Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead revolves around the life of Howard Roark, a young uncompromising, innovative architect who designs buildings which reflect his own creative spirit.  He does not imitate other architects or seek to incorporate classical designs from Ancient Greece, Rome or the Renaissance. A few people recognize the creative genius in Howard's designs. However most critics and the hoi polloi regard his work as grotesque or the projections of an egotist seeking to glorify his own soul.   That is the point - Howard is the supreme egotist.  These works are pulled from Howard's pure, free-thinking spirit, his identify, which is why they are so unique.

The Fountainhead has the best villain in any book I have read - Ellsworth Toohey.  Toohey is a brilliant writer, skillful orator, a leading architectural critic and Howard's implacable foe.  He is also one of the few people who recognize Howard's greatness, which is why he must destroy him.  Toohey desires equanimity in society; he does not want anyone to rise above the rest; he seeks conformity and unity.  He does however hide a secret agenda. While Toohey publicly gives away his own money and lectures on the rights and needs of the poor, he furtively maneuvers himself to gain power over other men.  Under the guise of magnanimity and altruism, Toohey is a duplicitous, manipulative power-hungry genius.  He's possibly the only character I know who could stab you in the back while getting you to agree it was for your own good.  Toohey tries to turn the public against Roark, attacking him in public through his newspaper column or by sabotaging deals with potential clients. Time and time again Roark loses clients, falls into debt, and closes his office only to come back renewed and stronger. 

Roark's devotion to his spiritual compass in contrasted with other characters in the novel.  Roark's friend and fellow architect Peter Keating is portrayed as an anti-hero - he has gained all the monetary rewards and recognition that his career can offer him but he is a fraud.  Keating gets his influence from classical buildings, does not have his own ideas, panders to the public desire and even claims Roark's drawings as his own. He is without a soul, but Toohey considers him the perfect tool to use against Roark.  In addition, Roark meets the newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, the most powerful man in New York City and they become intimate friends.  The Wynand newspapers play to the masses need for sensationalism. However, Wynand has never sacrificed his own personal integrity, which is what he has in common with Roark. Both men share the same passions and speak from their souls. However, Wynand has chosen a different route than Roark and values money and power.  At the end of the novel Wynand is undone when he has to choose between his principles and his financial empire. 

Ultimately, Roark comes out victorious by remaining true to himself, which is in no small part to his sense of purpose and supreme confidence. His enemies and the masses of people call him an egoist, although Roark celebrates this appellation.  "We must be selfish, without the self there is nothing." He doesn't live his life for other people, but for himself.  His self-esteem is not based on other people's opinions. His happiness is a private thing, his greatest moments are personal.  He can still love other people, but he does not live his life  for the benefit of anyone else. 

The Fountainhead is a long book and sometimes Rand presents her philosophy in rambling character dialogues that last several pages - it feels like being lectured to.  However, I did enjoy the read and I can appreciate the important points she raises about the significance of the individual.  I also agree that we should not base our happiness on the opinions of others or try to conform for its own sake. 

As Schopenhauer said, "We forfeit three-quarters of ourselves in order to be like other people".

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand
I just finished reading "The Fountainhead" for one of my book clubs. Even though this is not one of the GBWW, it is still a modern classic for several reasons. Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian-American writer and philosopher who is best known for her books "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged".  Born in St. Petersburg, Russia to upper-middle-class parents, she immigrated to the US in 1925 under the pretense of studying the American film industry.  Early in her life Rand embraced the intrepid American entrepreneurial spirit and independence of thought.

In contrast, she maintained a passionate animosity toward the collective ideals of Communism, Fascism, the welfare state and other forms of national conformity and unity.  This is reflected in her writing which she promotes the individual, the creative spirit, the isolated man who stands against the tide of humanity. She called her philosophy "Objectivism" and it is still taught and promoted by the Ayn Rand Society, a sub-group in the American Philosophical Association.

 Ayn Rand has been called one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century.  The heroes in her novels are innovative, free-thinkers who identify with meritocratic American ideals. In "The Fountainhead" the hero is Howard Roark, a young architect who designs buildings which reflect his own creative spirit. He does not care what the masses want and most of his clients know that. The people who understand Howard realize that he will design completely unique buildings that are incomparable to anything else.   Howard persistently pursues his own ideals and beliefs and this is personified in the buildings he designs and sees constructed. However, to most people, the structures that Howard creates are met with apathy or outright hostility.  He creates several powerful enemies but also finds kindred spirits who can appreciate Howard's genius.  Howard must resist the people who try to destroy him and his buildings, who want to crush his spirit and make him conform to the standards of modern architecture.

Rand identifies the character of Howard with other visionaries from history such as Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo. Initially these mean were misunderstood and ridiculed but their ideas propeled  the progress of humanity forward, even if they were not appreciated at the time.  The point is that one cannot let other decide what is right for us, that we each need to follow our own course and we should not feel compelled to follow the majority simply because it is the majority.