The Fountainhead: Nasty, Brutish and Short

The Fountainhead: Nasty, Brutish and Short June 14, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 18

At his trial for blowing up Cortlandt Homes, Howard Roark takes the stand to deliver a monologue in his own defense.

His climactic speech is “only” 3,700 words, which is downright introverted by Randian Monologue standards. It’s only one-tenth the length of John Galt’s filibuster, for example.

Even so, this ought to be at least half an hour of uninterrupted talking, which makes it implausible that no one interrupts. The prosecuting attorney doesn’t make any objections; the judge doesn’t tell him to get to the point; no one in the jury so much as fidgets. By authorial fiat, the courtroom sits in silence while Roark rambles about humanity’s distant past, making no attempt to explain how this is relevant to the felony he’s charged with. As he does here:

“Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons — a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man — the function of his reasoning mind.”

Whoa! Did Ayn Rand, fierce atheist, just praise religion? Did she really have her hero say that religious ideas come from “man’s reasoning mind”?

As I’ve observed previously, it seems Rand had a soft spot for religion at the time she wrote The Fountainhead. Her protagonist accepts being called “a profoundly religious man” as a compliment and claims that religious ideas come from rational thought.

This changed later in life as Rand’s convictions hardened. In my copy of the book, a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, she wrote in the foreword that this is a “possibly misleading sentence” – this may be the closest I’ve seen Ayn Rand come to admitting a mistake – and says this:

This could be misinterpreted to mean an endorsement of religion or religious ideas. I remember hesitating over that sentence, when I wrote it, and deciding that Roark’s and my atheism, as well as the overall spirit of the book, were so clearly established that no one would misunderstand it, particularly since I said that religious abstractions are the product of man’s mind, not of supernatural revelation.

Yes, but religious apologists have always claimed that God’s existence can be proven by rational arguments. Why would Roark proclaim religious ideas to be the product of reason, if he didn’t think they contained any grain of truth? At the very least, this could be read as a defense of deism.

Roark continues:

“Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways — by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.

“The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.”

This doesn’t appear to be a metaphor. Rand believes this is an actual pattern in history. As we saw last week, she believes on the basis of no evidence that a single individual invented fire, that a single individual invented the wheel. Does she think there was an Objectivist Caveman?

“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking.”

Here’s a more realistic description: the first humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small tribal groups. In this lifestyle, which still exists among some indigenous people today, daily life is “aggressively egalitarian“. There’s virtually no notion of private property, and inequality is unknown. Food and other valuable goods are shared without regard to who obtained them. To suggest that one person could have invented, say, a better stone ax, and then kept it to himself while the rest of the tribe sought to tear him down for his greatness is a comically absurd caricature.

“The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy. He does not exist for any other man — and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.”

It says all you need to know about Rand’s misanthropy that she claims that the only way to get along with other people is, in effect, to live as if they don’t exist (remember, this is exactly how her hero behaves). She would have us believe that everyone should live lives of absolute solitude, even if only within their own heads. Having to see, hear, think about or interact with other human beings is at best an occasional necessity that she begrudges.

Whether Rand likes it or not, the fact is that we are primarily social beings. That’s why solitary confinement is such an effective form of torture. Alone, without others to keep us company, people go insane in short order.

Also, Roark may insist that we should behave as if other people are beneath our notice, but this begs the question of how anyone’s supposed to do a job which is primarily concerned with the welfare of others. Teachers, counselors, therapists, doctors, nurses, EMTs, home health aides, daycare providers, coaches, salespeople – apparently, none of these jobs should exist in Rand’s worldview. This would close off huge spheres of human life and make society as we know it impossible.

“The ‘common good’ of a collective — a race, a class, a state — was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism?”

Well, Roark’s “selfish” act of blowing up Cortlandt Homes almost killed Dominique, to name one. And besides, we were told that the destruction sent huge chunks of steel and stone flying in every direction in the middle of a crowded city. If not for the author’s decree, it’s not even a little plausible that no one else would have been hurt. The very fact of this trial demonstrates that Rand’s egotistic philosophy is not harmless!

“The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is — Hands off!”

The only good deed one person can do for another is to leave them alone. Taken literally, this would be absurd. But I’m not sure Rand didn’t mean it literally in spite of that.

In a sign that she wasn’t unaware of this implication of her worldview, recall that Rand thinks becoming a social worker is proof that you’ve lost your soul. As I noted at the time, she dodges the question of what should happen to people who are in need of care. She also has Roark insist that no one can either hurt or help anyone else.

What this worldview fails to grapple with is the degree to which we’re interconnected and, like it or not, dependent on each other. Everyone needs a little help from their friends to get by at some point in their life, and Ayn Rand herself was no exception. If a philosophy like this ever came to power, human life would revert to what it’s said to have been in the era before civilization and its benefits: nasty, brutish, and short.

Header image credit: Hendrik Dacquin, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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