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Ayn Rand, A Defence for the Indefensible

Left behind by the previous owners of my parents’ Vermont summer home was a number of books. They weren’t my parents’ kind of reading, nor mine, but one fat book intrigued me (I was thirteen, the age when in pre-Laddt-Chatterly-trial days you looked for the rare sec bits in adult fiction.) I found some and in the end I read the whole fat book. It was endlessly various and much of it seemed perverse and absurd even to my thirteen-year-old mind. However, it also appeared to be a staunch defense of artistic integrity, and that I found inspiring Learning there is something of an Ayn Rand revival, I decided, after many years, to re-read THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

The edition I found (Penguin Classics 2007) had an introduction by Rand, written 25 years after the first publication; this best-seller had never gone out of print. Rand writes: “My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark (her hero) as an end in himself.” (italics hers). She continues: “Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man, I had to define and present the conditions which make this possible …. (and) had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for an ideal man to exist and to function – a free, production rational system which “demands and rewards the best in every man, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.” Etc. Never one not to blow her own trumpet, Rand adds “… whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential. There are very few guideposts to find. THE FOUNTAINHEAD is one of them.” So let’s look at this guidepost.

Young architect Howard Roark, uncompromising genius, is balked by the vulgarity and mediocrity which surround him. Refusing to build anything not entirely to his own design, he gets few commissions, and is soon reduced to manual work in a granite quarry. There he spots our heroine, the spectacularly beautiful Dominique Francon, whose father owns the quarry. Dominique works as a journalist for a low-grade tabloid, only to fill the cynical boredom of her days. She is virgin in all senses; she has never found a man, an institution or a cause she can respect. The attraction between these two is instant and overwhelming, and the besotted Dominique, “thought she had found an aim in life – a sudden, sweeping hatred for that man,” the insolent quarry worker who looks at her as if she were already his. She can’t keep away from him though, of course the hatred is really desire. Finally, when he makes a remark acknowledging her interest, she strikes him, and he then breaks into her house and rapes her (heady stuff for the 13-year-old reader). Soon after, Roard does get another commission and dashes back to New York – architecture comes first – and he knows Dominique will feel compelled to find him. When she does, she surrenders to her passion. “I want you, Roark, like an animal, or a cat on a back fence, ‘or a whore’…” “But,” she rambles on, “I’m going to destroy you … I’m going to pray that you can’t be destroyed …. Even though I believe in nothing and nothing to pray to … I want to be owned by an adversary who will destroy my victory over him not with honorable blows but with the touch of his body on mine.” (Freudians and feminists, are you listening?) So this secret, sado-masochistic relationship continues, with Dominique rubbishing Roark’s work in her tabloid column by day and having passionate sex with him at night.

Eventually Roark gets a big commission, engineered by the sinister Ellsworth M. Toohey, a critic who preaches altruism and equality, ideas anathema to Rand, and who represents the devil in this fairy tale. Toohey is also out to destroy Roark, because great men like Roark are an obstacle to the world of total mediocrity and passivity Toohey wishes to promote and have power over.

The building is to be a secular temple, and Roark gets Steven Mallory, a young sculptor he admires, to make a statue for it – of Dominique in the nude. Roark, so ultra cool, so collected he hardly ever voices a sentiment, gets heated about the sorrows of young Mallory, another genius spurned by vulgar multitude. “Don’t they realize that when Steven Mallory can’t do the work he loves, there is more suffering in him than in a whole field of men run over by a tank?” (Even a bewildered 12-year-old could spot there was something seriously wrong with a hero who could say this or an author who regarded the speaker as her Ideal Man.)

