The Fountainhead: Trial of the Century

The Fountainhead: Trial of the Century May 31, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 18

Roark’s trial for destroying Cortlandt Homes is beginning. Dominique and the rest of his few friends (Steven Mallory the murderous sculptor, Mike the construction worker, Austen Heller whose home Roark built, etc.) are sitting in the spectators’ seats, along with one other person:

Gail Wynand sat at the back of the courtroom. He had come in, alone, when the room was full. He had not noticed the stares and the flashbulbs exploding around him… His glance went over Dominique as over the rest of the courtroom. When he sat down, he looked at Roark. From the moment of Wynand’s entrance Roark’s eyes kept returning to him. Whenever Roark looked at him, Wynand turned away.

The prosecutor is making his opening arguments, declaring that the defendant attached sufficient importance to “such a vague intangible, such an unessential as his artistic opinions” to be the motivation of a crime against society.

Of course, every word of this is true. Roark does consider his artistic opinions to be sufficient motivation for an act of mass destruction. Rand expects us to boo and hiss at the prosecution, even though it’s a centerpiece of her philosophy that no one can initiate force against others. No doubt she had some logic-mangling excuse for why this doesn’t count – why Roark’s design not being built exactly as he wanted is actually the initial act of aggression that makes him fully justified in blowing someone else’s property up with dynamite as retribution.

Rand is supposed to be all about “objective law” as the means of arbitrating disputes. If Roark thought he had a legitimate grievance, why not just file a lawsuit? The text never answers that, other than to tell us that when Peter Keating contemplated it, unnamed people scoffed at him: “All right, go ahead, try to sue the government. Try it.”

It’s telling that Rand claims it’s impossible to sue the government, ignoring the many instances where people have done just that and won. In her fiction, she has to make the government more tyrannical than it actually is – exaggerating both its evil and its omnipotence – so that her heroes seem more justified when they take the law into their own hands and respond with violence when they don’t get their way.

Twelve men sat in the jury box. They listened, their faces attentive and emotionless. People had whispered that it was a tough-looking jury. There were two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener and three factory workers. The impaneling of the jury had taken some time. Roark had challenged many talesmen. He had picked these twelve. The prosecutor had agreed, telling himself that this was what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense; a lawyer would have chosen the gentlest types, those most likely to respond to an appeal for mercy; Roark had chosen the hardest faces.

It’s obvious what Roark’s plan is. He’s picking the people who have Objectivist faces like his, who are most likely to sympathize with his motives and acquit him in an act of jury nullification.

But again, how did Roark figure this out? He doesn’t understand how to handle people, according to earlier chapters. He’s not supposed to be able to imagine how others think or why they behave as they do. Understanding people from just a glimpse at their face is supposed to be Ellsworth Toohey’s specialty. Roark shouldn’t have been able to come up with this strategy, let alone discern which jurors he should pick to have the greatest chance of success.

It turns out, this not-understanding-people thing is more of an informed attribute than an actual character flaw. It never matters at any of the times when it logically should.

The prosecutor lays out the facts of the case, bringing out his witnesses: the policeman who arrested Roark, the superintendent who found the missing dynamite, the night watchman at the site. For some inexplicable reason, “the prosecutor preferred not to stress the subject of Dominique”. Why does he think it will help his case to not mention the woman who was almost killed? For that matter, why isn’t Roark being charged with attempted murder or some other felony for almost killing her? The book doesn’t explain that either.

The following day, Peter Keating is the first witness. He’s been reduced to an empty shell of a man, and he speaks in a dull monotone:

“Mr. Keating, will you state under oath whether you designed the project ascribed to you, known as Cortlandt Homes?”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Who designed it?”

“Howard Roark.”

… “Why did you call on him?”

“Because I was not capable of doing it myself.”

…Nobody in the courtroom realized that this testimony had been intended as a sensation. It was not a famous architect publicly confessing incompetence; it was a man reciting a memorized lesson. People felt that were he interrupted, he would not be able to pick up the next sentence, but would have to start all over again from the beginning.

Peter Keating’s testimony isn’t the thrilling scandal the the prosecutor was expecting. It’s so colorless that it leaves the courtroom bored, rather than outraged. Nevertheless, the prosecutor considers it sufficient and declares that his side rests.

Obviously, the point of this chapter is Roark’s big monologue in defense of his actions, so it makes sense that Rand would speed through the prosecution. But there’s no internal reason why the prosecutor would call it quits so early. For instance, why not have victim impact statements, or testimony from people who were about to move into Cortlandt Homes?

And as for motive: why doesn’t the prosecutor suggest that Roark is linked to the real-life anarchist bombings that occurred in 1919, less than twenty years before the fictional timeline of this book? Not only would this make him less sympathetic to the jury, a clever prosecutor who understood Roark’s political leanings could tar him with the anarchist brush, hoping to get him to trap himself (“That’s a lie! My bombing was for a totally different reason!”).

None of this happens because, as with Atlas Shrugged, the characters seem to know what book they’re in. Both the good guys and the bad guys stick to their assigned places on each side of the Objectivist political divide; the villains aren’t permitted to make any claims that would muddy the issue. The only accusations they’re allowed to make are the ones that the heroes accept and treat as praise.

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