The Fountainhead: Walk Over Corpses

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 4

Peter Keating is eating breakfast, feeling confident and pleased with himself over becoming part of Toohey’s inner circle, when an illustration in the Sunday paper catches his eye:

He pulled out the rotogravure section. He stopped. He saw the reproduction of a drawing: the Enright House by Howard Roark.

…It was a structure on a broad space by the East River. He did not grasp it as a building, at first glance, but as a rising mass of rock crystal. There was the same severe, mathematical order holding together a free, fantastic growth; straight lines and clean angles, space slashed with a knife, yet in a harmony of formation as delicate as the work of a jeweler; an incredible variety of shapes, each separate unit unrepeated, but leading inevitably to the next one and to the whole; so that the future inhabitants were to have, not a square cage out of a square pile of cages, but each a single house held to the other houses like a single crystal to the side of a rock.

I said in an earlier post that I can’t picture most of Howard Roark’s buildings. Rand’s actual, physical descriptions of them are buried under a dense cloud of metaphors about how awesome they are. This one I can picture, except the image in my head can’t be right, because a building that looked like it would be uninhabitable. If the Enright House is an apartment building shaped like a rock crystal, does that mean it looks like this?

RockCrystal

The only way I can imagine a building that looks like a rock crystal would be to have individual structures shaped like pillars that jut out and tilt away from each other at different angles, like a cluster of Leaning Towers of Pisa. Do the internal floors and ceilings slope, too? Do the individual buildings grow out of each other at random points, so that your living room window looks into someone’s attic and your front door opens into your neighbor’s kitchen?

Plus, if the houses aren’t “square cages” but have their own “free, fantastic” shapes, that’s going to lead to some very awkwardly shaped rooms and a lot of wasted space. Imagine trying to fit your furniture into a house where every room had weird random angles instead of right-angled corners. The average tenant would go out of their mind with exasperation within a week.

While researching this post, I found a quirky website that offers drawings, photos and a fictional history of the Enright House, as if it had really existed. This seems to be partially tongue-in-cheek, rather than the fan work of a hardcore Objectivist as you might expect. According to the “history,” the Enright House was plagued by structural flaws and eventually had to be demolished (sound familiar?), and a book written about it by Dominique Francon “was loaded with so many defamatory statements” that the publisher had to recall and destroy it.

However, even in this parody/tribute, the images of the Enright House look like a regular modernist skyscraper. There’s nothing that corresponds to Rand’s rapturous language about rock crystals and mathematical harmonies and incredible varieties of shapes. It seems that even someone who was trying to pay homage to Rand couldn’t bring her writing to life in any realistic way.

Later that day, Peter has a brunch date with Ellsworth Toohey and Toohey’s niece, his fiancee Catherine. Catherine is chattering about her job as a nursery attendant – she loves caring for children – but Peter snaps, “When we’re married, Katie will have to give that up. I don’t approve of it.”

Peter asks Toohey what he thinks of Howard Roark and the Enright House, but Toohey claims never to have heard of either. Peter denounces the Enright House as “an awful, crazy thing”, knowing it’s what Toohey wants to hear. But when he casually mentions that he lived with Roark in college, Toohey perks up, despite claiming not to know or care who Roark is:

It was very peculiar, thought Keating. Toohey was asking him a great many questions about Howard Roark. But the questions did not make sense. They were not about buildings, they were not about architecture at all. They were pointless personal questions — strange to ask about a man of whom he had never heard before.

“Does he laugh often?”

“Very rarely.”

“Does he seem unhappy?”

“Never.”

“Did he have many friends at Stanton?”

“He’s never had any friends anywhere… Nobody can like him.”

Because Toohey is a master manipulator, he wants to learn everyone’s secret levers, the fantasies and foibles that he can exploit to control them. Of course Roark, being the Ideal Man, is immune to such tactics. Like other Randian heroes, he has no personal life and no interests other than architecture, so there’s nothing for villains like Toohey to get their hooks into.

“Did he always want to be an architect?”

“He … ”

“What’s the matter, Peter?”

“Nothing. It just occurred to me how strange it is that I’ve never asked myself that about him before. Here’s what’s strange: you can’t ask that about him. He’s a maniac on the subject of architecture. It seems to mean so damn much to him that he’s lost all human perspective. He just has no sense of humor about himself at all — now there’s a man without a sense of humor, Ellsworth. You don’t ask what he’d do if he didn’t want to be an architect.”

“No,” said Toohey. “You ask what he’d do if he couldn’t be an architect.”

“He’d walk over corpses. Any and all of them. All of us. But he’d be an architect.”

This is a disturbing metaphor. All the more so because it’s so accurate.

If you want to describe a goal that someone is absolutely determined to reach, you’d normally say that they’d climb the highest mountain, swim the mightiest river, etc. You know, like this:

But Peter’s description of Roark as willing to “walk over corpses” to be an architect has the definite whiff of an implication that he’d have a hand in creating those corpses, if they’d been people who were between him and the goal he wanted to reach. Despite Peter’s apparent nonchalance in discussing it, it hints that Roark would break any law or commit any violence in the name of his personal dream, even to people he personally knows (“All of us”). And from what we’ve seen of Ayn Rand’s protagonists, this is accurate. In fact, sometimes mass death is the whole point.

It’s odd that Ayn Rand would write this about one of her own characters, since it cuts to the bone in a way that only a devastatingly accurate insult can. Normally, she only lets her villains make weak, ineffectual straw-man criticisms, like “He makes too much money!” or “He’s too good at his job and his competence makes me look bad!” This is one of the rare occasions, even if unintentional, where she gives them a valid critique to offer. That shows that she, herself, wasn’t unaware of the moral implications of her worldview, even if she almost always glosses over them.

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