The Fountainhead: Ontology of Villainy

The Fountainhead: Ontology of Villainy April 26, 2019

BlackHat

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 14

Ellsworth Toohey is explaining his villainous scheme to turn the world into a socialist dystopia. In last week’s post, he monologued about why altruism, bad architecture, and humor are among his weapons. This week, he has one more to tell us about:

“This is most important. Don’t allow men to be happy. Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. Happy men have no time and no use for you. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. Take away from them whatever is dear or important to them. Never let them have what they want. Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil.”

This is a hell of a hot take coming from Ayn Rand, of all people.

Rand’s stubborn obliviousness to what her own worldview would entail is one of the most baffling themes of her writing. She thought that unbounded capitalism would benefit everyone, with no drawbacks or downsides. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart thought it was viciously wrong for anyone to have to say that they’d merely survived the workday, rather than glorying in their job.

But this is exactly what her extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism would result in: a tiny oligarchy of monopolists who own everything, while the majority of humanity is reduced to poverty and subsistence labor. Under this ideology, the poor don’t deserve so much as the sight of a flower in a window. If you’re unhappy or suffering, it’s your fault for not working hard enough, and if you can’t afford food or shelter or medical care, you should have the good sense to lie down and die quietly rather than inconveniencing others. I defy anyone to claim that this is the system you’d design if promoting human happiness was your highest goal.

“I don’t see why you should look so shocked, Peter. This is the oldest one of all. Look back at history. Look at any great system of ethics, from the Orient up. Didn’t they all preach the sacrifice of personal joy? Under all the complications of verbiage, haven’t they all had a single leitmotif: sacrifice, renunciation, self-denial? Haven’t you been able to catch their theme song — ‘Give up, give up, give up, give up’? Look at the moral atmosphere of today. Everything enjoyable, from cigarettes to sex to ambition to the profit motive, is considered depraved or sinful. Just prove that a thing makes men happy — and you’ve damned it.”

For a character who’s supposed to be an expert on ethics, Toohey’s conception of Buddhism is screamingly wrong. It doesn’t teach “the sacrifice of personal joy”. In fact, in the classic Buddha origin myth, after Prince Siddhartha renounced his pampered royal existence, he went to the opposite extreme of ascetic self-denial – but he discovered that was an error too!

Buddhist ethics teaches the middle way. It doesn’t say that happiness is forbidden, only that pleasure is inherently temporary and we shouldn’t cling to it. Instead, we should strive to cultivate an attitude of serene acceptance, whatever comes our way. Ironically, this is an ethic that Howard Roark demonstrates quite well.

It’s also worth highlighting that Rand, like Christian evangelists and other fundamentalists, can’t countenance the idea of good-faith disagreement. If you disagree with her about what makes people happy, in her mind, that’s the same as rejecting the concept of happiness itself. A case in point is her ludicrous claim that anti-tobacco campaigners are opposed to pleasure, rather than to lung cancer. (We all know what Rand thought of smoking.)

Toohey’s goal in all this is to create a 1984-esque dystopia, a boot stamping on a human face forever. He’s trying to bring about “a world of obedience and of unity”, where no one will ever have an original thought, and where great men like Howard Roark won’t be able to exist.

The usual question at this stage of the monologue is to ask the bad guy what he plans to get out of his scheme. There are standard answers: money, power, revenge, the satisfaction of forcing those who laughed at him to recognize his superiority. But Toohey’s answer is different. What he intends to get out of this, he says, is nothing:

“Now if you were a little more intelligent — like your ex-wife, for instance — you’d ask: What of us, the rulers? What of me, Ellsworth Monkton Toohey? And I’d say, Yes, you’re right. I’ll achieve no more than you will… I want nothing for myself. I use people for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose… Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery — without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to slavery. A great circle — and a total equality.”

Like the pulp villains who want to blow up the world and kill everyone, themselves included, Toohey has no motivations beyond “he’s evil muahahaha”. He has the one-dimensional viewpoint of an ’80s cartoon bad guy, like our old friend Cobra Commander. (HT: Michael Cramer for making this connection!)

