The Fountainhead: The Customer Is Always Wrong

Mannequin

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 13

Since Howard Roark is willing to sit in his office without lifting a finger until he goes out of business, his one friend, Austen Heller, takes pity on him and decides to help him out. Heller spreads the word about Roark to his faithful readers, and soon customers start to show up:

That afternoon, a brisk, small, dark-skinned woman entered the office… She was Mrs. Wayne Wilmot of Long Island and she wished to build a country house. She had selected Mr. Roark to build it, she explained, because he had designed the home of Austen Heller. She adored Austen Heller; he was, she stated, an oracle to all those pretending just the tiniest bit to the title of progressive intellectual…

Mrs. Wilmot wants the prestige of having hired Austen Heller’s architect. She spends a long time telling Roark about the house she wants him to build for her, how it has to have a library and a music room and a nursery for each of her children and a den for her husband, and so on. Then, without warning, she drops a bombshell:

“And of course, as to the style of the house, it will be English Tudor. I adore English Tudor.”

Taken aback, Roark asks her if she’s actually seen the house he designed for Austen Heller. She hasn’t, so he shows her photographs of it:

“Very interesting,” she said. “Most unusual. Quite stunning. But, of course, that’s not what I want. That kind of a house wouldn’t express my personality. My friends tell me I have the Elizabethan personality.”

Quietly, patiently, he tried to explain to her why she should not build a Tudor house. She interrupted him in the middle of a sentence.

“Look here, Mr. Roark, you’re not trying to teach me something, are you? …I’ve quite made up my mind that I shall have an English Tudor house. I do not care to argue about it.”

Notice, she doesn’t dislike the Heller house or hate it on sight; in fact, she likes it (“Quite stunning”). She just doesn’t think it fits with her personality. She thinks a different style of house suits her individuality better, and that’s what she wants.

If you thought this is an answer that Howard Roark would be willing to respect, guess again. The correct answer, whether Mrs. Wilmot knows it or not, is that she’s supposed to want a house that looks like a cluster of random geometric shapes made out of steel beams and glass.

Roark's response to this is always "no"
Roark’s response to this is always “no”

Telling a customer they’re wrong about their desires, and you won’t sell them the thing they want to buy from you, is the most basic failure of Business 101 imaginable. Where most businesses strive to live by the slogan, “The customer is always right,” Roark’s guiding principle is the opposite. He refuses to close a deal with anyone unless he’s decided that they’re worthy to give their money to him.

Now, you could make the argument that mocking Roark for being bad at capitalism is besides the point. He’s not supposed to be a savvy businessman, but an eccentric, driven artiste who wants to communicate his unique vision of beauty to the world, no matter the trials he has to endure. But while that’s a tried-and-true template, it’s not what The Fountainhead is about, even if it superficially seems that way.

Its underlying message is something much darker: Howard Roark isn’t just a person with a unique vision, he’s the only real human, the only one who counts. If you don’t like the things he likes, it’s because you’re not a human being at all, just a pale imitation. Observe:

He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded as if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends, the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.

Roark takes it as a personal affront to discover that Mrs. Wilmot is an empty shell who passively accepts other people’s opinions. Clearly, what she should be is an empty shell who passively accepts Roark’s opinions.

Mrs. Wilmot storms out of the office. Soon Heller sends Roark another client, a Mr. Robert L. Mundy, who’s very rich and says he has a vision of a house that he’s been dreaming of building his entire life. This sounds like something Roark can sink his teeth into, but again, disappointment: what Mundy wants is an exact replica of an antebellum Southern manor, just like the one the richest man in town lived in where he grew up in Georgia.

Once again, Roark has to inform him that he’s wrong about his own lifelong desires. He thinks he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t. Only Howard Roark knows what Mr. Robert L. Mundy wants and what would make Mr. Robert L. Mundy happy:

“Don’t you see?” Roark was saying. “It’s a monument you want to build, but not to yourself. Not to your own life or your own achievement. To other people. To their supremacy over you. You’re not challenging that supremacy. You’re immortalizing it. You haven’t thrown it off — you’re putting it up forever. Will you be happy if you seal yourself for the rest of your life in that borrowed shape? Or if you strike free, for once, and build a new house, your own? You don’t want the Randolph place. You want what it stood for.

And again, if you disagree with Howard Roark’s decree, it must mean you’re not a human being with dreams and desires, merely a blank-faced marionette dangling on invisible strings:

Mr. Mundy listened blankly. And Roark felt again a bewildered helplessness before unreality: there was no such person as Mr. Mundy; there were only the remnants, long dead, of the people who had inhabited the Randolph place; one could not plead with remnants or convince them.

It’s more than ironic how Rand treats the characters who disagree with her author tracts. The message of The Fountainhead is supposed to be that it’s wrong to be a “second-hander” who allows others to dictate your desires. You should have the courage to make up your own mind and stand firm against peer pressure. Yet, somehow, it’s wrong when Mrs. Wilmot or Mr. Mundy do exactly this. Paradoxically, the way not to be a second-hander is to blindly accept whatever Howard Roark chooses for you.

Again, we see the central contradiction of Objectivist thought. Ayn Rand said it was essential for everyone to be an individualist, yet she wouldn’t stand for any actual individuality. In her mind, all rational people were supposed to independently come to the exact same beliefs, not just about libertarianism or capitalism, but musical preferences, taste in clothes, and architectural styles.

And if you don’t do this – if you disagree with Ayn Rand’s author avatars in any particular – then that means you’re not really human at all. You’re just a soulless automaton, a p-zombie that mimics human behavior but is hollow on the inside. This is just one step short of the extreme dehumanization in Atlas Shrugged, where Rand explained that it’s not just OK to murder people who have different philosophical views, it’s actually doing them a favor.

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