Fallacies of The Fountainhead

I just finished Ayn Rand’s 725-page tome The Fountainhead, about the struggles of the uncompromising and perfectly selfish idealist architect Howard Roark against the rest of the world’s sheeple…you get the idea. I was warned before reading it that the book is “seductive.” I think I have to agree. The book (along with Atlas Shrugged, I’m told) contains a very strong message of individualism which is bound to resonate with any teenager disgusted by high school and mainstream music, such as myself.

But despite individualist aspirations that I hold, and the fact that I realized that I enjoyed reading the book, my liberal worldview was in no way shattered, let alone challenged. Because ideally, I’m a libertarian. But practically, I’m a Democrat. So here are a few exposed falsehoods, distortions, and fallacies that are thrown into The Fountainhead in order to advocate a very attractive, but rather unrealistic, worldview:

1) “Early in May, Peter Keating departed for Washington, to supervise the construction of a museum donated to the city by a great philanthropist easing his conscience (Rand 87)” – Man. It must really suck for Ayn Rand to read the newspaper and see the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donating another round of tens of millions to polio vaccinations in Africa (sorry for the anachronism). There goes that darned Bill, easing his conscience, you know? Funny thing is, judging from Gates’ life-story, I would say that he’s one of the most Roark-like figures I can think of. If only he didn’t donate to charity, he could be perfect…

Otherwise, this is just a cheap swipe thrown in there that doesn’t really have any context or meaning. Poor Ayn just couldn’t resist the temptation of getting at those philanthropists…kind of like trying to resist eating that last chocolate chip cookie. As the Pringles motto goes, “Once you pop, you can’t stop!”

2)

She spoke evenly, without inflection. She said, among many other things: “The family on the first floor rear do not bother to pay their rent, and the children cannot go to school for lack of clothes. The father had a charge account at a corner speak-easy. He is in good health and has a good job…The couple on the second floor have just purchased a radio for sixty-nine dollars and ninety-five dollars cash. In the fourth-floor front, the father of the family has not done a whole day’s work in his life, and does not intend to. There are nine children, supported by the local parish. There is a tenth on the way…”

— pg. 137

Oh, here we go again. In this case, we have the heroine Dominique Francon speaking to a group of social workers (worst people in the world, according to Rand) about conditions in the tenements.

I’m immediately reminded of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” remark, the anecdote of a Chicago woman who had bought a Cadillac with government handouts, which he had heard from an unnamed judge. Sounds a bit dubious, but hey, it was a judge, and they’re honest and impartial, right? Right?

In any case, Rand appears to lump the entire world into two groups – creative, hardworking idealists and worthless “second-hander” leeches, parasites on society. Also according to Rand, “the poor” are entirely contained within this second group.They don’t constitute the whole group – there’s also Mitch Layton, the poor moron who inherited a quarter of a billion dollars. But still. You know, they did a study where they divided US 1988 eighth graders into four quartiles based on wealth, and then on intelligence. And they found that students who were in the top quartile for intelligence and lowest for wealth were less likely to finish college than those in the lowest quartile for intelligence and highest for wealth. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2003, p. 47). And what about Louis Terman’s long-term study of 1700 hand-picked very-high-IQ elementary school students, whose later individual success ended up being mainly determined by economic status as a child? How does that reality fit into that of The Fountainhead?

3) The entire character of Mike Donnigan – this is the tough, ugly (yet strangely lovable, in a weird sorta way) electrician who is protagonist Howard Roark’s sole ally and is involved in basically all of his construction projects. Rand praises Donnigan’s attitude, but why? He’s just a construction worker. It’s not like they’re creative or anything. Don’t they just execute other creative peoples’ visions? At best she should feel neutral towards them.

4) The rape scene (somewhere in the 210’s? I don’t really feel like re-reading it, it was atrocious). Ah yes. For all the individualism or whatever, this really was unnecessary and disgusting. Rape? Really. Rape?

