knew how to answer for Roark.

Rand would later write about Roark, “The story [The Fountainhead] is the story of Howard Roark’s triumph. It has to show what the man is, what he wants and how he gets it. It has to be a triumphant epic of man’s spirit, a hymn glorifying a man’s ‘I.’” I think that is enough to establish that whatever Roark says or does in the book is the materialization of the highest ideals of Rand for what she calls ‘Man’—which word, I believe, is employed as a metonymy for humanity and therefore encompasses both genders. Even without reading Rand’s very specific intentions for her main character, it is quickly evident that Roark is Rand’s very direct mouthpiece.

The reason I want to establish this is because (Attention: Spoiler Alert Straight Ahead!) near the end of Part 2, Chapter 2, Roark rapes Dominique. And Rand isn’t sorry about it. Quite the opposite actually. It happened like this: Dominique was obviously dropping hints for Roark but also playing ‘hard to get’ without any clear language or indication that she wanted to be had; Roark began playing ‘even more hard to get’, seeming to be able to read her thoughts and know that she wants him; Dominique was in her room alone one night, and Roark slipped into her room, uninvited, through the terrace windows and proceeded to have his way with Dominique; Dominique fought against Roark, but didn’t scream even though she knew she could; and finally, he left without a word, feeling triumphant, and woke the next morning with pride. Yeah, not sure I would call that a “noble soul par excellence”, but, to each her own!

Those couple pages are probably enough for anyone to see deep into who Rand really is as a person and a writer. It’s the way Rand treated the moment as profound that creeps me out. Check out Rand’s summary, “He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.” 50 Shades anyone? The next day doesn’t find Roark remorseful. At all.

“Roark awakened in the morning and thought that last night had been like a point reached…they had been united in an understanding beyond violence, beyond the deliberate obscenity of the action; had she meant less to him, he would not have taken her as he did; had he meant less to her, she would not have fought so desperately. The unrepeatable exultation was in knowing that they both understood this.”

So, basically, we’re supposed to suspend disbelief—which I’m not uncomfortable with for the most part—and be open to the idea that both characters are quasi-human in that they are somehow telepathically reading each other’s intentions, and, best-case-scenario, making assumptions about the mutuality of this act; and we are supposed to believe, on those grounds, that this wasn’t rape. Now, I can certainly suspend my disbelief for a few seconds to consider that this telepathy or mutual certitude might be possible in Rand’s fictional world in which she is trying to make a point. Why not. That’s not my problem. The problem is that she is trying to romanticize the idea of the forcing of one’s self onto another for the good of the other, without being clearly invited. For instance, all flirtation aside, we all know how this would be interpreted if Roark happened to be ugly.

 I suppose we can all accept that love and sex can involve both parties enjoying the possessing/ possessed roles, and some controlled and mutual aggression could take place which might seem rough to a detached observer. Sure, why not. But these people did not know each other, and were making colossal assumptions about the willingness of the other to be forced into intercourse. Let me ask: what if Rand was wrong, and Dominique did not want this? That would qualify as rape, correct? So, when Dominique looks at her bruises in the mirror and relishes them, that doesn’t absolve Roark of his presumption, does it? Ludicrous.

As I’ve understood Rand’s construction of Roark, I can only deduce that Roark represents human egoism, but an extreme form of it. It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said “the true ego grows in inverse proportion to egoism.” The highest form of egoism, then, would be a brand of ‘selfishness’ that does not calculate self as if all being and matter outside of one’s body (and who would define its boundaries?) is exclusive and in not in some way tributaries and even extensions of self. Jean Paul Sartre’s idea of self is one that is dependent on others for it development, and this is why he advanced the idea of ‘intersubjectivity’ which is tantamount to a web of consciousness that produces the idea of self and fosters it in an irreducible network of other selves. True egoism, then, does not conceive of self in a vacuum, but understands its absolute dependence and interconnection with all matter and being in the universe. I understand the concept of survival of an ego which often must vanquish some external hostility, even other negative egos, but that complimentary to the idea that survival very often involves the intentional preservation of external forces which in turn preserves and expands self. This is the very simple concept of interdependence, and how an illuminated mind like Rand’s would miss this is very puzzling to me. Imagine a bee saying to the hive, ‘I don’t need you’; or a plant saying to its environment, ‘I can become more on my own’. Nonsense. Donne was right when he said, ‘Every man’s death diminishes me.” Again, I understand self-preservation and self-expansion that is often to the detriment of others who are oppositional to one’s betterment and fulfillment, and recognize it as an observable and often pleasant feature of the world. But absolute self-preservation that precludes a sense of interdependence—and sometimes even utter dependence on others—because one fears that the presence of others necessarily reduces one in the universe instead of expanding them…this is complete nonsense. Yes, there is this center of consciousness that I like to think of as united self (even if it unravels all the time) that I am responsible for above all else, but there is also a wider view of self that constantly threatens my understanding of a united center, and reveals my consciousness and body as partakers in the flux of matter that surrounds, penetrates, and combines with myself so that I can no longer simply say that I am me, you are you, and the world is the world.

