Ayn Rand – The Fountainhead {Weekly Geeks Q&A}

21Jun09


As I’m tackling the Weekly Geeks ‘Catching Up Is Hard To Do‘ questions, one book at a time, here’s part two – one of my favorite books of all times. At fourteen, I read the book for the first time. As soon as I read the last line, I flipped back to the first page and re-read it. Since then, I try and read the book once a year, and each year, I appreciate it a lot more. It truly is a legendary classic, and despite the fact that it was written in the early 1940s, I find the book quite relevant to the present-day.

Anyway, the only question is from gautami tripathy, and it reads:

What do you think of Rand’s philosophy? Does it work here in The Fountainhead?

Rand’s philosophy of selfishness* is actually something I try to live by. I think that, in itself, defines what I think of her philosophy. The word ‘selfishness’ does not have the pejorative connotation as one has come to associate with it today, though. Instead, it means that one must do what they think is morally correct, as opposed to going by society’s definition.

And that’s exactly what Howard Roark, the protagonist, does, in a society full of Peter Keatings (read, the anti-Roark). Roark is ready to give up on everything for the sake of staying true to his art (architecture). Expelled from college for being an iconoclast, Roark is strongly advised by everyone to conform to society’s idea of architecture instead of trying designing buildings that he believed were beautiful.

“Most people,” Roark says,”build as they live — as a matter of routine and senseless accident. But a few understand that building is a great symbol. We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form.”

Roark closes down his office, instead of creating buildings that the people around him want to see. He works at a quarry, instead of making money doing what he loves, just because it’s not appreciated. And when he discovers that one of his projects has changed, without his consent, he risks everything to ruin it.

That’s Roark, in a nutshell. Sticking to his ideals and beliefs, when everyone around his is condemning his works, and disregarding it carelessly, unaware that they have a genius amidst them. Typically, they are happier praising Peter Keating, who sticks to society’s conventions, and lives up to their expectations, with no arguments.

He thought of how convincingly he could describe this scene to friends and make them envy the fullness of his contentment. Why couldn’t he convince himself? He had everything he’d ever wanted. He had wanted superiority–and for the last year he had been the undisputed leader of his profession. He had wanted fame–and he had five thick albums of clippings. He had wanted wealth–and he had enough to insure luxury for the rest of his life. He had everything anyone ever wanted. How many people struggled and suffered to achieve what he had achieved? How many dreamed and bled and died for this, without reaching it? “Peter Keating is the luckiest fellow on earth.” How often had he heard that?

The other characters of the book, Dominique, Wynard, and Toohey, influence the success of the two architects tremendously. While Keating doesn’t think twice before going and begging people for help, Roark continues to be independent, and let the ‘intelligent’ clients come to him. He’s not a mercenary. He’s not a sell-out. He’s just passionate about his work, and goes to great lengths to keep it pure. If that’s selfishness, I sure wish a lot more people were selfish!

This is a massive quote, but I think it best defines both, Roark, and the virtue that is selfishness:

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.

“I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.

“It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.

“I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man’s creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavor. Those of you who do not understand this are the men who’re destroying the world.

“I wished to come here and state my terms. I do not care to exist on any others.

“I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society. To my country, I wish to give the ten years which I will spend in jail if my country exists no longer. I will spend them in memory and in gratitude for what my country has been. It will be my act of loyalty, my refusal to live or work in what has taken its place.

“My act of loyalty to every creator who ever lived and was made to suffer by the force responsible for the Cortlandt I dynamited. To every tortured hour of loneliness, denial, frustration, abuse he was made to spend—and to the battles he won. To every creator whose name is known—and to every creator who lived, struggled and perished unrecognized before he could achieve. To every creator who was destroyed in body or in spirit…

*I’m focusing more on selfishness, not objectivism, because although the two are interlinked, I personally think The Fountainhead explored the ‘virtue of selfishness’ (yes, that was deliberate) more than objectivism, which in turn seems to be more relevant to Atlas Shrugged.

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