5)

In September the tenants of the [Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children] moved in. A small, expert staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had been taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the most hopeless cases. There was a fifteen-year-old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was her grandfather; a person called “Jackie” of whose age or sex nobody could be certain.

— pg 397

Initially I was horrified. But then I did what anyone horrified by something they’re reading should always do, which is to check the date of publication. In this case it’s 1943. I suppose Nazism wasn’t quite out of fashion by then, so I’ll let this one slide.

6)

“He’s an egomaniac devoid of all moral sense” –
– said the society woman dressing for a charity bazaar, who dared not contemplate what means of self-expression would be left to her and how she would impose her ostentation on her friends, if charity were not the all-excusing virtue –
– said the social worker who had found no aim in life and could generate no aim from within the sterility of his soul, but basked in virtue and held an unearned respect from all, by grace of his fingers on the wounds of others –
– said the novelist who had nothing to say if the subject of service and sacrifice were to be taken away from him, who sobbed in the hearing of attentive thousands that he loved them and loved them and would they please love him a little in return –

— pg 651

Damn social workers. They’re all so sucky. Plus, at this point, someone’s gotta say it – “Does anyone actually take architecture this seriously?” The more important question is “Does anyone take anything this seriously?” I’m talking about Roark, of course, the orange-haired rapist maniac who blows up buildings he doesn’t fancy.

Oh I’m sorry, was that a generalization? Was it a particularly scathing one which cast complicated issues as black-or-white ones and draw assumptions from appearances (Find a character in a Rand book that isn’t “angular” but is still cast in a positive light – I challenge you)? People really shouldn’t do that so much.

Further Reading

The actual book

The Complement Of Atlas Shrugged – Scott Aaronson

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2 Responses to Fallacies of The Fountainhead

  1. A.M. says:

    Interesting blog post…I like the criticisms although I think at times you were too scathing. Some of the points I have minor disagreements with are:

    point 1 – Why does anyone do charity? To help other people of course, but I doubt you can disagree that it’s some form of guilt that causes people to partake in philanthropy. As in Rand’s world, true selflessness doesn’t exist (does it exist in any world?), I’ll disagree with you that this passage was out of context. However, I will add that it was hypocritical of Rand, because if the philanthropist’s conscience was eased…then he was acting in a completely selfish way, not unlike Roark.

    Point 3 – This wasn’t exactly a rape scene in the usual sense… I remember thinking there was a passive sense of consent during that passage… but maybe I’m just trying to avoid the alternative, disgusting interpretation of the scene.

    Point 6 – I agree with you completely that the antagonism against social workers is unwarranted. I disagree with your point about “who cares about architecture anyways” – I think architecture as a symbol for individualism,self-expression, and innovation is important and people should care about these traits. But once again I’ll point out Rand’s hypocrisy – if a person finds solace in social work then they are being individual and adding utility to the world. I think Rand’s greatest misjudgment was that she failed to realize the egoism/individualism/selfishness associated with helping others.

    All the other points I agree with you wholeheartedly, especially point 2.

    By the way, if you counter some of my points with a debate on the nature of altruism…then I think we’ll be in for some fun.

  2. ltakacsi17 says:

    – All right, I don’t know how much benefit we’ll get out of the “is altruism real” debate. Although I would like to say that Gates is an extremely idealistic, creative, and fiercely competitive individual who always had to have it his way, but still donates to charity (and spends all of his current energy on it)…so he’s kind of a shade of gray in Rand’s black-and-white world. She disregards the existence of people like that.

    – It was definitely rape – she even says later, “I was raped” (to Gail Wynand, I think)

    – And it’s not “Who cares about architecture anyways.” That’s not even an out-of-context quote, it’s just wrong – I said “Does anyone actually take architecture this seriously?” because Roark destroyed a building he didn’t like. That’s a major crime for just something that he thought lacked integrity. In other words, it’s extremely dramatized. If you look at the entire paragraph you’ll see I’m in no way downplaying the architectural profession.

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