Don't Critique Her Until You've Read Her

The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff

I had not really paid much attention to Ayn Rand, darling of the conservatives (very surprisingly, actually) until I began reading her biography. When I asked around to see who had actually read any of her work, I found only a few, but lots of opinions about Rand herself. Often those comments ascribed beliefs to Rand that were at opposite poles of the spectrum, from conservative to radical, individualist to Nazi fascist. Obviously another case of what I call the “De Toqueville syndrome,” where everyone pretends to have read a famous book and to know what the author stood for, but has no firsthand reading knowledge. Her biography revealed a complex and very interesting individual, so it was time to dig into her works personally. 

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect. Thrown out of Stanton School of Architecture for his refusal to adhere to the standards of the past (the dean views Roark as a rebel who opposes all the rules of architecture and his society’s view of art that is representation of what has been revered in the past) and for turning in assignments that represented a complete break from the past. The conversation with the dean, who tried to persuade Roark to come back into the fold, represents the central theme of the book, the conflict between those who are reality centered centered against those who define their lives through the eyes of other people. Roark seeks employment with Cameron, an architect whose designs tried to incorporate using the advantages of new materials, e.g., a skyscraper should look tall, not just like a twenty-story brick building trying to look like a renaissance house. Cameron began to design buildings the way he wanted rather than how his clients demanded. His business dwindled to nothing, but he was sought out by Roark. 

Following Cameron’s retirement, Roark seeks employment as a draftsman in a large architectural firm, where he gets a break by sketching a house that breaks with tradition completely but is just what the client wants. Roark is a brilliant but struggling iconoclast, while his rival and former classmate Peter Keating rises to the top of his profession by using obsequiousness, manipulation, and deception. His primary concern is how he is perceived by others. He designs by copying from the past, never thinking independently. Both men are in love with Dominique Falcon, a brilliant, passionate woman, who falls in love with Roark, admires his genius, but who is convinced his genius has no chance in a corrupt world. The villain of the book is Ellsworth Toohey, an architectural critic of note, who denounces Roark for his failure to adhere to the accepted standards of the day. Toohey believes that the individual must sacrifice his independence to the will of others, i.e. society or the group. Toohey is employed by Gail Wynand, a publisher whose paper caters to the lowest common denominator to gain power. He comes to admire Roark and must then decide whether he will continue to pander to popular taste or live according to his higher standards. Rand and her novels have been vilified by the left-wing as reactionary and praised by conservatives as brilliant and influential. 

Frankly, I cannot understand how conservatives can be so enamored of this work that celebrates independence and the rejection of tradition and “normal” morality. She celebrated atheism, a kind of free love, very strong women, and a rejection of parental values and social norms. She abhorred the subordination of reason to faith, of surrendering one’s own thinking to the beliefs of others. She despised the religious believer who without questioning adopts the religious beliefs of his parents, conforming without thinking. Morality becomes something practical and relative. For example, Roark dynamites a government building project that has been altered, so he can gain access to the courts since the government cannot be sued. Roark really doesn’t care what other people think. He has such strong personal will that he will just do what he thinks is right. He also pals around with one of the construction workers who admires him because he is the only architect that understands construction, and, indeed, Roark makes the point that he loves engineering and building. 

That sounds more like sixties liberalism than what I hear conservatives espouse. Rand is clearly a romantic who believed that man can live up to an ideal, and reason can help them achieve the independence and the happiness that depends on that independence. What infuriates liberals, as far as I can gather, was her unfailing adherence to capitalism. I suppose conservatives latched on to her vigorous rejection of collectivism, no doubt related to her childhood experiences under Communism. This is not to say Rand celebrates nonconformity for its own sake. That is simply another form of conformity because it’s living one’s life in reaction to the standards of others. The conformist must learn the beliefs of others to adhere to them; the nonconformist must learn the standards so as to avoid adhering to them. Both groups are psychological dependents. Rand celebrates the independent thinker, the individualist who lives on his own terms. The individualist creates his own standards and adheres to them regardless of what others do or think. He has a commitment to reason and facts. Roark represents the great innovator struggling against a profoundly conservative society against the traditionalist who says, “It was never done this way, so it can’t be good.” The climax of the book is Roark’s speech to the court when he is on trial. “I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. . . The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” He represents a complete rejection of altruism, “the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.”

It’s truly a shame when books and authors get labeled as “conservative” or “liberal,” “communist” or “democrat” and then judged on the basis of the label. Read the book; make up your own mind!