Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: The Fountainhead

The isn’t so much a review as it is a reflection. It would be altogether pointless for me to attempt a literary review of Ayn Rand’s work. For one, I am incapable of judging the inherent complexity of Rand’s philosophy. For two, Rand herself, were she alive, would merely dismiss any attempt to critique her.

Like the characters of her creation, Rand does not work for the pleasure of her fellow man. She works for her own pleasure. She does not labor to be recognized by the masses. Recognition by the masses is a cheap, fickle thing lacking substance and reason.

I read The Fountainhead after already tackling Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged and her Anthem. Like both, it champions the spirit of human achievement and sneers at the ideals of the commons, which champions mediocrity while sucking the blood of the great among us. Like Atlas, its most shocking aspect is how utterly accurate she is in her portrayals of our modern society. We look backwards, demanding not what is earned by us by what we deem as owed by us. Much has been said about today’s Entitlement generation and Rand, again if she were living today, would likely be disgusted by us millennials if she hadn’t predicted our existence so thoroughly.

In many ways, Fountainhead is a more enjoyable read than Atlas. Its plot is more accessible, its characters more relatable, its monologues are shorter and spoiler alert the right people end up together /spoiler alert. It tells the story of a man, Howard Roark, an architect who designs his buildings with disregard to what is expected and traditional, instead worrying only about what is necessary and functional. Where other Architects adorn their facades with colonnades and porticos that serve no purpose beyond aesthetics, Roark makes every girder load-bearing and every brick indispensable. For this he is ridiculed, dismissed and attacked by the establishment with their steel testaments to dead societies.

As you would expect, Roark’s architecture is a metaphor for a life well-lived. A true man, in the eyes of Rand, does not concern himself with what other men do, think, wear, eat but instead makes every action and decision in his life based on what he needs and what he believes to himself. He does not make small talk or socialize as a means to an end of power, glory, money or fame, but instead surrounds himself with people whose company he enjoys and whose brain and merits he admires.
Ironically enough, much of Rands philosophy (commonly known as objectivism) is misunderstood by the masses. Her frequent disdain for government meddling (most notably in Atlas) has made her an unwillingly-adopted champion of the ultra-conservative and tea party crowds and that adoption has made her a caricatured punch line for many liberals.

Misguided loathers will talk your ear off about how Rand hates women (despite the crucial role female protagonists play in her novels) and how to be an objectivist means you feel justified in being rude to everyone around you. Misguided lauders will boast of how they listened to an audiobook of We The Living in their car, the same one adorned with a yellow Don’t Tread On Me flag, one their way to a convention where likeminded individuals network and pat each other on the back while toasting their own greatness.

Both are missing the point.

If you allow her to, Rand will stir something within your soul. It is hard to pin point and harder to describe but you will begin to see more clearly what it is you dislike about certain people and groups. You will see in yourself the un-finished potential to be Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, John Galt or Francisco D’Anconia. You will long for a woman like Dagny Taggart or Dominic Francon. You will see in these characters the ideas that have crossed your mind in rare moments of clarity before vanishing into the loud, putrid haze of societal convention. You will hate yourself for things you have done and do and slowly you will come to look differently at the people who fill the spaces around you.

Unless you’re a looter, a second-hander, or a parasite, in which case most of what she is trying to tell you will likely go over your head and you will only see a heavy-handed conservative political agenda. I have met many looters in my life, I pass by parasites every day. They detest me even more than I dislike them, because Rand helped me see them as insignificant even if the day should come that I am starving in the gutter.

There is an old game of asking what famous person, living or dead, you would like to have lunch with. I used to say Abraham Lincoln, the father of my party, the last successful 3rd party candidate for president, the man who preserved our country in its darkest hour and freed the slaves, giving his life for the cause. I have decided, however, that my meeting with Abe would be best handled after my death. We would meet as two old souls across some celestial table and reminisce about mortality and government.

As a living man, with years to spare, I would prefer to break bread with Ayn Rand. She would ask me my profession. I would answer “journalist.” And then, I would listen as she told me the manner of man I should be, and the manner of life I should lead.

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