The Fountainhead: A Randian Guide to Retirement

ManInBlackAndWhite

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 6

After losing their last chance at a big commission, Henry Cameron and Howard Roark both know that the end is in sight. Finally, the day they’ve been dreading arrives:

In February of 1925 Henry Cameron retired from practice.

For a year, he had known that the day would come. He had not spoken of it to Roark, but they both knew and went on, expecting nothing save to go on as long as it was still possible. A few commissions had dribbled into their office in the past year, country cottages, garages, remodeling of old buildings. They took anything. But the drops stopped. The pipes were dry. The water had been turned off by a society to whom Cameron had never paid his bill.

That is a very strange metaphor for Ayn Rand to use.

It’s not inaccurate – just the opposite. That’s why it’s strange. You would think Rand’s opinion would be that society owes a debt to him and won’t acknowledge it. Instead, she seems to be saying that Cameron deserved to go out of business because he won’t do the work people want him to do – which, as we’ve seen earlier, is true. It’s as if the author is siding against her own main characters.

With their business running on fumes, the two of them stubbornly hold out for as long as they can, until one day Cameron collapses in the office. A doctor is called, who says that he’ll die if he isn’t confined to bed rest. Cameron stoically accepts this, asking only that Roark close down the office and burn all his papers. Emotionless as always, Roark complies:

That evening, Roark went to Cameron’s closed office. He did not turn on the lights. He made a fire in the Franklin heater in Cameron’s room, and emptied drawer after drawer into the fire, not looking down at them. The papers rustled dryly in the silence, a thin odor of mold rose through the dark room, and the fire hissed, crackling, leaping in bright streaks….

There were drawings of Cameron’s famous buildings and of buildings unbuilt; there were blueprints with the thin white lines that were girders still standing somewhere; there were contracts with famous signatures; and at times, from out of the red glow, there flashed a sum of seven figures written on yellowed paper, flashed and went down, in a thin burst of sparks.

Cameron himself is carted off on a stretcher, delivered to the care of his only surviving relative:

A sister of Cameron’s appeared from somewhere in New Jersey. She was a meek little old lady with white hair, trembling hands and a face one could never remember, quiet, resigned and gently hopeless. She had a meager little income and she assumed the responsibility of taking her brother to her home in New Jersey; she had never been married and had no one else in the world; she was neither glad nor sorry of the burden; she had lost all capacity for emotion many years ago.

As far as I know, this is the only place in any of her books where Ayn Rand addresses the question of what should happen to a heroic creator when he’s too old or ill to keep working. It never comes up in Atlas Shrugged, whose protagonists are only shown in the prime of their lives.

This is a very relevant question, given that all her heroes work brutal hours and devote themselves utterly to their jobs, spurning family and friends, rest and recreation. No one can keep that up forever. Literary characters can be made of iron and shrug it off, but the reality is that constant stress exacts a toll on your health. So, again, what happens to those who define their lives by work, when they can no longer work?

You’d think an ubermensch like Henry Cameron would be allowed to sail off into the sunset, spending his golden years in a comfortable retirement home where he could reminisce about the glory days and mentor up-and-coming young architects. Instead, despite those seven-figure contracts Roark burned, it seems that Cameron has no savings and made no provision for his own future. All that lies ahead for him in his twilight years are sickness and destitution. For readers whom she presumably hopes will pattern their lives after her protagonists, this is a less-than-encouraging message. (It sure is too bad they didn’t have Social Security then!)

Granted, Rand has plot reasons for wanting Cameron to be a tragic, broken figure, so that Roark can “avenge” him by becoming successful. But still, doesn’t something about this sit wrong? He doesn’t have his own money or his own home to go to; he’s dependent on family to support and nurse him. Isn’t that like… you know… mooching?

You’d think a real Randian hero would willingly die in the gutter rather than accept charity like this. Does this mean that Cameron wasn’t so great a man after all, if he’s reduced to sponging off others? Or is Rand admitting that dependence is a fate that awaits all of us?

On the day of his departure Cameron handed to Roark a letter he had written in the night, written painfully, an old drawing board on his knees, a pillow propping his back. The letter was addressed to a prominent architect; it was Roark’s introduction to a job. Roark read it and, looking at Cameron, not at his own hands, tore the letter across, folded the pieces and tore it again.

“No,” said Roark. “You’re not going to ask them for anything. Don’t worry about me.”

Wait – what – why?

Why is Roark so opposed to having Cameron write a reference for him? That’s the one valuable thing he got from his time there: a glowing recommendation from an architect who was a giant in his field. In an earlier chapter, Cameron said to Roark, “They may laugh at me in their luncheon speeches, but they steal from me when it suits them, and they know that I know a good draftsman when I see one.”

I can only assume this is an expression of Rand’s belief that her heroes have to do it all themselves – that they have to make their way in the world purely on the strength of their own talent, without relying on personal connections or other underhanded political tricks. But a reference letter isn’t nepotism! A good report from your last boss is evidence of your achievements and your work ethic, no different than showing off a photo of a building you designed.

This is further evidence that, for all she idolized business and capitalism, Rand didn’t know that much about it. This may be the most inadvertently realistic part of the book. The heroes are ignorant of, or flatly reject, standard business practices like advertising and references. They think they should always get their own way and be exempt from every rule. Then, when they fail to achieve overnight success, they treat this as some mystifying symptom of human evil, when in reality it’s exactly the response we should expect.

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