The Fountainhead: Profoundly Religious

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 10

Despite Dominique’s efforts to seduce potential clients away from him, Roark is winning too many important contracts: the Enright House, the Cord Building, the Aquitania, and more. Ellsworth Toohey decides that more drastic action is needed, and so he concocts a devious plan to stop Roark’s career in its tracks.

Toohey reaches out to a millionaire admirer of his, a businessman named Hopton Stoddard, who’s led “seventy-two years of a busy life devoted to the purpose of making money” and is now becoming more and more religious in his twilight years:

He was not easy in his mind about his life, and the uneasiness grew with the years, with the certainty of an approaching end. He found relief in religion — in the form of a bribe. He experimented with several different creeds, attended services, donated large sums and switched to another faith.

As the end of his life approaches, Stoddard has set a final goal for himself. He wants to build a Temple of the Human Spirit, “an interdenominational, non-sectarian monument to religion, a cathedral of faith, open to all”. Toohey has been cool to the idea in the past, but now he visits Stoddard and feigns great enthusiasm for the project:

“It’s an ambitious undertaking, Hopton, and if you do it, you must do it right. It’s a little presumptuous, you know — offering a present to God — and unless you do it in the best way possible, it will be offensive, not reverent.”

“Yes, of course. It must be right. It must be right. It must be the best. You’ll help me, won’t you, Ellsworth? You know all about buildings and art and everything — it must be right.”

Toohey agrees and says he has just one supremely important piece of advice:

“You don’t want one of those satin-lined commercial boys with the dollar sign all over them. You want a man who believes in his work as — as you believe in God.”

“That’s right. That’s absolutely right.”

“You must take the one I name.”

“Certainly. Who’s that?”

“Howard Roark.”

Toohey says that Roark will only work under certain conditions: he has to be given complete creative freedom, without even a formal contract (“it’s not necessary”). In fact, Toohey tells Stoddard, you shouldn’t even look at his initial designs: just pay Roark, put the job in his hands, and leave the country, trusting that it will be done by the time you return. Most important of all, Toohey says, you can’t tell him that I’m the one who recommended him for the job, and you have to persuade him using the exact words I’ll give you:

“But you must be careful about approaching him. I think he will refuse to do it, at first. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in God.”

“What!”

“Don’t believe him. He’s a profoundly religious man — in his own way. You can see that in his buildings.”

“Oh.”

“But he doesn’t belong to any established church. So you won’t appear partial. You won’t offend anyone.”

Stoddard goes to see Roark, who’s skeptical of the proposal. Roark distrusts Stoddard on sight, for reasons he can’t articulate; he senses that something is very wrong about this. But Stoddard sticks to the script that Toohey wrote for him, and it works:

Roark rubbed the back of his hand against his eyes, helplessly. It was not possible. It simply was not possible. That could not be what the man wanted; not that man. It seemed horrible to hear him say that.

“Mr. Stoddard, I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake,” he said, his voice slow and tired. “I don’t think I’m the man you want. I don’t think it would be right for me to undertake it. I don’t believe in God.”

He was astonished to see Hopton Stoddard’s expression of delight and triumph. Hopton Stoddard glowed in appreciation — in appreciation of the clairvoyant wisdom of Ellsworth Toohey who was always right. He drew himself up with new confidence, and he said firmly, for the first time in the tone of an old man addressing a youth, wise and gently patronizing:

“That doesn’t matter. You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark — in your own way. I can see that in your buildings.”

He wondered why Roark stared at him like that, without moving, for such a long time.

“That’s true,” said Roark. It was almost a whisper.

That he should learn something about himself, about his buildings, from this man who had seen it and known it before he knew it, that this man should say it with that air of tolerant confidence implying full understanding — removed Roark’s doubts.

Obviously, this is a trap. Toohey knows that Roark will build something which the public will view as sacrilegious, and the ensuing outrage will damage Roark’s career and make him a pariah whom no one wants to hire. Toohey can foresee this whole chain of events in advance, although Roark apparently can’t.

