The Fountainhead: Nature Abhors a Committee

The Fountainhead: Nature Abhors a Committee March 23, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 10

Late in June a man named Kent Lansing came to see Roark. He was forty years old, he was dressed like a fashion plate and looked like a prize fighter, though he was not burly, muscular or tough: he was thin and angular. He merely made one think of a boxer and of other things that did not fit his appearance: of a battering ram, of a tank, of a submarine torpedo.

Come on now, seriously. We’re reaching a point at which this ceases to be a stylistic tic and verges on self-parody. Can’t Rand have some diversity of body type among her Objectivist Heroes? Is it really necessary for every single one of them to be “thin and angular”?

I can’t imagine how it would harm the narrative if Kent Lansing was burly and muscular with a heavy brow and a tough-guy jaw, like a Mickey Spillane character (Rand was a huge fan of Spillane). But for whatever reason, she just had to stamp every good guy out of the same physical mold, so we get this bizarre “He looked like a boxer and a tank and a battering ram, but actually he was thin and angular” sentence that sounds like an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.

Kent Lansing is on the board of a corporation that’s building a luxury hotel overlooking Central Park, and he wants to hire Roark:

“I won’t try to tell you how much I’d like to do it,” Roark said to him at the end of their first interview. “But there’s not a chance of my getting it. I can get along with people — when they’re alone. I can do nothing with them in groups. No board has ever hired me — and I don’t think one ever will.”

This seems like wishful thinking on Roark’s part, since we’ve seen ample evidence that he’s just as much of a jerk in one-on-one interactions. Whether it’s with bosses, professors, customers, or friends, he’s consistently a stubborn, ungrateful, self-righteous asshole. There’s been no indication that groups of people give him special difficulty.

Kent Lansing tells Roark not to worry. He says that he knows how to triumph over the board:

“You know, there was a time when everyone thought it self-evident that the earth was flat. It would be entertaining to speculate upon the nature and causes of humanity’s illusions. I’ll write a book about it some day. It won’t be popular. I’ll have a chapter on boards of directors. You see, they don’t exist.

…All I mean is that a board of directors is one or two ambitious men — and a lot of ballast. I mean that groups of men are vacuums. Great big empty nothings. They say we can’t visualize a total nothing. Hell, sit at any committee meeting. The point is only who chooses to fill that nothing. It’s a tough battle. The toughest. It’s simple enough to fight any enemy, so long as he’s there to be fought. But when he isn’t…”

Apparently, Ayn Rand considered it an inviolable law that in any committee or other gathering of people, there will be one or at most two who actually get things done. Everyone else is a useless seat-filler who dithers, raises spurious objections, and generally acts as an obstacle to decision-making. This fits with the viewpoint expressed in Atlas Shrugged, which is that every major corporation – no matter how big it is or how many employees it has – is really run by just one Objectivist Hero, and if that person is removed, the whole enterprise inevitably collapses.

This works in Randworld because all her heroes have exactly the same opinions about everything, from aesthetic preferences to politics. Needless to say, the reason committees, boards, congresses and democracies exist in our world is because real, flesh-and-blood people don’t agree about everything all the time, and we need to have a way to make consensus decisions in spite of differing opinions. Since Rand couldn’t fathom the idea that she wasn’t right about everything, she, and by extension her heroes, couldn’t see the deliberative process as anything but an infuriating obstacle.

“Of course you like me. As I knew I’d like you. Men are brothers, you know, and they have a great instinct for brotherhood — except in boards, unions, corporations and other chain gangs. But I talk too much. That’s why I’m a good salesman. However, I have nothing to sell you. You know. So we’ll just say that you’re going to build the Aquitania — that’s the name of our hotel — and we’ll let it go at that.”

After that strange earlier episode praising unions, it’s good to see the author getting back to form. This is the anti-labor Ayn Rand we’re familiar with. But wait… corporations?

The woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged would never have described a corporation as a “chain gang” or implied that working for a large company ruins people’s innate sense of cooperation and brotherhood. To the contrary, she believed that working for a corporation run by one of her ruthless supercapitalists was the highest ambition an ordinary person could hope to attain. But remember, she insisted that her views hadn’t changed between that book and this one.

Lansing goes on to explain that he knows he’s going to win the fight, because he’s the only one who knows what he wants or cares about the outcome:

“Why are you a good architect? Because you have certain standards of what is good, and they’re your own, and you stand by them. I want a good hotel, and I have certain standards of what is good, and they’re my own, and you’re the one who can give me what I want. And when I fight for you, I’m doing — on my side of it — just what you’re doing when you design a building. Do you think integrity is the monopoly of the artist? And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? The ability not to pick a watch out of your neighbor’s pocket? No, it’s not as easy as that. If that were all, I’d say ninety-five percent of humanity were honest, upright men. Only, as you can see, they aren’t. Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea. That presupposes the ability to think. Thinking is something one doesn’t borrow or pawn. And yet, if I were asked to choose a symbol for humanity as we know it, I wouldn’t choose a cross nor an eagle nor a lion and unicorn. I’d choose three gilded balls.”

The “three gilded balls” reference has proven puzzling even to Objectivists, but the consensus is that it’s an old symbol for a pawn shop. Lansing means to say that “ninety-five percent of humanity” has no integrity and would pawn their own sense of self for a fleeting benefit like popularity, wealth or fame.

It sounds like a harsh judgment. Then again, by Rand’s standard, saying that 5% of humanity has integrity is a generous assessment. In an earlier chapter, she speculated that as few as twelve people in all of human history deserve the credit for civilization.

If the violence of the battles which people never hear about could be measured in material statistics, the battle of Kent Lansing against the board of directors of the Aquitania Corporation would have been listed among the greatest carnages of history. But the things he fought were not solid enough to leave anything as substantial as corpses on the battlefield.

…At the end of July, Roark signed a contract to build the Aquitania.

Between this and the thin, angular man who looks like a boxer, this seems to be Bad Metaphor Week on The Fountainhead. “It would have been the bloodiest and most brutal slaughter in history, if not for the fact that there wasn’t any actual fighting and no one got hurt or died.”

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