The Fountainhead: No Man Is an Island

FloatingIsland

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 2

It’s graduation day at Stanton, where Howard Roark has just been expelled. A line from the previous chapter fixes the date as 1922:

WELCOME TO THE CLASS OF ’22! GOOD LUCK, CLASS OF ’22! The Class of ’22 of the Stanton Institute of Technology was holding its commencement exercises that afternoon.

The graduating students are crowded into an auditorium for the ceremony. Among them, we meet the second major character of The Fountainhead, Peter Keating:

His eyes were dark, alert, intelligent. His mouth, a small upturned crescent faultlessly traced, was gentle and generous, and warm with the faint promise of a smile. His head had a certain classical perfection in the shape of the skull, in the natural wave of black ringlets about finely hollowed temples. He held his head in the manner of one who takes his beauty for granted, but knows that others do not. He was Peter Keating, star student of Stanton, president of the student body, captain of the track team, member of the most important fraternity, voted the most popular man on the campus.

If you’ve never read this book before, you might have guessed that Peter Keating is another hero. He’s handsome and athletic (usually a reliable sign of a good guy, in a Rand novel). What’s more, he aspires to wealth and success; he works hard; and he’s the best in his class:

The crowd was there, thought Peter Keating, to see him graduate, and he tried to estimate the capacity of the hall. They knew of his scholastic record and no one would beat his record today. Oh, well, there was Shlinker. Shlinker had given him stiff competition, but he had beaten Shlinker this last year. He had worked like a dog, because he had wanted to beat Shlinker. He had no rivals today… It was obvious that Shlinker could never hope to equal his own appearance or ability; he had nothing to doubt; he would always beat Shlinker and all the Shlinkers of the world; he would let no one achieve what he could not achieve. Let them all watch him. He would give them good reason to stare. He felt the hot breaths about him and the expectation, like a tonic. It was wonderful, thought Peter Keating, to be alive.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. If this had been Atlas Shrugged, Rand probably would have dropped a hint – like an unusually vacant look in his eyes, or a double chin, or, I don’t know, an extra finger or something – but it seems that when writing this book, she hadn’t yet arrived at the view that physical perfection is synonymous with goodness.

Keating’s purpose in The Fountainhead is to demonstrate Rand’s major philosophical schema at this point in her life, her theory of the “second-hander“. In her conception, second-handers are people who depend on others for validation and approval, who go along with the crowd and want to fit in, as opposed to the independent Prime Movers – the “fountainheads” of creativity – who do what they want with no concern for what other people think. (The original working title of this book was Second-Hand Lives, before she decided that it put too much emphasis on the villains rather than the hero.)

Rand shows Keating’s second-hander nature by telling us that he’s secretly pleased by Roark’s expulsion:

Then he thought suddenly of Howard Roark. He was surprised to find that the flash of that name in his memory gave him a sharp little twinge of pleasure, before he could know why. Then he remembered: Howard Roark had been expelled this morning. He reproached himself silently; he made a determined effort to feel sorry. But the secret glow came back, whenever he thought of that expulsion. The event proved conclusively that he had been a fool to imagine Roark a dangerous rival; at one time, he had worried about Roark more than about Shlinker, even though Roark was two years younger and one class below him. If he had ever entertained any doubts on their respective gifts, hadn’t this day settled it all?

The big difference between this and Atlas Shrugged is that, in The Fountainhead, second-handers are still capable of working hard and accomplishing great deeds. It’s just that they crave approval; they want others to tell them that they’re great. Without an admiring crowd, they wouldn’t know what to do.

By the time she wrote Atlas, Rand’s view of human psychology had changed. There, she was adamant that people who seek approval from others are useless moochers, and it’s only the heroic egotists who are capable of any achievement.

Although she distorts and exaggerates them, what Rand objects to are basic human traits. It’s unhealthy to be totally dependent on the approval of others, but it’s equally unhealthy to be totally unconcerned with others’ opinions. Anyone who’s capable of that is either a narcissist or a psychopath (and it’s no surprise that these traits describe most Randian heroes).

Humans are a social species, not a solitary species. We’re adapted to living in groups; we need each other’s help and cooperation to survive. A single person alone and naked in the wilderness, lacking all the innovations of civilization that took thousands of people to invent and produce, would likely die quickly no matter how competent they were. And because cooperation was so critical to our early survival, we have a built-in motivation to care about staying in others’ good graces. That’s why traits like “collective decision making” and “cooperative labor” are among the human cultural universals.

It’s one thing to wish it were otherwise. It’s quite another to do what Ayn Rand does, and insist that caring what other people think is some evil and alien corruption of human nature.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.