As an aside, some may ask, how am I me, but not me? Take a child, for instance. A child is quite literally a de facto part of me who has separated from me, and begun to live as me outside of me. So, who do I concern myself with now? Am I only concerned about the current center of my perceived consciousness, or do I involve the ‘me outside of me’ which also includes everything that gives into me and takes away from me? This ‘me outside of me’ can explain an over-concern of parents for children, and it is a start to understand how something external to me can begin to every bit as serviceable and important to me as my own body.

We’re all adults here, right? We all do realize, don’t we, that without the small compromises of community—the social contract, if you will— we would be cooking dinner over our own shit and hiding in holes to avoid being gang-raped by gorillas, right? If society is truly, at bottom, a “mitigation of ownership”, then why do we whine when we have to sacrifice a small pleasure for a greater one? Roark is the paragon of the type of free man who just doesn’t get what being yourself means. It doesn’t have to mean being by yourself. I truly can respect the hero that is committed to an ideal, but I immediately lose respect for a person who can’t discriminate between worthy goals and unworthy ones.  Healthy self-love doesn’t mean you get everything your way or you’ll threaten to starve yourself to death—which, by the way, Roark was fundamentally doing. He wanted to build skyscrapers without a lick of the investor’s opinion, even to the point of rejecting millions of dollars simply for not making minor changes to satisfy the taste of his client. Of course, the huge contradiction here is that Roark couldn’t help make these exact compromises while anonymously creating plans for his friend Keating. Huh? When he couldn’t get a job because he refused to make anything that included a shred of classic or Renaissance stylization that he didn’t approve of, he lost his business and starting working minimum wage as a construction worker. As if there aren’t compromises in labor. He went bat-shit when people suggested to him what they’d like to see in the final design, and to stick-it-to-the-man, he started drilling in a mine. Genius.

Now, that’s NOT to say that I don’t think there are some compromises an ego should NOT cave-in to. If one’s sense of self-worth and personal freedom is seriously becoming degraded and denatured by the continual surrender to another’s demands, then there comes a time for each individual when no more compromises can be made in order to preserve one’s value of self and life. I understand that completely, and I believe there is some line even I might not cross, however petty it may seem to another, so as not to give away another iota of my ideals and my power to choose, merely to satisfy the whims of others. Fine. And if someone wants to maintain that Roark was protecting himself from being adulterated and diluted by the goals of others that contested his own goals, I suppose I could back away and say it was possible. But Rand seems to imply that any little concession of any kind, at any time, is a betrayal of self, and that is when Roark-the-whiner is born into the world. But where would he draw the line in separating from the pack? Will he not in some point in his life make compromises to a boss because he doesn’t want to punch in at 8:00 am, saying that he values his sleep which preserves his alertness? Will he not concede to his child because taking him to school reduces his own time to read and more fully stimulate his intellectual life? Will he not concede in conversation because adapting his language to the style and understanding of his auditor dilutes his meanings and intentions? Will he not defer to inoculations because a sore arm after a needle pokes it minimizes his time in the gym pumping iron for a day? If a tiger crossed his path, would he not step aside because doing so diminishes his sense of freedom and self-worth? Is a meteoric death so much more brilliant than a steadily growing flame that bends with the wind? Confused? I think Rand is too.

Rand attempts to romanticize selfishness, but she ends up caricaturing it. There’s a healthy kind of self-confidence, and this includes self-love which is often misunderstood and grossly undervalued. An egoism that realizes that one is never fully one’s self without other selves is a good kind of egoism. But I reserve the word ‘selfish’—with its typical connotation of isolationism and imagined, absolute autonomy—for people who only love self and fail to realize the impact of community and interdependence on things like, well, one’s self-awareness (which is completely owed to societal interaction and differentiation) and survival (starting with the womb and breast of origin). To truly be his own man and live life the way he wanted—alone—Howard Roark, for all his lofty ideas about independence, would literally starve to death, or become an ignorant, weak, and outright dependent creature whose ultimate aim would be to cake on enough mud each morning to deter a mosquito’s proboscis.

I do get what Rand is trying to say. There is a lot of self-loathing that passes for being civil-minded and socially successful. The low-life of the story, as Rand conceived of him, is Keating who is a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire, and she wrote of him, “He looked at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them, he saw himself being granted the gift of life. That was Peter Keating, that, the reflection in those staring pupils, and his body was only its reflection.” Great stuff, and point taken. But Roark is the polar opposite, a vampire-like being who lacks any reflection in the eyes of others, and Rand loves his undead social persona exactly like that.

It’s apparent, if you know her biography, that Rand needed to withdraw into herself to survive the perils of the Russion Revolution and the confiscation of her family’s business and livelihood; and I believe many people would do well to search inside themselves for a strength originating inside them and a light that will lead them out of the darkness of public ignorance. Community would be nothing without these ‘solvent’ natures who owe nothing, and are owed nothing. But the ‘first-me’ mentality so easily slips into a completely unbalanced view of one’s part in society and the natural order, and the tendency to view others as drains, instead of potential tributaries that extend my sense of self, is all-to-real a possibility. It’s a slippery slope from lordly to lonely. 

I could only stomach a little over 200 pages of The Fountainhead. Perhaps I’ll try again later with Anthem or We the Living. As for her philosophy of Objectivism, I have zero interest in a system which assumes it can uproot knowledge from human desire and an existential outlook.