The Fountainhead: A Fool for a Client

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 12

Why should anyone pay Howard Roark to build a house for them? Architects are useless middlemen who just add expenses and complication to a very simple process. Why not just go to the hardware store, pick up a bag of 2x4s*, and nail them together into a house? After all, people have been building houses for millennia. How hard can it be?

If Roark deigned to answer this, presumably he would say that there are times when the stakes are high enough to hire a specialist. If you’re performing a complicated task where the consequences of getting it wrong could be very bad (say, a house collapsing on your head), it pays to hire someone who’s qualified and knowledgeable, and who will avoid typical dumb mistakes that an amateur might make.

With that prologue, let’s plunge into The Fountainhead‘s first (of two) Dramatic Courtroom Scene. Howard Roark is sitting alone, having chosen to act as his own lawyer:

The case of Hopton Stoddard versus Howard Roark opened in February of 1931.

The courtroom was so full that mass reactions could be expressed only by a slow motion running across the spread of heads, a sluggish wave like the ripple under the tight-packed skin of a sea lion.

…Roark sat alone at the defense table. The crowd had stared at him and given up angrily, finding no satisfaction. He did not look crushed and he did not look defiant. He looked impersonal and calm… The crowd would have forgiven anything, except a man who could remain normal under the vibrations of its enormous collective sneer. Some of them had come prepared to pity him; all of them hated him after the first few minutes.

Something that’s consistent throughout The Fountainhead is how weirdly, unnaturally unanimous the common people are. Other than the tiny group of Objectivists who become his personal friends (Austen Heller, Roger Enright, Mike the construction worker, Steven Mallory), everyone hates Roark on sight. There’s no split in public opinion, no variety of viewpoints, as there would normally be in any widely reported and controversial story. This is the sure sign of an author clumsily manipulating the plot to enhance her hero’s martyrdom. (Give us Barabbas!)

One example of this is Toohey’s plan is to ruin Roark’s reputation by demonizing him as an infidel and an enemy of religion. And that might have weight with the majority, it’s true, but even in the 20s and 30s, there were atheists and freethinkers.

You may be wondering what exactly Roark is being sued for. Here’s Rand’s explanation of that:

The plaintiff’s attorney stated his case in a simple opening address; it was true, he admitted, that Hopton Stoddard had given Roark full freedom to design and build the Temple; the point was, however, that Mr. Stoddard had clearly specified and expected a temple; the building in question could not be considered a temple by any known standards; as the plaintiff proposed to prove with the help of the best authorities in the field.

We’ll get to the legal merits of this strategy, but the virtue of it – from a plot point of view – is that it gives Rand an excuse to parade all the other characters into the courtroom, all the pompous classical-loving architects, so that they can denounce Roark one by one. First, Ellsworth Toohey speaks:

Toohey proved that the Stoddard Temple contradicted every brick, stone and precept of history. “I have endeavored to show,” he said in conclusion, “that the two essentials of the conception of a temple are a sense of awe and a sense of man’s humility. We have noted the gigantic proportions of religious edifices, the soaring lines, the horrible grotesques of monster-like gods, or, later, gargoyles. All of it tends to impress upon man his essential insignificance, to crush him by sheer magnitude, to imbue him with that sacred terror which leads to the meekness of virtue. The Stoddard Temple is a brazen denial of our entire past, an insolent ‘No’ flung in the face of history.”

Peter Keating is next. He seems his usual jaunty self at first, but the more he talks, the stranger he begins to act. He slumps over in his seat, lapses into a monotone, begins to ramble. People in the courtroom realize that he showed up drunk:

“Well, that’s the point. That’s the whole point. He didn’t care what the clients thought or wished, what anyone in the world thought or wished. He didn’t even understand how other architects could care. He wouldn’t even give you that, not even understanding, not even enough to … respect you a little just the same. I don’t see what’s so wrong with trying to please people. I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to be friendly and liked and popular. Why is that a crime? Why should anyone sneer at you for that, sneer all the time, all the time, day and night, not giving you a moment’s peace, like the Chinese water torture, you know where they drop water on your skull drop by drop?”

