The Fountainhead: The Big Kaboom

The Fountainhead: The Big Kaboom March 29, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 12

[Content note: Description of self-harm.]

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Ayn Rand’s novels were written by a woman, considering how much misogyny there is to be found in them. Rand’s heroines often suffer the brunt of her male heroes’ sociopathic behavior. Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, who gets dragged around, slapped and beaten by her various lovers, is a case in point. The infamous rape scene in this book is another example, and this chapter has an equally awful one.

Dominique heard the sound of the car rising up the hill road. She thought it was Wynand coming home. He had worked late in the city every night of the two weeks since his return.

…She heard the car stop at the door. The door was never locked; there were no neighbors or guests to expect. She heard the door opening, and steps in the hall downstairs. The steps did not pause, but walked with familiar certainty up the stairs. A hand turned the knob of her door.

… “Good evening, Dominique.”

She heard the name pronounced to fill the space of five years. She said quietly:

“Good evening, Roark.”

“I want you to help me.”

I noted earlier that this is an obvious Chekhov’s gun that never gets fired. It was supposed to be a cruel irony that Roark was hired to build a remote country house for Dominique that would be both palace and prison; a place that would shut her away from the world and everything in it, including him. Except none of that turns out to matter, because, when the time comes, Roark just drives up to the house and walks in. He doesn’t have to scale any fences or evade any cunning booby-traps of his own devising. The front door isn’t even locked.

Dominique immediately agrees to help, and Roark explains what he wants from her. The half-built site of Cortlandt Homes has a night watchman. Roark wants her to go for a drive and run out of gas across the street from there, to have an excuse to send the watchman off with a gas can. That way, he won’t be present for what Roark plans to do next:

“When he’s gone, get out of your car. There’s a big stretch of vacant land by the road, across from the building, and a kind of trench beyond. Walk to that trench as fast as you can, get to the bottom and lie down on the ground. Lie flat. After a while, you can come back to the car. You will know when to come back. See that you’re found in the car and that your condition matches its condition — approximately.”

As you might already know, Roark is about to destroy Cortlandt Homes in a spectacular manner. The alteration of his original design is an insult that can’t be tolerated. He’s had enough and is going to exact his revenge on the philistines who didn’t build his beautiful buildings exactly as he specified. The one thing you can say for him is that ensuring that the night watchman won’t get hurt makes it an unusually thoughtful and solicitous act of terrorism.

However, it’s a solicitousness that’s incompatible with Roark’s character as it’s been presented throughout the book. Remember, Roark is described as unable to notice the existence of other people or understand their importance. He’s repeatedly expressed the opinion that people who don’t agree with his views on architecture are empty flesh suits who lead a hollow parody of human existence – and the text is clear that these worthless untermenschen constitute the majority of the human race.

So… why exactly is Roark so concerned about saving the watchman’s life? After all, this is a man who’s guarding the ruined mockery of his work that he plans to destroy. He’s literally the agent of the second-hander society that Roark despises. Wouldn’t it be more in character for Roark not to care about him, or even to forget that he’s there?

On the appointed night, Dominique plays her part. She runs out of gas in front of Cortlandt, as planned. Once the watchman has gone to help her, she runs for it:

She jerked the door of her car open. She threw her hat and bag inside, and flung the door shut. She heard the slam of sound when she was across the road, running over the empty tract, away from the building.

…She saw the trench in the darkness. Then she was on her knees, at the bottom, and then stretched flat on her stomach, face down, her mouth pressed to the earth.

And then, the big kaboom:

The sound was the crack of a fist on the back of her head. She felt the thrust of the earth against her, flinging her up to her feet, to the edge of the trench. The upper part of the Cortlandt building had tilted and hung still while a broken streak of sky grew slowly across it. As if the sky were slicing the building in half. Then the streak became turquoise blue light. Then there was no upper part, but only window frames and girders flying through the air, the building spreading over the sky, a long, thin tongue of red shooting from the center, another blow of a fist, and then another, a blinding flash and the glass panes of the skyscrapers across the river glittering like spangles.

As shrapnel from the building’s destruction comes crashing to earth (“glass and twisted iron were raining around her”), Dominique runs back to her car, lacerating her feet on broken glass, screaming Roark’s name:

It was still a car, though the rear wheels were crushed under a piece of furnace machinery, and an elevator door lay over the hood. She crawled to the seat. She had to look as if she had not moved from here. She gathered handfuls of glass off the floor and poured it over her lap, over her hair.

Er, wait a minute. Dominique’s car is crushed beneath the rubble? What’s wrong with this picture?

I’m aware that Rand wanted something exciting and dramatic here, but Roark is an architect. He should know how to destroy a building properly – and he does, according to the narration which calls him “the builder who had to destroy, who knew every crucial point of that structure”. But the way she describes Cortlandt’s destruction – the building shattered in a fireball, massive chunks of rubble raining down – you’d think a bomb had been dropped on it.

A controlled demolition knocks out the internal supports, nothing more. It makes the building unable to support its own weight so it collapses in as orderly a manner as possible. If huge pieces of rubble are being messily hurled in every direction, someone did something very wrong. A case in point is the botched 1997 demolition of the Royal Canberra Hospital, when flying debris killed a 12-year-old girl at what was thought to be a safe distance.

So far, you could view this as Dominique just being determined to play her part, being a good accomplice to Roark’s crime. But what she does next goes far beyond that. She seems to believe that, to be convincing, she has to be at least a little injured. But:

She took a sharp splinter and slashed the skin of her neck, her legs, her arms. What she felt was not pain. She saw blood shooting out of her arm, running down on her lap, soaking the black silk, trickling between her thighs. Her head fell back, mouth open, panting. She did not want to stop. She was free. She was invulnerable. She did not know she had cut an artery. She felt so light. She was laughing at the law of gravity.

When she was found by the men of the first police car to reach the scene, she was unconscious, a few minutes’ worth of life left in her body.

This shocking scene works almost too perfectly as a commentary on the sadism Roark shows toward Dominique (especially given the line about how the force of the explosion is like “the crack of a fist” on her head). He expresses his “love” with cruel, violent and abusive behavior. He rewards her utter devotion by mistreating her, harming her and putting her life in danger. Even if he didn’t intend for her to do that, he told her to shelter in a trench that clearly wasn’t far enough; she could easily have been killed by accident.

If you think Roark is going to express the slightest amount of guilt over Dominique almost killing herself for his sake, guess again. He never apologizes or even acknowledges it. For a sociopathic Randian hero, that’s standard operating practice.

What’s stranger is that the text joins him in this obliviousness. Dominique’s near death is never brought up in the inevitable Dramatic Trial Scene, although it would seem to merit a charge of attempted homicide or depraved indifference to human life at least. Presumably, it would muddy Roark’s argument that he had the right to destroy the building, so it gets swept under the rug.

Ayn Rand never noticed how this plot undermines her own moral. Although it’s written to rail against “second-handers” who put their lives in others’ hands, The Fountainhead seems to simply take it for granted that a Randian heroine should do anything the hero asks her to, up to and including throwing her own life away if that’s what he wants.

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