The Fountainhead: Top of the World, Ma

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The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 15

Peter Keating has won the architectural competition of the decade, and a media frenzy ensues:

It began with the thin ringing of a telephone, announcing the names of the winners. Then every phone in the office joined in, screaming, bursting from under the fingers of the operator who could barely control the switchboard; calls from every paper in town, from famous architects, questions, demands for interviews, congratulations.

Overnight, Keating becomes the toast of the town. He’s invited to black-tie banquets, film premieres, parades and pageants. He’s on stage before rapturous audiences, giving speeches while bathed in applause, rubbing elbows with movie stars for interviews and newsreels. He basks in the glow of public admiration, but there’s a lingering thought that spoils his good mood – the knowledge that he didn’t design the building by himself:

He never tired of hearing what was said about him; but he did not like to hear too much about his building. And when he had to hear it, he did not mind the comments on “the masterful blending of the modern with the traditional” in its facade; but when they spoke of the plan — and they spoke so much of the plan — when he heard about “the brilliant skill and simplicity … the clean, ruthless efficiency … the ingenious economy of space … ” when he heard it and thought of … He did not think it. There were no words in his brain. He would not allow them. There was only a heavy, dark feeling — and a name.

Keating broods over it for two weeks, until he realizes that there’s an easy solution to his worries. He calls Howard Roark and makes an appointment to see him.

After all those months of sitting silently in an empty office rather than trying to advertise, Roark is in dire straits. The rent is overdue on both his office and his personal apartment. His phone line is about to be disconnected for nonpayment. He’s even pawned his wristwatch. When Keating arrives, he grasps the situation and can’t help scolding his old college friend:

“How do you expect to get along in the world? You have to live with people, you know. There are only two ways. You can join them or you can fight them. But you don’t seem to be doing either… And people don’t want you. They don’t want you! Aren’t you afraid?”

“No.”

“You haven’t worked for a year. And you won’t. Who’ll ever give you work? You might have a few hundreds left — and then it’s the end.”

“That’s wrong, Peter. I have fourteen dollars left, and fifty-seven cents.”

Keating tells Roark that if only he wasn’t so obstinate about turning down work that doesn’t meet his lofty standards, he could easily win the same wealth and success that Keating himself has attained:

“Just drop that fool delusion that you’re better than everybody else — and go to work. In a year, you’ll have an office that’ll make you blush to think of this dump. You’ll have people running after you, you’ll have clients, you’ll have friends, you’ll have an army of draftsmen to order around! … Hell! Howard, it’s nothing to me — what can it mean to me? — but this time I’m not fishing for anything for myself, in fact I know that you’d make a dangerous competitor, but I’ve got to say this to you. Just think, Howard, think of it! You’ll be rich, you’ll be famous, you’ll be respected, you’ll be praised, you’ll be admired — you’ll be one of us!”

Roark is puzzled by this, asking, “Peter, what is it that disturbs you about me as I am?”

The obvious answer would be “I know you’ve got talent and I hate to see you waste it like this,” but that’s a normal human motive and those are few and far between in Ayn Rand novels. The real answer, we’re supposed to infer, is that Keating is a second-hander who craves the approval of others, and he’s deeply threatened by anyone who doesn’t share that trait.

But because he doesn’t want to admit this, they stare at each other, and the moment passes. Keating coolly says he hasn’t forgotten Roark’s role in helping him design the Cosmo-Slotnick building, and it only seems fair to share some of the award money, especially when his old pal has such need of it:

He produced his billfold, pulled from it a check he had made out in advance and put it down on the desk. It read: “Pay to the order of Howard Roark — the sum of five hundred dollars.”

“Thank you, Peter,” said Roark, taking the check.

Then he turned it over, took his fountain pen, wrote on the back: “Pay to the order of Peter Keating,” signed and handed the check to Keating.

“And here’s my bribe to you, Peter,” he said. “For the same purpose. To keep your mouth shut.”

Keating stared at him blankly.

“That’s all I can offer you now,” said Roark. “You can’t extort anything from me at present, but later, when I’ll have money, I’d like to ask you please not to blackmail me. I’m telling you frankly that you could. Because I don’t want anyone to know that I had anything to do with that building.”

The moral of this is deeply muddled. I think it’s meant to show Roark’s cast-iron ethical code, that he’ll refuse a bribe even when he literally needs it to keep the lights on. Instead, it deepens the mystery of why he’s so often helped Keating with his designs. Why is a Randian Creator like Roark willing to use his talents to assist an unworthy, mooching second-hander?

Until now, the apparent answer was that he just wanted to see the buildings built and truly didn’t care who got the credit. But here we learn that’s not true either. He dislikes the Cosmo-Slotnick building and considers his involvement a shameful secret. He’d willingly pay hush money to keep anyone else from finding out about it.

What this means is that Roark is violating his own ethical standard by helping Keating out. He’s surrendering his integrity and independence as a creator in exchange for a garish classically inspired building that he doesn’t like at all. In other words, he’s trading a greater value for a lesser one. Isn’t that the most reviled of all Randian curse words: altruism?

In any case, Roark’s intentionally insulting rejection of the bribe causes Keating’s last, frayed nerve to snap. He stands up and screams:

“So you’re too good for that building? You want to make me ashamed of it? You rotten, lousy, conceited bastard! Who are you? …Why should I listen to you? You can’t frighten me. You can’t touch me. I have the whole world with me! Don’t stare at me like that! I’ve always hated you! You didn’t know that, did you? I’ve always hated you! I always will! I’ll break you some day, I swear I will, if it’s the last thing I do!”

Having delivered this tirade, he slumps, suddenly depressed and unsure of himself. He mumbles an apology and flees Roark’s office.

We’re meant to take away that because Peter Keating craves the approval of others, he’s unhappy and anxious even at the top of his profession, because the fickle masses might abandon him at any time. Meanwhile, because Howard Roark doesn’t care what others think of him, he can maintain his equanimity even when he’s toiling in obscurity or down to his last few pennies.

There’s something to this, I acknowledge. It’s a moral that the Greek Stoics would have recognized. If you care too much about what others think, you’ll always be at their mercy. You’ll be forever chasing the shifting winds of fashion, and other people can make you do anything or be anything just by threatening to withhold their approval. You’ll never be confident or secure, never able to discover your authentic self.

However, what I reject is Rand’s insistence that it’s not possible to err in the other direction. She holds that the less you care about other people, the better, period. Take this too far, and you become a sociopath who violently abuses and then discards other human beings – as many Randian heroes do and as Roark does, later in the novel – because you don’t see them as anything more than brightly colored objects.

Besides, why does Roark need to build things at all, if he truly couldn’t care less about the world’s opinion? What point is he trying to prove, and to whom? Why not just design the buildings in his head, and then sit in silence, Buddha-like, and contemplate his own superiority?

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