The Fountainhead: Roark the Groucho

Solitude

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 11

The second person to visit Roark’s new office is Peter Keating, who’s full of praise and congratulations for his old college pal. Roark is just as warm and gracious as you’d expect:

He walked in, without warning, one noon, walked straight across the room and sat down on Roark’s desk, smiling gaily, spreading his arms wide in a sweeping gesture: “Well, Howard!” he said. “Well, fancy that! …Your own office, your own name and everything! Already! Just imagine!”

“Who told you, Peter?”

“Oh, one hears things. You wouldn’t expect me not to keep track of your career, now would you? You know what I’ve always thought of you. And I don’t have to tell you that I congratulate you and wish you the very best.”

“No, you don’t have to.”

Have you ever heard the word “gratitude,” Roark? Really, you should try it sometime. It won’t hurt, I promise. Here, you can use this as a template: “Thank you, Peter, that’s a very nice thing for you to say.”

As with Hank Rearden and his wife in Atlas Shrugged, when Roark has to talk to someone he doesn’t like, he can only communicate in surly, mumbled monosyllables. This applies even when that person is trying to give him a compliment. It’s a thoroughly passive-aggressive and, dare I say it, adolescent way of expressing his displeasure.

Keating points out that Roark has taken “an awful chance” by going into business for himself so early in his career with nothing to fall back on, and Roark shrugs it off:

“Have you thought about getting your registration?”

“I’ve applied for it.”

“You’ve got no college degree, you know. They’ll make it difficult for you at the examination.”

“Probably.”

“What are you going to do if you don’t get the license?”

“I’ll get it.”

Rand excels at putting fake obstacles in her heroes’ path, pseudo-problems they can overcome by sheer force of will. But as we saw last week, when Rand has a chance to script a realistic challenge, she brushes it off.

Most states and countries have strict professional requirements to be licensed as an architect (as well they should; you don’t want someone to build a skyscraper that falls down). In almost every jurisdiction, one of those requirements is a degree in architecture – which, oops, Roark doesn’t have.

In New York State’s actual requirements, which seem the most relevant, you need a total of 12 credits to be licensed, which are derived from a combination of education and work experience. Completing a professional degree from a school accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board gives you 9, but again, Roark was expelled without getting his. Is it possible for him to get to 12 regardless?

If you don’t have a degree, you can get 2 credits for each year of completed coursework at an NAAB-accredited school, up to a maximum of 7. Roark was expelled in 1922, after three years (he was a year behind Peter Keating, and was expelled at the same time Keating graduated), so that would be 6. Then you can get one additional credit for each year of work experience under a certified architect. Presumably, his time with Henry Cameron, Guy Francon and John Erik Snyte would all count towards this.

Problem: Roark worked for Cameron for less than three years. He was expelled in the summer of 1922, moved to New York and began work for Cameron soon thereafter, but Cameron retired in February 1925. Roark was scooped up by Guy Francon at Peter Keating’s urging, but only lasted a few months before being fired. Then he was hired by John Erik Snyte, but he only worked there for five months before he met Austen Heller and quit. At most, he’d have 3 credits of work experience.

No matter how you slice it, Roark can’t get to 12 credits. Under current law, it’s impossible for him to be licensed to practice as an architect in New York State. And that’s without even considering the requirement that an architect “be of good moral character”. He doesn’t exactly have a lot of friends who’ll write character references for him.

Rand apparently couldn’t think of a way to overcome this problem, so she just handwaves it away. Neither the exam nor the license is ever mentioned again, so we’re left to wonder how (or whether!) Roark passed.

Keating says he assumes Roark will be joining the Architects’ Guild of America, slipping in a little self-deprecating humor:

“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you now at the A.G.A., if you don’t go high hat on me, because you’ll be a full-fledged member and I’m only a junior.”

“I’m not joining the A.G.A.”

“What do you mean, you’re not joining? You’re eligible now.”

“Possibly.”

“You’ll be invited to join.”

“Tell them not to bother.”

“What!”

“You know, Peter, we had a conversation just like this seven years ago, when you tried to talk me into joining your fraternity at Stanton. Don’t start it again.”

“You won’t join the A.G.A. when you have a chance to?”

“I won’t join anything, Peter, at any time.”

It appears that Roark is channeling the old Groucho Marx line about not joining any club that would have him as a member.

It’s not that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. When Keating points out that he’s making things harder for himself by refusing to join the AGA, Roark just agrees: “I am.” And when Keating cautions him that he’ll surely make enemies of other architects if he snubs their invitation, Roark says coolly, “I’ll make enemies of them anyway.”

It’s not clear what principle Roark is standing on, if any. There’s a difference between being an uncompromising individualist and being a deliberately standoffish misanthrope. Not wanting to follow current fashions in architecture is one thing, but refusing even to associate with other architects can only be seen as him broadcasting his contempt for the rest of the profession – which of course, he is.

This is another example of how Ayn Rand had to go to the exact opposite extreme of any belief system she rejected. She disliked the idea that you could become successful by exploiting personal or professional connections, so she wrote a hero who refuses to form any connections at all. She hated the idea of being forced to join a collective, so her hero refuses to join any group for any reason. Someone who was merely an individualist would just want to do his own thing, but as far as Roark is concerned, it’s not enough to stand out from the crowd. You also have to make it crystal-clear that you consider everyone else beneath you.

Image credit: Hendrik Dacquin, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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