The Fountainhead: Good Classic

Pilasters

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 5

A year passes, and Peter Keating is moving up in the world. Through clever manipulation of office politics, he’s gotten rid of everyone who had seniority on him, leaving his own path clear for promotion.

The first to go is Tim Davis, the firm’s star draftsman. In the guise of wanting to be helpful, Keating volunteers to do more and more of Davis’ work, which Davis welcomes since it gives him the opportunity to slack off. However, it soon becomes obvious to everyone, including the bosses, that Keating is doing all the work and Davis none of it. Davis is fired, bitterly complaining about the injustice of it, oblivious as to what really happened:

When Tim Davis lost his job, no one in the drafting room was surprised but Tim Davis. He could not understand it. He set his lips defiantly in bitterness against a world he would hate forever. He felt he had no friend on earth save Peter Keating.

The next person in his way is the chief designer, Claude Stengel. His work is unimpeachable, but Keating happens to know that he has ambitions of going into business for himself. So, when Keating meets a rich potential client at a party that Guy Francon takes him to, he takes the opportunity to chat with her and praises Stengel to the skies, calling him the real creative genius of Francon & Heyer. Soon she hires Stengel out from under them, much to Guy Francon’s anger and bafflement.

I suppose we’re meant to conclude that Peter Keating is a devious snake, but that seems inconsistent with the evidence. After all, Tim Davis wasn’t framed; he willingly went along with someone else carrying the load for him. You’d think Ayn Rand would agree that that makes him a bad employee who deserved to lose his job. As far as the Stengel deal, that was a straightforward, capitalist trade of value for value. Everyone got something they wanted out of the deal, and Guy Francon had no cause to complain (since no one is owed the loyalty of an employee), so where’s the problem?

Finally, Keating has what he dreamed of: the title of chief designer, his own office, and the opportunity to do his own work and be accountable to no one besides Guy Francon himself. But while he’s luxuriating in success, he finds he has the architect’s equivalent of writer’s block:

Then he found himself suddenly in his glass-enclosed office, looking down at a blank sheet of paper — alone. Something rolled in his throat down to his stomach, cold and empty, his old feeling of the dropping hole. He leaned against the table, closing his eyes. It had never been quite real to him before that this was the thing actually expected of him — to fill a sheet of paper, to create something on a sheet of paper.

He spends days working on preliminary sketches, plucking ideas from photographs of classical buildings. But when he has a finished sketch, he finds himself staring helplessly at it, unable to tell if it’s any good or not. He wants an unbiased opinion, someone whose judgment he trusts; so, after mulling it over a while, he calls Henry Cameron’s office and asks to set up a meeting with Howard Roark.

Roark listens quietly, without scorn, as Keating pours his heart out. Then:

“If you could help me, Howard, if you could just help me with it a little. It’s my first house, and it means so much to me at the office, and I’m not sure. What do you think? Will you help me, Howard?”

“All right.”

Roark threw aside the sketch of the graceful facade with the fluted pilasters, the broken pediments, the Roman fasces over the windows and the two eagles of Empire by the entrance. He picked up the plans. He took a sheet of tracing paper, threw it over the plan and began to draw. Keating stood watching the pencil in Roark’s hand. He saw his imposing entrance foyer disappearing, his twisted corridors, his lightless corners; he saw an immense living room growing in the space he had thought too limited; a wall of giant windows facing the garden, a spacious kitchen.

This is an utterly bizarre thing for him to do.

Howard Roark is supposed to be a typical Randian hero, a fierce individualist with a self-chosen moral code as hard as granite. We’re told constantly that he’s only out for himself and has no notion of charity, that he’ll never sacrifice his desires for the sake of someone else’s esteem. You’d think that if an inferior like Peter Keating asked him for help, the proper response would have been to fling an inkwell at Keating’s face or throw him down the stairs or something. Instead, he’s letting himself be exploited, voluntarily doing Keating’s work for him and asking nothing in return!

This is unethical, and Roark must know that. He’s letting himself be deprived of the credit he deserves, and he’s assisting Keating to deceive his employer, who’d surely like to know that their star employee needs outside help to do his job.

Isn’t Ayn Rand supposed to be the champion of letting everyone sink or swim on the strength of their own talent? Would she ever have consented to secretly rewrite a novel on behalf of an unworthy lesser author? If not, how can she justify it in her protagonist?

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a case of Rand’s ideology colliding with the needs of the narrative. She was enamored with the notion of the unappreciated prime mover, persecuted by the crowd even as his contributions make their parasitic existence possible. She insists that Roark is such a person. But if he had turned Keating down, as by all rights he should have, then what opportunity would there be to demonstrate this? If the rest of the world can get by without drawing on Howard Roark’s talents, then maybe people like him aren’t as essential as the author wants you to believe.

Yet if he had insisted on the credit – or proposed a partnership, or offered to charge an hourly rate for consultation – then his contribution to the project would’ve been impossible to deny. To fit the theme, Rand has to make her hero cheerfully acquiesce to being screwed over, even though that clashes with his characterization.

But the contradiction runs deeper than that:

“And the facade?” he asked, when Roark threw the pencil down.

“I can’t help you with that. If you must have it Classic, have it good Classic at least. You don’t need three pilasters where one will do. And take those ducks off the door, it’s too much.”

Good Classic?!”

How can Howard Roark be saying this? His entire life has been devoted to the proposition that there’s no such thing as “good Classic”. Roark objects to classical architecture so vehemently that he’d prefer to torpedo his own career rather than put a single fluted column or urn on anything he designs. He’d rather be kicked out of college than draw even a purely hypothetical building in classical style. But this scene breezily contradicts all that by having him acknowledge that some classical buildings are tolerable. It’s an open-mindedness he displays nowhere else in the novel.

Image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, released under CC BY 3.0 license

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