The Fountainhead: Non-Attachment

The Fountainhead: Non-Attachment November 16, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 3

Howard Roark and Gail Wynand are walking through wilderness in Connecticut, surveying the site where Wynand wants his house built. But before they talk about that, Wynand has something he needs to get off his chest:

“I read our clippings.” He waited, but Roark said nothing. “All of them.” His voice was harsh, half defiance, half plea. “Everything we said about you.” The calm of Roark’s face drove him to fury. He went on, giving slow, full value to each word: “We called you an incompetent fool, a tyro, a charlatan, a swindler, an egomaniac…”

“Stop torturing yourself.”

Wynand closed his eyes, as if Roark had struck him. In a moment, he said:

“Mr. Roark, you don’t know me very well. You might as well learn this: I don’t apologize. I never apologize for any of my actions…. I know what you think. You understood that I didn’t know about the Stoddard Temple yesterday. I had forgotten the name of the architect involved. You concluded it wasn’t I who led that campaign against you. You’re right, it wasn’t I, I was away at the time. But you don’t understand that the campaign was in the true and proper spirit of the Banner. It was in strict accordance with the Banner’s function. No one is responsible for it but me.”

When the two of them met, Wynand had forgotten about the Stoddard Temple, Roark’s masterpiece which his own tabloid played a crucial role in destroying. But Wynand knows full well that Roark hasn’t forgotten about it, and he was expecting Roark to be furious at him. Yet somehow, he isn’t.

Roark shrugs it off, saying that he can’t do what he knows Wynand wants him to do – curse at him, scream at him, slap him in the face, something. It’s not in his nature:

“I can’t pretend an anger I don’t feel,” said Roark. “It’s not pity. It’s much more cruel than anything I could do. Only I’m not doing it in order to be cruel. If I slapped your face, you’d forgive me for the Stoddard Temple… You wish I would forgive you — or demand payment, which is the same thing — and you believe that that would close the record. But, you see, I have nothing to do with it. I’m not one of the actors. It doesn’t matter what I do or feel about it now.”

Until now, Wynand hasn’t been in the habit of feeling guilty about anything. But when he met Roark, they had an instant telepathic rapport and recognized each other as kindred spirits – as fellow Great Men who are both forced to put up with the malice and incompetence of lesser beings.

Now that he knows Roark, Wynand regrets that circumstances conspired to put the two of them on opposite sides. But Roark doesn’t seem to feel that way at all:

“I think it hurts you to know that you’ve made me suffer. You wish you hadn’t. And yet there’s something that frightens you more. The knowledge that I haven’t suffered at all.”

“Go on.”

“The knowledge that I’m neither kind nor generous now, but simply indifferent. It frightens you, because you know that things like the Stoddard Temple always require payment — and you see that I’m not paying for it. You were astonished that I accepted this commission. Do you think my acceptance required courage? You needed far greater courage to hire me. You see, this is what I think of the Stoddard Temple. I’m through with it. You’re not.”

I kind of like this dialogue. It’s perhaps the one place in the book where Roark’s granite-block-like imperturbability is put to good use. Normally, it’s boring to read about a character who doesn’t have the emotional reactions that ordinary people experience. But it can be dramatically interesting to read about a character who’s not reacting when other people expect him to. It makes you wonder what’s going on inside his head. (It’s only slightly spoiled by the fact that we’ve already been in Roark’s head, so we know he isn’t repressing or concealing some powerful emotion, he literally just doesn’t feel anything.)

Roark’s indifference reminds me of a famous Buddhist parable (adapted from here):

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her get to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three. Finally, the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out, “Brother, monks are not permitted to touch women. Why then did you agree to carry that woman across the river?”

The older monk replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

This story showcases the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. Buddhism teaches that everything is transitory, that all things arise and pass away, and that we find peace and contentment by accepting that fact rather than struggling uselessly against it.

When we allow our desires and emotions to rule us – hoarding possessions, clinging to pleasures, nursing past grievances, dreading future troubles before they arrive – we only cause ourselves unnecessary suffering. The proper attitude is to take all things as they come, live in the moment with them, and let them go when their time is over.

Properly understood, non-attachment isn’t nihilism, nor is it a refusal to care about anything. It’s not a rejection of love or friendship, but of jealousy and possessiveness. It also doesn’t teach us not to set goals or to have ambitions, but it does teach us not to define our worth as human beings by whether we achieve them.

Roark’s attitude throughout this book – that he just wants to design buildings, he doesn’t care what happens to them afterwards or whether he gets the credit – embodies the idea of non-attachment. I’m a little surprised to see this in The Fountainhead, and not just because it’s a good moral. I’m more surprised because it’s a moral that Rand decisively rejected in her later work.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, it had become extremely important to her that her characters are recognized for their work and rewarded as they believe they deserve. One of the crowning injustices visited on her protagonists is when Hank Rearden is blackmailed into giving up the patent for Rearden Metal, which the text treats as worse than being mugged or killed.

There’s also John Galt, who invents a perpetual-motion motor. But he, unlike Howard Roark, isn’t indifferent to what happens to it after he’s created it. On the contrary, the plot of the novel begins when he takes steps to remove all knowledge of its existence from a world he’s judged unworthy.

The contrast with this book looms especially large because Gail Wynand isn’t just some random bystander. He’s someone who, in Atlas, would be a villain. He has a sadistic hobby of finding individuals with integrity and crushing them. The newspaper he owns played a crucial role in sabotaging Howard Roark’s work, and Wynand specifically says he’s not apologizing for it and that the Banner did what it was intended to do. And then he has the gall to ask Roark for his help after trying to ruin him!

In Atlas, this would be the part where Howard Roark disappears rather than gift his productive genius to a looter, and Wynand only realizes what he’s done when it’s too late and then spends the rest of his life in a cramped hovel bitterly cursing himself. Instead, in this book, Roark shrugs it off because he can tell that Wynand is a good man in spirit. It’s a striking case of the difference in philosophy between the two books, made all the more striking by Rand’s insistence that no difference exists.

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