The Fountainhead: For Pity’s Sake

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 11

As Roark starts sketching out his plans for the Stoddard Temple, he makes a request to his staff: “Get me Steve Mallory.”

“Mallory, Mr. Roark? Who … Oh, yes, the shooting sculptor.”

“The what?”

“He took a shot at Ellsworth Toohey, didn’t he?”

“Did he? Yes, that’s right.”

Most people would say, when weighing a person’s artistic talents against his attempt to murder a stranger in broad daylight, that the latter is more significant. But not Howard Roark. In fact, it’s something he recalls only with difficulty. It’s literally irrelevant to his evaluation of Mallory’s character. You get the sense that, if Roark was picked to be on the jury of a terrorist bomber or a mass shooter, the only thing he’d care about is what kind of architecture the defendant prefers.

Mallory has vanished from the art world, but after calling around to many dealers and galleries, they track him down. He seems impatient and hostile over the phone, even when Roark says he wants to talk to him about a commission. He grudgingly agrees to an appointment, but the date comes and he doesn’t show. So Roark goes to find him:

The rooming house where Mallory lived was a dilapidated brownstone in an unlighted street that smelled of a fish market. There was a laundry and a cobbler on the ground floor, at either side of a narrow entrance. A slatternly landlady said: “Mallory? Fifth floor rear,” and shuffled away indifferently. Roark climbed sagging wooden stairs lighted by bulbs stuck in a web of pipes. He knocked at a grimy door.

The door opened. A gaunt young man stood on the threshold; he had disheveled hair, a strong mouth with a square lower lip, and the most expressive eyes that Roark had ever seen… Mallory laughed, leaning against the doorjamb, one arm stretched across the opening, with no intention of stepping aside. He was obviously drunk. “Well, well!” he said. “In person.”

Mallory is belligerent, drunk and depressed. He confesses that he didn’t want to meet Roark because “I like your buildings… I wanted to go on thinking that they had to be done by somebody who matched them.” Then he turns hostile, demanding to know the real reason Roark has come to see him, believing the visit is some sort of cruel prank:

“Feel sorry for me?”

“No. Why should I?”

“Want to get publicity out of that shooting Toohey business?”

“Good God, no!”

“Well, what then?”

Roark, bewildered, insists that the reason is obvious. He wants to hire Mallory to create a statue for the Stoddard Temple because Mallory is the best sculptor he knows of: “I think it, because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be — and should be… Because your figures are more devoid of contempt for humanity than any work I’ve ever seen. Because you have a magnificent respect for the human being.”

Leave it to Ayn Rand to insist that a would-be murderer has a “magnificent respect for the human being”! It’s gross and appalling, but hardly unprecedented for her.

As I’ve written before, Rand idolized a convicted killer and sociopath named William Hickman. She focused on his attitude of arrogant superiority and his disdain for the rest of humanity – positive qualities, in her view – while glossing over his actual crimes, which were ghastly. To the extent she acknowledged them, she seemed to believe that that he had no choice but to lash out against a world that wouldn’t appreciate him as he deserved. Mallory seems to be Hickman’s literary equivalent.

A big part of what draws people to Rand’s books is her uplifting vision of humanity. She holds that, at our best, humans should be godlike beings who can shatter any limit and accomplish anything they dream of. I grant it’s an inspiring vision. But most of Rand’s readers ignore the dark side of that vision: she scorned the vast majority of actual humanity as unevolved brutes scarcely better than pond scum, a seething mass of flesh worthy only of being trampled under her protagonists’ feet. (If this seems similar to the views of the eugenics movement, it is. We’ll come to that later.)

Mallory doesn’t buy the sales pitch. He continues to insist that no one could possibly want to hire him for his own sake, that Roark must be toying with him:

“Look. I didn’t think anybody’d ever want me again. But you do. All right. I’ll go through it again. Only I don’t want to think again that I’m working for somebody who … who likes my work. That, I couldn’t go through any more… It’s much more decent to tell me the truth. Then it will be simple and honest. I’ll respect you more. Really, I will.”

“What’s the matter with you, kid? What have they done to you? Why do you want to say things like that?”

“Because … ” Mallory roared suddenly, and then his voice broke, and his head dropped, and he finished in a flat whisper: “because I’ve spent two years” — his hand circled limply indicating the room — “that’s how I’ve spent them — trying to get used to the fact that what you’re trying to tell me doesn’t exist … ”

…He looked at Roark and saw the calmest, kindest face — a face without a hint of pity. It did not look like the countenance of men who watch the agony of another with a secret pleasure, uplifted by the sight of a beggar who needs their compassion; it did not bear the cast of the hungry soul that feeds upon another’s humiliation.

This is a telling passage. Like John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, Howard Roark feels no pity. To most people, this sounds cruel and frightening, like a warlord or a torturer. But in the author’s worldview, pity is a vampiric emotion, and showing that her heroes lack it is a mark of goodness. To Rand, the only reason to feel pity is that you take pleasure in the sight of another person suffering because it proves you’re better than them. She literally couldn’t conceive of any other motive.

I’d define pity as feeling bad for someone simply because they’re suffering and you don’t think that anyone should suffer. But in the Objectivist worldview, empathy for all sentient beings is a sign of moral evil. The only people whose suffering should concern you are the creators, the misunderstood geniuses who are mistreated by the world – except that most of those people, like Howard Roark, don’t actually suffer, so they need nothing from us. Mallory is the rare exception, the Objectivist Hero who’s not quite invincible and can be driven to depression by other people’s rejection.

Stepping back, Roark brushed against a table loaded with junk. Something clattered to the floor. Mallory jerked forward, trying to reach it first. Roark pushed his arm aside and picked up the object.

It was a small plaster plaque, the kind sold in cheap gift shops. It represented a baby sprawled on its stomach, dimpled rear forward, peeking coyly over its shoulder. A few lines, the structure of a few muscles showed a magnificent talent that could not be hidden, that broke fiercely through the rest; the rest was a deliberate attempt to be obvious, vulgar and trite, a clumsy effort, unconvincing and tortured…

Roark’s arm went back and up, over his head, slowly… then it slashed forward, the plaque shot across the room and burst to pieces against the wall. It was the only time anyone had ever seen Roark murderously angry.

Just to be clear, Roark isn’t angry at Mallory, but at the unjust world that forces him to make tawdry souvenirs just to pay the bills. In fact, he thinks of the squalor of Mallory’s room as “the footprint of a war” against an enemy that “had no name and no face”.

I’m not certain why Roark never evinces such anger on his own behalf – why he doesn’t explode in rage when clients ask him to change one of his perfect designs. It wouldn’t be out of keeping with the typical Randian protagonist. Despite their emotionless exteriors, they’re all capable of brutal violence when they’re provoked beyond reason, like when a government employee offers them a loan or a democratically elected government passes a law raising their taxes by 0.1%.

The thing about this scene that stands out to me is Mallory’s realistic response to his circumstances. It makes sense that he’d sink into depression after having his hopes dashed so many times. Even Roark experiences a nearly human emotion, an impulse to comfort his new friend: “this boy was a comrade-in-arms, hurt in battle, and Roark stood over him, feeling a strange new thing, a desire to lift him in his arms and carry him to safety”. (Then again, she calls it a new thing, implying that he’s never in his life felt sympathy for someone until just now.)

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand had hardened her viewpoint. In that book, she makes it clear that anyone who suffers is giving in to weakness and deserves no sympathy. It’s as if The Fountainhead was a test run, where she was experimenting with having her characters display this thing called “emotion”, and she ended up deciding that she wanted no part of it.

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

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