I’m always fascinated by books that radically divide people. I’d heard so much about The Fountainhead, mostly from other novels that use it as part of an iconic scene, in which a teenage protagonist reads it and is either a) utterly seduced or b) wholly repulsed. And when I looked online, I found either devoted fan clubs or vitriolic bloggers. What I couldn’t find anywhere was an account of what this book is about or why it should arouse such fierce emotions.
So let me give you one. The Fountainhead is a blockbuster with philosophical intent, a huge, plot-filled narrative focusing on the lives of two young architects in the inter-war period in America. It’s got all the usual ingredients of a society saga – deadly rivalry, crazy love affairs, overwhelming ambitions, lust, greed, despair – but the package comes wrapped up in a very particular existential theory. At its basis, the novel wants to reach into the reader’s mindset and give it a good yank in a different direction; what it asks us to reconsider is the emotionally fraught distinction between the concepts of selfishness and selflessness, and it dares to suggest that we have willfully misunderstood them.
The story pits its two main protagonists against one another from the start. Peter Keating is the prize-winning architecture student from Stanton College, a man whose eagerness to please is coupled with a wholescale acceptance of current, orthodox taste and a ferocious ambition to succeed. Howard Roark, however, has just been expelled; a brilliant draughtsman and mathematician who refuses to bend to the dictate that he worship the Renaissance with every building he creates. Roark detests fussy ornamentation; he’s a man with a vision of clean lines, an economy of space, simplicity of design. Of course, the architectural profession, stuck in a 400-year old rut, doesn’t want to know. But Roark is unusually designed himself. He has no need of other’s acceptance, or their praise, and so he is deaf to their censure. It’s not exactly determination that keeps him going, more a precocious recognition that what he does is what he is; it’s an inability to do anything other than honour the artistic vision he possesses, that he knows is right. This might make him sound attractive, but the early parts of the novel work to make him as unsympathetic as possible. Peter Keating may have a sickly dimension, a whiff of falsity about him that indicates slow, internal rot, but he’s recognizably human in a way that Roark is not.
So we have Peter, the classic hero now dangerously subject to internal collapse, and Howard, the anti-hero with a long trajectory towards acceptance ahead of him, and we have equally two villains. One is the architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey, a man who recognizes that human beings aren’t comfortable unless an authority has told them what to think. Toohey is, I think, the real embodiment of the devil in this novel, and an intriguing commentary on the use and abuse of intelligence. Toohey wages a persistent smear campaign against Roark, who stands for everything he doesn’t want to see in the world. Toohey favours the ordinary, the almost-man, the talentless hacks, the quiet plagiarists. As this long novel unfolds, we watch him gradually drawing in and training a number of truly awful artists whom he launches to great success. Toohey uses his talents, not to individual greatness (although he has all the power he wants) but to prevent true greatness from ever emerging, in an astute recognition that admiring genius is something few people can do, the majority preferring art to be flawed and mediocre in a way that saves them from disquieting awe or awkward resentment. Rand wants to suggest that there’s a weakness in humanity, a profound desire to see others as imperfect because that’s what makes us feel better and keeps us weak and underachieving. The other quasi-villain of the novel is newspaper tycoon, Gail Wynand, who embraces a variation on this theme. Wynand has risen from the gutter to become the richest and the most powerful of all the characters in the novel, but he’s a deeply unhappy man. His background has shown him that there is no integrity in humanity, and that money rules. He gets his pleasure from breaking the always fragile carapace of nobility in the men he encounters, by offering them more money than they can refuse to go against their principles. His newspaper (for which Toohey writes) is called The Banner, and it’s a rather chilling representation of the tabloid press. ‘The public asked for crime, scandal and sentiment. Gail Wynand provided it. He gave people what they wanted, plus a justification for indulging the tastes of which they had been ashamed.’ If men are different in their virtues, Wynand argues, they are all alike in their vices, and catering to the vices of the majority is what has brought him unimaginable wealth.