The happy union of architect, model and sculptor is soon ended by Toohey who condemns the building in his architecture column, so the temple is never opened, and Roark is sued and left penniless. Dominique does a turn-around and defends him – in vain, then decides to marry the toadying, money-grabbing, third-rate architect Peter Keating, as a kind of moral and sexual suttee. “They’ll destroy you, but I won’t be there to see it happen. I’ll have destroyed myself first.” The reader might think suicide would be simpler and quicker, but no; the thought that Roark exists will make Dominique stay alive. (Logic is not the author’s strong point.) Roark accepts Dominique’s magnificent sacrifice: “They won’t destroy me, and they won’t destroy you because you’ve chosen the hardest way of fighting for your freedom from the world.”

Not sufficiently degraded by her marriage with Keating, Dominique moves on to another marriage – with the ultimate purveyor of cultural trash; the all-powerful, utterly ruthless, tabloid mogul, Gail Wynand. However – a bit surprise – Dominique finds that inside the mogul is a superb connoisseur who understands great art and buys it, who falls in love with her for the glorious acuity and purity of her mind as well as the glory of her body, and to whom she finds herself sexually responsive, though her secret love for Roark is strong as ever. “Man was the life force and woman could respond to nothing else … that this man had the will of life, the prime power … she was responding not to the act nor to the man but to that force within him.”

True connoisseur that he is, Wynand soon discovers Roark and asks him to build a house, ironically (Rand irony is pretty heavy-handed) the house Wynand wants to live in with Dominique and keep her sheltered from the vulgar world. Then here again comes that wondrous flash of recognition; the man of genius and the emperor of trash are brothers under the skin (Wynand is, of course, oblivious to the secret bond between his wife and Roark) and revel in each other’s company. (That mysterious male life force again.) So part of Dominique’s hard fight for freedom now consists of cruising on Wynand’s luxurious yacht with husband and former lover. (Here for once Rand is consistent; adultery was one of the few ordinary human activities of which she approved.) Once husband and lover cruise alone, so they can spout reams of the author’s philosophy. Roark: (no longer taciturn, “The thing that is destroying the world … Actual selflessness … it does exist … – though not in the way they … (People) have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand … and isn’t that the root of every despicable action, etc.”

The despised Peter Keating, unable to manage it himself, gives Roark a big housing project to do, in Keating’s name, then breaks their agreement and lets the building be altered and spoiled. Roark dynamites it. The multitude is aghast but the Wynand papers, in a mega volte-face, defend Roark and lose their circulation. At last, rather than lose the paper, Wynand agrees to turn the tabloid back to its old self. Roark is put on trial, defends himself with a great oration of pure Rand ideas, and to everyone’s amazement (except the reader’s) is found not guilty. Dominique exposes her relationship with Roark and gets divorced. Wynand closes his paper, sells his huge holdings, and in a glorious act of recognition and redemption, finances the world’s tallest skyscraper, to be designed by – Howard Roark.

I had imagined THE FOUNTAINHEAD a call for artistic integrity and for all the book’s sado-masochism and insane elitism (those men run over by a tank) that did inspire me. I vowed never to prostitute my art. (At 13 I aspired to be a great poet.) I did not understand that great innovative architecture was just an example. What counted for Rand was the ability to stand against and rise above the crowds; Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic tycoon whose most famous remark was, “History is bunk,” was one real-life hero Rand admired.

Forget great art “THE FOUNTAINHEAD” my 2007 Penguin edition jacket explains, “introduced millions of readers to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, an uncompromising defence of self-interest as the engine of progress.” The 13-year-old would have been startled. This writer of racy pretentious kitsch is a PHILOSOPHER? What then are the tenets of Objectivisim? “Militant atheism, hyper individualism, worship of capitalism, repudiation of Judaeo-Christian concepts of morality” and Government limited to its smallest possible role (italics mine).

For years, Rand was dismissed by most thinkers as a far-fight crank; so why is it important to write about her now? Rand never really disappeared and is very much back. THE FOUNTAINHEAD is apparently Donald Trump’s favourite book; and another fan, according to the BBC, is the British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. In my next article I would like to review Gary Weiss’s book and say more about Objectivisim and some of Rand’s other powerful acolytes.

Frances Oliver

AYN RAND NATION The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul by Gary Weiss

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