The Fountainhead: Power Corrupts

The Fountainhead: Power Corrupts September 28, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 9

At the end of chapter 8, Dominique taunts Gail Wynand with the knowledge that his newspaper is responsible for the terrible play she’s just made him sit through (“Your life is more than half over, but you’ve seen your reward tonight. Your crowning achievement”).

Wynand is annoyed, but unapologetic:

“If you want to hear it, it made me sick, that play. As you knew it would…. But I can think of something worse still. Writing a great play and offering it for tonight’s audience to laugh at. Letting oneself be martyred by the kind of people we saw frolicking tonight.”

Dominique is surprised and has no answer to this, because the attitude of contempt for humanity is one thing that Gail Wynand gets right in the eyes of his author. Whether heroes or villains, all Rand’s main characters share the view that ordinary people are inferior wretches who are owed nothing from the superhuman caste, not even the favor of being permitted to admire said superhumans’ greatness.

You might think that Howard Roark, who doesn’t object to having his beautiful buildings lived in by commoners, is the counterpoint who demonstrates that there’s a better alternative to Dominique and Wynand’s misanthropy. But that’s not the case.

Roark absolutely does share the attitude of contempt for lowly common scum who don’t recognize superior specimens of humanity when they see them. (Remember the scene where he describes other people as empty flesh-suits because they don’t give in to his demands immediately?)

To the contrary, I think we’re supposed to conclude that Dominique and Wynand’s contempt is inadequate. Roark, on the other hand, is so perfect in his contempt for ordinary people that he usually doesn’t even perceive their existence. Even when he has sex, it’s described as an act of hatred.

In the next scene, Dominique and Wynand are together on his yacht, going for a cruise:

“You’re so beautiful, Dominique. It’s such a lovely accident on God’s part that there’s one person who matches inside and out… Do you know what you’re actually in love with? Integrity. The impossible. The clean, consistent, reasonable, self-faithful, the all-of-one-style, like a work of art. That’s the only field where it can be found — art. But you want it in the flesh. You’re in love with it.”

I guess that by the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand had decided it was no longer “a lovely accident” that someone might match inside and out, since all her heroes were blond, blue-eyed, thin, muscular Aryan supermen. They were all alike as if stamped out of the same mold.

Dominique, with distaste, reminds Wynand of the many men with integrity whose spirits he crushed for his own amusement, and asks why he hasn’t tried to do the same to her. Wynand says that she’s the exception, because he wants to have sex with her:

“Why didn’t you set out to destroy me?”

“The exception-making, Dominique. I love you. I had to love you. God help you if you were a man.”

“Gail — why?”

… “Power, Dominique. The only thing I ever wanted. To know that there’s not a man living whom I can’t force to do — anything. Anything I choose. The man I couldn’t break would destroy me. But I’ve spent years finding out how safe I am. They say I have no sense of honor, I’ve missed something in life. Well, I haven’t missed very much, have I? The thing I’ve missed — it doesn’t exist.”

This is Wynand’s critical error, the thing that leads to his downfall. In every other respect, he’s a perfect Randian protagonist. But his ultimate goal is acquiring power over other men, which you’re not supposed to want according to Objectivist philosophy. The correct course of action would be to do his own work to the best of his ability and live in blissful unconcern about what other people think of him, like Howard Roark.

Of course, an architect can survive on one or two big commissions a year. How can you afford to be oblivious to public opinion when you’re a newspaper publisher dependent on daily circulation and ad revenue? We’ll come to that, but suffice to say that it’s a dilemma Rand never put much thought into resolving.

Gail Wynand’s arc might remind you of the famous saying “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – the idea being that when you no longer have to care about other people’s perspectives, you cease to do so. Immunity from consequence weakens the sense of empathy that’s a crucial ingredient in moral decision-making.

But although the theme is superficially similar, the message of The Fountainhead is actually the opposite of this. According to Ayn Rand, Gail Wynand wasn’t corrupted by acquiring power. It was always his ambition, dating back to when he was a poor hoodlum growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, and that means he was corrupt from the start, even when he was a penniless nobody. His fatal error wasn’t something he fell into, it tainted him from the beginning.

Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t start out caring about power, then acquiring it won’t affect you. Howard Roark in this novel, and all her protagonists in Atlas Shrugged, are incorruptibles. They not only never deviate from their original moral code, they never feel any temptation to do so, no matter the reward.

This follows from the nature of her philosophy, which demands a razor-sharp line of demarcation between black and white. Someone who starts out clean and pure but yields to temptation and is corrupted would be an imperfect character, and Ayn Rand didn’t traffic in those. All her bad characters start out bad and stay that way; all her good characters start out good and stay that way.

Rand may have done this for the sake of message clarity, but the implications flow through into the real world. It seems to me that people who follow this philosophy would be a lot less worried about collusion, bribery, conflict of interest, and other corruptions of a democratic society. Instead of enacting laws against them or setting watchdog agencies in place, all it takes is to make sure the “right people” are in charge, and none of that will happen.

Because he’s become so powerful, Wynand thinks he’s safe, but Dominique tells him he isn’t. She pleads with him to fire Ellsworth Toohey:

“Gail, listen.” Her voice had an urgency she had never shown in speaking to him. “I’ve never wanted to stop Toohey. I’ve even helped him. I thought he was what the world deserved. I haven’t tried to save anything from him … or anyone. I never thought it would be the Banner — the Banner which he fits best — that I’d want to save from him.”

… “What is he after?”

“Control of the Wynand papers.”

He laughed aloud; it was not derision or indignation; just pure gaiety greeting the point of a silly joke.

Wynand finds the idea ridiculous. He says that Toohey is no different than any of the other “sob-sisters” who’ve come and gone on the pages of the Banner, none of whom amounted to anything. But Dominique insists that Toohey is different, and dangerous. She argues that his daily architecture column is just the first step in his grand plan of world domination.

Wynand blows her warning off, which I think is inconsistent with the character as he’s been presented to us. It’s very obvious that Roark doesn’t grasp Toohey’s motivations, but as we’ve just seen, Gail Wynand cares about power. The idea that someone else might be a potential rival, trying to undercut his power or take it away from him, is a danger that he should be keenly attuned to. If he were the kind of person not to take that threat seriously, it doesn’t make sense that he’d have risen as high as he has.

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