26 August 2022

The Fountainhead? or Darling Buds of May?

The Fountainhead is a novel by Ayn Rand, first published in 1943. As a book, it must be judged on two levels. First of course as a work of fiction, specifically libertarian fiction, but second on the philosophy it propounds. I think Rand saw herself as a great writer, but her fiction reads like propaganda. It is reasonable to assume that the character traits she ascribes to her hero are traits we are supposed to find admirable.

The publisher’s blurb describes this book as “one of the greatest books of its time.” It describes the plot in terms that sound more like a clash of civilisations than a love story.

“You will reel, stunned, …at the meeting, and mating of these two most powerful creatures in modern America”

The reality is rather different. As a work of fiction, ‘The Fountainhead’ is probably one of the worst books I have read in my life. It is so flatly written it needs a micrometer to find any variation. The characters are cardboard cut-outs who never change, remaining the same arrogant adolescents throughout. The plot scenario could have been interesting, but in Rand’s hands is thrown away. The final pages, (an interminable closing statement in a preposterous trial) are almost unreadable and entirely pretentious. The end product may be a representation of Rand’s philosophy, but it more resembles a badly written Mills and Boon. The true awfulness of the book is made even more obvious by comparing it to John Dos Passos’ trilogy ‘USA’. This covers much the same period and addresses many similar themes.

Rand appears to have held her fiction in high regard. Bizarrely, others appear to agree with her – look at some of the reviews on Amazon.

…it explores the intellectual frontiers of personal freedom and responsibility in many magnificent, powerful passages that are second to none. And it exposes in searing detail as few modern novels do the deepest flaws and dishonesties in collectivist/Leftist politics.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who described it as a life-altering work and the best book he had ever read. I greeted this with the cynicism that such emotive comments often deserve. Nevertheless, I bought the book and have bought it for many more friends since. No book (or other art form, for that matter) has influenced me, encouraged me, excited me and criticised me as much as Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”.

Thank you Ayn Rand. This book has inspired me beyond wordss.

However, high levels of self-regard do not guarantee either quality or capability. If that were so, then Florence Foster Jenkins would be a great soprano.

The book concentrates on five characters, all of them pretty much two-dimensional.

The hero, Howard Roark, is an architect and a rapist, who is incapable of relating to the people around him. In his arrogance, he transforms that incapacity into a life principle.

Set against him is Peter Keating, another architect. Like Roark, Keating is totally self-absorbed, but lacks Roark’s arrogance.  He is though dishonest. On several occasions he presents Roark’s work as his own, albeit with Roark’s consent. Why Roark should agree to do this is never made clear. Keating is slightly less of a cardboard cut out than Roark although no more likable.

The love interest is Dominique Francon, the daughter of another architect for whom Keating works. It is she whom Roark rapes. For some unexplained reason, she returns to him time and again, seeking degradation at his hands. It must be said that despite being described, in the blurb, as one of America’s most powerful creatures, she is also pretty wet.

Two other characters are important to the plot (such as it is).

Gail Wynand is a newspaper proprietor in the Hearst mode. He is Dominique’s employer. He, too, is a crook, buying and selling politicians and destroying competitors by corrupt methods. Rand, though, presents him as another heroic figure.

Finally, there is Ellsworth Toohey, another journalist working for Wynand. In ways not elaborated or explained, Toohey wields considerable power. Equally unexplained, he uses it to undermine Wynand, finally engineering a destructive strike.

It is around this sorry bunch that the book revolves.

Rand wants us to regard Roark as the hero, because of his refusal to compromise for his ‘art’. He is described as a modernist. Rand’s grasp of the reality of the modern movement in architecture is however, pretty nebulous. Nevertheless, his modernist pretensions are supposedly sufficient in themselves to make him one of the good guys. Any links to the past, any sense of history, any recognition even that others have solved problems already, are presented by Rand, through Roark, as weakness, even moral degradation.

The book is dishonest in its use of plot devices and manipulation to argue the case for Roark’s/Rand’s philosophy, rather than relying on the philosophy per se. Two examples will suffice:

  •  The activities of Toohey and his cohorts are not presented as those of corrupt people acting in self-interest. That is impossible, since there would then be no way to distinguish the arrogance and self-interest of Roark from that of Toohey. Instead, Toohey is presented as the frontman for collectivism. This conveniently ignores the fact that his political philosophy is clearly one with Wynand).
  • Roark agrees to design a public housing project for Keating, on condition that his name is not attached to it. He does this despite despising the whole idea of public housing. He then destroys it, claiming that he was forced to contribute his work as a gift!

Rand does not concede that the impact of individual choice on others is in any way relevant. Any action is acceptable, so long as it does not depend primarily on other men.

This is the voice of totalitarianism. Only the individual making a choice can judge it, all that matters is getting away with it. However abhorrent the actions, because so many people are ‘second-handers’, it is the victim’s fault.

“A man thinks and works alone. A man cannot rob, exploit or rule – alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. They are the province of the second-hander.” (From Roark’s speech in the trial at the end of the book.

Fundamentally, this is a repellent book about a repellent philosophy. It has no redeeming merit as fiction. If you want real libertarian fiction, with a hero who is a whole human being, with a joy in life that comes bursting off the page, who is full of good humour and gentility, who deeply cares for his fellow human beings and who avoids and subverts the state at every opportunity, then read H E Bates’ books about Pop Larkin, starting with The Darling Buds of May. In film – watch Jacques Tati.

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