Unlike Toohey, who is demonic through and through, Wynand has the possibility of redemption when he meets Roark, a man whose cast-iron integrity in this shameful world makes him a kind of saint. But there’s another character whose life is intertwined with them all and who represents the role of the martyr – and that’s Dominique Francon, the daughter of a once-great architect and a journalist on The Banner. Dominique is cold, hard and indifferent, enlivened only, it seems, by special forms of hatred. Dominique is the hardest to describe, because her portrait is the most confused and potentially misleading of all those Rand creates. Much like Wynand, Dominique has given up on the human race. People disgust her, with their neediness, their corruption, their slavish herd instinct, and so having given up, her only mode of self-defence is to abandon herself in any way she can to suffering. She’s the spirit of negativity, torturing herself as the only way to stay pure and clean. And like Wynand, Howard Roark represents her only shot at salvation and, simultaneously, a very special form of torture. If the Fountainhead is a particularly difficult book to read, it’s because the romance between Dominique and Howard is probably its fundamental driving force, and equally, the most twisted, unsympathetic element of its composition. The two recognize each other instantly, seem able to read each other’s minds, and start their relationship with an act of desired rape. Not so very long afterwards, Dominique marries Peter Keating in a gesture of self-destructive sacrifice made for Howard, whose work she cannot bear to see despised by a brainless public. Are you following so far? I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t. Over the course of this long, long, book, the characters of both Dominique and Howard mellow, become more understandable, more sympathetic. But there’s a lot that doesn’t entirely make sense or indeed plausible narrative in their relationship, and, in a generally eloquent and stylish novel, it often sounds like Mills and Boon written in the throes of a bad trip.
I’m not surprised people give up on The Fountainhead because certainly in its first 400 pages or so, the characters are all so unpleasant, even if the machinations they embroil themselves in, and the battle between orthodox and modernist architecture, are really quite fascinating. But to keep the integrity Rand is advocating so strongly, she can’t logically do so in the form of charming, easily recognisable individuals. The thrust of Rand’s philosophy is that we should abandon the concept of man as fundamentally in need of forgiveness for his inevitable imperfection; that compassion and pity keep us groveling in the mud where it’s warm and safe, when what we really need is the shock of cold and pain to push us on to find our better selves. She invites us to idolize instead a concept of mankind as formidable, brave, fearless and wise. Rather than the wishy-washy blindness of unconditional acceptance, we might make love of the human race conditional on talent, achievement and integrity. It’s a form of existentialism that says our call to heroism on this earth is to do and to be the very best we can, and not to be dishonest with ourselves and others in the accomplishment of this task. The central theme of the philosophy is exemplified in this exchange between Wynand and Roark:
‘ “There’s a particular kind of people I despise. Those who seek some sort of a higher purpose or ‘universal goal,’ who don’t know what to live for, who moan that they must ‘find themselves.’ You hear it all around us. That seems to be the official bromide of our century. Every book you open. Every drooling self-confession. It seems to be the noble thing to confess. I’d think it would be the most shameful one.”
“Look, Gail,” Roark got up, reached out, tore a thick branch off a tree, held it in both hands, one flat closed at each end; then, his wrists and knuckles tensed against the resistance, he bent the branch slowly into an arc. “Now I can make what I want of it: a bow, a spear, a cane, a railing. That’s the meaning of life.”
The idea of living for others is particularly torn apart in this novel, and rather compellingly portrayed as a disaster in the person of Peter Keating. Living for others, Rand argues, is a way of emptying out one’s precious sense of self, of giving up the responsibility to think independently. To live by a consistent principle of selflessness means abdicating one’s own moral compass and becoming a slave to nebulous, fickle, public opinion. I found this argument convincing in relation to creativity, certainly to the extent that the work itself has to be all that matters, not the promise of adulation or fame. The book seems chillingly prescient in the way it foresees the rise of the tabloids and reality television. But as ever with philosophical novels, their very attempts at purity end up by promoting an implausible vision of reality. It’s not really possible or desirable to imagine an entire society composed of people like Dominique Francon or Howard Roark. And in the end Roark’s perfect insight, his supernatural ability to read Dominique’s mind, his genius, remain distantly inhuman. Who says, after all, that Roark is indeed always right? And what kind of book would this have been if he had kept all his emotional and philosophical character but was only an averagely talented architect? There’s also a question mark in my mind over the way that Rand conflates intellectual choices with emotional ones. This is particularly marked in the character of Dominique, whose death wish seems excessive and often bizarre. I’ll willingly place to one side my own desires for how a woman ‘should’ behave in a novel, but I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to replace that with masochism as a philosophical stance. Would people who think about creativity differently necessarily love differently? I’m not convinced that it is a causal inevitability.
So, at the end of this long book and an equally long review, I would end up by cautiously saluting this novel. As an investigation into the unhealthy relationship between art and society, I think it succeeds quite brilliantly. As a portrait of a better concept of humanity, I find it intriguing but internally confused. It is the sort of book that I feel everyone ought to try, but given the amount of length pontificating the characters indulge in, I’ll forgive anyone who couldn’t quite stomach it. In the full knowledge that Rand would be very disappointed in my stance.