The Fountainhead: The Jewish Eugenicist

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 15

I was always planning to review the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead when I finish with the book. But it looks like a hero’s work is never done

* * *

Howard Roark’s heroic Temple of the Human Spirit has been desecrated by the socialist Ellsworth Toohey, and put to the most degrading use imaginable: a group home for disabled children. The horror, the horror!

In September the tenants of the Home moved in. A small, expert staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had to be taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the hopeless cases. There was a fifteen-year-old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called “Jackie” of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed.

Toohey makes a point of “selecting only the hopeless cases” because, like all socialists, he’s not motivated by compassion but a desire to worship human incompetence and failure. He wants all of humanity to fix its gaze on these children and consider them the ideal we should aspire to, as opposed to paying attention to creators like Roark.

This fits with what I said earlier about how in Rand’s worldview, you can either have compassion for people whose circumstances are below yours, or you can devote yourself to worshipping people whose talents are greater than yours, but it’s impossible to do both. “Kindness”, to her, is a snarl word that can only mean you’re wasting your sympathy on the undeserving.

Just to make sure we don’t miss the message, Rand strongly implies that there are other children – able-bodied, intelligent children – who would be more deserving of living there, but they’re turned away at the door. She clearly wants us to view this as a monstrous injustice:

On warm evenings children from the slums nearby would sneak into the park of the Stoddard Home and gaze wistfully at the playrooms, the gymnasium, the kitchen beyond the big windows. These children had filthy clothes and smudged faces, agile little bodies, impertinent grins, and eyes bright with a roaring, imperious, demanding intelligence. The ladies in charge of the Home chased them away with angry exclamations about “little gangsters.”

Combined with Rand’s other works, the message seems to be, “Charity for poor people is bad, but charity for disabled poor people is worse.”

Catherine Halsey was put in charge of the children’s occupational therapy, and she moved into the Home as a permanent resident. She took up her work with a fierce zeal. She spoke about it insistently to anyone who would listen. Her voice was dry and arbitrary. When she spoke, the movements of her mouth hid the two lines that had appeared recently, cut from her nostrils to her chin; people preferred her not to remove her glasses; her eyes were not good to see. She spoke belligerently about her work not being charity, but “human reclamation.”

Disappointingly, we never get to see the scene from Catherine’s perspective when she finds out that her fiance, Peter Keating, dumped her on the eve of their wedding to marry someone else. (We do hear it described, later on in the book.)

In any other novel, Peter’s betrayal would have shattered her and left her bitter and despondent, but through her work with disabled children, she rediscovers human connection and learns to love again. In this novel, we’re meant to infer that Ellsworth Toohey has succeeded in corrupting his niece’s soul.

She used to be a person who loved and wanted to be happy, but not anymore. She’s become that most dreaded of all professions: a social worker. She’s devoted her life to caring for the needy and the helpless, which, in an Ayn Rand novel, is a sign of irredeemable evil. And sure enough, as she becomes more evil, she also becomes less attractive (“not good to see”).

We need to talk about the implications of this scene. Here’s one of the few times I’ve ever felt like cheering for Ayn Rand: from her later years living in Los Angeles, when she had an unexpected encounter with anti-Semitism in an old family friend [from Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, p.180]:

The four were talking about a newspaper article concerning a federal investigation of American Communists when Millie said, apropos of the conventional wisdom that most Communists were Jewish, that she didn’t approve of Hitler but agreed that “he should have incinerated all those Jews.” Dead silence ensued. Then Rand said quietly… “Well, Millie, I guess you’ve never known, but I am Jewish.”

Although Rand disdained the idea of belonging to any group, she could recognize when prejudice was aimed at people like her (she told a friend that the Nazis “were killing me“). But, as happens all too often, she failed to draw any larger lessons from that.

This chapter is the most shocking example of the eugenicist leanings of The Fountainhead. The Nazis had a term for disabled human beings: Lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life“. They called the disabled “mentally dead”, “human ballast”, “useless eaters” – nothing but a burden on society, a burden we were better off ridding ourselves of. It’s easy to hear echoes of that language and that attitude in the way Rand describes the residents of the Stoddard home (“the stare of death before which no world existed”).

The Nazis’ solution to “life unworthy of life” was mass murder. Rand didn’t advocate anything so horrific, but that’s only because she dodged the question altogether. This chapter brings up the problem, but then leaves it hanging: if she doesn’t think these children should be committed to the Stoddard home or an institution like it, if she views it as sacrilege to devote an otherwise-useful building to caring for them, then what should we do with these “hopeless cases”?

The usual Objectivist solution is to say we should withdraw all societal support and leave everyone on their own to sink or swim. But that can’t possibly work for people who, through no fault of their own, are physically or mentally disabled to the point of being unable to fend for themselves.

The other usual Objectivist solution is to decree that it’s somebody else’s problem, as when Rand said that if you want to give to charity in an Objectivist society, “you will not be stopped“. So should we just hope that someone will be willing to step up and care for the disabled, even though, according to Rand, that’s the kind of self-sacrificial duty that no one should accept? And if no one does step up, should we throw them out on the streets to starve?*

You can see how the existence of people in need of constant care poses a problem that Rand’s ideology wasn’t equipped to deal with. As I noted in my review of Atlas Shrugged, none of her protagonists ever become sick, pregnant, disabled or seriously injured, allowing her to evade the issue. This section of The Fountainhead is a rare acknowledgement that such people even exist. (Henry Cameron’s retirement is another example, and her solution to that apparently was “Hope you have a family member who’ll let you mooch off them”).

It’s likely that Rand didn’t realize the consequences of her ideas, at least not initially. The Fountainhead was published in 1943; Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. In between, there was the conclusion of a world war and the revelation of the Nazi genocide. And when you read both books side by side, you notice a definite shift in emphasis. The soft spot for eugenicist thinking apparently disappears.

Make no mistake, Atlas continues the Nietzschean motif of arguing that most of humanity is a mass of looters and parasites who deserve only death. However, it no longer suggests that this unfitness can be genetic. As I noted at the time, Atlas goes out of its way to avoid answering the question of whether heroes and looters are born or made, and this may be why. Although Rand would never have admitted that world events influenced her thinking, it may be that the Holocaust was a real-world consequence that was terrible enough to make her reconsider even a little bit.

* Another tidbit from Heller’s biography: Rand seemed to have had a minor resurgence of eugenicist sympathies in her older, grumpier years. After witnessing the Apollo 11 launch, which left her awestruck, she wrote in her newsletter The Objectivist: “Those who suggest we substitute a war on poverty for the space program should ask themselves whether the premises and values that form the character of an astronaut would be satisfied by a lifetime of carrying bedpans and teaching the alphabet to the mentally retarded.” [p.389]

Image: A Nazi propaganda poster for eugenics. The text reads, “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the people’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.” Via Wikimedia Commons.

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