You can at least give Peter Keating points for recognizing that Roark doesn’t care about his clients’ desires. He seems to be the only one in this novel who notices that. All the other characters, as well as the author, treat this as a minor matter of no relevance next to the grave sin of being an iconoclast who doesn’t care about being popular.

The last witness to testify is Dominique Francon, in her capacity as an architecture critic. Even though she posed for the statue that has pride of place in Roark’s temple, no one seems to remark on that or regard it as a conflict of interest. Nor does she waver in her stance that the temple should be destroyed:

“I think that Mr. Stoddard has made a mistake. There would have been no doubt about the justice of his case if he had sued, not for alteration costs, but for demolition costs.”

The attorney looked relieved. “Will you explain your reasons, Miss Francon?”

“…Howard Roark built a temple to the human spirit. He saw man as strong, proud, clean, wise and fearless. He saw man as a heroic being. And he built a temple to that… In what kind of world did Roark build his temple? For what kind of men? Look around you. Can you see a shrine becoming sacred by serving as a setting for Mr. Hopton Stoddard? For Mr. Ralston Holcombe? For Mr. Peter Keating? When you look at them all, do you hate Ellsworth Toohey — or do you damn Howard Roark for the unspeakable indignity which he did commit? Ellsworth Toohey is right, that temple is a sacrilege, though not in the sense he meant.”

Somewhat confused, the lawyer asks her which side she’s testifying for. Dominique calmly says that she’s testifying for the plaintiff, that she agrees with the other witnesses, and she’s just filling in the gaps that their testimony left unsaid:

“The Stoddard Temple is a threat to many things. If it were allowed to exist, nobody would dare to look at himself in the mirror. And that is a cruel thing to do to men. Ask anything of men. Ask them to achieve wealth, fame, love, brutality, murder, self-sacrifice. But don’t ask them to achieve self-respect. They will hate your soul… Such are men as they are. So what is the use of being a martyr to the impossible? What is the use of building for a world that does not exist?”

OK, but again: if Dominique thinks this way, why did she agree to pose for the statue? Why did she help Roark create the temple that she doesn’t think should exist?

As I said two weeks ago, it makes no sense that she would drop her facade of opposition to Roark just this once, only to immediately go back to acting as his enemy in public. There’s no explanation in the text for her inconsistent behavior. Despite the other ways Rand was sexist, she never promoted the “fickle woman” trope – her characters are philosophically consistent if nothing else – so I don’t see what she’s trying to accomplish here.

Throughout the trial, Roark makes no opening statement, offers no argument, raises no objections. He dismisses each witness without questioning them and calls no witnesses of his own. When the judge invites him to present his defense, this is what he does:

Roark got up and walked to the bench, the brown envelope in hand. He took out of the envelope ten photographs of the Stoddard Temple and laid them on the judge’s desk. He said:

“The defense rests.”

If you thought “He’s definitely going to lose,” you’re right. Even Ayn Rand had to permit that modicum of realism.

This is why you need to know when to hire a specialist. A good lawyer could have won this case in five minutes. All it would take is to cross-examine Hopton Stoddard to establish that Roark and Stoddard had no written contract and that Roark was given complete creative freedom to build what he wished. That alone should suffice to get the suit dismissed. You can’t be in breach of contract when there isn’t any contract.

Moreover, Stoddard failed to survey Roark’s portfolio beforehand or ask him any questions about what he planned to do. In fact, Roark is known for dramatic and unconventional work. You can imagine a lawyer asking, “Mr. Stoddard, aren’t you familiar with the kind of buildings my client is known for designing? If that wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted, why did you hire him?”

That question would be an inescapable trap, since Toohey told Stoddard to hire Roark, but also made him promise not to reveal this. Under oath, Stoddard would be forced to break this promise – and Toohey certainly can’t claim that he had no idea what Roark was going to do. A very simple line of questioning would have revealed the whole scheme and proved that the intent all along was to hire Roark in bad faith and then sue him no matter what he delivered.

Roark doesn’t do any of this. Under the circumstances, it actually makes sense that he ends up losing the case. Rand’s intent in this scene was to show one more way in which the cruel world persecutes her hero, but it falls flat when you get the sense that he could easily have beaten this if he’d made the slightest effort to defend himself.

* As you might have guessed, I don’t know what sizes or containers construction materials come in.

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