He says he intends to be one of the “rulers”, in the sense that he’ll come up with the propaganda slogans which the brainwashed masses will echo. But he’s not planning to sit on a golden throne or have servants who will fan him and peel grapes. He’s being sincere when he says that he doesn’t expect to benefit in any tangible way. When he says “let all suffer and none enjoy”, he’s including himself.

No one thinks like this! Not even the Soviet dictators Rand despised called for universal slavery. The view they espoused in their propaganda was that communism was a liberation from the shackles of capitalist exploitation, that they were leading the way into a better age of human brotherhood. The less rosy view (believed by many, including Russians themselves) is that it was a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” situation where a small cabal was out to enrich themselves by exploiting the workers and telling them it was for their own good.

Either way, these are recognizable human motives. Neither applies to Toohey, who literally wants to destroy the world for no particular reason. Even revealing that he holds a lifelong grudge against the True Objectivist boys who bullied him in childhood would be something, but no.

Toohey’s causeless villainy is another example of how Rand seemed to be incapable of imagining realistic human desires and motives. We saw this earlier with Dominique, who’s the way she is for no apparent reason, and with Roark, the literally self-made man. Her characters are like cardboard cutouts, each one stamped on the forehead with “SOCIALISM” or “EGOTISM” or whatever philosophical principle sums up their being.

“Look at Europe, you fool. Can’t you see past the guff and recognize the essence? One country is dedicated to the proposition that man has no rights, that the collective is all. The individual held as evil, the mass — as God. No motive and no virtue permitted — except that of service to the proletariat. That’s one version. Here’s another. A country dedicated to the proposition that man has no rights, that the State is all. The individual held as evil, the race — as God. No motive and no virtue permitted — except that of service to the race. Am I raving or is this the cold reality of two continents already?”

The Fountainhead was published in 1943, after World War II was well underway, but it’s set earlier in time. Like the biblical authors who wrote stories which “prophesize” things that had already happened, Rand has Toohey predict the war. He gloats that “We get you coming and going.”

Rand thought that Soviet communism and Nazi racial supremacy were just two slightly different flavors of collectivism, two tendrils of Toohey’s master plan. But that raises the obvious question of why these two ideologies were at war with each other if they were the same at heart. It’s true that both were dictatorships, but to suggest that all dictatorships are the same – or more to the point, that social-democratic welfare states are the same as dictatorships – is a laughably ignorant oversimplification. It tramples over every cause that actually explains human behavior in favor of Rand’s dualistic, black-or-white worldview.

In the end, Toohey gets what he wants. Peter Keating is so broken in spirit that, even knowing Toohey’s evil goals, he can’t muster the willpower to oppose him. He has no choice but to do Toohey’s bidding and testify for the prosecution at Roark’s trial.

There’s just one more problem lurking below the surface, and it’s a big one.

In Atlas Shrugged, when bad guy Jim Taggart is forced to face the true goal of his ideology – namely, to destroy civilization and kill everyone, including himself – he suffers a mental crash like a computer being told to divide by zero.

This is because Ayn Rand holds that no person can truly desire their own non-existence. The bad guys in Atlas have to exert diligent effort to deceive themselves. They have to camouflage their own motives so that, at every step along the path, they can persuade themselves that they’re acting for the greater good. They have to go to extreme lengths to keep from acknowledging what they’re really after. When these pretenses are ripped away, the fatal contradiction destroys their minds.

However, Ellsworth Toohey does none of this. He knows exactly what he’s aiming at, without any pretense or self-delusion. But unlike the villains of Atlas, it doesn’t bother him. He can act in full consciousness of wanting to destroy humanity, a thing that Rand later came to believe was impossible. Her ontology of villainy – what the bad guys want and why, and how they justify it to themselves – is one of the largest, unacknowledged changes in her philosophy between books.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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