The Fountainhead: Mad Men

Cigarette

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 13

Fresh from the triumph of erecting the Heller house, as well as his gay concrete service station, Howard Roark returns to… nothing. Days turn into weeks, and then months, as he sits by himself in his office waiting for customers to appear:

He drove back to months of idleness. He sat in his office each morning, because he knew that he had to sit there, looking at a door that never opened, his fingers forgotten on a telephone that never rang. The ash trays he emptied each day, before leaving, contained nothing but the stubs of his own cigarettes.

Sure puts that line about “Who will stop me?” in context, doesn’t it?

Although architecture is his passion, Roark is running a business. He needs paying clients to hire him. He even admits as much to Austen Heller (“I need people to give me work. I’m not building mausoleums.”) Yet he refuses to make any effort to promote himself or even to tell prospective clients that he exists. His business plan, such as it is, is to wait for people to stumble across the Heller house or the Gowan gas station, decide they like it, and go in search of whoever built it.

Normally I’d mock the stupidity of this plan and how unlikely it would be to succeed in the real world, but the text is well aware of it. “Months of idleness” ought to be a sign that your plan for getting customers isn’t working. Yet it never occurs to Roark that maybe he should try something else.

One might say that Roark is an artist at heart, not a businessman, so we shouldn’t expect him to be an expert at self-promotion. But all of Ayn Rand’s protagonists are like this. Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged is supposed to be a successful businesswoman, and she acts the same way. Her company seems to have no advertising or marketing departments. When she’s being attacked, it doesn’t even occur to her to take out an ad telling her side of the story. Maybe Roark just hasn’t gained the exalted level of Objectivist consciousness where you can make customers appear by sheer willpower.

“What are you doing about it, Howard?” Austen Heller asked him at dinner one evening.

… “There’s nothing I can do.”

“You must learn how to handle people.”

… “I don’t know how. I was born without some one particular sense.”

“It’s something one acquires.”

“I have no organ to acquire it with. I don’t know whether it’s something I lack, or something extra I have that stops me. Besides, I don’t like people who have to be handled.”

This is reminiscent of Rand’s most infamous sentence, the praise she lavished on the convicted child-murderer William Hickman: “He doesn’t understand, because thankfully he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people.”

In Ayn Rand’s eyes, that’s a positive trait. The same goes for her hero here. He refuses to understand why other people matter or what they care about. He believes everyone should have the same priorities as him, and if they don’t, their lives are of no importance. Despite the repeated failures and frustrations this belief causes him, he never budges on it; because, in his author’s eyes, this isn’t a character flaw but the most admirable thing about him.

Roark seems unperturbed by the flatlining of his business. He says he’s waiting for “my kind of people”. When Heller asks him what he means by that:

“I don’t know. Yes, I do know, but I can’t explain it. I’ve often wished I could. There must be some one principle to cover it, but I don’t know what it is.”

“Honesty?”

“Yes… no, only partly. Guy Francon is an honest man, but it isn’t that… I don’t know. I’m not that vague on other things. But I can tell my kind of people by their faces. By something in their faces. There will be thousands passing by your house and by the gas station. If out of those thousands, one stops and sees it — that’s all I need.”

OK, but granting for the sake of argument that the right people are out there and just need to see Roark’s buildings, why is he passively sitting around and waiting for them to make the discovery on their own? Why not put up a billboard in New York City with a picture of the Gowan service station, to kindle their curiosity? Why not take out ads in architectural trade magazines, or invite journalists and critics to tour the Heller house and write about the new trend he’s trying to start?

Or if he’s unwilling or unable to do these things himself, there are ad agencies he can hire to do it for him. Really, anything would be better than sitting silently in an empty office and smoking cigarettes while his bank account dwindles. Remember, even Henry Cameron had a business manager who brought him clients, and Cameron’s business crashed when that man died. Ayn Rand seems oblivious to that moral of her own story.

The rote Objectivist answer, seen more fully in Atlas Shrugged than here, is that advertising can’t accomplish anything. Every human being is either a True Capitalist, in which case they’ll respond to another True Capitalist on sight without needing to be persuaded – as Austen Heller was with Roark – or else they’re an evil socialist who instinctively hates and rejects all that is good, and then there’s no point trying to win them over. It’s basically the Calvinist view of predestination.

It’s ironic, then, that Ayn Rand’s own life was arguably a counterexample. I’ve been reading a book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford, when I coincidentally came across this passage in a chapter on market research:

Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays pioneered the fields of public relations and propaganda. Among his most famous stunts for corporate clients, Bernays helped the American Tobacco Company in 1929 persuade women that smoking in public was an act of female liberation. Cigarettes, he said, were “torches of freedom.” [p.76]

When I read this, I immediately thought of Ayn Rand’s well-documented love of smoking. She justified it in terms uncannily similar to this ad slogan, and the timeline fits (she moved to the U.S. in 1926).

If this is more than coincidence, it shows how advertising can actually change society’s tastes and instill desires in people who didn’t previously have them. It’s a lesson Rand’s characters refused to learn, even though their creator provided an unwitting demonstration of the principle in her own life.

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