The Fountainhead: Love in the Time of Parasites

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapters 13 & 14

There’s a lot of interpersonal drama in part 2 of The Fountainhead, which I’ve tried to keep to a minimum because it’s irrelevant to all the exciting, edge-of-your-seat architecture stuff. However, the next two chapters have nothing else, so we have to plow through them. I’ll skim over some parts, but there’s one big plot development that merits attention.

As I said last week, Roark loses the lawsuit, which is unsurprising considering his bold strategy of not presenting a defense:

Hopton Stoddard won the suit.

Ellsworth Toohey wrote in his column: “Mr. Roark pulled a Phryne in court and didn’t get away with it. We never believed that story in the first place.”

Roark was instructed to pay the costs of the Temple’s alterations. He said that he would not appeal the case.

Phryne was a famous courtesan from ancient Greece who supposedly beat a serious criminal charge by stripping in front of the judges, so thanks a lot for that mental image, Toohey.

For her next column in the New York Banner, Dominique submits her testimony from the trial, where she said that Roark’s temple had to be demolished because it was too good to exist in this world. The editor-in-chief, Alvah Scarret, tells her they can’t print it. The Banner has been covering the case, trashing Roark as an enemy of religion, calling the verdict “A Victory for Decency”, and this would contradict everything they’ve been saying.

Dominique threatens to quit if they won’t print it. Scarret sends a telegram to Gail Wynand, the powerful and feared owner of the Banner, asking what he should do. Wynand sends back a cable that reads: “FIRE THE BITCH.” (Ah, for the days before the EEOC or hostile-work-environment laws.)

Dominique takes the news gracefully:

“So you people made a martyr out of me, after all. And that is the one thing I’ve tried all my life not to be. It’s so graceless, being a martyr. It’s honoring your adversaries too much. But I’ll tell you this, Alvah — I’ll tell it to you, because I couldn’t find a less appropriate person to hear it: nothing that you do to me — or to him — will be worse than what I’ll do myself. If you think I can’t take the Stoddard Temple, wait till you see what I can take.”

A few days later, Peter Keating knocks on Ellsworth Toohey’s door, but not to see him. He’s there to visit Toohey’s niece, Katie Halsey, who’s technically still his fiancee even though they’ve barely seen each other since they got engaged:

She had not seen Keating for six months. In the last three years, they had met occasionally, at long intervals, they had had a few luncheons together, a few dinners, they had gone to the movies twice. They had always met in a public place. Since the beginning of his acquaintance with Toohey, Keating would not come to see her at her home. When they met, they talked as if nothing had changed. But they had not spoken of marriage for a long time.

Katie greets him and says he looks awful; he admits that he’s been drinking. She has only a vague knowledge of the Stoddard case, and that’s the way he prefers it:

“I’ve done something very dirty, Katie. I’ll tell you about it some day, but not now … Look, will you say that you forgive me — without asking what it is? I’ll think … I’ll think that I’ve been forgiven by someone who can never forgive me. Someone who can’t be hurt and so can’t forgive — but that makes it worse for me.”

She did not seem perplexed. She said earnestly:

“I forgive you, Peter.”

Impulsively, he kisses her and asks why they haven’t gotten married yet:

“I don’t know,” she said. And added hastily, saying it only because her heart was pounding, because she could not remain silent and because she felt called upon not to take advantage of him: “I guess it’s because we knew we don’t have to hurry.”

“But we do. If we’re not too late already.”

“Peter, you … you’re not proposing to me again?”

“Don’t look stunned, Katie. If you do, I’ll know that you’ve doubted it all these years. And I couldn’t stand to think that just now. That’s what I came here to tell you tonight. We’re going to get married. We’re going to get married right away.”

Peter wants to elope. He says they don’t need announcements, guests or a ceremony, since those things will only delay them and he doesn’t want to waste any more time. She agrees, and he promises to be there the following day.

But as soon as he gets back to his apartment and starts packing for his honeymoon, he has a visitor. To his amazement, it’s Dominique. He can’t imagine what she wants, but he tries to be polite:

“Well, sit down, Dominique. Take your coat off.”

“No, I shan’t stay long. Since we’re not pretending anything today, shall I tell you what I came for — or do you want some polite conversation first?”

“No, I don’t want polite conversation.”

“All right. Will you marry me, Peter?”

He stood very still; then he sat down heavily — because he knew she meant it.

…He sat looking up at her for a long time. Her glance was on his eyes, but it had no more reality than the glance of a portrait. He felt alone in the room. She stood, patient, waiting, granting him nothing, not even the kindness of prompting him to hurry.

“All right, Dominique. Yes,” he said at last.

A woman asks a man for his hand in marriage. Progressive! Sadly, that’s as feminist as The Fountainhead gets.

Katie is the woman that Peter truly loves, but she’s mousy, lower-class and plain. If he married her, people would gossip, and her presence would be a constant impediment to his social life. All he feels for Dominique is lust – he doesn’t even like her as a person – but she’s rich, fashionable and beautiful, and being married to her would be a huge boost to his ego and his career. By breaking his promise to Katie and agreeing to marry Dominique, he’s chosen the admiration of the world over his own heart.

(You might think that Katie being related to Ellsworth Toohey, the all-powerful architecture critic, would be a big problem for Peter if he dumps her at the altar; but it’s not. Toohey doesn’t want Peter and Katie to get married, even though she’s his only family, because as an evil socialist, he’s opposed on principle to people doing anything that would make them happy. Again, this is par for the course in an Ayn Rand novel.)

