The Fountainhead: Down With Compassion

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 8

Dominique is continuing her campaign to destroy Howard Roark, charming one rich socialite after another to steer them away from hiring him:

“You’ve met Mr. Roark, Mrs. Jones? And you didn’t like him? … Oh, he’s the type of man for whom one can feel no compassion? How true. Compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread — you know, like taking a girdle off. You don’t have to hold your stomach, your heart or your spirit up — when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It’s much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. It justifies suffering. There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion? … Oh, it has an antithesis — but such a hard, demanding one … Admiration, Mrs. Jones, admiration. But that takes more than a girdle … So I say that anyone for whom we can’t feel sorry is a vicious person. Like Howard Roark.”

It’s obvious that Ayn Rand never cared about compassion or charity. A naive reader might assume that she just didn’t think it was for her; that she was content to leave that stuff to other people while her heroes got on with the work of running trains and building skyscrapers. But this chapter of The Fountainhead disproves that.

Given Dominique’s status as a bizarro Ayn Rand, who holds the same premises but comes to the opposite conclusions, the moral is clear: Rand’s philosophy is against compassion. She’s not just indifferent to it, she’s actively opposed to it. She thinks that to feel empathy or pity for someone is a sin, because it distracts from the admiration we’re supposed to feel for her great men. (I suppose you could feel sympathy for the great men themselves, who are unfairly persecuted by the world – but since, like Howard Roark, they never truly suffer, it’s unnecessary at best.)

We saw this in the last installment, when Ellsworth Toohey proclaimed himself to be a humanitarian. In Rand’s worldview, that’s not a compliment. She holds that it’s impossible to lift the lowest up without pulling the highest down. Therefore, a humanitarian is by definition someone who wants to level all our achievements and drag humanity down to the lowest common denominator.

What this leads to is a conspiratorial mindset that people who devote their lives to charity secretly want suffering to continue. Cancer charities want people to keep getting cancer, anti-hunger charities hate to see people well-fed, and so on. They’re devoted to perpetuating the very evils they say they want to eradicate, so as to justify their continued existence. It’s reminiscent of the conservative Christian view that Planned Parenthood exists for the sinister purpose of tricking women into having sex so it can profit by performing abortions.

You might be wondering, if your worldview scorns compassion and tenderness, what do love, romance and sex look like? Well, they look like this:

Late at night, often, she came to Roark’s room… When they lay in bed together it was — as it had to be, as the nature of the act demanded — an act of violence. It was surrender, made the more complete by the force of their resistance. It was an act of tension, as the great things on earth are things of tension. It was tense as electricity, the force fed on resistance, rushing through wires of metal stretched tight; it was tense as water made into power by the restraining violence of a dam. The touch of his skin against hers was not a caress, but a wave of pain, it became pain by being wanted too much, by releasing in fulfillment all the past hours of desire and denial. It was an act of clenched teeth and hatred, it was the unendurable, the agony, an act of passion — the word born to mean suffering — it was the moment made of hatred, tension, pain — the moment that broke its own elements, inverted them, triumphed, swept into a denial of all suffering, into its antithesis, into ecstasy.

Thankfully, Rand limits herself to describing Roark and Dominique’s sexual encounters in metaphor. There’s no more of the brutal, graphic violence of the first time. Even so, those metaphors are disturbing ones. The two of them having sex is “an act of violence”, “a wave of pain”, “clenched teeth and hatred”. No loving caresses or gentle kisses in sight! Rand writes their sex scenes as if they were MMA fighters trying to beat each other into submission.

I’m not saying you can’t write a hate-sex romance between two people who have reason to despise each other. In the right hands, a taboo relationship can be even more potent and thrilling. But Rand seems to think that every relationship should work this way. There’s no room for tenderness, sympathy or mutual support in her worldview, only grim-faced, teeth-gritted, rapey sex with icily beautiful capitalists. (This isn’t just speculation, as we saw in Atlas Shrugged that the proper Objectivist response to sadness and despair is to isolate yourself from all your friends and loved ones so that your weakness doesn’t shame you.)

How can you have a relationship with another human being when you see them all as enemies to be subdued? The answer is, you can’t. Consistently following this philosophy would doom you to a life of solitude and loneliness. Since Rand’s motto might as well have been “Every man is an island,” she probably didn’t notice or care.

There were evenings when they sat together in her living room, at the huge window high over the city. She liked to see him at that window. He would stand, half turned to her, smoking, looking at the city below. She would move away from him and sit down on the floor in the middle of the room and watch him.

Once, when he got out of bed, she switched the light on and saw him standing there, naked; she looked at him, then she said, her voice quiet and desperate with the simple despair of complete sincerity: “Roark, everything I’ve done all my life is because it’s the kind of a world that made you work in a quarry last summer.”

“I know that.”

… “But, of course, if it had been up to me, last spring, when you were broke and jobless, I would have sent you precisely to that kind of a job in that particular quarry.”

“I know that too. But maybe you wouldn’t have. Maybe you’d have had me as washroom attendant in the clubhouse of the A.G.A.”

The more I read this, the more I notice that Dominique’s attitude is, “I hate that the world mistreats you, and therefore I want to mistreat you in exactly the same way.” Does this make any sense?

Even if she believes that Roark can’t triumph over the forces of conformity, why does she want him to suffer? Since she’s rich, she could hire him if she wanted. And from all indications, Roark doesn’t care who he’s working for or what the project is, as long as he gets to build. Why not just pay him to design and build beautiful cottages for her eyes alone, deep in the wilderness and far away from the madding crowd? It would be a sort of one-man Galt’s Gulch.

Granted, it would be less dramatic. But if your only source of drama is setting characters against other for nonsensical reasons, maybe you need to go back and figure out a better conflict to drive the plot of your book.

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