The Fountainhead: Selling the Dream

Janus

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 7

Howard Roark has begun his new job at the source of all evil, Francon & Heyer. As a condition of taking the job, he asked to do structural rather than ornamental work, and Keating kept his end of the bargain. Even so, it gnaws at him:

The lines he drew were to be the clean lines of steel beams, and he tried not to think of what these beams would carry. It was difficult, at times. Between him and the plan of the building on which he was working stood the plan of that building as it should have been. He saw what he could make of it, how to change the lines he drew, where to lead them in order to achieve a thing of splendor. He had to choke the knowledge. He had to kill the vision.

Like any good Randian protagonist, he’s tormented by the burden of having to be so much better than everyone else. While he bends over his desk, he inwardly cries out to know why all his colleagues are incompetent subhuman slugs who refuse to bow to his unsurpassable genius:

But the pain remained — and a helpless wonder. The thing he saw was so much more real than the reality of paper, office and commission. He could not understand what made others blind to it, and what made their indifference possible. He looked at the paper before him. He wondered why ineptitude should exist and have its say. He had never known that.

Ayn Rand believed herself the supreme devotee of reason above all. Yet it comes through here, possibly even more clearly than in Atlas Shrugged, that her characters don’t act like rationalists at all. Roark is a case in point.

Even though it bothers him that other people don’t recognize his talent, it never occurs to him that he might be doing anything wrong, or that there might be other means of selling himself and his ideas that would work more effectively. He never tries to learn about human psychology, interpersonal relationship skills, or marketing tactics. He never even considers departing from his usual approach of plopping a set of blueprints down in front of someone and staring unblinkingly at them until they give in and acknowledge his greatness.

A true rationalist wouldn’t act like this. If your beliefs fail to align with reality, the proper course of action is to adjust your beliefs, rather than crossing your arms and waiting for the world to change so that your initial hypothesis becomes correct. Being a rational person means considering your own fallibility before all other possibilities; but as in Atlas Shrugged, the only “lesson” Roark needs to learn in this novel is that everyone else is even more evil and worthless than he had thought.

Meanwhile, Peter Keating, who does understand the concept of asking for advice, keeps calling Roark into his office to help with his designs:

Keating produced sketches from a drawer and said: “I know it’s perfectly right, just as it is, but what do you think of it, generally speaking?” Roark looked at the sketches, and even though he wanted to throw them at Keating’s face and resign, one thought stopped him: the thought that it was a building and that he had to save it, as others could not pass a drowning man without leaping in to the rescue.

It’s hinted that this was Keating’s real motive for getting Roark the job, so that he could exploit Roark’s architectural genius. But even if that’s true, so what?

We’re meant to view this as a villainous act. But that’s because Rand believes all creation is inherently individual, so asking someone else for help amounts to parasitizing their genius. In reality, the lone genius is the exception, not the rule.

It’s absolutely normal for people working in a creative field to collaborate. When Roark wasn’t working there, it was different, but now he and Keating are employees of the same company. As long as Roark is paid fairly for his work, he has no cause for complaint. He’s not being exploited; he’s just doing what he was hired for.

The logical step would be for Keating and Roark to go into business together. Their skills really do complement each other. Keating, who has a knack for compromise but is too eager to go along with the crowd, would have his spine stiffened by Roark’s stubbornness and nonconformist spirit. Conversely, Roark badly needs someone with people skills, like Keating, to sell clients on the virtue of his designs. Of course, if you expected this book to propose or even consider this patently obvious solution, it wouldn’t be an Ayn Rand novel.

Then he worked for hours, sometimes all night, while Keating sat and watched. He forgot Keating’s presence. He saw only a building and his chance to shape it. He knew that the shape would be changed, torn, distorted. Still, some order and reason would remain in its plan. It would be a better building than it would have been if he refused.

Now hold on just a minute!

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable way for Roark to think. He can console himself that he’s making a contribution. Even if his designs are mangled in committee, he can still improve the final product relative to what it would have been otherwise.

But this is precisely the way Roark doesn’t think in any other situation in the novel. In every case where he’s not helping Peter Keating with his homework, he refuses to make the tiniest concession, even when that means he loses all influence over the outcome. Whenever a client so much as asks him to put a bunch-of-grapes design over a door, he storms out in a huff, even though that means he’ll lose the commission and the building will be designed by someone else who’ll festoon it with urns and cherubs from top to bottom.

The reason for this inconsistency is that Roark isn’t a character, he’s a philosophical principle, and yet his author can’t decide which principle she wants him to be. Is he Artistic Integrity, who refuses to compromise his vision no matter the cost? Or is he Prometheus Chained, who gives freely of himself to sustain the world but is only punished for it? The solution Rand hits on is that he switches back and forth from one scene to another, depending on the needs of the plot.

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