Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand

Yes, I did finish two books in one day.  After being totally unable to put Gone Girl down last night and this morning, the afternoon brought a close to Ayn Rand's literary classic.  Now, most people have either never heard of this book or it is one of those ones that sits on the shelf for years without ever actually being read.  It was Mark Twain who once defined a classic as "A book which people praise and don't read."  I, however, do read them and am attempting to bring more into my literary diet.  I am ashamed to call this book, which by some would not even classify as classic to begin with, my first classic novel of the challenge.  I guess you have to start somewhere.  I promise another is on its way shortly.

I started this book back around the end of July - long before Paul Ryan decided to announce that he was an Ayn Rand fan.  Honestly, when there was all the media attention given to that story, I was slightly irritated that now anyone reading this blog may think I picked up The Fountainhead at the suggestion of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate.  Take heart, Democratic readers; I did no such thing.  Actually, I read Atlas Shrugged last year and found that I enjoy Rand's style.  I have read Anthem multiple times and find it a lovely, bite-sized, and much more palatable dose of her celebration of egotism.  Though they give ultimately the same message, Atlas is very political while Fountainhead is more more personal.

First and foremost, let me say that I really do enjoy Rand's writing style.  She has a unique approach to dialogue where she does not always give both sides of a conversation.  Rather, she leaves ... between sentences of a character's monologue and you are expected to discern what they are responding to.  I like that she expects you to be smart to read her.  The dialogue is really a small example.  To read Rand and to understand her, you have to put in some effort.  This is no summer beach read.

The premise of Fountainhead sets us in the world of architecture as art.  The great architects copy the masters of the past (the Greeks, the Romans, the Classical, etc.) and modern architecture is blemish.  This concept fascinated me from the very start.  To choose the architectural world as stage for such a novel seemed very unique to me.  It is not often that buildings are chosen as a metaphor in such a way; yet, they are perfectly fitting to Rand's purpose.  Rather than designing each building to look like its neighbor, she sets the reader up to believe, rightfully, that each building should be designed for its own purpose and based upon its own environment.  Each building is a monument to itself and its creator, not to the old-fashioned ideals.

Howard Roark, the protagonist, perpetuates this view throughout the novel by insisting, quite stubbornly, on doing things his own way, regardless of the expectations of the time.  In this, he is Rand's ultimate hero.  He fears no consequence.  All is worth risking for the sake of his own work.  To Roark, there is nothing greater than being an individual and all who conform are to be scorned.

Early in the book, it could be interpreted that Rand's message is about the importance of change and growth in a society.  The message of the architecture, after all, is the need to move forward and not remain stuck copying the past works of centuries previous.  The early chapters could easily create a discourse on the value of change: is it good or bad?  This argument certainly deserves to be had.  Unlike the fictional society of Rand's USA, I would argue that our society can overvalue change.  Our culture shifts so quickly that oftentimes we encourage change for the sake of change, rather than for a true upgrade in whatever it is being morphed.

Yet, a discussion of change is not what Rand has set out to do.  Her message is that of egotism and anti-collectivism.  At its base, her message is that man should be selfish.  Rand believes that each of us should answer only to ourselves, to our own desires and thoughts.  She communicates well, almost too well.  It is easy to get caught up in her words and forget what it is that she is saying.  For, while I understand how Rand's background (a Russian who lived under communism before immigrating to the USA) would create an innate rebellion against social contract, I also realize that she has jumped to an extreme.  Certainly, she does have some case in finding altruism unlovely and sacrifice reprehensible at times.  This is human nature.  It is at our very core to want to look out for ourselves alone and ask each man to make his own way, unassisted.

Nevertheless, as a Christian, I am reminded that though my nature wants to raise up Rand's flag and applaud her bold manifesto, I will find a much better calling in the imitation of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial being.  It is not surprising to note that Rand was an atheist who rejected all forms of religion or collective belief.  She believed that man and his ego were the highest form of truth.  Though she makes her case beautifully, I cannot agree with her.  Christianity calls us to take up our cross and to lay down our lives for others.  The core of our belief is love - a quality which does not truly exist in Rand's characters.  

