The Fountainhead: A Shot in the Dark

Revolver

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 3

I lingered for a while on part 1 of The Fountainhead, since there was a lot to talk about both in terms of architecture and in terms of setting up the plot for the rest of the book. But I’m going to do my best to pass over part 2 quickly. Aside from the notorious rape scene and one or two other things, it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it.

Each of the four parts of the novel is named after a character (Part 1 was Peter Keating). Part 2 is devoted to Ellsworth Toohey, the socialist art critic, and tells the story of how Peter becomes a member of Toohey’s inner circle of villainous intellectuals. It’s a tedious subplot that doesn’t end up mattering to the main conflict of the book. Mostly, it’s there so Rand can spell out her philosophical principles, but we’ve gone over those already in my review of Atlas Shrugged.

Toohey is the mirror image of Howard Roark. Like all of Rand’s villains, he secretly despises humanity and all its achievements, and he’s made it his mission to destroy greatness wherever he finds it. Admittedly, he proves to be more intelligent and competent than later Rand villains; unfortunately, he’s not any more interesting. Just as the negative of zero is still zero, he’s every bit as dull and one-dimensional as Roark is. Even his name, a near-anagram of “worthless” combined with an onomatopoeia for the sound of spitting, spells out in thudding bluntness what the author wants you to think of him. (As I’ve said before, I’d call Peter Keating the most interesting character, in the sense that he’s the only one with a genuine character arc.)

More to the point, it’s hard to call Toohey the villain at all. The term doesn’t apply in the conventional sense.

In a typical work of literature, the villain is the character whom the hero opposes and wants to defeat. We, the readers, derive our entertainment from following along in their chess game of move and countermove, thrilling to see how they try to outwit each other. We wonder how the hero is going to overcome the villain who seems to hold all the cards. We grit our teeth when the hero is on the ropes, bloodied and battered, but finds the determination to fight on; and we cheer when the hero undoes all the villain’s evil schemes and finally triumphs with an unexpected, exhilarating move.

None of this happens in The Fountainhead. While Toohey does try to destroy Roark, Roark barely even acknowledges Toohey’s existence. He ignores everything Toohey does to undermine him. The two of them never meet or directly interact, aside from one brief and inconsequential scene. And in the end, Toohey escapes all consequences and gets away to continue his malevolent mission, and Roark neither notices nor cares.

Just try to imagine any other work of literature where the hero is utterly indifferent to the villain’s plotting. Imagine The Lord of the Rings if Frodo had made it his life’s goal to build the most glorious hobbit hole ever, and considered Sauron’s quest to regain the One Ring and drown all of Middle-earth in blood to be an irritating distraction.

With all that as preamble: in this chapter, Peter Keating has to choose a new sculptor to design an artwork for the lobby of the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. The original commission had gone to an artist named Steven Mallory:

He had not liked Mallory. Mallory’s eyes were like black holes left after a fire not quite put out, and Mallory had not smiled once. He was twenty-four years old, had had one show of his work, but not many commissions. His work was strange and too violent.

Given that Mallory is emotionless, strange and scary, you can guess that he’s another true Objectivist hero. As with all Randian heroes, the world hates him on sight:

Mallory had been hired, had worked and had submitted a model of his statue of “Industry.” When he saw it, Keating knew that the statue would look like a raw gash, like a smear of fire in the neat elegance of his lobby. It was a slender naked body of a man who looked as if he could break through the steel plate of a battleship and through any barrier whatever. It stood like a challenge. It left a strange stamp on one’s eyes. It made the people around it seem smaller and sadder than usual. For the first time in his life, looking at that statue, Keating thought he understood what was meant by the word “heroic.”

He said nothing. But the model was sent on to Mr. Slotnick and many people said, with indignation, what Keating had felt. Mr. Slotnick asked him to select another sculptor and left the choice in his hands.

With Mallory out, Peter Keating is contemplating the choice between two other sculptors who are both safe and conventional, luxuriating in the power of being the person who’ll decide their fates. While he’s contemplating it, he gets a letter in the mail. It’s from Ellsworth Toohey, the one man he admires and fears above all others, and he’s astonished to learn that Toohey is devoting his next day’s column to praising his building:

“There are, however, occasions when we are forced to acknowledge the promise of an approach — brilliantly close — to what we designate loosely by the term of greatness. Such a promise is looming on our architectural horizon in the person of a mere boy named Peter Keating… It is the greatness of a selfless young spirit that assimilates all things and returns them to the world from which they came, enriched by the gentle brilliance of its own talent.”

Keating spends the rest of the morning walking on air. But when he gets back from lunch, he’s brought down to earth by some shocking news:

When he came back from lunch, Keating was stopped by a young draftsman who asked, his voice high with excitement:

“Say, Mr. Keating, who’s it took a shot at Ellsworth Toohey?”

Keating managed to gasp out:

“Who is it did what?”

“Shot Mr. Toohey.”

They rush to get a copy of the afternoon paper, which tells the story. The news is less dire than Keating feared, as Toohey wasn’t killed or even hurt:

A shot had been fired at Ellsworth Toohey that morning, as he stepped out of his car in front of a radio station where he was to deliver an address on “The Voiceless and the Undefended.” The shot had missed him. Ellsworth Toohey had remained calm and sane throughout. His behavior had been theatrical only in too complete an absence of anything theatrical. He had said: “We cannot keep a radio audience waiting,” and had hurried on upstairs to the microphone where, never mentioning the incident, he delivered a half-hour’s speech from memory, as he always did. The assailant had said nothing when arrested.

Keating stared — his throat dry — at the name of the assailant. It was Steven Mallory.

Mallory refuses to say why he did it, but the thought of it torments Keating that day and night. He knows – somehow – “that there is — in Steven Mallory’s motive — a greater danger than in his murderous attempt” and hopes that “he might be guarded, through the years to come, to the end of his life, from ever learning that motive”.

You might think Mallory blames Toohey for his losing the Cosmo-Slotnick commission, but no. The text specifically rules that out, saying that Toohey had no hand in that decision. Mallory tried to commit murder not because he blames Toohey for his misfortunes, but because he correctly perceives that the world wants to destroy him for his greatness, and Toohey is the personification of that trend. He wanted to cut the head off the snake, so to speak.

Later in the book, Mallory ends up becoming one of Roark’s friends. Needless to say, his attempt to commit a murder is never a stumbling block between them, nor do any of Roark’s other friends or allies voice a word of protest over it. They inherently understand each other, as all good Objectivists do, and apparently one component of that sympathy is understanding that there are times when you just have to try to kill a stranger in cold blood. (They also don’t fear for their own safety around him, as you might expect would be foremost in the mind of someone meeting an attempted murderer. Everyone knows a good Objectivist only kills untermenschen.)

This foreshadows what we later see in Atlas Shrugged, where violence isn’t just morally acceptable, it’s the author-approved way for the protagonists to achieve their goals. In that novel, as in this one, the villains are strictly peaceful; they operate through laws, democracy and building majority consensus. The heroes are the ones who rely on vigilante violence, sabotage, and terrorism. It says something about Rand’s ideology that, for all her exaltation of reason, she also apparently believes that people who disagree with her can’t be persuaded or won over; they can only be destroyed.

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