The Fountainhead: Megaprojects

The Fountainhead: Megaprojects August 10, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 4

After dinner on the yacht, Dominique thinks Gail Wynand is going to initiate sex, since that was the whole point of this arrangement. Instead, he asks her to come up on deck with him:

They stood at the rail and looked at a black void. Space was not to be seen, only felt by the quality of the air against their faces. A few stars gave reality to the empty sky. A few sparks of white fire in the water gave life to the ocean.

…She said:

“May I name another vicious bromide you’ve never felt?”

“Which one?”

“You’ve never felt how small you were when looking at the ocean.”

He laughed. “Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man, I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes.”

“Yes. And that particular sense of sacred rapture men say they experience in contemplating nature — I’ve never received it from nature, only from…” She stopped.

“From what?”

“Buildings,” she whispered. “Skyscrapers.”

OK, I have to ask: Why does he think of airplanes when he looks at the planets? A 747 isn’t going to get you to Mars. Did Ayn Rand mean to write “rocket ships” instead?

The view that Rand expresses here is very similar to the Christian dominionist theology that the Earth exists for humanity to subdue, and that trying to preserve or protect wilderness is foolish because capitalism and industry should always come first. (Remember, when you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.)

However, as often happens in Rand’s works, what she tells us isn’t the same as what she shows us. We talked in Atlas Shrugged about the contradiction of her claiming to despise “unimproved” nature, yet making Galt’s Gulch a place of great natural beauty, implausibly pristine despite all the heavy industry, mining and logging its residents are engaged in.

This problem pops up again in The Fountainhead. As expressed by Gail Wynand, an Objectivist shouldn’t be awed or impressed by nature. He should view it only as raw materials and wasted space, waiting for humanity to cross it, blast through it, or excavate it.

However, the houses we see Howard Roark design are invariably placed in striking natural vistas: like the Sanborn house, which was built in the middle of woods and a river, and seems to blend with them such that “the trees flowed into the house and through it”, or the Heller house, which is situated on a dramatic stony cliff overlooking the ocean. If admiring nature is philosophically improper for a Randian protagonist, yet her heroes always choose to live in the midst of it, then Ayn Rand is trying to have it both ways.

“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,” said no Objectivist, ever.

I suppose you could argue that this isn’t necessarily inconsistent. Maybe Austen Heller wants a house with a sea view because he wants to daydream about ships crossing it back and forth, reducing its great distances to impotence. And the Sanborn house is nestled among trees because, I don’t know, it makes it more pleasurable to imagine them being chopped down and trucked to the sawmill.

But in that case, wouldn’t it have been more Objectively appropriate for Roark to build his houses overlooking a warehouse on a busy wharf, or next to a lumber yard, or downwind from a coal-fired power plant? Those sound like the kind of vistas a true heroic capitalist ought to appreciate.

In fact, Ayn Rand said that humans ought to express a silent wish of thanks to “the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find“. So why do her heroes so often wind up living on the seaside or in the woods, if they love smokestacks so much? Shouldn’t they be seeking out a brownfield to build on? If the soil is contaminated with brain-damaging heavy metals or carcinogenic PCBs, so much the better! If you really loved human industry, why would you object to breathing, eating and drinking its byproducts?

This is more than just a matter of aesthetic preference for skyscrapers versus trees. Rand argues, through Wynand, that people who feel awed by nature are evil:

He leaned with both forearms on the rail, he spoke watching the sparks in the water. “It’s interesting to speculate on the reasons that make men so anxious to debase themselves. As in that idea of feeling small before nature. It’s not a bromide, it’s practically an institution. Have you noticed how self-righteous a man sounds when he tells you about it? Look, he seems to say, I’m so glad to be a pygmy, that’s how virtuous I am. Have you heard with what delight people quote some great celebrity who’s proclaimed that he’s not so great when he looks at Niagara Falls? It’s as if they were smacking their lips in sheer glee that their best is dust before the brute force of an earthquake. As if they were sprawling on all fours, rubbing their foreheads in the mud to the majesty of a hurricane. But that’s not the spirit that leashed fire, steam, electricity, that crossed oceans in sailing sloops, that built airplanes and dams … and skyscrapers. What is it they fear? What is it they hate so much, those who love to crawl? And why?”

I can suggest an answer: It’s right to be humble because humans are dependent on nature to survive, like it or not. This isn’t eagerness to debase ourselves; it’s recognition of a factual truth.

The vast majority of our crops couldn’t grow if not for honeybees and other pollinators, as well as natural processes that build up fertile soil. We’re dependent on rainfall for irrigation and drinking water. Sunlight is the ultimate source of almost all our energy. Reefs and wetlands protect coastal settlements by absorbing storms. Healthy forests make the oxygen we breathe, filter groundwater, capture carbon and prevent erosion.

Conversely, if we build our houses in an unwise place – an unstable fault zone, a floodplain, or in ecosystems that have evolved to burn – we have no right to be surprised when disaster strikes. Contrary to Rand/Wynand’s hubristic view that we can and should “leash” nature, we’re a very long way from being immune to considerations like these. A little humility goes a long way in designing civilization so that we can coexist with the natural world and not be overthrown by it.

Now, I’ll turn the question around: what was it that Rand hated so much about admitting we’re not above nature? Put in those terms, the answer is obvious: she hated to think that she was dependent on anyone or anything. That’s why, in Atlas Shrugged, she wrote a hero for whom the laws of physics were putty in his hands and who could literally create infinite energy out of thin air. But however much she wanted to believe that, that doesn’t make it true.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the accomplishments of humanity aren’t also impressive. In the false dichotomy that’s so typical of Rand, she asserts that you can either love nature or admire human ingenuity, but not both. I reject this.

I can admire the breathtaking sights of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley. But I also appreciate the ingenuity, intelligence and massive effort that went into building monumental public works: like Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest rail tunnel in the world, bored 35 miles through the Alps; or China’s Sidu River Bridge, the first cable of which was carried across the chasm below by a rocket; or even New York City’s Water Tunnel No. 3, which has been under construction for almost fifty years and plunges as deep as eight hundred feet below Manhattan to channel water to the city from upstate reservoirs.

And of course, I’ve written about the cathedrals of science, the immense and intricate observatories built by human beings to dig out elusive truths about the universe we live in. All these megaprojects prove that we can accomplish great things when we work together – as distinguished, of course, from Objectivism’s simplified-to-the-point-of-distortion belief that every great accomplishment owes its existence to a single, isolated genius.

Image: The Hualapai Skywalk over the Grand Canyon – or as Ayn Rand would put it, senseless space. Photo by the author.

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