© 1943 Ayn Rand
“Howard Roark laughed.” This epic novel opens with the roar of its main character, leading the reader to wonder what is to come. Is he laughing in triumph? In fatalistic glee, like a Spartan before the Persian hordes? The Fountainhead is his story, his triumph over those who would crush or control him. It is an eight hundred page tale, featuring only five principle characters, all of whom grapple with one another. Written consciously as a heroic epic for a world in need of a fire lit under its bottom, it is an confrontational story, targeting the reader, that deserves its reputation. In the end it is not a book about economics, or politics; at its heart, this is a novel that forces each character and the reader to answer the question: What are you living for? Is it for your own convictions, or for the approval and at the whim of others?
First and foremost, The Fountainhead is a novel about integrity. The main character, Howard Roark, wants to be an architect — but for him, designing buildings isn’t just an occupation. It is an expression of his soul, something he pours his everything into. Roark designs and builds according to his belief that form follows function, that the site and materials of a building should spur its design. Not for him are the fake Greek pillars of Beaux-Arts, standing pretty but adding no functional support. (He would not be a fan of McMansions, brimming over with random and functionless elements, from fake shutters to mismatched windows). If Roark can’t design according to his guiding principles, he simply won’t; he’s content to work in a quarry if no one wants his kind of building. He encounters occasional interest, however, and develops a practice in New York — and through that practice, establishes a certain reputation for obstinacy. He won’t design a building that he doesn’t believe in, and those who are accustomed to wheedling, manipulating, etc, gaze at him with disdain and indignation. Who does this man think he is, refusing work and scorning compromise? Maybe he should be taken down a peg or two…
The book remains controversial because its main character lives out a creed that the author, Ayn Rand, championed as ‘the virtue of selfishness’. On the face of it, this is a slap in the face to every belief system — religious, political, moral-philosophic — on the planet. Even the beasts of the field, to use language Rand would despise, engage in mutual aid. As I progressed through the novel, it seems to me that Rand/Roark had something altogether different in mind than the usual understanding of selfish. The main character is self-possessed, self-driven — but he does not use others for his own private gain. Roark does not dismiss self-sacrifice; he tells one character he would die for her, and at one point when waxing on the beauty of the New York City skyline — the will of man made visible, creativity rendered corporeal — he declares he would fling himself bodily on these buildings to protect them from war. But it is the act of will that is important; Roark cannot be satisfied if he is not the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. His convictions are such that he cannot allow anyone to think for him, to manipulate him into doing anything he does not believe in doing, to force him to sacrifice his time and creativity against his will. He is like the woman in Fahrenheit 451 who sets the match to her own house and to her own person rather than surrender them; like Henry David Thoreau, who chose to be thrown into prison rather than give money to pay for an unjust war. Even like Gandhi, who maintained* if he were imprisoned the British would have his body — but not his obedience.
We see why Roark lives as he does, through other characters who act as foils. Most prominent among these are his sometimes-colleague, Peter Keating. Unlike Roark, Keating doesn’t have the courage of his convictions; he constantly seeks the approval of others, even when designing products of his own. He sinks hours and hours of his life in socializing with people he doesn’t actually like, diligently making connections so he can get bigger jobs, better commissions, and more influence. By novel’s end, none of this has made him happier. He is old before his time, and he isn’t even proud of his work, because so little of it is actually his. Hank Williams said it best: wealth won’t save your poor wicked soul. Another minor character of note is Peter’s jilted finance, a relationship he let lapse because another woman offered better connections, even though he loved the jiltee genuinely. All of the principle characters seemed strange to me, save Peter Keating, but as the novel reached its height — the second trial of Howard Roark, accused of blowing up his own building rather than allow other designers to mar it — I found him admirable in his constancy. The rest are either deceitful manipulators who keep their actions and motives in the dark, or pliable creatures whose actions move with the wind, like Keating and another. Howard, for all his strangeness, is constant.
While I still regard a worldview centered around individualism as problematically simplistic, in the limited context of The Fountainhead there is no difficulty at all in appreciating Roark’s stand. This novel champions integrity and creativity, and while it calls its champion selfish, the men who act in in the way we truly understand as selfish are the bad guys. They are the would-be dictator who uses a political platform of equality-first to manipulate unions, or people who marry others not to love them but to seek advancement. But ironically, by Roark’s understanding, their selfishness is Other-driven: they are obsessed with power over Others, with reputation in the eyes of Others, with things that Others will admire. Their actual selves are shallow, empty creatures, like the pathetic, shriveled thing that was Voldemort in the aftermath of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Early on Roark meets a woman who wants him to design a house with a historical look. When he asks her why — why she came to him for this kind of work, which he did not do, and why she wanted that kind of house in the first place — Roark receives nothing but vague answers and references to her friends.
“He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends. the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.”
Whatever the limitations of Rand’s philosophy as a whole, The Fountainhead is a call to life. One can — without knowing anything of Objectivism, let alone embracing it — appreciate Roark’s stand. Without being a Stoic, a person can monitor their thoughts from time to time and ask: why am I dwelling on this? What good is it doing? Likewise, without adopting Rand’s philosophy in full, a person can monitor their thoughts and actions and ask: why am I doing this? Am I doing it because I want to, or am I merely following the path of least resistance? We needn’t be self-obsessed, but we can at least maintain a level of self-possession, to be present and active in our lives. These are the questions that have made hippies, that have sent people to Quaker communities and on other journeys — questions that sent Thoreau to Walden Pond. Having climbed Mount Roark with this novel, I think Rand deserves more thoughtful consideration than outright dismissal.
Architecture is important to the Fountainhead, being Roark’s reason for living. His attempt to maintain his own integrity and the buildings are linked. as I’d expected to dislike Roark’s architecture on principle, because very little of the 20th century’s building designs appeal to me. They are all bizarre forms that are building-size art projects, or dismal inhuman hulks, like the cattle pens for proletarians the Soviets called apartments. Roark’s architecture is not bizaare; it follows a certain logic. And it is not inhuman: Roark’s designs are explicitly humanistic, designed for perfect and comfortable use rather than public approval. (Unlike the works of the starchitects!) He builds to the human scale, with grace and proportion– his designs are nothing like those featured on something like Jim Kunstler’s ‘Eyesore of the Month” series.
*Well, sort of. It’s a line given to him in the Ben Kingsley performance of Gandhi. It’s a belief completely consistent with his character, so far as I know it from reading books like The Story of My Experiments With Truth.
A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe. Another epic novel about two men sloughing off banal expectations and learning to stand and live with steel in their soul.