The Fountainhead: Prometheus Unbound

The Fountainhead: Prometheus Unbound June 7, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 18

This chapter of The Fountainhead combines two of Ayn Rand’s go-tos: the Dramatic Courtroom Scene, where the hero vindicates himself before a hostile world, and the Randian Monologue, where the hero speaks for an implausibly long time to expound his worldview without argument or interruption. Both occur in this scene, where it’s time for Howard Roark to present his defense:

Roark got up. “Your Honor, I shall call no witnesses. This will be my testimony and my summation.”

It’s technically possible to testify on your own behalf while representing yourself, but as Adam Keller pointed out in the comments last week, in a real trial, this would be a critical error. By doing this, Roark opens himself up to cross-examination, and any halfway-decent prosecutor could have seized the chance to ask him some devastating questions:

For example “Mr. Roark, do you feel yourself entitled to break any law at any time, at your discretion, whenever you feel that your principles would justify such an act?” and “Mr. Roark, had there been past occasions when you felt yourself justified in breaking a law? If so, can you tell the court when and where it was and which law was it that you broke?”

But nothing like that happens in this scene. In fact, we’re not told of any cross-examination at all. After Roark finishes his monologue, it seems he just sits down and his trial proceeds to the verdict.

Most likely, this stems from Rand’s disdain for debate. Throughout her books, her heroes never have to prove themselves in an actual argument where the other side gets to rebut what they say, make its own claims and introduce evidence. The protagonists just get to talk, without opposition, as long as they like; and then everyone clapped.

Rand tells us that as Roark is sworn in, the audience in the courtroom sees him for the first time as he truly is: “a man totally innocent of fear”. Just for this scene, she’s granted every character the instant-rapport telepathy that her heroes have:

The fear of which they thought was not the normal kind, not a response to a tangible danger, but the chronic, unconfessed fear in which they all lived. They remembered the misery of the moments when, in loneliness, a man thinks of the bright words he could have said, but had not found, and hates those who robbed him of his courage. The misery of knowing how strong and able one is in one’s own mind, the radiant picture never to be made real.

…Roark stood before them as each man stands in the innocence of his own mind. But Roark stood like that before a hostile crowd — and they knew suddenly that no hatred was possible to him.

It’s true that Roark is fearless, but if anything, he’s unnaturally fearless. He never expresses any doubt or anxiety even in situations where that would be a normal reaction. When he’s unemployed for months on end; when he’s a few dollars away from bankruptcy and the ruin of his life’s ambition; when he believes he’s facing a lifetime of grueling manual labor; in all these cases, he maintains his granite-block-like unconcern. If he wound up broke and in the gutter, you get the impression he’d voluntarily starve to death.

As we saw in an earlier scene, Rand doesn’t offer a guide on how to overcome human weaknesses, as much as she simply writes her heroes to lack them. Roark never agonizes, never worries, never doubts himself. He acts with the invulnerable self-confidence of someone who knows the author is on his side and is arranging events in his favor.

Roark begins his testimony with a long, rambling digression about human history and mythology. It has no obvious relevance to the crime he’s being accused of; but as is standard for a Randian monologue, no one argues or interrupts. Even in a trial, where the prosecutor might be expected to object and demand that the witness get to the point, no such thing happens. It’s as if the author steps in and paralyzes the other characters so they can only listen in frozen silence.

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light… Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build.

… That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer — because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that that one paid for his courage.”

As a sweeping generalization about human mythology, this is somewhat lacking. If you cherry-pick from all the world’s cultures, sure, you can find some that share thematic similarities. But that’s not nearly enough to prove that “every legend” contains an element like this.

There are many myths and creation stories that don’t contain a moral like this, or that teach the opposite. For instance, what about the competing Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, which teaches that excessive curiosity leads to disaster? What about Icarus, who died when he was too bold and soared higher than he should have, or Phaethon, who borrowed the chariot of the sun and nearly caused disaster for the whole world when he couldn’t control it?* What about the modern tale of Frankenstein’s monster, which implies that there are fields of knowledge man wasn’t meant to meddle in?

Human mythology is rich and varied enough that if you dig into it, you can find almost any moral you want. But there’s no ground for assuming that these stories, and only these stories, reflect the dim memory of a historical event.

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed… But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

“No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way.”

Rand believes the first person to invent something new is always despised and rejected by the masses. As a corollary, she assumes that the creators are only ever motivated by a desire to make their private vision real, never by a desire to be of service or to help their fellow humans.

The problem is that, in the cases where Rand has no evidence whatsoever for this, she just assumes that it must have happened that way. We saw this in Roark’s assertion that the inventor of fire was “probably” burned at the stake and that the inventor of the wheel was “probably” torn on the rack. How does he know this? It’s easy to make history fit your ideological framework when you can make up whatever facts you want!

Obviously, no revolutionary idea is completely free of controversy. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to find examples of new inventions that were welcomed by a grateful populace. Joseph Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine was an immediate success, as were the steam engine, the telegraph, the light bulb. The people who invented these things were hailed as geniuses, not treated as pariahs or run out of town on a rail.

None of this should be controversial, except for Ayn Rand’s desire to squeeze all of history into her narrow, cramped first-handers-versus-second-handers template. It’s not enough for her to show that it sometimes happens this way, which would be easy to prove. In her mind, if an ideology isn’t the comprehensive guide to understanding every human thought and action, it’s worthless. And if you can succeed while still being loved, it would cast doubt on her assertion that her heroes are acting correctly by being stubborn, misanthropic jerks.

* In a sign that Rand was bothered by this sort of moral, Atlas Shrugged has an anecdote about the composer Richard Halley composing an opera that rewrites the story of Phaethon, changing the ending so that he succeeds.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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