As sinister schemes go, this is remarkably clever, and it shows that Ellsworth Toohey isn’t just Ayn Rand’s most intelligent bad guy but may be Rand’s most intelligent character, period. It’s not just that he can perfectly anticipate the future, an ability usually limited to her protagonists. It’s also that, although he’s an evil socialist to the core, he knows exactly what to say to convince an Objectivist. In fact, he understands Roark better than Roark understands himself. In an ideological Turing test, Toohey would win easily.

“I wish to call it God. You may choose any other name. But what I want in that building is your spirit. Your spirit, Mr. Roark. Give me the best of that — and you will have done your job, as I shall have done mine. Do not worry about the meaning I wish conveyed. Let it be your spirit in the shape of a building — and it will have that meaning, whether you know it or not.”

And so Roark agreed to build the Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit.

The interesting thing about this section is that it’s focused on religion, a topic that Rand is otherwise uninterested in. John Galt denounces Christian theology in his massive speech, and as for Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, Rand made her views on them very clear. Yet religion is largely absent in her novels, at least as a motivating force on human behavior. It just isn’t relevant to understanding why her characters behave as they do, neither the heroes nor the villains.

For the most part, The Fountainhead faithfully follows that pattern. Roark is an atheist and Toohey is indifferent to religion, considering it much less important than politics. In the world of this novel, the common people care about architecture with the intensity of devotion that people in the real world show to churches and scripture.

But this chapter is a unique exception, and not just in the person of Hopton Stoddard. Far more noteworthy, Stoddard calls Roark “a profoundly religious man” – and Roark agrees! In fact, he’s deeply moved and humbled by the sentiment.

Does this mean that the Ayn Rand who wrote The Fountainhead wasn’t as hostile to religion as she would later become? My copy of the book has a preface, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, in which she denies this. She admits that the wording of this scene “may be misunderstood if taken out of context”, but she insists that her real meaning is clear:

What I was referring to was not religion as such, but a special category of abstractions, the most exalted one, which, for centuries, had been the near-monopoly of religion: ethics — not the particular content of religious ethics, but the abstraction “ethics,” the realm of values, man’s code of good and evil, with the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur, which pertain to the realm of man’s values, but which religion has arrogated to itself.

…In the context of that scene, however, the meaning is clear: it is Roark’s profound dedication to values, to the highest and best, to the ideal, that Stoddard is referring to (see his explanation of the nature of the proposed temple). The erection of the Stoddard Temple and the subsequent trial state the issue explicitly.

So according to Ayn Rand, when she used the word “religion”, she meant to convey the exact opposite of what people usually think of as “religion”: not a belief system revolving around supernatural beings, but a moral code with no supernatural elements. Moreover, it’s a moral code that’s fundamentally opposed to the ethical code that religion ordinarily teaches (indeed, that’s what Toohey’s whole scheme is counting on – that Roark’s temple will reflect his values and not what anyone would recognize as normal religious values). How is this argument not completely inside out and backwards?

This would be like if I described myself as “a profoundly generous man,” and when my friends objected that they’ve never seen me donate even a dollar to charity, I explained that I was trying to reclaim the word “generosity” from the peddlers of altruism who’ve given the word a misleading meaning. In my ethical scheme, true generosity means spending all my money on the most deserving person I know, namely myself. If I said this, wouldn’t you think I was using words in a way that was intended to deceive?

You can judge for yourself whether this convoluted explanation is plausible. I tend to believe that the real explanation is simpler: in this area, as in others, Rand’s views hadn’t hardened when she wrote The Fountainhead. She hadn’t yet decided that she was opposed to religion under all circumstances. Possibly, she considered it a noble attempt at reaching a higher state of being – even if she thought some of the ways people were going about it were mistaken – and so she considered it a compliment for her hero to be called a religious man.

Later in life, she changed her mind about this, but to change the wording of her earlier book would have been noticed and might have been interpreted as an admission of error. Instead, she reissued it with an excusatory apologetic claiming that her writing didn’t really mean what it said.

Image credit: Hamed Saber, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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