Fountainhead is described as some as a love story.  True, Roark and the heroine, Dominique Francon, carry on a love affair throughout the book.  Their relationship, though, is twisted and quite far from any definition of love that I would desire.  At the start of their involvement, Roark rapes Dominique in a scene which is quite uncomfortable to read.  Rand argued later in interviews that it was not true rape because Dominique wanted him; yet, the picture she gives us is clear and Rand even refers to the incident as rape later on in the book.  To me, this sets their entire relationship on a very odd and violent foundation.  From that point on, Dominique attempts to destroy Roark professionally, while still sleeping with him in secret.  When she realizes that she loves him, she marries another prominent architect, and later a publisher who defamed Roark's name in print.  Somehow at the end of the book, they come back to each other and are married and the last image is of Dominique visiting Roark at a construction site and viewing him against the sky atop the building (note the majesty of man in this image).  They are together because they are the same in their view of the world.  I would not call theirs a love story, but rather a meeting of minds and bodies.

Rand is a brilliant author, there is no doubt in that.  Her writing is excellent and she knows how to not only get a point across but to make you agree with it.  At the core, however, her message is wrong.  Her book is preachy and her characters are unlovable because they love themselves and nothing else.  I do not regret reading this at all.  I did enjoy the book, the story, the writing.  Rand keeps me on my toes intellectually and I am continually checking myself to see if I agree with the statements she is making.  I love books like that.  Books that not only feed my mind, but challenge it.  This is a deep book that will cause you to think about human nature itself.  Just be careful to take a step back occasionally and observe what Rand is trying to teach you.

Have you read a book that you enjoyed, but didn't agree with philosophically?

Pages: 752
Date Finished: September 2, 2012


  1. I'm not a fan of Rand's writing, though I do not dislike it either. I found the story dragging too much for my taste and ended up dropping the book halfway through. But Anthem is now on my to read list because of your description.

    I agree that the 'love story' of the book was spectacularly dysfunctional. But I took a different message away from the main story itself - individuality. Man should be selfish. He should follow his own beliefs instead of blinding parroting others. And most individuals are good and competent people. Man can be an individual and can still help other people. If someone truly feels love towards someone/something, they can love. They shouldn't love because they are told to and don't really feel love.

    It is always fascinating to read differing viewpoints and reasoning, and this review was quite wonderful. Do you have any suggestions for works where readers will have differing opinions? I'm blanking on any off the top of my head.

    1. While I definitely believe in individuality, I think there is a big difference between it and selfishness. Our differences should be celebrated and encouraged, but not at the expense of losing perspective. Rand encourages individualism so long as individuals believe in being individuals. Yet, she has no tolerance for any form of collectivism and vilifies anyone who does. I agree that love should be genuine and unscripted. However, I believe love in its purest form requires a sacrifice of self. To truly love someone or something, you must give of yourself - your time, your money, your heart, whatever it may be.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the review, even if you disagree with it. This type of discourse is what makes authors like Rand worth reading. Other suggestions for discussion-provoking literature... well, you've already found some of my thoughts on Dan Brown. I'd also suggest anything by Donald Miller. Or try reading Love Wins by Rob Bell and Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle (I have a review on that) back to back. I've also found that a lot of the dystopian/young adult stuff that's popular right now can create great conversation if read critically (think The Giver, The Handmaid's Tale, or even The Hunger Games). I also read Gone Girl this year and it sparked a great discussion with my husband about human nature and sociopathy. And then there are the classics like The Prince. The list is endless. Just about anything can create critical discussion if written well.

    2. Thinking back to Rand's intended message, I pretty much agree with you that it is quite extreme. And I guess I was more going on about my taken message rather than the intended message - only taking the intended message as a starting point of thought and building on it based on other readings (actually a lot of Hofstadter on consciousness and computing) and my own beliefs. And I really need to find a more accurate word than selfishness. I've been having issues with that word since trying to describe a computative basis of action since senior year of high school...

      I'm definitely going to give Searching for God knows what, Love Wins, and Erasing Hell a shot. In that same vein, there are atheist books, The Portable Atheist and God, no!, that I've had highly recommended but haven't gotten to reading yet. I agree about the classic dystopian novels, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Giver, etc. (Hunger Games is a wonderful dystopian future but the story and writing is unbearable in my opinion) I would also add books like Hofstadter's GEB and I am a strange loop, Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, The Communist Manifesto, The Rational Optimist, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Last Child in the Woods, anything about Norman Borlaug and one of my favourite books - The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. The list is definitely endless. Although I hadn't found any recommended religious books until your recommendations. And now I have 208 books on my Goodreads to-read list.