Friday, November 20, 2009

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Genre: General fiction (philosophy)
Publisher, Year: Bobbs Merrill, 1943
Other Works: Atlas Shrugged, Anthem
Flags: Adult themes, Tenuous references
Rating: A or Great Read
Premise: A young architect, Howard Roark, has just been expelled from school because of his refusal to conform to “traditional” principles. He sets out to create his buildings according to his own conscience.

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” – Ayn Rand

I can’t say a necessarily enjoyed The Fountainhead, but I didn’t dislike it either. At the same time, I’m not indifferent. It was difficult to follow, and painstaking at that. But, not in an unpleasant way. It was dense and filled with meaning, and that’s what makes it hard to read. I felt sometimes that the characters actions seemed reasonable, and at others, I could not understand their motivation. At those moments, I felt like I was getting lost in the plot—I was losing what was meant to be gained. That’s not to say the story was not interesting or captivating—it was both. I had to plow through it slow and steady. It made me think. It made me question. It made me angry. But was also satisfying. It was a tangle, but it was worth the time, for me, in the end. It’s a perfectly conflicting book.

First, there is Howard Roark. The opening scene details his expulsion from architect school. Although he is a gifted artist, he’s rejected for his nonconformity. Instead of compromising his designs, he decides to become an apprentice to another washed up architect, whose designs have also fallen from societal favor. +/-

Second, there is Peter Keating. He’s the brown-noser, the guy just looking to climb the proverbial ladder. He doesn’t care about his work; he just does it because he knows where it could take him in society. Third, there’s Ellsworth Toohey. He’s a reporter, and he’s out to get Roark. Fourth, there’s Wynand. He’s the newspaper’s owner. A powerful and influential man, who’s got the world in his pocket. And last, there’s Dominique Francon, a debutant and a siren. She’s searching for something, and can’t tell where to find it. Each one of these characters take turns in the spotlight as the story moves forward, and we learn about their dreams and failings, and we see their decisions, and sometimes they induce pride, but most often, disappointment.

Objectivism, the “philosophy” of which Rand speaks, is the soul of the novel. So, it’s helpful to have a good idea of what objectivism is before reading her works. That is something I did not do, and after I turned that last page, I wished I had. I think it would have helped me put the characters into a certain perspective—to interpret their actions and understand their motivations.

So, here’s my understanding in the briefest of brief overviews. Objectivism is a philosophy which defines the world in three terms, things exist, things have an identity (in reality), and we comprehend things. These can also be expressed as: something exists, something exists as this or that, and we understand something to be this or that. How do these axioms affect the world? In a few ways: 1) Truth can only be discovered through reason, not through faith or emotions; 2) Ethics are defined by man’s free will through productive work, romantic love, and art; 3) A free, uncontrolled pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal, though the government must protect individual rights (violence, theft, etc). Rand does the best thing she could to make this philosophy come to live—she breathes it into a story, into human beings.

I don’t think you have to agree with objectivism to appreciate this book. I think in actual practice, objectivism is sort of impossible. It’s one of those things that’s better left in theory, in its purest form, and perhaps in stories of fiction, where you can control all of the variables. It’s an interesting idea, an unusual way to look at human existence—and I can respect it for that. It is a masterpiece, that cannot be disputed in my opinion.

In the end, I concluded that it’s the kind of book that can only be truly understood upon further research—although I am not yet to that point where I feel like tackling it again. For me, it was worth the read, but I don’t know if it’s for everyone. I’ve heard good things about Atlas Shrugged, another of her manifestoesque novels, and I would like to see what it’s all about.

No comments: