The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 8
Peter Keating’s career is dying, and the Cortlandt Homes public housing development is his last chance at glory. However, because it’s a government project, there are strict cost limits that he can’t get around.
Peter isn’t clever enough to design a building that meets the requirements, but he knows one person who can. So, yet again, he makes an appointment with Howard Roark. Roark agrees to see him, and Peter throws himself on Roark’s mercy:
He spoke slowly and without pity:
“Howard, I’m a parasite. I’ve been a parasite all my life. You designed my best projects at Stanton. You designed the first house I ever built. You designed the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. I have fed on you and on all the men like you who lived before we were born. The men who designed the Parthenon, the Gothic cathedrals, the first skyscrapers. If they hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have known how to put stone on stone. In the whole of my life, I haven’t added a new doorknob to what men have done before me. I have taken that which was not mine and given nothing in return. I had nothing to give. This is not an act, Howard, and I’m very conscious of what I’m saying. And I came here to ask you to save me again. If you wish to throw me out, do it now.”
We’re meant to view this as Peter hitting rock bottom. He has no more pretenses or excuses to hide behind, so he’s finally admitting that he’s a talentless hack. The problem is what this confession says about Roark’s morals.
Roark said in a previous chapter that “I don’t consult, I don’t cooperate, I don’t collaborate” – but that was a lie. As this chapter shows, he’s been “consulting” and “cooperating” and “collaborating” with Peter Keating for his entire career, and he’s about to do it again.
Obviously, it’s unethical for Peter to ask someone else to do his job for him. But it’s equally immoral of Roark to keep delivering that help, knowing that he’s assisting Peter to deceive his teachers, his clients and his employers. Randian heroes are supposed to have an incorruptible moral code, but Roark is as complicit in Peter’s misdeeds as Peter himself is. (And it’s not as if Roark doesn’t know this – he says frankly that Peter could blackmail him for it!)
He’s like a person who submits false testimony to a court to prop up an accused friend’s lie about being nowhere near the crime scene, or the employees of Bernie Madoff who helped him pull off his Ponzi scheme. Ironically, Roark only seems willing to collaborate when it’s wrong for him to do so! It’s only honest, above-board opportunities for collaboration that he refuses.
If Roark is capable of meeting the requirements for Cortlandt, you might wonder why he doesn’t just apply on his own. For once, The Fountainhead has a logical answer: Ellsworth Toohey is the gatekeeper for the project and has enough influence to keep Roark off.
“I suppose there’s no reason why you should do it for me,” he concluded. “If you can solve their problem, you can go to them and do it on your own.”
Roark smiled. “Do you think I could get past Toohey?”
“No. No, I don’t think you could.”
But, to Keating’s surprise, Roark is interested. He says he needs to think it over and asks Peter to come back the next day:
“I want you to give me a reason why I should wish to design Cortlandt. I want you to make me an offer.”
“You can have all the money they pay me. I don’t need it. You can have twice the money. I’ll double their fee.”
“You know better than that, Peter. Is that what you wish to tempt me with?”
“You would save my life.”
“Can you think of any reason why I should want to save your life?”
This would’ve been a perfect place for Peter to reply, “No, but you’ve been saving my life for years, so you must have some reason of your own for helping me. Why isn’t that reason good enough anymore, whatever it is?”But Rand didn’t write that, possibly because it would have highlighted the uncomfortable fact that her hero is every bit as morally compromised as her villain.
“It’s a great public project, Howard. A humanitarian undertaking. Think of the poor people who live in slums. If you can give them decent comfort within their means, you’ll have the satisfaction of performing a noble deed.”
“Peter, you were more honest than that yesterday.”
His eyes dropped, his voice low, Keating said:
“You will love designing it.”
“Yes, Peter. Now you’re speaking my language.”
We’re meant to believe that all the secret help Roark has given Peter doesn’t conflict with his personal code, because the main thing – the only thing – he cares about is getting the chance to build something and knowing that he’s the one who made it possible. He doesn’t care whether he gets paid for it, whether he gets the credit, or even whether he’s assisting an unworthy slug like Peter to deceive others into thinking he’s talented.
But if this is true, what lengths would Roark not permit himself to go to? Would he design buildings for the Mob, knowing they were paying him with money gotten by theft and murder? Would he work for a slumlord who hired armed thugs to illegally evict his tenants so he could bulldoze their homes and replace them with modernist condos? (This will come up next week, where he expresses his opinion that government housing projects punish the rich and successful and destroy freedom – then agrees to build one anyway.)
Despite himself, Peter is astonished that Roark is willing to help him yet again:
“Howard, is this the terrible thing they meant by turning the other cheek — your letting me come here?”
… “I don’t know, Peter. No, if they meant actual forgiveness. Had I been hurt, I’d never forgive it. Yes, if they meant what I’m doing. I don’t think a man can hurt another, not in any important way. Neither hurt him nor help him. I have really nothing to forgive you.”
Even by Ayn Rand’s standards, this is an astonishing quote. It goes well beyond her earlier insistence that every man is an island and that no one should care about the approval of others. Now she’s saying that people can’t even affect each other, neither for the better nor for the worse.
This seems wildly inconsistent with earlier scenes in the novel, like when Roark, at the end of his rope, accepted charity from Peter and thanked him for it. That didn’t help him at all? Or when he went to work for Henry Cameron, to learn things about building he said he didn’t know. Why did he want to do that, if it didn’t help his career?
It’s patently absurd to say that if you punch or stab or shoot someone, you haven’t hurt them “in any important way”. But even if we stick to the professional arena, this claim is false, because the interference of others can prevent Roark from doing the one and only thing he cares about, which is getting the chance to build. Whether it’s Dominique snatching clients away from him, or Ellsworth Toohey scheming to smear his name and make him unemployable, it makes no sense to say that none of these machinations caused Roark any harm.
The only sensible interpretation of this statement is that, despite her atheism, Rand’s worldview contained something like the Eastern religious idea of karma: a belief that people inevitably get what their efforts have earned. Individualist heroes will always be rewarded with wealth and success, and second-handers, socialists and other villains will always fail and end up as despairing, broken shells. The interference of others may delay these fates, but can never change the ultimate outcome. It would be nice if this were true – if justice were a dependable natural law, like gravity, and blind chance never changed the outcome of a life – but a self-proclaimed rationalist should have recognized that the world just doesn’t work this way.
Other posts in this series: