The Fountainhead: The Ayn Rand Theory of Everything

The Fountainhead: The Ayn Rand Theory of Everything February 1, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapters 8 & 9

Now that Roark has agreed to design Cortlandt Homes and let Peter take the credit, Peter tells Roark that he wants to show him something. He’s secretly rented a shack in the countryside and taken up painting (“that unborn ambition of his youth” which he set aside to become an architect). He’s brought some of his paintings and he wants his friend to evaluate them. Roark looks them over and renders his verdict:

“It’s too late, Peter,” he said gently.

Keating nodded. “Guess I … knew that.”

When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.

He had never felt this before — not when Henry Cameron collapsed in the office at his feet, not when he saw Steven Mallory sobbing on a bed before him. Those moments had been clean. But this was pity — this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling — his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which contained no shred of respect.

This is pity, he thought, and then he lifted his head in wonder. He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.

Wait a minute, since when is Howard Roark an art critic? And even if Peter’s paintings are bad, how can he tell from a mere glance at them that Peter will never get any better at it – let alone pass judgment on his worth as a human being?

We’re seeing yet another iteration of the Ayn Rand Theory of Everything, in which the deepest truths of a person’s soul can be gleaned from their most trivial aesthetic choices. In this case, a mere glimpse at Peter’s paintings is enough to prove that whatever talent he once had has vanished for good, and he’s approaching his ultimate psychological collapse.

In the next chapter, Roark is in the countryside with Gail Wynand and Dominique, showing them the house he’s built for them:

The Wynand house stood on the hill above them. The earth spread out in terraced fields and rose gradually to make the elevation of the hill. The house was a shape of horizontal rectangles rising toward a slashing vertical projection; a group of diminishing setbacks, each a separate room, its size and form making the successive steps in a series of interlocking floor lines. It was as if from the wide living room on the first level a hand had moved slowly, shaping the next steps by a sustained touch, then had stopped, had continued in separate movements, each shorter, brusquer, and had ended, torn off, remaining somewhere in the sky.

I’ve mentioned before that Howard Roark was based on Ayn Rand’s favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. According to this FAQ page, Rand wrote to Wright several times while she was working on The Fountainhead, but he brushed her off. After it was published, they did strike up a correspondence, but they never became what you’d call fast friends:

Wright and Rand met in person on a couple of other occasions, and corresponded about the possibility of Wright designing a country home for Rand and her husband. Drawings were done of the proposed home, but it was never built. When The Fountainhead was made into a movie, Rand hoped that Wright would be hired to do the drawings of Roark’s fictional buildings. Unfortunately, Wright demanded a fee so exorbitant that it amounted to a refusal of the project.

I’ve noted how, in Atlas Shrugged, all the heroes are supposed to be fierce, take-no-prisoners robber barons – but when they’re living together, they switch gears. Not only do they politely refuse to compete, they never take advantage of inequalities in bargaining power. It seems the real Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t as cooperatively minded as Ayn Rand’s fictional supercapitalists and wasn’t inclined to cut her a sweetheart deal just because she admired him.

This archived page from the Atlas Society* further describes Rand’s relationship with Wright. It points out that the “mostly insipid, sometimes ludicrous, modernism” depicted in the film version of the movie was trashed by architectural critics and scorned by Wright himself, who called it a “grossly abusive caricature of my work”.

There are a couple of other similarities worth mentioning as trivia. Roark’s Stoddard Temple was based on Wright’s Unity Temple, now a Unitarian Universalist church in Illinois. A planned, never-built apartment called St. Mark’s Tower was the model for Roark’s Enright House. There’s a picture, in case you were hoping to see Rand’s incomprehensible metaphors about rock crystals translated into something physically realizable.

However, Wright had some significant differences from Howard Roark. For one thing, unlike his literary doppelganger (who’s willing to sit silently in a room until he goes out of business), Wright had a flair for self-promotion and was given to boasting about his own talent:

Once she got to know him, Rand made regretful note of Wright’s preoccupation with making an impression on people. Without the advantage of the decades of scholarship at hand today, she could not have known that his writings show this same penchant for hype.

Another big difference is that while Roark flatly refuses to build in historical styles, Wright often did. The Atlas Society page talks about a Victorian Tudor house he built for a client named Nathan Moore, and how, early in his career, he designed houses in a variety of historical styles:

In fact, the young Wright, like the young Beethoven, produced excellent work in a variety of inherited styles, straining at their bounds and finally breaking out a few years after thirty…

There’s nothing unusual about this, of course. As opposed to Randian protagonists, who come out of the womb knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives, most real people need time and life experience to find out what appeals to them and what doesn’t and to gradually develop a unique vision of their own.

I’ve also written about the scene where contractors refuse to work for Roark because they believe his plans will fall down. That’s actually true of Wright, who was a visionary designer but a poor structural engineer. The Atlas Society page notes that many of Wright’s buildings are “maintenance horrors” that required millions of dollars in repairs, some within just twenty years of being built.

None of these facts are especially surprising or abnormal, but they do show that no real human being is a Randian ubermensch. As part of her Theory of Everything, Rand believed that if a person held the right aesthetic views, they’d naturally hold the right philosophical views. For all that she admired him, Wright’s life showed this was anything but true.

* Ironically, this is the Internet Archive’s version. The ObjectivistCenter.org URL apparently lapsed and was bought up by someone else. The original link now redirects to this page, a cheap hotel-booking website that seems to have some text from the original cut and pasted randomly in the middle to fool search engines. The free market at work!

Image: The ideal Randian human, probably. Photo by the author.

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