The Fountainhead: Blockbusting

The Fountainhead: Blockbusting April 5, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 13

After nearly dying at the scene of Cortlandt’s destruction, Dominique spends “many days” in a hospital. Her injuries are so severe, we’re told, that the doctors initially believed she wouldn’t make it. But she pulls through, and the next thing she remembers is when she’s back in Gail Wynand’s penthouse to convalesce:

She could feel bandages on her throat, her legs, her left arm. But her hands lay before her on the blanket, and the gauze had been removed; there were only a few thin red scars left.

“You blasted little fool!” said Wynand happily. “Why did you have to make such a good job of it?”

Wynand tells her to take it easy – “you’ve got twenty-six assorted stitches all over you” – which seems like not nearly enough if she was cut so badly she almost bled to death.

This, combined with the description of near-fatal wounds healing to leave just “a few thin red scars”, shows that Randian-protagonist plot armor is still in effect. This is particularly relevant to Dominique, since the sadly sexist plot of The Fountainhead gives her nothing to contribute other than her physical attractiveness. Of course Ayn Rand wouldn’t permit her to be left with large, disfiguring scars, or any kind of lasting pain or disability.

Dominique starts telling Wynand her rehearsed story of how she just happened to run out of gas in front of Cortlandt a few minutes before the building blew up. Wynand doesn’t buy it for a second:

“Next time you want to play the innocent bystander, let me coach you.”

“They believe it though, don’t they?”

“Oh yes, they believe it. They have to. You almost died. I don’t see why he had to save the watchman’s life and almost take yours.”

Strangely, Wynand isn’t angry either at Dominique or at Roark. He immediately grasps Roark’s scheme and what part Dominique played in it. He can even tell, somehow, that her injuries were self-inflicted and not caused by the explosion. He tells her with amusement that she should let him coach her so she can lie more convincingly. But despite this Sherlockian deductive brilliance, he’s still carrying the Idiot Ball and doesn’t realize her true motive for helping Roark. Even though he himself is in love with Roark, it never occurs to him that Dominique might be as well:

“You have a visitor waiting for you downstairs… Your lover. Howard Roark. Want to let him thank you now?”

The gay mockery, the tone of uttering the most preposterous thing he could think of, told her how far he was from guessing the rest.

The text says that Roark was arrested on the scene, found red-handed next to the detonator that set off the dynamite, and went along quietly without a struggle or a statement. Gail Wynand immediately paid his bail and promised to spend his entire personal fortune to defend Roark, if necessary.

But he’s just about the only friend that Roark has left. All of Roark’s commissions have been canceled; an angry mob is picketing his office. There’s an “explosion of public fury” against him, and Ellsworth Toohey is at the forefront of it, writing:

“Here, in a microcosm, we can observe the evil that has crushed our poor planet from the day of its birth in cosmic ooze. One man’s Ego against all the concepts of mercy, humanity and brotherhood. One man destroying the future home of the disinherited. One man condemning thousands to the horror of the slums, to filth, disease and death. When an awakening society, with a new sense of humanitarian duty, made a mighty effort to rescue the underprivileged, when the best talents of society united to create a decent home for them — the egotism of one man blew the achievement of others to pieces. And for what? For some vague matter of personal vanity, for some empty conceit. I regret that the laws of our state allow nothing more than a prison sentence for this crime. That man should forfeit his life. Society needs the right to rid itself of men such as Howard Roark.”

Because Ellsworth Toohey is the designated villain of The Fountainhead, we’re supposed to boo and hiss. But he’s not wrong about any of this, is he? As the kids would say: “Where is the lie?”

Earlier in the novel, we saw that New York’s slums are so wretched that even Howard Roark felt an uncharacteristic pang of sympathy at the sight of them. Whatever you might think about the purported inefficiency of government housing, it’s true that society was making a serious effort to help the slum-dwellers. Roark has just single-handedly torpedoed that plan, all because he feels his artistic integrity has been besmirched and believes that outweighs any other consideration.

Toohey’s column refers vaguely to “the disinherited” and “the underprivileged”. Who are these people, exactly? And what’s going to become of them now that their almost-completed home has been reduced to a smoking crater? What do they think about what Roark did?

The Fountainhead is resolutely uninterested in these questions. It emphasizes what a good guy Howard Roark is because he took pains to save the night watchman’s life. It scorns the people picketing and condemning Roark as “second-hander[s] who could not exist except as a leech on the souls of others”. But it’s not even a little bit concerned about whether anyone will freeze to death in an unheated hovel, or die of cholera or tuberculosis spread in crowded and unsanitary quarters, or burn to death in a fire that sweeps through a shoddily built tenement – all because the new, clean, modern apartment they were going to move into was taken away from them just before it was supposed to open.

Rand has to ignore this, because bringing it up would complicate her too-simple verdict. The only way she can preserve the fiction of Roark’s unspoiled moral character is by keeping his victims invisible and voiceless. (In the comments of last week’s post, Voidhawk illustrated this with an apt Terry Pratchett reference.)

As I’ve mentioned earlier, you can’t understand the history of housing in America without understanding race, and Ayn Rand didn’t. The Fountainhead doesn’t have any non-white characters, despite being set in New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world.

Because she was ignorant of racism, she doesn’t comprehend that public housing was conceived as an attempt to undo the accumulated damage of decades of prejudice and segregation. Thus, she can’t conceive of housing projects as anything except an evil tentacle of socialism insinuating itself into the economy. When her hero blows one up, she has no conception of the human cost involved. She’s confident that he’s done no harm at worst, and at best, is doing us a favor whether we know it or not.

Image credit: Tony Vincelli, via CC BY 2.0 license

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