The Fountainhead: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 1

Part 3 of The Fountainhead concerns Gail Wynand, who gets possibly the best establishing character moment in any Ayn Rand novel:

Gail Wynand raised a gun to his temple.

He felt the pressure of a metal ring against his skin — and nothing else. He might have been holding a lead pipe or a piece of jewelry; it was just a small circle without significance. “I am going to die,” he said aloud — and yawned.

He felt no relief, no despair, no fear. The moment of his end would not grant him even the dignity of seriousness. It was an anonymous moment; a few minutes ago, he had held a toothbrush in that hand; now he held a gun with the same casual indifference.

One does not die like this, he thought. One must feel a great joy or a healthy terror. One must salute one’s own end. Let me feel a spasm of dread and I’ll pull the trigger. He felt nothing.

We’ve heard Wynand’s name before. He’s the publisher of the New York Banner, the sleazy, bottom-feeding, lowest-common-denominator tabloid that Henry Cameron decried as representing everything that’s wrong with the world – like a fictional version of the New York Post or the Daily Mail. Among other people, Ellsworth Toohey is employed by the Banner, which gives him a platform for his evil views on why classical architecture is Good. So was Dominique Francon, until she was fired for trying once to defend Howard Roark.

Wynand is filthy rich, fiercely intelligent, and like his paper, completely without conscience. He’s a notorious womanizer who sleeps with beautiful starlets and then discards them as soon as they bore him. (In a nice detail, the book tells us that his penthouse apartment has walls made all of glass so that he can look down on the whole city. When he brings a woman there to have sex with her, he tells her, “We are fornicating in the sight of six million people.”)

The Banner is Wynand’s flagship paper, but he owns a media and real estate empire whose tentacles stretch across the country. Powerful politicians tremble at his name and come running when he snaps his fingers. But he’ll also find the time to call up a small-town editor and lay into them if they print something in a local paper that doesn’t meet his standards, or stalk through his building hovering over his employees while they work (“they preferred three hours of overtime to ten minutes of working under his silent observation”).

Like all Randian protagonists, he’s tall, thin, handsome and angular:

His face did not belong to modern civilization, but to ancient Rome; the face of an eternal patrician. His hair, streaked with gray, was swept smoothly back from a high forehead. His skin was pulled tight over the sharp bones of his face; his mouth was long and thin; his eyes, under slanting eyebrows, were pale blue and photographed like two sardonic white ovals. An artist had asked him once to sit for a painting of Mephistopheles; Wynand had laughed, refusing, and the artist had watched sadly, because the laughter made the face perfect for his purpose.

And also like all Randian protagonists, he succeeds effortlessly at everything he does:

It was impossible for Wynand not to do a job well. Whatever his aim, his means were superlative. All the drive, the force, the will barred from the pages of his paper went into its making. An exceptional talent was burned prodigally to achieve perfection in the unexceptional. A new religious faith could have been founded on the energy of spirit which he spent upon collecting lurid stories and smearing them across sheets of paper.

So if Wynand bestrides the world like a titan, why is he contemplating suicide?

The answer is that, like Alexander the Great, he feels there are no more worlds to conquer. He’s achieved everything he ever dreamed of, everything society ever told him he was supposed to want, but his life is empty. It’s brought him no satisfaction, no sense of inner peace or genuine fulfillment.

In Rand’s parlance, Wynand is “the man who could have been”. Like Howard Roark, he had the talent and the drive to succeed. But, like the souls in Pilgrim’s Progress who were cast into eternal damnation right outside the gates of Heaven, he fell short in the most fatal way: he resolved to give the masses what they want.

He believes that it’s foolish to hold fast to any principle, because that’s how other people get you under their thumb. He thinks it’s better to be rich and powerful and accountable to no one, no matter what else you have to sacrifice. And the way to do that is to print a paper that never goes against popular opinion, one that appeals to people’s worst prejudices and their most vulgar instincts, so that they can’t help but read it.

As if to prove the point, the text tells us, Wynand has a sadistic hobby of finding principled people, persuading them to sell out by dangling a huge salary in front of them, and then breaking their spirits:

It began with the case of Dwight Carson. Dwight Carson was a talented young writer who had achieved the spotless reputation of a man passionately devoted to his convictions. He upheld the cause of the individual against the masses. He wrote for magazines of great prestige and small circulation, which were no threat to Wynand. Wynand bought Dwight Carson. He forced Carson to write a column in the Banner, dedicated to preaching the superiority of the masses over the man of genius.

Wynand’s is the classic offer you can’t refuse. When people turn him down, they soon find themselves “on the edge of bankruptcy through a series of untraceable circumstances”. But those he corrupts end up having nervous breakdowns, becoming alcoholics, or in one case, committing suicide. Wynand feels no guilt about this, saying he’s only exposing them as the hypocrites they were all along: “If lightning strikes a rotten tree and it collapses, it’s not the fault of the lightning.”

He hired a sensitive poet to cover baseball games. He hired an art expert to handle financial news. He got a socialist to defend factory owners and a conservative to champion labor. He forced an atheist to write on the glories of religion. He made a disciplined scientist proclaim the superiority of mystical intuition over the scientific method. He gave a great symphony conductor a munificent yearly income, for no work at all, on the sole condition that he never conduct an orchestra again… His victims had a single attribute in common: their immaculate integrity.

This seems like a Chekhov’s gun the size of a huge, blinking, Times Square neon billboard. You’d think Rand is hinting that the conflict throughout Part III will be that Gail Wynand meets Howard Roark, tries to make him sell out like all his other victims, and is thwarted when his schemes shatter against Roark’s invulnerable integrity.

Here’s a spoiler: None of that happens. This business of Wynand hiring principled men just to break them is all setup and no payoff. What actually happens when Wynand meets Roark is that he recognizes him on sight as the one man he can’t corrupt, and never tries.

Notwithstanding that, Gail Wynand, like Peter Keating, is a genuinely interesting character. If he were the protagonist, he’d make an almost perfect antihero: the one you love to hate but can’t help rooting for. I’d read a book about him going up against people who are even more corrupt than he is and finding ways to outwit and destroy them.

This goes to show that Ayn Rand, when she wanted to, could come up with good, complex characters with recognizably human motivations and plausible flaws. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough interest in them to make them the protagonists of her novels. She preferred to focus on boring invincible heroes, like Howard Roark or John Galt, who are really just philosophical lectures wrapped in human skin.

Other posts in this series:

"This really hurts neighborhood businesses too, by the way."

The Fountainhead: Bridge and Tunnel
"Yes, something like this. Dominique's access to wealthy, powerful men might be helped along by ..."

The Fountainhead: Indecent Proposal
"Well, to be exact, I meant it doesn't sound like a conversation between two separate ..."

The Fountainhead: Indecent Proposal

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