The Fountainhead: Know Thyself

Crossroad

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 2

When Peter Keating returns to his mother’s house in town that night, Howard Roark is sitting on the porch. The two of them are roommates; Roark is renting a room in his mother’s boarding house.

The two of them are friends (frenemies?), of a sort. Roark congratulates Keating for his graduation, utterly indifferent to his own expulsion. Meanwhile, Keating thinks that Roark is “the one person whom he had wanted to see tonight”. He tells Roark that he respects his opinion, which is why he wants to ask him for advice.

Keating is faced with a choice. He has a scholarship to continue his education at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but he also has a job offer from Francon & Heyer, one of the most prominent firms in New York City. He can’t decide which would be better, so he asks Roark what he should do:

“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

“You see, that’s what I admire about you, Howard. You always know.”

“Drop the compliments.”

“But I mean it. How do you always manage to decide?”

“How can you let others decide for you?”

Notice, it’s not that Roark dismisses the question because he thinks Keating’s choice is obvious. He dismisses the question because he thinks it’s always wrong to ask for advice. You should just know what you want to do with your own life, he says, so asking others their opinion is absurd and pointless.

Both in this book and in Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s protagonists know exactly what they want to do with their lives – if not from birth, then at least from early childhood. They never have any need for soul-searching or self-discovery. They have the clarity of purpose of an android that’s programmed to do one specific thing. That’s weird enough by itself, but she goes on to assert that everyone should possess this same ex nihilo certainty. If you ever feel any hesitation or doubt, in her eyes, that’s the mark of a contemptible infirmity of purpose.

As we saw last time, Rand considers normal human behavior to be weird and evil, and freakish, inhuman behavior to be “normal”. This is another example of that. In her universe, there would be no guidance counselors, or therapists, or psychiatrists, or advice columnists, or life coaches. Only the weak and feckless would seek out such a service.

In any event, Roark advises Keating that he should skip further schooling and go to work as soon as possible. It’s decent advice, although as he delivers it, it’s laden with insults and backhanded compliments. By the standards of a Randian hero, this is a generous gesture.

“Peter, you know how I feel about either one of your opportunities. Take your choice of the lesser evil. What will you learn at the Beaux-Arts? Only more Renaissance palaces and operetta settings. They’ll kill everything you might have in you. You do good work, once in a while, when somebody lets you. If you really want to learn, go to work. Francon is a bastard and a fool, but you will be building. It will prepare you for going on your own that much sooner.”

How generous of Roark, the dropout, to tell the multiply-honored class valedictorian that he does good work every now and then! There’s an absurdity to this, which the author overlooks because she identifies so totally with her hero that it doesn’t occur to her that anyone might view this situation in any other light.

Keating asks Roark what his plans are:

“I’m going to New York.”

“Oh, swell. To get a job?”

“To get a job.”

“In … in architecture?”

“In architecture, Peter.”

“That’s grand. I’m glad. Got any definite prospects?”

“I’m going to work for Henry Cameron.”

Keating recognizes the name and is appalled:

“But he’s nothing, nobody any more! Oh, I know he has a name but he’s done for! He never gets any important buildings, hasn’t had any for years! They say he’s got a dump for an office. What kind of future will you get out of him? What will you learn?”

“Not much. Only how to build.”

Remember, again, that Ayn Rand wants us to believe Peter Keating is the villain. She wants us to believe this even though he makes an apparently sincere offer to use his connections to get Howard Roark a job:

“Look, Howard, if it’s because you think that no one else will have you now, no one better, why, I’ll help you. I’ll work old Francon and I’ll get connections and…”

“Thank you, Peter. But it won’t be necessary. It’s settled.”

“What did he say?”

“Who?”

“Cameron.”

“I’ve never met him.”

Clearly, Roark is a big softy. In Atlas Shrugged, when the good guys are offered unwanted assistance, they retaliate by throwing the offerer down a flight of stairs.

So, yeah: Roark has no money, no diploma, and his plan is to get a job working for a man he’s never met. He just assumes that Henry Cameron is still in business (and still alive!), and that he’ll have a job to offer him. As we’ll see, there’s literally no other architect in the world that Roark would be willing to work for, so this is a high-stakes plan to say the least.

But Roark is breezily dismissive about all the risks and uncertainties, and why shouldn’t he be? The author is on his side, and he knows it. That’s the real reason Randian protagonists can be so cavalier. They live in a fictional world where people who hold to their principles can’t lose. Whatever choice they make, they can be completely confident that it’ll be the right one. It’s no wonder that they feel no need to ask for advice.

But real people don’t enjoy that same guarantee. If anything, other people with the benefit of distance may have a better view of our problems than we do ourselves. Not knowing in advance how our choices will turn out, it’s understandable if we sometimes find ourselves plunged into uncertainty and need a little help from our friends.

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