The Fountainhead: Vox Populi

The Fountainhead: Vox Populi March 8, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 11

Gail Wynand has invited Howard Roark for a Pacific cruise on his yacht. It’s just the two of them – no one else, not even Dominique – sunbathing and swimming together in the ocean beneath the hot tropical sun. As you’d expect from Ayn Rand, it’s all extremely heterosexual:

He leaned on the rail and looked down at Roark in the water. Roark floated on his back, his body stretched into a straight line, arms spread, eyes closed. The tan of his skin implied a month of days such as this…

Roark climbed back on deck; Wynand looked at Roark’s body, at the threads of water running down the angular planes. He said:

“You made a mistake on the Stoddard Temple, Howard. That statue should have been, not of Dominique, but of you.”

Come on, this reads like the beginning of a Chuck Tingle novel. This had to be intentional, right?

It’s a mystery why Ayn Rand insisted that male-male romance was wrong, considering how much of it was implied in her novels. There were some taboos that she gleefully trampled, but she was unusually hesitant when it came to this one, for all that she proclaimed herself an original thinker unconcerned with the prejudices of her time. Seriously, if you think two guys together is hot, you can just say so.

Once they’ve toweled off, they get to discussing philosophical matters. Wynand muses that Roark and Dominique (in that order) are the only two things he’s ever truly wanted in life (“Howard, this is what I wanted. To have you here with me”). This might sound strange since he’s a millionaire, but in fact, he says he’s never truly owned anything. Ellsworth Toohey preaches “selflessness in the absolute sense”, and that’s exactly what he, Gail Wynand, has practiced:

“I didn’t give a damn — in the most cosmic way Toohey could ever hope for. I made myself into a barometer subject to the pressure of the whole world. The voice of his masses pushed me up and down. Of course, I collected a fortune in the process. Does that change the intrinsic reality of the picture? Suppose I gave away every penny of it. Suppose I had never wished to take any money at all, but had set out in pure altruism to serve the people. What would I have to do? Exactly what I’ve done. Give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. Express the opinions, the desires, the tastes of the majority. The majority that voted me its approval and support freely, in the shape of a three-cent ballot dropped at the corner newsstand every morning. The Wynand papers? For thirty-one years they have represented everybody except Gail Wynand. I erased my ego out of existence in a way never achieved by any saint in a cloister.”

… “Gail … I didn’t think you’d ever admit that to yourself.”

Contrary to Roark’s surprise, Wynand says he was never unaware of what he was doing. What follows is a Randian Monologue – technically a conversation, but since the two of them have the same opinions, they just volley them back and forth – about the second-hander mentality and why it’s wrong to seek the admiration or approval of the masses.

“Of course. What else can one do if one must serve the people? If one must live for others? Either pander to everybody’s wishes and be called corrupt; or impose on everybody by force your own idea of everybody’s good. Can you think of any other way?”

Uh, yes, I can think of another way: argue a case for your beliefs in public, thereby winning allies and converting people to your way of thinking, build larger and larger coalitions until you win majority assent and then put those policies into effect through democratic consensus.

Rand would collapse this into the “impose on everybody by force” option, but that’s only because in her extreme libertarianism, taxation is theft and democracy is tyranny. I’d think most people can understand that there’s a difference between an elected government making laws supported by the will of the majority, and a king or dictator who issues unilateral decrees from a throne.

Wynand says that although he’s sold his soul for worldly riches, he at least has no illusions about what he’s doing. Roark says that most people lack this self-awareness, such as Peter Keating:

“I’ve looked at him — at what’s left of him — and it’s helped me to understand. He’s paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness — in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy — all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder.”

Roark says the problem with second-handers is that they want to be liked and admired by others, even if it costs them their own integrity and self-respect. True creators, meanwhile, have “a self-sufficient ego” and are serenely indifferent to what others think of them.

However, there’s one means of self-validation that receives Roark’s stamp of approval. Being that this is Ayn Rand, you can probably guess what it is:

“The man whose sole aim is to make money. Now I don’t see anything evil in a desire to make money. But money is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose — to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury — he’s completely moral. But the men who place money first go much beyond that. Personal luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They’re second-handers.”

Rand frowns on ostentatious displays of wealth, but if you just want to live your own life in ludicrous excess – if you want to travel from one vacation mansion to another on your private jet, eat caviar and drink champagne every night, fill your three-story closet with designer shoes, or decorate your superyacht with Old Master paintings – she’s presumably fine with that, just as long as you only want to keep these luxuries to yourself and don’t commit the mortal sin of showing them off to the poor. (Gail Wynand does just this, with a fabulous art gallery in his penthouse apartment that no one but him ever gets to see.)

This points squarely at the question that Rand dances around throughout this last section of the book, but never answers: If the desire to make money is morally fine, what should an Objectivist newspaper look like? What’s a heroic individualist journalist supposed to do in her world?

After all, an architect can survive on one or two big commissions a year. Roark just needs a few eccentric rich people who share his vision. But a newspaper depends on wide circulation to survive. It has to cater to (at least some large subset of) the population. It can’t metaphorically flip off the masses.

This is the clearest illustration of how Rand’s philosophy changed between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In this book, she insisted that individualism was the only purpose of life, and the only sin was being a second-hander who cares about what others think. In Atlas, she insisted that productive work was the only purpose of life, and that success in the arena of capitalism proved your worth as a human being.

But how can you be a successful capitalist unless you’re a second-hander in her sense, i.e., someone who’s concerned with other people’s opinions and desires? After all, the only thing that makes work productive (rather than being futile or wasted effort) is that it’s useful to other people, meaning that it answers a desire that others have. If you’re good at business, by definition, you’re captive to the whims of the crowd. You can’t sell something if no one wants to buy it.

Rand never figured out a way to square this circle, although she went to some lengths to gloss over the problem. In Atlas, her heroes’ corporate empires seemingly had no advertising budgets, no PR departments, no market research, no focus groups, no salespeople. They made no effort to promote themselves or to convince people to buy their products. I joked that when her protagonists sit behind a desk with a grim squint of effort, money just materializes.

The same is true of this book. I’ve pointed out how impossible it is that Roark refuses to understand people – he actually says he’s incapable of it – and yet makes houses that are magically perfect for his clients. In reality, an architect who doesn’t understand people ought to design buildings that are unlivable white elephants.

That’s exactly what happened with the modernist architect Le Corbusier, who built a famous house, the Villa Savoye, that was everything Howard Roark dreamed of: geometric shapes, concrete and glass, big windows, open interior spaces. However, the people who actually lived there hated it: it was cold and drafty, the roof leaked incessantly, the house was noisy and damp. By Atlas standards, this ought to be a resounding failure, but in The Fountainhead, it’s a triumph as long as it stayed true to its creator’s vision, however uninhabitable the result.

Image credit: Tony Werman, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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