In the book that The Fountainhead could have been – the tragedy of a man who sells his soul for fame and learns too late that the prize is hollow – this would be the culmination of Peter Keating’s character arc. It’s his supreme betrayal, the act that sets him on an irreversible downward spiral.

The most interesting part of the novel could come after this, as we see how Peter’s fatal vanity leads to his self-destruction. Alas, because this is Ayn Rand, after this scene, he starts to dwindle in importance and fade as a character. The remainder of the book centers on the much blander and less interesting character of Howard Roark, and the conflict of How To Get The Girl.

Peter and Dominique take her car to a judge’s house, and he marries them on the spot in a quickie ceremony. Dominique drops Peter off at his place, promising to come by the next day to bring her belongings and move in. Then she goes straight to Roark’s place, where they have more violent sex. Afterward:

“I love you, Roark.”

She had said it for the first time.

She saw the reflection of her next words on his face before she had pronounced them.

“I was married yesterday. To Peter Keating.”

It would have been easy, if she had seen a man distorting his mouth to bite off sound, closing his fists and twisting them in defense against himself. But it was not easy, because she did not see him doing this, yet knew that this was being done, without the relief of a physical gesture.

This is noteworthy only because it’s the closest that Roark ever comes to reacting to something. In every other scene, no matter what’s happening, Roark behaves as if he were an android programmed without emotions. The man has the emotional range of a cinderblock. Apparently this is what it takes to wring a response out of him.

This isn’t just bad writing, but a deliberate choice by the author. In an earlier chapter, when Roark is asked about the Stoddard lawsuit, Rand has him say this: “I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain.”

It’s as though, if her hero ever felt genuine pain, fear or despair in the depths of his being, Rand would take that to mean he was weak and pathetic. Objectivists are Real Men, in the caricatured Hollywood sense of the term; they have an imperturbable, stoic core that can never be affected by the most ferocious storms or travails of the outside world. But while that may make them desirable in the eyes of their author, it also makes them bland and uninteresting, because they never experience doubt or internal conflict.

Why did Dominique marry Peter? She explains that the Stoddard trial convinced her that her values can never win. She doesn’t want to give the world the satisfaction of torturing her, so she’s going to beat it to the punch, so to speak, by doing the worst thing possible to herself. That way, no one else can do anything worse to her:

“Roark, you won’t win, they’ll destroy you, but I won’t be there to see it happen. I will have destroyed myself first. That’s the only gesture of protest open to me. What else could I offer you? The things people sacrifice are so little. I’ll give you my marriage to Peter Keating. I’ll refuse to permit myself happiness in their world. I’ll take suffering. That will be my answer to them, and my gift to you. I shall probably never see you again. I shall try not to. But I will live for you, through every minute and every shameful act I take, I will live for you in my own way, in the only way I can.”

After that brief, fleeting moment of almost suffering, Roark is back to his usual stone-face self. He knows that if he ordered Dominique to get her marriage to Peter annulled and to marry him instead, she’d do it. But the inner conflict would break her spirit, so he won’t.

“To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.’ The kind of surrender I could have from you now would give me nothing but an empty hulk. If I demanded it, I’d destroy you. That’s why I won’t stop you. I’ll let you go to your husband.

…You must find your own way. When you have, you’ll come back to me. They won’t destroy me, Dominique. And they won’t destroy you. You’ll win, because you’ve chosen the hardest way of fighting for your freedom from the world. I’ll wait for you. I love you. I’m saying this now for all the years we’ll have to wait. I love you, Dominique.”

Well, you have to give Roark credit for one thing. He’s taking this a lot better than he did the last time Dominique rejected him.

Rand was fond of that “One must first know how to say the ‘I'” line. She brought it up in a Playboy interview, and her fans love to quote it. But, as frequently happens in her works, a pithy, quotable saying hides a much darker meaning when you understand the Objectivist philosophy underlying it.

What it really means is this: Unless you agree with Ayn Rand about what it takes to be an individual – and, as we’ve seen on many other occasions, that means unquestioning, 100% agreement with all her political opinions and esthetic preferences; she’d accept nothing less – you’re incapable of love. Only pure, unswerving, Ayn Rand-approved Objectivists “know how to say the ‘I'”, and are therefore able to say “I love you” and mean it.

If you’re not a pure and true Objectivist, you may think you love other people, but you’re wrong. In fact, you’re a worthless parasite leeching off all that’s good and noble in the human spirit. To be in Objectivist-approved love, you have to be a cold granite block like Howard Roark: a person who never suffers, never doubts, never cares about anyone else’s opinion, and never makes any compromises or sacrifices for the sake of your loved one. Rand said so in a letter to a fan who asked her about it:

When a person is in love, he seeks his own happiness — and not his sacrifice to the loved one. And the loved one would be a monster if she wanted or expected such sacrifice.

A person who exists only for the sake of his loved one is not an independent entity, but a spiritual parasite. The love of a parasite is worth nothing.

Whatever Peter Keating’s other failings, he never mistreats or abuses Dominique in the course of their marriage. He cares about her happiness, even though she’s indifferent to him. You can’t say the same about Roark. But you don’t need to guess which of these men The Fountainhead tells us is her true, predestined love.

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