The Fountainhead: Emotional Labor

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 8

Dominique is at home, working late into the night on one of her columns, when the maid announces that she has a visitor. She wasn’t expecting anyone, though she has a faint hope that Roark has turned up for another steamy session of hate sex. But to her surprise, it’s Ellsworth Toohey, who’s never been to her house.

Curious as to why he’s turned up, Dominique remarks that they haven’t seen each other for a long time, and he responds:

“But then, you’ve been so unsociable. The past tense, my dear, the past tense. Did you say that we haven’t seen each other for a long time? That’s true. You’ve been so busy — in such an unusual way. Visits, dinners, speakeasies and giving tea parties. Haven’t you?”

“I have.”

“Tea parties — I thought that was tops… What do you serve them? Anchovy paste and minced egg cut out like hearts?”

“Caviar and minced onion cut out like stars.”

“What about the old ladies?”

“Cream cheese and chopped walnuts — in spirals.”

“I’d like to have seen you taking care of things like that. It’s wonderful how thoughtful you’ve become of old ladies. Particularly the filthy rich — with sons-in-law in real estate.”

As Toohey is well aware, there’s a reason for Dominique’s newfound love of entertaining. She’s wining and dining all the rich businessmen and wealthy widows of New York, especially the ones who were thinking of hiring Howard Roark, to convince them to give their business to Peter Keating instead. It’s all part of her plan to destroy Roark’s career to keep his talent out of the hands of an unworthy world.

But something about this seems discordant. Since when is a Randian hero good at this sort of thing?

As we saw earlier, Roark is so opposed to self-promotion and networking that he’d prefer to sit for months in an empty office while his business slowly goes bankrupt rather than do anything to advertise himself. He states that it’s not just a matter of not wanting to, but that he can’t. He lacks the “particular sense” that allows him to understand other human beings. He’s so oblivious to them that he barely sees them on the street.

In Ayn Rand’s eyes, this was praise. She was adamant that a true Objectivist hero doesn’t understand people, nor should he need to. But the “he” in that sentence is deliberate, because it appears that she only applies this standard to her male characters.

After all, Dominique, who is an Objectivist hero (even if she doesn’t know it yet), understands people very well. She knows exactly how to flatter them, how to win their confidence, how to speak to the things they care about. When she wants to, she can put on a flawless social-butterfly act. Far from being an exceptional or noteworthy skill, it seems as if she’s simply expected to be able to do all this.

This is a double standard that Rand didn’t see. It escaped her notice precisely because it’s so common, and not limited to her books: men are the engineers, the architects and inventors, the ones who know how to build things and fix things, whereas women are better suited to jobs dealing with people, like receptionists, secretaries or cocktail-party hostesses. (Remember the ex-Google engineer fired for his bigoted manifesto complaining that the company had too many women?)

This ties into the idea of emotional labor, a concept from feminist theory that’s been getting a lot of attention. Emotional labor is when managing emotions, both your own and other people’s, is part of the duties of a job. For instance, a customer-service rep is expected to be pleasant, helpful and patient even in the face of aggravated, belligerent customers, to head off their anger or soothe it away. The same goes for waiters and waitresses, call-center workers, domestic servants, nurses, teachers, even the Starbucks barista or Wal-Mart greeter who smiles and tells you to have a nice day.

While emotional labor is a component of a wide variety of jobs, it’s a burden that falls primarily on women: both in stereotypically female, “pink-collar” jobs, and especially in the home. Too often, men are automatically exempted from it. It’s this pattern that Rand reproduces without even noticing that she’s doing it.

Ellsworth Toohey isn’t ignorant of what Dominique is up to. He asks how many commissions she’s secured for Peter Keating in the last few months:

“It’s such a convenient coincidence that he happens to be your father’s partner. You’re merely working your head off to procure commissions for your father, like a dutiful daughter, nothing more natural. You’ve done wonders for the firm of Francon & Keating in these last three months. Just by smiling at a few dowagers and wearing stunning models at some of our better gatherings. Wonder what you’d accomplish if you decided to go all the way and sell your matchless body for purposes other than esthetic contemplation — in exchange for commissions for Peter Keating.” He paused, she said nothing, and he added: “My compliments, Dominique, you’ve lived up to my best opinion of you — by not being shocked at this.”

It’s not clear whether Toohey was making an off-color joke, or whether he actually expected Dominique to prostitute herself to help Peter Keating’s career. Either way, in a book with better gender politics, this would be another sign of his evil. But not necessarily in this one. As we saw in Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn’t see any problem with the idea of women being propositioned for sex in exchange for business favors.

Toohey muses out loud that he and Dominique are allies, even though they have different motives, because all you need for an alliance is “a common enemy”, which they have. He gives her a mini-monologue:

He got up, walked over to her, and stood looking at the lights of the city below them, at the angular shapes of buildings, at the dark walls made translucent by the glow of the windows, as if the walls were only a checkered veil of thin black gauze over a solid mass of radiance. And Ellsworth Toohey said softly:

“Look at it. A sublime achievement, isn’t it? A heroic achievement. Think of the thousands who worked to create this and of the millions who profit by it. And it is said that but for the spirit of a dozen men, here and there down the ages, but for a dozen men — less, perhaps — none of this would have been possible. And that might be true. If so, there are — again — two possible attitudes to take. We can say that these twelve were great benefactors, that we are all fed by the overflow of the magnificent wealth of their spirit, and that we are glad to accept it in gratitude and brotherhood. Or, we can say that by the splendor of their achievement which we can neither equal nor keep, these twelve have shown us what we are, that we do not want the free gifts of their grandeur, that a cave by an oozing swamp and a fire of sticks rubbed together are preferable to skyscrapers and neon lights — if the cave and the sticks are the limit of your own creative capacities. Of the two attitudes, Dominique, which would you call the truly humanitarian one? Because, you see, I’m a humanitarian.”

According to Toohey, just twelve people throughout history deserve the credit for the existence of New York City. This attitude comes into full flower in Atlas Shrugged, where all the achievements of civilization rest on a tiny handful of ubermensch elites, and the vast majority of humanity, 99.9% or more, are brutish troglodytes barely capable of grubbing out a living. The logical conclusion, which this book doesn’t quite reach but Atlas does, is that it wouldn’t impede human progress at all if that vast majority were to be killed off and only the geniuses remained. (Roark, for one, would be perfectly happy building skyscrapers by himself to rise above a wasteland of corpses.)

What role does that leave for the other six billion of us? Rand’s answer is that, if you’re an ordinary person, you should make it your purpose in life to worship these superior humans and to serve them in any way they might desire. At best, we can aspire to be an implement of their will, with the same value as a wrench or a hammer: a useful tool, perhaps, but one they’d shed no tears over throwing away if it didn’t perform as desired (see: Eddie Willers).

By declaring himself a “humanitarian” (which Rand means in the To Serve Man sense), Toohey is supposed to be revealing his villainous soul. He’d gladly destroy everything humans have built and see us returned to the Dark Age, if not the Stone Age. That would be a more convincing proof of his evil if Rand’s other major novel didn’t end with the supposed heroes doing exactly that.

Image credit: Shaun Merritt, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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